Monday, 27 January 2020

What BEGINNER GUITAR should I buy?

So many guitars to choose from, so where do you start ?

WHERE TO BUY Beginners are at the mercy of  salespeople but if you shop in a guitar shop the chances are good that you'll get a playable instrument  regardless of the spend. That's because guitar shop people know guitars. 
Just be sure the salesperson actually plays guitar. If they can't demonstrate it, they aren't qualified as a salesperson.

The advantage of guitar shops is being able to touch, feel, play ,see and hear the item with the help of professionals around you.
You wouldn't buy your meat from the baker. Don't expect to go to a piano shop and find a good range and expertise with guitars. Find a guitar oriented shop.
People who work in guitar shops love guitars. That's an important distinction to make.

Pawn shops may seem like bargain centers but think about it. They make money selling high priced short term loans, not really by being in the music business. 
The quality of their product is extremely variable as is their expertise and judgement as to what is a fair instrument at a fair price. I've seen plenty of overpriced stuff in these shops. They are businesses, not bargain centers and guitars are not their core business.

Take an expert or experienced player with you if you shop there or stay away. The same applies to any secondhand shopping. 

If the guitar needs adjustment or a repair it may well cost more than the new product. Guitars get bumped and a few bum frets can ruin an instrument. The cost of  replacements on a cheap instrument is not justifiable.  A professional set up with maintenance can cost $100 easy. 
Buying on the internet has risks with a lot of unknown brands that may or may not be good. You might get lucky but you might get stuck. 
If you buy through the internet, do your homework, read reviews, buy a recommended brand and specific model and note the return policy.
Most manufacturers build to a range of price points  "cheap to top shelf ", check those model numbers carefully. The "brand" can be a good guide, but you still have to observe that different models have huge variations in their quality.

Customers come in all shapes and sizes physically and budget wise so let's sort out who you are -  Big person, medium or small. Hand size too is very important.  The instrument should be comfortable and feel balanced. The fingers should fit on a string without stepping all over the neighbouring strings. A hand should be able to reach around the neck so the fingers can stretch to the lowest and highest strings.
Though it won't always happen (but always ask) the salesperson should put the guitar in the hands of the buyer to try at least for size. 
I've met several guys with really fat fingers who have been sold a thin neck guitar when it is clear if the salespeople had looked closely at this person's build they should have recommended something with a wider neck. When each of your fingers is thumb sized, the gaps between strings become more important. Smaller build people will essentially be more comfortable with more compact guitars.
Match the size to the player. You wouldn't buy a kid size 14 shoes. It's just dumb.

Guitar Size - It's often true that larger body acoustic guitars are in fact louder. 
For me it's tone first, and loudness, though sometimes handy, runs second.

#1. If you are a quiet singer with a loud guitar the balance between the 2 won't work.
# 2. A loud singer busker with a loud guitar might be a good match.
#3. If you record both guitar and voice at the same time in the same room, a loud guitar will mix in with the voice and won't be flexible for making a good recording. In this day and age with amplifiers being quite cheap I wouldn't worry about how much volume the instrument  puts out unless you are case  #2.

Weight affects the way you play and can be a nuisance. My first electric guitar was a vintage instrument constructed of very dense wood and after playing it with a guitar strap around my neck I would have a sore neck and fierce headache. I will personally never buy such a heavy item again.

QUALITY AND FRILLS COST MORE- DO YOU NEED IT? Beautiful, well crafted guitars they don't come cheap. If the woods are solid (not laminates), rare and hard species like ebony,  the hardware goldplated and inlays carved out and tastefully designed it will cost more. Do you need this and can you afford this is a question you must answer yourself. 
I own many guitars which have such artistic integrity but they weren't my first.

Even so these are not the sort of thing you would put in the hands of an uneducated person such a a kid. 
Kids especially should learn to look after a cheap thing first before they are trusted with a high quality/cost thing. Kids are often rough or a bit clumsy & dropping a $100 guitar is better than breaking a $3000 guitar. Most woods in guitars are softwoods and they break easily. An expensive instrument is not necessarily stronger.

If money is no object buy the best.  Big brand names like "Gibson, Martin, Fender, Yamaha, Taylor, Maton, Ibanez and the like are often expensive and especially so in Australia but these manufacturers have proven reliability over many years. If you have no help and you have to make a decision based on a name, it's safe and it's also safe to say you may pay more than you need to.
You can spend less and get equal or better quality if you know something or someone to help you choose.  Many choose by brand as they are unable to see or hear the differences. That's not to say these products are bad, but equivalent quality instruments without famous brand labels are available.  Professional level instruments will give better results and that's a fact. The best is not always a matter of money. It can cost as much to make a poor instrument as a good one due to the variability of a piece of wood and the choices made by the luthier. The other factor is where it comes from as the cost structure and then taxes can inflate a price. 
My friend bought a perfect replica of a famous model at 25% of the original brand item price but he knows what good is.
There may be ethical choices you like to consider too. Maton Australia use plantation timbers whereas many other manufacturers are still ripping up forests in Madagascar to get rosewood and ebony for guitar necks. (sound of lemurs crying)

