Starter acoustic guitar/learning to play guitar recs
July 31, 2009 5:50 PM   Subscribe

I need to learn how to play guitar. I'd like to start on an acoustic so I won't have to lug an amp around all the time. What type of acoustic should I start off with and what is the best way to learn? Websites? Lessons?

I could afford something decent but I don't want to be the guy who buys an expensive baseball bat when he can't hit for shit. What type of acoustic guitar is decent for the money? If I stick with it I want to be able to reward myself with a nice electric someday.

And how is the best way to start learning guitar? I'm fairly musical since I've been playing trombone for 15 years, but what's my best option for starting off?

posted by decrescendo to Sports, Hobbies, & Recreation (30 answers total) 15 users marked this as a favorite
I had a Washburn D13 for my first guitar 20 (!) years ago. Maybe a $200 guitar? Good sound, though, for what it was.

I took maybe a dozen lessons to get some basic ideas about how to use my fingers, but most of my learning involved playing music I liked through headphones and trying to make the same sounds come out of the guitar.

Do you have a pretty good ear? Since you have a musical background, some of the basic principles should be much easier for you. And if your ear is good, you should be able to hear when something is right vs. not. You can learn what the strings are, learn a half dozen chords, and be well on your way to having functional knowledge, since you can work out variations on the chords and then just move 'em up and down the neck.

Learning how to play a guitar isn't hard. My biggest problem these days is maintaining my calluses on a light playing schedule and not knowing a damn thing about reading music.
posted by socratic at 6:04 PM on July 31, 2009

Starting on an electric is far easier. Lugging an amp around isn't a problem when you're learning, you needn't be amplified to learn to play a guitar.
posted by fire&wings at 6:16 PM on July 31, 2009

Not a good one. I repeat, you do not want a good guitar. It's like driving. You learn on/in a beater and once you're semi-proficient, you treat yourself to something better and suddenly find you become a few levels better overnight and can enjoy the quality a lot more.

I learned on a smashed up old piece of crap and only got a "reasonable" (and we're only talking a $100 guitar here) guitar after several months of hard slogging. Several years passed and eventually I treated myself to a $2000 Martin. Coincidentally I seemed to quit the guitar at the same time and I've played it all of perhaps 10 times in the last 10 years.. oops..

In any case, the slogging you'll do on a beater comes in worth it for building up your fingers so that you have better technique when you get a better guitar.
posted by wackybrit at 6:17 PM on July 31, 2009

Response by poster: Yeah I have a pretty decent ear I think. I just don't want to develop bad habits. That's all I'm worried about.
posted by decrescendo at 6:35 PM on July 31, 2009

Learning IS easier on an electric, because the frets are closer together, the neck is thinner, and you don't have to put so much pressure on the strings in order to get a good sound. That said, learning on an acoustic will likely get you much better results in the long run, and you'll have to learn how to stretch your hand and apply the right amount of pressure.

A good way to learn that gives you a little bit of the in-between is to get a classical guitar with Nylon strings. My first guitar was a Yamaha classical guitar. Brand new it was $300. Very good to learn on. You probably won't want to perform with it, though. Here's a nice cheap one on Amazon.
posted by pazazygeek at 6:40 PM on July 31, 2009

Oh, sorry for the double post, but as far as lessons go -- it really does depend on what you want to be able to do in the long run. Do you want to write songs? Play in a band? Accompany yourself singing? More info would be helpful on that front. Some guitar teachers will ask you "ok, what song do you want to learn to play?" That might work for you. Or not at all. You're going to need more than the guitar -- you'll also want to get a tuner, (although you'll learn to tune by ear) and you'll want a metronome (although you can find those online as well, I use this online metronome to practice.
posted by pazazygeek at 6:42 PM on July 31, 2009

