For new acoustic guitar enthusiasts, the number of choices and options available in selecting an instrument can seem intimidating and maybe even a bit overwhelming. If you’re like me, you want to make a smart decision. One that doesn’t expose you to too much financial risk if you end up not playing for the rest of your life, but also one that will enable you to give yourself a real chance to learn and love playing guitar. If you’re looking to learn about acoustic guitars for beginners, then you’ve come to the right place!
Most music lovers are inspired by the artists they listen to. And your guitar should inspire you to pick it up and play as often as possible. If you buy such a cheap guitar that it is barely even capable of making real quality music, then your inspiration will diminish and your passion to learn and love the guitar will fade away. That gives me the blues just thinking about it!
The good news is that there are a large number of moderately priced acoustic guitars for beginners and intermediate players alike. These guitars will make absolutely beautiful music and not have you choosing between your guitar and your next rent or mortgage payment!
So rather than walking into your local guitar store and relying on a commissioned salesperson to tell you what to buy, let me explain the differences between the different types of acoustic guitars and which features are most impactful to quality, performance and price.
Acoustic Guitars for Beginners – Classical Nylon vs Acoustic Steel String
One of the first ways to differentiate between different types of acoustic guitars is by the materials used in the guitar strings. The majority of guitars produced and played today use steel guitar strings and these are simply referred to as acoustic guitars. The other type of guitar uses nylon strings and while they’re still technically acoustic instruments, they are generally referred to as Classical, or sometimes Spanish-style guitars. Visually, you can usually distinguish between the two by looking at the different headstock designs shown in the photo above. Classical guitar headstocks feature slots where the strings wrap around posts. “Regular” acoustic guitars have solid headstocks without any slots cut out.
The two guitar types also differ in their sound signatures. The thicker nylon strings on Classical guitars produce a more mellow and soft sound. The thinner steel strings on regular Acoustic guitars producing a more bright and loud sound that resonates longer.
If you have heard or read elsewhere that Classical guitars are easier to learn because of the nylon strings, please take note that the width of the fretboard on Classical guitars is wider than on regular Acoustic guitars. So it takes quite a bit more finger dexterity and skill to be able to reach across the neck of the guitar.
Learn.Love.Guitar. Recommendation: Unless you are focused on learning to play Latin, Brazilian or jazz music on your first guitar, I would highly recommend that you start out with a regular steel-string Acoustic guitar. It offers much greater tonal flexibility and will allow you to use both your fingers to pluck the strings as well as a pick, which is rarely used on Classical guitars.
Acoustic Guitars for Beginners – Shapes and Sizes
Acoustic guitars come in several basic sizes, and different manufacturers sometimes call them by slightly different names. Of course, there is no right or wrong size guitar on its own. But certain guitars are better suited for different body types and playing styles. You want a guitar that will be comfortable to play and one that will have the right sound for the kind of music you want to play. Below, I list the six most common acoustic guitar body sizes, along with some tips on helping you to select which might be best for you.
A) Mini – Naturally, a mini guitar has the smallest dimensions in length, width and depth. Because of their small size, mini guitars make great travel instruments for the guitarist on the go. They also make great guitars for younger kids between 5-8. Because acoustic instruments rely on their own body to produce the musical sounds, mini guitars do not have a very strong sound projection, nor do they produce much bass response.
B) Parlor – Next up the size chart are parlor guitars, which are still quite portable, and produce a delicate treble projection of tone. They are also suitable guitars for kids in their tween years (8-12).
C) Concert – Mid-sized guitar well suited for players with smaller hands. A great guitar for fingerstyle playing or lighter touch picking. Concert guitars have a beautiful treble response and a more pronounced mid-range compared to mini or parlor guitars.
D) Auditorium – A versatile guitar size with similar width and depth to a dreadnought, but with a narrower waist. Beautiful balanced bell-tone qualities and projection with a little more bass than a concert guitar, with a fast response for finger-picking. Able to handle medium picking strength. This is often referred to the “goldilocks” guitar because of its classic shape and ability to be a comfortable instrument for so many guitarists.
E) Dreadnought – Archetypal body shape of an acoustic guitar. Less pronounced trebles due to its larger size and more pronounced mid-range tones. Surprisingly, these guitars often sound relatively quiet when played finger style. But when played with a pick, they really project a lot of beautiful sound and can handle heavy picking.
