Acoustic or Electric?
Which should be your first guitar?
You've decided to purchase a guitar. But should your first guitar be an acoustic or electric?
That's probably the most frequently asked question I get from beginners, and it's important you get it right. I hope that by reading this article you'll be able to make that important decision and feel confident in a year that it was the right one.
The Most Important Question...
Believe it or not, to determine if acoustic or electric is right for you, you must first as yourself a different question. It's the most important question right now. Specifically: What type of music do you want to play?
The answer may be different from the music you enjoy listening to. For example, I like listening to a wide variety of music: The Beatles, Def Leppard, Toby Mac, Jo Dee Messina, Ten Shekel Shirt, and Soulwax, to name a few. But I wanted to play Christmas tunes and Praise and Worship music. For me, that ruled out guitars like the Fender Stratocaster, or a Gibson Les Paul.
- Want to play Pop, Rock, or Alternative? Choose electric.
- Ready to strum some Country, Folk, Bluegrass or Christmas carols? Focus on acoustics.
- Jazz and Blues your thing? Grab an electric guitar.
- Leaning toward classical or inspirational? Acoustic is the way to go.
Once you settle on the basic acoustic or electric question, you'll open up a whole new range of decisions - which acoustic or electric? You can learn more about your options by reading the Acoustic Guitar Guide and the Electric Guitar Guide.
Finally, be certain to read The Guitar Buying Guide before you head online or out to the store. It has numerous tips on important features, getting a good deal, and the most important advice I can give you for picking the right guitar.
But first, let's review some important differences to consider when deciding between an acoustic or electric guitar.
What are the key differences and similarities?
Range of Notes: Acoustic guitars and electric guitars are normally tuned to the same pitches for the six open strings. So, if you press the same string at the same fret position on a acoustic or electric guitar, you will hear the same note. There is no real difference in the range of notes between the two.
This should not affect your decision between an acoustic or electric guitar.
Amplification Required: Perhaps the most obvious difference is that an electric guitar requires some type of amplification for effective use. You can choose something as simple and inexpensive as a plug in mini-speaker, a pocket-sized effects processor, or you can purchase a more traditional guitar amplifier.
If you purchase an acoustic with electronics built in (known as an acoustic electric), you can connect it to an amplifier, but it can also be used in low-volume situations with no amplification at all. The electronics will add $200-$400 to the cost.
This will affect your decision if you want to play very loud (get an electric), or if you are on a very tight budget (get an acoustic and save money by not purchasing cords and an amplifier).
How they hang: Electric guitars hang differently on the guitar strap. At least for me, I can not see the front of my acoustic when I stand up. My electric tends to hang so that I can. I prefer the way the acoustic hangs, but the difference may matter more to some.
For beginners, this is unlikely to be a key factor when deciding between an acoustic or electric. You'll simply adjust to the instrument you do buy.
String Bending: The strings on an electric are typically much thinner, so they bend much, much easier. The good news is, thin strings are easier to press down for making chord forms many beginners struggle with (such as an F-chord, or most barre chords). The bad news is you must take care to not bend the strings out of pitch as you play.
Though an electric may seem like the better choice (for easier chords) you will find that making the switch from an acoustic to an electric is very easy, but the other direction make take getting used to.
Action: The term 'action' refers to the height of the strings from the fretboard. A 'low action' means the strings are very close to the fretboard, and don't require you to press down very far to properly sound a note. With a low action you don't need as much strength or pressure in your fingertips to cleanly sound a note or play a chord.
A 'high action' means the strings are further away from the fretboard, requiring more effort to press the strings down.
You may wonder why anyone would want a higher action? Because low actions can allow the strings to strike the frets when they vibrate, creating 'buzz', which is undesirable. In general, guitarists try to get the lowest action (for fast play) without any buzz or either acoustic or electric guitars.
In general, the action on an electric is lower than on an acoustic. This is because thinner strings will not cause as much buzz as the generally thicker strings of an acoustic. Based on the manufacturer's guidelines you may be able to put thinner or thicker strings on your guitar, but check your owner's manual.
If you want the lowest possible action, the electric has an edge.
A Variety Of Sounds: While you can run an acoustic through sound processors, the manufacturers of sound processors and effects pedals gear their engineering toward electrics.
If you plan to use effects pedals and sound processing equipment to produce unique sounds, start with an electric.
Cost: Beginners can find inexpensive acoustic or electric guitars for very reasonable prices. But if cost is a key consideration for you, as it is for most beginners, keep in mind that when buying an entry level guitar, that's exactly what it is. It puts a guitar in your hands, often a guitar that sounds very nice, but may have limitations you won't want on your second acoustic or electric.
