From Vice articles to TEDx talks, experts have repeatedly reiterated that kids have a distinct advantage if they develop musical sensibility at an early age. The guitar consistently ranks among the top three choices for instruments when it comes to teaching music to kids.
If your kid has an inkling for music, you want to harness that talent with a guitar that will help rather than hinder your child’s tryst with music. From birth until 9 years of age, there exists a unique ‘window of opportunity’ due to the mental mechanisms of growing children.
Exposing children to music before the age of nine is key because their mental development is still in its prime stages. As a musician who started learning guitar in his early 20s, I always wanted to get my kid hooked on to music with guitar lessons as early as possible.
After all, Herbie Hancock was 11 when he performed with the Chicago Symphony and Mozart was 8 when he wrote his first symphony. While my kid may or may not end up in Julliard, like every loving parent, I wanted to pave the way for his success in learning music.
As I researched the matter, I discussed it with Dr. Samuel Belsky, a child development psychologist who has spent three decades researching music and its impact on a child’s cognitive abilities. I also consulted Martin, a full-time luthier who writes for KGR.
They both gave me remarkable insights that compelled me to write this post. I’ll summarize their advice first and then elaborate on the key takeaways of my conversations with them.
How to select the right guitar for a child?
- Get a guitar with reasonable quality and a high value-to-cost ratio.
- Avoid instruments under $100. Conversely, don’t splurge on premium guitars either.
- Select a guitar that is proportional in size to your child’s height and weight.
- Ensure that the guitar is setup for good playability
- Let the child choose the color and type to get them excited about learning guitar.
- Focus on creating a positive experience to ensure a successful outcome
Buy an affordable guitar, not a cheap one.
It’s the most critical and disregarded aspect of selecting a ‘first guitar’. Many parents lean towards cheap, entry-level acoustic guitars. It makes financial sense, especially if you have an attic full of toys that barely grabbed your kid’s attention for a few days.
Kids are fickle, and our experiences suggest that we could save money if they change their mind or lose interest in learning music. It’s a sound plan for the worst case scenario, but a horrible way to approach the process.
“There are so many reasons to not buy a shoddy low-cost guitar for a new student that I don’t know where to start,” says Martin. “Entry-level and low-budget guitar manufacturers do everything they can to keep the costs down. It generally means inferior materials, electronics, and hardware. Plus, they do not inspect, adjust, or test the guitars before they ship them.”
Martin isn’t suggesting that all inexpensive guitars are trash. Instead, he implies that our quest for an affordable instrument can blur the distinction between cost and value-to-cost ratios. You can find a gem at every price point if you know what to look for.
Take ten guitars with the same make/model. They all can sound potentially distinct. That’s the nature of guitar building and wood. This nuance is lost in the mix because most parents in this situation don’t have any musical background to tell the difference.
Inadvertently, they don’t take the build-quality and playability of an instrument into consideration.
Importance of a guitar setup:
Unlike electronic instruments, which have consistent quality and performance, acoustic guitars don’t always play well right out of the box. As a parent, you might conclude that your child isn’t ‘musically inclined’ when in reality a poor quality instrument is sullying the actual outcome.
“Most guitars look fine to a layperson but could be difficult or impossible for children to play. Either the strings are too tight or too high above the fretboard, or the guitar doesn’t sound evenly in tune across the length of the strings (called string intonation),” says Martin. (For more on intonation, check out our guide).
“A poor-quality setup detracts from comfort and cognition. Children are not capable of enunciating the problem, they just know something is not right. That’s enough for a child to put the guitar away for good,” Dr. Belsky comments.
Your child’s ability to successfully learn to play is heavily influenced by the quality of the guitar construction and the accuracy of the adjustments for good playability. Ultimately, a child will associate it with distress, which creates a strong dislike for practicing or playing the instrument.
“Playability is crucial in the learning outcome”
“If children have difficulty pushing the strings down to get a clear note, then they will never experience the expansion of fine motor skills or the cognitive paybacks of learning to play a musical instrument,” adds Dr. Belsky.
