Help Me Find A Small Guitar for a Beginner (Me)
January 26, 2011 7:38 AM   Subscribe

I would like to learn to play the guitar. I think I would like to start with an acoustic. I have a small (7.5") finger span and slightly damaged left hand.

I have diminished feeling and mobility in my left pinky and spreading outwards. (I am right handed, but the childhood accident that forever damaged the nerves and tendons in my left wrist also ruined my primary school violin career. That and the fact that I sucked.)

I've always wanted to take up the guitar, and am now determined. Yet not so determined (see hand info above) that I want to spend too much money on said guitar, of course. What kind of guitar should I get?
posted by theefixedstars to Media & Arts (12 answers total) 6 users marked this as a favorite
Best answer: Do you know you lack the strength/size to handle a regular guitar? A good guitar shop will happily work through this with you and give you plenty of time to play around. This may not be as big a problem as it seems. After all, one of the greatest jazz guitarists ever had almost no use of his third and fourth fingers!

But if you find you need to build up agility and finger strength on something smaller, you have a couple of options: the first is a 3/4 size guitar. These are marketed for kids learning guitar, so they are cheap, and are particularly common on classical (i.e. nylon-stringed acoustic) guitars. A more esoteric suggestion might be to try a tenor guitar. These are not more expensive per se, but they are less common, which does affect the price/availability. More importantly though, they have four strings, which may make it difficult to find instruction or figure out your favourite songs.
posted by caek at 7:52 AM on January 26, 2011 [1 favorite]

Best answer: I've been playing acoustic guitar for nearly 20 years. I have relatively small hands (well, short fingers), and they're not exactly nimble. I'm sure you can find a guitar that will work for you.

A couple of things to consider. First, I'd go to a reputable non-"Guitar Center" store where you live. A good salesperson will be able to point you to a guitar that's more appropriate to you (i.e., a more slender neck will be easier to play with small hands).

Second, obviously, you'll want the lightest strings you can get--but you might want to consider getting nylon strings (for a classical guitar) when you start. It will be much easier to play (though the shop may need to adjust the neck, because the nylon strings will have less tension).

Third--take your time at the shop and try different instruments--and see if you can hold your expectations to the side. An electric is going to be easier to play. How about a ukelele? Maybe try one of those small little backpackers. What kind of music do you want to play?

Have fun! I'm sure you've heard of Django Reinhardt, whose hand was "crippled" from a childhood accident, but was one of the most amazing guitarists.
posted by Admiral Haddock at 8:00 AM on January 26, 2011 [1 favorite]

Best answer: I'd recommend you try to play left handed. The damage to your left hand sounds like it wouldn't be a problem at all on your picking hand, but is definitely going to cause you to make adjustments on your fingering hand.

I don't know that I'd worry so much about finding a small guitar. Many (most?) players actually play with a bad technique (the "Jimi Hendrix", or throwing your thumb over the top) that vastly diminishes their reach on the frets, but can manage all the necessary fingering. And as the good Admiral notes above, necks come in various thicknesses, so you can get a full-size guitar with a slim neck (that is, measured from the fretboard to the back of the neck) and that makes fretting easier.

As for buying a guitar, don't try to go excessively cheap. Hundred dollar guitars are cursed with high actions and buzzing frets and zero sustain. Learning guitar is difficult enough without fighting the instrument the whole time. For a new guitar, try to get up around $300 if you can. Spending money is not a guarantee that you'll get a good guitar (you need an ear or a friend with one), but not spending money almost always means you're going to end up with a piece of junk. On the flip side, there's not much reason to spend more than $1500 on a guitar; they don't get any better sounding at that point, just better looking.

