Which guitar for a beginner?
January 20, 2006 9:53 AM   Subscribe

I'd like to buy a beginner's acoustic guitar.

This is a beginner's guitar so I want to keep it fairly inexpensive. I'd like to keep it under $500, but even at that price point there are numerous brands, choices, woods etc. I'm a little overwhelmed.

I can read music and played the piano and bass violin for several years, but I haven't done anything musically for about 10 years.

The music I would ultimately like to play would be folk, country (Original Carter Family-esque), and Olde Tyme gospel. I'm not interested in performing and I wouldn't be travelling with it.

Thanks to earlier questions I'm not worried about learning a new instrument at 30 or how I can learn to play, but I don't have as much money as this guy. And I don't think I am interested in an electric.
posted by MasonDixon to Sports, Hobbies, & Recreation (24 answers total) 3 users marked this as a favorite
My advice would be to go to a guitar store and just start picking up different guitars. After trying a bunch, you'll start noticing which type of neck feels comfortable, what sounds good to your ears, etc.

If you don't already play, maybe take a friend with you who plays guitar so you can hear the differences between guitars.

In the end, you can't go wrong if you leave the store with a guitar that sounds and feels good to you.
posted by gfrobe at 10:07 AM on January 20, 2006

There are some pretty decent beginner kits out there. I have Fender's beginner acoustic dreadnaught kit that comes with gig bag, DVD, digital tuner, and a strap, and that wasn't a bad value for close to $300. It certainly has a lot more soul than some of the $60 throw-away guitars my friends have.

For actually learning to play, the included DVD got me started, but recently I've spent a lot more time on sites like chordie.com and using the chord library and some basic lessons from the eMedia Guitar Method CD-ROM.
posted by jwadhams at 10:13 AM on January 20, 2006

Check out Ovations and Seagulls. All other things being equal (which they never are) skip the integrated electronics at that price, if you possibly can, 'cause the pickups all sound terrible in that price range..
posted by ZenMasterThis at 10:16 AM on January 20, 2006

ZenMasterThis makes a really important point about the pick ups in the cheaper acoustic guitars. They break easily and you'll end up spending more money fixing them then you did buying them (plus the sound is painful.)

The seagulls are also my recommendation for a cheap guitar... the guitar store I frequent is run by a guitar nazi who trades/sells high end stuff and the only cheap guitars he carries are the seagulls. ( I personally don't like the thin sound of the plastic ovations. )

I started out playing guitar on a nylon string guitar. Only for a little over a year but it was a great way to get used to the basics. The neck is wider allowing for ackward fingers to more easily find chords. Also the strings don't hurt your fingers as much allowing your callouses to develop more naturally. Good luck!
posted by meta x zen at 10:22 AM on January 20, 2006

I'm no guitar expert, but I purchased an acoustic about two years ago with the same price point in mind. I settled on a Yamaha FG-433S and it's treated me pretty well. Guitar aficionados I have spoken with say that the Yamahas offer a good affordability to quality ratio. Also, if you go down to your local music shop to play various guitars, please purchase from them and not online. It's important to support local businesses and they will usually offer a free restringing and/or tuner if you ask nicely.
posted by quadog at 10:29 AM on January 20, 2006

I picked up a Fender on sale for $100 and it's fantastic. Great sound, decent intonation, nice finish.

Try out lots guitars but it would probably help to have a buddy who plays go with you. I don't find the rounded back on Ovations to be very comfortable to play but you might like them.

I emailed a friend who lives where you do to see if he has a specific music store he'd recommend.
posted by 6550 at 10:32 AM on January 20, 2006

I also recommend Seagull. They're the most underrated guitar made. Solid tops, outstanding tone, great playability. I have a super old and beat up Seagull S6 from the first couple years they were made, and I prefer it over my Martin and nearly every Taylor I've played. It's not as refined a sound, but it's got a great big tone, feels great, and it was cheap ($140 at a pawnshop).

Plus, they're made in Canada by people who actually care about guitars, instead of indonesia or china by who-knows-who.

Ovations have a bowl-shaped back that makes them a little awkward to sit with, in my opinion. They also have a strange plastic-y tone, but again, it's a matter of taste.

Get a guitar that you'll still want to play when you get good. My wife's got a higher-end solid top Yamaha that's actually very playable and has pretty good tone. You're better off getting a Seagull or a higher end solid top Yamaha or Fender than getting a low-end Martin, in my opinion.
posted by JekPorkins at 10:34 AM on January 20, 2006

get a guitar with the lowest action (distance between the strings and fretboard) you can find that sounds good. I find the biggest impediment to learning is developing the strength in your fingers to keep all the strings down to play a chord. Having low action will make that much easier and more enjoyable. Many acoustics have a way you can adjust the action so if you fall in love with a guitar that has high action see if you can get it adjusted lower. I think it makes a world of difference between sticking with it and giving up.
posted by any major dude at 10:38 AM on January 20, 2006

Why spend $500 on a beginner's guitar? Save a 50 year old guitar from the trash heap at an estate sale. It will sound as good or better, have more character, and you can give the remaining $490 to me.
posted by Hildago at 10:41 AM on January 20, 2006

I would highly recommend a Takamine G Series acoustic electric. I got mine for under $500, and it has gone down in price since then. I've even considered upgrading to a nice Martin, but at the end of the day, it just isn't worth the money.

