I was recently asked if I could put together an article on how to purchase a fist guitar by one of my viewers. I thought to myself in today’s golden age of the internet, surely there must be information readily available online that would be helpful to most novice musicians? I decided to search Google and see what articles I could find. What I read left me feeling horrified and quite uneasy. Yes, there was lots of information available, but so much of it was simply misguided, incomplete or just wrong! I had no choice but to put together an article to stop this insanity!
I thought back to the first guitar acquisition I made when I was just 13 years old. What I remember is that my purchase was mainly fueled by what my guitar idol at the time was playing. All I cared about was it if it looked somewhat like what my rock god played. If it was good enough for him then it had to be good enough for me? Of course I was wrong, but back then I didn’t have the internet, online forums or YouTube to tell me otherwise.
1 - Determine your budget
How much do you want to spend? This is a difficult question when you are not sure of what you need or want. Because of this, beginners are often advised to buy an inexpensive first guitar they can play until they know what they really need. Also, if they eventually decide they don’t have the talent or patience required to pursue music, they would not have lost much money. This advice although cautious, is not always the best advice for everyone. The problem is that most beginners don’t clearly understand the differences between a cheap guitar and an inexpensive one. And yes, there is a difference!
Opting for a cheap guitar can sometimes limit your playing, hamper the enjoyment you get from playing, and end up costing you much more in the long run. If your cheapie guitar is inadequate for you, and your playing development suffers because of it, you may feel pressure to upgrade to a better guitar sooner than expected and your initial investment may be lost. Cheap guitars simply don’t hold their resale value very well because online classified sites are filled with postings from people trying to sell these items. The truth is you end up losing more of your initial investment with a cheap no name guitar than if you purchased a more expensive brand name guitar. Popular brands simply sell quicker even if they are more expensive.
My advice is to try to buy the best guitar you can afford. Shop with value and features in mind and try to find an instrument that checks off as many boxes from your requirement list as discussed in step three. You need to be realistic when shopping. You may not be able to find everything you are looking for within your budget, but if you aim for the most important features on your list, you will end up with a guitar that you will enjoy for quite a while before feeling any need to upgrade.
If budget is an issue, you can easily get more bang for your buck by looking at used instruments. Purchasing a used instrument can be a little more challenging for the novice but as long as you do proper research before buying anything you should be fine. Remember, when you buy used, you need to be able to identify hidden defects that may not be disclosed by the seller. This can be tricky, so if you don’t feel confident you can do this, having a seasoned player check out the instrument before you buy it. This can limit and nasty surprises down the road. Remember its always buyer beware when it comes to buying anything that is used.
When buying new there are a few things you keep in mind. First, just because a guitar is expensive that doesn’t automatically guarantee it will play or sound better than a comparable less expensive guitar. This is a common misconception. I often see novice players go for the expensive guitar just because they think that it’s expensive so it must be better right? Not Always! An expensive guitar can be good, but if it’s not the right guitar for your playing style or needs then it can be just as bad or worse than the cheap guitar in the corner. The key thing is getting a guitar that is right for your needs.
Once you have determined how much you can afford to spend on a guitar, it’s time to start the doing research.
2 - Determine what type of guitar you want?
This will often depend on what style you want to play. Electric guitars are versatile and provide a wide tonal range that can be further expanded with pedals and amplifiers.
Acoustic guitars have some limitations but they can also be expanded with the right accessories.
I often recommend starting on an acoustic guitar because fingering is often more difficult and actually builds up finger strength quicker than on an electric guitar. Also, acoustic guitars have less temptation to be distracted by amps, pedals, and other technology as they are simpler and can be played without electricity or other devices.
The main price factor for acoustic guitars is the material they are made of and to some extent the workmanship. Cheap guitars are often made of laminates, (plywood) while better-crafted guitars are made of solid woods. The top can be solid and the back and sides made of laminate or all the wood can be solid.
