As an adult beginner guitar player, it can be intimidating when purchasing your first acoustic guitar. I’m going to bring you through how I’d approach the task. Full disclosure, I own a guitar shop which carries new inventory, so there’s some natural bias I’ll do my best to cast aside here.

A few things I won’t go into here: purchasing on the used market, and inspecting the quality of the guitar. I’ll have articles on those at a later date.

Budget

It’s easy to get a guitar for $79 shipped to your door, but I don’t recommend it. Ideally a first guitar budget should be between $300 and $500. This is a great range to consider for adult beginners – the variety of brands, styles, and features is simply staggering. Here’s why I like the $300-$500 range:

  1. The initial quality and playability of this price range is usually very good.
  2. You are more likely to find a guitar with a solid top at $300 and above.
  3. Dings and dents won’t bother you quite as much as with that $2500 Martin.
  4. You won’t hesitate to maintain your guitar.

A bit more on #4. Say you purchase that $79 guitar. After 6 months it picks up some fret buzz. Typical routine maintenance (i.e. a setup) at our shop costs around $50 plus strings. How motivated will you be to spend almost 75% of the purchase price of your guitar to fix it? It’s my opinion that you should purchase a guitar you’ll feel good about repairing, because it *will* require repair one day; at a minimum it will need yearly maintenance. Believe it or not, repairs on very cheap guitars are often more expensive than for slightly more expensive guitars.

Body Style

Three common sizes you’ll see in a guitar shop are the parlor, auditorium (sometimes called “triple zero“, or 000 size), and dreadnaught. Side note: the term “parlor“ is pretty ambiguous, and there is really no standard across manufacturers – in practice I usually see it applied to guitars smaller than the auditorium.

The most important questions for you are: how does it feel, and how loud do you need it to be?

If you’ll be playing campfire songs with a large group of 12 year old summer campers, I might suggest a dreadnaught. It simply gets louder than most other body styles. If loud isn’t a concern. then it’s all about feel.

If I was going to make one recommendation about choosing a body style, it would be this:

Play them all before you buy.

You will absolutely feel a difference, and you’ll almost certainly gravitate towards one style or another. For example, I personally don’t like dreadnaughts because it bothers my right shoulder to play them. I prefer auditoriums and parlors.

Features

These are the most important features I’d consider when purchasing a guitar in this price range.

Solid Top

As a general rule, a solid top as opposed to a laminate top will provide a much better tone. The manufacturer specifications should clearly state that it has a solid top. For example, our AMI guitars all have a solid Sitka Spruce top.

Electronics

For the beginner, I think the decision boils down to whether or not you plan to play at an open mic or not. If you do or you aren’t sure, I’d recommend just getting them. It’s definitely possible to find guitars equipped with them in this price range.

An AMI DMC-STE equipped with Fishman Isys system
An AMI DMC-STE equipped with Fishman Isys system

Bone Nut & Saddle

This is more of a nice-to-have, but you’ll appreciate the superior tone of a bone and nut saddle over plastic. Additionally, your repair tech will appreciate it. It’s easier to work with bone than it is with plastic.

Accessories and Misc

Make sure to budget for accessories too! Here are some essentials:

  • Tuner (you can get away with a smartphone app, but after a while it’s really nice to have a tuner).
  • Hard case or gig bag. Don’t leave the shop without one!
  • Guitar stand (very helpful, but see below).
  • Humidifier – yes, you need this. The amount of guitars that come into our shop for dryness cracks is quite impressive. Richmond is hard on guitars, especially in October and November when the weather turns cold and you turn up your thermostat. Hot, dry air and wood aren’t good friends. When the air turns dry, best to store the acoustic in its case with a humidifier – not on the stand over an air vent. Don’t ask me how I know this.
  • Extra set of strings.

In Conclusion

Hopefully this was helpful! So, when searching for that guitar, remember – once your budget is determined, think about Body Style, Features, and Accessories! And play as many guitars as you can before you make your decision! See you in the shop. 🙂