Are Cheap Guitars Worth Buying for Beginners?
Cheap Guitars for Newbies
When you first start out on guitar you want to give yourself the best shot a success. You need the right instrument, one that will get you through those tough early days and set you off on the right path. Of course you are going to have to consider your budget too, and make some compromises when to comes to sound and playability.
For beginners, I always recommend acoustic guitars in the $200 range, and electric guitar and amp setups around $300. I think that strikes a good balance between watching your wallet and landing a great instrument that will serve you well. And, most of the top guitar builders offer excellent starter guitars in this price range.
Some people consider going much lower for their first guitar, often looking to little-known brands coming in around $100 or less. While it isn’t the path I suggest, it’s not necessarily a bad thing. In fact, for some beginners this is the right choice.
I am always an advocate of saving money on gear and digging up those diamonds in the rough. If you can find an instrument that meets your needs for a really great price there is certainly nothing wrong with that.
However, you should know what you are getting for your money. While you don’t need to spend a lot on your first guitar, you should make a smart, informed decision. In this article we’ll look at the pros and cons of cheap guitars, and you can get a better idea of how much cash you should drop on that first instrument.
What Makes Some Guitars So Inexpensive?
There are basically two ways a guitar builder can offer a low-cost instrument: Save on components, or save on manufacturing. By cutting costs in these two areas they can give us a more affordable instrument. In fact, you can consider this like a sliding scale when it comes to guitar cost and quality.
The most expensive guitars are typically made with the best-quality woods, electronics and hardware, and they are assembled by highly skilled workers. In some cases, they are made by luthiers who build only small batches of instruments each year.
Mid-priced guitars, in the $500-$1000 range, will still offer some decent woods and components, but in many cases we see manufacturing shifted to locations were labor is more affordable. Production is streamlined to more of an assembly-line setup. As you can imagine, guitar companies sell more affordable guitars than they do hyper-expensive ones, so by mass producing these guitars on a large scale they keep costs down and keep up with demand.
Once we get down to the $200-$300 range we see even more shortcuts when it comes to component quality, and of course it is even more important for labor costs and production to remain affordable. Like any other product, guitars need to be manufactured at a cost that allows a profit for the builder, and they need to be priced at a point where people will buy them.
But there is one caveat here: If a guitar sucks, nobody is going to want it. This means, especially when it comes to beginner instruments, gear companies need to not only keep prices affordable, but offer quality instruments that sound and play well.
This is where some guitar companies really shine. Three guitar builders that always come to mind are:
They manage to hit that sweet spot between cost and quality, so you can grab a reasonably priced instrument that you know is going to get the job done.
In the chart below you can get an idea of how guitars typically compare at different price points, and what you should expect. Be aware that this is very general, and all brands have different standards and practices. If you are interested in one specific guitar or brand, you should get on over to their website and read up on them.
Guitar Cost vs Materials and Manufacturing
$1500 and Up
Premium hardware, electronics and tonewoods
Skilled labor, luthiers, very high quality control
Skilled labor/assembly line, quality control high
Mid-level components, still good quality
Factory assembly line, good quality control
Budget components, some alternative and less expensive tonewoods
Assembly line, quality control depends highly on brand
Beginner guitars. Budget all around, but some are very good
Assembly Line, typically low-cost labor. QC lower, but many diamonds in rough
Very low quality components all around
Unskilled assembly line, low quality control. Choose carefully!
Why Should Beginners Choose Low-Cost Guitars?
Obviously your budget is the first reason to consider a cheap guitar. If you simply don’t have the coins to spend on your first instrument, go with the best guitar you can afford. I’d hate to see someone wait a year to begin playing because the stupid guitar guy on the internet told them they needed a $200 acoustic to get started. I offer those price ranges as my best advice, but you should play whatever you can afford.
By the way: That’s something you should remember throughout your entire career as a musician. Play what you like, and what you can afford. Never be swayed by peer pressure. There are many, many famous guitarists who started out playing the lowest priced guitar they could get their hands on.
Even if you can afford it, you still many not want to spend much on your first guitar if you aren’t convinced you’re going to like it. Or, you may not care that much about music to begin with and you just want to mess around. There is nothing wrong with this approach either, and with time you may decide you want to invest more into your new hobby.
If you know you are going to stick with this guitar thing come Hell or high water, there are some great guitars for serious beginners out there. Realistically, most newbies are somewhere between wanting a decent first guitar and not wanting to spend a lot of cash.
The tough part is figuring out how to choose an instrument when you really don’t know much about guitars to begin with. This task gets even harder when you are dealing with brands that don’t have a widespread reputation.
Choosing an Inexpensive Guitar
One of the main reasons I recommend higher-quality guitars as first instruments is because of playability. Beginners struggle enough when it comes to learning chords and scales, and a guitar that is hard to play makes it that much more difficult.
Poorly made guitars are notorious for bad, uncorrectable action which puts the strings too far away from the fingerboard. This is a nightmare for newbies, who don’t realize the problem is the guitar, not them. Unfortunately, it sometimes leads to quitting the instrument altogether. This is why I recommend a slightly higher price range for the best shot at success.
So, if you are going to go with a cheap guitar you need to have some benchmarks for deciding whether or not it will doom you from the start. Way back when the Earth was still cooling I wrote an article about how to choose your first guitar even if you can't play a note. If you are buying in person, you can use the advice in this article to make your choice.
When it comes to construction you can judge a guitar just like you’d judge any other piece of equipment. Look at the seams and connections between pieces to determine if they are well put together. Check the knobs and tuners to see if they move properly. Make sure there is no severe bowing or warping of the neck, and see that the strings are easy to press down to the fretboard.
What About Sound?
Even newbies want a guitar that sounds good, and that’s another important thing to look for here. But, if you are just starting out you may not yet know what a good guitar is supposed to sound like. Heck, there are some people who have been playing for years and still don’t seem to have a clue.
You can worry about that later. For now, simply choose an instrument that sounds good to you. It is important to be inspired to play and practice, that means you need a guitar with a sound that makes you want to pick it up.
If you are looking at electric guitars, adjust the volume and tone knobs and make sure they function correctly. If the guitar has more than one pickup, switch back and forth between them a few times. There should be no crackling or popping when you move knobs and switches. The volume should be strong and constant. If the volume drops out or the electronics are noisy it’s a sign of bad wiring.
If you are buying online you may have to rely on reviews to make your decision. Make sure you purchase from somewhere with a good return policy. Pay attention when people say an instrument was put together badly or broke easily. Remember that many people who leave reviews are upset about something or other, so if you see a lot of negative feedback on an instrument it is likely best to stay away.
Should You Buy a Cheap Guitar?
Are really inexpensive guitars worth it? Is answer, I believe, depends on your goals, your budget and your level of interest in the instrument. The takeaway is this: Never judge an instrument on price alone. That ultra-budget guitar may be the perfect choice for you, especially if you are total beginner.
I recommend guitars in the $200-$300 range for newbies simply because I believe it gives them the best shot at success. Companies like Epiphone, Yamaha and Squier have earned a reputation for producing quality instruments at low prices, and you can depend on them for your first guitar. You’ll also get more of your money back if you sell your instrument when you decide this guitar thing isn’t for you and you’d rather take up the bassoon.
However, that doesn’t mean you can’t find a decent guitar under $100 if you are willing to look around and maybe make a few compromises. Trouble starts when you make an uninformed purchase and end up with a doorstop with strings.
Ultimately, buying a cheap guitar is not much different than buying an expensive one. Do the research, evaluate your options and make the best decision you can.