How to Shop for a Beginner Guitar – A Quick Buyer’s Guide

Wednesday, December 11, 2019

What you Need Before Buying a Beginner Guitar

There are a few things to know before going online or heading out in person to purchase your first guitar, whether for yourself or a loved one. The top three questions are related to cost, quality and size. So, while you are thinking about your first steps, please take a moment to see that article. 

Now that you’ve got some information, let’s take the next step together!

Where to Shop for a Beginner Guitar

Online vs. Big-Box Stores vs. Mom-and-Pop Shops

Let’s talk about the Amazonian elephant in the room. Don’t buy a beginner guitar from Amazon. Just don’t. Do. Not. I have seen (or shall I say, “experienced”) many such items. One of my students’ Amazon.com-born guitars actually got BETTER after it fell down the stairs, much to his chagrin (I think he was trying to “need” a new guitar). These guitars often arrive broken and unplayable. You are shipping a plywood guitar (let’s say multi-ply, it makes my heart feel better about all this) in a cardboard box packed in Styrofoam in freezing conditions for a several-day journey. It’s not going to end well.

There are, however, several reputable online dealers such as Sweetwater.com, Americanmusical.com and musiciansfriend.com. They offer hearty return policies and reliable shipping. Now, let’s turn this frown upside-down and explore your local big-box stores.

Buying from a big-box store(like Guitar Center and Sam Ash) is an okay-ish idea if you know what to look for, and what to ask the sales rep on the floor. At least get on their email list about a week prior to your visit for coupon and promo reasons. Also, they usually have great credit line and financing terms. Just know this: the pressure on big-box store employees from corporate this time of year is TREMENDOUS. They NEED to make their numbers. That’s you. Their goal is to move units of poorly made beginner guitars, knowing that some may never even be opened or played.

Purchasing from a local mom-and-pop shop is recommended, especially if you can make a couple trips. Trip one will be for meet/greet/research; trip two will be the purchase. Work with ONE employee, be friendly, and ask the questions I give you below. Hint: Haggle. They expect it, and because they don’t answer to a corporate ladder, they often have more flexibility in pricing. And, there’s usually less pressure on employees to sell.


What to do at the Shop

You made it to the guitar store. What now?

  1. Have a budget in mind. Don’t tell anyone.
  2. Be nice. You catch more flies (and discounts and swag) with honey
  3. Be okay with walking out without a guitar.
  4. Tell the staff you are interested in “beginner” guitars, and you are seriously reviewing some options and would like assistance.
  5. Tell the staff the age, height, and size of the person you are buying for. This is essential. One size does not fit all.
  6. Ask the staff for the top three recommendations based on the least amount of returns/repair/warranty issues. This is important. I’m going to list it again
  7. Ask the staff for beginner guitar recommendations with the least amount of returns/repair/warranty issues.
  8. Ask the staff, of the three guitars, which will hold tuning the best. If the answer to #7 and #8 are the same guitar, winner-winner chicken dinner. If not, go with the choice that has the least repair returns.
  9. If the staff hand you a new guitar in a box after putting the floor model back, OPEN THE BOX and make them tune-up and inspect the instrument.

*Helpful Hint: If you REALLY want to be a qualified buyer, ask if the guitar has a solid top or “multi-ply laminate” top. A guitar with a solid top sounds good, like a guitar. A guitar with a multi-ply top sounds like a rubber-banded cigar box guitar under a lonely bridge on a cold night. In other words, plywood guitars sound like broken dreams. I clearly recall the outhouses on the Appalachian trail being made of plywood, just a bit thicker than a guitar.

As for return policies and warranties – do your usual homework there. Ask and learn; all stores are a bit different.

If you go to the big-name store, they are going to offer you a “protection plan”. Just know the sales rep gets big, big points for selling the plan. Now…is the protection plan worth it?


To Protect, or Not to Protect that Beginner Guitar, that is the Question

All new guitars should come with both a store warranty and a manufacturer’s warranty. Ask about them.

