The guitar industry is huge! Guitar sales in the US alone in 2020 came in at 1.67 billion dollars! That’s a lot of guitars changing hands, and a lot of manufacturers pushing for your hard-earned dollar!
Because of this, if you’re a beginner the acoustic guitar landscape can be a confusing one to navigate, especially if this is your first acoustic guitar and you don’t really know the right questions to ask, let alone have the answers.
- How much should you spend?
Should you get started on a cheap, budget guitar if at the beginner level, or will that hold you back?
- Should you start on acoustic or electric guitar?
Is it better to get started on the acoustic guitar or if you intend to play electric guitar is it better to start the way you intend to finish?
- Should you buy a new or second-hand guitar?
Is it too risky to buy secondhand if you don’t have in-depth knowledge of guitars?
- Should you buy online or in-store?
Is it safe to buy a guitar without playing it first?
- What type of guitar is going to suit you best?
Should you buy a classical guitar with nylon strings or a steel-string acoustic guitar? Do the different body styles matter? Do you need an acoustic-electric guitar with a pickup?
- Which brands can you trust?
What brands should you be aware of and which should you avoid?
- What potential problems should you be on the lookout for?
How do you know if you are buying a guitar with problems?
- How do you know if you are getting a good deal?
Nobody likes to pay more than they should, how do you know you’re getting a good price?
In our newbie’s acoustic guitar buying guide below, we’ll answer each of these questions, and a few more you possibly haven’t thought of yet and help you find the perfect guitar.
But, first things first, let’s talk budget…
How Much You Should Spend on a First Acoustic Guitar
Beginner guitarists should spend between $250.00 – $800.00
Based on the broad price range suggested above, there’s really no easy answer to this question.
Some will tell you to spend very little on your first guitar. And, you can see their point. After all, despite that initial enthusiasm that invariably comes with starting a new hobby, you have no way of knowing if it’s something you’re going to stick with.
You (Still) Get What You Pay For
All things considered, I recommend spending at least $250 when first starting out, if not more.
A cheap guitar, lacking the quality control of a higher-priced model, will almost certainly slow your progress and be more difficult to play.
If you settle for a cheap acoustic guitar you will increase your chances of encountering poor fretwork, tone destroying thick laminate wood tops, inexpensive hardware e.g. cheap tuners that don’t keep your guitar in tune, and in general an uninspiring guitar.
If you really want to give the acoustic guitar a chance, bypass the cheap options, avoid laminate in favor of solid wood tops and ensure you are buying a guitar that will motivate you to play it.
There are plenty of decent affordable guitars in the $250 + range from brands such as Yamaha, Alvarez, Recording King, and Tanglewood.
Should you start on acoustic or electric guitar?
New guitarists should start on the guitar that most inspires them to play.
While there are plenty of persuasive arguments for either, in my opinion, the choice should really come back to the style of music you intend to play.
In years gone by, the advice has always been to start on the acoustic guitar.
The reason for this was it was technically more difficult and would serve to build up your finger strength, and dexterity, and hone your technique. However, most guitar teachers now recommend starting on the guitar that inspired you to play music in the first place and is going to suit that particular playing style.
Put it this way, if you are inspired by hard rock and metal, the acoustic isn’t a good option. Likewise, if you are inspired by folk music, an electric guitar may not be the best option for you.
I’ve written about the differences between acoustic and electric guitar in more detail here.
Should You Buy A New or Second-hand Acoustic Guitar?
New, unless you have someone with experience that can help you avoid buying a lemon.
If you know what you are doing, and want more bang for your buck, I’d recommend the second-hand market. eBay and Reverb.com make it relatively easy to find a great deal and if you set things up correctly, you can receive daily updates from both sites showing the newest guitars that match your specific preferences.
But, if this is your first guitar, and you really don’t know what you are doing and don’t have experienced players that can advise you, it’s safer to go with a new guitar.
A new guitar will come with a warranty, and after-sales support from the retailer you buy from and is far less likely to have problems. If unsure which is the best option for you, we’ve covered this in more detail here.
Should you buy your first acoustic guitar online or in-store?
Unless you know what you are doing, avoid buying a secondhand guitar online.
Again, this mostly comes down to knowing what to look out for, and if you are buying new or secondhand.
If the price is the primary driver, and you prefer to shop around, you can do your research online, and if possible find a store where you can play the guitar ‘in the flesh’ and then find the best price online.
Buying online opens up a lot of potential options you wouldn’t have if keeping it local. But, alternatively, there’s no reason why you can’t find a deal online and ask your local store if they can get the guitar in for you and match the price. You never know, if you don’t ask.
You can read my complete guide to buying an acoustic guitar online here.
What type of acoustic guitar is going to suit you best?
Knowing the type of music you want to play is one thing, knowing the right instrument for the job is another.
