What Kind of Guitar Should I Get?

By Wayne Erbsen

Following is an excerpt from the book Easy Two-Chord Songs for Guitar.

As you set out on your guitar-playing adventure, you might be wondering what kind of guitar to get. There are four main kinds of guitars, so if you find yourself in a pickle and don’t yet have a guitar, this is for you.

Before you figure out what kind of guitar to buy, you’ll need to decide what kind of music you intend to play. This will make deciding what kind of guitar to get as easy as falling out of bed.

Hank Thompson

Electric guitars come in several popular flavors that include solid body, archtop, and acoustic-electric guitars. These instruments are preferred when playing rock and modern country music. Keep in mind that electric guitars sound pretty thin unless they’re plugged into an amplifier. When you’re first learning, be thoughtful of your housemates and neighbors by keeping the volume knob almost on low. In the photo is Hank Thompson with an electric archtop guitar.

Gene Autry with an acoustic guitar

Acoustic guitars have steel strings and are the ideal guitar to play bluegrass, old-time country, blues, singer-songwriter tunes and folk. Yes, I know you’ve heard that playing steel strings will hurt your fingers. I agree that your fingers will be a little tender at first, but if you keep practicing, your fingers will soon toughen up, and the pain will be only a distant memory. Pictured is Gene Autry with an acoustic guitar.

Maybelle Carter with an archtop guitar

 Archtop guitars also have steel strings and are used to play swing and jazz. They come both as an electric or acoustic guitar. An acoustic model was the guitar of choice for Maybelle Carter of the famous Carter Family. Here’s a photo of her with her 1927 Gibson L-5 guitar.

Classical guitars have wide fingerboards with nylon strings and are the guitar you want to play classical, flamenco, and some folk music. The most noteworthy exception to this general rule is Willie Nelson, who has used and abused a classical guitar to play country music.

Size matters: Not only do guitars come in various styles, but they come in different sizes too. If you’re an average-sized woman or a kid, you’ll want a smaller guitar. But if you have a larger build, it’s best to get a big ole jumbo or dreadnought guitar. By the way, Martin Guitars introduced the dreadnought in 1916 and named it after a 1906 battleship, the HMS Dreadnought.

No matter what kind of guitar you choose, it’s vitally important that the strings of the guitar be low enough to be comfortable to play. In guitar lingo the height of the strings is called the “action.” If your action is too high, it will uncomfortable to push the strings down. But if the action is too low, your strings will buzz and rattle on the frets.

To help you figure out if your action is where it should be on your acoustic guitar, reach in your purse or pocket and take out some change. Stack a nickel on top of a quarter and slip your stack under the 6th string at the 12th fret. It should just slip under. If the strings are too high or too low for the coin to fit, bring your guitar to an instrument repair person at your local music shop. They’ll be able to adjust your action for you.

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Allow me to toot my own horn for a moment. After teaching guitar for 50 years, I’ve published three books for beginning guitar. Here’s more about them.

Easy 2-Chord Songs for Guitar, coverThis article was excerpted from my most recent book, Easy Two-Chord Songs for Guitar. If you want to play the guitar, but don’t want to play a zillion chords, this is the book for you! The book includes helpful illustrations plus music, tab, and lyrics to 33 familiar bluegrass, old-time, folk and gospel songs, each with only TWO CHORDS. The book’s spiral binding allows it to lay flat while you play. It comes with an audio CD and a link to download or stream mp3s.

Painless Guitar – A Fun & Easy Guide for the Complete Beginner is for the total and absolute beginner. My co-author Ted Parrish and I call it “painless” because we have simplified learning the guitar down to its most basic level. Frankly, it doesn’t get much simpler than this. You’ll learn how to play the melody and chords to 31 folk, bluegrass, old time and gospel songs. You’ll have access to online audio files so you can hear how things are supposed to sound.

Book cover

If you’re a little further along than a complete novice, I suggest Flatpicking Guitar for the Complete Ignoramus. This 80-page book takes the beginner on a musical adventure that includes more than 40 well-known flatpicking guitar tunes including Arkansas Traveler, Bury Me Beneath the Willow, House of the Rising Sun, In the Pines, Man of Constant Sorrow, Red River Valley, Wildwood Flower, and Will the Circle Be Unbroken. The book has a spiral binding and comes with an audio CD and a link to download or stream mp3s.

Wayne Erbsen has been teaching banjo, fiddle, guitar, and mandolin since dinosaurs roamed the earth (really, about 50 years). Originally from California, he now makes his home in Asheville, North Carolina. He has written 30 songbooks and instruction books for banjo, fiddle, guitar, and mandolin.

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