As a parent, buying a first guitar for your child can seem like an onerous chore. Given the wide variety of guitars available at retailers ranging from Toys’R’Us to high-end music stores, it is easy to feel overwhelmed. Here are some of the things you need to know when you decide to get your child their first guitar:
Where to Shop
There are a number of places to get a guitar. But as tempting as it is to throw a guitar in your cart the next time you’re at Target, keep in mind that the quality of these instruments can be pretty questionable, and in most box stores you will have to buy the guitar without ever playing it. Guitars are musical instruments and they need to be set up and adjusted. It is common for out-of-the-box guitars to have poor playing action or even broken strings. Not a great way to start. The same is true for mail-order sellers. There are some important reasons to shop for your first instrument at a music or guitar store:
- Wider selection of sizes and styles
- The chance to try out an instrument before you buy it
- Getting the proper set up of guitar
Before going into the store, you should have a good idea of what you want. Sales people at music stores (especially that big box guitar store) are pretty passionate about their wares and have a tendency to upsell.
Let’s get one thing clear from the start: you can get a quality starter instrument for around $100.
Quality guitars are pretty cheap compared to other instruments.
What to Look For
Acoustic or electric
I am going to lose all of my cool points here, but kids don’t need electric guitars to start out.
In fact, there are a lot of reasons, beyond the cost, to start out with an acoustic guitar:
- You don’t need an amp or cords-this save money and it makes life a lot easier
- Electric guitars are heavy; they’re solid chunks of wood. Whether sitting or standing, a lot of children have a hard time holding them for extended periods of time.
- Acoustic guitars force you to learn good tone production techniques. When you play an acoustic guitar you are in total control of the tone. There is nowhere to hide on an acoustic guitar, you have to learn to produce a good tone.
- Starting on acoustic gives you, the parent, future leverage. “If you practice four days every week until your birthday, then we can talk about an electric guitar”
Be advised: The second you walk into the guitar store and tell them you are looking for a first guitar for your child, the sales staff will want to point you in the direction of a beginning electric guitar pack. Don’t buy it! These kits have low-quality instruments, amplifiers, and accessories. You would be better off taking the money you would spend on the starter kit and spending it on a quality acoustic guitar.
If you insist on an acoustic guitar, the salesperson might point you in the direction of an acoustic-electric. This is an acoustic guitar with a built-in pickup that allows you to plug the guitar into an amplifier. Again, this is an added expense for a beginner. Just like shopping for a car, any add-ons come at a price. Your goal is to get the best instrument without all of the bells and whistles. Nothing is free. Everything that is added to a low-cost guitar comes at the expense of something else. This usually translates into cheaper materials.
Steel vs. nylon strings
Nylon strings are a little easier on little fingers. That being said, most kids don’t have any problem with steel strings after a few days. So long as the guitar’s action is setup properly (more on that in a minute) either type of string is fine.
New vs used
Used guitars are a great option, so long as they are set up properly. Even Grandma’s guitar that has been in the closet for the past 30 years can usually be made playable with some adjustments and a new set of strings. If you have a guitar sitting in your closet or you find one at a garage sale, make sure it is the right size (see below) then take it to your local guitar shop have it set up professionally with a new set of strings.
Right-handed or left-handed?
I am about to say something that will likely get me some hate mail: Handedness in guitar playing is mostly an illusion.
But there are so many well-known left-handed guitarists like Jimi Hendrix, Paul McCartney, and Dick Dale, you say. That is true, but there are just as many well-known guitarists that are left-handed and play right-handed guitars: Duane Allman, Mark Knopfler, and Paul Simon. Guitar and bass guitar are the only string instruments that seem to have this handedness distinction, probably because some of those previously mentioned southpaws are guitar gods. As you will discover over the course of our study, flexibility, strength, and agility are required in both hands to play the guitar well.
I am a lefty who plays a right-handed guitar, mainly because that was what was available to me growing up and coming from the cello (try finding a left-handed cello) I just considered all string instruments ambidextrous. I highly recommend starting “right-handed”. If you choose to go left-handed, know that you will pay more for instruments and it will make learning more complicated as you will have to reverse all directions in your head.
Getting the Right-sized Guitar
It is very important to have the right-sized guitar.
In general, sizing goes as follows:
- 4 – 7-year-olds use quarter or half size guitars depending on their size
- 8-11-year-olds use three-quarter size guitars
- 11 and up use three-quarter or full sized guitar
Of course, you’re a parent, so you know age-based sizing is pretty useless. You will have to try things on before you can be sure they fit. Sitting down, rest the guitar on your right thigh with the fingerboard pointing to the left. From here you should be able to comfortably grab the top of the headstock with your left hand without straightening your arm at the elbow. With the guitar resting on your child’s leg, the top of the guitar should be at chest level without them hunching.
Next, you need to check the guitar’s playability. This is where a lot of used instruments can present problems. You should barely be able to slide a credit card between the strings and the fingerboard (fretboard) of the guitar, with the strings catching on the raised print on the card. If there is too much room between the strings and the fretboard, it doesn’t necessarily mean it is a bad instrument, but it will require a professional to make some adjustments. You should make getting ‘the action set up’ part of the deal.
For relatively little time and money you can get a good guitar for your child. In fact, convenience and affordability two of the major selling points of the guitar and why it became the instrument of choice in the United States and much of the world in the 20th century. So head on out to your local music store and see what’s available. Please, feel free to share your questions and stories in the comment section.
Once you have your guitar, you’ll want to learn how to play it. The best place to start is Awesome Guitar for Kids, available at Amazon.com.