Should you start learning guitar on electric or acoustic?

If you’re planning to start learning guitar, it can be pretty overwhelming. You have to figure out where and how to learn (teacher? Instructional books or DVDs? Online course?). You have to figure out what kind of stuff you want to learn. And critically, you have to figure out what you’re going to play it on. It’s a lot to take in. But I’m here to help you through it! Let me start by telling you a little about when I first started playing guitar.

I always had music in my head, from a very young age. Eventually I realised I probably should put a guitar in front of all this music. I had a few guitar heroes already; Mark Knopfler, George Harrison, Robert Smith. And I knew that there were certain guitar sounds that I really loved, such as Knopfler’s “Money For Nothing” tone, or the fuzzy, filthy roar that was The Beatles’ “Revolution.” So I asked my folks for a guitar, and my dad said the words I’d anticipated and was already dreading:

“You can have an acoustic guitar first, and then if you stick with it we’ll get you an electric guitar in two years.”

So that’s what happened. Father Christmas brought me a nylon-string acoustic guitar (he must have overheard our conversation) and I set about learning everything I could. I was a fast learner – probably too fast, because I picked things up by ear so easily that I got a bit lazy about learning to read music and it took me years to catch up. But I stuck with it.

But something always bothered me: Nothing I played sounded like what I wanted to play.

I came up with all sorts of ways to make my acoustic guitar sound more like the electrics that I heard on TV or on the stereo. I figured out that I picked close to the guitar’s bridge, right by where the strings are attached to the body, the sound would be sharper, twangier and tougher, but it didn’t quite sound like Richie Sambora’s Kramer electric guitar back in the Bon Jovi Slippery When Wet days. I realised I could drop a little microphone inside my acoustic’s sound-hole and plug it into the stereo, but it sounded weird and boxy, and not at all like Gary Moore’s “Still Got The Blues.” 

Finally, after two years, Father Christmas paid me another visit. This time he brought me a pretty cheap Strat copy by a brand called Status (no, not the company known for headless basses). That’s it in the pic. I still have it. It was great for several reasons; first, I finally had an electric guitar that looked cool, and secondly, because it was so cheap it would often malfunction so I learned a lot about repairing guitars when I was only 12 years old.

Miraculously I saw that as a plus rather than a huge, huge minus. But it still didn’t sound like all those recordings I loved, but this time I knew enough about guitars to know why: my inexpensive little amplifier only had controls for volume and tone; no overdrive or distortion. And overdrive and distortion are what most of us really think of when we think of the sound of rock guitar. So finally, the July after getting that electric guitar I received a distortion pedal for my birthday, and I was at last able to play real – and real loud – rock guitar. I remember the very first time I turned that pedal on, and my mum yelling from the kitchen ‘What the f**k is that horrible noise?‘ That noise is my future, mum. Hehehe.

Years later when I became a guitar teacher I would often be asked, either by students or by their parents, “Is it better to start on acoustic or electric?” And my answer would always be “Whichever one you want to play.”

An acoustic guitar isn’t like the musical equivalent of training wheels. Especially a nylon-string acoustic, where the string height, neck width and string spacing are way different to what you’d encounter when ‘graduating’ to an electric guitar. If you wish to primarily play acoustic guitar, that’s what you should start on, because right off the bat you’ll be hearing sounds that are consistent with the music that inspires you. If you aspire to be an electric guitarist, start on that! You’ll be much closer to sounding like the electric guitars that you hear in your head.

I remember one student who loved metal but her dad had bought her an acoustic guitar with very high strings, and it just didn’t sound like what she wanted her sound to be. I had another student in a similar situation but after about six months of steady progress she bought an Epiphone Les Paul and her playing became supercharged; she was able to pick up songs by the likes of Muse quite easily, and her playing was full of life and creativity.

The point is, when your guitar sounds like the guitars that made you want to play in the first place, you’ll be more likely to stick with it, rather than become discouraged and drop it. And the world needs more guitar players!