Buying Your First Guitar
So you’ve had some sleepless nights, played the “pro” and “cons” game in your mind, and have been back and forth about what type of guitar to get first. After much deliberation, you have finally come to your decision.
It is easy to walk into a big guitar store where hundreds of guitars hang on the walls like curing salami at the local deli. It’s understandable to feel a little intimidated with all those choices.
Today we are going to help you walk into that store with a calm, cool collective demeanor, armed with the knowledge of the things you want to look for when buying an acoustic guitar.
Side note: We will be talking about acoustic guitars in this post; Part 1. We will get into more detail with the electric guitar next week in Part 2.
Another side note: The prices quoted in this post are current as of September 27, 2018. Prices may be adjusted by the manufacturers at any time.
It’s important to know that this decision will affect your enjoyment of the guitar. You obviously don’t want to buy a cheap piece of junk which will only make your fingers hurt, frustrate you and have you wanting to smash it.
How much does one spend on their first guitar?
What is the best guitar you can get for the money?
Well, that is what we are here to solve today.
This is the fun part.
I’ve broken it down into a few categories involving budget;
Good ($79 – $199),
Better ($200 – $499),
Best ($500 – $999).
There is a bonus section of Pro Level guitars. ($1000+)
WHERE TO SHOP
You would be much better off buying the cheapest guitar at a certified guitar store than the most expensive one at a big box store like Walmart or Target.
We will be discussing new guitars for several reasons:
Warranty – most guitars have a warranty from the manufacturer. But you will also be able to return it to a local store within 30 days if you are not happy with it. If you find out the bridge is coming up or that the truss rod is broken with a used guitar… sad face.
Quality Control – Many guitars in a store will have been set up properly, including being stored in a room that is properly humidified.
Selection – More choices are immediately available to compare.
Now, some of you may be thinking, “What is the bare minimum I can put into buying a guitar?” And that would be the wrong attitude to approach this. Purchasing a new guitar for you is an investment of time, money and (eventual) happiness.
Things to consider
I have always believed that you are better off spending $1000 once than $100 ten times.
Granted, you are not going to get the same quality from a $200 as you will from an $800 guitar. The $200 guitars are great if you are strapped for cash, understanding that you will eventually upgrade. These guitars are not built for performing live in front of a sold-out arena. These are your entry-level guitars.
Thirty or forty years ago, spending in this category would leave you with a piece of junk from the JC Penney catalog that you would instantly regret purchasing.
Thanks to modern CNC technology (and overseas labor), guitars have dramatically improved. However, buyers beware. You are going to have less quality construction and cheaper components. But you will have a guitar to get started on.
Think of the entry-level guitar as your first bicycle. You know the one with streamers and training wheels, where you would put playing cards in the spokes. That bike wasn’t built for commuting or off-road riding. The same goes for the entry-level.
These guitars are typically made from a laminate wood. They sound best right out of the box, but they will not improve in sound quality over time as a solid wood guitar can.
Laminate guitars can withstand a bit more abuse/neglect from the player. A lot of people like to have laminate guitars for traveling, whether to the park, the beach, or tooling around town. It’s not the end of the world if it gets a little dirt or sand on it.
They are sturdy, fairly well made, and for the budget minded, best of all they are affordable.
Chances are the guitars in this price range will all need new strings and a setup. If you don’t know what that means, don’t let that dissuade you. It is something your local music store can do for you for a small charge.
If you purchase it at the store, sometimes they will include it in the purchase.
That isn’t to say that the entry-level guitar won’t be good. In fact, let’s talk about the best of the entry-level guitars that made the cut with the public.
GOOD (Entry-Level) $79-$199 range
Jasmine S35 $92.44
It’s really hard to believe that you can buy a half decent guitar out there for under a Benjamin, but this Jasmine is a popular purchase.
In fact, the Jasmine S35 is the number one bestseller in the steel string acoustic category at Amazon.
It’s important to note that the biggest complaints with this guitar are that it needs some adjusting after you unbox it.
All in all, this guitar can sound and play like a $400 guitar but will need about $20 in parts for that to happen.
Epiphone DR100 – $139.00
The DR-100 has long been Epiphone’s best-selling acoustic guitar with the look, sound, and build quality that first time players and professionals expect to find when they pick up an Epiphone.
The dreadnought is considered the classic go-to shape for bluegrass, folk, rock, country, and everything in-between. The dreadnought sound is commanding when required, but its balanced sound means that at any volume, you can be heard and hear yourself well, too.
Fender FA-100 Dreadnought Acoustic Guitar with Gig Bag – Natural – $149.99
The big bonus that comes with this guitar is a gig bag. A gig bag is a black nylon bag to provide (minimum) protection for your new instrument. This guitar is a Fender, not a Squier (Squier is Fender’s budget line of instruments), so you are getting a bump in quality construction and performance.
This is a great package that has a lot of the things you need to start learning all in one box. Plus Yamaha is a solid brand that makes really fantastic stuff. Package includes:
- Gig Bag
- Chromatic Tuner
- Instructional DVD
- Extra Strings,
- Extra Picks
In the next category, we will be talking about the mid-level guitars available in the “better” category. Now you will experience better construction, better quality of materials and better sound. All in all, you are getting a better guitar. (Hence the “Better” category.)
These guitars will usually still be laminates, although you may find a solid wood guitar pop up now and again in this range. They will also include additional bells and whistles such as cutaways (for access to the upper frets) and electronics.
These are naturally better playing and better sounding guitars for this budget.
BETTER (Mid-Level) $200-$499 range
Yamaha FG830 – $299.99
What would you say if I told you that you could buy a solid (Sitka spruce) top guitar with rosewood back and sides for under $300? You would think I was crazy.
