Children’s Guitar Guide: How to pick the right size guitar for your child

Want to give your kids the best introduction to guitar possible? Getting them started, on the right foot starts with the right size guitar. Get it wrong and your child has an instrument that instead of bringing joy will lead to frustration. In the following guide we’ll walk through the available options and teach you how to pick the right size guitar for your child along with some additional considerations you may be unaware of if not familiar with guitar.

The short answer

  • ¼ size: 5 – 7 year olds
  • ½ size: 7 – 9 year olds
  • ¾ size: 9 – 11 year olds
  • ⅞ and full size: 11 years +

Learning an instrument has shown all kinds of positive benefits for children but those first few weeks really are make or break. As a father I know how frustrating it can be when your child is learning their first open chord shapes only for their hands, not to be able to wrap around the neck and fret the required notes. This is especially the case when teaching chords such as C Major with both treble and bass strings to be fretted and a stretch required between the index, middle and ring fingers.

Because of this difficulty, hand size, in particular hand span is the most important consideration when it comes to choosing a guitar for a child. Age and height are indicators, and for the most part correlate with hand size which is why age or height are often included in guitar size charts. But ideally the guitar you choose for your child will match their hand size and allow them to reach every string and play chord shapes cleanly.

The chart below shows guitar size recommendations based on age. I’ve also added a column for hand length and span. If unsure, check your child’s measurements against the recommended size column. If your child has a smaller or larger handspan or hand length I’d recommend basing your decision on this more metric more than age.

Age Avg. Hand Span Avg. Hand Length Recommended Size Scale Length (average. only)
1 – 4 NA – 4.75” 4.75 – 5″ Toy Guitar NA
5 – 7 5.75” – 6.25” 5 – 7″ 1/4 18.50” – 19”
7 – 9 6.25” – 6.75” 6 – 8″ 1/2 20.8” – 21.5”
9 – 11 6.75” – 7.25” 7 – 8″ + 3/4 23.4” – 24.1”
11 + 7.25” + 8″ + 7/8 24.4” – 24.8”
Full size 24.75” – 25.4”

Avg. hand span data sourced from
Pianist hand spans: Gender and ethnic differences and implications for piano playing
Australasian Piano Pedagogy Conference, At Melbourne, Australia Conference Paper

Hand Length sourced from
https://www.crochetrochelle.com/2012/08/hand-size-chart.html

What is hand span?

Child HandspanHandspan is is the distance between the tip of the thumb and little finger when the hand is outstretched. It is a reliable indicator when it comes to children’s ability to reach all strings and play open chord shapes.

Understanding Scale Length

It’s fair to assume that when most people who aren’t familiar with guitar hear guitars referenced as quarter or half size they are assuming this is the actual size of the guitar from headstock to bottom of the guitar body.



But, these numbers represent ‘scale length’ as a fraction e.g. ¼ , ½ , ¾, ⅞ and full size.

scale length

Scale length is the distance from the nut to the bridge. This distance represents the length of the string that is able to vibrate, due to the nut and saddle being the first and last point of contact for the strings. It is also the distance from the nut to the 12th fret, doubled.

You might be thinking, 1/2 size doesn’t look exactly half the distance between the nut and bridge as a full size guitar, and you would be correct. These numbers aren’t based on actual sizes and are simply used to differentiate between the available sizes.

Why Does Scale Length Matter?

Aside from a child’s ability to reach all of the strings and play comfortably, scale length also governs the tension of the strings.

The longer the scale length the more tension required to tune the string to the correct pitch. So in the case of a guitar with a shorter scale length, the strings are easier to fret, bend and play in general.

Neck Profile

The term neck profile refers to the shape of the back of the neck which plays a large role in how easily a person can wrap their hands around the guitar’s neck. Typical options include C, V and U shaped necks with C being the narrowest of the three and as a result more ideally suited to smaller hands.

Classical guitars tend to have wider fingerboards than steel string and electric guitars. One of the reasons for this is nylon strings are played with the fingers and require more space between strings than electric guitars. Because of this, the neck profile should be narrow to compensate.

While ‘neck profile’ is often a consideration for full size and top line guitars, in the case of children’s guitars this is less likely to be listed as a specification. In this case I’d recommend (if ordering sight unseen) that you check with the retailer then the neck profile is a thin C shape. If your child has the opportunity to play the guitar prior to purchase, check the neck profile against other models and compare.

