Six Strings of Therapy
The Best Acoustic Guitars Under $500 for Seniors
I got a touch of arthritis in my hips
I got a birds-eye view of the apocalypse
I got blisters on my finger tips
From tryin’ to hold on to life with a real tight grip.– Randy Stonehill, Blood Transfusion and a Coca-Cola
Whether you’re a graying rocker or the folk singer laureate of the retirement home, playing guitar into your 70s, 80s and even 90s can be immensely satisfying, and even beneficial. Whether you want to relive your greatest moments from that garage band you were in during the Buddy Holly era or you just want to learn guitar anew, this can be a pivotal point in this phase of your life.
Neuroscience continues to discover how the human brain ages, and how it sometimes doesn’t, and continues to see a trend between performing applied cognitive tasks – like playing guitar or working a jigsaw puzzle – and the preservation of general cognitive skills among the elderly.
Besides it’s just fun, relaxing and fulfilling.
Guitar Buying Basics
So, first things first: Do you have a guitar? It’s kind of important. Many seniors who once played guitar sold or gave away their guitar(s) decades ago, and those who kept their guitars have often let them deteriorate into disrepair and allowed them to degrade to an unplayable state.
Let’s assume that you need a new guitar. Fair enough? If you’re going to do something new or new again, it makes good sense to start with a new guitar. At least that’s something you can tell your spouse when you unbox a shiny new six-string at the kitchen table.
Even if you’ve never played guitar before, you probably know that the range of guitar prices can run from a hundred bucks to several thousand. And to some degree, the adage of “you get what you pay for” holds true, but there are quirks and surprises along the way, if you know where to look.
There are many different types, different sizes (in both width, length and fretboard width), different wood components, different types of sound holes, necks, nuts, saddles, tuning pegs and bridges and different sounds.
What are the Best Guitars Under $500 for Seniors?
Assuming that an electric guitar and amp are out of the question (although they don’t have to be) the best acoustic guitars for seniors would be the ones that are also the best choice for beginners.
Seniors need guitars that are as easy as possible to play, for the same reason that beginners need such guitars. One of the biggest reasons beginners quit playing is that it’s too hard for them to press down on the strings and form chords. One expert called it the “F Barrier,” so named for the difficulty beginners have on forming an F chord – a barre* chord on the first fret, where the amount of downward pressure required is the greatest.
*A barre chord is where the index finger has to press all six strings at once, while the other fingers are arranged in various patterns.
Cheaper guitars have a great distance from the string to the fretboard, meaning a lot of force is required to achieve the proper tone. They can be modified to a certain extent by sanding down the saddle that the strings rest on, but you can only go so far with that technique.
For a senior who probably has more resources for a purchase than the teenager saving up his paychecks from the fast food place, it’s absolutely worth it to spend more money on a guitar where factory techs have adjusted the string height to make the guitar as playable as possible.
The most popular body style for acoustic guitars is the dreadnought – the familiar hour-glass shape with the rounded, larger lower half. Dreadnoughts come in a variety of sizes, but seniors should stick with medium to small sizes. Oversized guitars have a booming, extra loud sound, but lugging around one of those jumbos is probably not worth it for seniors who just want to strum on the front porch.
Guitar necks are generally flat and straight, but a lot of country and folk artists like the archtop guitar, where the fretboard is smoothly mounded in the center and slopes down to the sides. Some players insist that the archtop is easier to play than the flattop guitar.
Fret width is a big factor, and what you choose depends a lot on how you prefer to play. Those who mainly strum might opt for a narrow neck, while those who like to finger pick might appreciate a slightly wider neck. Classical guitars, which feature the widest necks and nylon strings, offer a lush tone that goes well with finger picking and melodies.
The wood that guitars are made of varies wildly from spruce, maple, mahogany, ash, alder and exotic woods. Maple and spruce are the most popular, for their strength and note-sustaining properties. Most guitars employ different woods for different parts.
Some acoustic guitars are actually acoustic-electric, with an electric pickup that runs under the saddle and a pre-amplification system. These can be played with an amplifier, or without.
The last thing is appearance and detailing. This is a personal choice, and neither of these elements affect tone or playability, so get a guitar that looks nice and feels good in your hands and don’t worry about making a fashion statement.
