My Guitar Buyers Guide - 048

podcast Nov 27, 2018

It’s guitar buying season! Today, I help you make the right decisions to save you a ton of time, money, and frustration.

 

 

This is it! It’s that time of the year.

It’s that time where guitar players or prospective guitar player minds start to wander. The thought of new styles and colors of guitars start to dance through our heads.

So with this frame of mind in full effect, I think back to a lot of the guitar buying experiences that I have had over the years. I’ve had some wins and a lot of losses.

Today, I’m going to share some of the things I’ve learned to hopefully help you stay away from expensive mistakes and spend your money happily and wisely. They are: 

  • Planning

  • Style brand and model

  • Player level

  • Deep research

  • Neck width

  • Neck shape

  • Neck radius

  • Fretboard material

  • String scale length

  • Body style and material

  • Pickups

  • Price Range

  • Where to look

  • All important last check

 

 

Planning

 

It’s important to really define your overall goal. It’s easy to say that you just want a good guitar that is good quality. Unfortunately, that is leaving way too much to chance.

Getting the guitar that is right for you is the key, and one that is worth spending some time on. Most spend that time looking at guitars on websites or in magazines. Just realize that there are a lot of really cool looking guitars that are 100% wrong for you… even though they look awesome. There are some things about a guitar that are not easy to tell, just from a picture.

Really planning your purchase is super important, and in this first section, we will go over the things that you need to decide before you spend your hard earned money.

 

Style

 

Starting with the easiest decisions first is a good way to narrow down your purchase. What style of guitar do you want. Are you looking for an electric, acoustic, dobro, baritone, 6 string, 12 string, 7 string etc… What is the basic type of guitar that is going to serve the needs of what you want to do. If you are playing in a bluegrass band, chances are that that new Stratocaster may be the wrong purchase for you…. But who knows, you may just be the one that brings the Strat to mountain music:)

Once you write down the general style of guitar that you want, let’s go on to the next step. Take a look at a few different brands to get an idea of the different models that are offered. If you are looking for an electric guitar, find out the brands of guitar that are commonly used in the style of music that you plan to play. For example: if you play electric blues you may find Fender, Gibson, and Epiphone guitar common. Write down your findings here on the next line.

Now lets narrow this down a little further. Let’s look at the model of guitar. In each of the common brands for your style, each manufacturer has at least a few different styles of guitar that have different tones and different features. Take a look at the different models, the way they look and head over to YouTube to see and listen to them in action.

Pick a style or two that would fit what you want to play. Great, you have done a lot. At this point, you have really narrowed down your search and are ready to focus on a purchase. Have you ever walked into one of the big box guitar stores and been presented with the wall. The huge wall of guitars that is both impressive and overwhelming at the same time. You get the feeling that you want them all and you also want to run away from the decisions you need to make at the same time.

Well now, that overwhelming feeling changes to one of exploration. Do they have what I want. It’s now a lot easier to walk away from a wrong purchase because you have a clear picture of the type of guitar you need.

 

Level

 

Next is, what level of a player is the guitar for? It’s easy to think of this in one of three levels. Beginner, Player, and Pro.

Keeping this in mind as we go through the rest of our research is a good idea. We will explore this even further when we start to consider what our price range is as well.

The general idea is that a beginner wants an affordable guitar that introduces them to the common guitars of their style. The Player needs a guitar that sounds good and gets the job done but is not so expensive that you are afraid to take it out and play it. And for the Pro, the sky’s the limit. It’s more of an investment. Be aware that there are a lot of pros that do quite nicely with just player guitars. Just because you have moved up in the ranks, you don’t need a guitar that could break the bank.

So now we know what style of guitar, have a good idea of the brands and the models that we want, and we understand what level of guitar is suited for our situation. Great.

 

 

Deep Research

 

We have a good general idea of what we are looking for. But, now it’s time to get picky. This is the part that can save you a lot of time and frustration. Like I said before, there are a lot of things about guitar that you just don’t see from an image.

Has this ever happened to you? You pick an awesome looking guitar out, finally get it home, open the box and there it is. It looks great! You can’t wait to pick it up and play it. So you get your pick and start playing. But something just doesn’t feel right. You are not sure what it is but something is not right. You try adjustments, but the more you adjust the farther away the guitar gets from your expectations.

There are a lot of things about a guitar that may seem like no big deal at first. The more you play, the more you learn about what you like and what you don’t. I’m going to go over some things that would be well worth your time to learn about. Things that aren’t normally thought about when you shop for a guitar.

The next time you are in a guitar store that has a lot of different instruments, do yourself a favor and spend time playing as many guitars as possible. Pay special attention to the guitars that just feel right to you when you play them and the ones that feel awkward and uncomfortable. When you do, keep in consideration the things that I’m about to talk about and see if they contribute to your experience.

 

Neck Width

 

How wide a neck is is very important to the guitar player. Guitars come in all sorts of different neck widths. Guitarists have many different hand sizes and the width and shape of the neck is important to match to your hands.

