Children’s guitars

Introduction

[New comments 2014-July-27. I encourage readers to check out the comments, and I thank the commenters for generously sharing their experience and information.]

An expert player can make even a crummy instrument sound good. But a beginning player will probably be demoralized by trying to learn on a crummy instrument. So:

  • If you want to give your child the best chance to succeed at learning the guitar, buy a guitar that is:
    • playable and decent quality; and
    • the right size.
  • On the other hand, you may be setting your child up to fail at learning the guitar if you buy a guitar that is:
    • the cheapest guitar you can find, regardless of quality; and
    • the wrong size.

*Note: If you simply cannot afford anything but an extremely inexpensive instrument, then by all means, give it your best shot with whatever you can afford. (It worked for one commenter; see the comments section.) But keep in mind that if your child doesn’t succeed at learning, it might be partly the instrument’s fault, and you might want to rent or save up for a better instrument and try again when you have one.

A decent, playable, right-sized guitar will almost certainly cost more than you think you should spend for a child’s first guitar, particularly if you’re starting lessons at 4 or 5 years old. But here’s a universal truth of music education:

A beginning student  has a greater need for a good instrument than an advanced player does.

This makes sense, if you think about it: An advanced player can work around a bad instrument’s flaws. But a beginning student has a hard enough time learning the basics; how can she learn to play if the instrument is fighting her? A crummy guitar will fight a student in several ways:

  • The action of a crummy guitar will almost certainly be too high (i.e., the strings will be too far from the fingerboard).
  • If the action of a crummy guitar is set lower to improve playability, you’ll probably get string buzz on some frets.
  • A crummy guitar will be hard to get and keep in tune (the tuners will be sloppy and the strings will stick in the nut).
  • A crummy guitar will have intonation problems (i.e., as you move up the neck, the notes will get out of tune, even if the open string is in tune).
  • A crummy guitar won’t have a pleasing tone, even if it’s in tune and the intonation is okay.

Further, a student learning on a badly sized guitar will likely develop bad technical habits that will interfere with playing and will have to be unlearned (unless, of course, the student quits  — something made more likely by learning on a wrong-sized guitar). What’s worse, those bad technical habits can lead to injury.

In short, getting a decent, playable, right-sized instrument is important.

Guitar sizes

Background

Small guitars are also known as “fractional” guitars because they are designated by fractions, from 1/8 (the smallest) up to 7/8. Certain small classical guitars are also known as “requintos.” Requintos are not actually designed for children.

Unfortunately, you can’t entirely rely on these size designations, because their meaning (like the meaning of clothing sizes) varies from one guitar maker to another. Instead, you need to look at a guitar’s actual measurements.

The three  measurements that matter, from most- to least-important, are:

  1. Scale length (the distance from nut to saddle).
    • This determines a guitarist’s left hand/arm position. The wrong scale length will cause awkward bending at the wrist.
    • A standard classical guitar has a 650 mm scale length (25.6 inches).
  2. Nut width.
    • This determines two things: (1) the position of the fingers on the guitarist’s left hand, and (2) the amount of space for the fingers on the right hand.
    • If the nut is too wide, the left-hand fingers will have to stretch too far, which will create intonation problems.
    • If the nut is too narrow, the right-hand fingers won’t have as much room to move, and it may be harder to get clean individual notes. (Strings on a classical guitar are further apart than those on a steel-string guitar precisely to allow more room for the right-hand fingers.)
  3. Box depth.
    • This determines the guitarist’s right hand/arm position. A too-deep box will push the hand out too far.

As you will see from my discussion below of particular guitars, sometimes the only information you can get about a guitar’s size is its scale length.

But scale length isn’t everything. In particular, although requintos generally have a short scale, they have a relatively wide nut (designed for an adult-sized left hand) and deep box. So a child might have a hard time playing a requinto even if its scale length seems suitable. Note, however, that at least one well-known Suzuki guitar teacher (Mary Lou Roberts) says good things about requintos (see her comment below).

Fitting a child to a guitar

There’s only one sure way to know if a guitar fits a child: Have the child try it out. A qualified teacher will be able to tell whether the guitar fits.

But as a rough guideline for picking the right scale length, measure your child from the floor to the belly button, and consider a guitar with the scale length in this table:

Child, from floor to belly button Guitar scale length
24 inches 40 cm
26 inches 45 cm
28.5 inches 50 cm
33.5 inches 55 cm
35.5 inches 60 cm
36.75 inches 63 cm
higher full-size (65 cm)

 

Note 1: There is a lot of terrible information on the internet about sizing guitars for children. Specifically, this post at ActiveMusican.com is wrong, wrong, wrong! The guitars they call “just right” are laughably oversized.

