It is about that time, you are ready to take that leap and get your first and very own guitar. Perhaps you have been playing one of your friends or family members guitar, maybe you were introduced in a class, or you are completely new and just want to take the jump. This article will help you make great decisions when choosing your first guitar. Some of the pointers are true for all styles of guitar, while others are more specific to electrics or acoustics.
This is the number one rule, and the most important point to take away from this article. In the past 20 years there has been a huge jump in instrument manufacturers and a push to get everyone to buy a musical instrument. Whether you buy strings, woodwinds, horns, or keys, the world is filled with completely garbage instruments. When I was younger as a multi-instrumentalist I thought the best way to try a new instrument out was to buy something cheap to practice on, and what a terrible plan that turned out to be. I have seen many students fail at music because they or their parents decided to go the most inexpensive route when buying their guitar.
A guitar is a surprisingly complicated item to build, the best luthiers spend years learning their craft and trade. So when a guitar has a low price tag, you can be sure it was stamped out in an assembly line and will not work right. If it doesn’t play correctly, it doesn’t matter how talented you are musically, you will set yourself up for failure. Many of the cheaper brands today are all made in the same factories, they just get a different brand-named stamp at the end of the process. If you truly want to learn guitar, be patient and save money to get a decent one. There are no set guidelines for which brand you should buy or the price you should pay (honestly spending under $300 is usually not a good idea). Whether you are buying an electric or an acoustic here are some important points to look out for;
The intonation of a guitar is extremely important. If you pluck the tuned open 6th string you will hear the low E note, when you place your finger on the first fret position of this string, the note should be exactly F. Each fret should play the exact note it is supposed to, if you play the 3rd fret of the 3rd string it should be an A. If the intonation is even slightly off, it will cause chords and scales to sound terrible. Guitars, especially electric ones, can have their intonation fine tuned, however if before you buy the guitar you find the intonation way off… don’t get that guitar.
Years ago I bought an electric guitar online, when it arrived I quickly looked it over and decided to keep it. One day while recording I noticed some of the chords were not fitting in the mix with the other instruments. It turned out the intonation had been off in the first 5 frets, and no matter how I tried to adjust it, it wouldn’t work. To this day that guitar sits in the corner, I rarely play it, and would feel to bad selling it to someone else, it was a lesson learned.
When you first pick up a guitar pay attention as to how hard it is to press down on the string. Normally electrics have their strings closer to the frets, while acoustics are a little higher. There is a string gauge measuring tool if you want to get real specific in your purchase, however it is possible to find good action just by the feel. If the strings are too close to the fret, they may buzz, if they are too high it can be real difficult to form chords. It is best to try some barre chords up the neck to make sure you can press all the strings down with relative ease. A poorly built guitar will have very high action as you go up the frets. (Lap Steel guitars are the one exception here, they always have high action because you are playing with a bar or a slide and you do not want the strings to touch the frets).
Guitars that are well built often have truss rods, a bar that runs through the neck that allows for adjustment. Acoustics often have their truss rod opening under the sound hole and electrics you will see an opening at the top of the neck near the tuning machines. The guitar neck needs to have just the right bow to it, if it is warped upward the strings will buzz or be “dead”, if it is warped downward the action will be high and the intonation off. A truss rod allows for a professional to adjust the neck of the guitar (because over time even a well cared for guitar will need adjusted).
When it comes to acoustic guitars many these days have laminate tops. As you can guess laminate is a method of pressing generic woods together which doesn’t create the greatest sound. A solid wood top is of course more expensive, yet worth every penny. There are specific woods that can lead to different sounds, but instead of seeking out one in particular it is best to play a variety of solid wood guitars and just go with what sounds best. If possible avoid laminates, however they are very common these days.
Give the entire guitar a thorough look, from top to bottom. You don’t have to be an expert or luthier to quickly know if something is off. Keep an eye out for excess glue, cracks, parts coming off, and see that the top and bottom part of the strings (the nut, saddle, and bridge) are all secure and stable. Make sure the tuning machines easily tighten and loosen, give the strings a quick tuning (these days many smartphones have tuning apps you can use) and make sure the tuning holds. Check the neck and fretboard, make sure you feel no sharp edges, no dings, no scratches, and play chords and notes along the neck to make sure you like the feel of it. Be sure the body has nothing shaking around inside, there are no holes, and that it feels sturdy. If the body feels like it would smash to bits if you drop it, it is likely a cheap laminate.
Make sure both electrics and acoustic-electrics have working electronics. Of course there is a whole long topic on which pickups to use and the science behind them, but for your first guitar there are a few main pointers to keep an eye out for. Make sure when the cable is plugged into the input jack that there is no scratchiness coming through the amp, if there is there is likely a loose connection. The same goes for the knobs, if when you turn them you hear fuzzy or scratchy sounds that is a problem (it likely means they are going bad or need to be cleaned). Always be sure to try an electric guitar out through a clean amp, when first playing do not use any pedals, overdrives, or effects, you want to be sure to listen for any issues.
That is the question… admittedly these days I buy much of my gear online, it is the new way of the world. However, for a first time guitar player it is essential to go to a shop and try some different guitars out. It is the best way to figure out which brands appeal to you, what sizes work best, which styles suit you, and which sounds you like. Salespeople can be your best friend or worst enemy, some help you make great decisions, while others push mass produced garbage on you for a quick commission. Going in armed with a tuner and some of the guidelines mentioned above will help you avoid the pushers. Find what is best for you, not what you are told is the best. Take your time to make a great decision.
If you decide to buy online, the key factor is to make sure there is a good return policy (one where you do not have to pay for shipping if you decide to send it back). When you get the guitar be sure to thoroughly check it over, even have another guitar player look at it if possible. Whether you buy online or not, always check reviews. In this day in age there are thousands of reviews for every product, especially for guitars. Pay close attention and read them carefully, listening to the pros and cons of what you might have in mind to buy.
One way to buy a normally expensive guitar for a moderate price is to buy a used guitar. You always want to be a little more thorough when looking it over and definitely avoid buying used online unless there is a generous and written return policy.
Well, that can be an easy or complicated question. If you like country or folk music, get an acoustic. Metal or hard rock, of course electric. If you’re like me and you like the songs of Hank Williams or Patsy Cline, you will love the lap steel guitar. However, most genres can be played on both acoustic and electric. In the song Little Red Corvette by Prince, the original version used an electric guitar, but there are plenty of amazing acoustic versions to be found, and this goes for many songs. It really all depends on what music you want to play. The great thing about electrics is that you can have a vast array of pedals, amps, and effects to change your sound. With an acoustic you can take it almost anywhere and play in nearly every situation.
Generally, what happens is the budding musician starts on one style, and over time decides to pick up a different guitar. I started on an acoustic, later got an electric, and since have expanded to other stringed instruments. The key is to follow the basic points above, don’t rush the purchase, don’t be cheap, and go with what sounds good to you… and before you know it you will have a great first guitar!
- Electric guitar parts lesson
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