Those two kinds of wood are paired together on guitars like peanut butter and jelly, salt and pepper, and ketchup and mustard. (Okay, now I’m getting hungry.)
But, Yamaha delivers the goods with style.
Winner of several awards, the S6 offers entry-level players the opportunity to experience the great feel and superb sound provided by a hand finished neck, solid Cedar top, and genuine lacquer finish.
This package includes a hard shell case and a guitar stand for the same price as just the guitar alone. Let’s hope that they don’t notice and start charging more!
With guitars in the $500- $1000 category, you will find most offer solid tops, electronics, and nicer hardware. These guitars are ready for the stage; whether it is the local coffeehouse, your local church, or an arena concert.
BEST (Upper-Level) $500-$999 range
Martin DX1AE -$598
Ah, Martin. The C.F. Martin & Company is a US guitar manufacturer established in 1833 and is the leading manufacturer of flat top guitars. This is the company that has all the big stars playing their guitars. And this is where you join that list of stars…
The value in an acoustic-electric guitar doesn’t have to come at the expense of sound and construction quality. Case in point: the Martin DX1AE acoustic-electric guitar, which is affordably priced while still sounding and looking great.
You too can own a Martin for under a thousand dollars!
Taylor 114ce – $899
Taylor’s 114ce acoustic-electric guitar incorporates layered sapele back and sides, which offer extra resilience to fluctuating climate conditions, and a slightly narrower 1-11/16″ neck.
It’s one of the best full-size guitars you’ll find for the money, especially with the availability of Taylor’s ES2 pickup. It makes a viable performance tool, a great entry-level guitar, or a second utility guitar for alternate tunings.
BONUS SECTION – PRO LEVEL GUITARS
I wasn’t going to include the pro level guitars in this due to the fact that most people don’t usually purchase a guitar of this caliber as their first instrument. However, if you have the scratch, these are the top shelf guitars that even the seasoned guitarists will always desire.
Once you get over the $1000 mark, you are at the pro level. When you buy this guitar, it becomes an instant heirloom to be cherished from generation to generation.
These guitars will be worth more to the player since they will all be made with deluxe appointments, top-notch hardware and delicious tonewoods that make your ears smile.
BESTEST (Pro Level) $1000+ range
Martin D28 – $2629.00
Hank Williams. Elvis Presley. Bob Dylan. Neil Young. John Lennon. Paul McCartney.
Names that every lover of popular music knows. These are the heavy hitters; the Hall of Famers. They all have one thing in common…
The Martin D28.
Since 1931, the Martin D-28 has remained the standard by which all other steel strings are judged. Solid East Indian rosewood back and sides, solid spruce top, and Dreadnought size produce an incredibly loud, full, rich, punchy tone perfect for most musical styles. Used for years by all the top players, the D-28 is rightfully a living legend in acoustic guitars.
Gibson J200 – $4200
From its inaugural appearance in 1937, Gibson’s J-200 set the standard others have been trying to match ever since. Today-nearly 71 years later the legacy of Gibson’s “King of the Flat-tops” lives on in the Gibson J-200 Standard acoustic-electric guitar.
With artists like Jimmy Page, Bob Dylan, Pete Townsend, The Every Brothers, George Harrison and Emmylou Harris (just to name a few), it’s easy to see why this guitar is so revered.
Taylor 614ce $3299
Compared to Martin and Gibson, Taylor is the new kid on the block.
But with a roster of artists that include heavy hitters such as The Rolling Stones, Taylor Swift, Dave Matthews, Jason Mraz, Phillip Phillips, and Zac Brown, they are arming today’s musicians with some fine axes.
With Taylor’s signature, ultra-versatile Grand Auditorium body shape, the 714ce is ideal for working guitarists who need a go-to acoustic for any style. The 714ce takes the classic tonewood pairing of rosewood and spruce and conjures a rootsy Americana vibe. Standard appointments include grained ivoroid binding and rosette, along with grained ivoroid Heritage fretboard inlays, which bridge the past with the present.
Additional Shopping Tips
Once you have decided on how much you are going to spend, then it’s time to do some shopping. It’s always best to go to a store to “kick some tires” and get an idea of what’s out there.
Use your senses to help guide your journey.
First, do you like the way it looks? If you don’t, you probably won’t want to pick up an “ugly” guitar. Does it look like something you would play? Some might raise their nose up to a guitar with any color at all, while some people desire a little flair in their axe.
Does the guitar look well-built? Are there any visible imperfections? If so, you may be able to point these out and receive a discount.
After it passes the look test, pick it up. Does it feel inviting? Is it too big? Too small? Too curvy? Do you like the finish?
Will you be playing the guitar in a live setting? If so, make sure to spend some time holding the guitar while seated and while standing. Ask to borrow a guitar strap from the store clerk. Some acoustic guitars are made with only one strap button. If that is the case, you will either need to get a shoelace to tie the strap around the headstock or invest in an additional strap button (recommended).
The last (skip smell and taste if you don’t want funny looks) and one of the most important elements of the guitar is its sound. Even if you don’t know how to play yet, you will know whether you like the sound (or tone) of the instrument. Does it produce a sound that is pleasing to the ears? Is it too boomy? Too quiet? Too shrill? Only your ears will know.
When in doubt, ask a clerk to sit across from you and strum it a little bit. Have them play the ones you are deciding on. Make sure the clerk plays the same chords in the same way.
Ultimately, when it comes to factory guitars, some of the best sounding and easiest playing guitars have sometimes been the less expensive ones. Don’t be fooled into thinking that a more expensive guitar is always the best sounding one.
What steps do you take when shopping for a new guitar?
Leave your comments below. We would love to hear your thoughts.