Note 2: In dire need — say, if the child’s guitar is in the shop for a day or two — a child can practice with a capoed adult guitar. I did this a few times with M. But you can’t actually teach a child the guitar that way.

Specific guitars

Only a handful of companies make fractional guitars. From my research, I would arrange the guitars I know of into three groups:

  1. Guitars that Suzuki teachers generally recommend or accept;
  2. Guitars that are probably okay, based on specs, price, and feedback from commenters on this page, but that I know little about personally and that are less well- known to US Suzuki teachers; and
  3. Crummy guitars.

For each group, I first provide an overview of what I know about the guitars in that group.

At the bottom of this page, I provide a table with whatever I know about the dimensions of guitars that are in either group 1 or group 2 (i.e., non-crummy guitars).

Group 1: Guitars recommended or accepted by Suzuki teachers

From cheapest to most expensive, guitars that Suzuki teachers recommend, or at least sometimes find acceptable, are made by:

  • Strunal — This Czech companyhas dominated the low end of the market in the past. New, these run around $200.
    • I have a 1/4-size Strunal that my normal-sized daughter has played since she was 4 1/2. It’s quite playable and sounds good (you can judge yourself from M’s recordings). But I’m told that their quality is very uneven — some are very good, others very bad — which makes ordering one online risky. And even the good ones have poor hardware — the tuners are sloppy, and I had to get the nut on mine replaced when it cracked.
    • As for specs, the Strunal has the second-narrowest neck of any child-sized guitar whose dimensions I could determine — the 1/4- size guitar has a 43 mm-wide nut. Unless your child has abnormally fat fingers, this is  a point in its favor — but the nut size of some guitars on this list is unknown, so it’s possible that their necks are as narrow as the Strunal’s.
    • I’m told that they’ve become scarcer in the past couple of years than they used to be, but you can get them from:
  • Gringo Star Guitars— These are Mexican-made guitars imported by a Minneapolis-based Suzuki guitar teacher, Brent Weaver. Many Suzuki teachers recommend these guitars. Two lines are available for young kids for the same price — $495 plus shipping, which includes a hardshell case:
    • Little Gringos — These have a wider nut than the Benjamin Garcias; they’re made by luthier Francisco Navarro.
    • Benjamin Garcia —  These have the narrowest nuts of any child-size guitar for which I have dimensions. They also have a pretty shallow box. The ones I’ve heard sound great.
    • He sometimes has other guitars available in various sizes, so it’s worth contacting Brent directly to ask about inventory.
  • EsteveFernandez Musicin California sells these Spanish-made guitars for $795, which includes a hardshell case.
    • Ron Fernandez seems to be a skilled luthier and an honest guy: he actually talked me out of buying a guitar from him because he thought, from what I told him, that my daughter didn’t need a bigger guitar yet. And I love his YouTube video about how he sets up the classical guitars that he sells.
    • Summerhays Music in Utah also sells some of the child-sized Esteves for around $500, but I don’t think this includes a case.
    • But they have a 48 mm nut, which strikes me as wide.
  • Ruben Flores— My studio teacher likes these Spanish-made guitars, which range in price from $470 to $910 (not including case). But they come in only two small sizes, and the nut’s pretty wide:
    • A child’s guitar, the Cadete (58 cm scale/48 mm nut); and
    • A requinto (54.4 cm scale/50 mm nut).
  • Moreno Moore — These Chilean-made guitars must be special ordered from the luthier (eduardo@morenomoore.cl) well in advance of delivery. They look fantastic, and the ones I’ve heard sound great, but I’m told that they can be inconsistent and are expensive (I don’t know the exact price but I hear it’s well over $800).
  • Some guitars from Germany
    • I personally bought a 48-cm Hopf-Hellweg Bronco from Thomann.de this March. Overall, it’s an excellent guitar — tone quality is good, sound is loud, intonation is perfect, action was good out of the box, and the tuners are extremely high-quality. The stock strings are a little too slack, but that’s easily fixed. M’s studio teacher approves. The shipping was a hassle, and it took me a while to figure out what to do about a case, but (particularly if you need this size guitar) I don’t think you’ll be disappointed. (For the case, I modified an SKB Baby Taylor case that I got for $70 from Amazon. I’ll be posting about that in depth at some point.)
    • A commenter (see below) bought an Aranjuez 1/2-size (52 cm-scale) from leihinstrumente.com and says “you can’t go wrong” with these.

