Size of the Guitar
One of the most overlooked aspects in buying a guitar is: Is it the right size? This is particularly important for children but also for people of small build and females. Steel string acoustic guitars are often quite large particularly those built in the dreadnought style. Electric guitars have smaller and thinner bodies so size is not an issue with them except with small children. Classical guitars while bigger than electrics also have a size which is fine for any normal sized adult.
Children should learn on small sized guitars that match their bodies. Do not try to save money by buying them a larger guitar that they will grow into. By the time they have grown into this guitar they may have stopped playing altogether because they became frustrated trying to play on an instrument that was too large for them. All three types of guitar are produced in 3/4 and 7/8 sizes. As a rough guide children from 5 to 9 should play on a 3/4 size and children from 9 to 12 on a 7/8 size. There are even 1/2 size guitars for very small or young children. At around 12 years old most children can play a normal sized guitar as long as it is not a huge steel string. It is not necessary to buy a top notch and expensive instrument at this age as long as the guitar is reasonably well constructed and easy to play.
Adult players also need to consider the size of the guitar but mostly in regards to steel string acoustics. Most classical and electric guitars have smaller bodies but many steel-strings have very large bodies. They are made this way partly because of a desired sound and partly because of tradition and fashion preference. It is very important when you are choosing a guitar to consider whether you are comfortable holding the instrument. You will be holding it for many hours and you want these to be pleasant hours. You want to be able to hold the guitar properly so each arm and hand can perform the required movements correctly and comfortably. You also need to consider whether you will be standing or sitting with the instrument. A large guitar may feel comfortable while played standing up but may be awkward when sitting. If you are unsure, assume you will be sitting.
The most common style of steel-string guitar is the dreadnought and it is quite large. Its large size produces a loud guitar with a lot of bass response. It also has a twangy sound which is why it is associated with country music. Unfortunately these guitars are often too large for smaller adults to hold comfortably when sitting. An even larger guitar style is the jumbo guitar with even more volume and bass response and even more difficult for many people to hold comfortably while sitting.
Smaller guitars tend to have slightly less volume and emphasize the high and mid-range tones more. The sound of these instruments is usually less twangy than that of the larger ones and has a better balance between bass, mid and high notes. Most importantly they are often much more comfortable to play when seated. Unfortunately the names for smaller bodied steel-string guitars have not been standardized and different manufacturers use different names for guitars of the same size. The most commonly used names are those used by Martin guitars. The 000 or Grand Auditorium is a style that is only slightly smaller and slimmer than a Dreadnought. As I consider the Dreadnought to be a large sized guitar, the two styles I would refer to as regular sized guitars are the 00 (also referred to as the Grand Concert) and the OM (Orchestra Model). While both have regular sized bodies, the OM is somewhat similar in shape and construction to a classical guitar and often has a wider neck while the 00 is more similar to a traditional steel-string in shape and construction and has the thinner neck that is typical for steel-string guitars. The term folk guitar is also used to describe smaller bodied steel-string guitars but there is a great variety between what various manufacturers define as a folk guitar.
Weight of the Guitar
The weight of the guitar is only an issue with electric guitars as acoustics have hollow bodies and are much lighter. Electrics are made of solid wood and the larger ones can be quite heavy. If you play sitting down this is less of an issue but many electric guitar players play standing up. A heavy guitar can aggravate back problems and even cause them. It is sometimes hard to judge the weight of a guitar by playing it for a few minutes in a store because the guitar tends to feel heavy when you are playing on it for long periods of time. Fortunately most electric guitars do not have large bodies and you can easily see the difference between the smaller, regular sized electrics and the larger, heavy electrics. I once had an electric guitar that sounded quite good but was very heavy especially after practicing with a band for a couple of hours. This was one of the main reasons I sold this guitar and looked for another one that I liked just as much but which didn't leave me with a backache after each rehearsal.
