The saying "first impressions last" applies to any type of new experience, including picking up your first guitar. By neglecting this initial step, many have inadvertently chosen guitars that are boring, or worse hard to play. The end result being dissatisfaction and discomfort, leading causes as to why students lose interest in learning to play.
I've talked with 6 experienced guitar teachers to help you choose the best guitar to begin with and we cover topics including:
- Nylon vs Steel Strings
- Small vs Regular Sized
- Acoustic vs Electric
- Recommended First Guitars
Meet the Experts:
Here are the guitar teachers that I contacted, they generously responded to the questions in order to help you.
Erich is a popular YouTube guitar teacher that has a huge following. He has a wide range of lessons and play throughs available at Yourguitarsage.com, covering a wide range of topics and musical styles.
Graeme has 20+ years of guitar and music theory experience and is currently based in Johannesburg. Check out Graemesacks.com for more information.
Joseph is a graduate of the Guitar Institute of London and Leeds college of music, currently teaching and sharing his knowledge at Fundamental-Changes.com.
Greg is a Washington DC based guitar teacher with over 30 years of playing and teaching experience. You can get in touch with him via DC Guitar Lessons website.
Simon is a guitar teacher in the UK and the founder of MyGuitarLessons.co.uk, where teachers can look for potential students and vice versa.
Based in Gresham, Oregon, Josh is a guitar teacher with 20 years of playing and teaching experience, and he shares some of his musings and ideas at Guitar Lessons Made Simple.
Nylon vs Steel String Guitar
Traditionally, guitar teachers would advise new comers to pick nylon string guitars, but times have changed and some teachers now recommend steel string guitars - depending on the musical preference of the student.
Erich Andreas recommended nylon string guitars for its ease of use. He said, "Nylon is FOR SURE easier on the fingers. I often times start new, younger students on the ukulele which has nylon strings for this reason. In my opinion, as soon as a student loses interest in a guitar because it's "too hard", "it hurts" or they feel that their "hands are too small”, then because of poor guidance, we could be losing the next Jimi Hendrix. If we ease students into playing, then there is a much higher likelihood that they will stick with it. I don’t have a hard fast rule here, but if I had to choose, nylon string."
Josh Taylor is OK with both but leaned more towards nylon strings for absolute beginners. He noted, ”Either one is fine, but a nylon might be a bit easier to learn on if your fingers aren't used to it."
Graeme Sacks mentioned that nylon strings are great for kids. "For young kids I definitely recommend a nylon string as it's much easier on their fingers. With adults and teens it doesn't matter but I would recommend using light strings on a steel string at first."
Greggory Hammond defended the steel string guitar and put importance on neck width, he said, "It is often said that nylon strings are softer and easier to play then steel strings. While it's true that nylon strings are easier to press down with a fingertip, most nylon string guitars have a wider neck that challenges beginner guitar players. There are small gauge steel strings that are thin and just as gentle for most fingertips and the fret boards and necks of those guitars are generally more narrow and easier for beginner guitar players to have better finger reach across all strings."
Small vs Regular sized Guitar
If you are curious whether to start with a small or full-size guitar, I asked the experts to give their opinion on what is advisable for those with small fingers. Most of them noted that small body instruments (like parlor guitars) are ideal for young, up and coming guitarists.
Josh Taylor commented, "If they're under ten a smaller guitar is better to start with. When they go to full size depends on how big they are. After 10 they grow to where they need an adult sized guitar."
Graeme Sacks was on the same page, he shared, "I always ask parents of young kids (6 to 10 years old depending on their size) to start with a 3/4 size guitar. In my experience most people 10 and older will do fine on a full size instrument."
Simon Devine had an interesting way of knowing which guitar size to pick, according to him, "Kids are all different shapes and sizes. At My Guitar Lessons we let them play our full size guitars and if they can reach the 1st fret with not too much difficulty then advise a full size."
Greggory Hammond expounded on the topic, saying "The body size of the guitar does matter and a beginner guitar player should select a guitar that is appropriate in size, and also comfortable. It's important that some coaching on selection of the guitar be given before the purchase. Often times new guitarists come to my studio and try the varying sizes of guitars that I have on hand. I like to make sure that new guitar players have the opportunity to feel the size and shape of a selection of guitars so they better know what feels right to them. The only way for them to really know, is to have the coaching on how to properly hold the guitar so that both shoulders remain relaxed, while standing, and/or sitting."
