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Not that anybody has asked me this in a long time, but I was thinking the other day about my first guitar (back in the early 1980's) and how that experience might have completely derailed my dreams of playing guitar.

In the bad old times, a kid would see (or hear) a band that they liked, and want to learn to play. Parents would listen to the whining and badgering until they finally decided to buy an instrument. Often, they would go to places like Sears, or Montgomery Ward and they would have a "beginner's kit" that included a guitar, an amp (if it was electric), and some odds and ends like a webbed strap, some picks, a cord, and perhaps a tuning fork (usually a 440Hz A). Everything needed to get started.


The problem was that these were absolutely the lowest quality, high action, virtually unplayable pieces of garbage. I don't blame my parents. I think my first "starter" guitar was about $200, and in the early 1980's that was a pretty expensive splurge for a kid who might lose interest and wander away.

And you can be certain that the low quality and poor playability, as well as the shitty sounding 10 watt amp with truly abysmal circuitry would deter any but the most determined kid.

Fortunately, today is much better. Amazon brings a huge selection of surprisingly high quality "fighter brand" guitars to about any price range. Names like Squire by Fender, and Epiphone (Gibson's lower tier) are outstanding, often better quality and set up than either brand's main line was back in the 1980's.

So, what would I recommend for the guitar interested kid today?

The Guitar

For a beginner, unless they really want to play acoustic, I would lean towards an electric. Two reasons. First is that they are easier to play. The strings will be lighter gauged, and require less hand strength to get a good, clean note. Second is that with a good practice amp, you can cover a wide range of styles and sounds without breaking the bank.

Of course, if you learn on a steel string acoustic, you will find moving to electric later a lot easier, and there are plenty of great instruments at the entry level price.

Lastly, because you are buying this for your 10 - 15 year old, odds are they want to play some ROCK.

I would avoid guitars with a tremolo bar. Even if it is set up to hard stop against the body, it takes practice and patience to use it without the tuning to go all to shit. Seek out a guitar with a hard tail.

For me, dollar-for-dollar, the Fender Squire Stratocaster is hard to beat. List price of $179, street price often $20 less, it is a hardtail, 25.5" scale (full size), with the option to have a HSS (humbucker - single - single) pickup configuration that will provide an amazing range of sound and tonal variations.

The savvy shopper will note that there are "starter bundles" for about $80 more that include strap, strings, picks, a soft case, and a tiny "Bullet" amp. I would recommend against that. Sure the accessories will be nice to have but the amp is just mediocre at best.

On the Gibson side, there are plenty of Epiphone models, but for the beginner, I would recommend the SG Standard. It will be more expensive (about $450 street price) but it is a neck through design, it is fairly lightweight, and it has a slightly shorter scale (24.75") that is a bit easier for smaller hands to play.

The Amplifier

A good, playable guitar is key, and the entry levels from the majors, as well as many of the other brands out there (Ibanez, ESP, Dean, and many many more) will deliver that in spades for a reasonable out the door price, but what hooks the young player is how they sound through the amplifier. And that is where some care is important, because a cheap amplifier that just has awful clipping of loud signals will ultimately sounds like a fart-box.

My recommendation here is to not buy a "starter" pack with the mediocre practice amp, but instead to look for a 10 - 15 watt 8 or 10 inch speaker "modeling" amp. Fender, Marshall, and others make them. But to me, the best bang for the buck comes from Line 6.

image of a guitar amplifier
My first amp, a particularly mediocre 15 watt Crate practice amp. Not recommended!

The Spider series are simple to use, but extremely versatile, and loaded with the famous Line 6 DSP based effects. The 20 watt variant, Spider V20 MKII, is available for a street price of about $160, and it can emulate the sound of other iconic amps, as well as having built in several preset effects that can give you that Pink Floyd modulation sound, or the classic Van Halen "Brown" tone, and many many more.

This will allow your young rocker to experiment, and get comfortable playing and sounding pretty good right out of the box.

The rest of the kit

They will need some things right away. A clip on tuner makes tuning up painless, and improves the experience. While you are at Amazon, pick up a cable, a strap, and some picks. All together this should be less than $40.

Where to learn to play?

This is the best part of all. Unlike when I first picked up the instrument in the early 1980's, where I had a Hal Leonard book, and took some local guitar lessons, kids today have so much more at their fingertips.

My recommendation before even thinking about spending even one dollar on a lesson is to hit up YouTube. Search for "beginning guitar" and you will find literally thousands of videos that can cover the basics and get your wee tyke playing some simple tunes.

Once the basics are covered, there are plenty of options for modestly priced instruction. Or you can find an in-person instruction.

Final recommendation

Budget $80 - $100 for a setup at a local music store. This relatively small investment will ensure that everything on the instrument is set up perfectly, the strings don't buzz, the intonation is set properly, the truss rod is adjusted, and in general make the guitar as playable as possible.

In the hands of a skilled player, a properly setup Squire Strat will sound better than an out of the box Fender American Professional II Strat. By far.

It took me a long time to get my first setup, and in hindsight, that was a huge mistake. Getting my acoustic and electric guitars properly adjusted improved the playability, as well as making it easier to play how I like.

This advice is valid even if you are buying a high dollar instrument. Of course they are setup at the factory, but shipment, changes in humidity and storage temperature all can slightly affect the characteristics of the wood, necessitating a proper setup.

It might sound insane to spend $80 to setup a guitar that you paid only $160 for, but it will make it play and feel like a $1000 guitar, and that is why it is valuable.

Wrapping it up

It has never been a better time to begin to play guitar. The quality of the entry level instruments, the internet instantly accessible mountains of instructional material that covers virtually all genre's will ensure that the beginner can explore and define their own style.

I don't regret my early days, but kids these days have it so much better.

Now, get off my lawn

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