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You want to play the guitar and you need an instrument, but where do you start with finding the right one for you?

Whether you have virtuosic aspirations or just fancy being a part time strummer, getting the right guitar for the job is as important to your progression as regular practice. You’re likely to become rapidly frustrated if you want to play thrash metal and you have an acoustic, while taking your electric guitar (and all its’ peripherals) on a camping holiday can be a tad impractical. In addition to this, it won’t really help encourage you to play if you have an instrument of any ilk that is poorly constructed and hard to play.

So, do you get an acoustic or an electric? Where’s the best place to get it from? How much will it cost? What if it’s just a fad? This guide is aimed at answering some of those questions.

Please note: This guide concentrates on steel strung acoustic and electric guitars most commonly used in Pop and Rock, and remember – it’s a guide, not gospel.


The first thing to look at is budget. For the millionaires among us, budget is probably not an issue. For the rest of us, there will be some limit to the cost of a first instrument and the necessary accessories.

£0 to £200
For a lot of beginners this will be the most realistic budget range – after all, you don’t want to shell out a bucket load only to find out it was a fad. Buying a new guitar with a very limited budget may lead you to consider one of those extremely cheap guitars found on popular auction sites. My advice would be to avoid these, as from experience I have found them to be poorly built, barely playable and of little benefit to your progression and longevity on the instrument. That’s not to say that you can’t get something playable for very little, but if there is one sure fire way to make playing the guitar a fad, it’s getting a bad instrument and a lot of very cheap (under £60) new guitars are exactly that.

If your budget it pretty much zero, then it’s probably best to find a friend with a spare guitar and ask if you can borrow it - this will be better than being tempted to buy something cheap and nasty. If this isn't possible, then for around £60 to £100 you should be able to get a nice acoustic and a few accessories. Electrics are a little more expensive, but from around £80 upward you should find something to get started with. Amps, cables, stands, cases etc will cost extra, although a lot of places will do ‘starter packs’ that have everything you need to get you up and playing. These tend to cost from around £90 upwards for acoustics and around £130 upwards for electrics, depending on the cost of the component parts.

A lot of manufacturers make budget instruments and some of the names to look for are Squier, Yamaha, Fender (they do some nice budget acoustics), Peavey, Crafter, Stagg, Westfield and Washburn.

£200 to £400
In order to access more models, shapes, colours and finishes, as well as get a good quality instrument that should see you right for quite some time, then this is more the budget to be looking at (especially for an electric). Buying just a guitar with this budget gives you a lot of choice, from good acoustics and electro acoustics (acoustics that can be plugged into an amp) to a wide variety of great electric guitars and instruments towards the top end of the budget will be more than enough for a beginner to cut their fingers on. A lot of manufacturers or guitar shops do guitar packs in this price range and some may even offer options such as different types of amps to choose from. At the upper end of this budget there is no reason as to why you couldn’t get a good quality instrument (at around the £200 -£250 mark) as well as all the extras like a case, stand, amp and effects (if required) and accessories and still have change for a burger on the way home.

Look out for the same names as above, as well as Epiphone, Ibanez, Takamine and Applause. For electric guitars that are a little more rock, check out BC Rich, Dean and Jackson.

Over £400
It’s really not necessary to spend this much on a guitar to get started with, especially if you’re only buying an instrument. If you do have this kind of budget and you’re super serious about learning guitar, then you’ll find almost limitless options for buying a quality instrument. You can expect a very tidy acoustic or electro acoustic in this price range and as for electrics…. there are too many options to list, but you can expect a good guitar loaded with features. Look for the same names as before, along with PRS, ESP, Fender (for electrics) and Ovation, to name but a few.

In short, when looking at budgets for buying a guitar, think of it like buying a pair of sports shoes. You don’t have to spend a fortune to get the right pair for the job, but while ‘looking the part’, the really cheap ones will most likely be of poor quality, feel uncomfortable and will probably perish very quickly when put to use.

A note on buying second hand instruments:
Buying second hand (through the papers, local ads or online) is a good way to get a lot more guitar for your money…..if you know what to look for. Make sure you get to see the guitar, whether that’s in person or through pictures, and to the best of your abilities, check for cracks, splits, large dents (a sign that it’s been used and abused) and a straight neck - with one eye, look down the neck from the head towards the body (so you’re looking down the strings) and if it’s ok the strings and frets should look like a perfect railway track, but if there’s any twisting of the wood or frets seem higgledy-piggledy then the neck is no good. Don’t be afraid to ask questions and if it’s an electric, check the electrics work and there are no major crackles and pops.