Group 2: Guitars that are probably okay

The following guitars are probably worth considering. I lack firsthand experience with most of them, but a number of commenters have said positive things about many of these guitars:

    • Kremona/Orpheus Valley SofiaKremona is a Bulgarian company that’s been making stringed instruments for around 100 years. The make various child-sized solid-top guitars that sell in the $300 to $400 range and have a relatively narrow nut (generally a good thing).
    • Almansa — This Spanish company’s guitars are distributed by Ruben Flores, discussed above. They range in price from $490 to $640 and must be special ordered. Like the Ruben Flores guitars, these come in only two sizes:
      • A child’s guitar, the Cadete (58 cm scale/48 mm nut); and
      • A requinto (54.4 cm scale/50 mm nut).
    • Amigo — These are sub-$100 guitars made somewhere in Eastern Europe. Multiple commenters, both here and on Amazon, say that it’s not a toy. Then again, a number of commenters on Amazon say that it doesn’t stay in tune, and several commenters talk about adjusting the action and replacing the tuners. I suspect that the Amigo sounds pretty good but is (1) hard to play because the action is too high, and (2) hard to keep in tune because of low-quality hardware. But read the reviews and the comments below, talk to a guitar teacher, and judge for yourself whether you want to try one.
      • Amazon.com sells what it calls 1/2 size and 3/4-sizeAmigo guitars.
        • The 1/2-size is either 32″ or 34″ long in total (i.e., from the bottom of the body to the top of the neck). The 3/4-size is 38″ long in total.
        • These numbers don’t tell you much, but I expect that even the 1/2-size is too big for normal-size kids younger than 7 or 8.
    • Various guitars sold in Germany. I don’t know why, but fractional guitars seem to be more readily available in Germany than in the US. I found three online stores that sell fractional guitars ranging in price from roughly 200 to 375 euros — a price range suggesting that they are not toys.
      • Musik & Pianohaus Dressler sells several fractional guitars in three sizes: 48 cm scale (1/4 size), 53 or 54 cm scale (1/2 size), and 58 cm scale (3/4 size). The non-toys seem to be:
        • Hopf-Hellweg Bronco (48, 53, 58) – solid cedar top – 359 euros — as noted above, I bought one in March 2012 and am very happy with it. The sound is great, and the tuners are the best I’ve seen on a small guitar.
          • The same German company makes Hellweg and Hopf guitars. Hopf is the higher-end line.
          • According to Thomann.de, the Bronco is recommended by the European Guitar Teachers’ Association.
        • Antonio Ruben (48, 53, 53, 58, 58)  – solid cedar top – 329 euros (sapele sides & back) or 349 euros (bubinga sides & back)
        • Hopf-Hellweg Pony (48), CJ8 (53), and CJ10 (58) – solid spruce top – 329 euros
        • Alhambra (54.4 requinto, 58) – solid red cedar top – 259 euros
        • Granada (48, 53, 58) – solid cedar top – 189 euros
        • Hopf-Hellweg Junior Super CM 1 (48), 2 (53), and 3 (58)  – solid cedar top – 189 euros
        • Hopf-Hellweg Junior SH 1 (48), 2 (53), and 3 (58) – solid spruce top – 169 euros
        • Hopf-Hellweg Junior 1 (48) – spruce laminate top – 149 euros
      • Thomann.de also sells a lot of fractional  guitars, including some 44 cm-scale guitars. The non-toys seem to be:
        • Some of the Hopf-Hellweg models guitars listed above:
          • CJ10 (58) – solid spruce top – 289 euros
          • Junior CM 2 (53), 3 (58) – solid cedar top – 173 euros
          • Junior SH 1/44 (44), 1 (48), 2 (53), 3 (58) – solid spruce top – 153 euros
        • Höfner H-RZ (48.5, 54.5, 61) – solid spruce top — ~200 to 272 euros
        • Höfner HG604 (58) – solid cedar top – 211 euros
        • Höfner HC504 (54.5, 59) – solid cedar top – ~165 to 185 euros
        • Höfner HC 502 (58) – laminated cedar top – 161 euros
      • Leihinstrumente.com sells various fractional guitars that are available in many sizes and don’t seem to be toys:
          • Toledo (53, 58) – solid cedar top – $384 USD
          • Valdez (48) – solid cedar top – $324 USD
          • Aranjuez (52, 58) – solid cedar top, rosewood back and sides – $259 USD — as noted above, a commenter says good things about Aranjuez guitars
          • Aranjuez (48, 52, 58) – solid cedar top – $240 USD
          • Pro Natura Bronze (53) – solid cedar top – $181 USD
          • Pro Arte GC (44, 53, 57) – solid spruce top – ~$160 USD
    • Some guitars available from Classical Guitars Plus in the UK.
      • An Alhambra 4P 58 cm-scale guitar (i.e., “cadete” or 3/4-size) – solid red cedar top – £369
      • A Liikanen Kantare 53-cm-scale guitar – materials not specified – £195. Liikanen is a Finnish guitar maker.