Some stores’ additional protection plan will be for a set amount of time, cost an additional roughly 20%, and usually will insure against anything carelessly thrown at it (except...neglect - i.e., intentional mistreatment such as leaving it in a car on a hot day or cold day and the ensuing damage). 

I personally used this benefit when my son’s guitar combusted for “no good reason”. I walked into the store and, with the plan, got the very same item immediately. It was a $200-ish guitar and a $38 plan. Yes. Worth it.

For children learners: Buy the plan

For adult learners: You shouldn’t need to buy the plan if proper care is taken with the guitar


Beginner Guitar Home Storage/Maintenance

Guitars are sensitive little creatures who want to go back to the forest. The plywood forest. Have you ever had, or seen, a real Christmas Tree (i.e., a holiday-time tree that’s been felled and placed in a home while dying slowly) after about 2.5 weeks? Needles everywhere? Your guitar is no different. Warping, drying and cracking in the winter and swelling and cracking occur astonishingly quickly in the summer.

You must humidify. Your home winter heating system ruins the guitar. It happens so, so quickly. I’ve had students come for their first lesson with their new guitar already warped. So:

  • Buy a hard shell or poly-foam case that latches shut tightly. Softshell cases do not sufficiently keep moisture. Find a hardshell case with latches that shut tight. No zippers. Some guitars come with hard cases; if not, I recommend Gator, Roadrunner, or Musician’s Gear brands.
  • Buy moisture control (Boveda brand 49% moisture packets are affordable; cheapest at Amazon). Place 3 moisture pouches in the guitar case. One under the guitar’s head and two near, or in, the guitar’s body.
  • Keep it away from heaters
  • Keep it indoors
  • Don’t ever leave it in the car or outside for more than necessary
  • Maintain 50% humidity in the guitar case all year through the use of humidity packets programmed to 45-55% humidity

Students come to me all the time with guitars that aren’t cared for. A cheaper guitar already has some inherent problems. Then, without proper humidity, it cannot be tuned. The guitar will not play right.   Warping, buckling and shrinking. Frets literally pop out. The glue dries up and things come apart.

Musical success is not likely if, every time I tune the guitar for the student, it goes out of tune within 10 minutes. That’s really not motivating for the learner. They will dread playing it. There are no “milestones” to earn or feelings of success/pride. The student learns how to play a new chord or song and it sounds absolutely awful, no matter how beautifully and cleanly they play.


Its Time to Shop for that Beginner Guitar

If you are planning a guitar gift and want your loved one to learn and persist, invest in a worthy guitar. If you can’t invest in a worthy guitar, maybe wait until there’s a huge sale (Black Friday? Labor Day? July 4th?).

Ask the questions I listed above either in-person at the store, or, online via live chat if you plan to buy online. Once you have the guitar, care for it as you would a houseplant or other living thing using the recommendations from this article.

To make shopping easier click here to download our free shopping checklist!


Your First Guitar Lesson - How to Prep and What to Expect

Wednesday, December 11, 2019

Your Guitar Lesson - How to Prepare and What to Expect

Today we are going to discuss how to prepare for your first guitar lesson. Actually, these are basics to make any lesson go more smoothly and meaningful - your first lesson, or your hundredth guitar lesson!

 

We’ll address some of the common concerns and questions a budding (or continuing) guitarist may have. Whether you are starting anew or continuing a long journey of learning, we will go over some ideas common to all one-on-one lessons. Preparation for a successful lesson often leads to just that - a meaningful exchange with a qualified instructor who can assist you. 

 

Before your Lesson

First, you should have emailed, texted, or spoken with your new instructor to schedule the lesson. It is important during this exchange to discuss your learning goals, and to offer the instructor some information about you. Tell the teacher as much or as little as you’d like. 

Here are some questions to get you started. I suggest thinking about these a day or two before your lesson.

 

None of these points are super-essential, and can always be addressed in-person. However - the more you offer ahead of the time, the better the lesson will be.

 

  • Do you own a guitar? If yes, what kind (acoustic steel string; acoustic nylon string; and electric? If no, does the teacher/studio offer a rental instrument)?

