Let’s start the fingerstyle journey here by understanding what is a good guitar for beginners. I will give loads of advice based on my past experiences, so this is a fairly lengthy article. I recommend tone and playability when picking a guitar. If you would like to get straight to my guitar recommendation just head all the way down the page. The rest of the article will go into the things I considered before making the recommendation.
- Bare Minimum
- Guitar Construction | Solid Versus Laminate
- Care Accessories
- Carrying Case
- Guitar Stand
- Mode of Play
- Pick Versus Fingers
- Sound and Versatility
- Solo Versus Group Play
Price | What to Consider for your Budget
In this section, I’ll be discussing what bare minimums you should look for in a guitar when you are on a budget. We’ll then go into what sorta features you get at different price points when paying for a guitar. At the end of the section, I’ll mention a bit about value depreciation for your instrument.
The Bare Minimum of What you Need in a Guitar
For a guitar to function in a way that is conducive to learning and performance, your instrument must have 6 strings, working tuning pegs, and construction sturdy enough to keep strings relatively parallel across the neck (this prevents buzzing). If you’ve received a hand-me-down guitar or found one at a yard sale that’s a bit banged up, that’s ok! More than likely, you’ve got your hands on an instrument that is more than adequate to learn upon. There’s no need to go beyond your means for a guitar if one is already easily in your possession.
My Pawn Shop Guitar Anecdote
I recently needed a guitar for work so I went down to the local Pawn Shop. I sat outside waiting for the store to open up at 9 am. Once the clerk turned the key and let me in, I went straight to the guitar counter and asked to see his acoustics. He had three to choose from.
The most affordable of the three was a brand I’d never heard of. I picked that instrument up first and began to play so I could gauge for myself whether or not I enjoy its tone. The first thing that became immediately apparent was the buzz I got when trying to play very common chords. I know when playing chords improperly they can create a buzzing sound, but this was not the case. This buzz came from a slight upward bend in the neck, which affects the ‘action‘ of the guitar, causing the strings to be too close to the frets of the instrument. I knew that, without proper neck alignment, which some instruments cannot correct, this guitar would be a struggle to consistently achieve good sound. For $60 it is an affordable pickup but I wanted to see what else the Pawn Shop had to offer.
The next guitar came at a higher price tag of $160 and brought a brand name nearly everyone has heard of, Yamaha. With the guitar now in hand, It was apparent this instrument has seen many more songs than the $60 off-brand I just handled. Whereas the one previous was nearly immaculate, this Yamaha had scratches, scrapes, and dings on every side of the guitar. The body showed pick scratches from overly enthusiastic strummers strumming past the pickguard. It certainly wasn’t in the great condition of guitars I saw on stage at concerts.
But one strum of the guitar and I could instantly hear the difference in sound quality over its predecessor I had played earlier. This instrument sounded great up the fretboard without buzzing, the strings were not too worn, and it came with a hardshell guitar case. This is exactly what I need from a guitar.
Upon asking about the third guitar, the clerk told me it was nearly $1000 and he wouldn’t let me play it. I completely understand his suspicion, I was standing outside his store for about 10 minutes before he opened.
So I purchased the Yamaha and later googled it to find it is series released between 98-01 that retailed for $519. That means the $160 guitar I got from the pawnshop would retail brand new today for $800 (adjusted for inflation). I think I got the best bang for my buck.
What is the Guitar Really Worth?
I wanted an instrument that could sit around, get banged up or scratched without me worrying about it; a guitar I could call my ‘Workhorse’. My ‘workhorse’ is a guitar that I’m not bothered by the character it will acquire from traveling further than the case to your hands. This is one you’re willing to lend to a fellow guitarist who’ll show you a thing or two; one that gets scuffed by sliding chair adding to its collection of dings and scrapes.
A good guitar will deliver consistently good quality sound for a long time given moderate care. So for me in the Pawn Shop, the decision was fairly easy. One buzzed to the point it was nearly unplayable and one was too expensive for me to even hold. So my sound was found right in the middle, and I’ve been ecstatic since! The guitar is very responsive, months later it still has the same great tone, and I haven’t felt bad once from an incidental scrape, bump, or scratch.
Your instrument developing character is very common even amongst casual players. More likely than not, if you are to one day sell your guitar it will not bring the same value than you paid for it. There is a very thin market for vintage guitars that often derive their value from no-longer sourced components or very specific manufacturing eras. It’s very similar to the car market where depreciation is based on usage and wear.
