School of The Rock


What Kind of Guitar Should I Start On?

by Paul D. Race

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Buying your first guitar is like choosing a college major while you're still a sophomore in high school - it's very posible that your interests will change. If you stick with the guitar and really learn it, you may decide later that you need a totally different instrument than the one you started with. The good news is that you can learn on ANY guitar that is at least nominally playable and holds some kind of tune. But if you want to give yourself the "best shot" at achieving your present goals (at least), you'll probably want to know enough about guitars to make an educated first choice.

What kind of music do you want to play? I'll be honest, I prefer a steel-stringed flat-top acoustic for a lot of different kinds of music, and especially for leading groups or playing "out" in noisy places. But some guitars are just plain better for certain kinds of music than others. Let's take a look at the benefits of various kinds of guitar. (I'll have some summary information toward the end of this article, so if something in the middle doesn't make sense, don't lose heart - I like almost all kinds of guitars, so I've put in more detail than you really need.)

Classical Guitarwashburn_c40_cadiz

Two centuries ago, most guitars were designed around the "classical" model (sometimes called "Spanish" because of its purported origin). This included a small- to medium-sized body, "waistline" indentations that were fairly deep, cedar top, strings that were made with "catgut" (really processed sheep intestine), and a relatively wide fingerboard. Today most classical guitars use nylon for the high strings and fine wire around some core for the low strings.

These strings give a rich, mellow, and not very loud sound, unless you have a very expensive guitar. The strings are designed to be fingerpicked or strummed with the back of the nails, Flamenco-style. If you pick them with a flatpick, the guitar will sound like the background track to a spaghetti western. If you strum them with a pick, you'll wear the strings out very soon. And if you have bad strumming technique, your flatpick could carve a hole through the relatively soft face of the guitar in about twenty minutes.

That "face" (on better-made classical guitars) is usually cedar, a wood that is too soft to be used on a steel-stringed guitar, but which amplifies the sound of nylon strings better than most other woods. Cheaper classicals often use plywood tops with a cedar veneer so that they look authentic. Some still have a decent sound, but really bottom-line classicals often have the resonance of, say, a brick.

Classical Guitar as a Starter Guitar


  • You can learn basic chord positions, get used to changing chords, and get used to barre chords before you build up the kind of callouses and left hand strength that you need to play steel-stringed guitars.
  • If you have a good teacher, you will be introduced to fingerpicking techniques that will carry over to steel-stringed guitars, and which help you to understand musical textures and techniques that most flat-pickers never learn.
  • If you hang on to your classical after you convert to a steel-stringed guitar, you will have access to tonalities and textures that are only available on classical guitars.
  • Cons:
  • A classical guitar's neck and fretboard is wider than any other kind of guitar, so you will have to relearn your left hand position somewhat when you shift over. (Note: A few classical guitar manufacturers are now making "Crossover Classicals," which are built just like their classicals but with a narrower neck, so steel-string players can adjust more quickly.)
  • Friends who borrow your guitar are more likely to beat it to death (or at least break strings) than if you had a cheap steel-stringed guitar.
  • You will need a steel-stringed guitar eventually to learn the flatpicking styles that are used in most kinds of folk, bluegrass, pop, acoustic rock, and alternative music.
  • Your friends will think you own a sissy guitar, until you learn to play "Classical Gas" and blow them away.

A final note about learning with nylon strings: Instead of shopping for an actual clarbm_classical_vert_bannerssical guitar, you could start out with a "parlor guitar" strung with nylon strings, then put steel strings on it when you're ready for a louder, more contemporary sound. Or get a used 3/4 size cheapy and string it with nylon strings to learn on, so you're only out $50 or so when you start. Then when you get a bigger guitar, you can put steel strings on the little one, too, and leave it in the back seat to take to the beach. The main disadvantage of this approach (other than losing the "cool factor") is that your guitar will not be very loud, so you won't have the instant gratification of filling the room (even your bedroom) with sound. On the other hand, you can practice in the "wee hours" without disturbing anyone.

