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Learning to play guitar is a pretty intimidating concept. In most cases, the person thinking about getting into guitars has never really had extended or informed contact with musical instruments before. Which is fine, that's how we all start.
Although understanding the basics of a guitar is complicated enough as it is, let alone trying to play with some semblance of skill, the real confusion starts when you try to find a good beginner option. The advice floating around out there is usually geared to intermediates and experts. But what about our underserved community of beginners?
No worries, we've got your back. As you have probably guessed by now, this is exactly what we are going to talk about today. The goal of this guide is to arm you with all the necessary information you could need as a beginner to make an informed decision before making a purchase.
We are going to break some misconceptions and lay down some hard truths. Then we have some hand selected electric and acoustic recommendations for those on the hunt. With that said, let's get started.
One of the main concerns of new guitar players is whether or not their first guitar will cut it. In most cases, the answer is going to be a strong yes. A good beginner guitar will have everything you could possibly need in order to get started and not too much more. You don't necessarily want all of the added complexity in the early stages of learning to play. With that said, you should also realize that there's a real connection between price and performance, too. You likely do and this is where the fear arises, but it's not a problem.
What we mean by this is that a starter guitar is cheaper because the manufacturer chose to cut corners in few places. Does that make the guitar bad?
Not necessarily, because these aren't choices that affect performance, just maintenance. Beginner guitars are made with that specific purpose in mind, to keep you learning instead of stuck tinkering.
Here's the type of features you will often run into with a good guitar for beginners...
Looking at the hardware, you are mostly going to see basic components. In other words, the bridge will likely be a simple fixed design, while the tuners won't be a locking type. There are some exceptions to this unwritten rule. Certain beginner guitars feature tremolo bridges, but it is highly recommended to stay away from those for now.
The main reason for this is the fact that tremolo bridges require precision manufacturing as well as proper materials. Otherwise, they can really make playing guitar complicated. With some guitars, just using the tremolo bridge can knock the instrument out of tune. And that's with a costly option, let alone a cheap one. This isn't something you want to deal with as an amateur.
When it comes to pickups for beginner electric guitars, most models will still feature the most basic stuff here too. What this means is that almost every guitar in this category is going to have passive pickups. One of the most popular styles of beginner electric guitars like this is the Stratocaster. It's easy to see why considering this is one of the most legendary models out there for professionals and starters alike.
The only issue with Strats is that they usually feature single-coil pickups. This type of pickup suffers from what is known as coil buzz. It is a type of interference in the signal, which is impossible to get rid of. This issue is present with top tier guitars too, but is exponentially amplified on cheaper guitars.
For that reason alone, we strongly suggest that you look into a guitar that packs a set of humbuckers, which are double-coil pickups that 'buck the hum' through noise-canceling tech. If you want to know how they work, here is a great explanation, but all you need to know is even the cheapest humbuckers won't suffer from coil buzz.
Now that we know what beginner guitars generally offer, there are certain aspects in which they are lacking compared to more expensive models. From a distance, it's really hard to figure out whether a guitar is a top tier one or not. There are some giveaways, but these are definitely not a rule either since some professionals prefer simplicity in function and look. Here are some clues to help you figure it out:
While it is not necessarily a feature, the overall build quality in a beginner option is not going to be equivalent to that of a pro model. To give you an example, a more expensive guitar is going to be fairly polished. This means a smooth neck with precisely machined frets and tight tolerances all around.
On the other hand, cheaper guitars will show much more rugged edges and fitment. Aesthetics are kept at a minimum as well. You won't see mind-blowing finishes, nor things like the binding on the top or neck of the guitar. Instead, most affordable beginner guitars will offer the most basic finish and accoutrements possible.
In all honesty, aesthetics aren't that important, nor are they a metric by which you should gauge any guitar's quality in performance. A top tier finish is often times expensive without adding any tangible audio quality or boost to player performance.
Active pickups and electronics are something that is reserved for mid range and high-end electric guitars. Not only are the pickups a bit more complex to manufacture, but there are also built in preamps which aren't cheap either.
