Look in any music shop and you will find tons of cheap guitars for sale all aimed at beginners.
They are made by most of the well-known guitar makers like Fender, Epiphone, Yamaha, Cort, Alvarez, and Ibanez.
It’s really hard to know what to choose for your first guitar, and whether the guy in the guitar shop just wants to sell you anything to make a sale.
Everyone has a different budget and if you can afford a more expensive first guitar then you’re probably wondering if you should bypass the cheaper ones?
Are Beginner Guitars Good Value and Easy to Learn On?
Beginner guitars can represent good value for money, as the manufacturers often skimp on visual features to give you a cheap and reasonable sounding guitar. However, they are often harder to play than expensive guitars since less time is spent in the factory on their final setup.
There are a few factors to consider alongside the initial cost of your guitar, and you’re probably wondering what on earth a ‘setup’ is anyway?
If you want to know more then keep reading as we look a bit closer at what a beginner guitar is, and what type of guitar is good to learn on. We will also look at what you can do with a cheap guitar to make it play more like an expensive one!
Rather than showing you a bunch of beginner guitar reviews, I would rather teach you some basics so you can confidently choose your own first guitar.
Are Expensive Guitars Easier to Play?
An expensive guitar can actually be easier to play than an off-the-shelf cheap guitar since the factory can allow more time for setting up the action, checking fretwork, and a few other things.
- However, sometimes even quite expensive guitars may not be set up very well if the factory has concentrated more on constructing the guitar well and using quality woods.
If you look at really expensive custom guitars, then part of what you are paying for is the time spent to do an accurate setup to make the guitar play as well as possible.
The good news with many cheaper guitars is that you can make them easier to play and sound more in tune by getting a setup done on them.
What is the Difference Between a Beginner Guitar and Normal Guitars?
There is one main reason why some guitars are classed as beginner guitars – this really comes down to their price. A beginner guitar IS a normal guitar, except a midrange ‘normal’ guitar costs more since it has better quality woods and hardware, with a more pleasing sound, and better visual details.
The setup of a guitar is also another difference between cheap and more expensive guitars, and we’ll get to that a bit later after we first look at the parts guitars are made from.
Many of the lowest priced acoustic guitars have laminated tops, and by laminated we mean that multiple thin layers of wood are glued together to make a thicker piece.
The reason guitar companies use laminated wood is that it is much cheaper than good quality solid sheets of wood.
Laminated wood is very strong, but it doesn’t vibrate as well a solid piece of wood does, and on acoustic guitars gives a ‘tinny’ high tone without much resonant bass.
If you buy a more expensive acoustic guitar with a solid wood top the sound will be much richer. When you combine that with better hardware you get a nicer sound that resonates for longer.
When we talk about guitars resonating, this means how long you can hear the sound after picking or strumming the strings without touching them again – and you always want more resonance!
Hardware is another component that helps shape the sound and playability of a guitar, and includes the nut, bridge, saddle, tuners, frets, and on an electric guitar – the electronics.
Let’s take a quick look at these components, and what differences there can be between a cheaper beginner guitar and a more expensive model.
Nut and Saddle
The nut sits near the tuners at the bottom of the neck, and the saddle sits on the bridge on the body of the guitar. These are the two contact points for the strings, which vibrate freely between them.
On cheap guitars the nut is often made from plastic, which tends to dull the sound. More expensive guitars use hard substances like bone or synthetic bone which give a crisper tone and helps the strings to resonate longer.
The bridge is more of an issue on electric guitars as they have adjustable saddles, and can have tremolo systems and blocks of metal to help the sustain.
The quality of these components can make quite a difference to your guitar staying in tune and having a good tone. Cheaper bridges are often made from cast and pot metals and have less accurate tremolo systems.
People always blame cheap tuners for poor guitar tuning, but surprisingly, cheap tuners still do a good job of keeping a guitar in tune.
Lower quality tuners can make a guitar a little harder to tune since they don’t have such fine gearing as high-quality tuners.
A very small turn of the tuning knob can change the pitch of the string quite a lot. Expensive tuners turn smoother and give you finer adjustment.
With more expensive guitars the factory can take more care to finish the fret ends, which prevents sharp edges on them.
This can make a smoother playing experience when sliding your fingers up and down the fretboard.
If you buy a very cheap acoustic guitar with a piezoelectric pickup in it there won’t be a fancy built-in tuner, volume, or EQ pre-amp unit.
At the lowest price you will get a guitar that you can plug into an amp, and you can control your sound from the amp itself, however don’t expect magical tones like you would get from an expensive guitar.
Cheap electric guitars will have basic pickups with a ceramic magnet in them, and you may find after a while that the sound gets scratchy when changing volume, tone, or switching between pickups.
- While lower end electric guitars can sound ok they have lower quality electronic components, but they often do the job well and you quite often get a reasonable sound from them.
Should a Beginner Buy an Expensive Guitar?
If you have never played much before it’s not worth spending a fortune on your first guitar. The truth is not everyone keeps playing, and an expensive guitar gathering dust is a waste of a guitar.
There are A LOT of expensive dust gathering ‘beginner’ guitars in this world!
Just because you spend $2000 on a guitar doesn’t mean you will keep playing it. That being said, if money isn’t an issue for you, don’t buy the cheapest guitar you can find either.
A guitar that is well made with better quality wood will sound nicer than the cheapest models, and for a reasonable price (let’s say up to the $500 mark) could make your playing experience more enjoyable.
