You don’t have to break the bank to get a great beginner acoustic guitar.
The guitar is a great instrument to play while learning about music using Hooktheory because it lets you immediately start thinking about chords and how they work. It’s also a natural instrument to experiment with writing your own music because it’s so easy to explore different chord progressions.
Picking out a guitar as a beginner can feel daunting both because there are so many options and because as someone new, it’s not clear how the differences even matter. The names aren’t very illuminating either; should you get the APX600, the FG830, or the FSX800C? (All of these are Yamaha guitars that cost $299 right now at GuitarCenter, and that’s just one price point for one brand)
The truth of the matter is that if this is going to be your first guitar, most of these differentiating “features” probably don’t matter that much. And if you start to delve too deep into the spec sheets, it can be easy to start saying, “well, having x would be nice…” as you move up the lineup in price. I suspect the marketing departments know this.
No, for a first guitar, you don’t need anything too fancy; you want something well-made that sounds great, and that won’t get in the way of your playing and enjoyment of the instrument. Really “cheap” guitars won’t hold a tune, can be uncomfortable to play, and sound bad due to substandard materials. Fortunately, you don’t have to spend that much to get a decent, well-made instrument. And when you’re ready to upgrade, it’ll be nice to have the cheaper one around so you have something you can throw in the back of the car and not worry about when you go on that camping trip/5 year old’s birthday party/whatever.
So what do you need to spend? We think the answer is around $200, not much more and certainly not less than $100. Yamaha is almost universally regarded as the go-to because you get the most for your money at this price point.
If you’re buying for a small child (say 11 years old or younger), get the JR1 - this is a 3/4 size guitar that also makes a nice travel guitar when it is outgrown.
Yamaha JR1 for Kids
If you’re a grown-up, we recommend something in the Yamaha 800 series. If you have small hands, you could get the FS800 (the S stands for small), but otherwise, we recommend the FG800 (the G stands for guitar).
Yamaha FG800 for Adults
Yamaha also makes a few other guitars in this 8x0 series (820, 830, etc.) with different materials on the sides and back and more color options that are slightly more expensive. All of these guitars have a solid spruce top, which gives a nice full sound. The 800 has a back and sides made out of a wood called Nato, which is a type of Mahogany from Asia, while 820 uses standard Mahogany (most people can’t tell much of a difference, especially at this level). The 830 goes to Rosewood back/side; Rosewood can give a bit darker tone compared to the “brighter” Mahogany sound but isn’t necessarily better even though the cost is higher. At this level, we think the standard 800 is the best choice.
Note that while the tops of the guitars we’ve recommended are all made of solid spruce, the sides are all high quality laminated woods. Solid wood provides a better sound, and since the top is responsible for most of the sound you hear (about 80%), it’s a good compromise in price vs. capability to go with the laminated sides at this level (laminate is also a bit more durable too). Cheaper Yamaha’s (like the 300 series and the FD0S) also have laminated tops, which is a noticeable step down in sound - probably fine if you’re truly a beginner, but we don’t recommend it given the relatively small price difference. In our ”step up” guide we discuss more expensive guitars that are made of solid wood on the backs and side.
In summary, at this price point, we think Yamaha offers the best value. For young people, we recommend the JR1. For adults with smaller hands or who prefer a something a bit smaller, the FS800 is perfect, while the FG800 is our pick for a full “dreadnought” sized guitar.
If this is your first guitar, you should probably get a package, so you have all the necessary accouterments. It’s only $50 more (get the hard case rather than soft), but they throw in a case, strap, strings, picks, and a tuner.
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