Choosing your first guitar can be a overwhelming process, especially for people who are unfamiliar with instruments in general. It’s hard to find quality at a price point that beginner’s feel comfortable with, and unless you spend hours doing independent research it can be incredibly easy to end up with something borderline unplayable regardless of how much you spend.
So if you’ve ever wanted to start playing the guitar but you’ve been unsure where to start, you’ve come to the right place! This article will give you all the information that you need to choose the best beginner guitar for your needs, as well as give you five great recommendations that won’t break the bank.
First Thing First: Acoustic or Electric?
The first stumbling block faced by many would-be musicians is that they’re unsure if they’d rather play an electric guitar or an acoustic. Thankfully, this is actually a pretty easily answered question. Just think about what you’d like to play more. Do you like bands like rock music or alternative? Then get an electric guitar. Would you rather spend your time obnoxiously belting out Wonderwall to try and pick up chicks in your favorite hipster watering hole? Then you should probably get an acoustic.
It’s not my place to make up your mind for you as to which discipline of the guitar you’d like to pursue. However, just know that both are equally rewarding. What you play is completely irrelevant; just enjoy playing for its own sake.
What To Look For in Your First Acoustic Guitar
A beginner acoustic instrument is never going to sound as good as a more expensive one. Things like low-priced Fender or Epiphone dreadnoughts will never compare to manufacturers like Martin or Taylor.
However, that’s not to say that those beginner instruments aren’t worth buying. The sad truth of being a guitar player is that it actually is really demanding. It requires a lot of investment of both your free time and your hard earned cash. Cheap instruments are a way for the inexperienced to dip their toe into the pool that is being a musician. If you end up not liking playing the guitar you don’t want to be out hundreds of dollars, and if you really like playing the guitar you’re going to want to move up to something nicer regardless of what you get.
When you decide you’re ready to buy, the first thing you should look for in a acoustic instrument is a solid top. A solid top means that the instrument has a solid tonewood top, generally spruce in this price bracket.
Without getting too in-depth, a solid top allows an instrument to resonate more easily than if it didn’t have a solid top. This translates to a better sound than a comparably built instrument with a non-solid top.
As far as other features go, as long as you buy from a relatively well known manufacturer you’re generally going to be fine. We’re essentially living in the golden age of cheap acoustic guitars right now. It used to be that pretty much anything that came out of Asia was pretty much unusable junk, comparable to something like a First Act guitar now. However, the quality of Asian made instruments have improved in unimaginable ways, with tuner quality (tuners keep your instrument in tune) and overall workmanship being really comparable to nicer instruments. They don’t sound as good by any stretch of the imagination, but they do generally play pretty well.
What To Look For In Your First Electric Guitar
Finding the right electric guitar for a beginner can be a bit more complicated, because there’s a lot more variables that go into choosing an electric guitar. For example, what kind of music do you want to play? If you’re into the Black Keys, you may want to invest in something like an Epiphone Dot. Whereas if you’re into harder genres of music (think punk or metal) that kind of guitar probably isn’t going to work out.
The first thing I would do if I were in your place is to figure out what kind of guitar your favorite guitarist plays. You probably won’t want to shell out the cash for a professional level guitar right when you start playing, but starting your search based off of another musician’s rig will get you in the right ball park. Every guitar manufacturer that caters to entry-level musicians has a guitar that will at least be close to what you want.
As for the nitty gritty details of beginner guitars, I wouldn’t worry about it too much. So long as you get in the neighborhood of $200-$400 you’re going to get something that will at least have the capability of performing well. Just figure out what type of music you want to play, and then find a guitar commonly used in the genre.
I don’t want to downplay the value of more expensive guitars, because they really are worth the price. However, they’re not a necessity to being a musician. They’re not even a necessity to being a musician who sounds good. All an expensive instrument does is remove the barriers between a musician and their ideal sound. You pay a premium so you don’t have to compromise on your tone, or your rig, or how you play.
A nicer instrument will have better quality tuners, better pickups (if it’s an electric or acoustic-electric), and it will generally just feel better. But you know what? It’s still just a piece of wood with a bunch of metal stuck into it. Dropping $1500 on a guitar won’t turn you into Stevie Ray Vaughn, and starting out on a $150 guitar won’t stop you from being the next great guitar player.
Top 5 Beginner Guitars
As always, our recommendations are intended to have widespread applicability. We strive to have enough of a variety that just about anyone could purchase something from one of our lists, this one targeting people just starting to play guitar, that is especially true. We’re not establishing one type of instrument as better or worse than another, because we know that a $2,000 guitar is generally going to be better in terms of tone and playability than a budget instrument. However, everyone has a different set of circumstances at play in their lives, so the best option for you may not be the best option for another person. We've selected these for starter guitars because they are accessible, sound fantastic, are reasonably priced, and are made by brands with high quality assurance.
