One of the most important first decisions (after deciding that you want to start playing guitar) is which type of music you want to play. Usually, people want to start playing the music they listen to. For example, I love jazz music, but even after 30 years of playing, I still find it difficult to really play jazz the way I want to. (If jazz is your passion, and jazz guitar is what you want to learn to play guitar, then I strongly suggest getting a personal instructor)
If you already have your style of music decided, the first step is what type of guitar to buy. Generally, your choices are acoustic or electric. (Obviously with an electric, you’ll need someway to hear the guitar. Buying the right amp is a whole other conversation!) With acoustics, there are six string, 12 string, resonators, acoustic/electric, classical or nylon string, and jazz acoustic guitars. Though there are hundreds of different styles of guitar, this list is complete enough for this conversation. With electric guitars, your choice really depends on the type of music you aim to play. I have three electrics; Fender American Strat used for Rock, Blues. Fender Strat with a humbucker pickup in addition to two single coils, used for heavy rock. And a hollow body jazz guitar, used for jazz. For the purposes of this article, I will focus only to acoustic guitars.
Below is a list of what style of acoustics guitars are generally used for which type of music.
Folk, mellow rock, rock, oldies, “camp fire songs, Alternative, Pop”- Acoustic 6 string own this category. Though 12 strings add a wonderful sound, many players in this style use fingerpicking, which is much more difficult with a 12 string.
Country, Blues, Bluegrass- The Resonator rules here. Though too twangy for
some, I play a 6 string reso for blues almost exclusively. For country, the reso adds a wonderful depth to the music, though 6 strings are more popular for modern country songs. Round neck, square neck, biscuit or spider bridge, tri-cone or single cone, wood body or metal body. It’s all a matter of personal taste. One thing is very important, a square neck can only be played with a slide and can not be fingered like normal guitars. The strings are raised very high making any type of playing besides slide impossible. If you want a versatile guitar, get a round neck, that can be played like any other 6 string guitar but still gives you that great reso sound and the option to play bottle neck slide.
What brand/model of guitar to buy.
Price is a HUGE deciding factor. Guitars range from $79.00 to well over $10,000. For the most part, guitars priced over $3,000 are usually signature models or special editions and are more of collectors models. If you are just starting out, decide on your budget but even if you have millions, I would suggest you avoid anything over $3,000.
If you are someone who really sticks to their decisions, and if your budget allows, then I suggest you look at guitars in the $700 to $2000 range. If you are somewhere in between, then aim for a guitar in the $250 to $700 range.
Sound. More expensive guitars are always made from real, solid wood. Cheaper guitars use laminates or, if they are real wood, cheaper quality woods. I’ve owned cheap guitars and high end guitars and the difference in sound is astounding. Sure, you can buy a cheaper guitar, add high quality strings and have the guitar set up by a luthier, but it will only sound like a cheap guitar with good strings. Also, a main factor in sound is intonation. That means that the guitar is it tune with itself. There are ways to check intonation that are pretty easy but no easy way to fix it. While you’re in the guitar store, either tune the guitar to standard tuning (EADGBE) or have the salesperson do it. Then play each string while holding the sting down on the 12th fret. If it is right on for every string, the guitar has good intonation. If it is off a little, any decent guitar tech can adjust it. But, if it is off quite a bit, then the guitar will always sound out of tune whenever you play a chord. Quality and Durability. I bought an inexpensive 12 string several years ago, and within two years, the bridge (the part of guitar that holds the strings down to the face of the guitar) pulled away from the guitar. Though it could be fixed, the fix would cost $150. The guitar only cost me $300. Poorly made necks have a tendency to pull away from the guitar, making it either very hard or nearly impossible to play. If a neck gets warped, it is time to throw the guitar away or get ready for a hefty repair bill. And if you spent a few hundred (or less) on the guitar, any repairs won’t be worth it. While we are on the neck, inexpensive guitars usually have “high” action. That means that the strings are high off the neck. High strings are common on cheaper guitars because it costs time and money to set up a guitar properly. Many beginners quit playing because their fingers hurt and they are unable to properly finger or sound many of the chords. My opinion to all my students is to make sure the guitar you buy has acceptable action or get ready for very sore fingers and having to build incredibly strong fingers and hands!
Resale Value. Inexpensive guitars are almost impossible to resell when you are either ready to upgrade or are ready to quit playing. I once bought a guitar for $200 for my son. Big difference.
I assume you know what type of music you want to play and have your budget in mind. Below, I will list several guitar makes/models that I have experience with and have recommended to students and friends.
Budget Guitars $100 to $200- Rouge, Epiphone (some models) Carlos, Fender acoustics, Applause. Hohner, Jasmine
Mid Priced Guitars- $200 to $700 Garisson, Ovation, Washburn, Takamine, Breedlove, Seagull, Alvarez, Yamaha, Epiphone
Higher End Guitars $900 to $2000- Martin, Taylor, Gibson, Breedlove Guild, Blueridge, Alvarez
Again, unless you really don’t believe that you will stick to playing the guitar, then I strongly suggest you at least look into a mid priced guitar. Check used guitars as well. Never buy a budget guitar used, but you probably can get a great deal on a mid priced or high end guitar on eBay or your local music store.
The reason I only discussed acoustic guitars is that I have been playing acoustics for over thirty years and have a lot of experience with them. As for electrics, my experience is only with Jazz guitars, Fender Strats and Telecasters, and Gibson Les Pauls.