As a music teacher and guitar player, I’ve seen many new players give up on playing because it’s “too hard” when, in fact, they never had a chance because of a junky guitar.
With literally thousands of guitars out there, buying one is a daunting task. There are a large number of garbage ones and a large number of good ones out there.
This guitar buying guide is here to help. As we dive in you’ll learn about the elements of a guitar you need to consider before making a purchase.
Use this as an informational cheat sheet for helping you buy the right guitar for your needs.
Who Is Going To Play The Guitar?
The first and most important thing to consider is who is going to play the guitar. Consider the following about you or the guitar player you’re buying for.
Guitar Skill Level
Acknowledge the player’s skill level with the guitar. If the player is new or inexperienced, you need to make sure you pick a guitar with a thinner neck and lower action.
As the player’s skill level improves, they may wish for a wider neck and fuller sound to play more advanced techniques and complicated chords.
In general, price does reflect the skill level of the guitar, but you don’t want to just buy something because it’s higher or lower in price.
My advice is to stick with certain trustworthy brands. These will help you find guitars at different skill levels while all of them remain good quality.
Check out our best guitar brands guide.
Another important element to consider is the size or age of the guitar player.
For young and small-handed players, a full-sized guitar may be difficult to play. This can result in frustration and quitting.
If the player has small hands or is young, you’ll want to look into 3/4 size guitars and other thin necked guitars.
There are also half-sized guitars out there, but in general, these sound so thin, you’d be better off just playing the ukulele (which is also great!).
If you know the person well or the player is yourself, you’ll know how and what the person likes to play.
The guitar should match the play style of the person if possible. For example, I love to play in a singer-songwriter style which means I want a guitar with space between the strings and a full, complex tone.
However, my friend who loves to play bluegrass guitar wants one with a clean and powerful tone and the ability to play up the fretboard. Read more about the best bluegrass guitars.
Even with electric guitars, not all are created for each style even if two guitars are the same quality.
An electric guitar for a blues player will be different from a heavy metal guitarist.
Look at the specific guitar and who it’s made for and what style of music works best with it.
Along the same lines, consider what tone the player prefers. Ask them (or ask yourself) who their favorite guitarists are.
Then, look into what these guitarists play most of the time.
You may not want to spend as much as the professionals do, but you’ll be able to find other guitars with similar construction and quality as those used.
This will give you a good place to start.
Then, you can use the information in the rest of this guide to help you narrow down your choices to a single purchase.
What Is Your Guitar Budget?
I’m not going to lie; guitars can cost a lot.
They can also cost next to nothing.
In general, the more you pay, the better quality the guitar will be. But this isn’t always true.
Consider your budget range when you go to buy. Make sure you look for the best guitars in this range using expert reviews such as those on our site.
Here are a few of our articles you may wish to check out:
Types Of Guitar: Acoustic Guitar, Acoustic-Electric, Electric Guitar, Classical Guitar
There are four main types of guitars you may want to get. But without knowing what these are, you can’t know where to look.
This section goes over the four main types of guitars and who may want each of them.
Acoustic guitars are the bread and butter in the guitar world.
These guitars have full, open bodies to allow for maximum resonance and sound. Acoustic guitars are popular in all styles of music except for some rock and roll sub-genres such as heavy metal.
Acoustic guitars come in different body shapes from the full-bodied dreadnought to the cut-away venetian style.
There is the largest variety of guitars of the acoustic type. These guitars won’t have electric on-boarding to allow for amplification.
Typically, they are used in recording studios or smaller venues. When needed to play to a larger crowd, the acoustic guitar is miked just outside the soundhold or an electric pickup is inserted in the soundhole.
The Taylor Academy 12e Dreadnought Acoustic Guitar is an excellent example of an overall great acoustic guitar for any skill level and any play style.
- Top: SItka Spruce
- Back/Sides: Sapele
- Fretboard Wood: West African Ebony
- Neck/Heel: Hard Rock Maple
For a better understanding of Acoustic Guitar Types: Body Shapes, Sizes, and Critical Features take a look at our very detailed article covering these topics.