CHEAP or MID PRICED BUT GOOD is a great way to start for most people.Make sure the instrument has good tone and playable action without buzzes across the neck.  
Get the salesperson, your teacher or an experienced player to demonstrate it. Your ears will have to judge whether it has the potential to sound good. Get them to play every note slowly. If there are rattles (assuming the player to be good) then the string does not align well to the neck and scrubs out on the frets. Don't buy it. 
Assume anything you buy (especially that which is not set up well from the start) will only get worse as it is used. 
Don't believe that instruments get better with age. Most just get worn and broken. Have you got better as you've got older or are you falling apart like an old car?

Check if the strings are a long way from the neck as this makes it harder to play.  
"Action" is what we call it and a low action makes for less physical effort to pin the string down on the fretboard.
It's true the best tools are helpful and the best tools often cost more. But a good instrument doesn't cost a lot these days thanks to China, experience in manufacture and a world where machines have taken a lot of guesswork and rough measurement away from the manufacturing processes.

As guitar is a 2 handed activity (and I have taught plenty of lefties on a regular right handed guitar and it never seems a problem for those who just get on and play, I recommend using a standard right hand setup. 
More on this in a separate article.

There are 3 basic choices from cheapest to most expensive.
1. Classical Guitars are nylon stringed. Traditionally wider neck and soft strings are ideally suited to finger style. Modern variations include cutaway body for easy access to higher frets, pick-ups and a built-in tuner for use with amplifiers. 
Some have slimmed down necks which may make them less useful as finger style guitars so check the fit.  Beginner models of reasonable quality from around $100 with a soft carry bag. Nice and soft on the fingers and light and comfortable to play.
There are generally 3 sizes:- half, 3 quarters and full size. 

2. Steel Stringed Acoustic Guitars (folk guitars) These also often include the variations as noted above. Almost all acoustic instruments I own have a cutaway neck and pick-up and they most certainly make the instruments more flexible.Beginner models of reasonable quality start from around $200 with a soft carry bag.
They range in size from half to jumbo.

3. Electric Guitars  come in many configurations but beginners are likely to find the most common form follows the design of a Fender Stratocaster which has 3 pick-ups, 5 way switching, a tremolo arm (whammy bar), tone and volume controls and 22 frets. 
This versatile design is suitable for almost any type of music. They are solid body guitars and there is a bit of weight in that. It is not so convenient to turn an amp on every time you use it. As I get my practice in lots of short bursts I find that part of electric guitar inconvenient.
Beginner models tend to come with inferior but functional  tuning knobs (machineheads), and cheaper pick-ups than the Fender items made famous by so many guitar heroes. 
A generally lighter guitar string and thin neck makes them quite easy to play and definitely easier to bend strings than any other guitar type.
When packaged with an amp and bag, the amp is often the most basic. 
A better amp has at least 2 footswitchable channels with a set of controls (volume, treble, bass and overdrive) for each channel. A footswitchable control means you can have a clean sound and a dirty sound set up and change sounds with just a tap of your foot. The ability to
use guitar fx is a great attraction. Many small amps have a range of built in fx these days.  
Cheap basic amps might give you a range of sounds but you have to play with the knobs to get what you want. You'll pay a few hundred more for a better amp. Beginner packages with a basic amp of reasonable quality range from around $350.
They range from half size to full size. I am wary of half sized guitars as the quality of beginner ones is not always good and often enough have unstable tuning.
As with all appliances, electronics can wear out or need servicing. Cables are quite breakable and need replacements sometimes.(and spares) Be aware of potential added costs.

Each guitar type have their strengths and there is overlap in the skills required for each so learning on any of them is not going to be a waste. 
Steel strings are harder work for beginners to use for fingerstyle. 
Classical guitars of full size with soft strings usually have slightly wider necks which make your hand have to stretch further.
Electric guitars with thinner necks and lighter strings are the easiest to manage physically. They also have less problems when played loud with amps as the solid body cuts out feedback issues.  Beginners playing through amps is something the rest of the household might not appreciate. At least get an amp with a headphone socket and as deafness is a new disease of the 21st century teach ear safety actively.

I personally love acoustic guitars with their greater dynamic range and that sound which  I never seem to  tire of. I love the portability and convenience of not needing cables and appliances. For some reason I find it hard work to bother plug something in and turn it on.

There is no one solution and no correct solution to finding which way to go from the 3 choices. 
No one tool does everything and that's why I have several of each type in my studio.  
Accept each has a limit and buy one to start that meets your budget. 

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