How to Choose a Guitar That Fits Your Skills & Budget

So, you’ve decided to buy a guitar. Nice! Okay, so now that the easy part is over, you need to make the harder decisions. Whether you’re buying a guitar for you or for someone else, there are a few pointers to keep in mind if you want to get the best guitar for your skills and budget. But don’t worry; it doesn’t have to get too complicated.

Gibson Les Paul guitars are displayed at a guitar shop.

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When it comes to guitars, there are so many to choose from, which can make the whole thing daunting. There are tons of sizes and designs that it’s easy enough to lose your way in the process. But if you – or whomever you’re giving the guitar to – has learned the art of playing the impressive instrument, then it’s only fair to get the best fit. Choosing the right guitar will only encourage more playing and will steepen the learning curve if you/they are in the beginner’s phase.

Here are the things you need to factor in when choosing a guitar.

First Things First: What Type of Guitar Do You Want?

There are simply too many types of guitars to list here, but we can narrow it down into three main variations:

Classical Guitar (or Nylon String)

To the naked eye, classical guitars look a lot like acoustic guitars; the only difference is a classical guitar is a bit smaller in size and the neck is typically wider. Since they have nylon strings, as opposed to steel, the sound of a classical guitar is more distinctive – mellow and soft. Classical guitars are perfect for beginners as the nylon strings are thicker and more easygoing on your fingertips. And since the neck is wider, the finger work will be a little easier, especially if you have big hands.

Close up on a classical guitar.

Photo by Olly Curtis/Acoustic Magazine/Future/Getty Images

But these guitars are also good for younger players. Why? Because compared to other types of guitars, these are relatively inexpensive and easier to play. Classical guitars are better for fingerpicking than for strumming chords and aren’t as loud as acoustic (steel-string) guitars.

Not sure what kind of sound you want? Well, think of the kind of music you like. If you want to play flamenco, classical, or Spanish music, then a classical guitar is the way to go.

Acoustic Guitar (Steel String)

Acoustic guitars are not unlike classical guitars, just with steel strings. The extra tension that the steel strings provide means the guitar is much stronger and offers a brighter, louder sound. Strumming sounds much better, which makes acoustic guitars a popular pick for beginners over a particular age, because steel strings can feel a bit too sharp on untrained fingers.

A man plays his acoustic guitar in a recording studio.

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Younger players might be deterred by the sharper strings, so acoustic guitars aren’t recommended for the younger beginners. Only once they build up some calluses and strength should they move on to acoustic or electric.

If you love listening to artists like Jack Johnson or Taylor Swift, then an acoustic guitar would be a nice choice.

Electric Guitar

Electric guitars are extremely varied in size and shape, which makes a major difference in the sound. But since we’re simplifying the guitar-buying process, we’ll make it easy. Unlike acoustic and classical guitars, electric ones need external amplification.

Close up on an electric guitar.

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Most of the electric guitars you’ll see don’t have a cavity (or hole in the body) – they’re made of solid wood. Magnetic energy is transferred from the strings’ vibrations into electrical energy; the signal can be altered and converted to make all kinds of sounds (just think of your favorite songs!). Electric guitars are also a bit smaller than classical and acoustic guitars, so they’re suitable for most heights and ages.

If you’re a fan of bands like AC/DC, Green Day, or the Foo Fighters, then an electric guitar is the sound you want.

The Next Step: Choose What Kind of Music You Want to Play

Think of it this way: would you choose a cooking utensil before knowing what you want to make? Well, it’s the same thing with instruments. You should have an idea of what type of music you want to play before choosing a guitar.

In general, electric guitars are great for rock, metal, pop and country music. Acoustic guitars are great for folk, pop, country, and slow rock music. And classical guitars are good for classical, flamenco, and Spanish music.

And Now for the Size

Picking the right size is just as important as the type because if the guitar is uncomfortably large, then it will impede your motivation. Electric guitars may be smaller than acoustic and classical guitars, but they’re heavier (around 5 – 6 kg) and thus can be harder for kids to pick up. An electric guitar usually weighs about 5 or 6 kg, which can be too heavy for kids to handle.

A father and daughter are playing guitars together.

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If you’re buying a guitar for your child, make sure it’s not too big or else he/she won’t be able to reach around it with both hands. If his/her arm has to be lifted as high as the shoulder to reach around the guitar, it can be uncomfortable and even painful. Over-reaching also puts players at a technical disadvantage due to the fact that their muscles are stretched out already, making it a lot harder to properly move their fingers on the guitar’s fingerboard.

Here are some recommendations according to guitar type.

Classical:

Age Height (in cm) Recommended Size

2 – 5 75 – 100 1/4 Size

5 – 8 100 – 125 1/2 Size

8 – 12 125 – 165 3/4 Size

12+ 165 + Full Size

Acoustic:

Age Height (cm) Recommended Size

5 – 12 100 – 120 3/4 Size

12 – 15 120 – 165 Small Body

15+ 165 + Full Size

Electric:

Age Height (cm) Recommended Size

5 – 8 80 – 100 1/2 Size

8 – 12 100 – 125 3/4 Size

12+ 125 + Full Size

When It Comes to Budget, Consider This

Not everybody has a guitar fund that they have been saving up for their whole lives. So, it’s understandable that you’re going to want to find the best price and try to save where you can. But you don’t want to get the cheapest one in the store. And here’s why…

You Get What You Pay For

It’s important to remember (and this applies to almost everything you buy): you get what you pay for. Many people mistakenly buy an inexpensive acoustic guitar when the kind they truly want is electric. Parents might be worried that their kids won’t stick with it and that the money will go to waste. But that’s not the way you want to go because you’re setting yourself (and your kid) up for failure.

