Electric or Acoustic Guitar First? Which is Best for Beginners?

I’ve heard this question nearly countless times over the years of teaching and working in the retail side of the guitar biz, and it’s valid.

People want to know what they’re getting, if their purchase will be worth the necessary financial and time investments, if they’re covering whatever bases are needed for a good start, and ultimately, if they’re getting the most bang for their buck. The thing is, answering this question isn’t nearly as cut and dried as most would like it to be, so we’ll properly knock it out in this article.

Should you go with the electric or acoustic guitar first?

 

Well, that depends on a few different factors, and this question is usually made much more difficult than necessary, as is the case with most things guitar and music related.

What do you want to do? Which would you rather play? Start by asking yourself these questions, and ignore the “good advice” of everyone else with an opinion for awhile here. Remember, you or someone you’re getting the guitar for will be playing it, so think of yourself or those people first, and tune out from the so-called conventional wisdom regarding this choice.

Different people will offer different opinions on this, which is fine for them: they can buy and play their own guitars without your input, so let them have that choice while respecting yours.

Avoid taking words like “always”, “better” and “should” at face value when deciding whether to go with an electric or acoustic guitar first, as these indicate opinion, not fact.

 

This is no different than the opinions given with regard to guitar playing that we’ve  outlined elsewhere. Be wary of absolutes in this respect, as there really are no hard and fast rules with any of this stuff.

There’s a popular view that seems to have taken on a life of its own, much like any good folk tale, that says it’s always better to start out playing an acoustic guitar. This seems closely related to my other not favorite view that it’s always better for lefties to learn to play right handed, but that’s a whole other rant for another day.

While proponents of the G.G.A. (Gotta Go Acoustic) theory can sometimes give some good reasons for this, I couldn’t possibly disagree more. I owned an electric guitar for years before I ever touched an acoustic, and much to the chagrin of many parents, I recommend starting with an electric if an electric is what’s desired.

Yes, I understand: this contradicts what the family friend or the guy who plays in the local blues cover band might tell you, but then again, these are often the same folks who insist that there has been nothing noteworthy relating to guitar music since Stevie Ray Vaughan gave up the ghost (may the halls of our dearly departed forever reverberate with the sound of double-stop bends and dominant 7th chords.)

Anyway, let’s check out some of the most common reasons given for starting with an acoustic guitar as a beginner, along with my thoughts about each:

•  An acoustic is easier for beginners.

What? Says who? Really? Prove it. And how does one quantify “easier” anyway? The opposite can be true, especially as it relates to the greater string tension, heavier string gauge, higher action, etc. of most acoustic guitars.

•  An acoustic is easier to take with you when traveling.

Not necessarily. There is nothing inherent about an acoustic guitar that makes it easier to travel with (okay, okay … they’re not as heavy. Figured I’d acknowledge that for any naysayers out there.)

•  You don’t need an amplifier.

This one is true.

•  Electric guitars are just for lead playing, soloing, distorted tones, etc.

Absolutely ridiculous. While these things might lend themselves more readily to an electric in many ways, the fundamental physical aspects of playing, along with chord shapes, fretboard arrangement, and so on are identical to an acoustic guitar, provided you haven’t employed an altered tuning. A G chord is a G chord, whether it’s played on a distorted electric, a nylon string classical, steel string acoustic, or whatever.

•  Acoustic guitars have heavier strings, so they’ll toughen up your fingertips and increase hand strength (ie: you should “tough it out” to prove that you’re dedicated enough to stick with the guitar.)

Yes, this can be true, but if someone doesn’t have an interest in playing an acoustic, it’s foolish to make them do so, especially if it’s to prove some point about dedication. I often hear sentiments like “They can have an electric when they show that they’ll play and get good on their acoustic” from parents when discussing their kids’ development, as if an electric guitar is just some sort of unwieldy carrot to be dangled in front of their budding young rock star’s nose.

Well, it’s been my experience that this approach usually doesn’t work, and this reasoning most often comes from the same sources that say beginners should steer clear of electric guitars like the Black Plague.

I’ve never been a follower of the no pain, no gain school of guitar playing, and that mindset can really hurt your playing, in terms of both motivation and physical musicianship. Straining or hurting yourself to show that you’re willing to practice is dumb and completely unnecessary. Why make things harder than they need to be?

Also, if you’re not as motivated to play, you won’t play as much, which means you won’t improve as much, which means you won’t get very good on the acoustic … which means mom and dad probably won’t have to buy an electric. Hey! That’s a pretty clever approach, but one that your bank account might appreciate more than your kids will.

Okay. Here’s a common point advocating the other side of the “electric or acoustic guitar first” argument: electric guitars are easier on your fingers, and you don’t have to press as hard. This is generally true, but isn’t a fabulous reason to start with an electric either. If you want to play acoustic guitar, you’re no better off beginning with an electric than a would-be shredder toughing it out on an acoustic.

All in all, you should pick up whatever you honestly think you’ll keep in your hands for the most amount of time.

 

Consistently. The point is to play and play well, so playing a lot is crucial here. That’s much easier done if you don’t have to try and get motivated to pick up an instrument that you’d really rather not deal with in the first place, and with a guitar that will help you start sounding how you’d like in the quickest and most efficient way.

Think about what music you’d most like to play, other guitarists that you admire, particular songs that you like, and other things of this nature, while letting the answers to these questions and your own inclinations guide you in making your decision. If acoustic guitar appeals to you more than electric, then buy an acoustic. If the electric is what drives you, buy one.

Alternatively, you can try to con someone into buying or giving you several electrics, acoustics, miscellaneous gear, strings, and so on…that’s my personal favorite approach, and really the best way to go (if it works for you, be sure to tell me how and with whom, along with their personal contact info so that I can hit ’em up too.)

Bottom line is, there will be a learning curve and period of adjustment whichever way you go, so make it easier on yourself by starting out with something you actually enjoy doing and not just what everyone tells you to do. Remember, everyone’s an “expert”, and most are too busy parroting the “good advice” they’ve heard from other “experts” to actually look at this issue objectively, much less *GASP!* buck the old wives’ tales…uhhh, I mean…conventional wisdom surrounding such things. Don’t listen to them, listen to yourself.

Trust yourself. Play what you want.

 

Go do it. Now.

*P.S. – Regardless of which path you choose, this Myth-Busting Guide can help you make the most of your playing, just like it has for other guitarists who’ve decided to get serious about their playing. Make the most of the time you have, and you’ll be rewarded with a new level of six-string success.