Kid rock!
January 4, 2008 5:31 PM   Subscribe

My teenage son (fifteen) has decided he wants to play the guitar. What guitar?

He is a smart and determined kid and I want to give him a decent start, but I'm not about to run out and buy a Strat.

It is my understanding that he is better off learning the fundamentals on an acoustic, so I need a lead on a sub-1k guitar -- one rugged enough to survive the idiocy it will undoubtedly be subjected to and one that is easy to make loud.
posted by cedar to Media & Arts (22 answers total) 4 users marked this as a favorite
You will get tons of answers here.
I started out with electric and several of my friends started out with electric as well. The point being that the fundamentals can be taught on electric as well as acoustic.

If he doesn't like the instrument, he will may that as an excuse to not practice or to not play. You know your son - so you'll figure out his commitment.

I would talk with him about what he wants to do and where he wants to go and see about getting something on the low(er) end to start with the promise that if he takes lessons and regularly practices that you will (help) fund an upgrade.

You might start with a Squier Strat which is a cruddy, but functional student instrument.

If you're bent on getting him an acoustic, Seagull makes some pretty dang nice instruments that are under $400. I love mine. In terms of how it can be made loud - an under-the-bridge transducer is the typical solution. Have a luthier install it. But why do you want it loud(er)?
posted by plinth at 5:42 PM on January 4, 2008

If your price range is up to $1000 your choices are endless. There are so many choices it would be difficult to choose. If you're unsure of the dedication your son will show to the guitar, you'd be best off visiting a local music store and picking something out. Better yet, the best guitar will be one that your son picks out with you. I do agree that an acoustic is more portable (since you don't have to worry about plugging it in to hear it) but I wouldn't prevent my son from going with an electric if he had his heart set on it. After all, he's only going to practice on something he wants to play. Regarding that, you can find a decent acoustic/electric which is basically an acoustic guitar with a built in pre-amp. While guitar "experts" will laugh at this "inferior" sounding acoustic, it can be a good starter guitar. An electric is generally easier to play because of the lighter strings and lower action (strings closer to the fretboard), but an acoustic can be outfitted with light strings to help the new player. It is true that you get what you pay for in guitars, but let your ears be the judge. Once your son learns to play some songs and starts to develop an ear for the guitar and music in general, he will discover what he wants from a guitar. Enjoy the process and the new hobby!
posted by mcarthey at 5:42 PM on January 4, 2008

Chances are he's going to want to play the sort of music he listens to, and as a teenager that most likely means an electric. Most large electronics retailers such as BestBuy should have some sort of beginner guitar kit for about $150. If he likes it, and is any good, then invest in better equipment when he's ready.
posted by hungrysquirrels at 5:51 PM on January 4, 2008

Acoustic or electric depends on what kind of music moves him, I think. Especially at 15 (as opposed to younger), he'll want some payoff pretty quickly, so getting an acoustic for a metal head kid won't fly.

I think the same logic applies to choosing a teacher (if you're going that route). Make sure you shop around and find someone that excites him.
posted by wemayfreeze at 5:51 PM on January 4, 2008

Hit up pawn shops and/or secondhand music stores. Call it "proof of concept" - if he uses the hell out of the cheap guitar he gets first, then he can upgrade. He can learn on anything (and I suspect electric is the way to start here, especially since they don't require as much dexterity and hand strength as an acoustic) and you can pick up a little rehearsal amp while you're shopping. And there's no real downside to starting cheap - most guitar heroes started on a beater, and most guitarists have a beater around even after they start investing.

Cheap guitar, new strings: aside from three chords and the truth, it's all you need to get started.
posted by Lyn Never at 5:54 PM on January 4, 2008 [1 favorite]

I think $1000 is very high. I would aim to spend more like 2-300, you should be able to get a very good guitar for that kind of money. Especially for a beginner, when you can't tell the difference.

Although I love having an electric and that's what I play mostly, I value my acoustic because I can pick it up at any time and just start playing. That convenience alone has made me a better player, because practicing is that much easier.