F) Jumbo – Often played by physically larger musicians who can handle the increased size of the guitar. Jumbos are capable of producing tremendous volume when picking or strumming with a pick and generate a pronounced bass response.
Acoustic Guitars for Beginners – Materials
Because all of the major structural components of an acoustic guitar are made of wood, it should come as no surprise that the selection of different woods for different components of a guitar have a tremendous impact on both its performance and its price.
Over the past 100+ years, guitar designers and manufacturers have found popular wood choices for various guitar components at various price points. For example, many of the highest quality and most expensive acoustic guitars will use Alpine spruce for the top soundboard, Indian or Brazilian rosewood for the back and sides of the guitar body, mahogany for the neck and African ebony for the fretboard. Now, since most of you reading this article are not looking to spend $2,000 or more for your new acoustic guitar, I’ll describe some of the more common materials you’ll find in more affordable guitars.
Top Soundboard: Spruce is a very popular material for the top soundboard of many quality acoustic guitars. It is characterized by producing clear and powerful tones.
Back and Sides: Mahogany is often the material of choice for the sides and back of the guitar body. They help the guitar translate bass and treble tones when played.
One differentiator you may find in a guitar’s top, back and sides is the method of constructing the wood pieces. More modestly priced guitars will feature laminated woods, which are thin sheets of the wood mechanically formed together under heat and pressure to make a laminate. A more expensive method of building a guitar is to use full-thickness solid sheets of the wood. Because the top soundboard is widely considered to be the most important component of a guitar in terms of producing the best sounds, you will often see moderately priced guitars featuring a solid spruce soundboard with laminated mahogany sides and back.
Neck: For acoustic guitars, mahogany is the standard bearer for most guitar manufacturers.
Fretboard: Rosewood is a common wood choice for the fretboard, or fingerboard, of acoustic guitars.
Learn.Love.Guitar. Recommendation: The combination of a solid spruce top and laminated mahogany sides and back is very popular for beginner and intermediate guitarists alike.
Acoustic Guitars for Beginners – Regular Vs Cutaway Shapes
Acoustic guitars that feature a cutaway, or an indentation in the upper area of the body, allow for greater access to the higher frets. Most electric guitars have single or double cutaways, so many electrics guitarists prefer acoustic guitars to have one as well. Some also simply prefer the look of the cutaway as it adds to the shapeliness of the body. If you’re wondering if cutaways negatively impact the ability of an acoustic guitar to produce quality sounds, you’re asking a smart question. Virtually all manufacturers and players agree that any tonal degradation is minimal as that particular area of the body does not drive much of the tonal output. On the other hand, some people prefer the symmetry and classic look of an acoustic guitar without a cutaway.
Learn.Love.Guitar. Recommendation: You certainly can’t go wrong with either body style, but I feel that the improved access to upper frets on cutaway acoustic guitars gives a player more flexibility in the notes they can easily play, making more songs and musical styles available to you.
Wait a minute, didn’t I previously explain in another article the differences between acoustic guitars and electric guitars and how their method of producing sounds are very different? Yes, I did. So you may be wondering, what the heck is an acoustic-electric guitar?
Some acoustic guitars are equipped with a small electric pick-up inside the body that allows the instrument to be plugged into an amplifier. They still operate and sound exactly like a normal acoustic guitar, but for players who want to project their sound into a larger space, such as during a concert or performance, acoustic-electric guitars make a logical choice. Another nice feature of virtually all acoustic-electric guitars is that part of the on-board electronics is a tuner. This comes in very handy as players generally tune their guitar every time they pick it up.
Learn.Love.Guitar. Recommendation: If you’re just starting out and are learning to play guitar for personal enjoyment, but really have no specific aspirations about playing in a coffee shop or on a concert stage, then I’d recommend you forego the option, and the extra cost, associated with acoustic-electric guitars. That extra money could go toward buying a higher quality guitar and those features you will enjoy and benefit from day one.
Not to sound too wishy-washy, but most acoustic guitars that feature the cutaway design also include the acoustic-electric option. So if you think that access to the upper frets will come in handy, or you simply prefer the look of the cutaway design, then you may find that the guitars you’re selecting will also include the electric pick-up.
If you’d like to review my recommended acoustic guitars for beginners at various price points, click on any of the following links: