Which Guitar Should I Buy To Learn On?

Welcome to ‘Which Guitar’ – the free E-zine written by gigging guitarists and bass players for gigging guitarists and bass players.

Which Guitar is full of practical advice and reviews by experienced, working musicians to help you choose the best value guitar to achieve the sound and playability for your particular style and genre of music. We feature articles written by experienced gigging musicians who explain why they have chosen their guitar or bass and how they have modified it and what other equipment, FX pedals and accessories they use to get their ultimate sound and playability.

If you are not an experienced guitarist and have arrived on the Which Guitar website looking for some guidance on which guitar you should buy to learn on, then here’s some advice from the very experienced ‘Which Guitar’ editorial team (we won’t tell you how many years) that you should hopefully find useful!.

Which Guitar Should I Buy To Learn On?

Let’s go through the sequence of steps in the decision process:

Step 1: Classical (nylon strung) v Acoustic (steel strung) v Electric (guitar or bass)?

First, let’s clear away one myth.  It is not necessary to learn to play guitar on a nylon-strung ‘classical’ guitar or steel strung acoustic model before moving to an electric guitar or bass.

Classical and acoustic guitars are not ‘beginner’ guitars; they are completely different styles of instrument in their own right with different sounds requiring different playing techniques. Ideally, you should start to learn to play on the type of guitar that you intend to progress to playing. If you ultimately want to be an electric guitar player, it makes sense to learn on an electric guitar. If you want to be an acoustic player then it makes sense to learn on an acoustic guitar.

There is no advantage in learning on a classical (or acoustic) guitar and then moving to an electric guitar or bass – or vice versa. In fact, there are many distinct disadvantages of going down this approach. The techniques, hand positions and the muscles that are used are quite different between all four types of guitar and it is difficult to retrain your ‘muscle memory’ once you have learnt one set of techniques and positions.

Your choice of starter guitar should therefore be driven primarily by your preference in guitar music.

If you were inspired to want to learn to play guitar by hearing Kirk Hammett or Yingwie Malmsteen then you are going to be disappointed trying to learn to play on a classical guitar or even on an acoustic guitar. Trust us, you will quickly get frustrated and give up or realise you need to sell the guitar and buy an electric model.

Equally, if you love the Spanish flamenco music of Paco Peña, do not learn to play on a steel strung acoustic or electric guitar because again, you will be disappointed and lose interest very quickly.

So yes, contrary to popular belief, this does mean that if you want to become an electric guitarist then it does make sense to learn on an electric guitar.

So we would urge you to think deeply about this decision before moving to Step 2:

Step 2: Should I Buy a Cheap Model First to See if I Take To It?

We have heard many people make statements such as: “I am going to buy my son / daughter a cheaper acoustic guitar and then if they get on ok with it I will buy them a really good one. While well-intentioned, this is an approach that almost guarantees they will not get on well with learning to play. Playing the guitar is a delicate, precision activity and cheaper guitars, by definition, are made from cheaper materials with less time and precision invested in their manufacture.

The bottom line is, cheaper guitars are generally more difficult to play. Even experienced guitarist find it more difficult to play cheaper instruments and they certainly do not want to spend many hours practising on them because of the poorer sound and playability. So why would we want to encourage someone who is keen to learn to use a guitar that is difficult and more painful to play?

It is no secret that a (smallish) proportion of people who start to learn the guitar give up quite quickly – usually after about five or six lessons. This is because there is a ‘threshold’ that is a little difficult to master that puts a lot of people off playing. The threshold is learning to play ‘barré’ chords. A barré chord is where it is necessary to press down two or more strings usually requiring you to press down with the bony side of your finger.

It’s a fact that most beginners who master the barré will continue to learn and progress to become really good players.

The drop out rate is quite high at this stage because many people learn to play on cheaper guitars on which it is more difficult, and quite a lot more painful, to press down two or more strings. On a well set up, more expensive guitar the strings are much closer to the fretboard and so the pressure needed to press the strings down to get a clear sound is far less and the pain is reduced accordingly.

Not only is it more difficult to learn on a cheaper guitar, if a student does persevere and manages to master the instrument then they will almost certainly learn to play in a more heavy and less dexterous way. These bad habits and techniques are usually very difficult to correct without good lessons, dedication and commitment and they can limit the ultimate level of ability and speed that can be achieved.

At this stage, we should explain that not all cheaper guitars are poorly set up or difficult to play!

We have used the term ‘cheaper guitars’ to generalise and it’s fair to say that not all cheaper guitars sound poor or are more difficult to play. In fact, the prime aim of ‘Which Guitar’ is to advise our readers on the best value guitars, that is to say, the cheapest guitars, amplifiers and accessories that give the best sound, have good build quality and playability and ultimately, are great value for money – and there are a lot of them around!

With guitars, as in life, you generally get what you pay for so, in theory at least, a more expensive guitar will have the potential to be set up to play better and more easily. So if you are thinking of learning to play the guitar and have decided which type of guitar or bass to buy, then work out the maximum amount of money you can afford to spend and set yourself that budget before moving to step three in the decision process.

Step 3 Which Model of Guitar Should I Buy?

Selecting the right model of guitar to learn on can be quite a daunting task simply because there are so very many guitars and models from which to choose. For most people, the best approach is to base your decision on what sort of music, or the instrument used by the particular guitarist or bass player, that inspired you to want to play.

For example, if you love the bass playing of Paul McCartney and decided to learn the electric bass guitar because of his amazing sound and technique on the early Beatles tracks then you will probably be delighted to learn on the same model of bass guitar that he played: a Höfner Violin bass. However, you may not be comfortable in splashing out a lot of money to buy a top of the range model so a similar style of bass guitar from the middle or entry-level of the Höfner range will give you a similar sound at a lower cost.

