I don't know much about guitars, but
I'm wondering what the differences are.
I have an Ibanez right now, a GRG that I got as a gift. It's a starter model, a good guitar and fun to play. My son's eager to learn, so I'm picking up a 3/4 starter acoustic for him.
When I walked into the store (Guitar Center in Fairfax), I was completely overwhelmed. What are the differences in all these models? Some are twice the price of others. What am I missing out on? How much of it is cosmetic, which is of minor importance to me, how much is quality, and how much is ease of play?
My Ibanez is a bit heavy compared to some that I noodled around with in the store, but it's not exactly hurting my back. A lot of the demo fretboards were a lot easier to play, but I don't know if that's a difference in guitar structure or just the gauge of the strings. I have no idea what the gauge on my current set is.
I realize that every manufacturer's going to have crappy and superb models, but can someone rank/break down manufacturers and differences between them? I've hit Google, but I get caught up in floating vs locking tremolos, the effects of wood density in electric guitars (is this significant?), neck length, and endorsement, which I couldn't care less about. Music style seems relevant, but these evaluations tend to focus on blues and jazz. I tend to play hard rock/metal, which I think would be helped by some design differences.
I'm not actively shopping, but I'm in a position where I'd like to step up if I'm missing something major. My current guitar needs to be significantly retuned once a week; other models have to have better longevity than that. I've also got an annoying buzz on the 6th string (mechanical- it doesn't come through the amp) no matter how hard I fret it.
I may be over-thinking this, but I'm an engineer and trying to analyze the whole thing.
You're over-thinking. :) And you're worrying about the issue on too big a scale... it's like asking "I'm thinking about buying a car, but I notice some are more expensive than others."
The first thing you need to do is bring your son to the store. Rule out surprising him, if that was on the table. :) Worry about what the store has on the walls, and let your son try them out. Even if all he can do is fret a couple of single notes, let him tell you which models feel comfortable to him, and what he likes in terms of features and aesthetics.
Also, definitely buy the best instrument you can afford. Put the price tag as low on the list of priorities as you can. Ideally you'd like to grab something that he can enjoy for years to come, and that he won't need to upgrade in six months if he gets really serious about the instrument.
As a final pointer, you definitely pay for the name with guitars, and prestigious brands such as Gibson, Fender, Martin, or Taylor will command appropriate price points. If you can find a manufacturer that perhaps doesn't have some of the cachet of a brand like Fender but is still reputable (and there are lots of them out there - Yamaha comes immediately to mind), you can probably get a much better instrument for the price.
Good luck and happy hunting!
Also, Harmony Central is a great site where you can find user reviews for just about any instrument or other music-making gizmo. For instance, Acoustic Guitars.
A starter guitar? Get a cheap one that he likes the feel of. As Sockpuppet said, it's not a big deal at this point. But don't get it so cheap that's crap. Here's one simple test. Take the guitar and look down the neck from the bridge. If you see a huge difference in the spacing between the strings and the fretboard, or if you see warping on the fretboard, don't get that one.
Then, play every single note, to make sure it frets properly. After that, for a beginner, I don't think much matters. My first electric guitar was a Japanese Strat. I still have it. I don't play it anymore because it's not nearly as good a guitar as my Ibanez. But I played that thing for years, and even played it in bands in college. So I do recommend going with a brand you recognize, if possible. But I wouldn't go too expensive on an instrument he might not even play for more than a month.
I think Ibanez guitars are great value for the money.
Neck size/thickness and shape. I think thick necks easy to play on if I'm playing open and barre chords, but I prefer narrower necks for picking individual notes and bending. The curve on the back of the neck might be something to think about, too - round is nice if you like to play with your thumb on the E string, flat is nice if you like to clamp the neck with your thumb on the back.
Action. This is the height of the strings off the fretboard. Lower action might be easier to play and is great for speed, but on cheaper guitars you might notice mistakes more. I did on my first guitar, anyway. When I raised the action I had to press harder on the string, but the area that the note would sound correct seemed larger.
If you're thinking of an electric, check out cheap Squires (anywhere from $80-$200, often come in packs with a 10W amp), Fenders (huge price range, but I think Mexican-made ones usually go for around $500CDN in stores around here), or Ibanez (you can get a Gio GRG like yours for $100, or the cheapest RG for around $400). I'm not a fan of modern Epiphone guitars - I think they are way overpriced.
I don't know much about acoustic guitars, but I've played my dad's old Ibanez and my friend's Yamaha and I couldn't tell you the difference, although the Yamaha was much cheaper.
To clarify, going shopping for your son got you thinking about a new guitar for yourself, right? That's the way I read your post, but it looks like you're getting recommendations for starters for your son, so I'm confused.
I read the OP as "I need some pointers to buy a starter acoustic for my son, and hopefully in the process learn enough about guitars so that when I purchase a better guitar for myself, I'll know what to look for".
In either case, the principles are the same. Try it yourself, figure out what you like, and buy the best instrument you an afford for the task at hand. Any store worth buying from will have staff who can answer any questions you may have about specific models, or about finding the guitar that's right for you.
