Plug In, Tune Up, Turn On: Beginner Electric Guitars

Close up of professional electric guitar in a row in instrument shop

Learning to play a musical instrument opens new and exciting worlds. Research indicates that learning to play an instrument increases brain cognition, improves memory, fosters creativity, reduces stress, and builds confidence. It is a beneficial and rewarding endeavor that can be enjoyed and developed throughout a lifetime.

For almost a century, the electric guitar has significantly impacted various and diverse genres of music. It consistently ranks as one of the most popular instruments in the world.

Electric guitars make a statement about the person who plays them. The look, sound, and vibe of any electric guitar reveal much about the owner’s musical interests and personality. When shopping for the gift of music, consider the soon-to-be guitar player’s music preferences and visual aesthetics.

Make an informed purchase by familiarizing yourself with some important aspects of electric guitars that slightly differ in every case: the materials used in construction and the typical tone it will produce, the visual appeal of any particular electric guitar, and the price.

Woman plays electric guitar in darkly lit room

Just the Right Size Guitar

Always remember that young musicians will grow physically–even if they don’t grow musically. For that reason, a miniature or 3/4 size guitar is not recommended for a teenager, who will likely outgrow it soon.

As a compromise on size, consider the Bullet Mustang (MSRP $199) from Squier, Fender’s budget line.

The Bullet Mustang features a 24″ neck, which is about 1.5″ shorter than the typical electric guitar neck. The neck is also not as wide as many full-sized guitars. These two differences in dimensions make the guitar especially well-suited for smaller hands.

Sporting a body made of poplar, a neck of maple, two humbucker pickups, and single volume and single tone knobs to control the volume and tone contour of both pickups, the Bullet Mustang is a straightforward, no-frills electric guitar that invites a beginner to dig in and start learning to play immediately.

What kind of sounds can be produced by the Mustang? The Mustang (albeit a more-expensive vintage 60s Fender Mustang) was used by Kurt Cobain in recording the iconic song “Smells Like Teen Spirit.” The Mustang created all of the song’s variety of sounds–the flowing notes of the verse, the warbling tones in the pre-chorus, the headbanging power chords of the chorus and the hummable guitar solo.

If you have a six-year-old who is obsessed with learning to play the electric guitar, the physical dimensions of even the Mustang would probably be too big. In that case, the best choice would be the aforementioned miniature or 3/4 size electric guitar. The young musician would have several years to learn the instrument before graduating to a full-size guitar in his or her teens.

A good example of this instrument is Squier’s Mini Stratocaster (MSRP $179). With a 22.75″ scale and a nut width of just 1.6″, the Mini Stratocaster is suitable for ages 6-13. The “nut” is the part at the top of the guitar neck that holds the strings in place.

The shorter scale will make reaching frets and changing finger positions of chords easier, while the smaller nut width will make learning intermediate techniques like string bending physically easier on the hands. Another benefit of it being smaller is being lighter, so a child playing it standing up won’t be hunched over by the guitar’s weight.

Other than its diminutive size, the Mini Stratocaster looks and sounds exactly like the famed classic model that was introduced in 1954.

The Mini Strat features a double-cutaway poplar body, maple neck, three signature Stratocaster single-coil pickups and a single volume and tone knob for simplicity. It can replicate any genre of music–blues, jazz, country, rock, electronica, Latin, metal or neoclassical–that has employed the sound of the Stratocaster since its launch almost 70 years ago.

While it is the best choice for a young, aspiring virtuoso’s first guitar, its portability and relatively low cost also make it a good choice as a travel guitar for an adult.

Man plays electric guitar

Strings and Things

One of the most important components of a guitar is, of course, the strings. Electric guitar strings, most of which are made of nickel-plated steel, are available in a variety of sizes known as gauges. The gauges are measured in decimals of inches. The smaller the gauge, the thinner the string. The heavier the gauge, the higher amount of tension the string has on the neck, requiring more physical exertion to play it.

A guitar has six strings that are tuned (low to high) E-A-D-G-B-E. These strings range in thickness, with the low E being the thickest up to the high E being the thinnest. Certain gauges are industry-standard and sold in packs labeled extra-light, light, regular, heavy or hybrid.

An extra-light set of electric guitar strings range from a gauge of .008 (high E) to 0.38 inches. A set of light electric guitar strings typically range from .009 to 0.42. Regular gauge electric guitar strings range from .010-0.46. Heavy electric guitar strings are any gauge that ranges above 0.011 mm to 0.52.

An example of a set of hybrid guitar strings would be the skinny top/heavy bottom variety, of which the highest three strings are of a regular gauge and the lowest three are of a heavy gauge.

There are pros and cons of both a lighter string gauge and a heavier one. Lighter strings are physically easier to play and are recommended for beginners, especially young beginners, simply because lighter strings require less hand strength to play. They also place a greater emphasis on the higher middle and treble frequencies, making them best suited to pop music.

Heavier strings have more mass to be amplified by the pickups, so they produce a bigger, fuller sound and occupy a larger sonic space on a recording. Heavier strings stay in tune better than lighter strings, especially when tuned lower than standard tuning. Heavier strings are preferred by many rock guitarists for these reasons, as well as the greater emphasis on bass frequencies that heavier strings have.

Two of the most popular electric guitar string brands are Ernie Ball and D’Addario. Both companies manufacture excellent strings, have comparable prices, and are suitable for everyone from beginners or professionals.

Ernie Ball strings are said to have a brighter sound and are mostly preferred by country and rock guitar players. D’Addario strings typically have a more smooth, mellow sound and are employed by more blues and jazz guitar players.