Manufacturers of guitars are not stupid. They do not make inexpensive guitars that are the same quality as the higher cost instruments (they'd lose money on every sale, and go out of business). Nor do they produce low-cost instruments that are junk (you'd never buy from them again, and they'd go out of business). They are making compromises that would bother many experienced players, but beginners may not notice them or care. For instance, they will use noisier pickups; inexpensive woods; less precise tuning keys; plain fretboard patterns; bolted on necks; or less expensive paints and finishes.
Below are a few low-cost guitars I'd consider if I were shopping for an absolute beginner who wanted an acoustic or electric.
Low Cost Acoustic Guitars:
Luthier's are to guitars what fine auto mechanics are to your car. Luckily, I know a fine luthier. These recommendations for low-cost acoustics are based on his input:
- The Seagull S6 is widely reviewed as a lower cost acoustic with very nice tone and reliable construction. Seagull, a company based in Canada, produces solid wood guitars in a range of prices, beginning as low as about $300 . The Original S6 is a very nice guitar for about $380 . With electronics you'll pay about $500 .
- The Epiphone Masterbuilt series is built with fine hardwoods and high standards to produce an entry-level acoustic that will produce fine tone for many years. Epiphone, a division of Gibson guitar, produces affordable instruments, including many copies of Gibson classics. These steel-string acoustics are available in several body styles in a range of prices, beginning at about $450.
- The Taylor Big Baby is a dreadnought acoustic with similar brilliant tone characteristics of all other Taylor guitars. I've compared Taylor's to many other acoustics and the brilliant mids and highs are exactly what I was looking for. The bass response may not be satisfactory if you want more lows, but you owe it to yourself to listen to a Taylor before you make a final decision. The Big Baby sells for about $450, and is available for left-handers.
- The Yamaha FD01S and the Alvarez RD8 Regent Series are each fine beginner instruments at a very affordable price. Costing between $180 and $240, you may want to consider one or both. In addition to freeing up funds for accessories, you won't struggle with guilt if one of these is dinged or scratched when you lug it everywhere you go.
Low Cost Electric Guitars:
- The Epiphone LP-100 costs between $179-249 (some colors are more expensive). It's shape and sound are very similar to a Gibson Les Paul (think Rock-n-Roll, ex: Collective Soul or Peter Frampton). It comes with humbucker pickups to reduce the electronic buzz and humm produced by the the electronics (some like the electric sound of non-humbucker pickups... YMMV).
- The Squier Affinity Series Telecaster Special from Fender is one sweet guitar for the cost, and a great starter if you like country music. Of course, I've also seen hard rockers who use these, but its distinctive twang will remind most of Brad Paisley or Alan Jackson. You'll pay about $169 for the attractive Butterscotch Blonde version.
- Lots of people love the sound of the Fender Stratocaster, and a fine first guitar is the Squier Affinity Series Fat Strat. For sound characteristics, think Keith Urban or Eric Clapton. This particular model has a painted headstock (the color at the top of the guitar keys matches the body). It's a great first guitar at about $150.
New or Used?: If this is your first acoustic or electric guitar, I recommend you either purchase from a trusted friend or buy new. New guitars are clean, scratch and dent free, passe quality standards before shipping, have a warranty, and may even have new strings (most music stores allow shoppers to play instruments before purchasing... so your new guitar might need new strings... if in doubt, ask).
Purchase or Rent: If you don't enjoy your first guitar, you'll quickly lose interest and learn that new guitars, like new cars, depreciate in value quickly (the flip side, of course, is that a well cared for car or guitar appreciates in value over the years).
Rental, lease-to-own, and return-guarantee programs (where you pay a fee if you return the instrument in a set amount of time, like 30 or 60 days) are great if you're uncertain of your ability or interest. They're also great for young students who "really, really, REALLY! want to learn how to play guitar" but also "really, really, REALLY!" wanted that puppy Mom and Dad now care for.
Your Second Guitar
Just as musical styles change, the style of music you like and wish to play is also certain to change. So, regardless of if you choose acoustic or electric for your first guitar, if you stick with it you'll probably purchase another guitar. So, choose acoustic first, or electric. Select the other for your second guitar!
Tell Us About Your First Acoustic or Electric Guitar
Your first guitar is special. Do you have a story to share about your first guitar? Include things like: How did you pick it? What did you like about it? What did you hate about it? Tell us what eventually happened to it. Post a photo. Others would love to hear your story!
Read What Other Visitors Have Said About Their First Acoustic Or Electric Guitar
You can learn a lot by reading what others have experience when buying their first guitar: the good, the bad, and the awful sounding. Click below to see the stories shared by other visitors to this page...
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