  • How long you have been playing? If you are a total beginner, then let them know if you’ve even held the guitar, or tried to play to some notes or even chords on it.

  • Do you, or have you, played other instruments?

  • What resources you have used? Books, videos, youtube channels, etc.

  • How do you learn best? Some of us are visual learners. Some of us are verbal. 

  • What are your goals? Some students want to play for the sheer fun of it. Some want to write music and record. Some want to jam, form a band, or even go to the local open mic night. Whatever your ultimate dream is - inform your instructor up front. I’ve had students who want to play just to relax, meditate, or just to slice out some time away from the distractions of our fast-paced world.

  • What style do you most want to play? What music inspires you? 

  • What drew you to the guitar in particular? 

Ask your teacher what you should bring to the first lesson. often, a teacher will ask you to bring a notebook, some blank music paper, and maybe a particular book to purchase.

 

Being able to answer even a few of the above questions will be very helpful for both the student and the teacher, and ensure you will start off on the right foot. Knowledge is power, especially when it comes to a musical journey.

 

Finally, if you are not a complete stranger to the guitar, ask your new teacher if there is anything you should be prepared to play or demonstrate at the first lesson. They may refer you to some learning materials to see how well you can pick up the basics ahead of time.

 

At the very least, be sure to bring the bare basics: your guitar, a guitar pick, and the desire to learn!

 

During your Lesson

What should you expect during your first lesson? 

Well, first things first: The lesson is supposed to start at the appointed time. Please arrive to the lesson five to ten minutes early. Often times, students lose a lot time due to unpacking.

 

It can take anywhere from five to fifteen (!) minutes to park, get in the door, put your case down, unzip/unlatch it, take your guitar out, take your books out, take your picks and tuner out, zip/latch the case back up, enter the lesson room, sit down and place your learning materials on the stand.

 

It is not uncommon for a thirty minute lesson to turn into a fifteen minute lesson after all this occurs, especially after the exchange of pleasantries and instrument tuning. 

 

When the lesson kicks off, you can expect to be in a room with two chairs and a music stand. The teacher will want you seated in such a way that they will be able to clearly see your left and right hand. The teacher will direct you on which seat to take.

 

Next will come a review of your goals and skills. The first lesson is also usually an opportunity to get to know the student a little. Many teachers offer a discounted first lesson for this reason. Some teachers/studios require a one-hour minimum for a first lesson.

 

If you are a sheer beginner, the first lesson is usually dedicated to holding the guitar, holding the pick, and setting up great left and right hand technique. Form and coordination come first. Then ability will flow.

 

The teacher should be inquisitive, curious, and ask you questions. The teacher may take notes. 

 

Many instructors often make the first lesson about themselves - be cautious of this! The focus should be on YOU - the learner - and your guitar dream...not the teacher’s goals, accomplishments and abilities. 

 

Sometimes students will ask the teacher about themselves; that’s a good idea if there is a particular skill set you are looking for (for example - a teacher who performs classical, or jazz...or a teacher who is a regular, gigging rock/blues musician with a band, and so on).

 

At this point, you may be half-way into your lesson time. That’s ok - it’s important to lay out your goals and ideas for your teacher to hear and acknowledge. 

 

Next, you can expect the teacher to ask you play a recent song you’ve been working, a chord, or even a scale. If you know absolutely nothing on the guitar, your instructor will start showing you things to play, and ask you to copy them. They are trying to get a baseline about how you learn, reframe, and reflect new things.

 

Finally, the teacher will stop about five minutes before the lesson is over to write these new ideas down in your notebook. Your instructor will advise you on what to practice. If your instructor does not outline what you should be practicing, ask them! Be sure not to leave your lesson empty-handed!

 

Be sure that once you get home, grab your guitar and sit down to practice, you will have a clear recall of what to practice.

 

After your First Lesson

 

Celebrate after the first lesson. Tie an activity to an activity. What makes you happy? Do something that gives your brain a break that you enjoy. Get a cup of tea or coffee on the way home. Tell a friend or family member. Describing your lesson experience to someone makes it real. It helps to keep you accountable. And, it helps your memory.

