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We are looking for a guitar for my son, and have seen cheap ones at Toys R Us, et al. He is just starting out, and we are trying to gauge his interest before spending too much. Would it be worth starting off with what is essentially a toy, and upgrading later? If not, what things should we look for? Nylon or steel strings? What size? 30", 1/2, 3/4? Is there anything else that would help him use the instrument?

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It's not going in the answer, but I believe places like Toys R Us do sell instruments that are good enough not to be described as toys. If you're spending less than $50 on a guitar though, definitely go nylon strung. –  slim Dec 7 '11 at 17:24
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7 Answers

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I bought my son a 3/4 scale guitar with nylon strings when he was 5 or 6. That gave him enough interest to start learning, then I let him use one of my cheap full scale acoustics with steel strings at age 8 as his hands were big enough.

Currently he has taken up bass, so he is learning on a 5 string that my bass player had spare. It is a challenge as he is only 11, but he is gaining hand strength and stretch.

The core for me at the start was letting him enjoy what he was doing, so nylon strings meant it didn't hurt his fingers. Once he had decided he wanted to learn, he was mentally in a place where toughening his fingers up on steel strings wasn't an issue.

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+1 for starting with nylon strings....I still can't stand how steel slices my finger pads up. –  Babu Dec 7 '11 at 13:01
    
I have always thought Nylon string is a deal breaker and any wanna be guitarist should stick to steel string unless s/he has a very specific reason to do otherwise, am I wrong? –  iamcreasy Dec 7 '11 at 16:52
    
Why the strong steel string preference? In addition to my rock and blues I love playing classical and flamenco so I do use nylon a fair bit. –  Dr Mayhem Dec 7 '11 at 16:55
    
@dr-mayhem I've always played steel string with low tension on string.Then I learned that this is not standard tuning and the standard on has much higher tension. After that its really difficult for me to play it. I've always preferred low tension where the strings give me more comfort. That's why I thought starting with steel is a smarter choice. What do you suggest in my situation? –  iamcreasy Dec 7 '11 at 17:01
    
@babu Sorry, I don't mean offence. But, 'steel slices my finger pads up', really sound a bad excuse. Do you have any logic to back it up? –  iamcreasy Dec 7 '11 at 17:09
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I would go against buying a toy guitar. This really kills everything from the start. Rather paying a little extra might pay a lot in the long run. For the guitar priority one should be, going for something that suits his body shape. So, he is comfortable with it. Also go for steel string not Nylon!

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Why not nylon? Some people play a classical guitar their whole life. –  slim Dec 7 '11 at 16:53
    
@slim See my comment on dr-mayhem's answer. Would you please refer to some guitarist who has played Nylon in their whole life? I want to know their play. –  iamcreasy Dec 7 '11 at 17:05
    
Pretty much any classical guitarist. youtube.com/watch?v=oPfZVflJdp0 or flamenco guitarist youtube.com/watch?v=aj1rUJ8rIiE –  slim Dec 7 '11 at 17:12
    
For me it feels its somehow pure to start with steel and taking the decision to jumping into nylon later(depending on the choice and skill of the player). If avoiding any finger tip damage is too high, then Nylon should be the way to go. Thought its just my opinion. –  iamcreasy Dec 8 '11 at 16:45
    
I don't know what you mean by "pure" but a nylon strung guitar is the closest to a traditional instrument. Nylon strings are designed to have similar properties to the catgut strings used on all stringed instruments before steel and nylon became available. Steel strung guitars need a metal bar to strengthen the neck! –  slim Dec 8 '11 at 17:52
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I started playing guitar at about 7 years old, I got a classical guitar, slightly smaller than the common size -but very slightly (I think it was larger that the '3/4 size', I actually played until I was 20!). The important thing for a child, I'd say, is that the guitar is confortable to play: rather low action and normal-to-low tension strings. Nylon, of course.

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I still use my 3/4 size classical guitar. I've had it 20 years, and had a good bash on it last night, tuned to an open blues chord. –  slim Dec 7 '11 at 16:20
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Consider a ukulele.

"Real" ukuleles are available cheaply (although you can spend a lot on a really lovely one). It suits small hands. It has nylon strings so it's not too difficult to fret. There are plenty of resources for learning real songs to play on the uke. Having fewer strings makes for easier chord shapes. It's a great instrument on which a child can learn the basics of fretting, strumming and plucking without having to deal with a large instrument.

One down side is that if he migrates to a guitar, he'll have to learn new shapes, to account for the extra two strings.

But to mitigate that, being adaptable to new tunings is a good skill -- and young minds adapt quickly. And of course, he could choose to stay with the uke... or the mandolin... or the banjo... or any number of other guitar-like instruments.

If you do this, do get a uke book (or learn uke yourself, and teach him). The high-tuned bottom string is counter-intuitive, so he'll need reassurance -- or with the right strings you can tune it low so it feels more like a guitar.

Whether you go for a guitar, a uke, or something else, make sure the instrument has acceptable intonation. Playing an instrument with bad intonation is really no fun whatever your standard.

If you do go for a steel strung instrument, pay special attention to the action and the string tension. You don't want to put him off by giving him an instrument that's a struggle to fret.

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How far are guitar and ukulele? I've always thought they are close cousin and there is not much of a difference between them. Can anyone learn them interchangeably at the same time? –  iamcreasy Dec 7 '11 at 16:55
    
A ukulele has four strings tuned at the same intervals as the top four strings of a guitar (except the bottom string is usually an octave up). So the shapes are the same as you'd use on the EBGD strings on a guitar. It should be very straight forward (and fun) to learn both at the same time. –  slim Dec 7 '11 at 17:00
    
Whoa, interesting suggestion! –  Don Dec 7 '11 at 18:10
    
@slim I might try your suggestion, I am looking forward to buy a ukulele withing a few months. Does ukulele has instrumental sophistication like guitar? –  iamcreasy Dec 8 '11 at 18:00
    
"Sophistication" is a difficult thing to measure, but a uke has four strings that you can fret, bend, mute, pluck, strum etc. just like a guitar. YouTube is full of examples of people playing a uke in an unsophisticated manner, but a good player can do incredible things with one. youtube.com/watch?v=puSkP3uym5k –  slim Dec 12 '11 at 11:27
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I'm not (really) a guitar player, but I have taught beginners as part of a generalist music-lesson gig. The other answers so far are good, but I would add two essential things from my own experience:

  1. The fretboard needs to be in tune. Otherwise, the instrument is going to sound really bad. If you're not sure, tune any string with an electronic chromatic tuner, then play the same string on each fret individually and notice what the tuner says. If the guitar gets way off pitch, quickly, stay away.
  2. It needs to be possible to set up the guitar so that the open strings (or strings when pressed down) do not arbitrarily buzz against frets. Trying the exercise from item #1 on all the strings and noticing if there is any buzz (that comes from something other than improper finger placement) is a good way to check for this, since there is no guarantee that the frets are the same height all the way across the fretboard.

I remember teaching a very young student who clearly had a "toy" guitar, and these two issues made it almost impossible to teach her. It was frustrating for the student and for me, and the student never really improved very much.

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My first guitar got off pitch quickly, and it was frustrating. My son plays with an old guitar of ours that has starting buzzing and that's why he wants his own. Great advice! –  Don Dec 7 '11 at 18:20
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I agree on quality. You wouldn't want to give a child a pre-war Martin unless you're crazy and rich or he's Chris Thile in the making, but you wouldn't want to give something that pretended to be an instrument, either.

Smaller, but not too small, or else the child will rightfully think it's just a toy.

Two crucial things to note: If the child is interested in playing electric, no acoustic guitar will do, and if the child is interested in playing acoustic, no electric guitar will do. And your child, as with anyone who hasn't been taught to know better, will not know how hard to fret, and will thus oversqueeze, hurting fingertips (which makes playing uncomfortable) and pulling sharp (which makes the sound uncomfortable). Early on, teach a light touch, and this will make the rest of the process easier.

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-1, You are far away from the curve. 1) 8 year old would be disturbed from the distortion and ultra precision/care he has to take to sound good with an electric. 2) 8 year boy would never understand the tonal difference, so quality is not the issue here. The only this that his father should be focus on is the fun factor, which comes form holding it light and playing it freely(without much of a pain). –  iamcreasy Dec 8 '11 at 16:25
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He does have a point, if the kid does want an electric guitar, an acoustic will not fulfill his wants. If you want the kid to enjoy this you would want to seek what he wants, not what you want for him. The fun factor isn't just from holding the strings right, but also what he thinks is cool. If he thinks the guitar looks stupid he's not going to want to play it at all –  Joe W Aug 7 '13 at 16:31
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This is around the same age I started playing guitar. The guitar I started on was my dads first guitar which was from the early 60s, it was a catalog guitar nothing fancy. For strings, since I had an electric I had light gauge steel strings.. The way I got hooked was just by listening to the music my dad liked, which is the same music I like now and then.. I wanted to be able to play that music that I heard. Just don't force it on him, thats is what killed it for me for about a year, yes try to get him to practice but make it fun not stern and dull, make achievements for him where he could get some sort of reward related to guitar .. like a strap that he saw that he liked, or something simple like that

Hope this can be of some help for you.

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