Definitely get him into a class or lessons of some sort. That's probably more valuable than the guitar will ever be.
posted by kpmcguire at 5:56 PM on January 4, 2008

Best answer: There are a few angles you can take here. If you're willing to spend up to $1000, you're willing to spend more than enough to get a great guitar.

Here's what's up:

-Depending on the type of music he wants to play, an acoustic might not be the ideal. The only real difference in learning on an acoustic vs. learning on an electric is that on acoustics it's slightly harder to press the strings down on the frets, building a little more finger strength, but it's the same six strings and twenty-some frets.

-$1000 spent on an electric guitar will get you much more guitar than $1000 on an acoustic, but won't get you amplification and cables.

-Learning on a cheap instrument, although less financially stressful, sucks. $100-200 (electric or acoustic) guitars sound like junk, frequently go out of tune, have intonation problems, and are more trouble than they're worth. You get what you pay for with guitars, but there's enough of a markup usually to be able to negotiate some money off of the price or negotiate in some extras (free strings, straps, tuner, picks, DVD's).

-What you're probably going to want to do is spend between $400-600 on a semi-decent-better-than-awful guitar along the lines of a Mexican/Indonesian Fender (not Squier) Strat/Tele, an Epiphone Les Paul, or an Ibanez in that price range (don't know models off the top of my head, I think they still use letter/number model numbers). Around $200 should go towards a solid state practice amp- Crate, Fender, Peavey.

-Lessons are a good idea, as well as extra packs of strings (correct gauge, ask whoever you bought the guitar from), cables, straps, picks, a tuner. Very important is the initial set-up done by a professional guitar tech. Ask whoever you buy the guitar from for reccommendations and a possible free first set-up.

-Places like Sam Ash and Guitar Center offer very liberal return policies and frequently have knowledgeable sales people. This works to your advantage by allowing an in home test run to ensure your purchase is what you actually wanted. Be careful though. Having worked for both places, I know that scumbags do exist, and if you are feeling pressured or uncomfortable, don't feel obligated to buy that day or even ask to speak to a floor or store manager and voice your concerns.

That's all I can think of for now. Good luck to your new musician. Maybe save a buck or two for some foam earplugs for you.

On preview: Don't be afraid to spend the extra 100-200 bucks on a better guitar. It's the difference between about a year or two worth of usability vs 3-5 years worth. The guitar won't go bad, your sone will just outgrow it much sooner. Hopefully he'll be spending $2500-3000+ on a pro model guitar soon enough though and paying you back and supporting you with his rock band.
posted by knowles at 6:05 PM on January 4, 2008 [1 favorite]

Nthing what others above have said. Get him something he'll actually enjoy playing. I learned on an electric, but mostly play acoustic now due to the convenience. In your price range, you have a world of options. Shoot, I saw an ad for a used, in great condition, Les Paul for $650, which is way more guitar than a beginner needs. My best advice is to comb your local craigslist (if you have one). Heck, you could probably get one of each for way less than that much money. I got my current acoustic on craigslist for $150, and it seriously sounds and plays great. But yeah, you can easily learn on either. If you must absolutely buy new, then go to the guitar store nearest you and strum on some Epiphones. They're the Gibson budget brand, and they're great quality. Once he applies himself and starts really playing, he can graduate to a better guitar, and at least be able to educatedly figure out what he's looking for. Lessons are useful, but not terribly necessary. As long as he practices, and has some tabs to learn to play, he'll figure it out. You'd be surprised how many great guitar players learned on their own. And how many people gave up because they didn't like the regimented lessons, when just learning on their own would have been way more fun.
posted by General Malaise at 6:05 PM on January 4, 2008

Response by poster: Crap.

I had a longer 'more inside' that I managed to misplace.

To answer a couple of questions (asked and unasked):

The kid likes classic/prog rock. Pink Floyd, Zeppelin, Rush... no interest in jazz... some new stuff: Decemberists, Radiohead, Modest Mouse.

