Some recommend starting on one type of guitar and then ‘graduating’ to another for various reasons, but I think it’s best to get the kind of guitar the student wants to play. While it’s true that a nylon-string (classical) guitar is a little easier on the fingertips, most students are able to handle the metal strings of an electric or steel-string acoustic guitar if the guitar is properly set up (see below). If the student prefers the mellow sound of the nylon-string guitar, go with that. If he or she wants to ‘rock out,’ get an electric. If you’re not sure of the differences, do a little searching and watch some videos to get an idea of the sounds of the three main types: nylon-string acoustic or classical guitar, steel-string acoustic guitar, and electric guitar. Acoustic guitars are loud enough by themselves, but for electric guitars you’ll probably eventually want an amplifier since they’re a bit quiet without one. You can still hear them enough to practice at home, though. Electric guitars generally use thinner strings and are set up with lower ‘action’ than acoustics (meaning that the strings are closer to the frets), so they are easier to play. Some people are apprehensive about getting an electric for their first guitar, but electrics can actually be really good to learn on since they’re easier on the fingers.
Though it can be tempting, I would advise against buying the cheapest guitar in the store. Fortunately, good guitars are relatively inexpensive compared to most other instruments, and spending just a little more can get you something that will serve a beginner well. It’s wise to budget somewhere around $200-500 for a first guitar. Absolutely avoid anything under $100. If money is a concern, I have found Yamaha’s budget models to be very well made considering their price. This includes their classical guitars, steel-string acoustics (such as the FS700S) and Pacifica electrics. Going up in price a little could get you a great Seagull or Takamine acoustic or a Mexican-made Fender Stratocaster electric guitar. Buying used is an even better option if you have a knowledgeable friend to help you look.
Most guitar manufacturers play it safe by shipping guitars with the strings higher off the fretboard than necessary (‘high action’), to prevent any chance of the strings buzzing against the frets when customers try their guitars in the store. They won’t buzz, but unfortunately they will be more difficult and painful to play because of the greater distance between the strings and the frets. When you buy a new guitar, even an expensive one, it will almost always be in need of some adjustments (‘set-up’) to make it as easy as possible to play. This may include adjusting the truss rod (a metal reinforcement inside the neck), filing the nut slots, and/or adjusting the bridge. While new guitars usually need the action lowered, older guitars may need it either lowered or raised, which is done by either adding a shim to the nut and/or saddle, or replacing them entirely. Sometimes a shop will perform a set-up for free when you buy a guitar, sometimes not. A set-up can seem like an annoying additional expense when buying a new guitar, but it can make a huge difference in how easy it is to play. I can help assess your guitar’s need for set-up work.
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Most guitars are designed so that the right hand strums or plucks the strings, and the left hand cradles the neck and presses the strings to the frets. So-called ‘left-handed’ guitars are reversed, so that the hands switch roles, yet the strings are still oriented as on right-handed guitars with the thinner strings closer to the ground. The student should decide what feels more comfortable. Unfortunately, left-handed guitars are less common and more expensive. I am left-handed (I write, throw a baseball, etc. with my left hand), but I play a normal right-handed guitar, and it seems to have worked out alright for me. It may have been easier if I’d learned on a left-handed guitar—I’ll never know. If the student has a strong preference for holding the guitar the opposite way, a left-handed guitar might be needed. Some determined players have even learned to play right-handed guitars by flipping them over into a left-handed position, meaning all their chords are upside down.
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