Our sister site Riverboat Music has a buyer's guide for Classical guitars. It explains the features and options you should consider when deciding between Classical models.

To learn more about the features and options you can choose on Classical guitars, click the little banner to the right.

Parlor Guitar

The good thing about a guitar was that you could take it anywhere, and it cost aaria_parlor lot less than a piano. So it's no surprise that the classical model that came from Spain was eventually adapted to suit the "popular" music of North America, whether it was written down or not. Cedar faces were replaced with stronger woods, gut strings were (often) replaced with wire, the "waist" became a little less pronounced, and the area surrounding the bridge became larger to provide a bigger sound. Because top bracing took a while to adjust to steel strings, many guitars of the late 1800s and early 1900s added a separate "tailpiece" that you attached the strings to. The strings would cross the bridge like a violin's strings, but they were no longer attached to it. This adjustment kept the tension of metal strings from ripping the bridge off the face of the guitar. Later "flattop" guitars would incorporate better bracing. By 1960 flattop guitars with tailpieces were becoming rare, except among specialty guitars or very cheap lines. Today you still may see desirable collector's guitars with tailpieces, but most current parlor guitars have followed the lead of the dreadnoughts and gone back to bridge-mounted strings.

There were many experiments, of course. Longer bodies, shallower bodies, deeper bodies, more strings, drone strings, and so on. But by 1900, if you went to the store looking for a "guitar," chances are you'd come back with something like what we call a "parlor guitar" today. The name "parlor" actually emerged after bigger types were invented, because it's loud enough for the living room, but generally not loud enough (unamplified) for larger concert venues.

Like a classical, you can get very nice parlor guitars today, or very cheap ones. If you come across a better quality parlor for a reasonable price, don't turn your nose up at it. Today, with better amplification, some artists prefer parlor guitars for their relatively focused tone.

It is possible to put nylon strings on a parlor guitar when you're starting out, if you want. Either way, if the student is big enough to hold a parlor guitar, it's almost always a better choice than a 3/4-sized instrument.

Parlor Guitar as a Starter Guitar


  • Easier for smaller students to hold than dreadnought or jumbo guitars.
  • Takes up less space than a dreadnought or jumbo.
  • If it is a nice instrument, the student can keep it indefinitely, even if a bigger guitar comes along eventually. After all it has a unique sound, and is handier to "drag around" than a dreadnought.
  • With steel strings, you can learn both fingerpicking and the kinds of flatpicking styles that are used in folk, pop, rock, alternative, and bluegrass.
  • Cons:
  • Given the same quality, a parlor guitar is not as loud as the more common dreadnought size.
  • In some circles, a parlor guitar generally doesn't generally have the "cool" appeal as arbm_parlor_vert_banner dreadnought, so if peer pressure is an issue. (On the other hand, hipsters don't have as much problem with unusual guitars as some other subcultures.)

Something to think about

The more I look at the options available, the more I think that parlor guitars are the best "starter guitars" for students old enough to physically handle them. They can grow with the guitar without technically outgrowing it. And guitars that are meant to be "parlor guitars" and not just "starter guitars" are more likely to be built for the long haul.

To learn more about the features and options you can choose on parlor guitars, click the little banner to the right.

Dreadnought and Jumbo Guitars

As guitar continued to become more important to American homes and popular music, demand for louder guitars led to continued experimentation. Two of the "bigger is betternew_martin_d18" approaches caught on:

  • Dreadnought guitars, essentially pioneered by Martin, made the "waist" less prominent and lengthened the part of the body where the bridge attaches. With a fuller sound than smaller models, they eventually became the “shape to beat.”  Even Gibson eventually adopted the dreadnought shape for their “jumbo” lines like the J45 and J50.
  • Jumbo guitars, favored by Gibson, used a modified version of the dread1940_gibson_jumbonought shape.  Like the dreadnought, the resulting sound was louder and deeper than that of the standard-bodied guitars of the day.
  • Note: Gibson also introduced a line of "super jumbo" guitars, which we don't recommend for beginners unless they have very long arms. For folks who want a big sound, they are still a popular alternative to the more popular dreadnought body style. However very few "student model" super jumbos have been made in the last fifty years, so you're not as likely to start on a super jumbo as you are on a classical, parlor, or dreadnought. However, we do have a link to a "super jumbo" guitar buyers' guide below in case you are interested in learning more about them.

