Guitar/Buying a Guitar
Good quality new guitars can be purchased at a moderate cost. Modern manufacturing techniques coupled with mass production keeps costs low while intonation and playability are preserved by precise machining. Most manufacturers offer a full range of guitars from budget to custom-shop.
Acoustic or Electric?
The first choice that a buyer has to make is which type of guitar they want; acoustic or electric. After deciding this the player should research the models available within their price-range. Research ensures that the player avoids impulse buying and allows an informed decision to be made. It is essential that a first guitar be bought from a dealer or knowledgable seller. Second-hand shops, pawn-brokers, charity shops and small ads may offer lower prices but its quite common to find that these sellers have little or no knowledge about the merits or faults of the guitars they are selling. This means that all decisions fall upon the buyer who may not be experienced in judging whether a guitar is flawed or not. Reputable guitar dealers will avoid stocking damaged second-hand guitars choosing instead to offer a range of new guitars from established manufacturers and a selection of second-hand guitars without faults; this allows the buyer to avoid making the costly mistake of buying an unplayable guitar.
The electric guitar is easier to play than a steel-string because of its lower action and thinner strings. Beginners are able to fret chords and play riffs without too much effort which in turn encourages a faster learning-curve. If you intend to play with a drummer and bass player then an electric guitar is essential. It is important that the player not be swayed from their choice; especially on the day of purchase. If you know that you want to play electric guitar in a band; then that is the type of guitar you walk out of the shop with. Its not uncommon, when faced with the bewildering range of guitars in a shop, that a buyer may choose to purchase a different type of guitar other than their original choice. If at anytime a doubt arises whilst purchasing it is better to walk away and review your buying options and aims.
The acoustic guitar is more difficult to play though this drawback is offset by its wide and open timbre. The electric guitar sounds puny when used by a solo performer so singer-songwriters favour the steel-string as the ideal accompaniment instrument and writing tool. As a first purchase the buyer should be aware that acoustics (as the name suggests) have no internal means of being amplified (microphones can be placed in front of the soundhole for studio and concert performances) and therefore the player needs to decide beforehand if an electro-acoustic might be a better option.
Entry-level guitars are available from all the major manufacturers. Fender have the Squier range and Ibanez make the GRG model; a budget version of their more expensive RG guitar. Gibson own the Epiphone marque; producing a range of guitars that offer a mid-price alternative to their more expensive Gibson marque models. Yamaha make entry-level acoustics as well as electrics. These are just a few manufacturers of moderately priced guitars and the buyer is advised to visit two or more guitar shops to familiarise themselves with the different makers and models available.
Testing A Guitar
- The height of the strings above the fretboard is called the action. If the action is too low the strings will buzz and if the action is too high more effort is needed to push the strings down. Acoustic guitars have their action set by the factory and shouldn't need further adjustment and therefore acoustics with a high action should be avoided since this may be a sign of faulty construction or a warped neck. You can test the action by playing barre chords at different positions; barre chords are difficult and tiring to hold on a guitar with a high action.
- Intonation is a term used to describe accurate tuning over the range of the guitar; which is three octaves. A guitar with its intonation set correctly, ensures that an open C chord played on the first three frets sounds the same as a C barre chord played at the eighth fret. Guitarists use octaves to check intonation; every open sting is tested against its twelfth fret octave equivalent. The open string and its octave should be the same note. On all electric guitars the intonation can be adjusted at home by the player (electronic guitar tuners are invaluable for this task) but for acoustics any adjustments must be made by a luthier or shop since the nut and bridge need to be adjusted. Guitar manufacturers ensure that the intonation is set at the factory and a further check is normally made by guitar dealers before a guitar is put on display. A second-hand guitar must be tested for intonation problems; sometimes a warped-neck will render accurate intonation impossible though the guitar may sound in tune in the first position. Intonation depends on the straightness of the neck, whether the nut allows correct spacing and seating of the strings, the height of the bridge, and the scale of the frets. Intonation and tuning are two related but different concepts. Setting the intonation is about preparing the guitar so that it can be accurately tuned across its complete range. Please see the harmonics chapter for more details.
- The guitar should be played from its first to last fret on all strings to check for fret buzz and wolf notes. Fret buzz may be present when the truss rod is not properly adjusted or the action has been set too low. Worn fretboards or incorrectly shaped fret-wire can also cause fret buzz. Wolf notes sound dull and lack sustain; in extreme cases they can disrupt the tuning stability of a guitar. Its common on classical guitars to find a wolf note on the G string in the first position though they can occur anywhere on the neck where string contact to the fret is impeded or incorrect. The problematic wolf note can be corrected by sending the guitar to a luthier for setting-up and adjustment. The luthier will ask you which make of guitar strings you use and will adjust the guitar for that gauge. The guitar must be restrung everytime with that particular string brand and gauge to preserve the set-up. Re-grooving nuts, adjusting necks and permanent bridge alterations are best left to a luthier whose traditional skills coupled with tools like the oscilloscope, precision calipers and gauge measurers ensures a stable match between the strings and the guitar.