If you have never noticed this before, pick up a Nylon string classical guitar and play sometime. You will notice it right away. The classical guitar typically has a very wide neck. Just a few minutes of playing one can highlight just how important this is.

Width in measured in inches and is very easy to measure across the nut. Finding the right width for your hand is important to the overall feel of the guitar.

 

Neck Shape

 

The way the back of the neck is cut is extremely important. Necks are formed in all sorts of different shapes. Some different neck shapes could be an oval, V, C shape, U shape, D shape, slim profile.

The U shape is thick and gives more of a baseball bat feel. The oval shape has a nice slope and is most common to guitar necks. The V has a hard slope toward the middle. The middle of the back of the neck points out like a “V”

Different manufactures have different specs on how they shape a neck. This is a very personal thing as to what feels the best to you. Try a lot of different neck shapes out to see which one works the best for you.

 

 

Neck Radius

 

Neck radius, fingerboard radius, fretboard radius are all different names for the same thing. That is how much curve there is on the fingerboard (where the frets are). If you haven’t noticed this before, take a look at your guitar frets. Are they perfectly flat? Most likely not. The majority of guitars have a slight curve to the frets and fretboard. These are measured in inches as well. Think of it as the outside curve of a 7.25”, 9.5”, 12”, or 16” circle.

These different curves have different feels and different purposes. The general rule is that the small the number the more curve you have to the fretboard. It is easier to play chords this way because of the shape of our hands but the harder it is to bend strings. The curved fretboard will buzz on a bent string very easily. A flatter radius will allow bent strings to play without buzzing but doesn’t feel as nice to the hand.

Definitely try guitars out with different radius fretboards to see what your preference is.

 

Fretboard Material

 

The type of wood used for the fretboard is very important to tone and feel. The most common are rosewood and maple. Rosewood is considered a warmer tone where maple has a snappier sound. This is audible but not a huge drastic difference between the two. To me the biggest difference is feel. The rosewood fretboard doesn’t have to be sealed where as the maple fretboard is sealed with a lacquer. I like the feel of a rosewood fingerboard on my fingers. It has a very smooth feel. Some Maple boards can get a little sticky to me depending on the lacquer used. There are also many other types of fretboard woods. Ebony for example. As always, try a bunch out to see which one is right for you.

 

String Scale Length

 

String scale length is how long the string is between the nut and the bridge, the playable part of the string. This is different on different guitars and different manufactures seem to like different lengths for their guitars.

Fender will generally use a 25.5″ length where Gibson likes a 24.75” length.

The more you research different guitars you will find a lot of different lengths. These different lengths affect the feel of the guitar considerably. The longer lengths have a stiffer feel and require a bit more hand strength to push the strings down. The shorter lengths are great for bending strings and are easier to push down.

The easiest way to be introduced to this is to play a Fender and a Gibson right after each other. You will notice it right away especially if they have the same gauge strings. Pay attention to this difference and make a decision if you like a longer or shorter scale length.

 

 

Body Style And Material

 

This is super important for both acoustic and electric guitars. Guitar bodies come in all shapes and sizes and, other than looking cool, are very important to the sound and feel of a guitar.

With acoustic guitars, the shape and depth of the body can determine how loud and how much bass is heard. And in electric guitars the body shape can determine the sustain.

But in both, body shape is very important to the feel and function of the guitar.

In acoustics, if you are a smaller person, large jumbo body styles can be very uncomfortable to play. Smaller acoustics feel very nice to play, but generally have a thinner sound with less volume.

With electrics, the shape of the guitar can ge a make or break situation. Some guitars, like a telecaster, that aren’t very contoured can be uncomfortable to play. And guitars without a cutaway can make it difficult to play high up on the neck.

So finding the shape that you like is important, but also take into consideration the wood that the guitar is made from as well.

In acoustics, the wood selected for the guitar is very important to the tone of the guitar. Spruce, Mahogany, Cedar, rosewood, Koa, maple and many other tonewoods are used for both the top and back parts of the guitar. Spruce is the common wood used on the top and you will find different woods used for the back and sides. Different combinations of these woods for the top back and sides can create different tones and it is well worth it to play many different ones to see what you like.

In electrics, Alder, ash, mahogany, basswood and others will be found. They all have a different sound and different weights. Alder and Mahogany seem to be the most common with very balanced tones and Mahogany being the heavier of the two.

Try out as many different body types and woods that you can. You will be surprised at the differences.

Also the cut is very important as well. This is important to what your needs from the guitar are as well. If you are sitting down playing the most, I flying V would be a wrong choice for you. Pick a style for you that suits your needs.

 

 

Pickups

 

Pickups can make or break an electric guitar. The type of magnet and the way they are wound can dramatically affect the sound of a pickup. And matching the correct pickup with the correct guitar for you can be a very personal decision.