Do you need an active set of pickups? No, but you might want them. This will depend on your taste, style, and genre of music you're playing. There are plenty of guitar players out there who prefer a high-end set of passive pickups over active ones. Passive electronics are inherently a lot more expressive.
The main appeal of active pickups is their boosted output. However, there are plenty of passive humbuckers for example, which are pretty hot as well:
Again, it all comes down to what kind of tone you want. One is not inherently better than the other, especially with all of the post-processing methods we have in effects pedals, amplifiers, and in mixing.
One of the biggest problems most beginner guitars have is hardware. The pickups are fine for the most part, but your bridge and tuners can give you a lot of trouble. There's good and bad news regarding this. The good news is that hardware on beginner guitars keeps getting better and better.
The bad news is that you still won't see eternally reliable components in this segment of the market (or any market). In practical terms, this means that your tuners won't hold a key for as long a period of time as more expensive options. This is especially true if you go hard on string bends or similar maneuvers.
Swapping the hardware for an aftermarket set is possible, but it is rarely worth doing considering the price of such a project. On the bright side, having to check and adjust your tuning from time to time builds good habits which will serve you well later on. Knowing how to tune fast and change strings can't be avoided. And you'll be doing this regardless, so slipping out of tune is still a better choice than dealing with more technical guitar set-up chores.
One of the most common questions new guitar players ask is why even go for a beginner guitar when you can just get a much better one right away? There are several reasons why, besides the guitar maintenance related one emphasized above. Some of them are obvious, others not so much. Here are the most important ones.
If we were to take an average beginner who is interested in learning guitar, chances are that they don’t have a massive budget to work with. Getting a mid range or high-end guitar as their first one would probably require a long time of saving money.
In that case, getting a beginner model is a far better solution. Upgrading later is always an option, but mastery takes a long time, so getting started sooner is better.
Truth is that you won’t be able to appreciate the qualities of a high-end guitar anyways. As a beginner, it will all sound and feel the same. With that in mind, why spend all that extra money? Hands-on experience is much more valuable to you as a beginner than the quality of your instrument. Building your skill, learning technique and getting familiar with a guitar is invaluable.
There's the risk, too, that you'll save up and buy a higher-end model that you later realize is the exact opposite of what you'd prefer, but didn't know because you didn't learn through experience first.
When you're just starting out, you want to spend most of your time and effort mastering the basics of guitar playing. The very last thing you want to deal with are complicated tremolo bridges or super sensitive on-board preamps. This isn’t to say that you can’t learn to work with these systems. However, they are a distraction.
There will be plenty of time to get into Floyd Rose bridges and on-board equalizing when you gain some experience. For example, tuning a guitar or changing strings on a Floyd Rose tremolo bridge takes quite a bit of time. These tremolos are complicated, overly sensitive, and require a deeper understanding of how a guitar bridge works... and you risk screwing it up and needing to start over.
Here’s one thing that not many guitar players like to talk about. When you get your first guitar, it will take some time to get used to the shape, weight and overall feel of the instrument in your hands. It is not uncommon for beginners to bang the guitar on furniture, store it in ways that would make veteran players audibly cringe, carrying it poorly by the neck or sound hole, and so forth.
With high-end guitars, learning how to not mistreat an instrument can be pretty expensive. Fixing a quality finish costs quite a bit of money, while it’s not even possible in some cases. On the other hand, mistreating a cheap beginner guitar won’t hurt nearly as much.
In terms of electric guitars, most damage to the body is only going to be an aesthetic one. However, if you bang up a decent acoustic guitar, it could permanently change the performance of that instrument. Not only will you change how your guitar sounds, but good luck selling it without taking a huge hit in the process.
You definitely don’t want to damage the instrument too much, but at least you won’t get a headache because you bumped your precious guitar on the table again.
One statistic that is rarely talked about are guitar players who tried learning guitar and then gave up. They aren't a small minority and you likely personally know some people in this group. The moment you purchase a guitar, it depreciates in value. That’s just how things are and it’s not a phenomenon exclusively related to guitars.