The species of woods also will affect the price. Tops are usually made of evergreens like cedar or spruce. The back and sides could be made from many varieties of hardwood. A popular choice is some kind of rosewood because of the attractive look of the grain and color.
You can look at the inside and the outside of the guitar to see if the back and side grain pattern are the same on both sides. You may have to ask the dealer for the specifications on the wood unless you have a very good eye and know your wood species.
If you choose to go with an electric guitar, your budget should also include an allowance for an amplifier. Amplifiers can be quite costly and intimidating especially if you are not familiar with them. I could write another article on how to purchase your first amp! I may just do that!
If you can’t play loud due to finicky neighbors, an alternative to consider is a multi-effect unit. These are often less costly and more flexible than an amplifier. Volume is not an issue with a multi-effects unit as they can be used with headphones and the built in effects allow you to experiment with many different tones and they often also come with a built in tuner that will come in quite handy.
3 – Determine the features you need not want
Begin your research by asking yourself a few key questions.
What style of music do I want to play? If you determine that you like heavy metal, for example, the choice of guitars you will consider may be very different than what you would consider if you are into jazz.
Next, ask yourself what features you would prefer to have. Do you like lighter guitars? Do you prefer the sound of humbucker pickups or single coils? Are you looking for a rosewood or maple neck? Do you need a floating or fixed bridge?
When all this starts sounding like gibberish, you’ve probably reached your knowledge cutoff point. From here on in, you may want to find someone you trust to help guide you. Preferably someone that has played guitar for a while and understands your requirements.
If you really like a big name guitar but can’t afford one, you can often get a budget version that is made offshore for the same company for much less money but the same features. Think Epiphone for Gibson, Squire for Fender etc. etc.
4 - Read as many reviews as you can
The new guitarist today has a really big advantage. Product review information is all over the internet. You can typically get a pretty good idea of the quality of the instrument you are considering by searching YouTube, Online review articles, and gear forums. Don’t be afraid to post comments and ask questions. You will be surprised how often you can get a quick honest answer.
5 - Determine where you want to buy your guitar
With more and more online sales options it's quite tempting to buy your guitar where ever you can get the best price online. Online music stores typically charge about $50 less for that starter guitar but it comes with a few disadvantages as well. First, you can’t see or try the guitar before buying it. You can’t really easily ask all your questions before buying online. There is often addition shipping, duties, and taxes to pay. Should something be wrong with the product you will often have to wait a few more weeks before you can get the item replaces and may have to pay return shipping out of your own pocket.
When buying your first guitar from a reputable local retailer you may be paying a little more, but have someone you can take the guitar to should you have problems or additional questions. You can try the guitar before you buy, and you are supporting your local economy.
6 - Time To Scope out some local Shops
I always recommend that you play a guitar before you buy it. It really is the only way to know if the guitar is right for you or not. In some cases, you may be tempted to buy a guitar online because of a great price or current promotion, but not being able to play the guitar before you buy can be a huge mistake.
Visit as many local shops as you can and try out as many guitars that fit your budget and requirements as you can.
Start off by playing the guitars unplugged. Yes, you should do this even if it’s an electric guitar. From my experience, if a guitar sounds good unplugged it will also sound good when plugged in.
With acoustic guitars, I often find that the reverse is true. They often sound good unplugged and less so when plugged in.
A word of caution. A novice guitar player can often fall prey to an eager eagle-eyed sales person. I would recommend that you tell the sales person in the store that you are not buying anything today and are just browsing as soon as you walk in. This may help you avoid someone looking over your shoulder and trying to convince you to buy something you don’t need.
It is often a good idea to have a guitar-playing friend with some experience go with you to several shops to help you determine what sounds good. As a beginner, your ear may not recognize subtle tone qualities that your friend may have an easier time picking up. This can be very helpful.
It is extremely important to remember to shop with your ears and hands and not with your eyes! I can’t repeat this enough! So many new guitar players make the mistake of being distracted by the aesthetics of an instrument instead of the sound and feel of the instrument. This is a sure fire way of buying something you will regret later.