Acoustic-electric guitars are a common choice for the gigging musician.
Using a microphone or temporary pickup on an acoustic guitar doesn’t always sound clear and true, so many will use an acoustic-electric as a flexible and versatile choice.
With this guitar type, electric pickups are embedded in the fretboard of the guitar usually near where the body meets the neck.
A streamlined sound system is installed inside the body with an output near the bottom of the guitar.
This officially installed pickup system puts out a much clearer and better sound similar to what the acoustic guitar would sound like without the amplification.
However, this makes the guitar cost a little more. But the bigger downside impacts the power and depth of the sound.
By installing a sound system in the body, there is less room for vibration which results in a smaller and thinner sound when compared to a strict acoustic guitar.
But as I said before, you will be able to amplify it much better on a larger stage.
The sound systems are usually simple with few controls over the tone.
The Fender 125CE guitar is a good example of an affordable and versatile acoustic-electric guitar.
- Highly affordable dreadnought acoustic-electric cutaway that is great for beginners
- Laminate spruce top and basswood back and sides produce great tone
- Nato, C-shaped neck with walnut fingerboard offers great playability
- Visually stunning Viking bridge provides great tonal support
- Fishman electronics provide solid amplified acoustic tone
Electric guitars have no space inside their bodies. All the sound comes from the vibration of the strings and is picked up through the magnetic pickups embedded up and down the fretboard.
With electric guitars, there are often more pickups installed.
Usually, you’ll find them where the body meets the neck, under where the soundhole would be, and down near the bridge.
Electric guitars have more complex sound systems allowing for more control over the tone of the guitar.
A lot of this control comes from which pickups are being used actively. Electric guitars have a selector switch which picks different pickups to collect the sound.
This affects the tone of the sound.
Despite what people mistakenly believe, the pickups and sound system don’t amplify the sound at all. They just collect the sound and send it through a cable to the amp or speaker.
This is where the sounds are amplified.
The Ibanez electric guitar is a good starter-intermediate model to check out.
- GRGA Maple neck
- 24 frets
- High output Infinity R pickups
You may enjoy watching this video to learn more about how pickups work.
Classical guitars aren’t as popular anymore, but they have a unique and interesting sound.
Classical guitars are a type of acoustic guitar with no electronic systems.
The body of the guitar is much larger and the neck is wider. This allows for larger sound and a playstyle focused on using fingers playing and specialized sound techniques.
On top of the two above differences, the other biggest difference is the use of nylon strings. The sound is mellow and mesmerizing.
The Yamaha C40 is a good beginner classical guitar to check out.
- Spruce top
- Mahogany back and sides
- Rosewood fingerboard
- Nylon Strings
- Bundle includes Gig Bag, Tuner, Instructional DVD, Strings, Pick Card, and Polishing Cloth
Features Of Guitars To Consider
This section will break down the important features of guitars to be aware of. Use this section as a guide to educate yourself so that when you’re looking into specific guitars to buy, you know a little more about what to look for.
Note: There is a lot more to guitars than what’s in this section, but this list contains what I think are the most important to consider.
The top wood (the one with the hole in front) is one of the most important elements of guitar construction.
The top wood is responsible for the power and clarity of the sound. With poor wood materials, the sound will seem weak and muddled.
Spruce is the king of top wood, and the majority of acoustic and acoustic-electric guitars use spruce of some form the wood.
Spruce gives a lot of punch and power.
The type of spruce used has a lot of effect on the sound as well. Laminate spruce (layered wood glued together) is the common budget material and loses some of the wood’s natural qualities.
Solid and solid sitka spruce are much better.
Back and Sides Wood
The back and sides of the guitar are usually made from the same wood. It’s not uncommon for these woods to be the same as the top wood, but this usually isn’t the case.
The back and side wood is responsible for the depth and richness of the sound. As such, these are often made from a softer wood than spruce, although the wood used differs greatly here.
Mahogany is a common choice for intermediate, advanced, and even some professionally level guitars.