The Best Guitars for Under $500 for Seniors
This petite beauty features a cherry back and sides and cedar on the front with a lush rosewood fretboard and maple neck.
The fretboard is 1/8″ wider than standard guitars at the nut, which makes it a good choice for finger-pickers.
The Seagull S6 has been compared to a Taylor in sound, but at around half the price.
Many, many guitar pickers have started out on a Yamaha. The company has been making quality guitars at very reasonable prices for decades, and this is one of the top picks for seniors for 2019.
The FG830 has a solid Sitka spruce top, with rosewood on the back, sides, fretboard and bridge. The tuning pegs are diecast steel, which work with the gear system to hold strings at pitch for a long time.
The neck is adjustable, which isn’t necessarily an advantage for players who don’t know how to adjust a truss rod, but if the neck does develop a slight warp, a luthier can use the adjustment screw to straighten the neck out again.
It comes in a variety of colors – autumn burst, natural, tobacco sunburst, dusk sun red, black and brown sunburst.
Fender made its name in the electric guitar market, and has attempted to make some noise in the acoustic field. Slowly but surely, the Fender pedigree emerged among acoustic guitars and now has the respect it deserves. This entry level acoustic is a great buy for the money.
The top is spruce, reinforced underneath by scalloped x-bracing to help sustain rich tones. Elsewhere, you’ll find mahogany.
The fretboard is rounded off on the edges, making it finger-friendly, and the tone crushes similarly-priced competitors. It’s a smaller guitar, making it a good choice for seniors.
It comes in four colors.
For seniors who want to be associated with a punk rock icon, this may be the guitar for you! Named for grammy-winner Tim Armstrong, this stunningly beautiful guitar is an acoustic-electric, with a Fishman preamp.
It’s all mahogany – solid on the top, laminated on the back and sides. It has a synthetic urea nut (which has nothing to do with kidney function, but is a composite material that is very hard and sound wave conductive). The saddle is compensated, meaning there is a notch under the B string that gives it a teensy bit more length and helps compensate for the B string’s tendency to play sharp as you move up to higher frets.
Chrome tuners ensure gentle, predictable tuning and a solid hold once the correct tuning is achieved.
Brought to you by Blueridge Guitars of California, known for old school vintage styling and craftmanship, this guitar captures the romance and feel-good energy of bluegrass music flawlessly.
A spruce top with scalloped braces underneath gives this a loud voice, yet very pleasant tone. The mahogany sides and back help sustain the sound.
The neck is slim and fast for advanced bluegrass pickers, but also easy for old hands to form chords. The chrome plated tuners hold the tuning right in place.
If you know what quarter-sawn wood* is, then you know that anything made from it is going to be strong. That’s what the Alvarez Artist Series is all about – strength. In guitars, a strong body means loudness, sustain and amazing tone, in addition to the physical toughness and stability of the instrument.
The AD 30 uses quarter-sawn Sitka spruce on top, and that is braced by hand-sanded scalloped bracing in an X configuration. The back and sides are all mahogany, and the neck joins the guitar body in a super-strong dovetail joint.
It only comes in one color – natural – but who cares? This is an amazing guitar for the money.
*Quarter-sawn wood is wood that is cut at the mills so that the growth rings are more or less perpendicular to the face of the board.
Reports of Gibson Guitar’s demise are greatly exaggerated. After a house-clearing of unprofitable lines, Gibson is making a Phoenix-like comeback, and recently announced some big changes in its Epiphone brand, its best-known subsidiary.
The Epiphone DR-100 remains a top choice for beginning guitar players for its low cost and superb playability, and while the company prepares for some new-look models, this one is fine just the way it is, with its vintage sunburst finish, as well as ebony and natural.
A rosewood fretboard is easy on the fingers, and the tone matches that of much more expensive guitars.
Guitar Accessories: Cases and Gig Bags
None of the above guitars ships with a case, but you might luck out on a limited-time package deal that includes one, so keep your eyes peeled for specials!
If you travel a lot and plan to take your guitar with you, a case is essential. Car trunks aren’t what they used to be, and guitars are odd-shaped, so they need something to protect them from the suitcases and duffle bags trying to push them around.