  • Dreadnought Guitar as a Starter Guitar


  • "Cool factor" - Since the dreadnought became the "standard" for full-sized acoustic guitars, cheap dreadnoughts have become widely available as starter guitars. Most of them look about the same, so only the other guitar players in the room know whether you're holding a $100 guitar or a $1000 guitar.
  • With steel strings, you can learn both fingerpicking and the kinds of flatpicking styles that are used in folk, pop, rock, alternative, and bluegrass.
  • Volume - Any dreadnought will be louder than a similarly-built parlor or 3/4 guitar, meaning that if you start playing at parties or in acoustic groups, your guitar will do a better job of holding its own. A well-made dreadnought with a solid Sitka spruce top can be very loud.
  • "Interchangeable" - If you are used to playing a dreadnought, you can usually transition to any other dreadnought with very little problem. Also, other guitar players who borrow your guitar at parties or whatever will have no trouble playing it. As an added benefit, if your friend's strums bring the flatpick in contact with guitar's face (why this happens, I'll never understand), the traditional "pick guard" will take most of the impact.
  • Cons:
  • Dreadnoughts may be too big for young or small students to handle easily.
  • You have to start on steel strings - no one makes nylon strings that really work right on a dreadnought's long scale length, even if you were willing to endure the "sissy" comments from your friends. This means that you have to build up callouses and learn to make chord changes at the same time. Determined students have no trouble with this, but for many wannabees who just got a guitar because they wanted to look cool, the combination is insurmountable, especially if the guitar is not "set up right."
  • Relatively narrow neck - if you have really fat fingers, you might want to look at classical or other guitar styles.
  • Relatively bulky - takes up more trunk space or dorm room space than a parlor or classical guitar

Here's an irony: when I was starting out on guitar back in the early 1960s, most guitar players I emulated or knew were playing what we would now call parlor or jumbo guitars. The first time I saw a dreadnought guitar, it looked peculiar to me. Dreadnoughts were early hits among Country and Western pickers, though, and for several years, catalogues advertised them as "Western-style" guitars. Due to its playability and big, but bright sound the dreadnought is the most popular "fullsized" guitar shape today. To kids starting out today, I imagine that parlor and jumbo guitars look peculiar. rbm_jumbo_vert_bannerrbm_dreadnought_vert_banner

Our sister site, Riverboat Music, has a buyer's guide for these. It explains the features and options you should look for as well as things that won't, frankly, make that much difference to you.

To learn more about the features and options you can choose on dreadnought guitars, click the little banner to the immediate right.

To learn more about "super jumbo" guitars, click the little banner to the far right.

3/4 or "Starter Guitars"

A century ago, itty bitty guitars were made small for convenience, not for price - they were purchased by people who traveled a lot or had limited space, but they were often just as well made as the bigger instruments. But as the guitar became more and more popular, especially in the mid-20th century, kids started getting lessons earlier, and manufacturers started marketing "1/2-sized" and "3/4-sized" "starter guitars to their parents. Never mind that they had necks like baseball bats, tone like a brick, and action like a cheeze slicer. DV017_Jpg_Thumbnail_510586

The common reasoning among parents was, "He's always starting things and not following through. Let's get him a cheapo guitar, and if he doesn't stick with it, we're not out very much money." So the kid gets a "guitar" that looks cheap, is barely playable by any standard, and can't possibly produce a decent sound; and the kids gives it up after six weeks. "See," says the parent, "I knew he wouldn't stick with it. Good thing we didn't put any more money into the thing."