Epiphone DR-100 Acoustic-Electric Guitar
The DR-100 is Epiphone’s most popular acoustic. Think about that for a second. It is saying something, because Epiphone isn’t a small mom and pop operation and because that statement has been true for a long time now.
One piece of wisdom I heard from an experienced guitarist when I was seeking out my first acoustic was to find brands that do make premium acoustic guitars and look at them first. The logic behind that advice is that if the guitar maker knows how to make premium guitars that can fetch expensive price tags and be competitive in that market, much of that know how will trickle down into the lower priced offerings of the company. There is truth in that. If you start with a premium guitar, you generally know what bells and whistles to strip away and still deliver the essential elements of the guitar at a economical beginner-friendly price. So it goes with Epiphone, Gibson’s little brother.
The DR-100 is a classic dreadnaught guitar that will deliver a great sounding and playable guitar at an insanely low price point. This shape of guitar is a great first guitar, because it will bring plenty of volume to your playing, but also deliver a balanced tone that isn’t too extreme. That may be the reason this shape is the most popular acoustic guitar body in rock and roll, country, folk, blues, and more. That versatility is especially important for people who are just getting started on the instrument.
So, how did the DR-100 make this list? Let’s start with build quality. This Epiphone delivers a quality that is vastly superior to the others that cost the same, or even more. That comes through in the features the Epiphone offers versus other starter guitars. Unlike lesser entry level instruments, the Epiphone has an adjustable truss rod, and comes backed by a limited lifetime warranty from Epiphone. Good luck trying to find another guitar for under a hundred bucks that sounds this good and that the maker stands behind.
The top of the guitar is spruce, with a mahogany body and neck. The fingerboard of the DR-100 is rosewood with pearloid dot inlays, and out of the box the action feels great. Epiphone uses what is called the SlimTaper neck on this guitar, which helps make it more accessible to players just starting to learn guitar since the neck isn’t too thick to be unwieldy or unapproachable and intimidating. The 25.5” scale neck feels great in hand and the nickel hardware works better than most entry level guitars.
The DR-100 comes in three finishes that don’t feel overdone like many in this price point that feel like the thick finishes deaden the tone; Natural, Ebony, and Vintage Sunburst, all of which look attractive in our eyes.
The scalloped X bracing that Epiphone constructs this guitar with produces a very sturdy guitar with excellence resonance. Ultimately, it’s all about sound when talking about guitars, and we can’t emphasize enough how impressed we were for the price with this guitar. Sure, you could still hear a difference when we’d play this in tandem with a Taylor, but it wasn’t as big of a difference as we expected. For something that costs under 10% of what we paid for the Taylor in question, it highlighted what a great guitar this is and really impressed us with what Epiphone can create for so little money. The tone is balanced, with a decent bass note when you hit the low E string, and the mids are very clear and crisp.
In short, we’ve never heard a hundred dollar guitar sound this good. It’s easy to see why this guitar is popular with beginners and experienced players alike. The DR-100 is also available with an optional case or a useful accessory bundle that includes useful things for beginners (a tuner, picks, a strap, and guitar stand) starting from scratch.
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Squier by Fender Bullet Strat Beginner Electric Guitar
Even if you’re just getting into guitar now, you’ll immediately recognize the iconic Fender Stratocaster. It is commonly associated with some of the finest players to ever pick up a six string. From legends like Stevie Ray Vaughan, Jimi Hendrix, David Gilmour and Eric Clapton to modern players like John Mayer and Ed Sheeran. The Stratocaster was designed in 1954 and has been produced ever since. Safe to say, it works very, very well.
The body of this entry level Strat is a 42mm slim body made of basswood with a polyurethane finish. The neck is a C-shaped 25.5” scale Maple neck, capped with a Rosewood 21 fret fingerboard that has a 9.5” radius. The C-shaped neck accommodates most playing styles, although shredding metal players probably want a thinner neck and flatter fretboard than this guitar offers. Other than that, the Strat is a great entry point to most musical genres. The chrome hardware is timeless and the tuners are die-cast and impressive for entry level machine heads.
The three control knobs on the Strat manipulate volume, the tone of the neck pickup, and the tone of the middle pickup. Switching is done with a 5-position blade lever that either isolates a single pickup or that activates combinations of two pickups (Position 1. Bridge Pickup, Position 2. Bridge and Middle Pickup, Position 3. Middle Pickup, Position 4. Middle and Neck Pickup, Position 5. Neck Pickup).
