Daddy! Mommy! I want a guitar!
As a guitar playing parent, this is probably one of the proudest moments you’ll have, the day your child comes up to you and tell you that he wants to start learning to play guitar. Think about the endless hours of bonding you can do while playing together, all of the gear you can convince your better half that needs to be bought in order to keep the little one happy, all of the trips to the music store to check out the new swag being peddled… it’s practically a dream come true!
For the non-guitar playing parent, however, the task can be much more daunting. The price, the noise, lessons or no lessons, what kind of guitar to buy, where to buy it, do they need an amp, whether or not they will stick with it for more than two weeks – all of these questions and more are sure to make even the strongest parents weary and tired.
It’s okay, help is coming. This article is for those of you in the latter category; the ones who want some solid, unbiased advice on what to do and what to buy.
I’m forgoing the part of the conversation where you ultimately decide whether or not to buy your child a guitar. As a guitar player, I’m certainly going to tell you what a wonderful instrument it is, and of the countless hours of entertainment it has provided me, not to mention how much it has helped my concentration, ability to study, social skills… (so much for forgoing the conversation, right?). Let’s just assume you are reading this because you have already made up your mind to buy your child his first guitar. Here is what to look for and some things to consider:
Acoustic or Electric?
I believe this is the first, most important question that needs to be answered when purchasing a guitar for a new player. Though it is rare, I assume that your child wants to buy an electric guitar (thanks to music videos and the Rock Band/Guitar Hero phenomenon), but to be sure you are armed with all of the information, let me explain the difference between the two with a very watered-down explanation:
An acoustic guitar is hollow, with a sound hole cut into the top piece of wood to allow sound to be amplified and heard. The vibration of the strings is picked up by the wood and carried through the sound hole.
Although an acoustic guitar is certainly cheaper as a first purchase (no need for an amp or cable), it’s also a bit more difficult for children to play, especially when first starting out. The string action (the height of the strings in relation to the fingerboard) is often much higher than that of an electric guitar – causing much more hand power to be used to play correctly, the guitar itself is generally bigger than that of an electric, and you can’t plug headphones into an acoustic guitar like you can on the amplifier of an electric guitar, so if your kid is learning the bar cover-band staple Free Bird, you are going to hear him play it over and over and over again.I personally love acoustic guitars and own three, but for beginners I think the safe bet might be an electric unless your child is determined to learn bluegrass or classical music, in which case an acoustic guitar is absolutely the way to go.
An electric guitar requires a little more explanation. Most of the time (but not always) an electric guitar is a solid piece of shaped wood that produces a very quiet sound on its own. In order to make the guitar sound louder and be heard above a whisper, an amplifier is required. When plugged into an amp, the vibration of the strings is captured by a magnetic pickup (which is a part of the electric guitar) and sent through a guitar cable to the amp, which amplifies (go figure) the signal and makes it louder.Although many acoustic guitars also have pickups and can be plugged into an amp, they are still going to be significantly louder when unplugged.
In my humble opinion an electric guitar as a starter instrument has several advantages to an acoustic:
- Your child can play an electric with the amp off, sparing your ears and those of your neighbors.
- Most smaller amps today have headphone jacks, so your child can still rock out to that crazy heavy metal music they like and no one else will hear them.
- The string gauges on an electric guitar can generally be lighter than that of an acoustic guitar, meaning less hand strength is required to produce an even sound.
- Electric guitars, in addition to the amp, have volume controls, so much to the reluctance of your child there should be plenty of wiggle room for the inevitable “turn it down!” argument to take place.
- If your child wants to play guitar because of Rock Band/Guitar Hero, get an electric. An acoustic guitar probably won’t be enough to satisfy their rockstar fantasies. (Hey, I’m just being honest!)
In the interest of fairness I should note that I started learning guitar on an acoustic and I loved it. But, there were also many less options available at the time in terms of affordable electric guitars.
Size of the Guitar to Buy
Guitars come in many sizes. The good news is that over the past ten years or so there has been a concerted effort by the guitar manufacturers to create smaller-sized guitars specifically for kids. Call it clever marketing or what have you, the bottom line is that regardless of how big your child is – and especially how big his hands are – there is a guitar out there for him. If your child is very young and has small hands, I would suggest a 3/4 size guitar. If you child is a little older, a full-size guitar will allow him to grow into his instrument. It may prove to be a bit more difficult initially for them to play a barre chord, for example, but it will save you from having to replace a smaller guitar with a full-size guitar. Your best bet is to take your child to the music store and let him play one to see what’s best.
What Guitar Shape Should I Buy?
Yes, guitars come in many shapes, too. There are a few classic shapes that have stood the test of time, and several more modern shapes that are akin to the hard rock/heavy metal genres that have become very popular with younger players. The aesthetics of a guitar shape is certainly in the eye of the beholder, so be prepared for your metalhead rocker to want a Dimebag Darrell edition Dean guitar:
There is nothing wrong with this at all (he was a huge influence on my metal playing – RIP, Dime!) but generally these are large guitars and might be uncomfortable for smaller kids to play. The major, traditional guitar shapes usually fall into the Fender and Gibson guitar camps – the Stratocaster and Telecaster are both made by Fender, and the Les Paul and ES-335 are made by Gibson. All of these shapes are conducive to young, beginner players; heck, they are conducive to players of all ages and ability levels!