In an off chance that you decide to give up on playing guitar, you will lose less money by reselling a cheap beginner model or throwing it in a closet than a more expensive one. There will always be some loss involved, but it won’t be as hard on your finances. This is extremely important if you're gifting a teenager or friend a guitar, even if they've expressed a huge interest.
Now let's move on to our top recommendations for both electric and acoustic guitars for beginners.
First we'll take a look at the top three options for electrics and then acoustics.
Note: Each image and text link leads to Amazon.com where you can read additional user reviews, find specific technical detail listings, see additional body finishes, and make your purchase.
After all this talk about why a getting a beginner guitar is a smart choice, let's take a look at our three favorite models which have proven to be great for amateurs to learn on. These are the best electric guitars for beginners, starting with our top pick and then our two favorite alternatives.
No list of beginner electric guitars would be complete without one Squier Strat. These guitars have been the staple of learning how to play this instrument for decades. Back in the day when Squier first started selling these, it took some time for them to acquire the reputation they deserved. However, these days that's changed and you'll be hard pressed not to find this recommendation and for good reason.
What we have here is a copy of Fender’s famous Stratocaster. The Squier Affinity Stratocaster brings that same body shape, same aesthetics, and same pickup configuration. What is really interesting about this Strat is the fact that Squier used the same tonewood that Fender uses, with the only difference being they didn't spring for the choicest wood cuts to keep the price low. They're both actually the same company!
The three single coil pickups are decent and these latest models have far fewer problems with coil buzz than their predecessors. Three pickups offer a hotter signal than one as well. The tone is great, offering much of that vintage vibe we associate with Stratocasters. The finish and build quality is above average (with 8 finish colors options with solids or sunbursts) for starter guitars, although the hardware does fit the expectations of a beginner choice.
From a beginner's point of view, the Squier Affinity Stratocaster offers a great balance of performance, aesthetics, and price. The only thing to keep in mind is that Affinity's passive pickups won’t really handle high gain distortion live an active pickup solution would. That is an issue all single coil systems have, but especially cheaper ones. This is fine for most genres, but may not be the best option for something like heavy metal, but we cover that below with the Ibanez and Schecter options below.
Compared to the Squier we have just mentioned, the GRG1212DX from Ibanez is on a completely opposite end of the spectrum. First of all, the guitar looks like a million bucks. They have chosen several great finishes (I love the walnut finish pictured above) and paired them with all black hardware and a bound Wizard type neck.
Scratching the surface reveals a proper mahogany body, which already indicates what this guitar was designed to do. Mahogany is a hard wood that offers plenty of sustain but also a pretty bright sound. In other words, it’s a hard rock metal machine in its core. The level of build quality is really surprising for this segment of the market. You will hardly find a guitar that looks as good as this one, too.
The pickups Ibanez has chosen for this build is a set of their IBZ-6 passive humbuckers. In order to make them a bit more appealing, Ibanez put a black plastic cover on top. The sound you can expect to get is fairly balanced. However, it is no secret that distortion is the IBZ-6's strong hand.
Another reason why this GRG model is worth checking out is the neck. Ibanez Wizard necks are famous for being fast and comfortable. The secret is in the width of the neck. Compared to most other neck profiles out there, these are pretty slim. Even though the unit on this guitar is not necessarily a true Wizard neck, it is pretty close.
All in all, this is one of the best guitars to learn on, especially due to the ease of fingering along the neck.
Our last beginner electric model comes from Schecter, or to be more exact, their SGR department. Schecter is known for building some of the better guitars for metal, and that has translated well into their affordable lineup. The Schecter SGR C-1 we are looking at here certainly offers some of the traits which undoubtedly make it a true Schecter.
This guitar features an arched top and your choice of three beautiful solid color finishes. The neck is a maple unit with a rosewood fretboard and no special frills, just the features you'd expect and demand. This, plus the shape of the body and the way its balance sits in your hands, make it a very comfortable guitar to play.