I'm with Soctratic. A decent (inexpensive, but not utter crap) instrument is the way to go if you want to go acoustic. In my experience, the crappiest entry-level acoustic guitars often have high action--the strings are raised higher--which can make it unnecessarily more difficult to form chords. I also agree with fire&wings that playing an electric guitar is easier....And if you’re looking to play with a band, perhaps you should go electric from the start. For the casual hobbyist, however, I'd expect an acoustic to be more gratifying since it's easier to integrate into social fun/sing-alongs and the like. Seconding nylon strings for the beginner—makes a noticeable difference and tears up your hands less.
posted by applemeat at 6:48 PM on July 31, 2009

Learning IS easier on an electric, because the frets are closer together, the neck is thinner, and you don't have to put so much pressure on the strings in order to get a good sound.

An electric guitar is easier to play, but the frets aren't closer together.

But I think the bottom line is, if you want to play an acoustic, buy an acoustic. If you want to play an electric, buy an electric. It's not a progression. They're different instruments with different sounds.

However, if you're going to get frustrated and quit because there's a learning curve and it hurts your fingers, go with an electric. I'd recommend spending at least $100 on a guitar whatever you do if you want to get a playable instrument.
posted by ludwig_van at 6:49 PM on July 31, 2009

Response by poster: I listen to a lot of punk rock, hardcore, metal, and rock in general. Yes, most of it is electric. But there's no reason I would not be able to downtune an acoustic when I was playing along at the beginning in order to learn, right? It wouldn't sound fantastic but I think I'm looking for easiest way to get the form down.
posted by decrescendo at 6:53 PM on July 31, 2009

I would go to a pawn shop or a used guitar shop first, and buy a $50 or $100 guitar -- just to make sure you actually want to stick with it before you put away a considerable* amount of money on a nice guitar that you will never play again. be friendly with the shop owners, who probably play guitar, are probably bored at work, and probably would like nothing more than to share their own experiences with you about their starter guitars / advice for yours.

if you decide you like to play, there are several options for good, but not ridiculously expensive acoustic guitars. my two are a seagull sg6 and a sigma dreadnaught (made by martin). i would prefer either to a nice (and much more expensive) taylor, ibanez, or yamaha, and i bought each for under $350.

spending $5 on a magazine called 'acoustic guitar' and looking through their ads will also probably help.

*i'm a grad student. anything more than like $150 is a considerable investment.
posted by chicago2penn at 7:02 PM on July 31, 2009

You want to end up electric then buy an electric. I bought a black Japanese made Squier Telecaster more than 20 years ago because I fell in love with it in the shop and that love got me through the tricky learning times way better than some beaten up U-G-L-Y acoustic that sounded crap and was hell to play ever would. I kept wanting to pick it up and play because it's gorgeous and it's a great guitar. I still pick it up because it's gorgeous and it's a great guitar. Money well spent.
posted by merocet at 7:22 PM on July 31, 2009

A Gibson Epiphone was a good first (accoustic) guitar for me. $200-ish. My two cents on which to do first: if you think you ever want to play accoustic, I would start with it. To me, after playing an accoustic, an electric is much easier to push down on the frets.
When my fingure tips hurt from playing too much accoustic, I have no problem with the electric.

Note: I am someone who plays guitar, not a musician.
posted by starman at 8:00 PM on July 31, 2009

You don't need an amp to practice, as others have said, but in case you're thinking about "lug it around" the wrong way, note that there are many iPod-size mini-amps, like these pocket-size Danelectros that a guitarist friend of mine loves.

I've seen buskers on the subway use them. They're surprisingly potent.
posted by rokusan at 8:04 PM on July 31, 2009 [1 favorite]

I am the world's lamest guitar player so take all of this for what you will.

I learned (to the extent I learned anything) on an acoustic Goya which was probably under $200 new (this was 10+ years ago, though) that people who know things tell me is a good guitar. For me, the weight of the strings made the difference (I actually need to restring it) but I never found difficulty playing it.

I also have a goofy-but-awesome early 2000's Danelectro electric guitar I bought from Atomic Music in Maryland a couple of years ago. It was about $200 used, which seems like what it was when it was new, too.