Know Your Terminology | Navigate your Options
When choosing a guitar, you are swamped with a plethora of options and brands. Choosing one is difficult because your choice will become part of your sound. While I firmly believe in picking a guitar that’s convenient or that resonates well for you, it is wise to know a few common differences between guitars.
- Body Shape | The proportions of the body for the instrument will affect the tone it produces. Listed below are common body shapes that have slight effects on Overall tone. You should play these different body types for yourself to see which appeals most to you. When comparing body types, make sure they have comparable tops; either laminate or solid so the difference you hear is due to body shape and not the material choice. Each of these may include a ‘Cut-Away’ edition which allows for accessing the higher register:
- Grand Auditorium
- Construction | Some guitars are made with Laminate tops while others are made with solid tops. Solid tops are one solid piece of wood that resonates well but is harder to work with. Because of the increased difficulty of working with solid wood, these instruments, generally, bring a higher price tag. Some affordable guitars that have solid tops do so at the expense of other components of the guitar. Laminate tops use thin layers of wood, similar to plywood. You should take the time to compare sounds between guitars with and without solid tops to gauge for yourself whether the price justifies the sound and playability of the instrument.
- Electronics | About half of the guitars you’ll come across have some form of onboard electronics that either allow the guitar to be plugged in, tuned, or both. My first acoustic has on-board electronics allowing me to adjust the High, Middle, and Bass output as well as the volume and tuning. I found this invaluable as a novice guitarist to help me learn pitch and train my ear. If you’re considering playing on stage at some point or hooking up to your amp, then electronics is a must to avoid having to putting them in yourself. If not, and you’re just needing a good practice instrument, then not having electronics is perfectly fine. Just consider picking up a tuner.
- Neck Profile | A big part of what affects the way a guitar plays, not so much the way it sounds, is the profile of the neck. The back portion of the neck on a guitar is shaped in what’s known as a C, V, or U shape. C and U shapes are the most common Neck Profile with the U shape typically being used by those with larger hands.
- Fretboards | The most common fretboards you see for acoustics are made of Rosewood and Ebony. These two woods are most common due to their density, making them easy to work with, and the amount of natural resin. The necks do not require a finish unlike maple wood necks found on some guitars (mainly certain electric guitar such as a Telecaster). There are some synthetic fretboards such as Micarta and Black Richlite found across the spectrum of guitar manufacturers. When considering your fretboard, focus on what plays best. Compare the tones between different neck to gauge the nuances for yourself but focus on a good playing, straight, neck.
Instrument Care | Wooden String Instruments
I have a friend, Kyle, who collects Martin guitars. He’s taught me more about Martin Guitars than I could ever remember and he thoroughly enjoys collecting them for both pleasure and investment. He recently had acquired a phenomenal sounding guitar, that cost more than my car, and raved about its sound quality. When he finally landed the first slightest, only detectable to him, sorta bump on the guitar; I heard about it for weeks.
What Type of Case to Use When…
So if you’re like my friend, Kyle, then you should follow a very strict procedure when loading and unloading your guitar for play. For starters, the case you keep your instrument serves a couple purposes for the guitar’s long term health. Most hard-shell cases, often containing a small compartment under the neck for storage, are great for reducing the external blows your guitar may receive in typical day-to-day conduct. More advanced hard-shell cases excel at security and moisture insulation.
The reason a guitarist switches from a soft-shell carry bag to a hard-shell is to protect against the elements on elongated travel. Soft-shell cases are light canvas-like carry bags for your instrument that often utilize backstraps and a pouch for convenience. However, if you’re going for something more than a light hike to the lake, you’ll likely want to take your instrument in a hard-shell case.
A hard-shell case offers strong protection against the typical elements you’re likely to incur when traveling with your guitar. Occasionally, you may prop up your instrument and it slides to the ground; sometimes your wonderful day in the sun turns into a rain check. Being, in most cases, a wooden instrument, the guitar is susceptible to moisture changes and impact deformation. If you’re playing in a particularly arid environment, then you should have a humidipack in your guitar case to help keep your instrument at the right humidity level. It’s a good policy to bring a better case when your instruments travel and use expectations are high.