- Look for mis-aligned screws on electrics; these are normally a sign of wear or previous adjustments. On acoustic guitars glue spots may point to flaws though in most cases they are just residue that wasn't wiped off the guitar and generally don't affect the tone or playability. Loose swithces on electrics are common and if dirt has accumulated then the familiar crackling of reduced contact will be heard when the switch is moved. Pots, switches and wiring can be replaced so good electric guitars with these problems should not be dismissed though the price should reflect the cost of replacing the damaged parts. Look down the sight of the neck to check for a warped neck and to ensure that the guitar strings are all at the same height. The thickness (gauge) of the low E string may not allow it to sit in the nut groove correctly and it may be slightly higher than the other strings. This may be a sign that you need thinner gauge strings or that the guitar needs to be set-up. Run your finger along the neck edges where the fret-wire ends; fret-wire is tapped into a fretboard and then cut flush with the neck edge. As you run your finger along you should not feel any fret-wire protruding; this is an indication that the manufacturer has ensured a certain degree of quality control.
Buying a guitar that suits your playing style
- Try as many different necks as you can until you find a guitar neck that you feel comfortable with. Gibson favours a flat wide neck while Fender make guitars with a thinner neck. Some guitarists find that bending strings on a Gibson neck is more stable and precise due to the extra surface while others claim that Fender's smaller neck allows a faster technique. Try different necks until you find one that responds to your playing style.
- The guitar should be comfortable to hold. Some guitarist like the heavier weight of Gibsons while others prefer the thinner and lighter bodies of Stratocasters. More important is the sound and characteristics of a guitar; Telecasters are not as comfortable to hold as Stratocasters but many guitarists are drawn to their distinctive sound.
- The majority of new guitars have a medium action either set at the factory or adjusted by the dealer. Lead guitarists sometimes choose guitars that are designed with a very low action; sacrificing a small amount of tone to gain speed. Slide guitarists will raise the action up to a height that renders normal fretting very difficult though this does ensure clarity of tone when using a metal or glass slide with alternative tunings. A medium action is ideal for a beginner as it maintains tuning stability while providing a clear tone.
- Test as many models and price-ranges as you can. You should test guitars in the price range above your budget to familiarise yourself with the differences. Dealers are quite happy to give potential customers a long time to test different guitars without any sales pressure. Note that not all sales-assistants are guitarists; shops that sell keyboards and guitars may hire a pianist to demonstrate their keyboard range. In these situations the buyer must rely on his own knowledge when making a choice.
- Don't be distracted. Testing guitars involves all the mental faculties. Its during these moments that unscrupulous sales-assistants may cajole or pressure the buyer into a decision. If at any time during testing you feel as though someone has attempted to influence or distract you then walk away and go elsewhere.
Where to buy a guitar
- From a trusted friend or relative. Buying a guitar from a friend or relative who plays is an ideal way to avoid some of the common pitfalls of a first purchase. Relatives and friends may help you search for a good guitar if they don't have one they want to sell. It is recommended that the final choice should be made by the purchaser since guidance is never fool-proof.
- A local guitar or music store that has an established reputation. Many guitarists return to the same local shop to buy strings and other extras though a larger dealer should be sought if the range of guitars offered by your local dealer is too small. Second-hand guitars need to tested thoroughly before purchasing. If the buyer is unsure of what faults to look for then a new guitar might be the better option.
Buying situations where caution needs to be exercised
- Online guitar superstores or mail-order guitars. The player cannot test the guitar before they buy it.
- Don't buy a second-hand guitar from a pawn-broker until you are experienced at spotting faults. Pawn-brokers sometimes have a no refund policy and the buyer should ask about their returns policy before purchasing.
- Department stores sometimes stock a range of budget guitars. These need to be approached with caution since they may be made by manufacturers who specialise in mass production using low quality woods. Look for the familiar Fender Squier range or Yamaha models when purchasing from a department store.
- Be careful buying from eBay. Read the sellers ratings and refund policy. Any guitar bought online may suffer damage during transit so ask the seller who is liable for the damage. Postal services usually offer automatic compensation for goods that have been genuinely damaged during transport though the upper-amount paid may be capped. For expensive guitars transit insurance is essential. Note that eBay does make strenuous attempts to discourage forgeries though with guitars this becomes almost impossible to filter out. Most guitar forgeries are actually built using a mixture of original and new replacement parts. That forged Fender Stratocaster may actually have an authentic Fender neck coupled with a cheaper body from a Stratocaster copy. This mixing of original and cheap replacement parts makes it very difficult to spot these "kit" guitars which are sold at a price related to the genuine marques. There are many professional and conscientious sellers on eBay and if within travelling distance ask the vendor if you may view the guitar before purchasing.