Ideally, you'd have five or six hundred bucks to spend on a Taylor; it's very difficult to go wrong there. If that's not in your budget, check on craigslist or a store that carries used guitars. Better yet find a buddy or a teacher who has an extra guitar to loan you while you're getting started. Guitar players tend to accumulate extras.
posted by Nahum Tate at 8:11 AM on January 26, 2011 [1 favorite]

Best answer: I took up the acoustic guitar about four years ago. I, too, have a damaged left pinkie finger with limited extension and tingling nerve damage. In fact, I took up guitar to partly help me rehab the finger after having surgery on my hand. Four years later, I'm a solid intermediate player and lovin' it. And I believe learning the guitar has helped my finger.

My advice is to find a decent teacher. Many guitar chords and sequences can be reworked to achieve similar sounds. Chords that can't be fingered one way can be fingered another. Someone with a deep knowledge of chord structures can show you how. Yes, you can learn this yourself, but as you're learning to play, it's just much easier to have someone there who will say, "Hmmm, I see you can't reach that. Here, let's try playing it like this.

Good luck. It can be done. It's a blast.
posted by lpsguy at 8:13 AM on January 26, 2011

Another option to consider is playing left-handed. The reduced feeling and mobility in your left hand would really only come into play when attempting more advanced finger-picking techniques. There'd be no additional cost to the guitar, as the most classic models of acoustic guitars don't have asymmetrical cutouts or molding, so all you'd need to do is restring the guitar "upside down."
posted by patnasty at 8:21 AM on January 26, 2011

I went through four guitars before I settled on a cheap ovation acoustic-electric. The narrower electric style neck fits my hand much better. I am left handed but can't move the first joints of my thumb and forefinger on that hand independently, so while I was taught to play right handed, it makes much more sense for me to play lefthanded. Sometimes I play cotten style, upside down and backwards. Either way, I saw the greatest improvment with the ovation.
posted by annathea at 8:41 AM on January 26, 2011

Response by poster: Thanks everyone! You've been very helpful.
posted by theefixedstars at 8:47 AM on January 26, 2011

I agree you might want to look at going left handed, though going the other way might work as a sort of physical therapy for your hand?

If you want something slightly smaller, lighter and less expensive. You might also want to look at travel guitars you won't get the same tone as a full Taylor dreadnaught but there are several good ones out there.

You might want to try to borrow a friends old guitar (maybe try a few) for a while to get to know what a guitar should feel like and get an idea of what works or doesn't work for you. You can easily get to a simple scale and a few chords which will give you an idea how your hands fit on the neck so when you go into a store you have something to base a decision on.
posted by bitdamaged at 9:28 AM on January 26, 2011

Yeah, I second the left handed suggestion. Most classic-type acoustic guitars will allow you to play either way (so get something symmetrical and free of an electronics panel on the side). The only gotcha is that the pickguard (the black, teardrop shaped thing) would be on the wrong side.

As for a specific guitar- it's really tough. There are so many different models with different features that sound different- most of these differences only come into play as you become more comfortable on the instrument. Even if you drop like, $3,000 on a nice acoustic, if you're like many players, you'll shift to different preferences. So it's pointless to agonize over this decision- get something affordable to start on, play for a while, then try out different models in shops. When you're ready to upgrade or change, it will be really apparent. Initially, get a guitar you really like the look of- it'll make you want to play more!
posted by tremspeed at 11:28 AM on January 26, 2011

Django Reinhardt was one of the greatest guitarists of the 20th century, and he had a damaged left hand.

Tony Iommi played right-hand, and he had a damaged right-hand.

If you just want to learn to play guitar, you might want to try a small 3/4 scale nylon-string/classical guitar. We used to have a 'Denver'-brand student guitar, which is really not concert-quality sound, but which is really fun to play.
posted by ovvl at 3:42 PM on January 26, 2011

You might want to try a Baby Taylor if you really want to go with a 3/4 size steel string guitar. A lot of cheapo small scale guitars are marketed for kids and really are not very good quality. The Taylor is really well made (in Mexico, I think) and sounds great.

You can play a lot of basic chord progressions without even using your left pinky.
posted by kenliu at 5:26 PM on January 26, 2011

Parlor guitar? Good for us wee-handed ones.
posted by stuck on an island at 3:31 AM on January 27, 2011

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