So, you want to buy a guitar. Awesome! Maybe it’s your first guitar or maybe you are planning to upgrade from a “starter guitar”, or you’re just clueless on what to look for in a guitar. Regardless of your situation, I am here to help you make a well-informed decision to get the best possible guitar for you.
Over the years, I’ve bought many guitars and when I was starting out, I made a lot of bad decisions. After I had been playing for a couple of years, I made the poor decision to buy this acoustic/electric guitar that hurt my fingers so bad every time I played it and then, two years after purchase, it literally just fell apart.
Why did I buy that guitar? Well, at the time, I needed an acoustic/electric for the band I was playing in and I was in my teens, so I didn’t have much money. I saw it advertised online for $100 and thought, “Wow, that’s a steal! SOLD!” I made a decision solely on price. I had no idea what I was supposed to be looking for. That was my mistake and I eventually ended up without a guitar and down $100.
The good news for you is that I have some simple advice to help you avoid situations like this and will help you choose a guitar that will give you overwhelming enjoyment.
If you are just starting out and getting your first guitar, you may be tempted to buy the cheapest guitar to start out on because you are not sure if you will stick with playing and don’t want to invest a lot of money. This is a common practice and, unfortunately, a common mistake. Cheaper guitars (the $80 – $300 price range) are typically made with lesser quality materials and have loose or sometimes no quality control inspections.
The result is a hard to play guitar that won’t stay in tune and may cease to function if dropped or mishandled. There is nothing that takes the fun out playing the guitar more than when your guitar is constantly malfunctioning.
Having a good sounding, easy to play guitar, will make practicing much more enjoyable. If you are more advanced and interested in playing in local bars, buying an extremely expensive guitar may not be in your best interest either.
Sure, it may sound great and play great, but if you have to deal with constant transportation and unpredictable crowds, you may end up causing damage to that prized piece.
Having a clear picture of what you want to accomplish is the first step.
Now that you have a general idea about your new guitar, let’s get into more specifics. What style of music do you play or want to play?
The most common question I get from new guitar players is, “What should I get, an acoustic or an electric?” That all depends on you and what style you’re going for.
If you intend on playing heavy metal, an acoustic is not your best choice. If you want to play folk music, a Les Paul is not a great option. I’m not saying that you can’t physically play heavy metal on an acoustic or folk music on a Les Paul, because you most certainly can, but the sounds you will be making are not typical to those respected genres.
Here is a simple chart to help correlate styles to types of guitars:
Rock/Blues – Solidbody guitar with either single coil or humbucking pickups.
Metal – Solidbody guitar with humbucking pickups.
Acoustic Rock/Folk/Blues – Steel String acoustic guitar
Classical Guitar – Nylon String acoustic guitar.
Jazz – Hollow body or semi-hollowed body guitars.
Once you nail down which style suits you, you can now focus on your budget.
Guitars range in prices from $80 all the way to $8000+ and there most certainly is a difference in quality between the former and the latter. Does that mean you have to spend a boatload of cash to get a decent axe? Absolutely not!
While in most cases, price does reflect quality, higher prices don’t necessarily mean “better.” There are tons of guitars out there that sound and play amazingly and are of very modest price.
You do not have to break your bank to get a good guitar but you shouldn’t skimp out either. You know how much money you currently have but you should keep in mind that it may be more beneficial to wait and save up to get a guitar that will give you more value, enjoyment, and benefit.
Ok, so now you’ve narrowed your search down even further and it’s time to do some actual shopping. If this is your first guitar I highly recommend going to a local store FIRST before buying anything online. If you don’t have experience with guitars, you don’t want to buy blindly.
Go to your local guitar store and have a look around. Do not feel intimidated if you hear other players that are there showing off their best licks. You’re not here to enter a guitar playing competition; you’re here to shop for a guitar. Since you already have the general idea of what kind of guitar you want, walk around and find a guitar within that type that catches your eye.
Most stores allow you to just pick up guitars and play, but in some you may need to ask permission.
With your guitar selected, follow these tips:
1) Slide your fingers up and down the neck to gauge how smooth it feels and how well your fingers fit around it. You want the neck to feel very comfortable. Your fingers should have no problems wrapping around it. Also, make sure the weight of the guitar is comfortable for you. Some guitars are heavier than others, so be aware of that.
2) If the neck feels comfortable and the weight is acceptable, examine the neck to make sure that it is straight. Stand up and hold the guitar by the headstock and with the strings facing away from you. Look down the right side of the neck to see if it is straight or if it is bowed up towards the strings or bowed down away from the strings. Ideally, you’d want it to be straight or have a slight bow away from the strings but definitely not a bow towards the strings. Check the left side for the same things. You do not want to buy a guitar that has a badly bowed neck. They are extremely hard, sometimes impossible, to fix, and are just not worth the hassle. If the neck is warped, move on.
3) If you are an absolute beginner, bring a friend who already plays guitar with you to help you out or ask one of the employees to do the next steps for you.
4) Play every note on the guitar, on every string, up and down the neck. Check how easy or difficult it is to press down on the strings and if you hear any fret buzzing or intonation problems. If you feel that it’s too hard to press down on the strings or if there is some bad buzzing, or if the guitar is not properly intonated, move on. While there can be steps taken to correct those things, I’ve found with most
cheaper guitars, there is an underlying issue and there are more headaches than
5) Play something you are familiar with to get the full effect of the sound and feel of
the guitar. Don’t try to show off and don’t be afraid if you don’t think you’re that good. You are judging the guitar, not being judged as a player. If it’s an electric, plug into an amp that closely resembles the one you have at home. Do not be deceived by the sound of the guitar because you plugged into a 100-watt half stack with 5 effects running when you only have a 10-watt practice amp at home. Also check to ensure that all of the electronics of the guitar are in working order. How does it sound to you? How does it feel to you? Don’t be swayed by anyone else’s opinion. Decide for yourself.
6) Repeat the above steps with several different guitars, including guitars that are out of your price range. Like I’ve stated previously, don’t let price be your final factor. It is way better to wait and save for the $1000 guitar that you love than buy the $500 guitar that you kind of like.
7) Write down which guitars you liked, which ones you didn’t, and note the reasons why. This information will be extremely valuable to you in the future.
8) Don’t feel like you ever have to buy a guitar that day. Shop around and find better deals. Many online vendors have very flexible return policies when it comes to buying guitars. While I personally prefer going to a local music store, some online vendors allow you to buy a guitar online, try it out, and either keep it or return it if it doesn’t match your needs. It’s more of a hassle, but it can be done. You can also look in the classified ads or craigslist for used guitars. Be cautious though and remember to use the above techniques to ensure its quality.
9) Once you’ve decided on a guitar, take it to a professional luthier to have it set up properly. It generally only costs a few dollars and it is money very well spent in the long run. Some guitar stores have luthiers in house and some offer setup for free with the purchase of a guitar.
These are some of my go-to recommendations for beginner guitar players. All of these guitars are less than $650. I am not affiliated in any way with the vendors and this is in no way a recommendation that you have to buy from the vendors I link to. The only recommendation I have is that if you have the opportunity to support a LOCALLY OWNED guitar shop, please do so.