I don't really know which guitar is "harder" to play, honestly -- the electric is more fun, sure (and you can buy pocket amps that let you hear what you're doing in a "plugged" setting through headphones) but I'm happy to have an acoustic and I think (to the extent I know anything), it allowed me to know what I was doing on the electric a bit more than I would have otherwise.

(I did take lessons for about a year, but being an undisciplined teenager who wondered why she wasn't automatically awesome at it, I didn't practice as much as I should've. And while my guitar teacher was pretty good, he was also teaching me the basics of music -- like how to read music and such, which was probably good in the long run but really, I just wanted to rock.)

So here's the summary: You can find good guitars for around $200. I probably wouldn't spend much less than that -- since I've been told (and have sort of experienced, just picking them up) that cheaper than that can be pretty frustrating. I think you might as well start with an acoustic, but I'm not sure how much it matters because if you stick with it (or even if you're like me), you'll probably end up with both and acoustic and an electric eventually.
posted by darksong at 8:13 PM on July 31, 2009

In my experience, the crappiest entry-level acoustic guitars often have high action--the strings are raised higher--which can make it unnecessarily more difficult to form chords.

Not always "unnecessarily." It depends on what you want to achieve.

The benefit of starting on a crappy guitar is that you're forced into good practice. You can't half-heartedly form the chords and get a "bearable" sound like you can on a better guitar - you better be pressing darn hard and getting it right to hear anything that sounds halfway like music. This discipline is invaluable further down the line - the lack of it explains why so many years-on casual guitar players are shitty at playing rhythm guitar but can play half hearted lead.
posted by wackybrit at 8:30 PM on July 31, 2009

If you do start off with an acoustic, but want to eventually go to electric, get a steel string, or western style guitar. This would be as opposed to nylon or classical/spanish style. Steel will break in your fingers more. If it's too rough, you can always string it with nylon for the first few months, than switch to back to steel once your calluses come in. $100 is a reasonable price range, and will get you about the same product no matter the manufacturer.
posted by fontophilic at 8:37 PM on July 31, 2009

I listen to a lot of punk rock, hardcore, metal, and rock in general. Yes, most of it is electric.

Then get an electric, I'd say. It's fun to play your favorite songs, and playing them to sound roughly like the real thing is even more fun. Get a Roland Micro Cube for $99 and you've got a variety of sounds for practicing.

But there's no reason I would not be able to downtune an acoustic when I was playing along at the beginning in order to learn, right? It wouldn't sound fantastic but I think I'm looking for easiest way to get the form down.

I have no idea what you mean by downtune - electric and acoustic 6-string guitars generally use the same EADGBE tuning, although some rock and metal bands use different tunings. At any rate, an acoustic will accept the same tunings as an electric and sound similar (musically) - and you're right at this stage to worry more about getting the fingerings right than getting the exact distorted tone of your favorite artists.

I question your assumption that you'd have to "carry an amp around" with an electric, though. I practice on electric without an amp 90% of the time. Unless you're in a loud cafeteria, you can hear it just fine. You might consider a hollow-body electric, which is even easier to hear without an amp.
posted by mmoncur at 10:02 PM on July 31, 2009

If it's too rough, you can always string it with nylon for the first few months, than switch to back to steel once your calluses come in.

That would be pretty strange. Steel string and nylon string guitars are constructed differently as they exert different amounts of tension on the neck. I'd imagine that putting nylon strings on a steel string guitar wouldn't be as disastrous as the converse, but it's still probably not a good idea.

I have no idea what you mean by downtune - electric and acoustic 6-string guitars generally use the same EADGBE tuning, although some rock and metal bands use different tunings.

He means what he said, which is to tune the strings lower than standard, e.g. a whole step down, or Drop D, or Drop C, which lots of bands do these days.