Manufacturers have fed this industry of "throwaway" guitars for over sixty years. In fact my first guitar was one - a 3/4-sized Kay that my cousin got with Green Stamp books that she gave me in frustration. And no surprise - the action really was like a cheese slicer. I couldn't afford a real guitar, so I took off the nut and bridge and filed them down to get the strings into the same time zone as the frets. I also sanded and stained the face and back. (The guitar came spray-painted black with a fake pick guard painted on). After I painstakingly hand-painted a fake "binding" on the face, it was "de-uglified" to the point that I wasn't embarrassed to take it out in public - after all it wasn't that much smaller than the parlor guitars that most folks had in the early-to-mid sixties. I owned it for about six years, until my sister gave me a Mexican-built 12-string, and I traded the Kay away for a Harmony bass that was even uglier (I know that's hard to believe.) And the funny thing is, the Kay really did sound better by the time I passed it on. Even cheapo guitars can age, although they seldom age as well as expensive guitars.

This brings me to a second point about "starter guitars." I'm a sucker for anything that could be made playable. When I was in college, I "set up" and rebuilt any number of guitars for friends that had got stuck with some cheapie and couldn't afford to replace it. Gone are the days when I have time to put twenty hours into salvaging a $50 guitar. But the point is, many $50 guitars CAN be made playable if you have a relation who will take it on as a labor of love. Many can't, so let Uncle Felix or whoever take a look at it before you take the plunge. Take a look at our article on evaluating used guitars for more information.

About "3/4" Nomenclature - During my research, I discovered that a lot of folks who grew up with dreadnoughts imagine that a "3/4" guitar should be 3/4 the size of a dreadnought. So they order a "3/4" guitar for their eleven-year old and the kid freaks because he feels like it's a "baby guitar." (By the way, I like "baby guitars" if they play in tune.) Though there really is no standard for what constitutes a "3/4" or "1/2" guitar, you should know that those categories were invented when what we now call "parlor guitars" were the norm, and most parlor guitars still had short (12-fret) necks by dreadnought standards. So, a so-called "3/4" guitar will automatically have a shorter neck (and "scale length") than the average classical or traditional parlor guitar, and a noticeably smaller body. This makes the whole thing much smaller than a dreadnought. No, it's not false advertising. Plus kids really are growing up faster and getting bigger. When I was eleven, my sister's full-sized archtop was quite a handful, but many kids today are approaching their full height by that age. The old rule of automatically ordering a "3/4" guitar for any kid under 12 no longer applies. And frankly, by the time most kids are ready to start guitar, they've already outgrown the so-called 1/2-size guitars. (The vast majority of those are unplayable toys, anyway.)

3/4 or "Starter" Guitar as a Starter Guitar


  • "3/4-sized" guitars may actually be needed if the student is small - as long as a real guitar player looks at it sometime to make certain it's playable and tweak it if it's not. They also take up very little room in the kid's room.
  • If the starter guitar is playable, and you upgrade later, you can always keep it to take to the beach, or give it to your little brother when he decides he wants a guitar, too. (If the starter guitar isn't playable, you will never upgrade because you won't stick with it.)
  • Name-brand starter guitars can usually be made playable, and sometimes are playable out of the box.
    • "Entry-level" Affiliates of Name Brands: Epiphone, Sigma, Jasmine, Squire, and Celebrity are the starter brands for Gibson, Martin, Takamine, Fender, and Ovation respectively. Usually their lower-line guitars are not quite playable out of the box but can be made playable with a little adjustment and a new set of light strings. (Gibson also has the starter brand "Maestro," which seems restricted to seasonal offerings at Walmart and similar stores. While it would be nice to "diss" it as a step below Epiphone, it's still better than several other seasonal "starter guitar" brands.)
    • "Starter-level" Name Brand Guitars: Brands like Alvarez and Yamaha don't have a sub-brand to stick on their starter guitars. And they don't want their entry-level guitars to give their good guitars a bad name. So these tend to have better quality out of the box than off-brand or sub-brand guitars. They are even sometimes playable out of the box. If you buy one from a music store, it may already be "set up" to play.
  • Or if you have a friend or family member who can restring it and adjust the neck, you may be be fine.
  • Cons:
  • Off-brand starter guitars are almost never playable when they come out of the box. That goes for guitars you buy at discount stores, department stores, etc. It even goes for music stores, if, when you go in, there's a pile of trapezoid-shaped boxes on a wooden pallet in the middle of the floor. In other words, never buy an off-brand starter guitar unless you have a friend or family member who can verifiy that it can easily be made playable and has generous return privileges.
  • Even if they are playable, "3/4-sized" guitars lack the "cool factor" important to many young beginners. If the student can handle a parlor or dreadnought guitar, consider laying out the extra few dollars.