Martin clarifies on several occasions that he isn’t advocating splurging on premium guitars. “High-end guitars have good setup but they are not the solution. Solid wood instruments can be delicate and cumbersome to maintain, especially if you don’t know the first thing about them.”
Several affordable options in the entry-level guitar have the requisite build quality but can be improved with a good setup. This involves a guitar technician checking and adjusting the string action, intonation, and other aspects that impact playability.
Don’t worry about your lack of musical knowledge, the technician will know what to do.
Choosing the shape/color and size
“With children, learning often extends beyond the ‘lesson’ to other aspects such as self-interest, comfort, and motivation,” Dr. Belsky proclaims. “My research ranks enthusiasm and comfort as the key factors in learning outcomes, especially with preadolescent kids” he adds.
Dr. Belsky outlines that young children (aged below 10) need to feel involved, excited and comfortable with the learning process. In our context, it extends to them having a say in the type, size, color, and shape of the guitar they will be using.
Best guitar size and type for a children
A guitar should be proportional to a child’s height and weight, which varies with age. You can’t expect a 7-year-old to play a dreadnought guitar. Dreadnought or other large-bodied guitars can be uncomfortable even for adults with small hands or short stature.
For kids, any guitar that is disproportionate will make it difficult, and often painful, for them to perform basic techniques with their right and left hands. Their arms won’t reach across to strum comfortably. Their tiny wrists and fingers will struggle as they try to fret notes or play chords.
Learning/playing the instrument will become an inconvenience. Even if they manage to pull through, children are likely to pick up bad playing habits, poor technique, and aches and pains along the way.
An adjusted instrument is comfortable to use, and the proportionate size will significantly improve playability. It adds to the enjoyment, which plays a critical role in how well children learn. It’ll keep them coming back for more.
Student guitars are available in the following body sizes:
- Concert or Grand Auditorium (relatively slender body)
- 3/4 Size (acoustic guitar)
- 1/2 size (electric guitar)
- ¼ size (classical nylon string guitar)
- Short scale guitar (electric guitar)
We’ve covered that in ‘How to find the right size guitar for your kid?’.
The three types of guitars for children
#1. Electric Guitars: Electric guitars are available in full size, ½ size, and ¾ size. They are heavier but slimmer than acoustic guitars. They cost more, especially when you factor in a cable, strap, amp, and other accessories.
#2 Acoustic Guitar: Acoustic guitars are available in dreadnought size, smaller body shapes (Grand Auditorium, Grand concert, Parlor, etc.), and ¾ size. They are the most common choice for beginners and students. Except for a guitar pick, they do not require any additional gear.
#3 Classical Guitar: Classical guitars are available in full size, ¾, ½, and ¼ size. Nylon string guitars are not recommended unless you plan to be loyal to genres such as classical music, flamenco, or other styles/genre that specifically call for the use of a nylon string guitar.
Again, I won’t go into more detail as we’ve covered the practical details of that in our “Should a first guitar be acoustic or electric?” post. You can also read out guide to the different types of guitar here.
What is the best age for a child to learn guitar?
Generally, music schools only accept students who are 6 to 7 years old. Children at the age of three are ready for informal lessons from siblings or parents. Until the age of five, you should focus on helping them form a relationship with music instead of ‘mastering’ an instrument. If a child is exposed to a musical environment in the age of 3 to 5, you can enroll them for private lessons or formal lessons at a preschool or community center.
To my surprise, despite being a seasoned musician, I learned a lot from my exchange of ideas with these two specialists. I hope I have passed on the best of their insights to help you make an involved and informed decision for your child.
Get them any instrument until the age of 6 without bothering about “music lessons”. At that tender age, the goal is not to learn but to enjoy music through activities and games that involve beats, notes, or identifying instruments. Dr. Belsky sums it up beautifully:
“My research often indicates that most prodigal musicians often attained music lessons from birth. But I don’t mean music lessons in the conventional sense. The real learning for very young kids lies in immersing them in an environment where they equate music with enjoyment. It can be anything from playing games to banging away at a djembe or hand drum with your young one.”