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  Selecting a Guitar


A good instrument is extremely important for developing finger dexterity and proper technique on the guitar.  Unfortunately, many of the guitars that families have in their homes are unsuitable for learning guitar.  I cannot overstress the importance of having an appropriate instrument.


There is something about a quality instrument that cannot be quantified.  I have found that the more money the student or parents spend on an instrument, the more serious the student is about practicing.  I almost always see a huge jump in love of music and in time spent practicing whenever a student obtains a higher quality instrument.

If you are considering a guitar purchase, please talk to me before you do so.  There is a wide variety of quality in each price range.  Let me help you find a quality instrument in your price range.

RECOMMENDED ACOUSTIC GUITARS

Most guitar players would agree that the top two acoustic guitar brands are Martin and Taylor.  If you pursue acoustic guitar, someday you'll probably want to own a Martin or a Taylor.  (I own a beautiful Taylor 310ce.  It is impossible for me to play it without smiling.)  The Martin (below left) has a rich, full sound, while the Taylor (below right) has a bright, clean sound. 
Hand-made-in-the-USA Martins and top-of-the-line Taylors sell for $2,000-5,000.



Both Martin and Taylor have some full sized models priced in the $700 range.  I'm not a fan of the Martins in that price range.  I think they are overpriced for what you get; you're paying too much for the name, and they are not great sounding instruments.  However, I DO highly recommend the "dreadnought" (110ce, standard shape) and "grand auditorium"(114ce, slightly smaller curvy shape) Taylors in that price range.  (Women, boys, and girls with shorter arms often find the grand auditorium more comfortable to play, and many men prefer the looks of it.  The dreadnought has slightly more bass because of the larger sound board.)  These are stunning instruments that in my opinion are the best value of any guitars on the market.  The quality to price ratio is unbelievable.  If you or your son or daughter are serious about guitar and you want to invest in an instrument that will be played and treasured for many years to come, and sounds so good that you don't want to put it down, and is so much easier to play that you'll be able to play it much longer each day without sore fingers, I highly recommend the Taylor 110ce and 114ce.  In recent years, Taylor has redesigned all its guitars and its manufacturing processes.  In fact, my Taylor 310ce, that listed for $2,400 in 1999, does not sound as nice as the new 110 series guitars that sell for about $700 (sometimes, even $600).


If you can afford slightly more, the Taylor 210ce or 214ce are significant upgrades with cutaways, rosewood back and sides, gloss top finish, and a slightly richer sound.  They also come with a better carrying bag.  They sell for about $1,000 (Link here to hear the difference between the 114ce and the 214ce).


The 210ce Deluxe or 214ce Deluxe are stunning guitars for about $1,200.  The Deluxe models have an all-gloss finish rather than just a gloss top, that gives them a clearer, brighter sound (Link here to hear the difference between the Standard versus the Deluxe).  They also have the newest generation electronic pickup which is a little better sounding than the older style pickup that is in the Standard model, and a hard shell case rather than a hard bag to better protect the guitar.


Another fantastic guitar in the $700-1,200 price range is Breedlove. 
In fact, the Breedlove is in some ways superior to the Taylor.  I own one of their acoustic bass guitars, and love it!  And I have a friend who owns a Breedlove acoustic guitar and it sounds wonderful.  I find the Breedlove to have much of the bright sparkle of a Taylor but also much of the richness of a Martin.  I'm not sure whether Breedlove is available locally.  KSM Music in Logan used to have a few Breedloves in stock but I don't know if that is still the case.  If you can find one, I highly recommend these guitars.


Going down in price, I don't have any recommendations in the $400-600 price range.  Many various manufacturers have guitars in this price range, but I have yet to find one that I feel is has an excellent quality/price ratio.  Two of them carried locally are Teton and Ibanez. 
I'm not a fan of Teton guitars.  To my ears they sound woody and dull compared to the Yamaha and Fender guitars that cost hundreds of dollars less (see below).  Ibanez does have some nice models.  However, I keep asking myself why anyone would spend $500 on an Ibanez (or a Teton) when they could spend $200 more and get an absolutely stunning sounding and playing Taylor???