Anyway, decrescendo, you should get an electric. And if you're planning on tuning down you should make sure to get it strung with heavy strings.
posted by ludwig_van at 11:05 PM on July 31, 2009

As far as learning to play the guitar. It may be best for you to take classes. Perhaps 1 on 1 would be the most optimal. If that is not an option for you in the same way it never was for me, then definitely check out THIS site. It is still the most comprehensive no-nonsense and concise guitar site I found on the net (and it's free).

When I first found it, I felt like a Spanish conquistador who stumbled on a silver-ore mountain motherloade. I printed out every page on the site and put myself on a regimen of an hours practice a day for months on end, I never got to the point where I could write my own songs. Possibly because the genre I grew up on and had the most influence on me (Hip Hop and rap) hardly ever employed guitars other than as samples from other songs.

However I could always sequence a nice melody and accompanyment, indeed whole tracks on audio software, so I knew I had the ear but I can't build a song from scratch on the guitar. Due to the sheer number of playing styles, song roles and applicable genres (flexibility) of the guitar, it's been hard to find how I should play the guitar. I was also studying music theory in hopes of becoming a full fledged guitarist, I got to the scales lesson at which point the difficulty increased exponentially and one hour a day was simply not enough. progress was too slow for me to bull through.

SO, as a novice (the level I am STILL at) I've found it more edifying to simply download tabs for songs online and learn them (this is where all that practice comes in handy because I can learn most of them in a day). In this way I can learn new chords, techniques, strumming ideas etc. although I've yet to analyze a song , recognize it's formula or even what key it's in (still working on that.) Most people would be happy at that level but I always dream about having the home studio I never got to have and writing great tunes for myself first and rejoin my old online music community.
posted by Student of Man at 12:11 AM on August 1, 2009 [1 favorite]

sorry THIS.
posted by Student of Man at 12:12 AM on August 1, 2009 [1 favorite]

I'd start on acoustic. I started on a $100 boutique beater from a small shop in Texas I'd borrowed from a friend. Played on that for well over a year, to when I was pretty proficient. Then bought a $400 Seagull that I am still absolutely in love with. Recently I bought a very very very nice Taylor acoustic.

I kinda agree that you should buy a cheapish guitar to start with. Don't dare spend more than $400-$500 on your first instrument--just no need. Learn to play, then you'll appreciate a nice instrument.
posted by Precision at 1:34 AM on August 1, 2009

On second thought, buy this guitar NOW:
posted by Precision at 1:43 AM on August 1, 2009

I recommend a Yamaha F310 to start. After reading good reviews I bought one for my 10 year old daughter and now I find myself playing hers all the time rather than my more expensive Ibanez. You could probably find the F310 for less than a hundred.

As for learning, pick up a songbook of your favourite band and make sure it has chords illustrated with the boxes and lines. Those show you how to finger the chords. Along with the guitar I also bought my daughter a Hannah Montana book with easy chords and she learned all of the basic chords in a few weeks. Plus, its music that she actually likes so she's more inclined to practice.
posted by gfrobe at 3:28 AM on August 1, 2009

The key to learning guitar is practice. Buy a book of songs you want to sing and learn the chords. Practice changing chords without losing the beat. For inspiration, watch better guitarists play on YouTube. I like Fretkillr; he has great finger picking technique.
posted by RussHy at 5:42 AM on August 1, 2009

The only thing I have to add to what everyone else said is this, and it's very important. Do not buy something so shitty that you can't play it.

Do not, under any circumstances, buy one of those starter kits. They're shitty, horrible, awful guitars, and I'm mad that people actually sell them. Buy used. For the same money, you'll get yourself a better guitar that won't buzz to high hell even when you do have your form right.

Basically, get off mefi, stop asking us what to buy, and go to the nearest pawn shop. Play both electric and acoustic, and buy what feels best.

If you're looking at electric, ask to use a strap and play it standing up. If the body is heavier than the neck, and it's thin, skip that one. It's made of cereal boxes and broken dreams. If you're looking at acoustic, look for cracks that look like something is pushing through the wood.