 

Plan your practice for the week. Mark down when you will practice, and for how long. Yes, you will have to schedule your practice times. If not, “life gets in the way”. Open your digital (or paper!) calendar and book time with your guitar. Now it’s up to you to make your dreams a reality.

 

  • An effective practice regimen is 15-20 focused minutes a day or every other day. Short, regular sessions are far, far better than “marathon” practice sessions once or twice a week.

 

Go easy on yourself. Learners tend to be so hard on themselves. Remember, your brain and body are grappling with all these new concepts. You are carving new neural pathways. Whether you are a first time learner or not, you should feel challenged. 

 

Stop, breathe, and write down what may be frustrating you during practice. Record it in your guitar notebook. Your instructor is not there with you, and is not a psychic (though a qualified teacher will have the ability to address concerns just by watching and listening to your progress). Bring these concerns to your next lesson so, together, your teacher can ally with you and strategize. This forms a momentum of success. You will eliminate weaknesses and learn faster the longer you take lessons.

 

Finally...

 

Happy practicing, and (drum roll…!) let me be the first to congratulate you on this most important first step. Welcome to your new life as a guitarist!


What to Know Before Buying A Beginner Guitar

Wednesday, December 04, 2019

My purpose here is to be your beginner guitar buying guide. This article will assist you in feeling focused, prepared and knowledgeable before stepping foot in your local musical instrument shop – or – before clicking your mouse and spending your hard-earned money on a new beginner’s guitar.

You are probably curious about the cost, quality, size and style of guitar to purchase. You cannot always count on the sales rep to know best. There is intense pressure on sales reps, especially during big sales or the holiday season, to move product. They have goals.

Sometimes a very cheap, poorly made guitar gift to a child is actually a burden to the parent/guardian, and a frustration for the child. Now there is a child wanting or expecting lessons with a guitar that won’t ever play right. Some can be fixed by a luthier or technician at $50/hour plus parts. Some can’t. And then the family says, after pain and frustration on an instrument that can’t be tuned, that the learner “didn’t stick with it”. I see this all. The. Time.

And hey – consider that a sax rental for your learner is on average $30 - $50/month. You’re spending about $600 a year NOT own a brass instrument. A beginner sax can run you $1,850 - $3,000 to purchase. So why the hesitation to purchase a quality beginner guitar for $400 or $500?

Let’s explore the three top questions I receive as a guitar instructor from parents, grandparents, and even those shopping for themselves.

DISCLAIMER: 

If your learner is younger than 7, bookmark this article, then just buy a small size guitar off-the-shelf from Target or Walmart or Amazon cheapo ½ or ¾ size guitar. When they turn 8, if they are still taking guitar lessons, heed the advice in this article and go for a slight upgrade. Ok, you can stop reading now.


Here are the answers to the three biggest questions asked when buying a guitar


Question One: How Much Will I Have to Spend to Purchase a Playable Guitar?


Expect to spend anywhere from $200 to $500 USD.

Imported guitars make guitar playing and guitar lessons affordable for most Americans. Unfortunately, foreign guitar factories don’t have the same quality control as U.S.-based factories, with some exceptions. To buy a decent guitar – one that does not fall apart, have seams that separate, parts put together correctly, and will last at least a couple of years – a buyer is going to spend well over $300 U.S.D.

A playable guitar means that the guitar’s “action”, or height of the strings above the neck, is low. This makes the strings easy to press down. Poorly made guitars often have high “action”. In other words, while a first-time guitarist may be excited to receive their first guitar, very often they are not able to physically push the strings down to sound a note.

I teach guitar, and I’ve taught about 300 different students one-on-one over the years. It’s rare to have a beginner walk in with an easy-to-play guitar unless they spent at least $300-$400 on it. This seems to be the “quality threshold”.

There are a few beginner-specific companies like Mitchell, Luna and Dean who make decent acoustic guitars for $225 - $400. 

Beginners are disappointed when they come for their first lesson and it becomes apparent that they will never be able to physically play their new guitar. I hand them one of my guitars and they can make wonderful notes and chords within minutes. Then they take their guitar back, and their newfound ability vanishes into thin air as their hands struggle against their guitar.