Many guitarists and bass players switched their guitar of choice at various stages of their musical career. This was often due to a change of band, a change of style or genre of music or to play specific tracks. For example, Eric Clapton played a Gibson Les Paul in the early stage of his career and then moved on to a Gibson ESB 335 for his time with Cream before moving to Fender Stratocasters in recent years.

If you were inspired to learn to play guitar or bass because of a particular song or album then check out on the internet which guitar the guitarist was using at that stage of their career.

Once you have settled on a make, a model and a budget then it’s time to consider Step 4:

Step 4 Should I Buy A New Or Used Guitar?

If you have the money then there is nothing better than buying a new guitar of your choice. Buying new means you can choose the exact model, colour and specification of guitar and be proud to look in the mirror and see yourself standing there with your pride and joy, glinting in all its glory, hanging from your neck.

Sadly, like practically everything else you buy new, guitars do go down in value as soon as you take them home from the shop so you may wish to take that into account. However, the good thing about guitars is that, unlike most other items, guitars do not continue to drop in value over their life. In fact, after quite a short period they actually start to recover their value!

This is for two interesting reasons. First, there is always a high demand for guitars so if a nearly new guitar comes on the market there are always a number of guitarists wanting to buy it which tends to push up the price. Second, is a phenomenon that is almost unique to guitars and violins: so long as they are not abused, guitars actually improve with age.

There are a number of reasons for this. The woods continue to dry out and season slowly and this can produce a slightly mellower tone. This is particularly true of acoustic guitars but also applies to electric guitars. The surfaces of the lacquered woods can also develop a slight patina and almost imperceptible hairline cracks that give the guitars an attractive ‘matured’ look. The edges of the fingerboard and the frets also get very slightly worn down with playing and feel a little more comfortable in the hand; and pickups slowly lose their magnetism and the tone softens just slightly as a result.

These very subtle changes over the years can give instruments their own unique tone, look and playing feel and often make them more attractive to musicians. That is why old Martin and Gibson guitars are so expensive. It’s not because they were made any better than their modern equivalent guitars; it’s purely because they sound great, look attractive and ‘different’ – and feel really comfortable to play.

We are not suggesting that you shell-out on a rare or vintage guitar to learn on (but why not, if you can afford it) but the point is, do not think that you should only consider buying a new guitar. Providing you get someone to go with you who knows about guitars and can tell you if it’s set up correctly and everything plays and works properly, then there can be quite a price advantage in going for a used model of the guitar of your choice.

If you do decide to buy new, then remember that if you give up learning quickly, then you will lose money on the guitar if you come to sell it. If you buy a used model and quickly give up learning to play then you will probably lose less money than had you bought a new model.

Another related factor is that many guitar dealers will offer a free six-month check over and ‘set-up’ (adjustment) on any new guitar they sell. It is well worth considering this because even new guitars flex a little once they start to get played. If you buy used, then remember to take along someone who knows enough about guitars to check it over for you.

Another important factor in your choice of guitar model is the colour or finish. While it is great to choose a colour that you love, it’s worth remembering that some guitars are far more popular if they are in certain colours or finishes.  This is quite important – especially if you are buying new. The new price rarely varies based on the colour choice. The exception to this being some acoustic guitars where natural wood finishes are generally more popular and more expensive than solid colours.

Should you decide to give up playing – or, even if you persevere, become a great player and then want to trade-up to a better model, if your guitar is in one of the more popular colours then it will always sell quickly and possibly for more money. An example of the popularity of certain colours is the case of the ‘sunburst’ finish (particularly with Fender Stratocasters). Fender Stratocasters finished in ‘Sunburst’ are more popular than in any other finish or colour and often the price for used models is at a premium over most of the other colours. Our advice is to go for a popular colour to learn on unless you are on a really tight budget in which case you may get a bargain if you look out for used model in one of the less popular colours.

Step 5 Once You Get Your Guitar Home

Just a few tips on how to make learning easier and more fun:

1  Get yourself a good guitar teacher. While this sounds obvious, it is worth remembering that a great guitarist doesn’t necessarily make a great teacher. Look for a teacher that has a formal qualification and has learnt how to teach as well as how to play.

2  Practice frequently but not for long periods. It’s better to practice for twenty minutes a night than for three hours once a week!

3 Try and get into a practice routine so you play at a regular time. Try to make this a time when you are relaxed and comfortable and not feeling too tired.

3  Remember what we mentioned earlier about the ‘barré’ chord. While this is probably one of the most difficult techniques you have to learn on the guitar it’s not actually very difficult once your fingers are used to moving into position. Unfortunately, it’s a technique that you have to master fairly early in the learning process but if you can persevere with it for a couple of practice sessions you will soon master it. Everything gets easier from then on!

4 Try and find other musicians to play with. There is no better fun, incentive or way to pick up hints and tips than playing with other guitarists, bass players, drummers and singers.

4 When you start to learn to play the guitar or bass, remember these famous words from Jimi Hendrix: “…Sometimes you want to give up the guitar, you hate the guitar, but if you stick at it, you gonna be rewarded…

…and finally, A Word of Warning

Playing guitar can quickly become very addictive; and it seems that most guitarists soon pick up another habit – buying and collecting guitars. Very few guitarists have only one guitar. Most start to build their guitar collection from a young age and a recent poll by Which Guitar indicates that a collection of 5-6 guitars is commonplace, a collection of between 10 and 20 guitars is quite typical and 30 guitars and upwards is certainly not uncommon! The Which Guitar survey also shows that on average, guitarists add an additional guitar to their collection every two years and eight months.

Good luck with learning to play and please book-mark the ‘Which Guitar’ website and visit us regularly. We look forward to writing an article about you soon!