To fully appreciate all the nuances of a guitar, you really need to spend some time with it. Just strumming it for a few minutes is not enough time to get familiar with it completely. It will, however, weed out many of the obvious duds. You should be able to spot things like whether the neck is too small or too big for your hands if the sound is too dull or too bright etc. etc. These are things you should take notice of when first trying out a new guitar. I call it the first pass.
7 - Zero in on the guitar that fits your style.
Here is where your Jedi skills come into play. You need to tune out all the guitars screaming for your attention on the racks and focus on only the guitars that fit your playing style and criteria we spoke about in the earlier section. It may take a while but eventually you will land on the one that sounds and feels right to you. Play if for as long as you need to be sure it is the right one. I often suggest that you put it back down and play a few others then return to it and see if you still feel the same way about it.
Don’t forget to try it sitting and standing as well. If doesn’t seem natural to you, walk away and keep looking. If everyone checks out and you still like the sound and feel of the guitar, then it’s time for the second pass.
8 - Look for any obvious imperfections.
Just because a guitar is in a music store that doesn’t automatically mean it’s in perfect condition. The guitars on the rack are often played by many people before they get purchased. Sometimes people accidentally ding or scratch a guitar or worse drop it! The climate in a store may be too dry which can cause neck relief issues.
When buying any guitar, I always suggest a close inspection for any apparent defects such as chips or cracks, warped necks, buzzing frets, rough fret edges, scratchy pots, misaligned necks, strings that are too high or too low or anything else you can spot.
Take note that an off the shelf guitar may be a great guitar but simply not feel right because of little or no setup. It is always a good idea to ask if the guitar has been set up. If it has not the store should include a free setup with the purchase of the guitar. If they don’t or will charge you for it, you might walk away from that shop altogether.
Keep in mind that almost all new guitars require a proper adjustment including proper neck adjustment and intonation. Also, most other minor issues can be resolved with an adjustment as well. It’s important to be able to determine what is a minor issue or a major one.
Here are a few issues that would make me walk away from a guitar:
• A crack in the neck joint of the guitar
• A neck that is twisted
• Frets that are not level or have a couple of visibly high frets
• Necks that have too much space on either side of the pocket. More than a millimeter to two
• Guitars that go out of tune repeatedly right after tuning
• Buzzing frets
• Scratchy pots
• Deep chips in the finish of the guitar
• Nuts that are cut too low for the strings
• Bulging top directly under or behind the bridge (Acoustic guitars)
9 - Leverage your purchasing power at the right time:
When you are ready to purchase your new guitar you have the leveraging power in your favor. This is the ideal time to ask for perks. You usually can negotiate a few things like a new set of strings, picks, a case, and a tuner or cable.
I would strongly recommend getting a proper hard case for your new guitar. I typically do not recommend the soft gig bags. They don’t really do a great job of protecting your investment. Most dealers leave the factory strings on the guitars for quite a while which you can tell by the dead tone they produce. New strings quickly resolve the problem and dealers will often agree to give you a set free of charge.
10 - Invest in Proper lessons:
With all of the online video lessons on YouTube today, it is very tempting to forgo any official lessons from a qualified teacher and try to teach yourself. This can be done but is often the slower and more frustrating approach.
I would strongly recommend some private guitar lessons to get you started on the right track even if it is costlier. Think of it as an investment. While videos and books are a great supplement, they usually don’t teach you correct technique (the precise way to position fingers, hands, arms, back, and playing), only theory. Once you have developed improper technique it is often quite difficult to break bad habits. So it’s much better to get started with the proper guidance. Plus, the best way to get a better overall sound is to master your instrument. It is said that tone comes primarily from the fingers and not the guitar, I couldn’t agree with that statement more! If you gave Jimmy Page, Steve Vai or Guthrie Govan an inexpensive guitar they would still make it sound great. While hand a Gibson custom shop reissue to a guitarist that can’t play and it will still sound terrible.
Enjoy playing the heck out of your new guitar!