If you’re a beginning player or even a guitarist with some experience looking for a new axe, there’s a good chance you want to get the same model instrument as one of your idols. But on a purely ergonomic basis, every guitar isn’t right for every player.
Size and weight are two crucial factors in determining which guitar to purchase. And they’re even more crucial when selecting a guitar for somebody else, because if you make a mistake you’re not the one who’s going to have to live with it.
Here’s a simple rule of thumb. Small people generally have an easier time playing smaller instruments. That’s why some manufacturers make half- to seventh-eighths sized guitars for children. The ironic problem with many of these instruments is that they don’t stay in tune, which is frustrating to the point of cruelty for youngsters trying to get a grip on six-string basics. It’s essential for kids to have a playable instrument, even if they have to grow into it a bit. Smaller bodied Gibsons like the Midtown Custom in the hollow-body realm or even the SG Standard solid body may be the ticket, and look for thin-taped necks. Those work best for small hands.
The same rules apply for adults, of course. A small person could quite literally have trouble reaching comfortably around the body of, say, as ES-150 verses a sleeker, thinner-bodied ES-125. In the acoustic guitar realm, there’s also a world of difference between a massive J-200 and a Robert Johnson L-1.
A few more words on neck width. For more experienced players, choosing the right guitar neck is likely a matter of artistic and stylistic preference. For beginners, it can be a matter of practicality. Small hands can cover a smaller neck more efficiently. Conversely, those with large hands can find themselves fumbling to pin the right notes if a guitar’s neck is too thin. Keep in mind that in general smaller necks allow a player to move on the fretboard more efficiently, but big fingers can unintentionally mute strings as well. If you’ve got big hands, a broad, flat fretboard may be the way to go. Ideally, you should try a guitar before you consider buying it to find out if the feel of the neck is correct.
The weight of a guitar is a big deal, as anybody who’s played a four-set show wearing a mahogany bodied vintage Les Paul on his or her shoulders can tell you. The trade-off, of course, is tone, versatility and style. Regardless, if you’ve got back, shoulder or neck issues, or will be playing marathon sets, a lighter guitar may be they way to go as a matter of survival.
Gibson solid body guitars tend to run from about six pounds for SGs to more than 10 for some vintage Les Pauls, with Flying V's coming it at 6.5 to 7.5. Although semi-hollowbody guitars seem like a lighter proposition, ES-335s clock in at seven pounds and up, due to the need for a through-body block that’s both feedback resistant and resonant. On the other hand, the ultra-playable thin bodies ES-125 registers at about three pounds. Balancing your need for volume and sustain (heavier guitars required) and tonal qualities with ease-of-portability is a complex issue that is best addressed by playing as many models as possible.