Even after learning some of the fundamentals of how to play the guitar, there are often many important features of the instrument that are still unclear. In this blog post I will discuss some of the key components to consider when purchasing a guitar, so you can can choose the right model—whether for a beginner or for someone that is already playing and is ready for an upgrade.
What to look for when buying a guitar
When it comes to guitars, while there are many overarching themes and expectations, there really aren’t too many hard-set rules. For every guitar “rule” you will encounter, there is invariably an exception to that rule. For example, if I were to say that guitars come with 6 strings or 12 strings, that is mostly true. However, you can also buy a guitar with 7 or 8 strings and increasingly in some genres of music, that may be the preferred configuration. So, while I discuss the basics that need to be considered and remembered when you are deciding which guitar will best meet your needs, make sure to remember none of this is set in stone. Frankly, it has been those players that don’t strictly adhere to expectations or convention that are responsible for the innovation and originality that amazes and delights us all.
Types of guitars
Guitars will fall into one of two categories, electric or acoustic. Even that is an oversimplification as there are hybrid models (generally called an electric acoustic or acoustic electric) that can be played acoustically or with amplification so immediately, we see the porous nature of these types of barriers or categories. I’ll go over the main types to help you choose the right one for you.
At its core, a true acoustic guitar has no electronic components (although you can add an acoustic pickup later if desired). An acoustic guitar has a large hollow body and an opening underneath the strings. This opening is the sound hole and when you strum or pluck strings, the vibration of those strings resonate inside the body of the guitar and is projected out through the sound hole which is what we will ultimately hear. Almost every component in this process from the type of strings on the guitar to what wood is used in the construction of the guitar will affect the sound we hear.
Nylon string vs steel strings acoustic guitars
You can get an acoustic guitar with either nylon strings or steel strings. The composition of the guitar’s strings has a significant bearing on the sound produced. Each string on a guitar is of a different gauge (thickness) and tension which is why they each produce a specific note. It is the frequency of the vibration from each string that creates these tones.
Nylon string acoustic guitars
I learned to play guitar on a nylon stringed classical guitar and one advantage is that the strings are under less tension than on their steel stringed counterparts. This makes it easier to depress the strings on the fretboard and is less taxing on your fingers. One of the early frustrations with learning guitar is that it can hurt your fingers until you have developed appropriate callouses. It may hurt less learning with nylon strings than with steel strings.
Classical acoustic guitars do have a larger neck (wider and thicker) than steel stringed acoustic guitars. As such, it may be difficult to manoeuvre the fretboard if you have smaller hands. The term classical guitar also refers to the style of playing and features more finger picking although this guitar is limitless in musical stylings and can be used to play almost anything. Due to the wider neck, there is more distance between strings and this does allow you more intricacies in picking strings without hitting adjacent strings.
Steel string acoustic guitars
When most people think about an acoustic guitar, they imagine the traditional steel stringed version. This guitar covers the full gamut of musical styles from blues and classic rock to country, bluegrass, rock, and pop music. As you might surmise from the genres covered, there is a large variety of techniques that can be played on a steel string acoustic guitar. You can finger pick, strum, tap, slide, and more. The list is seemingly endless. One advantage this guitar type has over its classical nylon stringed sibling is the thinner neck which makes it easier to play although the increased string tension isn’t exactly finger friendly. It is something that you will have to work through regardless but it does get better over time.
Electric acoustic guitars
I truly believe that there are few things in life that can compare to the feeling you get when you strum a power chord and hear some distorted behemoth of a sound rumble out of your amp’s speakers. As there is no hollow body on (most) electric guitars, you do not have the volume of an acoustic when simply playing without plugging in. You can hear what you are playing as the strings still vibrate, but you do not have any appreciable volume. Thus, an electric guitar needs some form of amplification to really shine. You can also add guitar effects like echo, delay, chorus, or distortion to further create that amazing sound you hear in your head. The electric guitar is used in almost every style or genre of music but is certainly thought of with the country/blues/jazz/rock/metal/punk genres.
Types of guitar woods
You usually have one wood for the neck of the guitar, for example maple, with another wood like ebony overlaid on the maple. This is the wood you see from the front, that your hand interacts with, and that houses the frets. You can have the same wood for both, for example a rosewood neck and rosewood fingerboard, but it isn’t that common.
The primary wood used in many acoustic guitars, at least for the sides and the back of the guitar’s body, is mahogany. Mahogany is relatively inexpensive, can withstand a lot, looks good, and is a resonant wood. Other popular wood types are alder, ash, basswood, walnut, maple, and rosewood among many others. Alder is popular for electric guitar bodies as it isn’t too heavy, produces beefy tones, and looks good when painted.
While each wood has a tonal quality, remember that it is still just a part of the entire sound package. Strings, picks, technique, amps, effects, and the like all have a say in your sound. Most affordable guitars are made from more affordable wood. Simple as that. The wood used probably matters more for an acoustic than an electric guitar anyway. This is not to say that wood type does not matter for an electric guitar, it just likely matters less to the overall tone because of things like amplifiers and effects which allow you to really sculpt a specific sound. You should always try out several different guitars when looking to purchase one. Make notes of what woods they are constructed from and you may find that there is a particular wood that best suits your ears.
Choosing the correct size
Without going into significant detail, some of the smaller variations are often referred to by the names travel guitars, junior guitars, mini guitars, compact guitars, ¾ guitars, ½ guitars, or even ¼ guitars. This can get even more confusing when you realize that a ½ guitar is in fact more than half the size of a full 4/4 guitar. For most children under 10, a full 4/4 acoustic guitar is probably too cumbersome to play. I even know a few adults that still play a ¾ guitar as they feel more comfortable with it. While a child will grow into a larger guitar, this should be tempered with the fear that if it is too large and awkward, they may be resistant to playing it.
You will likely play your guitar with a pick although classical guitar is often played only with fingers and thumb for plucking and strumming. Picks come in different thicknesses and are really a preference for each player. Try a bunch out and see which feels most comfortable for you. Also, always have spare sets of strings around because one will break and it is usually at the exact moment you don’t want it to, like when you don’t have an extra set.
Find the right guitar for you
While this is only an overview of the basics to consider, I hope it helps you as you get ready to buy your first guitar or upgrade to a more advanced model. At the least, it may have got you to think about something that you hadn’t considered before. You can find acoustic and electric guitars, as well as guitar accessories at Best Buy online.