You're both right, thanks for the help :) Any info is good info and I've learned a bit about the whole process.
How old is your son? I ask because he might be big enough for a full-size guitar. Whatever you do, don't get him a nylon-string classical guitar unless he wants to actually learn classical playing. Those guitars have necks that are wider and harder for small hands to play. But most kids age 10 and up can handle a full-size guitar.
And yeah, Ibanez guitars are pretty good. The Artwood model I have is the best acoustic I've ever owned. Of course, I've never owned a Martin or a Taylor. :)
Yeah, I wouldn't put too much money into a 3/4 size guitar because he'll either lose interest or need a full size down the line.
He's seven. A bit young, but he's very enthusiastic, having set aside time for practice. He just lights up when he's trying one out. He might quit- kids go through a lot of hobbies- but he'll enjoy it for now and that's important.
I agree with Brad. Get the full size one, just in case he sticks with it.
And yeah, I LOVE my Ibanez. But for acoustic guitars, you would do fine with an Epiphone or something. Yamaha actually makes great acoustics.
At seven, I would go for a 3/4 size, nylon-string acoustic. Nylon string guitars do have wider necks (hence the reason to get a smaller instrument) but the strings are much less painful and much easier to get a nice sound out of for a child with softer and more sensitive fingers and less gripping power. Actually, a ukelele may be an even better choice, but he may not be as excited about it as an instrument. A few years learning the uke, though, will stand him in great stead to move on to the guitar.
Before you decide anything you need to know whether you prefer rectangular notes or round notes.
A lot of the price difference in acoustic guitars is based on the materials used. Generally cheaper guitars use laminated woods, while more expensive ones use solid woods. The type of wood used has a lot to do with price as well.
The type and quality of the materials has a lot of effect on the sound. Mahogany usually gives a very warm tone, while, for example, rosewood gives a brighter tone. Even if you get a cheaper guitar with laminated sides and back, at least go for a solid top (spruce or cedar are usually used for tops).
Build quality also has a lot to do with it. As others mentioned already, look down the neck to make sure it's straight. If the action (distance between string and fretboard) increases as you move down the neck, those frets will not only be harder to play but will likely be a little sharp. The action on a guitar can be adjusted. The nut and saddle (the bar that the strings go through at the top of the neck and the bridge the strings go over at the bottom) can be adjusted, and most decent guitars will have a tension bar going through the neck that can be adjusted to counteract the tension of the strings that is constantly trying to bend the neck forward. So if the action isn't perfect the guitar can be set up right, but avoid any guitar where the action is already too high.
Build quality can vary between guitars of the same model, so even if you have a few models you pick out from online research, you should still play a few specific specimens of each model to feel the action and hear the tone of that particular guitar.
Play every note on the guitar to check for fret buzz (a horrible sound a string makes when it brushes up against the metal fret while vibrating). Sound each note with a pick, and pick it pretty hard. Play each string open and then just go down the fretboard playing each note making sure it rings loud and clear. If you know your open and barre chords, play a sampling of those, strumming hard, again listening for buzz (but make sure if you hear a buzz it isn't just the string hitting your fingernail, check your hand position and play each note in the chord individually and strum again).
Once you find a guitar with nice consistent action and no fret buzz, then it's just a matter of finding one that sounds nice to you. Play a few scales or riffs that you know and a little three chord strumming (at least some G,C,G,C,D stuff to get a feel for the sound), pick the guitar that sounds nicest to you.
One last note, when playing different guitars if there is some small thing you don't like about the sound or anything else, don't dismiss it thinking you'll get used to it. You won't get used to it, it will just get more annoying as you get better at playing and your standards quickly rise.
Let the kid pick the guitar, within price constraints. Make sure he actually tries to make noise on it for a while, so he knows whether/how much it will hurt his fingers.
I've been learning electric guitar for the last month or so and the finger pain was brutal for the first few weeks! Things got much better around the third week, though that may also be due to switching from a high-action / huge fret Schecter guitar intended mostly for metal to an american standard strat.
Loving the new guitar and happy now that i can play a few simple blues licks :-)
One more quick bit of advice (and this one is for any type of guitar). There are a few different types of tuners (tuning pegs, gears, machine heads, whatever you call them). You want to get fully enclosed tuners that are lifetime lubricated (as opposed to unenclosed tuners, like those you'll see on old classical guitars and some cheap guitars, and enclosed ones that need to be lubricated occasionally via a little lubrication hole). Enclosed tuners generally stay tuned longer and are maintenance free.
Originally Posted by Mike O'Malley
That said, always tune before playing. Even if you strings don't go out of tune for weeks at a time, it's a good idea to detune each string a little and tune it back up to the correct note. Doing this will help train your ear to the correct notes. Before I practice I tune up with an electronic tuner and then I go down the string using the 5th fret, it's redundant but after doing it over and over and over again I can almost tune up correctly by ear.