This is an article that walks you through the process of how to choose a guitar for beginners with little or no experience with the market or the options available. I'll go through all the decisions you'll have to make and a pros/cons list for all of the most important options you'll have to consider. If you still have questions at the end of this write-up, drop them in the comments section below and I'll help out.
If you're only here for a specific aspect of how to choose a guitar, use our table of contents section to skip ahead or around to various sections.
You can also just read straight through if you want to cover all the material.
Let's get started.
How to Choose a Guitar for Beginners: Electric or acoustic?
When you go to buy your first guitar, the biggest decision you'll have to make is between either electric or acoustic. Both guitars can be helpful in different ways, so it's important to know the pros and cons of each before you make your decision.
Pros and cons of electric guitars
Let's start with the electric guitar.
The biggest pro of an electric guitar is that it's physically easier to play than an acoustic guitar. On the negative side, it's usually more complex to set up, requiring an amplifier and some additional accessories.
Here are the pros and cons of going with an electric guitar for your first guitar purchase.
- Easier to play
- Physically less demanding when it comes to your fingers and hands
- More potential sounds
- More creative potential
- Often more expensive
- Requires an amplifier
- Harder to setup
I often recommend that if beginners can get their hands on an electric guitar that it's probably going to be an easier instrument for them to learn on. I'd refer you to this article on how to set up an electric guitar rig.
Pros and Cons of Acoustic
What about acoustic guitars?
Generally speaking, acoustic guitars are harder to play physically, but much simpler and more accessible from a setup perspective.
You do not need an amp or any additional accessories to play an acoustic guitar - just the guitar itself. This leads the bulk of beginners to learn on an acoustic guitar, before later transitioning to electric.
Again, I'd prefer beginners start on an electric guitar, because it takes some of the physical difficulty out of the equation, but acoustics deserve consideration as well, depending on which pros/cons list looks better to you.
- Easy to pick up and play
- No setup involved
- No external parts or electrical components
- More difficult physically (can be harder to press down the strings)
- Not as much creative room or as many sounds
Decide on a budget
Once you've decided between an acoustic and electric, the next thing you need to do is establish a budget.
For beginners, this is usually in the $200 to $500 range, but that's completely up to you as the buyer. We'd recommend establishing your budget ahead of time, then adjusting what you're looking for based on that budget.
Decide on New VS Used
One thing that might help you stay within your budget is looking at both new and used options for buying. Like the difference between acoustic and electric guitars, there are plenty of pros and cons to buying new and used.
Pros and cons of new
If you're buying new, we'd recommend retailers like Sweetwater and Musician's Friend, instead of larger chains like Amazon and Walmart. Here are some of the pros and cons of buying your beginner guitar new:
- Comes "fresh" without any imperfections
- Easier to find what you want
- Includes a warranty
- More expensive than buying used
- Often limited to recent year iterations of each model
Pros and cons of used
For used guitar shopping, I almost always recommend Reverb.com since that's what I use myself. Here are some of the pros and cons of shopping for a used guitar:
- Almost always cheaper
- Lots of older-year models and versions
- Flexibility on price
- More variety
- Warranty can be less comprehensive or non-existent
- More likely to have "dings" and scratches
- Can have problems you weren't expecting
Decide on a size
Once you've decided on a budget and whether you want to buy new or used, you need to think about the size of your guitar.
Both electric and acoustic guitars have what we'd call a "normal" or "full" size, that's the most common across all models. However, some models are small, made for preference, or just for small players and kids that don't want to use a normal-sized guitar.
In this section, we'll look at some common sizing options for both acoustic and electric guitars.
Normal or full sized acoustics
While there isn't an exact size for a full sized acoustic, the typical measurement is 20" x 16" x 4" for length, width, and depth of the body. These are typically thought of as acoustic guitars for adults, which can vary somewhat in shape - perhaps when you look at the difference between concert and dreadnought acoustics.
There are two common types of "small" acoustic guitars: The 3/4 size acoustic and the parlor acoustic. While naming conventions can vary, we can use these two acoustic guitars to get some approximate dimensions.
Most 3/4 body acoustics have body dimensions that measure roughly 18" x 13" x 3" or somewhere close to those numbers. These guitars feel a lot smaller and are easier to hold onto, making acoustic guitars more palatable to beginners.
Parlor acoustics are often referred to interchangeably with 3/4 size acoustics, but are slightly thinner in most cases.
