There’s a lot of conflicting advice regarding learning how to play the guitar. Whether it relates to taking lessons, or trying to learn on your own, Fender versus Gibson, steel string versus nylon strung, for every opinion, there is another that completely opposes it.
Some of these even rear their head before you’ve even picked up a guitar. One such point is the question of which is the best guitar to learn on – acoustic or electric?
Sadly, there isn’t an easy answer – it isn’t the case that one is obviously better than the other for beginners. However, there are aspects of each that may make them better for one learner than another.
To help clarify, here’s a mini guide to each type, and why you might want to learn to play on it…
Acoustic guitars are designed to be played without the need for an amplifier. These are the most common type of guitar. The typical acoustic guitar will have an entirely hollow body, with a circular sound-hole beneath the strings.
When the strings vibrate, they cause the soundboard (the flat top of the guitar with the sound-hole in it) to vibrate. This resonates in the guitar body, creating a fuller, woody tone. The bulk of the guitar’s sound exits through the sound-hole.
Acoustic guitars are very simple, require little in the way of additional equipment, and are very ‘pick-up-and-play’. In addition, they can often be purchased at a lower price than electric guitars. This, combined with the fact that they do not require an amplifier usually makes them the cheapest beginner option.
There are some points to consider, however. Compared to electric guitars, acoustic models tend to have thicker necks, higher gauge (thicker) strings and higher playing actions (the distance between the string and the fretboard). This can make playing an acoustic guitar a bit more of a challenge, physically. In particular, the fingertips, which have to ‘toughen up’ in the right places when learning are subject to a bit more discomfort.
Some teachers swear by the softer nature and lower tensions of classical guitar strings, though. Classical guitars also have very wide necks, however…
Plus points for the beginner
- Usually the most inexpensive option.
- Requires very little other than the guitar to get started – perhaps a case or bag, a few picks and a tuner.
- Perfect for folk / classical (depending on the guitar you pick), but also still used in all types of popular music.
- Strings, neck and playing action can be harder on the fingers, making those first musical steps a little bit more painful (though this does mean that fingertips will toughen quicker).
- If, ultimately, you don’t want to play an acoustic guitar (and, say, want to play rock on an electric guitar), picking up an acoustic is not as motivating as it might be.
- You are very unsure of how likely you are to stick at it, and want to spend the minimum amount to give it a try.
- You aim to play acoustic music.
Our top choices for beginners
They work via the use of magnetic pickups. These are, very simply, magnets with coils of wire wrapped around them, which sit beneath the strings. When the strings vibrate, it causes a disturbance in the magnetic field around the pickup, which the coil of wire turns into an electrical signal. This is transferred down a cable to an amplifier, which reverses the process, changing the signal back to sound.
Because they only ‘listen’ to the strings themselves, there is no need for them to be hollow, or amplify the sound acoustically.
For many, the whole purpose for learning to play is to play an electric guitar. If rock or metal are your musical ‘loves’, an electric guitar is the only way to achieve the sound you’re looking for.
Guitar necks are typically much slimmer, with lower playing action and lower gauge strings. This makes them much easier on the fingers. Often, however, the strings are more closely spaced than acoustic guitars, making it slightly trickier for finger-style players.
However, these days even modestly priced amplifiers mean that you can wring a huge array of tones from an inexpensive set-up.
You’ll often hear people say that guitarists should begin on an acoustic instrument, as it will toughen the fingertips, and strengthen finger muscles. However, you should always consider how much an instrument is going to motivate you to play. The first few months of learning to play the guitar can be tough.
You won’t be able to play anything initially, and practice will hurt your fingers, too. If you’re playing an instrument that doesn’t at least give you a bit of a ‘buzz’ just to pick it up, then the obstacles can prove too much. If this means learning on an electric guitar, then this is the right guitar for you. Personally, I first owned an acoustic guitar and played it from time to time. Then, I got a very cheap electric guitar, and couldn’t put it down. Motivation is everything.
It’s true that an acoustic guitar may tone finger muscles more quickly, and harden fingertips. If it makes the experience of learning unpleasant, however, is it worth it? Well, only you can answer that. The ‘finger toughening’ period only tends to last for a month or so, if you keep practicing. It really boils down to whether you think this will kill your enthusiasm.
- If you ultimately want to play rock or metal, then you will only get those classic tones from an electric guitar and an amplifier.
- You can get a far broader palette of sounds from an electric guitar and amp.
- Slimmer necks, lower playing action and lower gauge strings can be easier on the fingers of a learner.
- Is there a cooler instrument to play than the electric guitar? This in itself can be a great motivator to practice.
- Generally more expensive than acoustic guitars.
- You will need an amplifier and cable in addition to the guitar.
- Not really appropriate for acoustic styles, such as folk.
- The ‘easy’ nature of the neck can mean it takes slightly longer for fingers to ‘toughen up’.
- Ultimately you want to play rock, metal or any typically electrified style.
- You suspect that the initially fingertip pain may deter you from playing an acoustic guitar.
- Having a huge range of tone at your fingertips may keep you inspired.
Our top choices for beginners
- Redwood Guitars
- Epiphone Slash AFD Les Paul Special-II Outfit
- Ibanez GAX30
- Beginner Electric Guitars
- Guitar Packs
The key to picking a beginner’s instrument of any kind is to pick something that will keep you motivated.
Learning to play is difficult. It’s far from impossible, but it is challenging, particularly when taking those first steps.
For this reason, it makes sense to choose an instrument that wont add any extra obstacles to the learning process, and one that inspires you to work through the challenges. If this means getting an electric guitar and an amp, a great acoustic, or even that ‘once in a lifetime’ guitar that you’ve seen your heroes playing since you were a child, then there’s ample justification to do it.
Keep motivation high, and you’ll keep on playing. Keep on playing, and you’ll become a great player. It’s simple when you think about it… 😉
Joe is a contributor for the Dawsons Music blog. Specialising in product reviews and crafting content to help and inspire musicians of all musical backgrounds.