If your budget is too tight for a Taylor, I recommend either the Fender CD line or the Yamaha FG/FS line.  These guitars are very good for amazingly low prices.  Smooth straight necks, beautiful finish, and well set up right from the factory.  For example, the Fender CD-140S has a solid spruce top and sells for $200!  (Stay away from guitars priced under $200; they have a laminated spruce top, rather than a solid spruce top.  The solid top makes a HUGE difference in the quality of the sound, and it actually starts sounding better over time.)  The comparable Yamaha is the FG800 (full sized "dreadnought" style, below) or the FS800S (smaller "folk" or "concert" style body, which is better for most women and small teens; the smaller body is not quite as loud but is more comfortable for smaller people to play).  The Fender and Yamaha are similar to each other on quality, and identical on price.



If you want an "acoustic electric" that you can plug into a PA system for performing, the Fender CD-140CE (below) is the same guitar as the CD-140S but with a cutaway and Fishman electronics, for only $300.  The comparable Yamaha is the FGX800C, which is the same guitar as the FG800 but with a cutaway and Yamaha electronics, and is also $300.  And the Yamaha FSX800C is the same thing in the smaller concert body.  Do you need an acoustic-electric with a cutaway?  Beginner students don’t, but if you plan to play in public someday then at that point you will need a guitar that has the built in electronics.  It’s up to you.  You can either buy a guitar with electronics from the start or you can upgrade later.



Another option for $300 is the Yamaha FG830 (full sized dreadnought, below) or FS830 (smaller concert body model).  In this case, instead of electronics, the extra $100 gets you a much better, richer sounding guitar.  These are the guitars I recommend for most beginner students.  If you can afford it, what you get for the extra $100 is a good investment.  It is prettier, with Rosewood sides and back, nicer binding, and a good looking inlay logo, and depending on the dealer it might also come with a gig bag included.  Most importantly, it has a better soundboard with scalloped bracing, which greatly improves the bass and midrange sound because it allows the spruce top to vibrate better.  These guitars sounds great!  If you can afford $300, my general recommendation for beginners is to spend the extra $100 on a better quality instrument rather than on the electronics and cutaway.  You can't go wrong on a FG830 or FS830.



(The Yamaha FGX830C is the best of both worlds, with the FG830 tone plus the FGX800C electronics.  Logically, it ought to be priced at $400, but unfortunately it sells for $500, so it's not as good of a bargain, and for $200 more you can get a Taylor, so I can't recommend it.)

(NOTE: Stay away from the Fender and Yamaha shallow-body guitars, including the cool-looking brightly colored ones.  They are horrible-sounding instruments for way too high of prices.)

In summary,
in the high price range (2,000-5,000) Taylor and Martin are the best mass produced professional level guitars in the world.  In the medium price range ($600-1,200), you can't go wrong with Taylor (or Breedlove, if you can find one).  In the low price range ($200-300), Yamaha and Fender are the best quality for the price.  Martin, Taylor, Yamaha, and Fender are all carried locally at The Book Table in Logan, which has an excellent selection and very competitive prices (identical to those of online dealers).


I generally do not recommend buying acoustic guitars online.  Go to The Book Table and to KSM Music and play the models on display and see which one "speaks to you".  I will be happy to go with you to help you select a good one.  There are sometimes significant differences in the tone or action of one guitar compared to another of the same model.


With new guitars of such excellent quality available for such ridiculously low prices, I also generally do not recommend buying a used acoustic guitar.  In my opinion, it is a big gamble to buy used unless you are an expert.  Don't think you're saving money or getting a bargain by buying a guitar at a pawn shop or from a friend for $50.  If it has worn frets, a warped neck, a stripped truss rod, or a bad soundboard, repairs might cost more than the price of a new guitar.

MINI GUITARS and TRAVEL GUITARS


Small guitars can be a lot of fun because you can take them anywhere. 
It's easy to take them with you on vacations, to friends' houses, to grandparents' homes, to the park, and on vacations.  Most airlines will allow you to put them into overhead bins, thus avoiding the expense and weight of shipping your guitar in a flight case that often costs nearly as much as the guitar and feels heavy enough to be a boat anchor. 