Neck Width and Radius
Different types and brands of guitars have different neck widths. Electric guitars usually have a neck width of slightly under 1.7 inches, the acoustic guitar standard is 1.72 inches while the standard classical guitar is 2 inches. A smaller neck makes it easier to play fast and make chord changes but makes it harder to avoid unintentionally muting strings. A larger neck is better for finger-picking (gives the fingers of the right hand more room) and makes it easier not to mute strings when playing chords. In general, a smaller neck is better for people with smaller hands and thinner fingers and a larger neck is better for people with larger hands and thicker fingers. A small neck will give a person with large, thick fingers more problems than a larger neck will give someone with smaller fingers. There are some hybrid guitars: nylon string guitars with necks smaller than the classical standard and steel-string guitars with larger than standard size necks. These guitars are designed to allow players used to one type of guitar to play the other type without having to play on a different sized neck. While many of the hybrid guitars are not in the lower price range there are a few options in this price category. Some of the Seagull acoustic guitar models have a neck width of 1.8 inches while Ovation makes a classical guitar with a 1.875 inch neck. There are some small variations in the neck widths of electric guitars but wider necked electrics are relatively rare outside of a few nylon string electrics in the higher price range. The small electric guitar necks pose less problems for people with large fingers than the small steel string acoustic necks because electric guitars have strings that are much lower (closer to the fretboard) and thus the finger pads are less likely to touch adjacent strings unintentionally and mute them.
The neck radius is the amount of curvature or roundness in a guitar neck and can vary significantly. A round guitar neck fits the contours of the hand better and makes it more comfortable to play. Unfortunately, round necks also cause significant problems in guitar playability. The action of a guitar (the height of the strings) can be set lower on a flat neck than on a round neck making it easier to play fast on a guitar with a flat neck. Round necks also cause problems in bending strings because the curved neck stops the string from ringing when it is bent too high. Round necks do make chords much easier to play, especially bar chords. Classical guitars have flat necks because they are designed for playing virtuosic music while steel strings have rounded necks because their primary function is playing chords. LaPatrie does make a hybrid nylon string guitar that has a rounded radius similar to an acoustic guitar although its neck width is the standard classical width of 2 inches. This guitar would be good for players wanting to strum chords on a nylon string guitar. There is a great variety of neck radiuses in electric guitars and the preferable one depends on the style you want to play. If you want to be a rhythm guitarist a round neck will be better but a flat neck is preferable for lead guitar. Or in other words if you want to play fast virtuosic music you are better off with a flat neck but if you want to play the repetitive chords common in most pop songs then a round neck is better. Fenders usually have round necks while Gibsons are slightly less round, Ibanez even less round and Jackson guitars have flat necks (which is why they are often the preferred guitar for shred guitarists). Some guitar makers use compound radius necks which are necks that are rounded at the lower part of the neck where one is usually playing chords and which gradually get flatter as the neck progresses to the upper positions where one is playing lead guitar.
Playability of the Guitar
This is probably the most important factor for beginning guitarists. One can still learn the guitar on an instrument that sounds poor but is easy to play. However, an instrument that sounds great but is difficult to play will cause unnecessary struggle for a beginning player. Obviously, the best scenario is to have a guitar that sounds great and is easy to play.
The biggest problem is: How do you judge a guitar's playability if you do not know how to play the guitar? Weight and size issues are relatively simple in comparison to this one. One solution is to have a guitarist friend accompany you to the store but this is often not possible. You should try pressing the strings down on the guitar neck yourself. Do this on all the different strings and at both the lower and upper frets. Try this on several different guitars and compare them. See if it seems hard to press the strings down. Look at the strings and see if they run fairly low and at a constant height along the neck or if they get significantly higher in the upper frets. A bit of rise is normal but too much is undesirable. A guitar that is difficult to play at the 12th is probably one you want to stay away from even if it seems easy to play in the lower frets. Even someone who has never played the guitar before should be able to tell if an instrument is easy to play as long as he has several guitars to compare it to. Do not be afraid to touch and try the guitar, this particular test does not require you to make a sound and only requires you to feel the guitar. Do not rely on the salesman to do this for you.
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