The bullet Strat also comes in multiple configurations. You can go the most classic of Strat setups with 3 single coil pickups (denoted as SSS) or choose to have two single coil pickups paired up with a humbucking bridge pickup (HSS). While the hum bucker combination makes sense for some specific purposes, we’d generally recommend the single coil setup to achieve the classic strat sounds. Generally, if you’re after the hum bucker sound, we’d look to the Les Paul or Telecaster if you’re a after a Fender for those tones. Having said that, doing what you want to with your guitar is what it is all about. After all, Jim Root of Slipknot and Stone Sour dropped in active pickups into his Strat and it has worked out well for him.
The vintage-inspired synchronized tremolo bridge with six saddles is reminiscent of the guitars from the 1950s and 60s that established the legacy of this guitar.
As far as the Squier’s shape goes, it is a classic Stratocaster shape. It is ergonomic, allowing the player to get high up on the 21 fret rosewood fingerboard because of the bottom cutaway that allows access to soloing portion of the neck. The C-shaped neck is very comfortable and is easy to play. The Strat comes set up with .009-.042 gauge strings, which are light and perfect for beginners since this gauge string allows you to easily manipulate and bend the strings and the lighter strings will be easier on your fingertips as your callouses develop, resulting in more playing time and less discouragement for new guitarists.
Another reason Strats, and this Squier version specifically, are great beginner guitars is because they are incredibly easy to customize. As is, you’re getting a great guitar out of the box that sounds good and is easy to play. However, if your tastes evolve, your playing style changes, or there is just something on the guitar you just plain don’t like, it is a snap to change. Since the Stratocaster has been rocking the free world since 1954, it is an understatement to say the aftermarket parts market for the guitar is mature. Virtually any single piece of this guitar has someone making a custom version so that you can personalize your guitars sound, looks, and feels. It’s a great base to venture into almost any musical genre, but it is very easy to modify and tailor it to the player’s taste as your playing matures and you dial in your sound preferences.
Color options for this model are Arctic White, Black, Brown Sunburst, and Pink. Additionally, this model is often offered as part of a beginner player pack that comes with needed accessories or as an amplifier bundle, so this is the perfect entry point to Stratocasters. If you want a versatile and approachable guitar that is easy to customize to your playing style, this is it.
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Epiphone Les Paul Special II Electric Guitar
Even if you’re new to guitar, there is a good chance you know who Les Paul was, or at least familiar with the guitars that bear his name. To the uninitiated, Lester William Polsfuss, better known as Les Paul, is an American musician and luthier who helped pioneer the age of the electric guitar. In fact, he is the only person included in both the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and the National Inventors Hall of Fame. This guitar has evolved a good bit since Les’ original “log”, but its spirit remains.
The Les Paul is a staple of electric guitar. The unique look, the playability, and, most importantly, the tone of a Les Paul make it one of the most sought after and recognizable guitars in the world. In fact, the Les Paul is many people’s grail guitar that embodies perfection. Now let’s discuss why that is.
Yes, the LP is playable, it looks great, Gibson and Epiphone (both produce Les Paul models) are quality manufacturers that have good reputations, and the ergonomics are well thought out. But what is so great about Les Pauls? What is the hype about? In a word, tone.
The Les Paul has a reputation for a specific tone that is unmatched in the many copycats out there, and there are plenty that have tried. There are a several reasons for that.
The most obvious is the pickups of the guitar. The Les Paul Special II comes with 700T/650R open-coil humbucking pickups that deliver faithful Les Paul tones. For the money, you’d be challenged to find better electronics on a starter guitar at this price. That is because the components are very well made and reliable, but also because they are versatile. As you probably know, Les Pauls are popular in virtually every genre of modern guitar music. From country to death metal, this guitar can handle it all and a legend part of it is because these aggressive pickups sound so great. Epiphone's heavy-duty 3-way pickup selector toggle switch works like a charm and is intuitive for beginners to help find the sound you want. One word of caution here; If you know you want a bright clear twangy sound, look at a Strat or Tele, because those will deliver better cleaner notes routinely. Otherwise, these pickups are perfect for sound versatility, especially as new players experiment with different genres and sounds when starting off.
Many higher end (and cost) LPs have a set net, which means the neck is glued on to the guitar body with an adhesive rather than bolted on, which helps the mahogany body and neck have the legendary sustain that the design is known for. However, this model has a bolt on neck, and we’re glad it does, because it makes the guitar much more economical for the player that is just starting out, but wants to get his or her hands that Les Paul tone. Also, the bolt on neck delivers plenty of sustain in this model. At this price point, the sustain is more than enough to satisfy, and still better than many competitors offer.