Strats and Teles, as they are affectionately referred to (if you want to sound hip to your kid, start calling them by these names) are smaller and lighter than Les Pauls and 335s. Their tone is also generally lighter.
Your best bet in deciding what to get is, again, to take your child to the store and let them try out a few. Some other name guitar brands (both acoustic and electric) are:
Getting a Guitar Setup
What is a guitar setup? In essence, a guitar setup is done by a guitar repairman to make sure the electronics work, the truss rod (the metal bar inside the guitar neck that keeps it straight and aligned properly) is adjusted, the string action is even and playable, the intonation (making sure the notes are in tune relative to fret placement) is true, and generally making sure the guitar is working as expected. I recommend that all newly-purchased guitars get set up, as well as a getting an annual setup done for best playability. I’m not sure an annual setup is necessary for a $150 guitar, but you should absolutely get one for a new guitar. You can probably haggle with the salesman to have him throw in a setup for free, depending on how much you are spending. Almost all music stores offer this service in-house or work with a repairman on an outsourcing basis. Setups usually run between $40 and $60 depending on how much work needs to be done to your guitar.
Strings and Picks
I’m warning you now, your future rock star is going to break a LOT of strings and lose a LOT of picks during the first few years of playing. That’s the nature of the beast and something you’re just going to have to understand. Resign yourself to this fact right away and be prepared to make frequent trips to the music store to replenish your stock of both. Luckily (for all of us) strings and picks are not expensive, and you will often find both on sale frequently at your local music store. They also sell both string and picks in bulk packs, so you might get some added savings by purchasing a 10-pack of strings instead of just one.
In the beginning, I recommend that you string the guitar with heavier-gauge strings for a few reasons, namely:
- A heavier string tension will help develop finger strength and build fingertip callouses, allowing the hand and fingers to eventually relax while playing.
- Beginning guitarists tend to pick and strum very heavy and, understandably, a bit wildly. The harder, less controlled pick attacks cause strings to break more frequently.
Personally, I use D’Addario strings on all of my guitars. I have tried other brands, but for me D’Addario plays the best. It’s okay to experiment with strings, and especially in the beginning you’ll probably just want to go with what’s cheapest while starting out, but I have always been happy with D’Addario brands.
I would also recommend checking out Juststrings.com. Though I do not know the owners personally, I have purchased many sets of strings from them in the past and have always received excellent service, super-fast shipping, and good prices.
Picks don’t necessarily break like strings, but they do wear down which affects tone. I wouldn’t worry about this so much at this point, so it’s really a question of quantity and price. Your first trip to the music store will present you with a dizzying array of pick choices, ranging in color, size, shape, and thickness. Don’t be dismayed; your best bet is to start with a thick pick and big size. (If your child has very small hands then you can go for a little less thickness and size.) The thicker pick will make it easier for your child to produce a sound on the guitar, and the bigger size will give them more grip real estate so the pick doesn’t slide around in their hand. Picks by Dunlop and Fender are very good (I often use Fender) and will be well-stocked in every store.
An Amp, or No?
I’m just going to go ahead and tell you yes, buy an amp, especially if purchasing an electric guitar. It doesn’t have to be a 100-watt Marshall half-stack that will blow the windows out, but something small and simple with a few built-in effects will go a long way to keeping your child motivated to learn guitar. I don’t want to go into much detail on amps (this is a guitar-buying article, after all) but there are a few features that you may want to consider for a first-time purchaser:
- Headphone jack – this will allow your child to plug headphones directly into the amp so only they can hear what they’re playing.
- iPod/aux jack – many smaller guitars are now offering a 1/8″ input jack that lets you plug an iPod in so you can jam along to your favorite tunes. I really wish amps had this feature when I was growing up. (Then again, we didn’t even have Walkman units when I first started, so I guess the point is moot.)
- Wattage – a 10-watt amp should be plenty loud for bedroom playing.
- Distortion and onboard effects – virtually all amps will come with distortion, but many are now also offering other effects (sound manipulations) built in, including delay, chorus, reverb, tremolo, etc. This isn’t mandatory, but it’s a nice bonus feature if an amp you are considering also has these features.
What Else Do I Need?
A guitar cable and strap are probably the only two other things you’ll want to pick up. The cable connects the guitar to the amp to make sound, and the strap allows the guitarist to stand up and play while keeping their hands free to make noise. Both of these are relatively cheap; just make sure the cable is long enough for your child to jump around in his room without accidentally getting unplugged. A 20-foot cable should be fine.
If your child is young, you can probably get away with a guitar package. Several manufacturers now offer “starter kit” packages that include a guitar, amp, cable, strap, and picks. Amazon.com offers, as examples, a starter electric guitar kit from Fender, as well as a starter acoustic guitar kit from Yamaha. All of the major brick-and-mortar and online music stores will generally sell starter kits as well.
Lastly, I just want to wish you and your child good luck. As I said in the beginning, picking up the guitar has been nothing short of life-altering for me, and I can only hope that that it will bring countless hours of joy to your American Idol.
If you have any more questions, please add your comment to this article and I’ll be happy to help you out. Good luck!