A grand *is* high. I was actually thinking about resale. The boy has shown no indication of talent in a decade of school band. Expectations are not high. However, I would rather spend a few extra dollars now for something I can unload six months down the road than have another doorstop.

There are lessons in the offing. But, I'm having a tougher time finding a decent teacher than I am finding a guitar -- that'd be a whole different question.
posted by cedar at 6:10 PM on January 4, 2008

If he wants to play music for electric guitar, don't buy him an acoustic. Even if he intellectually knows he won't hold the guitar in his hands and become a Hendrix, the beginning will be still tough. The more you play, the better you get after all and he'll play what he likes. By the way the differences between acoustic and electric are more pronounced when you first feel your way around (i.e. don't get him on two instruments too soon) and the electric's easier on people with smaller and weaker hands.

If he's interested, he can later attack the acoustic, when he sees it'll help his guitar playing overall (plus the new music styles that'll be available, of course).

There are many possibilities for guitar buying and it'd be best to have someone who can play the instrument before you buy it and do the first adjustments for your son. Just see then when you play a chord with the amp on, you can discern the different notes and it doesn't sound like one big smudge.

Whichever way you go, buy him a couple of cds by proficient players so he can keep in mind the technical possibilities of the instruments. Kudos for getting him the instrument he asked for and congratulations on your new musician!
posted by ersatz at 6:22 PM on January 4, 2008

One point that I didn't see mentioned is to definitely consider buying a used guitar, rather than new - the mark up is ridiculous and unnecessary for new guitars. Also, if you're buying from a store, don't be afraid to negotiate. Guitar shops are one of the few remaining places I know of outside of car sales where the price on the tag is utterly flexible.
posted by platinum at 6:44 PM on January 4, 2008

Find ye an American Standard Strat at a pawn shop or used music store. While you're there, get a cheap amp (sub-$200). They should throw in the patch cable for free. Don't forget to negotiate.

Your profile doesn't have a location, but if you give us a city we could probably make some recomendations.
posted by jeffamaphone at 7:11 PM on January 4, 2008

If you have a local craigslist with musical instrument listings, go through that with your son to see if there's anything there you like. If you or your son don't actually know much about guitar quality, then forward a few ads from there to knowledgeable people who might be able to tell you which ones are overpriced. I agree with many here that $1000 is a lot for a first guitar, but if you're going to go electric (and if that's what your son wants to play, than that's the way to go), you need to budget for a decent amp, cables, extra strings and maybe a distortion pedal or two. Lessons are also great.

For what it's worth, here's a few specific recommendations: Seagull (acoustic-<$500), Mexican made Fender Stratocaster (electric, better than Squire-<$400). A Line6 POD is a small amp-like unit that you can plug headphones if you don't want to deal with the noise of a beginner guitarist. But overall, used is best for first instruments, especially if someone can help you out.
posted by pantagrool at 7:13 PM on January 4, 2008

One thing you should consider is whether he wants to *write* songs or play with someone else who writes songs. If the former, definitely get an acoustic. If the latter, it doesn't matter much.

I would disagree with those who saying learning on an electric is the same as learning on an acoustic. it's like the difference between playing an organ and playing the piano - they both have keyboards, yes, but that's where the similarity ends. The skills transfer to a certain extent, but are not interchangeable.

In that regard, if he's dead set on playing electric, I'd put as much - if not more - consideration into what amp you buy. The most cherry pre-CBS Tele in the world will still sound like crap through a crap amp. For under a grand, you could pick up a new Mexican Strat/Tele and a second hand Fender Hotrod Delux amp.