Acoustic vs Electric Guitar
Picking between acoustic and electric guitar is another important crossroad for first time guitar buyers. Acoustic guitars were generally more accessible and affordable in the past, but these days electric guitar packages are just as easy to get. The experts weighed in on this important consideration.
Erich Andreas noted that it is simpler to start with an acoustic, "I believe for simplistic reasons an acoustic guitar is less to fuss with. With that being said, with the will you can learn to play on either instrument."
Josh Taylor shared the advantages of the two different guitars, "Acoustic is foundational where you learn basic rhythms, chords, etc. You can also learn these same things on an electric just fine, so it depends on what kind of music you want to play. If you like to sing, an acoustic can accompany you well by yourself or with a band. If you want to learn, rock, metal or jazz, electric is the way to go."
Greggory Hammond opted for the more traditional approach, he said "Learning on an acoustic guitar is the best way to get started for most guitar players. It can be challenging at first, but it's worth the extra effort. The electric guitar generally has much thinner strings, and some beginners find the initial start of practice to be a bit easier, but moving over to an acoustic guitar can be like starting over again. I will recommend starting on electric guitar is if a student can only practice in a small dorm room, bedroom, or family room where other people may be disturbed by the sound of a guitar during practice, because headphones can be worn easily with today's technology. The other reason would be if the guitar player never intends to play acoustic music, and therefore would only play the electric guitar."
Simon Devin prioritized motivation, he said, "At My Guitar Lessons we look at what motivates a student to want to play. If they prefer acoustic music then learn acoustic songs on an acoustic guitar but if their a rocker then start them off on electric. No point making your students play genres they don’t want to learn!"
I asked the six guitar teachers if there are particular guitars that they would recommend. Check out their recommendations below:
Erich Andreas recommended affordable acoustic guitars from popular brands, "For a lower-priced acoustic guitar I would suggest an Epiphone Masterbilt. It's a very nice sounding guitar with a solid top and usually is about $500. If you want even more affordable than that, Takamine makes a lower level guitar for about $100 called “Jasmine”. I have played them before and they are a good guitar for the money."
Josh Taylor mentioned a specific acoustic brand, and highlighted the importance of tuning stability, "I liked my Takamine budget model, and this would be a good one to start with. A cheaper kids guitar is fine, but make sure it's one that will tune easily. If fretting and tuning is off, it will be all that much more frustrating, when you can't get a pleasant sound out of a chord."
Joseph Alexander recommended the student-friendly Yamaha brand, and also urges to check intonation and tuning stability, "Yamaha do great things. Very high quality guitars without the price tag. I generally recommend Pacifica 112s for new students. To be honest, with modern construction techniques there are fewer 'bad' guitars out there. Get something that will stay in tune. If your guitar doesn't stay in tune and you don't know how to tune it, everything you do will sound bad and it won't be your fault. You'll probably want to give up fairly quickly."
Greggory Hammond elaborated his recommendations, "There are several brands of acoustic that I have recommended to students based on pricing, quality, and playability. My number one choice that will check all three boxes would be the Yamaha Acoustic Series. For children, or adults who want a travel size guitar the JR-1 acoustic package. For adults on a budget F-325 Gigmaker acoustic package. The FG700S Package is the next step up. These guitars sound great, last a long time, have all the equipment in the package and price out very well on Amazon. Other brands like Breedlove, Seagull both make nice entry level models but no packages so a new guitarist would need to purchase a tuner, strap, pics, and gig bag/hardshell case separately. For electric guitars they are also packages out there that Yamaha offer. Depending on the budget some guitar players find the standards like Gibson Les Paul, or Fender Stratocaster to be worth the money and both companies have their more affordable models made by Epiphone or the Starcaster by Fender. Schecter also makes a very nice hard rock guitar for an affordable price. Both Crate and Vox make decent entry-level amplifiers."
Simon Devlin preferred the Fender Squier and Yamaha, "At My Guitar Lessons we advise seeking advice from their local guitar store as models and prices change regularly. The most popular are Fender Squires or Yamaha’s."
Graeme Sacks did not specify a particular brand or model, and simply said, "Any instrument in working order will do for a beginner."
How to cope with sore fingers
As a bonus question, I asked the guitar teachers how they help their students to cope with sore fingers.