Unfortunately, I can't recommend most mini guitars to my students, because nearly all of them are terrible sounding instruments.  They sound
shallow and tinny, as if they were made out of a cardboard box.  This is caused by inferior manufacturing methods, smaller sound boards, smaller and shallower bodies, and shorter strings (shorter "scale").  The short scale also makes them harder to play because the frets are closer together (similar to how a full sized guitar feels when capo'd up 4-5 frets).  Even the "Baby" Taylor and the LX1 "Little" Martin are very shallow sounding.  (No offense to Ed Sheeran, but his Little Martin guitar that he plays at live venues sounds like garbage!)


There is one exception.  I can highly recommend the Taylor GS Mini (below).  It is an excellent sounding small guitar that rivals the tone of its full sized siblings.  It is somewhat pricey ($500 without electronics, $600 with electronics), and unfortunately it is also considerably larger than most other "mini" or "travel" guitars.
  But if you want a smaller guitar, this is the one to get, for sure!  If you can find one.  They are so popular that dealers can't keep them in stock, and they are back-ordered from the factory.  A nice padded gig bag is included.




NOTE: The Taylor GS Mini would also be an excellent choice for the main guitar for a woman with short arms, or for a young teen who is serious about guitar, because of its small size and shorter scale neck but excellent tone.


GUITARS FOR SMALL CHILDREN

A problem I sometimes see is with children whose parents have purchased an inexpensive ½ or ¾ size steel string acoustic or electric guitar.  These are almost always bad instruments.  Here’s why: In order for a guitar with a shorter neck to be tuned the same as a guitar with a longer neck, there are only two ways to do it.  One is to have thicker strings, and the other is to have the strings much looser.  Thicker strings are harder to press into the frets.  And looser strings will buzz on the frets unless the guitar is modified with a much higher “nut” which pushes the strings farther away from the neck, which again makes them harder to press.  So the bottom line is, it is much more difficult to press the strings on small guitars than on full sized guitars.  Children’s fingers often can’t even press the strings far enough to sound a chord without strings buzzing, and even if they can, doing so is more painful than it should be.  For this reason, I generally do not recommend undersized steel string guitars for children.  The only exception I have found is the "Baby" Taylor, which is fairly pricey for a child's instrument.  But at least it has a good action that is easy to play.


If a child’s arms are too short to reach around the body of a Yamaha
FS800S, and you don't want to spend $330 on a Baby Taylor, and you don't want to wait a couple of years, there are a couple of options.  One is to start on ukulele and switch to guitar later.  This is what I usually recommend for children and tweens whose arms and fingers are still too small to play a full sized guitar.  In the last couple of years, the ukulele has suddenly become more popular.  In fact, the winner of America's Got Talent in 2016 was a 12-year-old girl named Grace VanderWaal, who accompanied herself on ukulele.  If this is the route you want to take, I highly recommend the "baritone" ukulele, which is tuned exactly like the top four strings of a guitar.  As a result, the chords are named the same as those on a guitar, and the fingering is identical to that of the top four strings of a guitar.  Thus, graduating from ukulele to guitar is very easy later on.  KSM Music and The Book Table both carry baritone ukuleles and between the two stores there are almost always a few in stock.


If the child is intent on guitar and the Baby Taylor is too pricey for you, the other option is a ½ or ¾ sized nylon string (classical) guitar.  Nylon strings are much easier to press and don’t hurt the fingers as much as steel, even if the strings are relatively high off the fretboard.  Unfortunately, there is a big downside: the necks of nylon string guitars are quite wide, making them hard to reach chords with small fingers.  The Ibanez GA2 or the Yamaha CGS are both decent quality ¾ size classical guitars for around $120-130, but my recommendation is either a baritone ukelele (about $150), or a Baby Taylor (about $330), or wait until the child's arms and fingers grow a little bigger.


