As Director of Programs and a former guitar teacher at Church Street School for Music and Art, parents have often sought my advice regarding the purchase of their child’s first guitar. There are many variables to consider in navigating all the choices and those combined with with your child’s requests, sales pitches and budget restraints can be a little overwhelming! The good news is, a little research and preparation will make the process easier and most importantly, will help you get a great instrument into your student’s eager hands!
1. Before you step foot in the store, do your research. Make a clear determination of your budget and how far you can stretch. Consider: who is the student and how serious are they? If this purchase is for a new student who’s still determining their level of interest in the guitar, I suggest you don’t break the bank. I’ve met a number of kids (and adults, for that matter) who’ve owned a top-notch, pro-level guitar, before they’ve taken a lesson. I think its best to take it slow and avoid creeping into a four-figure price tag for a starter instrument.
2. Discuss the purchase and what type of guitar your child wants. The basic choices are nylon string acoustic (also called classical or folk guitar); steel-string acoustic, and electric. Despite popular misconceptions they are all basically played in the same way; they each still have six strings and a G is a G is a G on any of the three types.
An electric guitar is fine for a beginner, but keep in mind that you will also need to purchase an amplifier and cable. Many stores offer package deals including an electric guitar, amp, cable, tuner, strap, and picks. This might not get you the highest quality on all the elements, but if you go with a reputable brand you’ll save some money and end up with a nice starter package. Of course, budgets vary from family to family, but I feel its safe to say $200 is the minimum to spend for an electric guitar without making a real sacrifice in quality.
With acoustic guitars the main difference between the two types is that a nylon string guitar has a wider neck and more space between strings, which can be a little harder on smaller hands but nylon strings are easier to press down, making this an ideal place to begin for a young musician. The sound is softer, mellower and rounder than a steel-string, which has a narrow neck (less stretching), and a brighter sound with more high end. However, steel strings can be tough on little fingers. For an acoustic guitar, I suggest spending $75 and above to avoid a sacrifice in quality.
3. Determine the appropriate size guitar for your student. Any adult should play a full size guitar, as should most teens and bigger kids. The 3/4 size is a good choice for smaller players. I do not suggest anyone purchase a 1/2 size guitar because most are one step up from a toy, don’t sound great or stay in tune well, and will most likely be outgrown quickly. This would be a good choice only for the smallest of players, and if that is the case I might question whether it was premature to begin guitar lessons altogether (our faculty agrees that 7 is the absolute minimum to begin, unless the child is exceptionally big!).
4. In my experience the largest companies usually have the biggest stock, move it quickly, and are therefore able to offer the best prices. Guitar Center, Sam Ash, and online stores like Musician’s Friend each have a wide array of instruments to choose from. Personally, my favorite stores are often more “boutique” type operations but I don’t always make my purchases there because prices tend to be higher.
5. Similarly, the biggest, most tried-and-true brands tend to be the safest bets, although there are always exceptions to this rule. Taylor, Martin, Fender, Gibson (and their more budget-oriented licensee Epiphone), Takamine, Ibanez, and Yamaha are industry leaders for their consistency, but at lower price points even they will cut some corners on construction. Smaller, lesser known brands are not necessarily a bad thing either. Again, do your research online, read reviews and consult a salesperson.
6. I recommend a solid (one-piece) top for acoustic guitars if it’s in your budget. The tone and sustain are often noticeably better than a top made of multiple pieces of wood glued together. Also, unless you have a clear reason to get an acoustic with on-board electronics, I suggest you skip this and spend that money on a better overall, fully acoustic guitar. Personally, I like an acoustic guitar with a cutaway where the body is shaped in a way that allows the player to reach the highest notes on the neck, but this may not be necessary for a beginner student who is unlikely to be playing up there at first.
7. Finally, involve your child in the process and make it an opportunity to discuss budgets and limits. For a guitar fanatic like myself, it’s fun browsing catalogs and photos online and I haven’t met a kid yet who didn’t love doing that either. I know they will appreciate being involved in the process (unless the guitar is a surprise!), and I can guarantee they’ll be more excited about an instrument they think looks “cool” than one they don’t.
Hopefully this post helps you venture out into the marketplace with confidence, returning home with a smiling and excited young guitarist in tow!
Toby Wine has taught guitar for over 20 years and is the Director of Programs at Church Street School. He performs regularly with soul/R&B group Baker’s Alley and is the author of numerous instructional books published by Cherry Lane and Hal Leonard.