A buyer's guide for novice guitar players. Buying a guitar is easy once you know what you're looking for. Knowledge is power when buying an instrument, and salespeople are ready to make you spend top dollar. Be armed! Bring a friend shopping, and don't forget to take some lessons with your new guitar.
Purchasing a guitar for a beginning student up to a working professional shouldn’t be a regrettable experience. Approaching the process with a little know-how and common sense, the task can be easy, fun and productive for anyone at any age.
Deciding your needs
Like many other purchases, such as sound equipment, cars, clothes or jewelry, choosing a guitar first requires that you establish your budget. In many cases, you get what you pay for, and there isn’t usually a secret or special bargain to be had. The “too good to be true” adage most often applies.
Since we are limiting our choices to non-electric guitars, here are the basics about acoustic guitars:
Steel guitars are simply reinforced-construction instruments that are designed to be fitted with metallic strings. These make a very distinctive sound and produce a great deal of volume. They’re best suited for advanced players because the strings are so sharp that they cut the skin of the left hand very harshly unless you’re accustomed to playing at least 2-3 hours per day. Also, the shape of the body and neck are not ideally designed for virtuosic playing. The “action” is rather slow, making them difficult to use as you’re learning. The steel guitar cannot be strung with other strings, as they will not be strong enough to hold in place.
Nylon guitars began their history in the 17th century as gut-stringed, re-fashioned lutes. Today, the nylon is straight cut for the upper strings and metal-wound for the lowers. They don’t cut your skin like steel, but like anything else, they take a little building up of finger-tolerance. After a few weeks of playing, you’ll develop small calluses on the tips of your left hand, making the feel of a nylon guitar 100% comfortable. The nylon guitar cannot use steel strings, which will cause permanent damage to the instrument.
Making the choice:
I start all students on nylon. Any instrument that causes a new player pain, usually results in the student quitting. And that defeats the purpose.
Quality of Materials:
The sound quality of all acoustic guitars is solely determined by its top (also known as sound board.) In lower-end instruments, the top is made of plywood with a veneer image of usually spruce or cedar. The tops of higher end instruments are usually white spruce or cedar, with each having its own distinctive tone color.
Some factory-made instruments use genuine woods, but prices usually begin in the $3000+ category. There are exceptions.
How are Nylon Guitars categorized?
Like many quality items, the simplest way to distinguish guitars are by price. A playable guitar for a young child can be priced as little as $150 for a new production instrument. Adult models can begin as low as about $185 for a new factory instrument. The most expensive new instruments (not factory-made) by custom luthiers cost between $10,000 and $50,000, usually with 3-8 years on a wait list.
All new instruments under that price range will be factory-made, even if the retailer or the label indicates it is handmade. Be aware of this, especially when purchasing new instruments in the $2000-$8000 range.
The up-to-$500 category offers a lot of choices. Unfortunately, more than half of the models on the US market are so horribly uncomfortable to play that it’s likely to be a wasted investment. Your “beginner” guitar is one that won’t work for your lifetime as a playable instrument. Expect to get 2-4 years out of it, regardless of your size or age. After that, you’ll graduate to an instrument that offers more dynamic range and specific techniques of playing that you can’t garner from a beginner/inexpensive model.
In addition to bringing an experienced player shopping with you to test out guitars, here are a few models I recommend, in order of preference:
1. Jasmine JS441 Nylon-String Acoustic Guitar
+/- $160 without case
Made by the Takemini company, I have several students playing this guitar currently. This is a terrific value, very well balanced and comfortable for anyone to play from ages 10- adult
2. Yamaha CG142S Spruce Top Classical Guitar
+/- $300 without case
Yamaha has been building decent student instruments since 1887 and it’s always a sure purchase as a first instrument. This one has a synthesized spruce top, and is one of the most playable in the price range.
3. Cordoba C5 Acoustic Nylon String Classical Guitar
+/- $325 without case
The C5 is a nice alternative to the Jasmine, only because of the synthesized cedar top. Has a warm, Spanish-y sound and is fairly easy to play. I like the Jasmine better, but once you’re out shopping, it’s worth comparing these.
Guitars to avoid:
In general, you’ll spend less for a reduced-scale instruments. ¾ guitars are for children 8-10 years of age. ½ size for up to age 8. Don’t try to save money buying a scaled guitar for an adult.
Avoid these, in no particular order:
Ibanez acoustics and classicals: a bargain, but they’re so hard to play you’ll use them as a wall ornament
These are made of plastic. Don’t even look.
Some thoughts on used and vintage instruments:
Purchasing a used instrument, either from a local guitar salon or an auction website or EBay is really best left to discerning buyers. Repairs can be deceptive and getting what you think you’ve paid for requires quite a bit of know-how. However, if you’re adventurous, here are some recommendations for mid-price vintage makers that often show up on the open market
Here is a pristeen 1959 Martin 00-18G
Here is a beautiful vintage 1970 Hernandis 1A:
Here is a vintage Conn, ca early 1980s:
Ileen Zovluck's primary instrument is made by AH Chapman, #380.
* The cover image is one of the finest guitars currently made, a 2002 Greg Smallman (Australia)