RECOMMENDED ELECTRIC GUITARS


There are two classic styles of electric guitar that play and sound very different from each other: the Fender Stratocaster (below left) and the Gibson Les Paul (below right).


 

The Strat has three single coil pickups that give it a bright, clean sound (think Brian Adams).  The Les Paul has two humbucker (twin coil) pickups that give it a fat, rich, full sound (think Journey).  The Strat is used extensively for early rock & roll and for rhythm guitar.  The Les Paul is used extensively for 70s and 80s classic rock and is excellent for lead guitar.  Another variant of the Fender, called the Telecaster, has a twangy sound that is used extensively in country music (think early Rolling Stones).  Both Fenders have a longer, wider neck.  The Les Paul has a slightly shorter scale and narrower neck.  The Strat has a whammy bar to bend the pitch.  The Tele and the Gibson do not.  There are many other styles of electric guitars, including hollow-bodies that are used primarily for jazz music, but the vast majority of electric guitars are variations of either Fenders or Gibsons or both.

To hear the difference, link to this John Fogerty concert video.  He plays all three during this concert.  (37:10-37:28 is Telecaster, 38:39-39:06 is Les Paul, 46:43-47:00 is Stratocaster)


Both the Fender Stratocaster and the Gibson Les Paul sell for upwards of $2,000 for the hand-made-in-the-USA models.  If you pursue electric guitar, someday you may want to own a USA-made Fender or Gibson, or both.  Fender also has a factory in Mexico that makes guitars that sell for about half the price of the USA models.  The quality of the Mexican Fenders is not quite as consistent as the USA made ones, but some of them are quite good.  I own a Mexican Fender Jazz bass, and on of my friends owns a Mexican Fender Stratocaster, and both of those instruments are excellent.

Both Fender and Gibson own subsidiary brands that produce low end models of their guitars (Squier for Fender, Epiphone for Gibson).  These brands sell for much lower prices, but in my opinion these bottom end models are overpriced compared to other brands.

Yamaha and Ibanez are both excellent manufacturers that offer a full line of various styles of electric guitars that don't necessarily look like Les Pauls, Strat's, and Tele's, but do play and sound like them and are reasonably priced.

My personal recommendation for beginner electric guitars are from several other manufacturers that make good quality knock-off's of the the Les Paul, Strat, and Tele for astonishingly low prices ($200-400), including Agile (rondomusic.com), Xaviere (guitarfetish.com), and Slick (guitarfetish.com).

The Slick SL52 (below left) is a Les Paul style guitar 
with no frills but serious tone and a great price of $230.  If you have a limited budget and care more about how it sounds than about looks, this is a good choice.  It has a solid mahogany body, excellent hardware and tuners, a good neck, and fantastic pickups.  The only negative is what they look like.  They offer this guitar in a few vintage 1950s colors that have been "hand aged" (sanded down) to look like a 60 year old, heavily used, beat up guitar.  Shown below is the unpainted "Black Ash" model that has raw wood with no finish at all.

Another alternative is the Xaviere XV500 (below center).  This guitar looks stunning and has a great sound with excellent pickups.  It sells for $220.  You can't go wrong with this guitar.  My band's lead guitar player has one of these and loves it so much that most of the time he plays it rather than his vintage 1964 Gibson SG! 
If I were to make a recommendation for a low priced beginner electric guitar for most beginning students, this would be it.

A third alternative at that same price point is the the Agile AL-1900. 
It is offered in a variety of nice color options and sells for $230.  Or, for a student who is serious about electric guitar, it might be worth the extra $100 to upgrade to the Agile AL-3010SE (below right).  It is made from better grain wood, has nicer trim with abalone inlays, a better nut and saddle, and better pickups, and it comes with better quality strings than the AL-1900.  It sells for $330 and is almost indistinguishable from a Les Paul in both looks and sound.