The hardware comes in form of a Tune-o-Matic bridge, which is essentially a simple but proven design. Aside from reliability, this type of bridge also adds a bit of extra sustain. Schecter installs two passive humbuckers which are fairly hot considering their price and quality. You can count on solid distortion handling and plenty of sonic girth for heavier genres and the delicacy needed for lighter genres. We should point out that a soft-shell gig bag is included, so don't go hunting for one if you decide to snag one of these axes.
The choices in the acoustic segment are just as great. As you are about to see, there are some truly awesome acoustic guitars you can get at a decent price. The ones we have picked have proven their performance countless times and are absolutely reliable for learners. Let's first look at our pick for the best starter acoustic guitar and then our two alternative choices.
Epiphone used to be the brand you turn to if you couldn’t afford a Gibson. While that is still true for higher-end models, Epiphone has built a pretty respectable reputation of their own for affordable options. The Epiphone DR-100 we're looking at here is one of the best acoustic guitars for beginners thanks to the balance of decent materials, great performance, and a great build quality.
The body shape of choice is a dreadnought, which is great since you get decent comfort and lots of loudness. The top of the guitar is made of spruce which is about as standard as it gets, even for higher-end models. Its solid top is paired with a laminate back and sides, and a choice of three different finishes.
The neck is a mahogany piece that features a rosewood fretboard. Just by the looks of it, you can already notice the finish. Epiphone is one of those companies that takes it a step further with the bells and whistles, even in their affordable segment. As awesome as this is, the absolute best thing about this guitar is the tone.
Being a dreadnought means that you get plenty of sonic volume, good projection, and a fairly wide lower end. With that said, the trebles and mids are tight, well-defined and fairly warm. The DR-100 is a great choice for a first acoustic guitar, no matter how you look at it.
Here is another great dreadnought design coming to us from Jasmine. If you have started to notice a pattern in body shapes of these acoustic guitars, you are not the only one. The dreadnought shape has been the most popular type of acoustic guitars for decades now, which has extended to the affordable range.
The Jasmine S35 offers a solid top made of spruce, while the sides come in form of a nato laminate. The neck is a standard nato piece with an equally standard rosewood fretboard. Overall, everything looks and feels well put together. Compared to some other beginner models, the S35 is at the upper end of the scale when it comes to build quality and dependability.
Tone-wise, you get a powerful sonic quality with a well-balanced response across the full frequency spectrum. The trebles cut through brightly, while the tight mids and fairly wide lows give the sound a lot of body. All things considered, the Jasmine S35 is an affordable, yet reliable way to get into acoustic guitars on a budget.
Last but not least, we have the FA-100 from Fender. It follows the same pattern as the models we have talked about previously. In other words, it's a properly built dreadnought acoustic guitar without the costly frills of higher-end models. The aesthetics are slightly different, with this being a bit more of a tame visual choice. The core performance is still there and not everyone wants the looks of the guitar to detract from the attention that should be paid to the sound.
The top, which is arguably the most important part of acoustic guitar’s body, is made of spruce. That is a pretty solid choice considering the price you're asked to pay. The back and sides are made of basswood and fit well into the overall sound profile.
Speaking of the sound profile, the Fender FA-100 offers a strong tone with plenty of headroom. The lows are a bit tighter than you might find elsewhere, but that is nothing unusual and can be considered a plus, depending on your goal. The mids and trebles are extremely refined. They're sharp, clear, and full of definition. With a proper set of strings, you can really turn this pup into an absurdly nice fingerstyle guitar.
The hardware Fender has chosen is average among the starter market. The tuners are standard die cast units and hold the key fairly well. Just keep in mind that excessive string bends will eventually knock it out of key, like on any other guitar. Overall, the FA-100 is a solid beginner choice that won't let you down.
Beginner guitars should be looked at as tools. Their main purpose is to give you a platform which you can use to learn the basics of guitar playing without bogging down in tech work. With that said, a proper beginner guitar will be more than good enough to last you well into your intermediate phase.
At the start of your journey, a cheaper guitar in your hand is much more useful than an expensive one in a catalog that you're saving up for instead of actively practicing. Don’t obsess with various features and specs at the expense of hands-on experience. That’s just a wrong way to go about learning how to play guitar. Just get the best beginner guitar you can and start your journey sooner than later!