Most of us lack the essential know-how when we buy a starter guitar. Acoustic and electric guitars are both wonderful choices, so long as you pick one for the right reason. I’ll highlight the difference between the two (and their sub-types) to help you make the right choice.
Generally, acoustic guitars, either full-sized or ¾-size, are the most common choice for children and students. The main reason for this is that they are simple, cheap, and require fewer accessories i.e. no amplifier or cables required. Electric guitars can be a good choice if you don’t mind the extra cost and hassles, or if you enjoy genres such as blues, metal, and rock.
Acoustic, classical, electric guitar and their subtypes can seem confusing, especially to students or parents who have no musical background. The right guitar can be the start of something spectacular that will endure for a lifetime.
On the other hand, the wrong guitar type can be off-putting in ways that may lead to quitting the pursuit altogether (check out our full guide to types of guitar). Either way, buying a ‘first guitar’ for is not an artless decision. If this is the ‘big question’ on your mind, this post will ensure that you pick an instrument that doesn’t impede your progress or suck the joy of our your musical journey.
Acoustic guitars are the #1 choice for students and beginners. They can be divided into acoustic or acoustic-electric (also called electro-acoustic guitars).
Acoustic guitars are light and portable – usually weighing between 2.5 to 5 lbs. They have a hollowed-out wooden body that includes a top with an inner bracing, body (back and sides), neck, fingerboard, and headstock. They do not have any electronics to amplify the guitar sound.
Build quality and tonewoods are the main factors in the asking price of an acoustic. Solid wood guitars are expensive, ‘solid top’ guitars are moderately priced, and entry-level guitars are made from laminate or layered wood.
Acoustic guitars can cost anything from $100 to $5000+. $100 to $250 is the ideal range for students/beginners. There are loads of options from known and unknown brands on offer. You can get good value from starter kits that include accessories like a capo, guitar picks, and a strap.
I strongly advise against buying anything below $100 unless it’s an inescapable choice – in which case it is better to buy one than not buy one. Bear in mind, ultra-cheap guitars generally have shoddy built quality, no QA, and poorly glued joints.
The real issue however with cheap guitars is that they are a nightmare to play within a few weeks or months of purchase. Their shrill tones and insufferable string action heavily detracts from a joyful learning experience. It is, in my opinion, the primary reason why most beginners lose interest and quit.
I also advise against splurging on a solid wood guitar before learning the basics. If you are looking to future proof, look at guitars with a solid top in the $250 to $500 range.
Acoustic-electrics are acoustic guitars with the addition of an electronic system. In simple words, they are equipped with a guitar pickup and preamp that consists of volume and EQ knobs. This feature allows you to amplify (play through a speaker or guitar amplifier) and record the guitar using a 1/4” jack (cable).
Most of the models are available as acoustic or acoustic-electric. For example, the Fender CD60 is a popular acoustic guitar choice among students, but it lacks electronics. On the other hand, the Fender CD60CE – the acoustic-electric version – is identical with the addition of a pickup/preamp.
If you want something a little more in between, check out our picks for the best hybrid guitars, which are guitars that aim to mix acoustic and electric in equal measures.
Electric guitars are a little more complicated than acoustics. An electric guitar can be further divided into a) a solid-body, b) a semi-hollow body, and c) a hollow body electric guitar. We’ll focus on solid body guitars as the other two are not suitable for beginners.
Electric guitar bodies are a solid chunk of wood, so they are heavier than acoustic guitars. They also need a cable and amplifier, which adds to the overall cost. On the plus side, you can buy headphones and plug them into an amp for ‘silent practice’, which isn’t an option with acoustic.
Solid-body guitars are available as full-sized, ¾ sized, and short-scale guitars. Your first choice should be a full-sized (regular) solid body electric guitar. If your child is old enough or has the stature to handle it, that’s a no-brainer.
Short-scale or ¾ sized guitars are a good option for very young kids or students with diminutive proportions. Between those two, I recommend the ¾ size over the short-scale as they have more options are more affordable.