I love my EGS330SC.
posted by mr.dan at 10:48 AM on January 20, 2006

I learned to play acoustic on a $300 Yamaha classical guitar. It was no good for performance, but excellent to learn on for all of the reasons that meta x zen mentions. Another thing that was good about the wider-than-normal neck was that my fingers learned on that, so playing steel strings was much easier and my playing improved a lot because of it.
posted by pazazygeek at 10:50 AM on January 20, 2006

I learned on a dreadnought with decent (though not great) action. This was bad in that the strings weren't easy to press down, making chords harder. But it was good in that it trained me more rigorously and strengthened my hands. The deep bodied sound also added to the satisfaction of the process :)
posted by scarabic at 10:52 AM on January 20, 2006

I'd second what Hildago said. $500 is too much to spend on a beginning guitar. Find something used in your local classifieds, or find someone you know who has had a guitar for years that they've never played, and you should expect to spend at most $200. With the extra money, I highly recommend picking up the Folk Song Abecedary. It's full of great songs with music, lyrics, and background stories.
posted by scottreynen at 11:03 AM on January 20, 2006 [1 favorite]

I don't have one, but I do repairs and work in a guitar shop. I have got to go with Seagull on this. By far the best guitar as far as woods and construction go in that price range. Most woods they use are eco-friendly Canadian choices too boot. Lots of hand-made construction and solid tops. An S6 should set you back about $359.
posted by sourwookie at 11:34 AM on January 20, 2006

People bring in their yard-sale finds for me to fix all the time. Most of them are so outside of usability as to be worthless. If you are just learning, you may not be equipped to know what is or isn't playable in a used instrument.

Also--and I know this to be true--your buddy that "totally knows" guitar totally doesn't.
posted by sourwookie at 11:37 AM on January 20, 2006

Simon and Patrick...it's a brand made by the same makers as Seagull, Norman and Godin. These are hand built, all-wood construction...and made in North America. Try one and then compare it to the plywood-built Yamahas and you'll see for yourself there's really no match for real wood.

It's the best mid-level guitar out there...and yet selling for a beginner price.
posted by runningdogofcapitalism at 11:45 AM on January 20, 2006

I also would recommend Seagull, Norman and Godin or Simon and Patrick.

I bought a seagull s6 7 years ago and I'm still happy with it. Its sound has been complimented by others who own much more expensive guitars.

I acquired the guitar and a case for around $400 CAD.
posted by skinnydipp at 12:13 PM on January 20, 2006

If you look around you can find a Guild for your price range. They are great guitars and not as hifalutin' as Martins.

When I got mine my only problem was that most Guilds have laminated (non-solid) tops - the sound of solid tops improve over time. But I found one that had a solid top in my (and your) price range, and its an awesome and undervalued guitar.
posted by 31d1 at 12:26 PM on January 20, 2006

One more vote for Seagull. I've got an M6 gloss, that I picked up (with electronics and hard case) for 500 a couple years ago. At open mic nights, I've had the *host* put down his Martin and request to play the rest of the night on my Seagull.
posted by notsnot at 12:32 PM on January 20, 2006

My two cents: Alvarez. For the money, they always seem to provide the best quality. The action is always very friendly (good for a beginner) and the sound is full and pleasing. Definitely try out a couple Alvarez guitars when you shop around.
posted by knave at 1:13 PM on January 20, 2006

I admit that for that money Alvarez has some of the best product, but since discovering, researching, setting up a number of both I am still leaning toward Seagull.
posted by sourwookie at 2:00 PM on January 20, 2006

yeah, i'd have to agree with scarabic re the action. i learned on a box that had a fair bit, and it made it harder at first, but my finger strength increased quite quickly, as did my chording and plucking confidence. and never underestimate a strong set of callouses :)

if i'd started on a classical guitar, it would have been learning all over again to play on a steel string with more action.

at the same time i can see how it might discourage learning. it depends on how much you want to learn to play, i guess. nylon strings are much more about instant gratification, but OTOH classicals tend to have wider necks, which i personally find uncomfortable to play for any extended period. be aware that wrist problems are a given if you develop any bad habits or play something where you feel like you're straining (though i suppose it's hard to tell as a beginner what's strain and what's just new and uncomfortable).

as for price, my first one was $300 CAD, and I can't imagine spending any more than that for a starter.
posted by poweredbybeard at 10:25 PM on January 20, 2006

There are a couple of things you should do before buying any guitar, especially one at a lower price point:

1. Play each note, fret by fret, on each string. Listen for abnormal buzzing, "dead"-sounding notes, out-of-tune notes and so on.

2. Check the instrument's intonation. To do this, play the note at the 12th fret on the highest string, and then play the harmonic in the same place by lightly touching your finger in the same place (have someone at the store do this instead if you're having trouble with it). The two notes should be the same. Repeat for the other strings.

Poor intonation (and some of the problems, but not all, described in #1 above) can be fixed by a decent guitar tech, but it's easier to just have an instrument that is in decent shape right off the bat, rather than one you'll need to sink money into. You can find a great-sounding instrument for what you're willing to spend if you take the time to check these things.
posted by the_bone at 9:26 AM on January 21, 2006 [1 favorite]

I heard back from my buddy. He's says avoid the Guitar Center next to BU. And went on in a long rant that concluded with: "Every time I've been there to just buy strings, they act like fucking pricks because I'm not buying an $800 guitar, I really hate that store... nothing but cocks."
posted by 6550 at 3:30 PM on January 23, 2006

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