Other Considerations when Buying a guitar for Your Child

Yamaha FG JR1 3/4 Size Acoustic Guitar with Gig Bag - (Natural)
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Yamaha FG JR1 3/4 Size Acoustic Guitar with Gig Bag - (Natural)
  • Built with the legendary quality and playability
  • 3/4 size for easy travel and comfortable playing
  • Ideal first guitar for a child
  • Guitar features a Spruce top, Indonesian Back and Sides, Nato Neck and a Javanese Rosewood fingerboa
  • Includes Gigbag

Electric or Acoustic?

Child with electric guitar

For children, I’d recommend starting on an acoustic guitar. There are many people who will tell you to be guided by the music you are most interested in but this is far less of a consideration when it comes to children who have not yet developed strong musical tastes.

Additional advantages for children starting out on acoustic include:

  • Lighter in weight
  • Less equipment required
  • Electric guitars are easier to play, good technique is not as scrutinised
  • More available options in smaller sizes
  • Less expensive

All things considered, while an electric guitar may get your child more excited about playing guitar, particularly if they prefer rock for example (and that is a valid consideration) there are advantages to starting out on acoustic that will allow the young guitarist to develop better technique.

Acoustic guitar are less forgiving, you tend to hear all the notes, both good and bad. When learning it is important to hear mistakes as they are being made to allow you to correct mistakes in your playing and improve your technique.



Additionally, as acoustic guitars tend to require heavier gauge strings and the action is typically higher than on an electric guitar the child will develop the required hand strength to play guitar much faster.

Lastly, as guitarists we improve the longer the guitar is in our hands. Electric guitars require additional equipment, making them less accessible and less likely to be played compared to an acoustic guitar.

Steel String or Nylon?

Classical Acoustic Guitar Kid Beginner Guitar 36 Inch 3/4 Size Nylon Strings Guitar
  • Easy Tunning Heads: It is easy to adjust with the chrome geared tuning head to keep the guitar in tune. Smooth tuning pegs help a lot for people who are in hopes of training and learning classical guitar on their own.
  • Guitar Material: Features a solid basswood Top and sturdy & full-size dreadnought body with smooth curves, promoting comfort during playing. These solid basswood produce a smooth, rich, full and vibrant sound ideal for rock, folk, country and so on.
  • Guitar Strings: Nylon strings are traditionally used for classical music, folk or any other style of music. But for nylon strings, it'll take time for the strings as well as the wood to adapt the pulling force. You may need to tune the guitar several times until the force is balanced and tune is settled.
  • Guitar Size: 36 inch 3/4 size small size classical guitar is very suitable for child and adults who like small guitar.
  • Guitar Gift Choice: It would be a wonderful gift for child or adult guitar beginners. Usable by musicians of all levels. It really provides so much for such a small instrument.

The obvious choice is nylon as it is far less painful on the fingers to play. It’s been said that kids give up on an instrument within the first three weeks. I’d be fairly confident that most of the time kids quit guitar due to the strings hurting their fingers.

The difference between a Nylon and Steel String Guitar

Aside from the strings themselves, there are differences between steel and nylon string guitars (classical or flamenco guitars).

The first thing you may notice is the slotted headstock, while this is mainly due to tradition, there is conjecture that slotted headstocks allow a greater angle for the headstock which produces cleaner sounding open notes.

Secondly, you may notice nylon string guitars don’t include a pickguard. This is because nylon string guitars are not designed to be played with picks. This will be much less of a problem for a child’s guitar and I personally recommend children begin playing guitar using a pick from the beginning so they do not have to adjust to using picks further along.

You may be tempted to put nylon strings on a steel string guitar. There’s no harm in doing this but the guitar won’t sound ideal. Steel string guitars have thicker tops and additional bracing to counter the tension created by steel strings. If you restring with nylon strings, the guitar itself will be fine but wont resonate as strongly, meaning it will project less volume.

How much to spend?

This really comes back to if your child wants an instrument or a toy?

If you child is 7 or under, I wouldn’t recommend spending a lot of money. There’s definitely an argument to be made regarding quality, and that’s important if you want your child to be inspired to play but it’s also a fact that children grow very fast at this age and you are unlikely to sell a used children’s guitar.