It sometimes means investing $250 of repairs into a $99 guitar from Amazon.com just to make it work right – and that’s a jump most beginners can’t make – especially when the guitar was a gift.

Let’s address reliability as a part of our quality standards. A reliable guitar is one where the strings are easy to push down, all the parts work correctly, and it stays in tune well. An unreliable guitar is one where the strings almost immediately go out of tune due to poor quality parts. The student feels defeated when they work so hard to master a song but their guitar cannot be tuned.

Playing should not feel like a physical battle. Learning is hard enough. When you couple a normal learning curve with a poorly-made guitar, the student is not likely to continue. It can be an unrewarding process, no matter how persistent and diligent the student, and no matter how much money you pour into lessons. 


Question Two: Should we buy “acoustic” or “electric”?


Electric guitars have lots of switches and knobs. This is a huge distraction for younger learners. And, they require a small speaker/amplifier to make them loud enough to hear. Most children end up just making static and noise come out of the amp. Practice time turns into playtime very quickly.

I recommend non-electric guitars for beginners of any age. These are called “acoustic” guitars. They are made of wood and have a round hole “called sound hole” in the body which the strings pass over. They do not require electricity to make a sound.

For younger learners 7-10, I recommend acoustic “nylon-string” guitars. Nylon strings are softer and rounder than steel strings. This reduces fingertip pain, which is the #1 complaint of young students. 


Question Three: What size guitar should I purchase?

One size does not fit all.

This depends on the size of your learner. If you are buying for an adult learner, be as specific with the guitar sales rep as possible. Ideally, bring your learner to the store with you.  A slighter-framed woman with smaller hands will require a smaller guitar than a tall man with large hands. If you cannot bring the guitarist to the store with you, make sure you check the return/exchange policy.

Children ages 7-12 usually do well with a “three-quarter” sized guitar. And little ones under 7 need a “half-size” guitar. Any well-stocked instrument store will have all these options in stock – though, admittedly, “half size” and “three-quarter” size can suffer in quality.

Trying to play a poorly-fit instrument is like buying a pair of shoes too small or large – you may be able to tolerate it a little here and there, but it’s not going to work. It will present a clear and physical obstacle.


You are now ready to shop for that beginner guitar

The old adage rings true – “you get what you pay for”. Is it possible to get a guitar “good enough” to start for under $200? Maybe. A big maybe. Quality control in that price range is more miss-than-hit. The guitar will be plywood – layers of compressed wood glued together and laminated with some sort of veneer. It will warp and crack quickly. The more you spend, the better the construction. The better the construction, the fewer issues now and in the future.The fewer the issues/easier to play, the higher the success rate for your new guitarist.

Summary Points (In ALL situations, be sure to invest a hard-shell guitar case with latches to protect the new guitar - ($40 - $100 additional):

  • Ages 7-10: Nylon String Acoustic Guitar, ½ or ¾ size, ($125 - $250).
  • Ages 10-14: ¾ size Acoustic Guitar. In early adolescence, if the student is mature and responsible, a full-size or ¾ size electric guitar may be just fine. ($250 - $350)
  •  Ages 14+: Any. Acoustic is less fuss and requires no speaker, but electric may be more motivating and fun. Talk with the learner, find out what kind of music they love, and tell your store rep for guidance. ($250 - $500)

Finally, talk to your sales rep about storage and maintenance. Weather and home heating/cooling systems wreck guitars. If you invest a hard, latching case – you can create a decent environment for the guitar for very little cost without worry. Even the best guitars won’t last a northeast winter in a heated home. Avoid warping, cracking, buckling and breakage by using humidity control. Guitars are wood, and as such, are very fickle. 


Recent Blog Articles

How to Shop for a Beginner Guitar – A Quick Buyer’s Guide
Wednesday, December 11, 2019
Your First Guitar Lesson - How to Prep and What to Expect
Wednesday, December 11, 2019
What to Know Before Buying A Beginner Guitar
Wednesday, December 04, 2019

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