Debbie Ridpath Ohi reads, writes and illustrates for young people. Every few weeks, she shares new art, writing and resources; subscribe below. Browse the archives here.

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Sunday
Apr082007

Any advice on choosing a guitar?

Please note that original question was posted in LJ and was: "I am a cadet at West Point in New York and am looking for information on how to choose a guitar to buy. I am making a Decision Support System for one of my classes and was hoping you could help. I read the article posted in your 'Urban Tapestry' website about choosing a guitar but was wondering if there are any other factors someone might think about when deciding what guitar to choose. Are there any other types of guitars, besides the ones listed (Classical, Flamenco, Acoustic, Electric, Semi-acoustic, 12-string, and base), that a new player could choose from? Which type of guitar would a person have the best chance of finding cheap, but its still a good guitar? I could use any information you are willing to share. If you could reply back as soon as possible, I would be most grateful. Thank you for your time and consideration."

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From Volker:

"First and foremost it depends on in which style of music you intend to play the guitar: thus a flamenco guitar is only moderately suited for a heavy metal group - and an e-guitar is not overly fitting for classical guitar concerts, neither are acoustic (steel-strung) guitars or 12strings.

Are you right- or lefthanded? Although there are a few players that can work with an "upside-down" guitar, choosing a guitar for your handiness is highly recommended unless the guitar is completely symmetrical.

How/where do you intend to mainly use the guitar? A guitar than can be used for camping in rain and sunshine is quite different to an original gut-string renaissance guitar that should not leave well-climated environment (but is nothing for a complete beginner either).

And there's of course the monetary aspect. New guitars start as low as $20 - these are probably only suitable for rainy camping, because the probable loss/destruction of the guitar due to wetness plus hot campfire won't hurt the purse too much. If you seriously consider learning guitar $300 for a "real" guitar will help a lot training your ears for the right tone.

But how to choose? Really do ask a friend or teacher who already is playing the style you want to learn to help you finding a solid (beginner's) guitar. They know what to look and listen for - and if you ask some time in advance they even can prepare and compare prices before visiting a shop. Plus they probably know the shops which have good prices and/or service you might have overlooked. Maybe they even know good sources for used guitars (former pupils or their own instruments), which are considerably cheaper than new instruments.

Basically: ask someone you trust and who knows the stuff you want to learn."

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From Mary:

"First, consider: what do you plan to use the guitar for? Is this a guitar on which to learn, or is it a guitar with which to perform? If the latter, are we talking coffee houses or concert halls? There are plenty of relatively cheap guitars that are good for learning.

Play a lot of guitars in the store. Find out which ones feel good to your hands. The action (height of the strings, roughly) can be changed, but playing around can help you to figure out how high or low of action is good for you.

Listen to the sound quality. Some people like brighter sounds, some mellower. If you can't hear the difference, it might not yet make much difference which guitar you pick as a starter guitar (as long as the action is reasonable). String gauge (and newness) also makes a difference in the brightness of a guitar.

Tune the guitar. Make sure that the tuning pegs move smoothly. Play the guitar. Make sure the tuning holds. (Note that either just-put on strings or old strings will not sound great - just-put-on strings stretch, and don't hold tune for perhaps the first day unless you know how to help them stretch more quickly. Old strings will stay at the pitch they're set to, but tend to be difficult to tune to the right pitch).

If you want a really good guitar, I can now (after a fifteen minute lesson a few weeks ago from the guitar repair man) describe some of the finer points to look at. However, from the question I'm guessing that this is someone looking for a first guitar."

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From Keris:

What braider said, plus I'd really put emphasis on picking a guitar which is what /you/ (the person buying it) want. My first (and only) 6-string acoustic only cost 115 pounds (about US$200 at the time) but was the one /I/ liked out of the range in the shop. Also note that things like action (how high the strings are off the frets), what weight and type of strings you like and to an extent the tuning can and should be adjusted by a person skilled at "setting up" the guitar after purchase. New guitars, particularly the low end 'production' models, often have very high action because it's easier to lower it to taste than to raise it. My guitar effectively tripled in value with a 50 pound ($90) setup by a guitar repairer recommended by the shop.

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From Nate:

"You've gotten some really complicated (but absolutely right on target) answers from a lot of knowledgeable people. I'm going to go into the exact opposite space and simplify things a little, so you don't put so much time and effort into trying to decide that you eventually give up because it isn't worth said effort. Note: I have been playing guitar for 48 years, playing a *lot* of professional gigs for 38 of them (and some earlier than that) and have taught guitar for a local community college.

