5 Tips for Buying a Child’s Guitar

A friend of mine recently posted to Facebook, saying he was looking to buy his 8-year-old daughter a new guitar for Christmas, and wondering if anyone had suggestions.

Having been asked this question many times, I thought I would share a bit of what I’ve learned over the years.

I’ve played for more 20 years, taught for more than 15, and have seen many students come and go. My recommendation for starter guitar would be an inexpensive one, with a case, a strap and a guitar stand. And I cannot stress enough the importance of replacing the steel strings with nylon ones.

1. Buy Inexpensive. An inexpensive guitar is just as good to learn on as anything else. And you’d be surprised how fast a young kid can accidentally punch a hole in a $200 acoustic guitar. And anyway, getting familiar with the physical feel of the instrument, and developing fine motor skills is what’s important first. And that takes time. If your child likes playing, after a few years she’ll develop a better ear and will probably want a finer instrument, which then it makes sense to invest in one. But until then, I don’t see any reason to pay any more than $30/$40 dollars for one now while she’s getting familiar with the feel of the guitar. Plus – spending less on the guitar itself now allows for the accessories I list below. It also leaves some room in the budget for a few starter lessons, which I also highly recommend.

2. Get a case. Getting a case does a few things. First, it teaches the importance of caring for and protecting the instrument – a good lesson to learn on a $40 instrument, rather than a $140 one! Second, it makes the guitar mobile. And really, for those who love it, guitar playing is a lifestyle. Having a case allows her to take it with her camping, on vacations, or a weekend trip to Grandma’s. Those times away from home and away from the mundane – on the road so to speak – are some of the most developmentally rich experiences for a young aspiring musician.

3. Get a strap. A strap is good because at that age, kids still enjoy performing. And that’s a huge part of the learning curve. Having a strap gives her the chance to stand in the living room and perform a new song for you. She’ll love it – almost as much as you will. Further, a lot of learning is by imitation. While she’s practicing, in her room for example, if she has the means to stand up like she’s on a stage performing for a crowd, that will certainly help build a good sense of confidence.

4. Get a stand. A stand is paramount. In my younger days as a California beach bum, my room mate had a guitar stand with a 12-string acoustic on it next to the sofa. Everyday when I’d come home, I plop down on the sofa, and habitually pick up the guitar. Sometimes for 5 minutes, sometimes 2 hours. In either case, it afforded me daily practice. It wasn’t forced or formal – it was just part of my daily routine for about two years. Musically, I developed more in those two years than I did prior or since. Looking back, if the guitar had been in the case the whole time, I never would have played as often, if at all. But it was right there every day, resting gently on the stand saying, “hey, play me!”

5. Replace steel strings with nylon. The reason I advocate the use of nylon strings is because steel strings hurt. And they really hurt in the beginning, where a player logs a lot of hours on the guitar. It takes time to develop ability and time to form calluses – and it’s painful in the meantime. About 75 percent of the people I know who have tried and failed at the guitar, many of which are adults, have given up simply because of this fact. It hurts. Nylon strings are much softer and easier on the fingers and allow them to build up resistance over time. For a kid, there is nothing more repelling than a task that is both technically difficult and physically painful, as learning to play a guitar with steel strings is.

To cut to the chase, here’s a good starter guitar kit on Amazon.com for example: Guitar Kit

If you look midway down the page, they list the “Frequently Bought Together” package that included the kit, a bunch of picks, and a stand for little more than $40. If I was in the market for a kit for a 5-to-10-year-old child, I’d consider something like that. Whatever you decide, take note of the length of the guitar. The one listed here is 38″. I probably wouldn’t want to go too much larger than that. Good size for an 8 year old, and still leaves some room to grow into.

And hopefully, from the moment they unwrap it under the tree, that growth will last for years to come.


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3 Responses to “5 Tips for Buying a Child’s Guitar”

  1. LJ515 Says:

    I was having this exact same dilemma this holiday season! My eight year old daughter currently plays piano but is interested in the guitar. I was looking for something to give her a general idea of whether or not she would like it enough for me to pay for a year’s worth of lessons, and whether she would want to switch piano out for this, or do both. I’m not comfortable spending a ton of money on something that she might not necessarily stick with long term; but I also know that a toy guitar is not going to cut it or give her an accurate feel for the instrument. I read several articles but yours was by far the most helpful. Given your history with the instrument I trust that you know what you’re talking about and you explained things in a manner that I could understand. Most of the other articles I came across were written by musicians for musicians. Finding this was like my own little Christmas miracle!

    I decided to go with the guitar starter pack you suggested but I’m confused on the string situation. The guitar sets I found were all steel stringed but from what I read, they say you can’t replace them with nylon strings because of a size issue. Most of what I read said that it is not recommended (because of tension and tuning issues) but possible with strings used for folk acoustics (or something along those lines.)

    So my question is: If I can in face replace the strings, do you have any suggestions as to which replacements I should buy? If so, is this something I (with no musical background) can do or should I have someone from the music department (where my daughter gets her lessons) do it?

    Anything you have to say on the matter would be much appreciated. As I mentioned above, your tips were the only ones I found useful and easily understandable from a non-musician point of view. Thank you for your help thus far, and hopefully in the future.

    • Luke Pinneo Says:

      LJ – Thanks for the kind words and I’m glad the info was useful. Some of the issues you mentioned are valid, but only to a certain degree. The thing with strings is that you NEVER want to put steel stings on a guitar that is made to have nylon strings. Ever. I did this once when I was a kid. Got them on one night, tuned it up – and MAN did it sound sweet. I came home from school the next day however, only to find the guitar torn apart. The tension of the steel strings was far greater than the nylon. Big mistake.

      What we’re talking about here however is the opposite. We’re putting less tense strings on a guitar that is made to have higher tension strings. With super-duper high-end instruments, the lack of tension could actually have an adverse effect on the neck. But we’re not talking about a world-class instrument here. We’re talking about a $50 instrument. This is not so much an issue here.

      As far the size issue, I don’t suspect this is a show stopper either.

      I would suggest any type of nylon (also called “classical”) strings. These can be purchased at any music store or online.

      I do recommend you have someone experienced change the strings for you. Nylon strings are fitting at the ends differently than steel strings, and can be a bit tricky to get them on. See here: http://www.start-playing-guitar.com/image-files/classicalbridge.jpg – and so it would be best to have someone familiar help you with this part.

      Also, you’ll want to have the guitar tuned when she opens it. And this too is a job for the experienced. On that note, that should be one of the first things she’ll want to learn; how to tune it herself.

      But the main thing to remember is that learning the guitar is a process made of many parts. No matter what comes out of the box, it will take some time for here to get familiar with each piece.

      Good luck, to both you and her, and please feel free to ask any further questions that come to mind!

      Best wishes,

  2. LJ515 Says:

    Thanks for getting a reply up so quickly. I’ve already added the strings to my last minute shopping list and I’ve contacted someone to get it set up. You’re a life saver!

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