Something to think about rbm_starter_vert_banner

The more I look at the options available, the more I think that parlor guitars are the best "starter guitars" for students old enough to physically handle them. They can grow with the guitar without technically outgrowing it. And guitars that are meant to be "parlor guitars" and not just "starter guitars" are more likely to be built for the long haul.

That said, if your student is small, or you want a guitar you can easily travel with, a "3/4" may be your best choice. Or if your finances are "challenging," you may want to investigate the "starter guitar" universe for cost reasons alone.

To learn more about the features and options you can choose on starter guitars, click the little banner to the right.

Archtop Guitars

As jazz developed in the early 20th century, many jazz bands had guitars. The problem was that the old traditional flattops (what we call "parlor guitars" today) had too much sustain. The percussive "chunk" of the strum was good. But if the player left an open string ring for very long, it muddied the sound. Somehow someone figured out that archtop guitars (with f-holes like a violin) had a loud-enough "chunk," but relatively little sustain. So archtops became the standard for jazz bands, and stayed strong through WWII. They also achieved notoriety during the Depression as "Mountain Music" guitars, courtesy of the Carter family.

Later on, as these became electrified, the manufacturers took shortcuts that made them less useful as acoustic-only instruments. So when the Folk Revival happened, archtops took a "back seat" to Parlor and Dreadnought guitars. That said the good ones still have a great low and mid range, which makes them a nice complement to treble-rich instruments like dulcimer, banjo, and mandolin.

Archtop Guitars as Starter Guitars


  • If the archtop has lasted this long and is still playable, chances are it will outlive you.
  • Nice for folks who don't want the same kind of guitar everyone else owns.
  • Perfect for folks who are into traditional forms of jazz, blues or "mountain music."
  • Cons:
  • Most older archtops don't have adjustable necks, so take a good look at the neck before you take it home - if the neck has started to bow, the guitar may be more decoration than instrument.
  • You may very occasionally come across a new "starter" archtype, with brands like "Rogue" that really only make starter instruments. Everything I said about starter guitars in general goes for these as well. Also the archtops with plywood ("laminated") tops do not sound as full as real "carved" top archtops.
  • Most people who run PAs have trouble "miking" archtops, so playing "out" can get interesting. (I would try pointing toward the upper loop of the upper f-hole if possible. If that doesn't seem to be working out, try pointing the mike to the place on the strings that you are going to be hitting with the flatpick.)

Our sister site Riverboat Music has a buyer's guide for these. It goes into more detail than this sectiorbm_archtop_vert_bannern, although the work involved in making a true solid-top archtop guitar is so extensive that most of the instruments you can find new for under $2000 are made in China, with all the accompanying quality control problems.

You may still fine a nice used one in a pawn shop or Craig's List ad. I actually started out on an archtop - an SS Stewart that my big sister bought at a pawn shop. Like most archtops of its era, the SS Stewart lacked an adjustment screw in the neck, so once the neck started to bow, she put nylon strings on it and never looked back.

To learn more about shopping for and selecting archtop guitars, click the little banner to the right.