If your guitar isn’t going to be on the road all that much, a gig bag can do the job, and is less cumbersome than a guitar case.
Here are some good choices:
Most acoustic guitars fit in most acoustic guitar cases, so don’t try to be too exacting on the size. This model can accommodate any dreadnought style guitar in the medium to small range.
The inner liner is plush, and will baby your guitar in comfort. The outer shell is hard and sturdy enough to withstand abuse at the hands of brutal airport baggage handlers. The latches have been upgraded to a heavier metal.
Wood, not cardboard. Remember that when toting this hefty hunk around. Actually, it might be heavier than what you might prefer, but if you want a double dose of protection, go with this model. Five-layer plywood makes this a boss among guitar cases.
Its tweed exterior provides a classy old school look, accented with leather trim and gold-colored latches.
It’s got the iconic Fender logo emblazoned on the top, so there’s that. But this case truly represents substantial value that goes beyond name recognition.
The exterior is hard shell black with reinforced gray stitching. Chrome fasteners and hardware give it a real road warrior look.
But the real value is on the inside. Where some manufacturers might coat the interior panels with thin foam that might as well have been sprayed-on dryer lint, the makers of this case have laid in inch-thick foam padding throughout, and then heavily reinforced it.
Your baby – guitar – will be pampered in luxury.
Yes, you can go cheaper, but this gig bag has so much going for it, it is well worth the extra bongos.
Unlike most gig bags, which are about the thickness of bring-your-own shopping bags, the Cahaya Guitar Bag is reinforced and padded. The interior has even more velvet-soft padding, as well as five handy pockets for keeping your accessories.
A unique feature of this gig bag is the rubberized base, which offers plenty of protection against accidental impact.
It comes with a heavily-stitched handle, and backpack-type straps in the back, along with a hanging loop that allows you to store the bag on a hook.
Other Guitar Accessories: Capos, Strings and Helpful Gadgets
Having trouble forming that Eb chord? No worries. Get a capo, put it on the third fret and play a C chord shape. Bingo. An Eb that Stevie Ray Vaughn would be proud of (he played everything in Eb).
A capo is perhaps the best thing senior guitar players can do for themselves, especially if arthritis is present in the hands. It takes difficult-to-form chords out of the picture and lets players continue with chord shapes they have mastered.
There are dozens of capo styles, but the main thing seniors need to consider is ease of use – quick on, quick off, no bells or whistles.
Helpful Guitar Gadgets
If you want a tuner that is simple and easy to use it’s hard to go wrong with this clip-on tuner by Snark. Not only is it super accurate it’s also reasonably priced. The color displays makes it easy to read, even with older eyes, and it can easily be turned 360 degrees for easy viewing.
You squeeze the levers together to open it up, let go to allow it to press down on the strings. Made of pretty rosewood, it’s a handy tool. It comes with five picks.
You might not need the quick-change capability, but if it’s quick-change, it’s also easy to use by default. Kyser is a well-known company for guitar accessories, and they put quality into this affordable tool.
The real advantage here is that you get two useful tools for the price of one. The capo is a no-nonsense squeeze handle model – like the others – but it comes paired with a clip-on tuner that attaches to the headstock and works by vibration. Similar to the Snark, but has the capo function as well.
5. Chord Buddy
This is a learning tool that helps beginning guitarists in two ways. One, it shows where the fingers go on chords and two, it actually plays them for you (limited to G, C, D and Em) in the early portion of the learning process.
Users will eventually want to “take off the training wheels” and play the chords with their own fingers.
It comes with some classic Christmas songs to make the learning curve easier to tolerate.
There are more elaborate combo packs that have more learning programs and helpful devices, so you might want to check out all the options before ordering.
For the senior guitarist, light gauge strings are probably the best option. They’re easier to play, and sound brighter. The downside is, lightweight strings are sometimes harder to keep in tune, and make flaws in intonation more noticeable, but those are very slight imperfections, hardly worth worrying about if the strings play easy.
Here are a few good values in strings (all are for acoustic guitars):
Corrosion resistant and well-balanced strings.
Perhaps the longest-lasting strings there are. Worth the extra cost.
The strings have warm tones and note-holding persistence.