         
(don't worry, the guitar on the right is exactly the same size and shape as the others; it's just photographed at a different angle)

Agile also offers a model with a "coil cut" that changes the guitar from the Les Paul sound to very close to a Strat sound at the flick of a switch.  This feature is not necessary for a beginner, but if your student is going to be serious about electric guitar, it's a great option for a professional player who only wants to haul around one guitar.  The model number for it is AL-3100MCC, and it sells for about $400.  They also sometimes offer a very nice top end Les Paul clone model, the AL-3200MCC, that includes the coil cut but it has a one piece through-neck design that makes it much easier to reach the highest frets.  It is the model I personally own, and I absolutely love it!  It is seldom in stock, but if you luck out and they have one, it sells for $500.

If your student prefers the sound of a Stratocaster or Telecaster, all three of these brands (Slick, Xaviere, and Agile) also offer Strat and Tele clones.  Just look them up on line.  They sell for about the same prices as the Les Paul clones.  All of them are excellent bargains.

ELECTRIC GUITAR AMPS

It is crucial to understand that only half of the electric guitar tone comes from the guitar itself.  The other half comes from the amplifier.  You can't just plug an electric guitar into a PA system or computer or stereo system and get a good sound.  You must have an amplifier made specifically for electric guitar.  A cheap beginner's electric guitar played through a good amp will sound better than will a $2,500 Les Paul plugged into solid state guitar amp or a PA system.

Traditionally, electric guitars are played through tube amplifiers.  Vacuum tubes (the British call them "valves") create compression and harmonic distortion that make an electric guitar sound fantastic.  Various kinds of amps use different types of tubes that have very different sounds from each other.  For example, Fender amps (below left) are based on a 6L6GC tube that normally have a sparkly clean sound, and when overdriven create a smooth and subtle blusey harmonic at first, and when turned up all the way grow to a rich, fat distortion.  Marshall amps (below right) are based on an EL34 tube that when overdriven creates a super-compressed and sustained, screaming, 1980s rock sound.  New release Marshall and Fender tube amps sell for approximately $1,500-3,000, while used vintage amps from the 1960-1980 era are highly sought after collector's items that, if you can find one, sell for nearly as much as the new ones.

          

Fortunately, thanks to modern technology, you no longer have to spend that kind of money to begin enjoying your electric guitar.  Until very recently, inexpensive beginner amps sounded absolutely horrible.  But today, there are modeling amps that use digital software to electronically mimic the sound and behavior of various classic tube amps at the push of a button.  My favorite small modeling amps are the Fender Mustang I and Fender Mustang IIThe Fender Mustang I (below left) sells for $120 and sounds great in a small room.  The Mustang II has twice as much power and a bigger speaker for $200.  It does not have enough power to perform in a band, but it makes plenty of noise to enjoy playing in your house.  My favorite full sized modeling amp is the Fender Mustang III (below right).  This amp is much easier to use than the I and II, and it has plenty of power to play in a band.  This is the amp I own, and let me tell you, it is an unbelievable bargain.  It's like having 18 different kinds of tube amps all in one, plus a couple of dozen footpedals built in.  Basically, it's about $40,000 of tube amps and effects for $330.  The sound is incredible.  All three of these amps can be programmed using a laptop or desktop computer with free Fender FUSE software, which gives you access to all sorts of features not accessible from the top panel.  They all have headphone jacks (and mp3 inputs) so you can play without disturbing others, and are available at The Book Table.

          
SET UP IS CRITICAL


A problem I commonly see with teen and adult students is full sized steel string guitars (acoustic or electric) that are set up badly.  If the strings are farther away from the fretboard than they need to be, the guitar will be hard to play and painful for the fingers.  There are several adjustments that can be made to fix this problem.  One of them involves adjusting the steel rod that is in the neck (the "truss rod").  I can do this for you during a lesson.  But the others (adjusting the nut and the saddle heights) require expertise and specialized tools.  Show me your guitar and I will tell you if it needs a trip to a guitar luthier to be set up.  If I tell you it does, then I recommend Nick Tack, who has set up my guitars and does an excellent job for a very reasonable price.  Nick’s phone number is 435-757-3147.  You’ll be amazed at the “before and after” when he works his magic on your guitar.

