Buying your first guitar can be quite the task for some; even after doing a lot of research you can still wonder where to start.
Firstly, the main differences between the big three: Classical, Steel Strung & Electric.
Classical guitars were arguably the first acoustic guitar to be designed. Originally strung with gut strings, it's modern equivalent is now strung with 3 thick, silver wound synthetic nylon core strings and 3 thinner, fully nylon strings instead. This type of guitar usually has a warm and rich tone, best suited to traditional classical pieces, Spanish & flamenco styles along with the more contemporary jazz & Latin styles of music.
Classical guitars have recently become a favourite amongst younger beginner guitarists due to their ‘softer’ strings; when starting the guitar, it can often cause quite a bit of discomfort to the fingertips in the early stages of playing. Having nylon over steel strings helps a lot due to it's lower string tension and softer materials. You can find classical guitars in a full size (4/4), three quarter size (3/4), half size (1/2) and even a quarter (1/4) size for the smallest of students!
For many years, the jangle of a steel strung guitar has been long associated with rock, blues and pop music. The likes of the Rolling Stones, Jimmy Hendrix, The Beatles, Eric Clapton and Bob Marley all used a steel strung guitar at various points during their career. With a bright and direct sound, it has become synonymous to hear either solo or alongside a band, adding a rich tonality to any piece of music.
The steel strung guitar comes in far more shapes than it's classical counterpart, ranging from the smallest ‘parlour’ size, all the way up to a jumbo size guitar – meaning that there really is something for most people! You can also buy alternative sizes such as travel size for when you are looking to take a small guitar abroad or for experienced younger players looking for an alternative to the classical 3/4 size.
A lot of steel string guitars come nowadays with a pickup system built in. This is where the Electro-Acoustic guitar comes into play, with others calling it a Semi-Acoustic. Within reason, any guitar can have a pickup system retro-fitted to it but be sure to get a luthier to check the guitar over before buying a pickup just to be sure! (A luthier is someone who builds or repairs string instruments.)
A usual ‘solid bodied’ electric guitar is the sort that has no acoustic chamber like the body of an acoustic guitar to amplify and project the sound of the strings being strummed. Instead, an electric guitar works solely on the use of its inbuilt pickups. Usually these pickups are made from a ceramic or alnico set of magnets which pick up the (electromagnetic) vibrations from the strings and providing a electric signal to an amp which boosts these signals into an audible sound.
There are hundreds if not thousands of options to choose from when picking the right guitar and amp combo for you, so make sure you're asking yourself the right questions. What style of music you do you hope to learn? What players do you like the sound of? How far do you hope to take your playing? These factors should give the salesperson you’re buying the guitar from a good idea on what to recommend. Most people who work in music stores will be players themselves with plenty of experience and thus be able to guide you to the best setup for you.
With these types of guitars there are a few things you’ll need to look out for - the action, the finish and the sound.
The action of the guitar is basically how the guitar feels to play. You can probably tell if a guitar is hard to play straight away by feeling how far away the strings sit from the fretboard. If they are very far away, it is possible to get a luthier to adjust the action of the guitar if it is too high for comfort. Other things to look out for are making sure the neck is straight, any notes that don’t sound clear up and down the fretboard and any notes that may be buzzing.
The finish of the guitar should be fairly easy to check. If there are any cracks, dents, marks, scuffs or uneven parts on the guitar, have a closer look at what it could be caused by or if it is just cosmetic. Guitars nowadays are so well manufactured that this shouldn’t be an issue, but it is always worth looking out for as any defect from purchase will have the potential to get worse over time, especially when checking for cracks as this could be more structurally integral than you may realise.
The sound, whilst purely subjective for the most part, is something to really consider when looking for your perfect first instrument. Aside from the pitfalls of the action (buzzing frets, choking notes etc), you can usually hear if the guitar you’re playing has a pleasing sound. On classical/steel strung guitars, this is very much determined by the woods that are used and the style of bracing that is applied, but the materials used throughout like the strings, nut, saddle and bridge can also all add up to have an impact on the overall sound. When it comes to electrics however, the sound is far more determined by which pickups have been used, any amp you go through and any pedals that are linked in between. For the best result to hear the true sound of your electric, get a clean tone on the amp first to make sure there isn’t any unwanted buzzing sounds and then dial in an overdriven tone to see how it responds to a crunchy sound!
Whilst taking all this information into account, there will always be exceptions to the rules, all of which should be considered before making your purchase. The right guitar for you should fit your person, both sitting down and standing up, be the correct weight, be free from defects and most of all sound and feel great to you. Remember that even though someone else may dislike the guitar, if you like it and want to play it – then it’s probably a good buy!
For more in depth information, read our blog on Steel String Acoustic Guitars - Does size make a difference?