The good news for parents buying a guitar for their children is that guitars keep on getting better. The quality continues to go up and the price to come down, so today’s hard-earned money will buy a far better guitar than a couple of decades ago.
The not-so-bad news is that there really are a few things to know in order not to have the thing take up space in the attic.
First, you should spend no less than $275 and as close to $500 as you can afford because anything less is going to be junky, clunky and hard to play. It may look cute out of the box, and you yourself may not notice it, but it just will be both physically difficult to handle and acoustically poor. Resale value at the cheap end is close to nothing: the higher the price, the larger the potential resale value. So you may be saving money by spending a bit more.
Second, the guitar should be an acoustic or an acoustic-electric. An acoustic-electric is an acoustic guitar with some electronics that allows it to be plugged in to an amplifier. There is something about the way a guitar is played that is improved by acoustic guitar playing. Plus the thing is always portable and needs no amp to sound good! But if your child is dead-set to play electric guitar, well, then get him or her the electric, because what is most important is whether it is going to be played.
Third, the guitar needs to be set-up. A professional artisan called a luthier is the fellow who can do this job. Many guitar shops have full-time luthiers. What is a setup? The guitar is adjusted (and no, you can’t do it yourself) to be more playable. Strings are usually (but not always) lowered. Frets are checked, replaced, polished. Etc. etc. The result is a guitar that is a lot easier, physically, to play.
Fourth, strings matter. Most guitars are sold with strings that are regular gauge (thickness). These are great: for professionals. They provide the loudest and brightest sound. But light strings are far more easy to use: they are far easier on the fingers. They hurt less. The easier the thing is to play, the more likely your child will play it. Make sure to tell the luthier who sets up your guitar to use light gauge strings: the setup in part depends on the gauge.
Fifth, used or new? Good used guitars are available and it is quite possible to get a fine guitar for a far lesser price if purchased used. Picking one out becomes the biggest problem. The same rule as to price should be used, however.
Sixth, make sure the guitar is easily accessible to your child. It’s got to be able to be grabbed and played on a whim. Keep it on a stand where the child plays, not in a corner of their bedroom or the basement.
Seventh, how much should the child practice? Well, probably the most important thing to realize is that it does not have to be all at once, for, say, an hour, but the time can be split up into parts, in between other activities. Much less than a few hours a week will be rather wasted.
Eight, lessons? Lessons are good, but there is so much on the internet that they are not necessary. Can your child access the internet on his or her own? Otherwise, some lessons might be in order. But you should know that after the basics are down, there are many free and detailed song lessons available.
Ninth, musical notation. The standard musical notation doesn’t help a guitar player much. There are, for one thing, four octaves, each requiring a different position with different positions for the individual notes. For another, there are many guitar techniques which just can’t be expressed in regular notation (for instance, hammering a note or hammering and pulling it). Guitar players use chord diagrams and things called ‘tabs.’ The tab thing is cool: the bar represents the six strings and the notations are for the exact places to sound the string and how to do so. So, don’t expect your guitar wizard to be learning standard musical notation.
Tenth, peace and quiet. Electric guitars can be played through inexpensive devices which send the sound into earphones, rendering them completely noiseless to the outside world. And despite what your child might claim, acoustic guitars can be played quietly: so if it really wouldn’t be bothersome from an adjoining room.
Eleventh, tuners. Guitars go out of tune all the time, especially if a capo is used (buy the kid a decent capo – they are necessary). A capo is a thingy that puts a bar across the strings. It is used to change the key, basically. Anyway, there are excellent free tuners that can be downloaded as software. If a computer is handy, you really don’t need a separate little electronic instrument known as a tuner. I prefer the tuners I have as software on my computers.