Best Beginner Electric Guitar - 8 Things You Really Need to Know
Buying your first guitar is exciting – but it can also be intimidating. To make an informed choice there are so many things to learn and understand. The truth is, a lot of buying guides go into far more detail than you, as a beginner, need to worry about. Let's face it, the type of tuning pegs a guitar has isn't going to make or break your decision to buy it. But there are some things you should know about the important elements of an electric guitar.
I'm going to break it down to the essentials that you need to understand to make a smart choice for buying the best beginner electric guitar for your needs. As usual, there is no single answer that is right for everyone.
There are 3 Types of Electric Guitar
Solid Body Electric Guitar
This is what most people think of when they think electric guitar. It's the Fender Strat, the Telecaster, the Gibson Les Paul and the Flying V, to name a few. They're known for a bright, sharp sound and excellent sustain. It's also what a lot of beginners interested in electric guitar are aiming for.
These guitars are a constructed from a single block of wood. They have a full range of options for single coil and humbucker pick-up configurations (I'll explain pickups shortly), and can range from simple pickup choices to full-on techie.
While the solid body doesn't rely on resonance as much as a hollow, or semi-hollow body electric, the type of wood it's made from still makes a difference in the sound. I cover tonewoods on this page. Because they don't rely on a sound chamber, solid body guitars also come in a greater variety of shapes and styles. They also play nicely with high volume output and effects pedals.
Great guitarists like Stevie Ray Vaughan, Jeff Beck, Jimi Hendrix, Pete Townsend and Jimmy Page are all known for playing solid body electrics. This type of guitar is very versatile and can easily span many genres, but they excel at hard rock, punk, metal and classic rock.
On this page, we're only going to be looking at solid body electric guitars. We'll save the semi-hollow and hollow body electric guitars for other pages. I'll still explain them here, though, so you understand the differences.
Hollow Body Electric Guitar
Like the name suggests, these guitars have a hollow body, like an acoustic, that they rely on to create a deep resonant tone. The shape of the resonance chambers makes a difference so you won't see much variety in shape, like you do with solid body electrics. They also frequently have an arched top to enhance their resonance.
Despite their tones resembling acoustic guitars, they are not the same as an acoustic-electric guitar, because hollow body electrics still use pickups to translate the string vibrations into sound.
Of the electric guitars, these have the warmest, richest tone. They produce a round, rich sound that accentuates the bass tones beautifully. However, this great tone comes with a trade-off. Hollow body guitars are known for feedback problems at middle to high volume. They also have the lowest sustain amongst electric guitars.
Pat Metheny is known for playing a hollow body electric and it is the coveted guitar of many jazz players. Not too man beginners start out on hollow bodies.
Semi-Hollow Body Electric Guitars
If you like the idea of the warmer tones of a hollow body, but want the sustain and volume capacity of a solid body, then you should consider getting a semi-hollow body guitar.
While these guitars still have the resonance chamber, the center is a solid block of wood that stabilizes the structure and reduces the feedback issue that full hollow bodies have. This also allows them to be played at higher volume with increased sustain (though still not quite as much as a solid body guitar).
The semi-hollow body can achieve both warm, round tones and bright, punchy ones, given the right set up.
B.B. King's infamous Lucille is a semi-hollow body, Gibson ES-355.
The semi-hollow electric is a guitar that handles the blues extraordinarily well. But it can rock in the hands of Eric Clapton or Chuck Berry, and has been known to go punk and hard rock at the urging of Dave Grohl.
It's also a great beginner choice for early rock'n'roll, classic country, rockabilly, and jazz players that don't want to deal with feedback issues.
How Electric Guitars Make Sound
This is the short version.
As you know, all sound is created by vibration.
On electric guitars, the vibration of the strings is collected via electromagnetic induction by a device called a pickup. The pickups translate the vibration into an electronic signal that gets sent to an amp which then amplifies that signal so you can hear it.
Pickups are supremely responsible for the way an electric guitar sounds. The choice you make here will make a difference in the type of sound you get from your guitar.
There are two kinds of pickups we're going to discuss, single coil and humbuckers. Both kinds of pickups can be active or passive.
Stick with me and I'll explain what this all means.
Pickups – Single Coil and Humbuckers
Single coil pickups consist of a magnet wrapped in layers and layers of fine wire. They have a bright, crisp tone that rides on top of the rest of the band, and cuts through a noisy room like nobody's business. Their main drawback is that they often produce a slight hum, or underlying buzz when you plug in your guitar.
Plenty of great guitarists, Springsteen on his Fender Telecaster, SRV, Jimi Hendrix and John Mayer on their Fender Strats, like the single coil pickup sound.
Humbuckers use two coils set next to each other. They're intentionally calibrated out of phase so that they cancel out the buzzy signal created by the single coil magnet. They literally buck the hum of the single coil pickup. Humbuckers produce a thicker, more robust sound but lack the sharpness of the single coil.
Humbuckers are great for the heavier tones of hard rock, heavy metal and punk, but can be used to great effect in jazz and blues, as well. Slash and Jimmy Page are Humbucker fans.
This can be a hard choice for a beginner. Luckily, some guitars have both single coil and humbucker pickups in various combinations, and it only takes the flip of a switch to change between the two.