If your child is serious about learning I’d recommend a reliable brand such as Yamaha. Yamaha are known for providing good value when it comes to musical instruments and will be much higher quality than many of the brands that specialise only in children’s guitars.

What About Travel Guitars?

Martin Backpacker Nylon String Acoustic Guitar
Traveler Guitar, 6-String Acoustic-Electric Guitar, Right, Antique Brown, (ULA ABNS)
Martin Backpacker Nylon String Acoustic Guitar
Traveler Guitar, 6-String Acoustic-Electric Guitar, Right, Antique Brown, (ULA ABNS)
-
Martin Backpacker Nylon String Acoustic Guitar
Martin Backpacker Nylon String Acoustic Guitar
-
Traveler Guitar, 6-String Acoustic-Electric Guitar, Right, Antique Brown, (ULA ABNS)
Traveler Guitar, 6-String Acoustic-Electric Guitar, Right, Antique Brown, (ULA ABNS)

I wouldn’t recommend buying a travel guitar for a child, unless it has a reduced scale length. Don’t buy a travel guitar assuming the scale length is shorter than standard however.

In the case of some travel guitars the scale length is the same as a full size guitar, it is only the body that has been reduced to make it easier to travel with.

Should Children Start on Ukulele?

A ukulele is not simply a small guitar. Learning any musical instrument will provide some benefits if switching to guitar at a later age but as ukuleles have just four strings and are tuned differently to guitars. Because of this, the chord shapes and scales a child learns won’t transfer to guitar.

So while there are some benefits in starting your child on a ukulele, its best to start them on the instrument they intend to play long term.

What to look for in a Child’s Guitar?

 

Action

Action refers to the height of the strings from the fingerboard. If this is particularly high, it will be more difficult to press down on the strings making the guitar more difficult to play. If they are too low, fret buzz (as previously mentioned) will be more of a concern.

Neck Straightness

Steel string and electric guitars have truss rods. Truss rods are tension rods that run through the wood of the neck and allow the neck to be adjusted to counter the neck having too much relief or backward bowing. If a guitar neck has too much relief the action around the 12th fret will be too high and make the guitar difficult to play. If the neck doesn’t have sufficient relief the strings will hit the frets when vibrating causing ‘fret buzz’.

Most nylon string guitars (this will almost always be the case for children’s guitars) will not include a truss rod. Because of this it is important you check the straightness of the neck prior to purchasing the guitar as it wont be able to be adjusted later. If the neck has too much relief or backward bow I’d recommend moving on to the next guitar.

Tuning/Intonation

Intonation describes the guitars ability to be in tune with itself. E.g. do the notes played higher up the neck correspond with the tuning of the notes closer to the nut of the guitar? Most children learning guitar will mostly be concerned with the first three frets as this is where the majority of open chords they learn first will be played but it is something to consider, especially if your child progresses quickly.

Accessories

Your last consideration when purchasing a guitar for your child will be accessories.  For the most part I’d recommend two accessories with one being non negotiable.

Tuner: You simply must have a tuner if you want your child to learn guitar. Providing your child a tool that will ensure the guitar is in tune is essential. There are a number of options, from microphone based tuners to contact tuners that measure the frequency of vibrations from the strings. I personally would recommend a clip on contact tuner.

Metronome: Learning to play in time is essential. A metronome provides a steady rhythm for the young guitarist to play along to and ensure they are keeping correct time. A traditional metronome can be purchased from your local musical instrument retailer or there are many apps now available that are simple to use to do a solid job.

Chord Chart/ Book: Beginner guitarists require reference material as they will not always be able to ask for advice. A chord chart book is a relatively inexpensive item that can be kept in a guitar case or guitar bag and used as required if your child forgets a specific chord shape or wants to learn something new.

A Final note about Guitars and Kids

As a father of three. I’ve often told other parents that one of the best things they can do for their kids is raise them on a diet of ‘good’ music.

What do I mean by good?

While music is subjective, music that requires dedication to a chosen instrument can help teach children valuable llife lessons about perseverance, dedication, focus and discipline.

The benefit in doing this?

Kids that appreciate good musicianship are far less tempted to listen to what is currently playing on the radio and the poor messaging kids receive through this type of music. I make zero apologies for this point of view and consider it doing the right thing by my kids. Naturally this all stems from a love of guitar, so getting your kids started out the right way on guitar is a matter of importance.

Marty


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