A variety of electric guitars lined up

Three Best Electric Guitars for Adult Beginners

There are thousands of different models of full-size electric guitars for adult beginners. Selecting the right one sometimes makes the difference between someone sticking with it or giving up quickly. If the buyer knows what to look for, the process of selecting and testing a guitar is much easier and less likely to end with a bad case of buyer’s remorse.

Yamaha is the largest manufacturer of musical instruments in the world. The Japan-based company produces everything from drums to orchestral instruments, digital synthesizers, woodwinds, pianos, and of course, electric guitars.

The Yamaha Pacifica 112V (MSRP $309.99) is an affordable and extremely playable electric guitar, making it an optimal choice for a beginner who wants a quality electric guitar without too much of a financial investment.

The Pacifica 112V boasts the best of classic styling with modern sensibilities. Its angular body is made of alder, with a maple neck and rosewood fingerboard. The pickup configuration is single-coils in the neck and middle position with a humbucker at the bridge. It also features a vintage-style vibrato bridge and whammy bar that raises the bridge of the guitar when the whammy bar is depressed. This reduces the tension on all six strings at once and lowers the pitch of the notes or chords.

Another cool feature of the Pacifica 112V, usually installed on more expensive guitars, is a push-pull pot coil switch that allows the player to choose which of the two coils of the humbucker pickup to use either as a solo pickup or in conjunction with the middle and neck position pickups.

The Pacifica 112V is available in a wide array of colors and finishes.

Epiphone makes affordable yet quality electric guitars. The majority of Epiphone’s most popular lines are modeled on hallowed Gibson electric guitars, such as the Les Paul Studio ($499). The Les Paul model is so ubiquitous that even non-guitarists would probably recognize it. In terms of raw power and sustain, it is in a class by itself.

Two electric guitars rest on stands

The legendary Les Paul sound is denoted by its single-cutaway mahogany body and set neck (not bolted together) and Alnico humbucker pickups. Older Les Pauls were notoriously heavy. Epiphone remedied this with its Ultra Modern weight relief system, producing a thinner, chambered body.

Manufactured in South Korea, the Epiphone Les Paul Studio is $1200 cheaper than a Gibson Les Paul Studio but does not skimp on the materials or craftsmanship. This makes it an ideal choice for a beginner who still wants the sought-after tone, look and playability of a Les Paul.

Used by everyone from Jimmy Page to Taylor Swift, the importance of the Les Paul in modern music cannot be overstated.

Once thought of as only a jazz guitar, the semi-hollow body electric guitar has evolved and is now used in every style of music. One reason for this is an across-the-board improvement in construction and circuitry, as hollow-body guitars used to be infamous for emitting nearly uncontrollable feedback when amplified at high volumes or used with distortion.

A standout beginner’s semi-hollow electric guitar is the G5622 Electromatic made by Gretsch. Priced at a reasonable $699, this gorgeous guitar is constructed entirely of maple and features two patented Gretsch Broad’Tron humbucker pickups. Broad’Tron pickups are reputed to have the best power-to-definition ratio.

The Adjusto-Matic bridge makes setting up your perfect action on the G5622 a cinch even for novices. The icing on the cake for this electric guitar is an innovation called treble bleed circuitry, incorporated into the master volume knob. It allows the player to better construct a consistent tone while changing the volume and vice versa.

Man plays electric guitar on stage

Portable Recording Studio

After learning the basics of how to play the electric guitar, investing in a digital audio interface would be a good purchase. For the money, there is no better interface than the Focusrite Scarlett 2i2 ($159.99). This USB-C-powered two-channel interface with separate gain controls can run at up to 192 kHz per second, offering near-zero latency.

Included in a purchase of the Scarlett 2i2 is the software Ableton Live Lite, the best entry-level digital audio workstation (DAW) available. Armed with Ableton’s thousands of prerecorded drum loops, a plethora of accurate digital guitar amplifier models and hundreds of guitar effects, anyone, regardless of experience level, can easily take some chords and a melody and transform them into a full-scale production.

Playing along with different styles of drum loops can teach a beginner guitarist much more about timing, inflection and embellishment than playing to a simple metronome.

Because electric guitars need external amplification to be heard, a guitar amplifier is necessary and a decent one can cost more than the guitar itself. Scarlett 2i2 can effectively operate as a source of amplification when used with Ableton Live and routed through its line output. It can also serve as a recording interface.

When faced with an either/or scenario, it would be shrewd to opt for buying the Scarlett 2i2 over a guitar amplifier.

Start the Music

Whether buying an electric guitar for a child, sibling, friend, 60-year-old parent (never too late to start!), or yourself, you are purchasing an instrument that enriches the life of whoever learns to play it. As a valuable tool for intellectual development, artistic expression, and self-actualization, the electric guitar is an instrument that can be learned with relative ease.

There is no wrong way to learn how to play the electric guitar: take lessons in person from a qualified teacher, watch tutorials on YouTube, buy a guitar theory book and teach yourself, or play along to your favorite songs and try to figure out the chords.

The possibilities are limitless.

Man plays electric guitar on stage

Learning the electric guitar should also be fun because it can produce so many customizable tones. It is liberating and empowering for beginners to realize they have a unique sound.

Even though it requires patience and dedication to become a proficient electric guitar player, it shouldn’t be drudgery getting to that level.

Choosing the right electric guitar for a beginner will make the learning process more enjoyable and, hopefully, successful. Beginners who love the sounds their guitar produces and the cool way they look when playing it are much more likely to stick with it.

An open and informal conversation with the soon-to-be guitarist will let you know their musical preferences and aspirations and guide you in deciding which electric guitar to purchase.

As William Shakespeare so eloquently wrote, “If music be the food of love, play on.”

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