Graeme Sacks emphasized building up finger strength, "Firstly I recommend regular practice to all beginner students: 5 days a week, minimum 10 minutes a day. I find that regular short practice sessions build fitness and slowly strengthen the skin. I don't believe in any of the things like dabbing your fingertips on a hot stove or rubbing alcohol on them. Like an athlete training for a race, a guitarist needs to build up strength through regular practice."
Josh Taylor knew that it can be hard so he provided some guitar playability tips, "No matter what it's going to be hard. Best way is keep practicing as best you can and if you're practicing regularly, callouses develop in a couple of weeks which make it easier to play. Make sure the action is low. Action means how high the string is from the fretboard. If it's high and hard to play, take it in to a shop. You can also use a capo, which has a side benefit of being able to make playing easier on the fingers. Here are a few tips from an article I wrote on that very subject."
Joseph Alexander mentioned the importance of resting, "Take breaks. When you're beginning, 3 x 10 minute sessions throughout the day is much better than 30 minutes all at once."
Simon Devlin's reminder is to keep pushing forward, "Keep going through the pain barrier! If it’s more than sore – so uncomfortable, take a break and come back to it when they are feeling less sore. NEVER GIVE UP."
Final Advice for First Guitar Buyers
To wrap things up, the teachers drew from their experience to provide important tips for first time buyers that were not covered by the previous topics above.
Graeme Sacks: "I would get the best instrument you can afford. Buying second hand is often a way to get a decent guitar at a good price but if you do this ask your teacher (or someone who knows a bit about guitar) for advice."
Simon Devlin: "Go try several, take someone who knows about guitars and buy a guitar that you want to play. Go to www.MyGuitarLessons.co.uk for our free guide on buying your first guitar."
Joseph Alexander: "Get a good teacher. You'll learn one hundred times faster with a teacher that you connect with. Knowing that someone is expecting you to have practiced something for a certain time does wonders for your commitment. There are a million resources out there these days, such as YouTube, apps, GuitarPro and DVDs. As a beginner, you don't know what you don't know, so how are you going to pick the right thing to learn at the right time? That's what a teacher is for. I still have lessons and I'm proud to say that. It forces me to practice and make time for myself away from writing books..."
Josh Taylor: "Find a store with salespeople that will take the time to help you. If they're too busy talking on their phone find somewhere else. Next try a few in your price range out. Make sure to ask before taking them off the rack as it's important to respect the merchandise especially if you want them to work with you. If it's an electric guitar, check the volumes and switches to make sure everything works right. Getting a practice amp would be a good idea as well. When you buy the guitar it never hurts to ask if they'll sell for a lower price. It helps to have the cash in hand and ready to buy."
Greggory Hammond: "My advice for anyone who's looking for the first guitar is to find a place to try guitars and asked some questions. If you can find a guitar teacher like me who has many models on hand, and experience with helping beginner guitar players with discovering the right guitar that's the number 1+. If you have some friends who have guitars and will let you try them that's number two. Another option is your local guitar store whether it's a mom-and-pop type establishment, or the big-box store like the Guitar Center. The downside to the stores is the smaller stores don't want you to play a ton of guitars without purchasing, and the big-box stores generally want you to buy that day, and the sales folks can be pushy and intimidating. I certainly cannot say that happens all the time because there are exceptions and I have found many great sales people at both types of stores. Bringing a friend who can play, to the store with you is always helpful as you get to hear them play the guitar so you can hear what it actually sounds like. Guitar should feel very comfortable, sound great when you're playing it, and also sound great when you hear someone else play it. The string should be fairly easy to push down. And the price should be right for your budget so that you don't regret making that purchase. It should also be something that you feel connected to an excited to play."
Erich Andreas wants you to check out his YouTube channel called YourGuitarSage for more beginner friendly advice. He explained the reasoning behind his alias: "Why Sage?...Because I have been playing guitar for almost 30 years now (yes, I started young), and I am known for sharing that experience and journey on the instrument with those eager to learn the guitar."
I hope that these expert tips will help you get a worthy first guitar, be it for yourself or for someone else who is just starting to play the instrument.
Because of their small size, parlor guitars are great for beginners, especially those with small fingers. On top of being comfortable and student-friendly, parlor guitars have enough depth and tone quality for even experienced players to appreciate.
You can get an idea of the range of parlor guitars are available by taking a look at our Database.
Parlors are also great instruments for children to learn on, see: A Parlor is the Best Acoustic Guitar for Kids - Here's Why....