Sorting through the plethora of mediocrity and picking a quality first guitar.
Having sifted through an enormous number of mediocre-at-best guitars in my time as a player, as well as having run a guitar shop, I have more than my fair share of experience with entry level guitars. Many companies, with the availability of inexpensive manufacturing, jumped on the "welcome to the wonderful world of music!" band wagon and chose simply to pump out whatever was cheap, as quickly as possible, for better or worse.
The flood of cheap instruments leave a lot of people hesitant to decide on what they should begin with; the proverbial "paradox of choice" leaves many feeling overwhelmed. If you're considering beginning the guitar, I advise you check out the following models if you get the chance. A couple you may have to look around for and others you may find everywhere you look. But they're definitely worth a look! For the sake of simplicity, I'll keep the list restricted to guitars under the $500 mark (with one exception!).
-Art and Lutherie, "Ami"
A "parlor" sized guitar, A&L, based and manufactured in Canada, has done an INCREDIBLE job at making it sound bigger than it really is. An amazing guitar for the beginner, but also good for any seasoned player looking for an office/travel guitar a novelty guitar for the collection. The model features a solid wood top, lending itself to developing an aged sound with time and play. The craftsmanship of the company is fantastic and includes a padded gig bag.
Cost: approx $315-350
First and foremost, it's unusual when a manufacturer includes a hard case with a guitar, making this package excellent for the beginning musician. The laminated body doesn't generally make the guitar sound better with age, but for that same reason it's sure to last in inclimate conditions, temperature/humidity changes, making it younger-player friendly. It's important to acknowledge the QC changes Fender made a few years back. They were DEFINITELY for the better. Another perk: it's available in an acoustic/electric configuration for only $70 more.
Issues: Although their quality control has changed for the better over the years, I have seen instances where the CD60 experienced neck warping. This can be observed by looking down the neck as though you're looking down a gun barrel (for lack of a better analogy). Often, you can hear a neck is warped if you hear excessive string noise and rattling when it's strummed. THIS IS NOT FIXABLE. Just simply ask your salesman for a different example-he may not even be aware of the problem!
Cost: $200 (ac/el version: $270)
-Fender Standard Stratocaster (or Telecaster)
I'll confess a bias-I've been playing a Stratocaster for many years. If you have any inclination to drop the extra few bucks because the headstock says "Fender" on it... then totally do it! Made in Mexico, the body is solid alder, the neck is maple, fingerboard in rosewood (dark color) or maple (matches the back, lighter color), pickup configuration varies a bit, but most frequently you'll see three single coils (S/S/S) or two single coils and a humbucker (S/S/H) which I've always loved-again, HUGE personal bias here. In terms of sound, throw on a Jimmy Hendrix or Stevie Ray Vaughn album, to name a couple.
The Telecaster, on the other hand, you'll find to have a vastly different sound and feel. Fender has done a good job at keeping them priced closely and affordably. Teles tend to have slimmer necks (fingerboards also available in either material), but differ electronically, featuring two single coil pickups. Although a bit pricy for the absolute beginner guitarist, if it's in the budget, it's worth it!
Squier Affinity Series Strat/Tele
Squier, as a company, is simply Fender's overseas operations. You'll see an enormous number of similarities between the Fender mentioned above and their Squier counterparts. If you're searching for the best deal for the beginner electric guitar, this is an excellent option. The primary differences will be the body material (Agathis and/or basswood), and the quality of electronics. They're subtle differences, but when considering the price, only the buyer can decide if it's worth it.
Issues: In some cases, whether occurring in transport or having experienced local humidity/temperature changes, occasionally, these guitars will undergo neck shrinkage. Run your hand along the edges/joints of the fingerboard and neck to feel for sharp frets. This is fairly easily remedied by a technician, but if you're paying full price for a new guitar, then pass it up for one without this drawback.
ltd by ESP EC-50
Much like Fender, ESP-based in Japan-offers a lower priced version of their product. This particular guitar is shaped like the iconic Gibson Les Paul (with a couple subtle differences) and is outfitted with two humbuckers, providing a thick, meaty tone at any setting. Ideal for the rocker, this guitar also features (assuming all factory settings) large frets, making playing fast and smooth. The body is basswood and the neck is also maple, with a rosewood fretboard. Again, though ideal for the rocker, the humbuckers offer an incredible, fat tone that players of nearly any genre could warm up to.
With any luck, this will give you at least something to go on to start learning how to play the guitar. For the sake of clarity, this article is based solely on my own experience; and, whether talking to beginning guitarists or 3 decade veterans, you're bound to see how music and almost all of its aspects are largely subjective. As with so many things, collect opinions, weigh them, try them, but remember it comes down to your own preference!