Will it Stand the Test of Time | Picking a Guitar Stand
At work, I leave my guitar propped up against my desk in between two computers near the fax machine (yes, people still use those). For my Yamaha, it’s no big deal for it to receive the occasional bump from my office chair after I’m done answering a call. It is convenient and ready to play at a whim. For Kyle though, if he must temporarily store his guitar, he would much rather it be stored on a locking wall mount near his acoustic guitar amp. These locking guitar wall mounts reduce the chance of impact on the instrument, they lock in the headstock to prevent accidental falls and reduce ground clutter. I, personally, use the non-locking wall mount found here.
Buying the Instrument Meant for You | Your Guitar
Picking a guitar when there are so many great brands, styles, and sounds to choose from can be difficult. While cost and availability may be the main determining factor in your guitar pick, I highly suggest you consider a few more things before making your decision.
Picker’s Pair | Fingerstylist’s Find
If you’re planning to use a pick periodically when playing, I suggest considering a guitar with a pickguard to protect the body against excessive wear. For those planning to exclusively use your hands, then a guitar without a pickguard is great and may allow the top-wood to resonate better.
The types of strings you choose for your guitar will also have a big effect on the overall tone. Strings, when excessively used, develop a ‘dead’ tone that dramatically diminishes your sound. When you’re first beginning to play guitar, you’re likely gonna start playing with a pick. When I first began, I broke numerous bottom e-strings due to my heavy-handed strumming and rock and roll influence. Nowadays, because I exclusively fingerstyle, I have to change my strings once they’re ‘dead’ as opposed to when they break. If you’re curious, I use these here and love them compared to the numerous brands I’ve tried in the past.
Preferences for Group Play
When I first began playing with other players, I played an Electric Fender Strat on a little Marshall Amp. We often played 90’s rock, frequently to the detriment of our ear and strings. In college, playing a Luna acoustic guitar, I found myself jamming out in a more contemporary group that included trombone, trumpet, bass, and another acoustic. I was the only finger-picker and often found it difficult to match the volume of my fellow bandmates. I vividly remember playing so hard with my hands that the top layer of skin would come off where I played most frequently.
It’s about this time I tried playing a classical guitar. These guitars have wider neck profiles and nylon strings, which feel entirely different to your hands and produces a different sound. This type of guitar allowed me to play chords for much longer before I fatigued and didn’t damage my hands from excessive play. I highly suggest playing a classical acoustic guitar sometime to experience the different tone, neck profile, and feel of nylon strings.
To Sum it All up | ヤマハ
In case you’re wondering, I mostly play either my pawn shop FG-432S, which is a solid top spruce with rosewood fretboard from Yamaha, and my 214ce from Taylor, which is also a Spruce top but with Ebony Fretboard. I’ve spent many days in guitar stores playing what they had available and found myself gravitating towards the Taylor for its playability. The ‘ce’ of the 214ce stands for concert edition; concert edition guitars are more suited for fingerstyle and generally have different bracing than the larger body guitars. It may not be the best sounding guitar ever but for its price, I think it plays wonderfully. The same can be said about my Yamaha, for its price it sounds and plays great!
My suggestion for a great beginner guitar is FS800 by Yamaha. This concert guitar plays great for fingerstyle! The Fg800 is the same guitar but the dreadnaught version which is a more common choice for those wishing to mainly strum or pick. Both have a solid Spruce top and rosewood fretboard. The Fs and Fg series does not have electronics or a cut-away but the FSX and FGX model do for $100 more. I played numerous brands at this entry-level price point and Yamaha surpassed the rest on the overall tone, playability, and price. Simply put, it’s everything you need from an entry-level guitar and is a great start for an enthusiastic soon-to-be guitar player!
These guitars will play great for years to come and are very affordable. Many other brands will sell you loads of bells and whistles that may look good but down the road may not play as well. I traded a double-neck guitar for my first acoustic (It was the Epiphone version of the double-neck Jimmy Page used in Stairway to Heaven). I traded it for a Luna that had cranes around the soundhole, a veneered headstock, as well as electronics. I played the guitar until it incurred many different problems that eventually made me have to stop playing it. The saddle started to become unglued from the body, a crack down the body began to form, and the D string tuning peg no longer worked. I poured a lot of my time and learning into that guitar that now needs repair, which will cost more than I paid for the guitar, before it may be played again.
So I highly suggest picking up a guitar from a company that really excels in making them. I never have quirrels when I get to play a Yamaha. I hope this article has help you understand what you’re buying when purchasing a guitar for a beginner. Feel free to leave any question you may have in the comment below or discuss what you think is the best guitar for beginners and why. I’d love to have your feedback and see if others share my sentiment for Yamahas.
Thanks for Reading