Choosing a guitar that's right for you

December 2015

How to choose a guitar
This is a question I get asked about a lot. From beginning students right through to intermediate level. And with one eye on Christmas looming here's my answer... generally speaking:

You need to consider your budget, your size (or the size of the person you are buying it for), and the style of music you want to play with it. Check the 'Three Golden Rules' towards the end of this blog post.

Firstly, what sort of guitars are available?

Acoustic guitars: there are two general types, nylon strung and steel strung, either type can be purely acoustic or may have a pickup fitted so the sound to be amplified.

Nylon strung: generally known as 'classical guitars'. Great for young beginners, or if you specifically want to play this style of music. The strings are generally softer and have lower tension than steel strings. They come in half, three quarter and full size; even full size they are not huge instruments, so fit most people. On full size classical guitars the necks and fretboard tend to be wide and flat and generally suit a bigger hand; adults with smaller hands should look out for guitars with narrower necks such as Faith range of guitars, also some nylon strung guitars are fitted with pickups/internal mic and frequently offered with slimline necks, e.g. Yamaha.

Steel strung: sometimes called 'folk' guitars, but they are used to play many styles of music. They are fitted with bronze wound steel strings and are similar to classical guitars in that they come in all shapes and sizes. Apart from the half, three quarter, and full size models there are names given to differently built acoustic guitars; here are some of them:

Parlour - small intended for indoor performance and practice, short scale and usually sweet sounding.
00 - the standard acoustic blues guitar, small body, but a distinct punchy midrange sound.
Jumbo - medium to large size guitar as the name suggests, big bass and clear highs.
Dreadnaught - large guitars with good loud projection, developed for use outdoors
Grand Auditorium - similar to a jumbo but a more pinched waist and quite deep, original design from Taylor guitars.

Electric guitars: there are lots of different shapes, sizes, colours, makes and it can be confusing to choose your first electric guitar, but the same rules apply as for acoustics. They come in two types, solid and semi-acoustic, and in the usual range of sizes half, three quarter and full size. Check to see what is comfortable.

Travel guitars: Acoustic and electric travel guitars are made small enough to fit as aeroplane hand luggage. As with all guitars prices and styles vary a lot. If you travel a lot, or just have room for something small, these may well be a good choice. Brands to check: Acoustics: Washburn Rover, Martin Backpacker. Electrics: Steinberger, Hofner Shorty.

Three golden rules
1) Buy from a shop, not over the internet. Every guitar is different, even across the same model range, and cheaper guitars are often variable in build quality, components and the woods used.

2) Check the neck is straight (look down the strings from the tuning pegs end, the guitar neck should look straight in line with the strings); check the frets are comfortable for height and along the edges, and the action (the level of closeness the strings have to the fretboard) is low and the strings easy to press onto the fretboard.  All of these things can be fixed later but it costs money and time. If there is a guitar you want but things need doing to it ask if the shop will sort these if you agree to buy it. Note: the better shops often offer a 'free setup' as part of the sale.

3) Be wary of cheaper instruments made in China, quality control is variable and buying can be a bit of a lottery, especially if buying over the internet. Again buying in a shop will help sort these issues.

Note - Some people ask whether a solid top acoustic guitar is best... my response: try the guitar and see! Solid tops generally sound louder and project better. Laminated tops tend to be stronger, are less prone to warping and, to the player, usually sound just as good.

What makes are known to be good?
Generally as with most things you get what you pay for. Well designed and made guitars of any type will be at the more expensive end of the scale. Mid range and cheaper instruments can often be OK but, as with most products, they are built to a price point, i.e. Many companies produce a wide range of instruments to cover the price ranges, usually with a subsidiary company or brand name making the cheaper instruments.

Fender and their subsidiary Squier
Gibson and their subsidiary Epiphone
Fret King
Music Man

Add all the electric guitar companies above to the following list of acoustic guitar brands:

Martin and their subsidiary Sigma
Simon & Patrick - subsidiary of Godin
Seagull - subsidiary of Godin

There are many other names used on guitars in the cheaper range of guitars, mostly made in China. Always apply the 3 golden rules above regardless of how much it costs, what the salesman says etc..

Prices, prices, prices..
Assuming you are buying a new guitar, not second hand.

                              Acoustics                   Electrics
Cheap                    £75 - £200                 £90 - £200 (sometimes bundled with a practice amp)
Lower Mid            £200 - £400               £200 - £450
Upper mid             £400 - £700               £450 - £800
Expensive              £750 - £2000             £800 - £1800
Second mortgage   £2500 - £5500+        £2500 - £7000+

Recommended shops
Any shop with a good selection of instruments and knowledgeable staff. Usually specialist guitar shops. Here are a few of my local personal favourites here in London (not to say others are not good, just that I like these and have experience of them):

Ivor Mairants - Rathbone Place WC1
Macaris - Tottenham Court Road, and Denmark St WC1
Rose Morris - Denmark St WC1
Hanks - Denmark St WC1
Guitar Guitar - Epsom (largest guitar store in Europe)
Yamaha London - Wardour street WC1
Tune Inn - St Mildreds Rd, Lee, SE London
Eric Lindsey Music - Catford (& Reigate)
Rock Bottom - London Rd, Croydon
Martin Phelps Music - South End, Croydon