One of the biggest concerns I hear from parents and potential buyers is how to choose:
• An instrument that will last
• An instrument that is right for ones particular needs
I hope to take some of the mystery away from buying your first guitar as it’s my belief that finding a beginners guitar is fairly easy. Finding that second guitar, or the guitar you are going to play with on a professional basis, is a bit more difficult. It’s then you really have to learn about the subtle nuances of tone, projection, and feel. These are very subjective elements and it is helpful to have had the experience of playing other instruments to come up with a choice that is right for you.
The Good News
Well really, it’s all good news. The lower priced guitars, mandolins, and banjos of today are far superior to the instruments I began with in the 60’s. Then you had to have great concern for the “action” (the height of the strings above the metal frets on the guitar neck fingerboard) as well as strength of construction.
We have all seen yard sale guitars whose tops are “bellied” or raised in a convex fashion, whose bridges (where the strings attach to the main body) are pulling off, whose tuning machines don’t work, and whose necks are warped and/or separating from the body. Quite often these were old “cheapo’s”, but I won’t name names because there are exceptions to every rule. And every now and then I find an old Sears Silvertone, or Harmony guitar that plays pretty well.
So, if the “action”or string height is too high, the instrument will be much more difficult to play. I generally measure the height of the strings where the neck joins the body. A distance of 1/8th to 3/16th” is ideal. Some folks prefer their “action” higher or lower though. It’s a matter of personal preference. Acoustic instruments will usually demand higher action than electric guitars. Generally speaking, acoustic guitar strings are also heavier than strings on an electric. This means more pressure on the fingers. If you are just starting as a beginner, you will need to practice and toughen up the ends of your fingers. Please be patient. The classical guitar is a bit different. It uses nylon rather than steel strings. The nylon is a bit easier on your fingers, but the tone of the classical is a bit different than the steel string guitar. It is usually softer and more quiet. The action is sometimes just a tad higher than on the steel string, and the neck is wider. So, if you have very small hands, the classical guitar may be a bit tough. One of the foundations of my site is to show that there are many characteristics to musical instruments, but no absolutes. What is right for you, what feels good for you, is what is important. Today’s guitars are made fairly well. Long gone are the days when the Japanese are making bad cheap guitars. They became very skilled. Then, the cheaper instruments came out of Korea and Taiwan. Then they got good, and India, China, and Malaysia took over. The result is that they are all fairly well made. I got in a bunch of Takamine Jasmine guitars recently that are made in Malaysia, and they were constructed very well. Granted, they were all plywood, but hey, what do you expect? The real story here is that they function well, and comparatively speaking, are far superior in action height and playability than the beginning instruments I had when I was a kid. Another positive thing about plywood is that it tends not to crack or split. Instruments made of solid wood, while usually superior in tone, show a higher tendency to do that (i.e. if the wood is not seasoned properly before being used in construction). So, generally speaking, the strength of construction has improved greatly, and the plywood bodies make it a great choice as an instrument to take on the road, picnic, or the cookout. Plywood can take more punishment.