Acoustic Guitars for Beginners: Cheap But Good
Ah, the holy grail of the beginning acoustic guitarist: cheap but good. But what’s good? What’s cheap? What’s the absolute best good cheap acoustic guitar you can buy? Piccolo’s breaks it down for you.
The Good, the Cheap, and the Ugly
Good means three things in your first acoustic guitar:
1) Your guitar should be easy to play. Various things can go wrong with a guitar, even a good one-- high action can make it hard to press the strings down, and pokey frets can bite your fingers. Pain is not an incentive to practice, especially if you’re just beginning and don’t have callouses yet.
2) Your guitar should sound decent. Your cat should not find cause for alarm when you open the case, even if you are a beginner. (Bagpipe players are a different story.) A good guitar will hold its tune, and not sound like a cardboard box. It’s tough to know if you’re doing things right when your guitar does not sound like a guitar. Worse, a chronically out-of-tune guitar will hinder your ear's development.
3) Your guitar should not self-destruct. For that matter, your guitar should not come pre-deconstructed. See below under “Ugly.”
Can you get good for under $200? Yes. And yes, you can get an even better guitar for a little more. But don’t play air guitar just because you can’t afford a really nice one. Learning to play guitar is the real investment, and it takes time, so get cracking. Let me point out some things to avoid, then we’ll get to some recommendations.
Now for the dark side of guitar shopping. Certain manufacturers make what we call Guitars That Look Like Musical Instruments, or GTLLMI (pronounced guittle-mees). We’re talking late night television offers here, and guitars from stores that only sell things in boxes. These “guitars” tend to play out of tune, or have frets that buzz, or strings that hover a good half inch over the fretboard or lie flat on the frets. We’ve seen cases where the strings have pulled the bridge right off the front of the guitar (talk about self-destruction). We know about these guitars because they come in to Piccolo’s for “repair.” However, no amount of expert set-up can turn them into playable instruments. Like a bad text book, they’re better off burnt. And the worst thing? They still cost around $200.
For more information, please see my colleague’s definitive monograph, “Guitars That Look Like Real Musical Instruments."
Where To Buy
Now here’s the kicker. It’s hard to test guitars in a store for playability and decent sound when, in fact, when every chord you know is hard to play and every note sounds bad (hang in there, it get's better). And of course if you’re buying a guitar online then it’s even tougher. The person behind the phone at a big box store will never see the actual guitar they’re selling you, which will be shipped directly from the warehouse, sealed in its box, after you hand over your credit card number. Since most guitars (even good ones) are mass produced, they aren't always easy to play right out of the box. To avoid a guitar that picks fights with you, buy your guitar from a real music store—a place staffed by guitar players and stocked exclusively with playable guitars. These are people who are used to dealing with people and instruments, as opposed to credit cards and boxes. Your local music store may be just such a place, so check it out. At Piccolo’s play all the guitars in stock (that’s why it’s “All Play & No Work”) so we can recommend guitars from hands-on experience. Our guitar tech will make sure your guitar doesn't have any major factory flaws, and also set it up so it’s easy to play. We’ll give you the same personal service we give to all our local customers.
TIP: To get the most bang for your buck, try to find a guitar with a solid-top. The sound of a solid-topped guitar will sweeten as it ages (especially if you play it a lot). Most inexpensive guitars have a laminate top, which is a bunch of very thin sheets of wood glued them together. They can be decent guitars, and may even sound good, but that's as good as they'll ever sound.
What To Buy
NOTE: Prices are estimates and subject to change. Apologies if a guitar is not currently stock. Click the “See All Guitars” link for other options. You can always give us a call if you have any questions.
Guitars Under $200 (See All Acoustic Guitars Under $200)
Yamaha FG700S Folk Acoustic Guitar ($199): I hate to give it all away right up front, but for under $200, it’s hard to beat the Yamaha FG6700S. It has a solid spruce top (see tip), sounds and looks like it should cost more. Dreadnought shape. Yamaha makes good stuff, period.
The Fender CD60 Acoustic Guitar (Starts $199) is a dreadnought shaped guitar with a laminate top. Well constructed. Comes with a hardshell case, which is a great value. Comes in black, natural, and a rather pretty orange sunburst. Also available with electronics and a cutaway.
Guitars Under $500 (See All Acoustic Guitars Under $500)