An employee at a music store talks to a customer trying out a guitar.

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Cheaply made acoustic guitars will make you want to quit since they’re harder to play and not what you really wanted in the first place (if you really want the electric sound). They’re generally less fun to play and aren’t adjustable. In other words, the cheapest guitar is not worth your hard-earned money.

Beware of the Shiny Package Deals

When you find those guitar packages promising great value for an even greater price, they’re probably too good to be true. Pay attention to the red flags, such as a guitar package worth $800 that’s selling for only $199. The price gap is simply way too big. If you see a package valued at $289.00 and it’s selling for $199.00, it’s a lot more realistic.

Don’t Fall for the Brand Name Trap

When it comes to beginner and intermediate guitar players, many large brand name companies will stand against minor brand name companies. Professional players, on the other hand, tend to go for the major brands.

Smaller companies don’t rely on advertising; they depend more on support and knowledge of the dealers they sell to. The truth is that the cost of advertising is included in the overall price of the guitar (or any instrument for that matter). That means you could end up paying more for a brand name while the quality is the same as a smaller brand. Or you could pay a competitive price for a lower-quality guitar.

A young woman is looking at guitars in a music store.

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At the end of the day, just because it’s a brand-name guitar doesn’t mean it’s better. Here’s something to consider: many big brand guitar makers give free guitars to recording artists to use on stage as a marketing tool. What it means is fans who want to start playing the guitar tend to connect the guitar brand with their favorite artists, not understanding that these expensive guitars share very little with the entry-level models.

Other Things to Consider When Buying Your Next Guitar

String Action

A common mistake when buying a guitar is getting one with strings that are too high and hard to play. A guitar’s string action is critical – the measurement of the gap from the bottom of the string to the top of the fret. It’s measured at the 12th fret, which is the halfway point of the string.

Beginners, your guitar should have these measurements:

Electric Guitars 2-2.3mm

Acoustic Guitars 2-2.7mm

Nylon String Guitars 3-3.6mm

Support Materials

Many people don’t think about support material when they buy their first guitar. A guitar can be confusing at first, and most of them don’t even come with a manual. Not knowing what to do at all can discourage even the most determined beginners. The first six months are critical when learning the guitar, so make sure you get some support material with your purchase!

Electric Tuners

A good tuner is just as important as having strings and guitar picks. Guitars are typically made and set up to handle the tension of the standard pitch, which creates the best tone. Now, your guitar might be tuned too high, meaning the extra tension can damage it and break your strings.

A man is tuning his guitar by hand.

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On the other hand, if your guitar falls too far below standard pitch, the neck can move backward and create an undesirable string buzz. The fix? An electric tuner. It doesn’t just tune and adjust your guitar; it also promotes ear training.

Staying Motivated

One of the most important things to remember is that you want to buy a guitar that will motivate you to spend time honing your skills. Choosing the aesthetic you want is also important since picking up a guitar that you’re proud of will obviously make you feel good. After all, feeling good and having fun is a big part of the process, right?

A woman is lying on the floor with her feet on the couch as she plays her guitar.

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Try to avoid bias before walking into a music store (if you’re buying a guitar in person). Be critical, of course, but go for a guitar that resonates with you or your child – the more emotional the attachment, the more motivation to pick it up and play.

Which Websites Should You Buy Your Guitar From?

While many prefer to buy instruments in-store – to pick it up and get a feel for it – others already know what they want and prefer to purchase online and get it shipped right to their door. If that sounds like you, then you might want to know which online stores are the best for guitars. Here are the top guitar sites:

Musician Friends

Musician’s Friend has a great reputation for always having the best prices, the shipping is always free, and the best part – no sales tax (in most states)! They offer helpful support and are a trusted name in the industry. They even have what they call “Stupid Deals of the Day” for the saver-savvy shoppers. This site also guarantees the lowest prices and a free two-year warranty. Not too shabby!

Sweetwater

Sweetwater is a massive retailer for instruments. The site is widely considered to be reliable, offering a large variety of products from all the reputable and popular brands, such as Fender, Gibson, PRS, ESP and more. The site also offers budget options for each brand. The site has great customer service – they’re knowledgeable about gear and technology and can answer any of your questions.

Guitar Center

Guitar Center is the largest music store in the world and has shops all over the country, which is great if you want to purchase the guitar online and pick it up in-store. You can also return the guitar for free at your local store. Oh, and shipping is free−which is always nice! Their huge selection and good prices make it a great place to purchase a guitar, among many other instruments. They also have a “flash deals” section for some extra good prices.

Amazon

Of course, Amazon is always going to be on the list of where to make online purchases, even when it comes to guitars. They have a wide selection, and more often than not, the guitars come with accessories. It’s also beneficial to see buyers’ reviews.

One Last Note (Pun Intended)

After you did your best to make sure you got a well-crafted guitar within your budget, you should go ahead and trust your instincts. If it sounds good, go for it. All in all, there is no such thing as a universally agreed-upon and recognized “best guitar.”

A couple is having fun while playing guitars together

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The “best” guitar is going to be different for each person. As long as you consider all the above-mentioned pointers, chances are you’re going to be happy with your final purchase.

Happy guitar playing, everyone!