You mentioned trouble finding teachers. IMHO, the best way to learn is to find a teacher to show him basic scales and chords, then have your son play along with whatever songs he likes playing through his own speakers. There is no substitute for ear training. If he goes electric, it might be wise to post on craigslist offering beer and munchies to any local indie guitar god to come over and show him how to set his amp for the best pregain distortion, eq, etc and how to maximize his guitar's pickup switches and eq. There are few things more fun than teaching a teenager about distortion ;)
posted by digitalprimate at 7:29 PM on January 4, 2008

Find out what the kid's most excited about in terms of the electric or acoustic issue. What he's most passionate about will be the instrument he's more likely to stick with in the long run, and that's more important than any other issue. $.02
posted by thedanimal at 8:37 PM on January 4, 2008

The guy's tastes make it pretty clear he'd likely more enjoy an electric. Plus, as others have noted, they're easier to play. So, should you consider getting a Fender, I should make clarify some other people's comments by explaining that there are actually three tiers of Fender instruments. First, they have a brand called Squier, instruments which, as I've noted here before, actually suck music from the room. They're very cheap, but terrible. Then there are the Mexican instruments, which are branded as "real" Fenders, say "made in Mexico" on the headstock and cost about $400 new. They're nearly as good as American ones, to the point that there's the occasional professional who plays a Mexican which he took a liking to. Finally, there are bona fide American Fender instruments, which are the best but are over $1000 for new ones.

Also, I'll second that you get a huge discount for buying used. Even more importantly, if he loses interest as you suspect, but doesn't ding the thing up any, you should be able to resell it for the same price.
posted by abcde at 9:42 PM on January 4, 2008

First, they have a brand called Squier, instruments which, as I've noted here before, actually suck music from the room. They're very cheap, but terrible.

these days Squier stuff is indeed pretty terrible. they made some halfway-decent Japanese stuff in the old days under that name and once in a while come out with something cheap and cool that people go nuts for, like the '51, but otherwise, it's poorly made trash. i would say not even suitable for beginners.

these are generally made in China and other Asian countries- think I heard of Indian ones too. you might see older Made-In-Japan fender stuff- try it out! these used to be really poorly regarded simply cause they weren't made in the USA, but they can be serious gems. i'm not ashamed to have my one Japanese fender.

Then there are the Mexican instruments, which are branded as "real" Fenders, say "made in Mexico" on the headstock and cost about $400 new. They're nearly as good as American ones, to the point that there's the occasional professional who plays a Mexican which he took a liking to.

this is true. sometimes there are mediocre models (the basses seem, to me, to be especially poor) but i've been definitely fooled by some of the Mexi strats i've played.

Finally, there are bona fide American Fender instruments, which are the best but are over $1000 for new ones.

well, they can be. their idea of reasonable pricing is a whole 'nother thread. i wouldn't buy a new fender at retail, that's for sure. my American Standard Telecaster is a workhorse and a half and is probably worth no more than $600.

Most large electronics retailers such as BestBuy should have some sort of beginner guitar kit for about $150.

i didn't read every reply here so maybe this was addressed but the Best Buy / Target / Toys R Us guitars (marketed by First Act / Baldwin primarily) SHOULD BE AVOIDED AT ALL COSTS. look, i'm a bit of a gear snob but i know a passable cheap guitar when i see them. SOME Squiers are that, NONE of these Big Box store models are even close. They're completely dysfunctional- tough to learn how to play on something that won't stay in tune, for example. They're just NOT a good deal. Mexican strats are usually just fine, as are the strat-like guitars made by Yamaha (under the Pacifica name).

i would whole-heartedly recommend getting something used, if you have reasonable shops in your area. any of the smaller, locally owned shops will probably have some used import stuff or even some cheaper american stuff.

i will recommend an amp- the newish Fender Super Champ XD. man, i wish this thing was out when I started playing. it's priced with many other practice-type amps, yet it's very decent sounding, portable, and has alot of sound-tinkering options (fun for the aspiring and discovering guitarist). it definitely destroys many of the little Crates and Peaveys my friends and I had way back when. I have a "real" amp but bought one anyway for the portability and tone.
posted by tremspeed at 12:03 AM on January 5, 2008