Cort have a great range of beginner guitars – you can read more about Cort acoustic guitars in this article.
Is it Worth Buying a Cheap Guitar?
We are very lucky in modern times since advances in factory equipment mean they can produce quite good instruments at very low prices.
This wasn’t the case 20-30 years ago, when cheap guitars generally sounded boxy and flat.
Many cheap guitars today come with solid wood tops, have good quality construction, and sound pretty good for prices around $150-200.
If you are budget conscious then it’s definitely worth buying a cheap guitar to get started on, and even with a cheap guitar you can make them play really well with just a little setup work (more on that soon).
How to Choose a Good Beginner Guitar
The best way to choose your first guitar is to have a play (or try holding) as many guitars as you can.
Pick up friend’s guitars or visit a music shop and pick some up. Do they feel too big? How easy is it to get your hands around the fretboard? Which ones do you like the look of?
- Try strumming the open strings and carefully listen to the tone of the guitar – do YOU like the sound of it?
The right guitar will not only fit your budget but will also seem right to you. Our instinct for knowing what we like is strong, and along with what you have already learnt here, you should be able to choose a guitar that is a good fit.
Don’t forget that guitars come in different sizes such as dreadnought, parlour, concert, ¾ size, and more.
You might find a smaller style of guitar suits you better, so don’t forget to ask in the music store about their different sizes.
Check out our article Is Playing Guitar Right For Me? To see a chart of the different guitar sizes.
How Much Should a Beginner Pay for a Guitar?
As we have discussed earlier, it’s not worth spending too much for a first guitar, but the absolute cheapest is probably not the best choice either.
For around $200-250 you should get a low-range acoustic guitar with a solid spruce top that will sound great for the money. It won’t have nice little visual details but should have a nice clean look.
Stepping into the $400-500 range you will get an electric-acoustic guitar that is made with higher quality woods (maybe AA grade spruce), and should have an inbuilt tuner with a pre-amp and EQ.
For that price you will also get nicer binding around the edges of the guitar, appealing neck inlays, and a more complex rosette around the sound hole. All this combines to give the guitar a visual lift from the base models.
- Personally, I don’t think it is worth spending more than $500-600 maximum on your first guitar until you get some experience and start developing your musical ear.
For this price guitars sound good, will be surprisingly good quality, and will happily take you well into intermediate playing.
Is Learning on Electric Guitar Easier Than Acoustic?
Electric guitars are much easier on your fingers than a steel string acoustic and have slimmer necks that are easier to get your hands around.
- The trouble with learning on an electric is that there are too many variables for a beginner to think about, and especially to begin with you need to concentrate on learning to play, not learning how to get different sounds.
Also beginners tend to press the strings too hard with their fretting hand, and since electric guitars have lower tension strings you will easily play out of tune.
Anyone who’s heard or played an out of tune guitar knows how bad it sounds, and if your early experience of playing is making terrible sounds on the guitar, you will soon give up.
Guitar teachers generally agree that learners who start on acoustic guitars are more likely to succeed and keep playing the instrument long-term.
It’s much easier to play an acoustic guitar in tune, and since it has its own natural tone you don’t need to adjust any electronic settings to get a good sound. Simple = good.
So for these reasons I recommend that you buy an acoustic guitar for your first guitar, and then look at electric guitars later once you have some experience.
How to Make Beginner Guitars Easier to Play
Finally, let’s look at how you can make a guitar easier to play, and also sound better.
The good thing is you can buy a fairly cheap guitar and for around $50 a luthier can make it play and sound like a more expensive guitar.
Most people just buy a guitar, take it home, and play it. I highly recommend spending a little bit extra to have an instrument that inspires you to play because it sounds in tune, and is easier to learn on.
Quite often guitars in the $1000-2000 range still need a setup done to make them as good as they can be, so in general it’s a good idea to get a setup done on most new guitars.
This is not intended as a technical guide and is just to give you a basic understanding of what happens when a luthier (guitar maker) does a ‘set-up’ on your guitar.
Adjust the Action (String Height)
When the strings are too far above the neck you need to push them a long way down to touch the frets. This stretches the string and makes the notes sound sharp.
Many people complain that their cheap guitar sounds out of tune, and a high playing action is the main culprit.
It’s also hard to fret chords, as open strings will get muted by the soft part of your fingers as they push the high strings down. The resulting sound gets very frustrating for a new player.
The string height can be adjusted by filing the slots in the nut until the strings sit closer to the first fret.
Similarly, the saddle height can be adjusted at the bridge, lowering the strings at the top of the neck where it meets the body.
Adjust the Truss Rod
Inside the neck of a steel string guitar is an adjustable steel rod called a truss rod.
This rod can be adjusted with a hex key, allowing you to bend the neck backward against the tension of the strings.
This way the bow of the neck can be adjusted until the neck is almost straight. A very slight bow in the neck is needed to allow the strings to vibrate in the middle without touching the frets.
Level the Frets
If a fret sticks up higher than the other frets, then the strings can touch that fret when you are playing further down the neck.
This can give you buzzy sounding strings, cause a loss of sustain, and in the worst case play the wrong note.
When the strings are adjusted closer to the neck this becomes more of an issue.
For a basic setup, a luthier probably won’t do this on a beginner guitar, as it costs more and also isn’t normally required unless the string height is set very low.
Time to look at some guitars!
Now you are armed with some knowledge you’re ready to go look at some guitars.