Electric Guitars

As guitars entered the electronic age, it's no surprising that many of the earliest "elecDV017_Jpg_Thumbnail_581068.015_vintage_sunbursttric guitars" were converted archtops or based on arch-top designs. Theoretically, the coiled magnetic pickups would allow jazz players to compete in volume with the rest of the band. In practice, though, an archtop with a pickup was really a whole "nudder" instrument. For one thing, the pickup restored the sustain that old-timey jazz players had considered a problem. By the 1950s, though, jazz guitar styles had evolved to the point where "open strings" were almost never heard, much less sustained. With a tube amp, jazz players could get the "chunk" of the strummed chord and turn the amp up for nice sustained leads. Blues players like B.B. King especially liked the capabilities of the new instruments. DV017_Jpg_Thumbnail_518963.015_vintage_sunburst

Eventually, manufacturers like Gibson realized that an electrified archtop didn't need to be so deep, and began making shallower versions like the famous ES-335. These had very similar tone, were easier to handle, and were less prone to feedback.

But the guitar was not done evolving. Electric guitar pioneer Les Paul proved that yDV017_Jpg_Thumbnail_H69160.001_cognac_burstou could get a good, even sound out of a solid piece of wood. Paul was mostly a lead player, so he didn't need the "chunk" sound of strummed archtops. Instead he focused on finding woods and construction techniques that would maximize the potential of emerging electronics technologies. Gibson's "Les Paul" guitars maximized sustain with a glued-on neck that picked up the vibrationsDV017_Jpg_Thumbnail_515748.001.063_black_mp_R from the guitar's body. Fender's Stratocaster added body extensions ("horns") that would serve a similar purpose. By now the electric guitar had come into its own.

Because you don't need to hit the strings on an electric very hard, you can use relatively light strings, and the strings can be closer to the neck without "fret buzzing" than the strings on an acoustic. Also, because electrics are designed for lead, it's more critical to have an accurate, playable fretboard all the way from the nut to the fourteenth fret (and beyond, on a cutaway). This combination of factors makes most electrics easier to fret and to play barre chords on than most acoustics. And this in turn has led to an "urban rumor" that it's easier to learn guitar if you start on an electric. But an electric guitar is a different instrument, and in my experience, most kids who start on electric never really make the transition to acoustic. For one thing, most acoustic guitar players use the ringing sound of open strings as much as possible (only deadening them when they change chords), but most electric guitar parts avoid open strings - because on an electric, they muddy the sound. In other words, an electric guitar play can pick up an acoustic guitar with decent action and get notes out of it, but he will never learn to get the most out of the an acoustic unless he approaches it as an entirely different instrument. Going the other way, I've known lots of acoustic players who made the adjustment to electric guitar smoothly - once they realized that barre chords sound better on the electric.

Another "urban legend" is that an f-hole electric (sometimes called a "hollow-body" or "semi-hollow-body" electric provides a sound that is "halfway between" an electric and and acoustic. So some players who find it inconvenient to drag two guitars around settle on an ES-335 or some such. Such guitars are capable of putting out great sounds. In fact, there was a time when Gretch f-hole electrics almost defined Country and Western music. But the electronic output of f-hole electrics is limited by the magnetic coiled pickups, which filter out the high overtones that characterize acoustic guitar sounds. The pickups also overemphasize the sustain of open strings, which WILL affect how you play the instrument. If you like the sound of an f-hole electric, go for it. Just don't fall for the trap of thinking that it's some sort of compromize between an electric and an acoustic.

Electric Guitars as Starter Guitars


  • Easy to fret, so uncommitted students don't wimp out as fast. Maximum "cool" factor for kids sensitive to peer pressure.
  • Due to demanding fretboard requirements, most starter electrics are somewhat playable.
  • Probably first choice for someone whose only goal is learning barre-chord-centric music such as jazz or heavy metal.
  • Cons:
  • Played "right," electrics require different techniques and chord voicings than acoustics. So a student who tries to lean acoustic-style guitar on an electric will be disappointed with the results.
  • There are many music genres in which electric guitar just does not sound right, so an electric player whose interests expand may wish he had started on acoustic.

12-String Guitars

Very few people start out on 12-stringed guitars, but I'll put in a note about them in case you come across one you really like.

