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How to Choose a Guitar

Guitar Buying Guide

This two-part guide attempts to give the reader some advice when purchasing a guitar or guitar accessories. The first section contains a list of musical instrument stores in the DC area. It is not a comprehensive list but it includes all the stores that I have personally visited and can describe. I am confident that you could find whatever you need in one of these stores. The second section is a buying guide for the prospective guitar student looking to purchase their first instrument.

Where to buy

Middle C Music

This store is located in Friendship Heights on Wisconsin Ave. It is a medium sized store with a good selection of guitars as well as other instruments. The guitar selection is heavy on classical guitars and lighter on electrics and steel string acoustics. It is a great place to purchase strings, picks, sheet music, and other accessories. They have the most sheet music of any DC-area stores that I’ve visited.

House of Musical Traditions

This store is about the same size as Middle C Music, but it has a very different ambience. It is located in Takoma Park and has a focus on unusual music instruments. They have a large selection of guitars as well as string and percussion instruments from around the world. I really enjoy this store because you can visit it over and over again and still see something new. Their guitar selection is heavy on classical guitars and steel string acoustic guitars but is light on electrics.

Chuck Levin’s Washington Music Center

The huge store is a two minute walk from the Wheaton Metro Stop. They have a truly enormous selection of all types of guitars and a very knowledgeable staff. Their selection ranges from brass instruments to drumsets to live sound equipment. I would absolutely recommend this store when purchasing your first instrument. It is always better to try out many different types of instruments before making your selection.

Guitar Center

There are a couple of these stores located outside of DC. Guitar Center is a chain that is always offering deals and packages from their huge selection of instruments. They are comparable in size to Chuck Levin’s and also a great place to find your first guitar after trying out a ton of guitars.

Atomic Music

This store is located in Beltsville and is comparable in size to Chuck Levin’s and Guitar Center. It is different than the rest of the store on this list because it is mainly used instruments and equipment. This would be a great place to buy an instrument if you want something a little different or are on a budget. It is true that an older, used instrument often sounds better than a new one because the wood is used to vibrating. It is similar to how a show molds to your foot after some time.

Types of Guitars

Guitars come in many styles, such as electric, steel string, classical, and flamenco, among many others. There are also many playing styles, some require use of a pick and some do not. I have often heard the question: What is the best guitar for a beginner? The answer is different for everyone and this guide will help you find your answer.

What do you want to play?

Many people are inspired to learn guitar through listening to a particular artist or group of artists from a particular genre. If you want to learn that style of guitar, then purchase a guitar similar to the one used by the artist or group. For example if you love Jimi Hendrix, then an electric guitar is your best bet. If you want to sound like Doc Watson, then a steel-string, acoustic guitar would be the best option. You should watch videos and look at images of the player and try to find a guitar that looks similar. You can also find instrument lists on artists’ wikipedia pages that will tell you the specific model.

Acoustic or Electric

Acoustic guitars come in many different flavours but are similar in that all can be played without an amp. At a basic level, there are really only two varieties of acoustic guitars. There are steel-string guitars which are normally played with a pick or a combination of pick/fingers and are commonly found in folk, country, and singer-songwriter music. The second type uses nylon strings and is normally played with fingers only. This type of guitar can be heard in classical, flamenco, mariachi, and folk music.

Electric guitars also come in all sort of shapes and styles but there is no major difference between them. They all use steel strings and are typically played with a pick but can also be played fingerstyle. To get adequate volume, electric guitars require the use of an amplifier, which the guitar is connected to through an instrument cable. The instrument cable is also know as a ¼ inch cable.

For the prospective student that listens to everything:

If there is no particular style of guitar that you want to learn, I would recommend a steel-string acoustic guitar with light gauge strings. These guitar have no switches or knobs to worry about and do not require an amplifier. Also, the steel strings are good for strengthening your fingers and hardening your fingertips. If you can play a steel string acoustic you can easily adapt to other guitars, while the reverse is often harder. While purchasing the guitar, go ahead a buy a small, assortment of picks so that you can find the thickness that suits you.


About the Author

Ford Combs is a rising star in the DC guitar and songwriting circuit, particularly in-demand as a Spanish/Flamenco guitar soloist in jazz trios and eight-piece horn rock bands, playing his own original compositions as well as standard repertoire. He has a background in all types of guitar styles and genres as well as a unique array of composition techniques.

Mr. Combs is a graduate of University of North Caroline-Chapel Hill with a BA in Guitar Performance, where he studied with classical guitarist and composer, Billy Stewart. He then attended post-graduate studies at the Conservatori de Musica del Liceu in Barcelona, Spain, where he studied Flamenco Guitar with Manuel Granados, Classical Composition with Dr. Ben Davies, and Film Scoring with Jose Nieto. In 2013, Mr. Combs' classical composition for a saxophone quartet was premiered at the Conservatori de Musica del Liceu.

After returning to the US, he worked as a soloist and in-house arranger for many local bands. In addition to his performing, Mr. Combs taught at the School of Rock in Norfolk, Virginia teaching piano, guitar, group lessons, summer camps, and more. Here in DC he also is a piano teacher at the Sheridan School. Recently arriving onto the DC music scene, Mr. Combs is enjoying performing for a larger Flamenco audience and working with Miguelito, who runs the DC flamenco blog,, and joining him at the University of Maryland-College Park to accompany flamenco dance classes. He has also been heard in the lounge trio Three Cat Lounge and the horn band J and the Band. In addition to his work as a professional solo guitarist, Mr. Combs is a computer music composer. He enjoys creating digital instruments such as a computer keyboard organ as well as a two handed motion sensor musical device. In addition to programming, Mr. Combs has experience in audio editing using ProTools, Reason, and Audacity.

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