This will be your first guitar. I have had much better results teaching people on acoustic guitars (even if they and I all know that they'll be playing electric in six months) than starting on electrics. I've also had better results teaching people on cheap nylon-string guitars (sometimes called "classical guitars," sometimes called "nylon stringed folk guitars") than on cheap steel-strings. A cheap steel stringed guitar is likely to be extremely hard to play, putting grooves in your fingers and being hard to keep in tune. A cheap nylon string guitar will be far easier to play, and because there will be less tension on the neck, it's not going to warp and be harder to keep in tune over the first year you have it (or any other period of time). I would say that a $100 nylon string guitar will be on a par, for playability and sound, with a $250 steel string guitar. Note: Buying a guitar made for steel strings and putting nylon strings on it generally doesn't work, though there are a few exceptions; having a friend right there in your home town will help you decide if there is an exception there, or not.

And thanks immensely to vampirdaddy (whom I don't know) for mentioning the issue that you might be left-handed. It is standard for guitar teachers to tell lefties, "Play right-handed. Your left hand will be doing the fretting, which is the hard part, and you'll eventually be better off.)" Unfortunately, this is nonsense. I know a good number of left-handers who play right-handed; usually they are extremely musically frustrated people who have difficulty synchronizing rhythms with other musicians and can't improvise. Yeah, it works *occasionally* -- Glen Campbell is left-handed playing right, and when you connect with your first guitar teacher, he or she may have another example in your home town -- but there are far more uncomfortable and frustrated lefties who tried to play right-handed and found out that it only just barely worked. I don't know that much about the "upside down" variety, though a folkie I like and respect, Bill Staines, plays upside-down -- but Staines tells the lefties he talks to that they would be better off playing "full lefty," strings reversed to make the guitar a mirror image of a right-handed one, as it's less limiting.

As far as "base" -- don't even think about it at this point. This instrument is generally called "electric bass," and if you aren't sure that's what you want to play (unless some friends want you to be the bass player in their band), go with a regular guitar. You can learn bass later, once you know a bit more about what a bass is and does. It's *not* a good instrument with which you accompany your own favorite songs in a music circle; yeah, a circle with one good bass player can sound better than a circle without one, but the bassist needs to play well and have an excellent ear; it might go better to play guitar for six months or a year first, even if playing bass like Paul McCartney is your long-term goal -- learn to become a musician first, and *then* pick up the bass instrument, which will stretch your musicianship. So yeah, I'm going to be consistent -- buy a nylon string guitar and get someone to show you some stuff."

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From Bill R:

"Nate's advice sounds generally really, really good. I might differ with him on the nylon vs. steel string issue, but that really depends on what's available in the store.

Used. Used. Used. And how do you get a good used guitar?

Go to a store that isn't one of the chains (Guitar Center being a place to avoid), that does their own repairs, that stocks a fair variety of instruments, and that gives lessons. They'll have good clean used guitars available at good prices."

(From Nate, in response to the above: "Bill, I'm curious. I said a few different things on the nylon vs. steel string issue. Which of them might you differ on? I *think* I said I have had better luck teaching beginners with cheap nylon string guitars than beginners with cheap steel stringed guitars; I'm not sure how that's amenable to disagreement at all. I also said that a $100 nylon string guitar is equivalent to a $250 steel string guitar; if this is cause for disagreement, I'd like to know what you base this disagreement on. Something I did *not* say, but which we may very well agree on (perhaps to your surprise?) is that with the overwhelming majority of folksingers and related basic players going for steel strings, you may as well start with a steel string guitar and get used to it, and this way, you're far less likely to need to "upgrade" your guitar six months to a year down the line. But I'd like to keep the topic open, not because I want to use my experience to trump everybody else, but because I actually discuss teaching issues with other people quite seldom, leading me to feel I *need* outside input, just to keep my opinions a bit more balanced. Bill, please get back to me on this; I really do want to know.")_

Bill replies:

"Understanding your reasons for recommending starting on a nylon-string guitar, I tend to think it's better starting on a steel-string guitar in part because of the upgrade issue that you mention in this post. I think that you're correct about it being easier to find a new nylon-strung guitar of playable quality at a lower price than a playable steel-strung guitar, but the situation may be different when you're looking at used instruments, because the vast majority of used guitars that you're likely to see are steel-strung.

The other reason to recommend starting on a steel-string guitar is that the neck width on the nylon-strung guitar is going to be (usually) a lot wider than on the steel-strung guitar. I remember picking up Anne Passovoy's guitar and coming up way short of the right spot on a G chord. :) For someone with small hands, this could make a big difference.