You don't want an amazing guitar to start with, but one that's TOO shitty is bad. You're better off having something you'll grow into than something that's already broken. Pay a little bit of attention to fret buzz. If too many buzz, skip it. Try to figure out if the neck is warped, which you can do surprisingly well by eye. It should curve up slightly. If it's twisted, don't buy it.

Oh, and if you stick with it, buy a shitty bass at some point. They're fun.
posted by onedarkride at 6:37 AM on August 1, 2009 [1 favorite]

What onedarkride said. And definitely take at least a few lessons, so you don't develop any bad habits that will 1) hinder your playing, 2) be potentially injurious, 3) Be hard to unlearn down the road.
posted by usonian at 8:02 AM on August 1, 2009

I'm a musician, and my boyfriend who is not exactly the musical person on the planet, recently picked up the guitar. He had the basic yamaha model (which we resold for $100 after he bought an electric for about $120 for fun, and then a much nicer flamenco guitar because that's what he decided he wants to learn), and it was a good starting instrument for him to just learn the basics. What are the strings, how you are suppose to play it, what are chords, how come my fingers don't bend the way I want them to or how come my fingers hurt so quickly, etc.

In terms of difference between acoustic (classical or flamenco guitar, slightly different proportions) and electric, the big one is that electric guitar is very forgiving. The difference between a high-grade and a low-grade acoustic guitar is really in how sensitive they are to your touch, and if you are just starting, you're really not caring about the subtle nuances of sound quality. I honestly don't know what makes some electric guitars worth $5000 while another goes for $150 — I presume it's something in the technology itself — but they are much more forgiving in that they give a very consistent sound to inconsistent kinds of 'touch'. If you are a musician, you know what I'm talking about.

My recommendation is that you choose the type of song that you like to play. If it's punk, rock, etc. that you're into, and that's what you want to play, learn the instrument that will allow you to play that repertoire. Making you practice "Friar Jacque" on an acoustic when you just want to learn your favourite songs will not be good for motivation.

Furthermore, if you have more 'long-term' goals in terms of what you want to achieve with your guitar playing, look at the technique that is used. Electric guitars tend to be very pick-focused. Acoustic guitar uses a mix of picks and finger-picking. Flamenco is exclusively fingers, and not only do they eventually make you use all 5 fingers, they also have some fancy strumming techniques that look very impressive.

To remove bad habits, take a lesson once a month to have someone show you what you're doing wrong. Youtube is a good source to explore different kinds of styles as many people give free lessons (just don't pick the teenager in the basement who uses only three fingers on the neck), and at your stage it's a cheap and fun way to just explore. Eventually though, if you get serious, take some lessons. Right now I send my boyfriend to a bi-weekly lesson that's half an hour long so he can learn the flamenco style properly, and having that professional feedback and encouragement can go a long way especially if your teacher makes it fun.

Have fun!
posted by margaretlam at 12:11 PM on August 1, 2009 [1 favorite]

Recommend a Martin or Gibson. Because I have small hands, I went into a music store specifically looking for smaller frets and lower action. I found a Martin for $300 about 10 yrs ago and still have it. Very well-made.
posted by heather-b at 1:53 PM on August 1, 2009

I'm still learning (I make noise right now) but have been really happy with my Epiphone Dot Studio . It was $250 at Guitar Center, has a pretty good tone, and can be played unamped for practice easily. Several friends that have played for a long while have tried it, and all were impressed with it, especially for the price.

That being said, the best advice I got was to go to a shop and pick up guitars. Hold them, strum them, put a strap on if they'll let you, and see what feels right. You're going to be spending some serious time with it, and if you hate the way it feels in your hands, you'll walk away.
posted by pupdog at 4:29 PM on August 1, 2009

Here is a good site for video guitar lessons.
posted by sciencemandan at 6:26 PM on August 1, 2009 [1 favorite]

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