An Engineer’s Tips For Selecting Your First Guitar

A guilty pleasure of mine is to sit in the ‘acoustic room’ at a national chain guitar store and play expensive guitars.  When I was growing up, we had no real opportunity to see and hear, even less to touch and play, expensive guitars. Nowadays, it’s easy to have unfettered access to so many models and price ranges of guitars.

This weekend, I was camped out in the acoustic room, confirming that my playing skills were equally poor on an expensive guitar as they were on an inexpensive guitar.  Four ladies were shopping for a musical instrument.  The ten year old played flute and clarinet, but her asthma caused her to consider another instrument.  Her six year old little sister enjoyed playing with ukeleles.  Mom watched her daughters go through the overwhelming selection of instruments.  Grandma, who was apparently bank-rolling the whole enterprise, glanced nervously at the price tags.

Mom walked past me as I was playing a few scales.  She turned and asked if I worked here.  “No,” I replied, “but could I help you?”

“My daughter is shopping for guitar or ukelele.  She plays in the school band but wants to consider another instrument.  How do we find the right guitar?”

So the conversation that followed was the genesis of this blog post.

Three Criteria For Selecting Your First Guitar

Guitars come in many sizes, shapes, styles, sounds, colors, and technologies.  For a beginner, guidance from a music teacher, price and playability are significant criteria to apply when choosing a particular guitar.  Let’s set aside everything that makes a guitar what it is EXCEPT those parts that touch the string e.g. tuners, the nut, the fingerboard and frets, and the saddle.  Let’s also look at ergonomics e.g. size and shape of the guitar, and derive some selection criteria that may be of use when choosing a guitar or ukelele.

Tuner and Nut

Loosen and tighten each string.  Does the pitch of the string change smoothly, or does the tuning ‘jump’ suddenly?  Does the string ‘pop’ or squeak when moving through the nut?  Jumps and pops can be corrected by a luthier, but we want to purchase an instrument that works from the outset and does not need additional work ‘out of the box.’ (Image credit:

Fretboard and Frets

every note
Play an open string, then play each note in sequence moving in half steps up the entire fretboard.  Does each note sound clear and crisp?  Is there a buzz or muffled sound?  Is the note played a the twelfth fret exactly one octave above the open string?  Buzzing and muffled sounds from any string, or intonation problems, can be corrected by a luthier, but again, why pay money for a guitar with a problem?  (Image credit:


Barre all six strings at once with one finger.  Can you hold all the strings down WITHOUT using the thumb of your fretting hand in a vise-like grip?  Or do you have to whip out the ‘Kung Fu’ vise grip to hold all the strings down?  Holding all the strings down is easy with a ukelele, but can be difficult with a guitar, particularly a steel-stringed guitar.  (Image credit:

Hint – Hold the body of the guitar against your body firmly with the elbow of your plucking arm (right elbow if you are playing right-handed.)  Now pull back against the strings with your fretting hand and execute the barre without using the thumb of the fretting hand.  Sounds odd, doesn’t it?  No, you won’t break the guitar in half.  A common bad habit among guitar players is to grasp the neck so tightly that your hand aches after ten minutes of playing.  Pushing the neck of the guitar forward, by pulling the body back towards you will lessen the load on your fretting hand.  Try it!  The longer you can practice without tiring your hands, the better and more-motivated a player you will become!

Now that your thumb can take a break, is the width, string spacing, and curvature of the finger board compatible with the construction of your barre index finger?  Every individual has a unique fingerprint.  By extension, I would assert that everyone has a slightly different internal construction of their hands.  The location and size of the knuckles, tendons, muscles, and scars becomes relevant when making a barre.  Does this guitar allow you to hold down every string so that they ring clearly when played?  For a beginner, this will require some experimentation even with an easy-to-play guitar.  If you find the guitar that is easy to barre, you are well on your way to choosing a good guitar.


Earlier, we discussed holding the guitar body.  Some guitar bodies are thin, such as solid-body electric guitars and jazz acoustics.  Others are made thinner but are otherwise normal acoustic or classical guitars.  Likewise, some guitars are intentionally scaled smaller to accommodate children and youth, and people with small frames.  My wife plays a smaller guitar whenever possible.  In my case, I prefer thinner bodies to compensate for my big gut.  Some guitars, particularly solid body electrics, are best played standing up.  Find what is comfortable while at the same time allowing you to easily reach all the strings and frets with both hands.  Pass on any guitar that places a sharp edge or corner on your arm or leg or makes you reach uncomfortably.  (Image credit: and


Our young musician picked out a nylon-stringed classical guitar, in 7/8ths size. The guitar only cost about $139 but was an excellent instrument which passed all of our criteria above, had a very pleasant voice, and was easy to play. Everyone, including the six year old, was enthusiastic. Grandma was particularly happy to make this moderate expenditure, and had no problems purchasing a bag and a tuner for her granddaughter’s new guitar. I recommended a good teacher in her part of town, plus we exchanged email addresses so that I could send some more links and supplementary material about practicing, guitar music theory, and caring for her new instrument. Life Is Good!!

Thanks for reading all the way to the bottom.

CONTACT – David Latchaw EE