¾ Size Guitars
Children generally start learning an instrument between the age of 6 to 9 years. This has prompted several guitar manufacturers to offer a ¾ size guitar. These guitars are 36-inch in length – 7/8th the size of a regular guitar. The exact specs may vary among manufactures.
¾-size guitars are more comfortable for kids to play and carry around. They have 19 to 22 frets and a scale-length ranging from 22 to 24 inches. The relatively low string-tension due to the shorter scale makes it easier to fret the strings and play barre chords.
They weigh between 6.5 to 9 lbs and cost between $150 to $250. While they are ideal for children, you need to upgrade to a full-sized electric eventually. The Fender Squier Mini Strat, Jackson Dinky Minion, and Ibanez GRGM21 Mikro are well-known examples of ¾ sized electric guitars.
Scale-length measures the distance between a guitar’s nut (at the top of the neck or fingerboard) and the bridge, where you insert the ball-end of the strings (we have a full guide on scale length here). In a nutshell, it is indicative of the length of the strings. The scale length of an electric guitar ranges from 25-inches to 26.5-inches. A short scale-length is closer to 24-inches.
It may not seem like a lot to a layperson, but it can make a big difference in fretting and playability. The length plays a vital role in string-tension and how a guitar sounds. Short-scale guitars, being smaller, are easier to play, fret, and bend.
It suits the narrow or small hands of kids and beginners. However, unlike ¾ size guitars, short-scale guitars aren’t designed for kids specifically. You’ll find plenty of adults and professionals who use them as a primary instrument or when the occasion calls for it.
Also Read: Our picks for the Best Short Scale Guitars
Classical guitars, also called Spanish or Nylon guitars, are similar to acoustics with deviations in design and components. The most apparent difference is that acoustics use steel strings while classical guitars use nylon strings. Subsequently, the playability and timbre of both are very different. Additionally, there is a noticeable difference in body shape, headstock, and bridge.
Nylon strings are easier to fret as they are soft, but they don’t have fret inlays (dots on the fretboard) and their necks are wider. They sound warm and have relatively low volume. Nylon guitars are played using the fingertips or fingernails as opposed to a guitar pick.
Classical guitars are to be preferred if you want to learn Classical music. They can also be a good first guitar if you are interested in fingerstyle music or genres such as bossa nova and flamenco. However, unless you intend to stay loyal to those genres, you will eventually progress to an acoustic and/or electric guitar.
This video demonstrates the difference between steel and nylon string guitars:
General tips to buy a first guitar for children
Don’t fuss over electronics, pickups, string gauge, or any other details at this point. Just pick a guitar that has the requisite build quality and tone for a beginner. Over time, your child will learn the intricacies of hardware, tonewoods, and electronics. At that stage, they can take a call on what components suit their style and needs.
If you are getting an electric guitar, keep it simple. You don’t want to get a Floyd Rose bridge or 7-string guitar. Instead, use your budget to get the best possible guitar from a respectable manufacturer. A reliable instrument requires minimal repairs and maintenance.
No one understands your kid better than you do. So, you should account for his/her temperament and taste. I always advocate letting the child make the final choice because the instrument needs to ‘amp them up’. If you see them leaning towards an electric, that might be the better choice.
Reputable brands (Fender, Epiphone, Ibanez, etc.) cost more but they have better quality to show for it. They are generally good-to-go right out of the box and have reasonable resale value, which can come in handy should your child lose interest.
Important guitar accessories
These are the accessories that are common to all types of guitars:
- Guitar strap
- Guitar picks
- A guitar stand or wall mount hanger
- Guitar Stool (Optional)
These accessories apply to electric and acoustic-electric guitars:
- Guitar practice amp
- ¼ cable or jack
You can prolong buying one or more of those accessories like a guitar stool or strap. However, they promote good posture and technique. I recommend getting them as soon as possible to enhance the learning process for you or your child.
Whether you select a classical, electric, or acoustic guitar, I’ve given you the information you need, as a parent, to make a confident purchase. Now, you need to narrow down the options with your budget. And, your kid will chime in with a color and shape to narrow it down further.
I also urge you to read our ‘How to choose the right guitar for your child’ post. It offers some unique insights from a child development psychologist and guitar tech (luthier) on the subject.