Acoustics are good to start on (I did), but I'd agree with those that said it depends on his taste in music to some degree. If you do go with an acoustic, I'd recommend an Art & Lutherie.
posted by Camel of Space at 8:50 AM on January 5, 2008

Sounds like you should definitely get him an electric guitar. The trick is to get the biggest bang for the buck, and in this regard, you will want to look at the Kramer brand - the Focus Fatboy is a totally decent instrument for less than $100. Going the used/pawn/garage sale route is cool, too, but it's time consuming and you're likely to end up with an instrument that will require more than $100 to get into shape. That Kramer is actually a killer deal.

The thing about practice amps is that they are NOT the way to get this ball rolling - they typically offer a limited number of tones, and you'll lose your mind as your son (hopefully) spends hours practicing. If you get him something like a used Korg Pandora (which I've seen go for under $180 on craigslist and ebay), he'll have a wide selection of different sounds, tones, effects and even basic accompaniment (built-in drum/bass patterns), all of which will contribute to the "instant gratification" and positive feedback loop factors which are so crucial for keeping a teen's interest in spending the time learning the instrument. He'll use headphones with a Pandora, so no worries about driving everyone else in the house out of their minds.
posted by dbiedny at 9:56 AM on January 5, 2008

My parents made me buy my own guitar. They offered to pay for a few lessons, but it was completely up to me to get the instrument. I managed to buy a cobbled together crap-tar for about $70, and a practice amp for about $50, after much mowing of lawns. I basically didn't put the guitar down for the rest of high school (learning about the specific strengths and limitations of all of the individual parts of the guitar along the way), while other kids, who got their parents to buy them the latest cobalt blue hockey stick guitars played for a week until their fingers hurt and basically never picked them up again. I've never had a guitar bought for me, and I've been playing for almost 18 years now. A few years ago I bought a black gibson SG and I love it and treat it like a spoiled grand daughter.
posted by dobie at 11:07 AM on January 5, 2008

Pick up a used Fender Strat in your price range, $300-400 or so, and this amp, preferably new. Japanese Fender Strats from the 80s are my personal favorite among the still-affordable Strats - they're as good as what the Fender Custom Shop puts out today, easily - but anything that's not a Squier can be O.K.

Get him a copy of "How to Make Your Electric Guitar Play Great" by Dan Erlewine, a decent cable - 30 ft, *not* a Monster cable (I like Radio Shack's gold guitar cables, they're OK and not too expensive) and some tab books of his favorite artists, and a few lessons if you can afford that. That ought to bring you up to about a grand.

Do not buy him an acoustic. I don't agree at all with the idea that it's better to learn the electric guitar by playing an acoustic. That's kind of like saying that you'll appreciate the viola's alto clef better by learning to play an opheicleide first. Or maybe like saying if your head itches, you should scratch your butt for a while first because it'll give you a better experience of how serious scratching ought to be conducted. Anyway it's not what I'd recommend.
posted by ikkyu2 at 2:24 PM on January 5, 2008 [1 favorite]

I got my first guitar, an acoustic, totally out of the blue 4 years ago. I've been playing at it ever since, making lots of improvements, sure, learning new stuff, all that. My daughter, now 12, has watched this progress with interest, and, this year, asked for (and received) an electric guitar, a $100 Dean. I got an amp off FreeCycle. A big part of my willingness to buy her this guitar was the knowledge that if she didn't play it, at least I could.

Lemme tell you--when folks say it's easier to play an electric, they are vastly understating. To get any sort of half-way decent sound out of an acoustic took me several months, while my daughter was playing recognizable songs on the electric in a matter of hours. I, too, have been playing with the electric, and the ease is quite dramatic--no callouses needed, and even the slightest touch on the strings yields something satisfying.

The guitar itself is nothing special. It was cheap, and needed some set-up work before it was playable, not something a beginner would want to deal with on his own, for sure.
posted by MrMoonPie at 10:14 AM on January 7, 2008

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