If you are skilled with a soldering iron, replacing pickups is a very easy thing to do. If not, you are going to have to do a lot of playing different guitars to find the pickups that you like the best. Take a look at the specs of the guitar you are interested in and see what type of pickups are installed. Then, head on over to youtube and see a few demonstrations of those pickups to see if they have the right sound for you. Once you find the pickups you like, that can refine your search even further.

Understanding these finer points of the guitar and what your opinion is can save you so much frustration. These are the things that players learn over time, but it doesn’t have to take you years if you are paying attention to these things right off the bat. A few trips to the guitar store can make you a much more informed buyer and get you to an instrument that is just right for you in a very short amount of time.

 

 

Price Range

 

So now that we have a good idea of what guitar is the right buy, let’s talk money. It’s always a good idea to get a firm number on what you are going to spend, before you start looking. There are so many models and the ad copy is always enticing. Don’t fall for it! There is the right guitar for you in the price range that you can afford. It just takes a little bit of effort to find the right one.

The basic three price ranges are:

 

Cheap but good

Starts at $100. There are some great inexpensive guitars in $100 to $150 range. Squire guitars come to mind. In the last 15 years, guitar manufacturing has really moved forward. When I started, entry level guitars were horrible things that were slapped together and not worth it at all. But now, there are some fantastic low end guitars that have been favored by pro players. I wouldn’t go below $100 thought. That seems to be the starting point for a serious guitar.

 

Moderate level (players guitar)

Starting at $500 you can find solid, very well built, guitars with great tone.  Often referred to as player’s guitars. Something that looks nice, performs well, but isn’t something that you couldn’t recover from if damaged or stolen. Playing out is tough. It’s tough on you and it’s tough on your gear. A decent players guitar can withstand this and give you the reliable guitar that you need.

 

Investment guitars.

Starting at $1000, we begin to get into some serious guitar with some serious money. These are guitars that should (but often don’t) be great and depending on how high you go, need to be looked after a little more. Remember, just because you are spending a lot of money, that doesn’t guarantee that the guitar is right for you. A $4000 guitar that has too wide of a neck and a shape that doesn’t fit with your hands, is too heavy, and has pickups that don’t work for you might be great for someone else, but for you it’s a $4000 waste of money.

 

Keep in mind that a lot of guitars that you buy will need a setup. Not all guitars are setup correctly and the ones that have been set up may not be set up the way you like. If you aren’t skilled at setting up a guitar, remember to set aside some of your money to have the guitar properly adjusted to your needs.

So once you find your price range and determine what you can really afford, there is one more thing to consider…. New or used.

What, a used guitar are you kidding me. Nope! Second hand guitars are great! And you can save a lot of money if you can deal with a few dings and scratches (which you would put on your new guitar over time anyway). And good luck finding a vintage guitar in perfect condition. The problem with used guitars is it is much more difficult to find the exact right one and the problem of meeting strangers to buy a guitar is always something to be cautious of. But, make sure you check eBay or look at the used section of the guitar store and try our a few. You never know, you might just get lucky.

 

Where To Look

 

It’s easy to look for guitars anytime you want. Just get your phone and start looking. Places like Sweetwater, Musicians Friend, Guitar Center, Reverb, eBay, Amazon are super easy to find all sorts of guitars with great descriptions. I love that Sweetwater takes pics of the actual guitar that is being sold instead of some stock footage.

But the big problem about all of this is you are buying a guitar without playing it… sight unseen. It’s not that big a problem if you like shipping back and forth. Say you get the guitar and it’s not quite right, most online stores have no problem sending you a new one once you return it. It can take a ton of time and it gets very old after a while. I’ve gotten lucky several times buying online so it’s not impossible but tricky.

The other way is to purchase your guitar in person. Whether its a guitar shop or a pawn shop or meeting a seller off of craigslist, you may not get the variety of choices, but you will get to play the guitar and have an informed opinion about whether the guitar is worth the money.

Either way, there are a few big things to look out for when you are right about to pull the trigger. Examine the guitar for any structural defects. Cracks around the headstock and if it’s a neck through guitar by the neck pocket. Also take a look down the neck of the guitar to see if it is straight and not warped (look for curves in the wood where there should be straight lines.)  These are deal breakers and you would be taking a big chance with your money if you see these kind of things.

 

So, there is a solid guide to making the most out of a guitar purchase. I went over:

 

  • Planning
  • Style brand and model
  • Player level
  • Deep research
  • Neck width
  • Neck shape
  • Neck radius
  • Fretboard material
  • String scale length
  • Body style and material
  • Pickups
  • Price Range
  • Where to look
  • All important last check

 

I hope this gave you some things to think about before you make your next guitar purchase. Putting these things into practice has really saved me a lot of time, money, and frustration and I hope it helps you get the guitar that is right for you!

 

What has been your experience buying guitars. Have you been lucky or has it been a challenge? Let us know right here in the show notes!

 
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