Is it better to learn on acoustic or electric?

“When you make a choice, you change the future.” ― Deepak Chopra

Earlier this week I was discussing in Quora about this same topic, which gave me the idea to make a small guide with my recommendations on this age-old question:

Is it better to learn guitar with an acoustic guitar or an electric guitar?

Both are different, so there are obvious advantages for each instrument.

Many guitar "purists" recommend learning to play first on an acoustic guitar.

Some of the reasons given include:

  • Acoustic guitars are physically harder to play.

Playing an acoustic is much more tiresome to both your fingers and your wrists. This means that as a newbie you'll have a harder time building the necessary strength and stamina to be able to play effective.

Acoustic guitars have a higher action (the height of the string over the fretboard). This requires your fingers to push strings a bigger distance in order to touch the fret. This is necessary because normally acoustic guitars need to be hit pretty harder to produce sound of enough volume, and if it were not the case, the strings would hit the frets, producing an unwanted buzzing sound.

On the acoustic guitar I almost have a 4 mm action.
The electric guitar has about 2 mm action, half that of the acoustic guitar.

  • Acoustic guitars are less sensitive.

This probably is the most obvious difference between the two.

Because it relies on acoustic amplification, whenever you make a mistake and brush a string you shouldn't touch, or let ring a note that doesn't have to ring, provided it is not hit hard, that mistake will "pass" just fine and probably won't be noticeable. An electric guitar will pick up pretty much any sound you produce with it, be it voluntary or else. This is especially true when using effects like distortion or overdrive.

Although this is something that every guitar player has to struggle with, as a beginner it's useful to not have to focus too much time and instead learn the basics.

  • Acoustic guitars have less sustain.

Related to the previous reason, because electric guitars are more sensitive, they posess generally more sustain than their acoustic cousins. This means that whenever you let ring a chord on an electric guitar, it will ring longer without fading, compared to the same chord being played on an acoustic guitar.

The problem with this is that when learning to switch chords in any progression, which is usually pretty hard already for a beginner, when using an electric guitar you'll have to deliverately dampen the chord before switching to the next one, which adds an additional concern, which in turn adds to the difficulty, which makes it harder for a beginner.

  • Electric guitar amplifiers tend to be a diversion.

You need an amplifier to play an electric guitar properly, of course. This means that you will have to mess with the amp's settings for a while until you get it right, or at least good enough. You don't want to waste minutes on this when you could use those to practice. The acoustic guitar is pretty simple: pick up and play; they don't even need power to run.

Of ccourse, there's always the argument that an electric guitar requiring an amplifier will, in most cases, be more expensive than just buying an acoustic guitar. This is generally true.

Those are very good points. My first guitar was an acoustic guitar which was lent to me by a neighbour, and I used it for around 6 months until I got my first electric. It worked fine and it did its job good enough too.

The problem with me is that I really wanted to go electric. It's not that I don't like acoustic sounds, but back in the day I wanted full-on power, rock and metal.

If I could go back and change my first guitar, I would certainly go with an electric one. If you were to ask me back then, I would justify it by saying "I wanna rock"or something just like that.


Now, let me tell you the downside of learning on an acoustic, when you actually want an electric.

The main problem to this is probably the critical aspect for any newbie: motivation.

I think that as teenagers motivation can be a double-edge blade. In my case I had plenty of motivation to practice, so the added difficulty was not that hurtful. I cannot claim that it will be the case for most teens, but I'm pretty sure that there must be many out there that want to start playing something quick, and if that is the case, starting with an acoustic will make it more difficult and can eventually tackle the motivation. Not good.

What about for adults?

Well, adults in general will have a cooler head, though that does not mean that they won't want to have quick results. In fact, busy adults will have a very similar desire to have quick results as the teenagers I just mentioned, since because they have little time to practice per week, they might take a lot of weeks to achieve the results they want, and it's pretty clear that it's very hard to keep pushing forward for a long time if you are not seeing and feeling any improvement.

If that is the case, then adding additional difficulty can break you. Not good either.

Remember that we are not talking about a life or death situation. For most people, the guitar is a hobby and should therefore be fun, and it's certainly not fun if you are not getting anywhere and you are putting in time.

My advice is to choose what you really want.

If you want to play acoustic, go acoustic.

If you want to play electric, go electric.

If you feel like you want a greater challenge, go acoustic at first and later on you might get an electric.

However, I believe that all guitar players should have at least one of each. It's nice to play both types regularly.

Whatever you do, remember to: