Listed below is a description of things to consider when buying a guitar for yourself or someone else. Each player’s age, height, skills, and interests should be taken into account when purchasing an instrument. It is important to mention that the main determining factor for proficiency on any instrument is the musician’s practice and persistence. If you want your guitar to sound good, practice as often as possible.
Guitars for Children – Under 4’7” Height
3/4th Size Electric Guitar
Sometimes categorized as a mini, short scale, or travel guitar. I recommend electric guitars because they use lighter gauge (thinner) strings, of which requires less hand strength to press on the frets.
For parents who don’t like the idea of their child playing an electric guitar because it can be played at a loud volume, there is always the option of listening to the instrument thru headphones instead of a speaker.
Alternatives for Children
3/4th Size Acoustic Guitar
Sometimes categorized as a mini, short scale, or travel guitar. Some teachers argue that the extra pressure it takes to hold down on the heavier gauge strings of the acoustic guitar is beneficial, because it builds hand strength. I believe it can also lead to discouragement and frustration, because if the frets aren’t held with enough force, then the notes will have a tone that rattles and buzzes.
3/4th Size Classical Guitar
This instrument uses nylon (plastic) strings, which are more forgiving, because they do not “cut” into the player’s fingertips. The problem is that these instruments typically have a wider neck, so it is difficult to reach across the fretboard, especially for youngsters with smaller hands.
Pre-Teenage to Adult Beginners
Almost any basic full sized electric or acoustic guitar is suitable for the beginning guitarist. People who are of small stature (especially girls/women) who are considering an acoustic guitar might look at purchasing an instrument with a slim-line (slim-body) design. Acoustic guitars that can be plugged in and amplified are known as acoustic/electric guitars. They are a good, yet more expensive option, for beginner students. Tuning the guitar can be a hassle for an inexperienced player, so it’s worth it to consider purchasing an acoustic guitar with a built in tuner (there are not very many electric guitars with the option of a built in tuner).
Many guitars that have been exposed to years of neglected will need to be adjusted or repaired before they are in suitable condition for a beginner to learn on. In other words, that old guitar that you discovered in your attic or you bought at a yard sale might not be best thing for a beginner student.
Intermediate (under $500)
If you buy one of these instruments you might be paying extra to have a name brand instrument that has a reputation for quality. The price might reflect cosmetic enhancements. Acoustic guitars in this price range often come with electronic pickups and/or a built in tuner. At this cost, acoustic guitars tops should be selected from quarter-sawn pieces of wood (these guitars are called “solid top”) as opposed to laminate or slab cut. On electric guitars, the extra cost might get you more reputable pickups.
Expert/Advanced (over $500)
In my opinion, instruments in this category cost much more than you get out of them. In other words, it takes practice, not an expensive instrument to make you sound like an excellent player. Nonetheless, expensive guitars are manufactured under pristine conditions with accurate attention paid to the smallest details. The precision that is used to construct these instruments makes for improved playability and sound quality. These guitars also often have fancy inlays or other ornamental designs that add to the cost, so you often get caught paying not for just improved functionality, but appearance.
Beginners can generally overlook these options. People who have some basic knowledge of the guitar could consider an instrument with one of these features.
Guitars that have this design function with a spring-loaded bridge of which accommodates a whammy/tremolo bar. The popular Fender Stratocaster is designed with this type of bridge. Using a whammy/tremolo bar will make the guitar go out of tune, therefore it can be frustrating for most beginners, because they are not skilled at re-tuning their instrument. If a beginner really wants the Stratocaster design, then I would advise them to remove/unscrew the whammy/tremolo bar from the instrument. The springs that are hidden under the bridges of this type of guitar get stretched out and need to be replaced, so you always have the issue of added maintenance with this design.
Floyd Rose System
This style of locking bridge/nut/tuners is designed to keep guitars with spring-loaded bridges in tune. This design is complicated and maintenance can be a nightmare, so purchasing one of these is not for the faint of heart.
Acoustic Guitar with a Cutaway
There is an indentation at the body of this guitar near the upper frets of which allows the player to access the very high notes of the instrument.
Duel Transducer Acoustic/Electric Guitar
These instruments have both a microphone (sound sensitive) and a piezo (touch sensitive) pickup. You can control the amount that each transducer is heard with separate volume controls designated for each pickup.
3/4th Size Travel Guitar
Sometimes categorized as a mini, or a short scale guitar. They are great for airline travel, because they can be used as a carry-on and they fit in the overhead compartment of commercial airplanes.
This type of guitar uses nylon (plastic) strings, which makes for a soft tone. It also has a wider neck, which makes it easier to perform fingerpicking arrangements.