Most acoustic 12-stringed guitars you'll see are flattops, usually dreadnoughts with some parlors. Strings are tuned in pairs. The highest four strings are actually two identical E strings and two identical B strings. Strings from G to low E are tuned in octaves. On American 12-strings your pick hits the highest note of each pair before it hits the lower note. Each pair is close together so your left hand frets each pair as if it was one string (except you may need a bit more pressure). The extra high notes give a well-made twelve-string a bright, full sound. Acoustic ensembles with two guitar players may have one six-string and one 12-string to give more variety to their sound. You can hear the power of a strummed American-style acoustic 12-string on the Moody Blues' "Question of Balance."

That said, to start on a 12-string, it must have supurb action, or you must have fanatic dedication.

Most electric 12-strings are f-hole guitars. American electric 12-strings have the same tuning as acoustics. But the neck is narrower, and it's harder for some people to play certain chords near the nut.

Rickenbacker 12-strings have an added difference: the lower four pairs of notes are strung "backwards," that is, your pick hits the low note first, then the octave. The difference in sound isn't mind-blowing, but it's there. You can hear Rick 12-strings picked and strummed on the Byrds' "Turn, Turn, Turn" and similar songs.

Twelve-Strings as Starter Guitars

If you have a 12 string you want to start on, you might try putting just six strings on it for a while, then putting 12 back on after you've played a year or so. This isn't a perfect solution, since the neck will be "extra-wide" and the tuning pegs might rattle without tension on them. But it's a way of starting out on a 12 if that's your only choice.

The following note assumes you're leaving twelve strings on your guitar.


  • Fantastic sound once you get the hang of it.
  • Medium "cool factor"
  • Cons:
  • Very hard to start on due to the extra strength and accuracy required to fret chords on a 12-string.
  • Less suitable than 6-string for certain kinds of music.


Now that I've told you what I perceive to be the pluses and minuses of starting out on each of the major guitar types, you're probably still wondering what I recommend. Every student has different goals, tastes, maturity levels, budget, and size. But here are some general guidelines that I hope will help.

  • Size - Consider getting the student the largest guitar body style that he or she can comfortably play.
    • The student's right hand should be able to reach the soundhole comfortably with the guitar facing straight forward, and
    • The student's left elbow should still be bent when the student touches farthest tuning peg.
  • If this rules out a dreadnought, consider a parlor guitar. If it also rules out a parlor guitar, you will be stuck with a 3/4-sized or smaller guitar. The only caveat is that the vast majority of 1/2-sized or 3/4-sized guitars made since 1950 sound like bricks and play like cheese slicers, so don't let the kid bring home the first guitar he or she picks up.
  • Playability - Unless you are buying the guitar from a music store that personally inspects and "sets up" every guitar, be sure to have a guitar player of your acquaintance try the guitar out before you purchase it. Your friend should know the difference between minor problems that a little adjustment can fix and major problems that take the guitar out of the running. BTW, the guitar pros I know can play virtually any guitar they come across, so "playability" is relative. The question is, will a beginner with only moderate determination be able to play basic chords within a week or so?
  • Sound - Although nobody expects a starter guitar to sound like a $1000 instrument, it should put out enough sound for the student to hear what he or she is playing. Being able to hear it well supplies some of the instant gratification that students need early on while it's still hard to form chords consistently.
  • "Cool Factor" - The guitar should not be embarrasing for the kid to play. (When my youngest said she wanted to learn guitar, I came across a Hanna Montana 1/2-sized guitar for $30 that I thought would be a good joke. But I actually got her a nice-looking and somewhat playable dreadnought because I knew that having a guitar that "looked like a guitar" was important.)
  • Affordability - Before you make your purchasing decision, see what good-condition name brand starter guitars are going for used in your area. If, say, they're averaging $150, and your music store is selling similar instruments that they have set up and will guarantee for $200, then don't waste your time calling all over town. On the other hand, if lightly-used brand-name starter guitars are averaging $100, and your music store won't sell you anything but a toy for under $250, it's time to call in your best guitar-playing friend and make some phone calls. (Obviously, such figures will adjust over time and will vary between regions.) I believe firmly in supporting my local suppliers, but not in being taken for a sucker. Either way, your final price should include a case of some kind and a guitar strap.

