Your first guitar: A beginner's guide

The following emerged from emails and conversations on the topic of what I would recommend for a first guitar for beginning players.

How about an acoustic?
People get this idea that an acoustic is easier to play because you always see people playing simple chords of them.  Guess what?  The reality is that this is the case precisely because acoustic guitars are hard to play... which is why most players are limited to strumming.  They have thicker strings that make them difficult to fret without blistering your fingers, and it's impossible to bend strings unless you're an experienced player.

The reality is that more often than not, an acoustic guitar will frustrate all but the most determined aspiring musicians...  And yet this is the guitar most parents give their kids when they want to start them playing.

A classical guitar?
A classical guitar is easier to play and learn on in some senses, but not all.  For example, the strings are nylon, not steel (even though it looks like three of them are metal, they're just nylon with thin metal cover to keep them from sounding dull like a bass guitar).  These strings are easier to push down.  Unfortunately, they don't sound as good when you strum them.  They just don't ring out like steel ones.

A sort of mixed blessing for new players is that the neck is wider than any other type of guitar (well, except a 9-string bass), so it makes it easy to touch one string without touching the others, something that's very hard for clumsy newbies.  However, this almost means that it makes it easy to touch one string without touching the others.  Yes, I repeated myself.  Some of the chords like G, for example, require separate finger positions, but one like A requires you to use two fingers to fret three strings.  That's hard to do if they're far apart.  It's a toss-up.

Well, what about a bass?
While a bass is a little easier to play, both physically and mentally (you only have to play one string at a time to look competent), it is really limited.  Bass lines are fun, but can be monotonous.  Also, even at a low volume, bass travels through the walls, so it is more conducive to bugging the neighbors as well as those in your own place.

Admittedly, I did start out playing a bass, but I found that I got bored on it and quickly moved on to an small classical guitar and learned some chords.  Bass guitars do not encourage improvisation or actually accompaniment.  At best they fixate players on riffs, but most just end up playing one-note basslines and thinking that's all there is to music.  And parents and neighbors will hear every bad note through the walls no matter how low you play.

While different basses *do* produce different (and sometimes brand-specific) characteristic tones, because they are of a lower frequency, it generally takes a semi-professional to hear the difference.  And for most rock songs, there is little difference to be had since the bass is rarely very prominent in the mix (contrast this with, say, the Red Hot Chili Peppers or any number of jazz recordings).  About the biggest difference might be if you are playing a fretless, because the play style is a little different and it is hard to match the sound of the strings against the frets (it's brighter; fretless = dull sounding).  I have a fretless, and it's fun to play, but now wish I had just gotten a fretted version.  A Fender Precision is a good bass.  It's probably the Honda of rock music: doesn't come on so strong that you notice it, but it gets you there.  Most of the bass playing in Roger Waters-era Pink Floyd material fits this description.

Maybe an electric then?
Yes, absolutely.  The reasons are many.  Here are a few:
-They're usually the easiest to play.
-They're versatile.  You can start out playing rhythm, but can also do full-on leads when you're ready.
-They're more interesting.  You can't go from "clean" to "distorted" on any other instrument, and many cheap amps come chock full of effects now-a-days (e.g. chorus, delay, reverb, flange, etc. in addition to distortion and a 3-band EQ).

The easier and more rewarding the playing experience, the more engaged a presently non-musician will be to experiment with the possibilities.  Think of it like this: If someone can sound like Eric Clapton or Slash, wouldn't that make him or her want to play like the virtuoso (s)he can emulate sonically?  That's what happened to me.

The conundrum: Strat or Paul?
Whether you go for a Stratocaster or a Les Paul really depends a lot on the music you want to play.

If you're into anything "metal," any music where there's a lot of distortion or a thick tone like in jazz guitar, a Strat just won't do it for you.  The reason is that Strats mostly have single coil pickups rather than humbuckers (the thicker type made out of a pair of coils wired together).  Strats don't have as high an output, so they don't distort as well.

However, Strats are great for playing lead guitar or for strumming "real" chords.  If you like RHCP, Nirvana, and other guys with a clean or just trashy sound, a Strat is probably better.  They're also easier to play on average.  To give you an idea, I had three Strats at one point and only one LP.  Most people tend to think of the Strat at the Stradivarius of guitars whereas Les Pauls are more of a Cadillac: pretty, but not especially utilitarian.  What do these guys play: Eric Clapton, Jeff Beck, Buddy Guy, Jimi Hendrix, David Gilmour, Eric Johnson, and SRV?  I rest my case.

Of course, most people want to sound like their hero(es).  Well, look at what they play most of the time, and that will give you a good indication of what kind of guitar will produce the vibe you're looking for.  Check out this list of guitarist and their signature instruments.

An overlooked alternative
I'm going to suggest an alternative to the Strat vs. LP debate for beginning guitarists.  There is a relatively inexpensive line of guitars out there by Steinberger (who is presently owned by Gibson, incidentally).  Because they have humbucking pickups, they sound a lot like Les Pauls, but they also have a tremolo (i.e., a whammy bar) and a 5-way pickup selector like a Strat.  They look like they're from outer space (Where's the headstock?!).

But here's the most important feature: They NEVER go out of tune.  I think that's one of the most important things a guitar should do for you when you're just beginning and need to be concentrating on playing instead of worrying about staying in tune all the time, especially since it takes most players a while to develop an ear.  Also, should you break a string, they're incredibly easy to change because you don't have to thread them and spend forever winding keys.  I have one and so does my girlfriend.  I also have a couple Strats and a Les Paul, so it isn't like I'm just promoting something because that's all I've ever played.

Read a little more about mine on this page.  I think that's the best option for anyone looking to start playing.  You can always get another guitar or two or a dozen when you get to be a better player.  Good luck.

Pawn shopping
What I don't recommend for a first-time guitar buyer of any variety are pawn shops.  I know what is worth it and what isn't, but you won't right off.  Consider that a lot of things ended up there because they weren't wanted.  Who knows why?  Too hard to play, never stayed in tune, etc.  And don't even think about buying an amp in one.  If it doesn't work properly, I can't imagine you or anyone you know could repair it.

The hype
The price of guitars is a complete mystery to me.  I never believe the hype anymore.  When shopping for a guitar I like, there are three areas I look at: Aesthetics, Playability, and Sound.  The first area is obvious.  It has to look nice and/or interesting or require minimal effort to get it to look the way I would like.  Playability refers to how easy it is to pick up and play and perform tricks on.  This includes issues of fretboard material (if it's smooth, etc.), string height (so my fingers don't bleed after playing it for 5 minutes), etc. as well as which features it includes such as which type of tremolo (if any), tuners, and so on.  Sound refers mainly to the electronics, but other factors come into play.  A guitar is a deceptively complex system.

In most cases, you can get a decent guitar that looks, plays, and sounds as good to a beginner as the top of the line model will.  You shouldn't shell out more for a guitar than you need to.  If you want a status symbol, wait until your playing matches the guitar you want.

While Fender is great, they also make a line called Squire, which are "entry-level" instruments.  These are made a little bit more cheaply, but they play just fine.  To give you an idea, I have two Squires to my one Fender.  They look the same as the "originals" except that "Fender" is written in small print on the headstock while "Squire" stands out.  You can save over $100 and get essentially the same guitar.  Same thing with the Gibson look/sound-a-likes from Epiphone.

Some other items to get:

That's probably far more than you wanted or even needed to know at this point, but I figure it is better to have made an informed decision than anything else.

Copyright Alexplorer.