12 String Guitar
This acoustic instrument is played like a six string guitar. Each of the six strings is paired with another string that produces the same note or a note that is an octave higher in pitch.
Semi-Hollow Body/Hollow Body Guitars
These electric guitars create a “classic” clean tone with some of the characteristics of a solid bodied electric guitar.
These guitars look cool but are a bit awkward to hold, so be prepared.
7 String Guitars
This is an electric guitar used primarily by heavy metal musicians. This instrument has an extra low pitch ‘B’ string.
These are low-pitch guitars tuned a perfect fourth or fifth below a normal guitar.
The Gibson Robot and the Gibson Dark Fire are stock guitars that tune themselves, but you can have almost any guitar retrofitted to have an automatic tuning system.
This is an instructional instrument that is plugged into your computer. The fretboard of the guitar lights-up and guides the player thru songs/exercises/scales. Fretlight guitars are well worth the money for any student who is a self-motivated learner.
Inspecting a Guitar Before a Purchase
Look for cracks, especially where the neck of the guitar joins the body. The action (the distance the strings are from the fretboard) is something you want to feel comfortable with. I always inspect the neck to make sure it is straight or slightly concave (from headstock to soundhole/pickups). I want to make sure the neck is not twisted in reference to the low and high strings. The frets should be symmetrical and evenly spaced. I play every note of the guitar that I’m thinking of purchasing by moving thru a “chromatic exercise”. I also like to have someone else play the guitar, so I can make sure I like the sound of it when I’m standing from the standpoint of an audience member. If I’m testing an electric guitar I play it thru a small amplifier with no effects or processing, because expensive amplifiers etc. will make any guitar sound great, but simple equipment will not. I also wiggle the guitar cable where it meets the insert jack of the instrument and listen for crackling sounds. I give the volume/tone control knobs a hard turn, beyond their limits, to make sure they are not loose, while I also listen for functionality and crackling.
Electric Guitar Pickups
Single Coil Pickup
Fender guitars are well known for this design.
The single coil pickup has a “primitive” design using single rows of pickups: magnet(s) coiled in wire. They provide the player with a clean/clear/brite tone, but many guitar players use this clean tone only as a start point. They then layer effects such as distortion, phasing, or echo to their sound to make it more interesting. These guitars are more sensitive to ground noise and other wireless interference. Decades ago, this made it difficult to use these instruments in pristine environments such as recording studios. They now have electronic processors that “cut” out the noise before it is recorded.
Gibson guitars are known for this design.
The humbucking pickup was designed to alleviate the extraneous noise problems that are found with guitars that use single coil pickups. Two single coil pickups are placed in tandem with each other. Because of their proximity to each other, they “electronically” cancel out the noise that is inherent with single coil pickups. They also have a warm/rich/deep tone that some guitarists prefer.
My opinion is that a guitar amplifier (the amp) is the most important factor that contributes to the sound of an electric guitar. The guitar amplifier has two separate aspects of its design that make it function. One section is actually called the amplifier. This component can function using either of two types of circuitry: Tube or Solid-State electronics. The amplifier increases the voltage of the guitar’s signal to make it large enough to drive the second component of the guitar amp: The Speaker. An amplifier’s power is measured in watts. A 30watt solid-state amplifier will usually give the guitarist enough volume to perform with a kit drummer (the loudest instrument in the band). A tube amp rated at a lower power level (15watts) is usually enough compete with the volume levels of most drummers.
Tube amps operate by transforming voltages using cathode ray vacuum tubes and give a “warm tone” to the instrument. This design is often preferred because of the vintage tone that it provides, but tubes are similar in design to incandescent light bulbs and need to be replaced ever few years. Other components of tube amplifiers need regular maintenance, and it takes technical skills to service your amp, so if you buy a tube amp, you should expect to have some occasional maintenance issues.
The main operating feature of this design relies on the transistor to alter voltage levels of the guitar signal. These amplifiers sound “crisp” and “clear” when compared to their tube amp counterparts. These types of amps don’t require general maintenance.
The speaker(s) is the second component of a guitar amp to consider. Most guitar amps are sold as combo amps (combination amplifiers), meaning the amplifier and speaker(s) share the same enclosure (closed or open back), but they can also be found as separate units. In this case the amplifier is sold separately and it is described as the “head” and the speaker(s) is called the “cabinet”. Most combo amps/cabinets come with a configuration that consists of one, two, or four speakers. Speakers come in 10” and/or 12” sizes.