Also, don't assume that you have to buy the guitar at the music store to get lessons there. Most guitar teachers have a few open slots most of the time, and some of them don't mind teaching out of their house if "studio space" at the music store is expensive.

For More Information:

Note: When we founded this site, we planned for this page to list articles about choosing, buying, tuning, and maintaining acoustic fretted instruments, starting with guitar, banjo, and mandolin.  As it turns out, a sister site has generated a lot of interest, and we’re posting most of our articles about acoustic instruments on that page (see below).

Related articles, now hosted on include:

  • Whatever Happened to the Banjo? - Marginalization of an American Icon - Banjo was once every bit as popular as guitar in this country - why don’t you hear them on the radio much these days?
  • Are 6-string Banjos For Real?- Despite the false claims of manufacturers and the ridicule of 4- and 5-string players, they are real instruments with a respectable  history. 
  • Banjo Pickups - a review of aftermarket pickups that will work on most acoustic instruments.
  • Axes in my Life - Fretted instruments I’ve owned over the years, including what I learned from each.  Banjos, guitars, mandolins, bases.  Brand names include Kay, Harmony, S.S. Stewart, Ovation, Cameo, Deering, Hondo, Fender, Dean, Samick, more.
  • What is a Bluegrass Banjo?  You can learn Bluegrass styles on any playable 5-string banjo.  But if you want to play “out,” you’ll need certain features.
  • Dean Backwoods Six Shootout - Dean’s “electric-acoustic” 6-string banjo is not just an upgrade to their acoustic 6-string - it’s a different banjo with different pros and cons.
  • Beginning 5-string Banjo - the first of several planned articles to help folks trying to get started on this instruments.  We explain multiple styles so you can choose your favorite.

If you have questions, ideas, or articles you want to share on these or related topics, please contact us.  If you know of a link that would be helpful here, please send us the URL and we’ll evaluate it.

All material, illustrations, and content of this web site are copyrighted © 2011-2015 by Paul D. Race. All rights reserved.
For questions, comments, suggestions, trouble reports, etc. about this web page or its content, please contact us.

Paul Race playing a banjo. Click to go to Paul's music home page.A Note from Paul: Whatever else you get out of our pages, I hope you enjoy your music and figure out how to make enjoyable music for those around you as well.

And please stay in touch!

    - Paul Race Click to see Paul's music home page Click to contact Paul through this page. Click to jump to the Discussion Forum Page Click to see Paul's music blog page Click to learn about our Momma Don't Low Newsletter. Click to see Paul's music page on Facebook Click to see Paul's YouTube Channel.

Visit related pages and affiliated sites:
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Visit musings about music on our sister site, School of the Rock With a few tools and an hour or two of work, you can make your guitar, banjo, or mandolin much more responsive.  Instruments with movable bridges can have better-than-new intonation as well. Acoustic-based, traditional, singer-songwriter, and folk music with a Western focus. Check out our article on finding good used guitars.
Carols of many countries, including music, lyrics, and the story behind the songs. X and Y-generation Christians take Contemporary Christian music, including worship, for granted, but the first generation of Contemporary Christian musicians faced strong, and often bitter resistance. Different kinds of music call for different kinds of banjos.  Just trying to steer you in the right direction. New, used, or vintage - tips for whatever your needs and preferences. Wax recordings from the early 1900s, mostly collected by George Nelson.  Download them all for a 'period' album. Explains the various kinds of acoustic guitar and what to look for in each.
Look to Riverboat Music buyers' guide for descriptions of musical instruments by people who play musical instruments. Learn 5-string banjo at your own speed, with many examples and user-friendly explanations. Explains the various kinds of banjos and what each is good for. Learn more about our newsletter for roots-based and acoustic music. Folks with Bb or Eb instruments can contribute to worship services, but the WAY they do depends on the way the worship leader approaches the music. A page devoted to some of Paul's own music endeavors.