“Ok, but do I get an acoustic or an electric?”
The easiest answer to this question lies in what you want to play. For example, if you want to get strumming some chords along with your favourite songs and have a guitar you can pick up and play anywhere, then an acoustic is more suited to your needs. On the other hand, if you’ve always fancied chugging along to some metal, then an electric guitar would be the better choice.

Another thing to consider is that acoustic guitars tend to be cheaper than their electric brethren – a good acoustic can cost less than £100, while good electrics are generally more expensive, especially when you add in the amp and/or effects.

NB: Acoustic and electric guitars are available for right or left handed players, as well as in smaller sizes for smaller or younger players.

“Which one is easier to play?”
Generally speaking, the electric guitar is the easier instrument to learn on. Although they are heavier than acoustics, their bodies are smaller and the height of the strings from the neck (action) can be easily adjusted to make them easier to push down and play.

“But my neighbours/parents/other half/pets won’t thank me for getting an electric guitar because it will make so much noise!”
Not necessarily. Obviously, if you plug in and play at full volume all the time then yes, you may well get some grief for it. However, if you use headphones (look for amps with headphone sockets on them) you can turn it up to make your eyes rattle and ears pop and you’ll not disturb a soul – except for those in the same room who will hear strings plinking amidst headphone noise.

This solution to noise management also overcomes any self consciousness you may have when practicing, as the only person to hear the bum notes and scuffed chord changes is you. Taking it a stage further, you could invest in a reasonably inexpensive multi effects pedal (around £60), plug it into your computer soundcard or stereo and then jam along with mp3s or CDs, or record your own music. This can all be done using headphones, so again, nobody hears if you play something wrong. Adding this element of sonic privacy to your practice really helps encourage more practice.

“What was all that about multi effects pedals?”
Guitarists use effects to colour their sound, for example distortion is used to get a more aggressive sound, while delay might be used to make something sound dreamy. To get these effects guitarists use ‘effect pedals’ - a battery or mains powered box which sits on the floor and is controlled by a foot pedal mounted on the unit. While some pedals only produce one particular type of effect (a distortion pedal produces distortion, while a delay pedal produces delay), multi effects pedals combine lots of different types of effects in one box, making for a simple and cost effective way to access lots of effects to apply to your sound. As they are equipped with a line out socket and a headphone socket they can either be plugged into your stereo/computer soundcard, or used with just headphones. Most multi effects pedals also have built in electronic tuners and some have features like a metronome, drum loops, amplifier emulators and samplers. Some take batteries, as well as mains, making them an extremely portable bit of kit (maybe taking the electric on holiday isn’t so impractical after all). Simply put, multi effects units are a great way of getting lots of different guitar sounds, with or without the use of an amplifier.

“Will I need to buy anything other than a guitar?”
Yes. Regardless of whether you decide on an acoustic or electric guitar, plectrums, a strap, spare sets of strings, a tuner and a metronome are essential extras (most of these are provided in starter packs). If you want to take your guitar out and about, a gig bag, hard case, or a standard soft case would be a good purchase. Also, an appropriate guitar stand for your instrument is a wise buy – it will avoid those moments of potential breakage when the guitar gets knocked over from its propped position against the chair/desk/bed. If you choose an electric guitar then instrument cables and amplification will also be needed.

“So where do I buy a guitar from?”
The first thing I would suggest doing is popping online and doing a spot of ‘window shopping’ to acquaint yourself with what is available and for how much. This will also help to familiarise yourself with a few of the more common terms used when discussing guitars and their attributes.

If you fancy the guitar shop experience, it’s a trip down the high street to the guitar shop and see if they have any of the guitars you liked the look of when browsing online. If they do, ask if you can try it out - even if it is sitting with it on your lap while you thumb the strings. It’s a good idea to get someone to show you a few simple chords beforehand (no need for a whole song) so you can try the guitar out with something more than just open strings. This will give you a chance to get a ‘feel’ for the instrument - are you comfortable with it and can you see yourself playing it? You’ll also get a good opportunity to find out what the customer service is like. Another good idea is to ask a friend who has some experience on the guitar to go along with you and get them to try out the guitar too.

NB: When trying out guitars in guitar shops, under no circumstances should you play 'Stairway to Heaven'. Please see this important information clip for further enlightenment.

Ask questions, find out if they do starter packs and if you have the fortune of more than one local guitar shop, visit all of them before buying to see what’s on offer to you and which you prefer. Something to keep an eye out for is neglected stock (broken/old/dirty strings, new instruments that are grubby/very dusty/showing wear/damaged, etc), as this can often be a sign to shop elsewhere.