Group 3: Crummy guitars

The kids’ guitars available through retailers like Guitar Center, Musician’s Friend, and Amazon.com are generally so crummy as to be unplayable. But even crummy guitars come in two groups: (1) guitars that you’d expect to be better; and (2) guitars that are obviously toys.

  1. Guitars you’d expect to be better:
    • Yamaha makes a 1/2-sized guitar (the CGS102) that I tried and found unplayable. This surprises me because some of Yamaha’s full-sized guitars are serviceable, and by making such a terrible small guitar, they’re tarnishing the brand.
      • Note, however, that guitarist and teacher Tomas Rodriguez says that Yamahas are inconsistent but can sometimes sound good (see comment below). I don’t doubt it, though I bet that they typically require significant saddle and nut adjustment (and possibly replacement) by a competent luthier.
    • Takamine makes 1/4- and 1/2-sized guitars (in the Jasmine line). I’ve never played them, but they’re so cheap (under $150) that they’re almost certainly terrible. Like Yamaha, Takamine makes some serviceable full-sized guitars, so I’m surprised they bother making a toy entry-level guitar.
  2. Guitars that are obviously toys: almost anything under $100 or painted. For instance:
    • Lucero guitars. (Even their full-sized classical guitars are unplayable.)
    • Lauren guitars.
    • Dean playmate guitars.

Basic dimensions of non-crummy guitars

To the extent that I could find them, here are the basic dimensions of specific models of non-crummy guitars discussed above:

Brand Scale length – Nut width – Fraction/model (if used by sellers)
Strunal (specs) 44 cm – 43 mm – 1/4-size (per retailers) or 1/8-size (per Strunal)
53 cm – 43 mm – 1/2-size
57 cm – 45 mm – 3/4-size
Gringo Star Little Gringos (Francisco Navarro)
(see additional dimensions below)
44.8cm – 44.5 mm – [not used]
51 cm – 47.6 mm – [not used]
55 cm – 50.8 – [not used]
58.6 cm – 50.8 – [not used]
Gringo Star Benjamin Garcia
(see additional dimensions below)
40 cm – 36.5 mm – [not used]
45.2 cm – 41.3 mm – [not used]
50 cm – 41.3 mm – [not used]
52 cm – ? – [not used]
55 cm – 44.5 mm – [not used]
Esteve (specs at Fernandez Music) 40 cm – 48 mm – [not used]
48 cm – 48 mm – [not used]
53 cm – 48 mm – [not used]
58 cm – 48 mm – [not used]
Ruben Flores (specs) 58 cm – 48 mm – cadete
54.4 cm – 50 mm – requinto
Moreno Moore 38 cm  – ? – [not used]
40 cm   – ? – [not used]
43.2 cm  – ? – [not used]
46.7 cm  – ? – [not used]
50 cm  – ? – [not used]
53 cm  – ? – [not used]
55 cm  – ? – [not used]
Kremona/Orpheus Valley Sofia (specs) 44 cm – 44 mm – S44C
48 cm – 44 mm – S48C
51 cm – 44 mm – S51C, 1/2-size
53 cm – 46 mm – S53C
56 cm – 46 mm – S56C
58 cm – 48 mm – S58C
61 cm – 50 mm – S61C
62 cm – 50 mm – S62C, 7/8-size
63 cm – 50 mm – S63C
Almansa (specs) 58 cm – 48 mm – cadete
54.4 cm – 50 mm – requinto
Hopf-Hellweg Bronco 48 cm – 43 mm (per seller) or 45 mm (per manufacturer in email to me) – (1/4 size)
53 cm – 46 mm – 1/2 size
58 cm – 46 mm – 3/4 size
Antonio Ruben 48 cm – 48 mm – 1/4 size
53 cm – 48 mm – 1/2 size (sapele back & sides), 1/2 size (bubinga back & sides)
58 cm – 49 mm – 1/2 size (sapele back & sides), 1/2 size (bubinga back & sides)
Hopf-Hellweg Pony, CJ8, and CJ10 48 cm – 48 mm – 1/4 size
53 cm – 48 mm – 1/2 size
58 cm – 48 mm – 3/4 size
Alhambra 54.4 cm – 47 mm – 1/2-size/requinto
58 cm – 49 mm – 3/4 size
Alhambra 4P 58 cm – ?? mm – 3/4 size
Granada 48 cm – 46 mm – 1/4 size
53 cm – 48 mm – 1/2 size
58 cm – 48 mm – 3/4 size
Hopf-Hellweg Junior Super CM 48 cm – 46 mm – 1/4 size
53 cm – 48 mm – 1/2 size
58 cm – 48 mm – 3/4 size
Hopf-Hellweg Junior SH 1 44 cm – 44 mm – 1/4 size
48 cm – 46 mm – 1/4 size
53 cm – 48 mm – 1/2 size
58 cm – 48 mm – 3/4 size
Hopf-Hellweg Junior 1 48 cm – 43 mm – 1/4 size
Höfner H-RZ 48.5 cm – 46 mm – 1/4 size
54.5 cm – 47 mm – 1/2 size
61 cm – 48 mm – 3/4 size
Höfner HG604 58 cm – 48.5 mm – 3/4 size
Höfner HC504 54.5 cm – 47 mm – 1/2 size
59 cm – 48.5 mm – 3/4 size
Höfner HC502 58 cm – 44 mm* – 3/4 size (*this nut width is from a seller’s site but is almost surely not correct)
Toledo 53 cm – 48 mm – 1/2 size
58 cm – 48 mm – 3/4 size
Valdez 48 cm – 47 mm – 1/4 size
Aranjuez 52 cm – 45 mm – 1/2 size
58 cm – 47 mm – 3/4 size
Aranjuez 48 cm – 45 mm – 1/4 size
52 cm – 45 mm – 1/2 size (rosewood back & sides), 1/2 size (mahogany back & sides)
58 cm – 47 mm – 3/4 size (rosewood back & sides), 3/4 size (mahogany back & sides)
Pro Natura Bronze 53 cm – 43 mm – 1/2 size
Pro Arte GC 44 cm – 43 mm – 1/8 size
53 cm – 43 mm – 1/2 size
57 cm – 45 mm – 3/4 size
Liikanen Kantare 53 cm – 45 mm – 1/2 size

Additional dimensions

Guitars with the same scale length can, of course, differ in the size of the body. It’s hard to get body dimensions online, though, and I tend to think that the variability in body size among similar-scale guitars is unlikely to be significant for playability. But I do have these body dimensions for Gringo Star Guitars:

Brand Scale length – LowBoutW – LowBoutD – UpBoutW – UpBoutD – BodyL (Fret 12 -> butt) – FretboardW at Fret 12
Gringo Star Little Gringos
(Francisco Navarro)
44.8cm – LBW 26.03 cm – LBD  7.62 cm – UBW 20.96 cm – UBD 7.46 cm – BodyL 34.13 cm – F12W 50.8 mm
51 cm – LBW  29.85 cm – LBD 8.26 cm – UBW 22.86 cm – UBD 8.26 cm – BodyL 38.42 cm – F12W – 54.0 mm
55 cm – LBW  31.43 cm – LBD  8.57 cm – UBW 24.13 cm – UBD 8.57 cm - BodyL 41.28 cm – F12W 55.6 mm
58.6 cm – LBW  33.81 cm – LBD 8.57 cm – UBW 25.72 cm – UBD 8.41 cm – BodyL 44.29 cm – F12W 57.2 mm
Gringo Star Benjamin Garcia 40 cm – LBW 22.2 cm – LBD 6.19 cm – UBW 17.15 cm – UBD 6.03 cm – BodyL 29.21 cm – F12W – 44.5 mm
45.2 cm – LBW 23.97 cm – LBD  6.51 cm – UBW 18.42 cm – UBD 6.19 cm – BodyL 31.75 cm – F12W – 50.8 mm
50 cm – LBW 25.72  cm – LBD  6.99 cm – UBW 20.32 cm – UBD 6.99 cm – BodyL 35.88 cm – F12W – 50.8 mm
52 cm – not available
55 cm – LBW  31.12 cm – LBD  7.94 cm – UBW 23.81 cm – UBD 7.78 cm – BodyL 41.59 cm – F12W – 54.0 mm

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