Lesson 1: Choosing the Right Guitar

There are many variables to consider when buying a guitar, especially your first. To avoid naming names and exposing personal biases we’re not going to describe the features of any specific brands here, instead we’ll just try and give you some pointers.

The majority of the music presented here is traditionally played on steel-string acoustic as opposed to nylon. The goal when buying any guitar is to get the best instrument for the best value. If money is no object, well, good for you! For the rest of us though, price is something to take into consideration.

When it comes to newer acoustics, prices and quality can be broken into three sliding tiers; inexpensive ($200 and less), mid-range ($200-600), and expensive ($600 and upwards, as far as you want to go). Remember, you do get what you pay for and it’s worth spending the extra money for a decent mid-range guitar. The difference between a $300 and $500 guitar are debatable, but the differences between a $300 and $75 guitar are pretty blatant.

Buying vintage is another option, but the same tier system usually applies, plus you don’t get a warranty or guarantee. Who knows, maybe you can find a pre-war Martin from a nice old lady who only used it on Sundays at church. Before you buy anything vintage do some research, try to play it and have it appraised or at least checked over by a pro before you pay for it. A lot of sneaky repairs and forgeries can slip by easily if you don’t know what to look for.

Traditionally, the majority of those old players you hear weren’t playing top of the line Gibson’s. They were playing budget brand knock offs like Supro, Kalamazoo, or anything that was cheap and available. Limited income also meant limited strings, that’s why it’s common to hear ‘out of tune’ instruments on a lot of pre-war recordings. Strings were kept on long after they were dead, and if one broke sometimes there was no alternative other than to make due by stretching a piece of chicken wire across the neck.

Ultimately the choice is yours, and you should choose an instrument you’re comfortable with. Play as many different models as you can, every guitar has its own unique sound and feel.

A few tips:
* You want to make sure the neck width isn’t too thin so you have separation and space to move between the strings.

* Unless you’re playing slide you’ll want the action moderately low but not as low as a solid-body electric.

* Parlour guitars are a nice place to start looking, for a smaller instrument they have a surprisingly deep sound.

* Medium gauge strings are recommended because they have a fuller tone but aren’t too stiff, try not to get below 11 gauge if you go lower as you’ll be playing with really bright slinkys.

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13 Responses »

  1. Hey, this is an awesome project! Please keep it alive, thanks a lot! Can´t wait for the next lessons 🙂


  2. Can’t go wrong with a Gibson Blues King….I’m the proud owner and player of a 95 model…SWEET!

  3. I would recommend the Art and Luthiery AMI cedar topped steel string for a good moderately priced starter instrument. All solid woods and made in Canada. I read quite a few reviews and it received a hell of a lot of positive comments and recommendations for a low-mid priced instrument. I have one and it sounded great right out of the box. Now if i can just figure out how to make it sing like John Hurt…

  4. A&L also make a really nice parlour model for less than $500.

    The only way to get your guitar sounding like John Hurt was to hand it to him!

    • that is exactly the model i have. vintage burst cedar top with steel strings. sounds amazing for the money. the only second thought i had was when i found a larrivee P-01 parlour for a hundred bucks more…but i love this guitar!

  5. Check out the cedar SeaGulls fairly inexpensive with a great sound for the price.

    • I did and all the hype about Seagulls was pretty much on the money. I have friends with some pretty sweat Martins and Gibsons and they love both the action and the sound of my Seagull.

      Most folks get steered to the Seagull S6 which is a really nice dreadnaught, but I found the Entourage Mini-Jumbo to be just perfect for the blues and it comes in around $475.00.

  6. You say that steel strings are preferred, but does that mean Spanish guitars can’t be used?

  7. The first ever fingerstyle I heard was on a real low end $30 budget guitar which had been laying around the office for years. Although the owner had several very expensive guitars at home, to my ears, the fingerstyle sound was just as much fun on the old cheapy than the top end guitars. Personally, I’ve had guitars from a range of prices, but when it comes down to it, for personal home use, a cheapy is fine. In fact I find the non-brand budget guitars can be fairly satisfying in recreating that old pre-war vintage sound. Above the budget guitars, my Epiphone Biscuit Acoustic Resonator was a nice buy, cheap and probably my favorite so far.

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