Another problem I often see is bad strings.  Normal (uncoated) acoustic guitar strings need to be changed every three months or even more frequently.  After that, they start sounding dull and eventually they get brittle.  Many of the guitars that students bring in for their first lesson haven’t had the strings changed in years, making the guitar sound bad and also making the guitar hard to play.  (For my recommendations on strings, including strings that last much longer than three months, follow the link at the bottom of this page entitled “Choosing the Right Guitar Strings.”)

OTHER IMPORTANT EQUIPMENT

Every student needs a gig bag or case, tuner, capo, and a few picks.  Each of these is discussed below:


You will need some kind of protection for your guitar to transport it.  Gig bags start as cheap as $35 and will work OK if you are careful.  Some of the better quality gig bags have thick padding and offer more protection.  If you really want to protect your guitar, hard shell cases are best.  If you need a case for an acoustic guitar, KSM sells a nice heavy one for about $60.  Or, for about $85, Amazon offers an excellent SKB brand injection molded hard shell plastic case (ONLY for dreadnought shaped guitars) that is much lighter to carry.  (That is the case I personally use for both my Taylor and my Fender.)  If you buy an Agile electric guitar, Rondo Music offers a nice case, the EGC-200, for $57 and shipping is free if you order with your guitar.


If you have an acoustic-electric guitar, many of them come with built-in tuners (unfortunately, Taylors don't).  If your acoustic guitar doesn't have a built-in tuner, you can tune it with any of several available free apps for Android or Apple phones (my personal favorite is "Pano Tuner").  However, the best option is a nice clip-on "headstock" tuner.   They are far easier and more convenient to use than a cell phone.  The least expensive headstock tuners I recommend are Snark and Planet Waves, that sell for $10-20.  The best is the TC Electronic Unitune ($30) which is a huge step up in quality accuracy, and sturdiness for only about $10 more.  Electric guitars can use headstock tuners, but are most easily tuned on stage with inline (stomp box) tuners, or with a tuner built into the amp (the Fender Mustang amps have built in tuners.)

Anyone who wants to sing songs while playing guitar or wants to play along with mp3 songs should buy a capo.   The best quality capo that I recommend is the Kyser brand of capos.  They are ugly but are strong and easy to use.  Planet Waves also makes a decent capo.  You can't go wrong with those two brands.  However, there is a type of Chinese capo that is decent quality, comes in six different colors, and is outrageously cheap (just over $1 each!).  Although I perform with a Kyser, I use the cheap ones around the house and studio.  Search on Ebay for these words: "Quick Change Clamp Key Capo For Acoustic Electric Classic Guitar Trigger Release".


You will also need a few picks.  Not all picks are created equal.  A 25 cent medium pick will work OK, but for most guitars and most styles of music you will be much better served by either a D'Andrea Pro Plec pick (#351, standard 1.5mm rounded triangle) for a smooth tone, or a Planet Waves or D'Addario 1.0mm or 0.8mm for a brighter tone.  These picks are much thicker and are made of better plastic, and most importantly the edges are rounded and polished, so they give a much smoother tone and are much easier to play with.

OPTIONAL EQUIPMENT


Guitar straps are not generally needed for beginning students (they just get on the way) but will become important if you will be performing standing up rather than sitting down.


If you have an acoustic-electric or electric, you'll need a decent quality 1/4" guitar cord to plug it in.  Stay away from the cheapest, thin cords.  They don't hold up.  You don't need the most expensive cord, but at least get a medium quality cord.


For changing strings on steel string guitars, I recommend a handy tool: the Planet Waves Pro Winder.  It has a winder, a pin puller, and a string clipper all in one tool.

One awesome and inexpensive item that I like for steel string acoustic guitars is the Planet Waves O-Port.  It is basically an inverted plastic horn that goes on the inside of the hole of a standard (dreadnaught) steel string guitar.  On an unplugged acoustic guitar, this device increases the overtones and the overall volume of the guitar.  On an amplified acoustic guitar, it improves the tone and suppresses feedback.


CHOOSING THE RIGHT GUITAR STRINGS


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