Should you decide to make a purchase, don’t be afraid to ask the shop to throw in a few essentials. Most guitar shops will add in some plectrums, a spare set of strings and a strap at no extra cost. Cases, amps, leads and effects will most likely cost extra, unless they are included as part of a starter pack.

Now I might be about to receive a scolding from various sections of the guitar fraternity when I say this, but….. If you want something cheap and cheerful, with a money back guarantee and no guitar shops, then pop down to the high street or retail park and visit one of those well known catalogue stores. To the aficionados out there, this might seem like the guitar equivalent of recommending a fast food emporium over a good restaurant (and I would tend to agree). However, from my experience, a lot of beginners are daunted by the prospect of ‘dining’ at a guitar shop, with its’ elaborate and often expensive menu and potential for etiquette. An in-out trip to a familiar high street name is far less daunting and gets the desired result – a playable guitar to get started on. This can be especially practical if you are a non guitarist looking for a simple way to buy an inexpensive instrument for someone, for example your child or maybe your other half.

Don’t get me wrong, guitars from the catalogue shop are not necessarily the ‘best’ guitars out there and some players may feel the need to upgrade to a better instrument after a year or so, but they are good enough to get started on, cheap enough to suit a restricted budget and a heck of a lot better than some of the aforementioned cheap and nasties available online.

If you do reach for the catalogue, look for the Squier or Yamaha instruments (a lot of guitar shops also stock these, usually for around the same price) and check out what starter kits they do.

Buying online could work out cheaper and offer a wider range of choice for your budget. There are a lot of online guitar shops, so have a good look around to find the best combination of price, delivery cost/time and returns policy. Some online shops ship instruments direct from the warehouse, which means the guitar will probably need a set up in order to get it playing to its full potential and this can necessitate a trip to a guitar shop, or guitar tutor and will most likely incur additional costs. Other online shops are the internet shopping service of a ‘real’ guitar shop and are likely to ship from their stock in store, often resulting in a guitar that’s set up and ready to go. It can be useful to check if items are in stock before ordering as some online shops list everything they can source, rather than what they have in stock.

Buying a guitar online can require an element of faith and trust, as you can’t try the specific guitar before you buy it and if you find a problem with your instrument, it can be costly and a lot of effort to send it back. As with all online shopping, ensure it’s secure.

Click here for a list of some of the guitar shops that you can find online and on the high street.

“I don’t want to spend lots in case it’s a fad or I find it too hard, so I’ll just get one of those really cheap guitars I saw on an online auction site.”
Please don’t. You’re likely to regret it in the short, medium and long term. As mentioned, this will most certainly get you a guitar of sorts, but really cheap guitars are usually exceptionally good at helping you to give up soon after you have started. The reason for this is that they are often poorly made, difficult to play and sound terrible.

The most common problems with cheap guitars relate to action (strings are high above the fretboard and hard to push down, especially for younger players) and intonation (open strings are in tune but fretted notes sound out of tune making chords sound nasty). This results in an instrument that is hard to play, makes your fingers hurt and makes everything you play sound wrong, even when you know you’re doing it right. It probably won’t be long before the frustration of your playing always sounding bad makes you feel like you’re not getting anywhere and that the guitar is not for you, soon after which you will most likely give it up.

Although action and intonation problems can be resolved on most guitars with a few minor adjustments, many cheap guitars may have fundamental flaws in their construction, resulting in the required adjustments being beyond what is possible on the instrument.

“But it looks good, it’s new and it’s only…..”
I know, but it’s that cheap for a reason. Oh, and be wary of imported instruments claiming to be the real thing for next to nothing. They’re usually fakes with expensive postage and you could even find yourself empty handed and out of pocket.

In summary...

If you’re looking for something that requires minimum equipment to get you up and strumming, can be played anywhere, is nice and light and is relatively inexpensive, then an acoustic guitar would be the more suitable choice.

If you want something smaller (but heavier) that can be easily adjusted to make it easier to play and can be used with headphones for ‘silent’ practice – or you just have a hankering for putting your foot on an amplifier, shaking your head and making some noise – then an electric guitar is more suited to your needs.

As you'll be committing a fair few hours to playing your instrument, it's worth committing a bit of cash to the cause so you can get yourself started on something that will give you every chance of keeping it up. You don't need to spend a fortune, but if you've got limited funds, try and go cheapish, not cheapest. Don't forget that your budget will need to include those essential extras and may need to stretch to an amp and/or effects.

Once you've got your first guitar, all you need then is enthusiasm, the desire to progress, some good practice and a bit of patience. Oh, and a friendly guitar tutor who's good with beginners.....Now I wonder where you could find one of those.......

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