The 22-fret neck is hefty, as is traditional in Les Pauls. The neck scale is 24.75” scale, which contributes to the LPs tone. Shorter scaled necks, like this length, are better for warmth and heaver notes, where 25.5” necks are typically for brighter sounding guitars. This is another reason Les Pauls are so popular in all things rock (classic rock to alternative to metal and everything in between). The rosewood fingerboard looks great and features dot inlays as position markers.
Obviously, this is not built to the quality level that a Gibson Les Paul Custom is held to, but for a beginner guitar, the build is rock solid. The individual components are very solid. The Epiphone Special II has 500K potentiometers for the master volume and master tone controls. The LockTone tune-o-matic bridge and stopbar tailpiece add to the feel of a more expensive instrument. Don’t feel at all skeptical about taking this guitar around town, to distant jam sessions, to outdoor shows, or rough environments. This guitar can handle it.
If you’re just starting guitar, and especially if you have a wide spectrum of musical tastes that you want to experiment with, the Les Paul might be the best starter guitar for you. In fact, this is the very guitar that James Bay started with, and things have worked out well for him. But kidding aside, with the LP Special II you’re getting a legendary guitar lineage at an incredible value. More than that, you’re getting a very player friendly guitar as an entrance point to a rewarding hobby with a instrument that will continue to be satisfying as you grow as a player.
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Squier by Fender Affinity Telecaster Electric Guitar
Based off the iconic design originally conceptualized by Leo Fender (the original iteration of the modern Telecaster was called the Broadcaster, but the name had to be changed due to a copyright dispute with Gretsch), the Squeir Affinity Telecaster presents a unique value for any aspiring musician. The Fender Telecaster has been a constant fixture in music for decades, and though it’s earned a reputation as being a “country guitar” it actually is surprisingly versatile. The axe has been wielded by everyone from Jack White to John 5.
The key distinction of the Affinity Telecaster when compared to the Telecaster line as a whole is that like many of the other budget options produced by the company it has a top load bridge. While a top load bridge definitely won’t result in a low quality guitar it does cut sustain and overall resonance. That’s why the vast majority of high quality Telecasters (including the guitars “inspired” by the Telecaster that are produced by other companies) use a string through bridge. With a string through bridge you feed the strings through the body, which while that results in a guitar that’s a bit harder to restring it definitely does have a positive effect on the tone.
As of writing the Squier Affinity Telecaster features a body made from alder. As a tonewood alder is generally considered to be a round and warm without being muddy or unclear. Of course the effect of tonewood on an electric is up for debate, so take the comparisons between different tonewoods with a grain of salt.
The neck on the Squier Affinity Telecaster is a bit shorter than the standard 43mm, though it’s only by roughly 2mm. The difference will likely be negligible to the vast majority of musicians, but there are some guitar players who are extremely sensitive to nut width. The thinner neck on the Telecaster might be a bit uncomfortable if you have larger hands, but if you’re thinking of purchasing this guitar for a young musician it might make the instrument a bit more comfortable for them to play.
As of this writing Squier’s Affinity Telecaster is available in eight different finishes, though models from different years will feature a few different options.
As far as sound is concerned the more recent Squier Affinity Telecasters are actually pretty good. Some of the older models suffered from weak and anemic sounding pickups, which is part of the reason why the Affinity series doesn’t have the best reputation. However, the newer models are perfectly adequate for a guitar in this price range. Just be aware that they are vintage voiced, so if you want a hotter Telecaster tone you may have to invest in some after market pickups. On the other hand, if you’re looking for a classic Telecaster tone you definitely won’t be disappointed. While this guitar obviously isn’t going to compete with a Custom Shop Fender (or a guitar of an equivalent quality) it compares pretty well to most other Squier guitars. In fact, the recently produced Squier Affinity Telecasters compare pretty favorably to Mexican made instruments. Even better, they’re less than half the price!
As far as quality is concerned, Squier has really stepped up their game lately. The line used to have a very well deserved reputation for being a bit lax when it came to quality control, but the quality of most foreign made guitars has increased by leaps and bounds over the last few years. The main difference between a Squier and a Mexican made Fender at this point is that a Mexican made guitar is going to feature more expensive components. Not necessarily better components, but ones that cost more to produce. The only part of the Affinity Telecaster that’s really lacking is the nut, which is made out of a synthetic bone. While you’re experiences with synthetic bone may vary, it’s generally considered to be significantly worse than natural bone or TUSQ.
Though Fender’s subsidiary does have its detractors, Squier instruments really are not all that bad for what they are. Of course compromises had to be made to keep the line profitable, but in all reality most of the instruments the company produces are easily capable of becoming great recording or gigging guitars.
At the end of the Squiers are never going to have the prestige of a Fender or Gibson, but they’re affordable and in the right hands they can sound as good as any other instrument.
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