There are many kinds of wood out there each with their own specific types of sound based on the wood used and even down to the specific tree.
Whole books and classes can be taught about the woods and how they affect guitar sound. When looking for a guitar, follow these general wood tips for back and sides:
- Solid is better than laminate.
- Composite woods are generally bad.
- Sapele is OK for budget guitars.
- The harder the wood, the clearer, and punchier the sound.
- Soft-sounding woods provide a good balance with a spruce top.
Here are some common good guitar woods for back and sides:
The scale length is the distance between the edge of the nut and the center of the 12th fret or octave.
This determines where the frets are placed on the neck and fretboard. A shorter scale length will make some chords easier to play while closer fingered ones harder.
In general, a medium scale length is better overall.
A longer scale length tends to sound cleaner and more full, but it also puts more tension on the strings making it harder on the guitar.
A shorter scale length is the opposite.
Electric guitars tend to have shorter scale length when compared to acoustic guitars, but this isn’t always the case.
Electric guitars also tend to have the biggest variety in lengths. In general, look for an electric with 23.5-24.75” scale length.
For acoustic, look for 25-26” scale length.
The neck is where much of the action happens when it comes to actually playing the guitar.
It’s also where most of the string tension is held.
As such, the neck is usually made from tough wood.
The neck will affect the sound somewhat and its resonance, but it’s more important for the neck to hold firm under the pressure of the strings.
Common neck woods include:
Nut width or neck width is important based on your playing style.
New players may wish for a thinner neck width as this may make it easier to play. Experienced players may prefer a wider one as it helps with advanced fingerpicking techniques.
The common range is 1 11/16” to 1 3/4″.
Bodystyle is important for sound and playability.
Any cutaway done near where the neck meets the body will only help the guitarist play farther up the fretboard with advanced lead techniques.
However, this reduces the space in the body which will affect the depth and dynamic power in the sound.
Balance what you’re looking for in a play style and also depending on the type of wood.
Electric System (Where Applicable)
The electric systems vary so much on electric and acoustic-electric guitars, but it’s important to look at this as well.
Where possible, read, and research the specific system before you buy. Pay close attention to the reviews of the people who bought and play the guitars.
In general, you’re looking for quality, not quantity. Pickup selectors and minimal volume controls may be all you need.
On-board tuners are helpful things for new players, though they tend to take up extra room.
Where To Buy Guitars
Buying guitars is a scary process, but here are some places you should consider buying guitars from.
Guitar Store – The most obvious choice is to go to your local guitar store. I love my local store, and the people there are kind and helpful.
However, I know this isn’t always the case.
Sometimes the people there will make you feel like you don’t know anything and can be very condescending. They also markup the price of the guitar more to turn a profit (which they have to do, no judgment).
All in all, I’d go to a dedicated guitar store if I know and have heard the people are kind and helpful.
Direct From The Guitar Maker – One option people should consider is buying the guitar straight from the manufacturer themselves. Often, you’ll get some of the lowest prices.
These people will also want the highest of customer experiences, so you know the shipping will be as safe as possible.
But you won’t have access to as many models; just what they carry.
General Music Store – General music stores also carry many guitars. The people who run these also service schools in the area, so they’re kind and helpful to all levels.
However, you may not always get a real guitar player helping you out.
Online – Buying online is a good option as well. It scares many people, but the prices are lower and you have access to a huge selection of models.
The biggest downside is shipping which may damage the guitar, however, most retailers (those with Amazon included) are good about packing safely and replacing damaged goods.
What To Look For In Used Guitars
Finally, I’d like to help you with how to check out a used guitar to make sure you’re buying one you’d like.
Here are the steps I go through when checking out a used guitar:
- Do some quick research on the brand and model.
- Check the action (strings should be close to the frets but not so close they touch extra ones when pressed).
- Inspect for visual damage, cracking, or warps in the body.
- Feel the bridge to see if it’s secure.
- Look down the neck of the guitar from the head of the guitar to look for signs of bending up or down (not good; don’t get it if it’s bent or twisted).
- Check the electric system for signs of rusting or damage.