A Little More about Pickups - Active and Passive
Passive Pickups, which are currently the most common, create a consistent signal based on the way you pluck the string. But if you push or exceed their limits, distortion and noise become an issue.
Active Pickups, which are newer and coming into more use, are wired into a preamp that requires a separate battery. The output of the active pickups is actually lower than that of the passive pickups, but the preamp makes up for it by boosting the signal beyond what the passive pickup can handle. You also have the ability to adjust the signal before it ever gets to the amp. The signal created by this system has almost no noise, but you do need to keep a battery handy.
Passive pickups are considered more expressive, while active pickups have higher output.
The choice is yours. Remember, there is no right answer other than the one that's right for you.
Note: If you're interested in the long version explanation, you can go here.
Bridges – Fixed Bridge vs Whammy Bar
The bridge is where the strings are anchored to the body of the guitar.
Fixed bridges are just what they say. The bridge stays in place and doesn't move. This helps the guitar remain in tune longer. It also makes an easier job of changing the strings. It is the simpler of the two systems and the one preferred by many beginners.
Floating Bridges aka Tremolo Bridges aka Whammy Bars are a fixed bridge that you can move, changing the tension on the strings, and thus the intonation. This allows you to be able to create some awesome effects. Changing strings on a guitar with a whammy bar is somewhat more challenging. Some people don't recommend this for a beginner, but I think you just need to go in with your eyes open. If you don't have a good local music shop that will teach you, there are plenty of YouTube videos to help.
I will say that if you go with the whammy, stick with the Fender type, and not the Floyd Rose style bridge. The Floyd Rose are extremely complicated to restring and not a good idea for a beginner.
There are three types of neck construction. Here's a quick rundown just so you know what you're getting. The more integrated into the guitar the neck is, the better sustain and resonance the guitar will provide. Of course, the price goes up with every further integration.
Bolt-on Neck is just what it sounds like. While this is less expensive construction, it doesn't mean that you can't have a good guitar with a bolt-on neck. But it is what you'll find on the more affordable electric guitars, especially those designed for a beginner. The advantage is that it's easier to remove or change out the neck if the need or desire arises.
Set Necks are when the neck has been glued into the guitar body. It's a process in woodworking that's called lamination (which has nothing to do with thin wood laminates in this case, but a method of gluing and clamping pieces of wood together). This process is more stable than the bolt-on neck.
Neck Through guitars have a neck that runs the entire length of the body. Flanges where the neck enters the body help stabilize this construction even more. This style creates the greatest sustain and resonance and is what you find on mid-high dollar guitars.
First, you have to remember that you're not just buying a guitar, you'll need accessories - a strap, case, tuner, amp, cables, strings and picks. Depending on your practice space, you may want to get a set of headphones as well. It's easy to forget this in your excitement over getting a new guitar.
I'd like to say that the sweet spot for how much to spend on the best beginner electric guitar set-up in is the $300-600 range.
This will get you a choice of some really good guitars without breaking the bank. These guitars are the kind that if you find this just isn't right for you, you can re-sell with little loss. Not that I want to set you up for failure, but I want to put your mind at ease if this outlay is a little higher than you were expecting. These are really more intermediate electric guitars, which means that you won't advance out of them quickly. The guitar you get in this range will be with you for many happy years.
HOWEVER, there are plenty of good set-ups for beginner electric guitars to be had under $300.
These usually include the accessories I mention above (minus the headphones) and some instructional materials. There is nothing wrong with starting in this price range if that's where you need to be. There's still a lot of quality gear here, just stay away from the cheapest of the cheap. If you crave a Fender or a Gibson, look at their budget lines of Squier and Epiphone (respectively). And don't neglect brands like Ibanez and Yamaha, they make some of the best starter electric guitars.
If you can afford up to $1000 for your new guitar, then great. You have a choice of some sweet guitars.
They'll look and sound awesome from the get go, even when you're still learning. These guitars really retain their value and you may never feel the need to upgrade again. Though I don't know too many guitarists that have only one ax. Buying awesome guitars is kind of addictive – in a good way. In this range – get anything you want and you're pretty assured of having a top quality instrument (but always check the reviews).
A lot of electric guitars cross genres very easily. You an use a pick, or play fingerstyle. Throw in some effects pedals and an upgraded amp and they have even more range.
Having said that, some guitars, pedals and amps are better suited to certain genres than others. I've mentioned a few styles above. Soon I'll be adding features on the best gear for different genres, so stay tuned.
The Really Big Secret
Now that you know about the essential elements of electric guitars, I have something very important to tell you. After type of guitar and type of pickups, it's the MOST IMPORTANT part of your decision-making process, as a beginner, when buying your first guitar.
It's very simple.
You need to LOVE the guitar you're buying.
That's it. No matter what anyone else says, me included, you want to get a guitar that makes you happy. You're going to be spending a lot of time with your new, six-stringed friend and you want to look forward to that time together.
If everyone you know is telling you to get a Les Paul, but you prefer a Stratocaster, then get the Strat and don't look back. Your friends aren't the ones playing it. You're the one that has to be happy with it. If you want to learn on a Gibson Explorer or a Lucille clone, then more power to you. Get what you love.
I've given you a bunch of information. I hope it's useful in helping guide you to the right guitar for you. Let me know in the comments what your final choice was and how you're enjoying it.