Acoustic guitars come in a variety of body shapes and sizes, and the combination greatly affects the playability and tonal qualities of the guitar.
Guitar makers build guitars with all of this in mind, ensuring some guitars are better suited to particular styles of music than others.
Generally speaking, larger guitars offer more volume, bass response, and projection making them better suited to being played louder or playing accompanied.
A smaller body such as a concert or parlor guitar will be better suited to playing with a lighter touch. You may also want to consider a cutaway if access to the upper frets of the guitar is important to you.
But that’s a very simplistic take on what can quickly become a complicated discussion.
I’ve written a complete guide to acoustic guitar body styles and sizes here, which explains how the design of an acoustic guitar affects the guitar’s tone, volume, and response.
The other consideration is the wood your guitar is built from. Different species of timbers offer different acoustic qualities based on the characteristics of the wood itself e.g. hardness, density, and flexible strength.
You can check out my complete guide to acoustic guitar tonewoods here, which explains the influence tonewoods have on tone and playability.
Lastly, if you are considering an acoustic guitar with a pickup you can read my complete guide to acoustic-electric guitars here, which lists the pros and cons of owning an acoustic guitar that can be amplified.
What Brands are Worth Looking at?
There are plenty of manufacturers offering quality, affordable acoustic guitars, but unless you know the market it’s difficult to know who you can really trust.
Keep in mind, especially for a first guitar, that while the brand name on the headstock is important in terms of resale value, you ultimately want a reliable guitar that will allow you to make progress.
Trying to balance quality and price can be tricky, so if you aren’t sure which brands you can trust, I’ve written a guide to some of the best (underrated) acoustic guitar brands here.
What Should you be on the Lookout For?
Guitars can come with problems that affect their playability and the sound they produce, especially if bought secondhand. But how do you know what to be on the lookout for, and how to properly inspect a new (or secondhand) acoustic guitar if you’ve never purchased a guitar before?
Knowing how to inspect a guitar prior to purchasing is important, especially if buying secondhand as there are warning signs you should be aware of. Guitar necks in particular (being the interface for the guitar) should be carefully scrutinized, including looking for evidence of a structural repair to the neck or headstock.
Other problems include the bridge starting to lift, frets that require leveling and dressing, and hardware problems, especially with regard to the tuners (machine heads) and their impact on tuning stability.
While the majority of problems that are seen on acoustic guitars are repairable, you really don’t want to buy a guitar, only to have to learn how to adjust the truss rod or pay to have a setup and fretwork done when buying a first guitar.
tips for buying an acoustic guitar
Lastly, below is a list of practical tips to keep in mind when buying an acoustic guitar. Some of these may be obvious, some less so.
- Take a friend and have them play the guitar while you listen. It’s amazing what you can hear when not focusing on playing.
- Read reviews, plenty of them. Try to find the reviews that offer specifics in terms of the tone and playability of the guitar itself and avoid rants. If people have very strong feelings but say nothing specific, it says more about them than the instrument.
- Avoid acoustic-electric guitars unless you can spend around the $500 — $600 mark and already own an amp.
- Pick a price range and stick to it. Too many people come out of music stores spending way more than they thought they were going to. Do your research, and know what’s out there.
- Play as many guitars as you can (not just popular models) and get a feel for what you like, rather than what simply appears to be the popular choice. Make a mental note of the components that affect playability including the neck profile, scale length, and woods the guitar is made from.
- If you find a guitar with a neck that feels particularly comfortable, make a note of the neck profile e.g. C or V shape, etc. nut width in inches, and fretboard material e.g. Indian Rosewood.
- Invest your allocated budget into the guitar and not accessories. You don’t need a pickup when learning to play guitar and you don’t need a slide, capo (not right away), or decorative leather guitar strap. You definitely will need a reliable tuner, but aside from that put your entire budget into the guitar, and get yourself the best guitar you can afford to get started on. You’ll be glad you did.
- Don’t get hung up on brand names. While some of the more iconic brand names such as Gibson, Taylor, and Martin are popular for a reason, you really don’t need to invest this kind of money on a first guitar.
- Ask for the store’s best price. Some guitars are marked up by as much as 50%, depending on the time of year, and guitar stores need to turn over stock regularly. Give it a shot, without being annoying, you may be surprised at the price you can buy the guitar.
I hope the information above, helps you find the perfect guitar for you. Keep in mind, that how the guitar sounds, for the most part, is purely subjective. So, while the information above should help you make a more astute purchase, mostly your choice of guitar will come down to two things, your ears.
If the price is right and you like what you hear regardless of your skill level, you like the feel of the guitar, and it doesn’t have any problems that would otherwise affect playability it’s likely a quality acoustic guitar and the right choice for you, regardless of the brand name or price tag.
At the end of the day, it really doesn’t need to get any more complicated than that.