The other thing that I've found is that even the cheese-slicer variety of steel-string guitar can be made playable by spending $25-$50 to have it set up correctly by a competent repair shop. If you bought the cheese-slicer there, they're likely to smile and do it, because they know that you'll upgrade that guitar later -- assuming that you survive the initial lessons, which you're more likely to do if the cheese-slicer is set up with lower action, etc.

Terry at the Guitar Works modified a couple of my friends cheese-slicers for me so that they were much more playable. Of course, I've brought a lot of friends in there looking for better guitars over the years. Which goes back to the point of finding a good non-chain store and establishing a relationship with them..."

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From Chris O.:

"Don't have time for a full answer, so here's the quick list of words that pop into my head to do with guitar choice:

Price (a major factor!)
Music Style (what kind of music, after all even if you choose six string electric you still have the choice of Strat, Telecaster, Les Paul, etc.)
Acoustic
Electric
Seven string electric
12 string (acoustic or electric)
semi-acoustic
pickups
materials (for acoustic, different woods, different compositions have different tones/sound)
string type (nylon/steel/bronze/silver)
cutaway (on an acoustic, allowing access to higher frets)
lap steel
pedal steel
resonator (dobro/national/resophonic etc.)
Hawaiian slack-key
Bottleneck guitar
travel (small bodied acoustic, small electric, folding electric guitars etc.)
auto tune (small motors that tune the guitar for you)
Tenor (four string, favoured by people like Martin Carthy OBE)
baritone/longneck (usually at least two more frets than a standard guitar so tunes down to a D rather than an E)
body size (if you look at Martin Guitars you'll find they come in at least four or five different body sizes from travel/baby/parlour up to the dreadnaught/grand auditorium sizes)
neck profile (very important, especially on electric guitars, but also for acoustic)
humidity (some guitars will handle excessively dry or moist areas better than others)
double neck (six+twelve, six+bass etc.)
synth control (midi or Roland controller), real guitar with sensors or specialist synth guitar like synthaxe or Casio DG-20
whether the guitar should be new, used or collectable
bass four string/five string/six string (etc.!)
fretted/fretless
chapman stick (electric guitar variant designed for hammering on with both hands)
harp guitar (multiple strings with resonators etc.)
Ashbory bass (a bass guitar with thick rubber bands for strings, sounds more like an acoustic upright bass than an electric bass guitar)
lute/other historic or world variant (Mexican Mariachi bands with the big acoustic bass guitars, portugese guittarre or however they are spelled, cuatro etc.)
round bodied (plastic) back (such as Ovation)
colour
built in amp & speaker
built in synth (Casio MG380 I think had a Casio VZ1 synth built-in)
light up fretboard (special guitars for people to learn to play)
buzz feiten tuning system (I may have his name slightly wrong, a way of spacing the frets to make the guitar more in tune all the way up the neck)
adjustable bridge
vibrator/tremolo bridge (the little stick on a Fender strat/the whammy bar)
b-bender/hipshot (a way of bending the note on a single string based on a lever on the back of the guitar)
drop-D level (a way of slackening a string on the guitar from E to D with a single flick, useful for doing a "drop D" tuning for one song in a set)
strap attachment points (some guitars, especially classical, have no way of attaching a strap built into the guitar ... some have an end pin, some have an end pin and a pin at the bottom of the neck, and a few even have a way of attaching the strap up at the top of the neck (otherwise use a shoelace!))

For an acoustic, standard round hole, tear drop hole on upper bout or multiple soundholes (like some of the ovations) or medieval style fretwork hole

And then I have a guitar that doesn't fit easily in the above categories, it's a Gibson Chet Atkins, which is very nearly a solid bodied electric guitar, but it has nylon strings, a sort of fake round soundhole and some sort of resonating chambers and a pickup in it.

Oh, and of course, once you decide on pickups in your acoustic or electric guitar you have to decide on what kind (brand, sound, humbucker or single coil, lace sensors etc.)

And there's another kind of jazz guitar called something like a Macaferri, with a triangular tailpiece (more like a mandolin/violin/bouzouki or even a semiacoustic) but with more of a classical/flamenco style body

And I don't know whether he will know the difference between acoustic, electro-acoustic and semi-acoustic. (Acoustic is just that, big empty wooden box with strings over it. ElectroAcoustic is the same, but there's some sort of pickup so that the acoustic sound can be sent to an amplifier. Either a microphone or a piezo pickup that picks up the vibrations in the wood/bridge.

SemiAcoustic guitars are usually the wider ones with the F-holes (like a violin) and usually have a pickup that works by picking up the vibrations of the string over the pickup (like an electric guitar)."

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