Normal sized electric guitars
Full or normal sized electric guitars are smaller than most full acoustics, and a bit easier to handle. Exact measurements vary depending on the shape, but you'll usually be close to something like 18" x 14" x 2" since electric guitars are far less thick than acoustic guitars.
Small electric guitars
You don't typically see 3/4 or parlor sized electric guitars, but rather "junior" versions of electric guitars that are designed specifically for kids. Since regular sized electric guitars are already fairly easy to play, I don't typically recommend the junior style electrics, even for kids.
Choosing a brand
This brings us to an aspect of guitar buying that many beginners find fairly difficult and intimidating: Which brand do we go with?
I'm going to simply recommend the brands that I know and trust for beginners and give a few words about their strengths and what they're most ideal for. From there, it'll make your decision about which brand to go with a lot easier.
Let's start with electric guitars:
Electric guitar brands I recommend for beginners
- Squier: Low-cost, good for beginners and learning the basics
- Fender: Good for lead guitar, melody, blues, and clean tones
- PRS SE Series: Heavier, warmer, good for rhythm and percussive playing styles
- Epiphone: Balanced, good for rhythm and lead
And now for brands I recommend for beginners on the acoustic guitar side:
Acoustic guitar brands I recommend for beginners
- Yamaha, particularly the FG series: Low-cost, good for budgets
- Epiphone: Balanced, good for strumming and lead styles
- Low-end Taylors (smaller size): Bright, ideal for melody and lead
- Low-end Martins (smaller size): Warm, better for rhythm and chords
Single coil pickups or humbuckers?
If you're still looking for some help on how to choose a guitar, this section gets into some of the more technical aspects that you might not want to concern yourself with. If not, you can skip ahead and pretty much be good to go. But if you know about pickups and you want some buying help in this regard, read on for a rundown of both types and what they're good for.
In short, you have essentially two categories of guitar pickups: Single coils and humbuckers.
Read more: Best guitar pickups overall
If you've noticed this and wondered about the difference, here's a quick pros and cons summary to help you make a buying decision:
Pros and cons of single coils
Single coils are the smaller, thinner pickup that are shaped like a tube of Chapstick, and most commonly on Stratocasters and Telecasters.
- Better for blues and melody
- More organic and natural sounding
- Typically bright and better for lead
- Better for clean tones
- Cheaper than humbuckers
- Can be noisy
- Not ideal for heavier or warmer rhythm styles
- Not great for rock or heavy metal
Pros and cons of humbuckers
Humbuckers usually look like small rectangles or like two single coils tied together side-by-side.
- Better for warmer tones and rhythm
- Better at handling high levels of distortion
- More suited for metal, rock, and percussive playing styles
- Designed to prevent excess noise and feedback
- Usually more expensive than single coils
- Not always as good for clean tones or lead styles
Active or passive pickups?
Another distinction in pickups that you should pay attention to is the difference between active and passive pickups. Since I've already wrote an article on that topic, I'll direct you to the active vs passive pickup page for review.
Should I replace strings right away?
What about the strings that come on a new guitar? Should you replace them right away?
This depends on which guitar you buy.
For example, the Taylor acoustics come with Elixir strings, which are some of the nicest money can buy. In that case, I would not recommend replacing the strings until the existing Elixirs are worn out.
However, with Ibanez and Fender guitars they tend to ship with much cheaper string sets, meaning a replacement is usually justified.
Make sure you do some research and figure out what kind of strings ship with your new guitar.
If they're cheap or junky, go ahead and replace them.
What else do you need?
Aside from the guitar itself, what else do you need to think about? This is going to be different depending on what kind of guitar you're getting. Let's deal with electric guitar first, which is the more complex of the two.
If you buy an electric guitar
For beginners buying an electric guitar, they'll also have to think about the following items:
- An amplifier
- A single instrument cable (for connecting guitar to amp)
- Guitar strap (if you want to play standing up)
- A small tuner
If you buy an acoustic guitar
For acoustic guitar, the list is a bit simpler.
- Acoustic guitar strap
- A small tuner
Conclusion and Questions
These are all the factors I'd recommend considering in terms of how to choose a guitar for beginners. While there are other features that do matter, these are the most pertinent and relevant for those just getting started. It gives you enough information to get a decent guitar, but not so much that you get bogged down in the gory details.
If you have questions about how to choose a guitar, feel free to jump into the comments section and leave them there.
I'll answer and help out as best I can.
See you there.