Inspecting an Amplifier for Before a Purchase
You can save a lot of money by purchasing a used guitar amp. Keep in mind, that solid-state amps are much easier to diagnose. To inspect an amplifier, I play it at a reasonable volume on a clean (not distorted) channel and listen for crackles, pops and hissing. I wiggle the section of the guitar cable that attaches to the amp and listen for crackling. I turn the volume and tone controls and listen for crackling/cutting-out. I inspect the condition of the power cable and wiggle the section of the cable that leads to the amp. If the amp turns off or cuts out when I perform this test, then there is a problem with the power cable or a connecting point. I test the gain/distortion channels and turn the control knobs that coincide with those channels. I do all of these while playing my instrument and while my instrument is idle. I also set the volume at a reasonable and a very high level and perform while listening for rattles that might be coming from loose pieces within the amplifier/speaker.
These are an essential addition for your guitar if you intend to use a strap and stand up while playing your instrument. A strap without a locking mechanism often comes unexpectedly un-hooked and falls off the player’s shoulder. This device solves that problem.
Hard Shell Case
Although it is bulky, it is the ultimate in travel protection.
A high quality bag/backpack (beware of cheap ones flimsy ones) makes for convenient travel with your instrument.
This is an essential accessory that every beginner should have. The kind that is designed to be clipped to the headstock of the instrument is one of the better options. Acoustic instruments can be purchased that have built in tuners and electric guitar players have the option of using the tuner that is built into a Multi-Effects Pedal.
Acoustic Pickup (aftermarket)
This is inserted in the sound hole of an acoustic guitar to make it possible to plug it into an amplifier. It usually functions much like an electric guitar with magnetic pickups rather than an actual microphone or piezo pickup.
Picks: Any standard sized medium thickness pick will work. For children, I recommend smaller sized picks with medium thickness. I recommend that my students avoid gimmicks such as picks that you slip onto your thumb, like a ring, to hold it in place.
Effects Pedals and Multi-Effects Pedals
Effects pedals change the characteristics of the sound of the guitar. Some (but not most) provide exclusive functions that have nothing to do with the sound of the instrument such as a tuner, drum machine, or sampler. Most effects pedals provide the player with sounds such as reverb(echo), distortion(heavy metal), or phasing(synthesizer). I often recommend Mult-Effects Pedals to my students because they include many effects, a tuner, and often a drum machine/metronome. They can also cost as much as a stand-alone effects pedal, but they have many more functions.
Martin, Taylor, Takamine, and Yamaha are reputable brands. Other popular brands include Washburn, Ibanez, Alvarez, Fender, Seagull, and Gibson/Epiphone. Fishman electronics are one of the most reputable brands of electronics for an acoustic guitar.
Fender and Gibson are the leaders in the electric guitar market. Paul Reed Smith (PRS) might be considered a worthwhile competitor. Other popular brands include Ibanez, Epiphone (Gibson), Schecter, Jackson, Dean Markley, Jay Turser, and ESP.
Pickups for Electric Guitars:
EMG Pickups or Seymour Duncan are popular stock and after-market brands.
Fender (American) and Marshall (British) are the two leading brands in the electric guitar amplifier market. Line 6, Peavey, Behringer, Kustom, Vox, and Crate are some less popular options. Fishman is the leader in acoustic guitar amplifier technology.
Celestion and Jenson speakers are popular after-market replacement brands.
Effects Pedals and Multi-Effects Pedals
The leading brands are Boss and DigiTech. Other popular brands include Zoom, Line 6, Behringer, Vox, and Roland.
Purchasing an Instrument from Individuals
Generally speaking, the least expensive option for purchasing an instrument is thru an individual who advertises locally on a website such as craigslist.org. Many people buy guitars with the intention of learning to play the instrument, but they do not end up pursuing their goals. They often sell these practically unused instruments for much less than the original cost. You can easily find a decent acoustic guitar for about $50 thru an individual.
Purchasing an Instrument at a Store
The benefit of purchasing a guitar at a store is that they stock a large selection of instruments that you can choose from. In most cases, they stand behind the quality of their instruments, so if there is a problem with the guitar, then they will usually do what they can to resolve it. The personality of the sales people at the store can be something to consider. Are you comfortable with their opinions and sales tactics?
Local Music Stores in the Seacoast Area of New Hampshire
Exeter Music – They supply a very good selection of beginner guitars and intermediate instruments. You can also rent a guitar here with a percentage of the money spent on the rental going toward the purchase of the instrument.
Local Pawn Shops – Very low prices but limited selection and limited guarantees.
Earcraft – Locally owned store that has the inventory of a large chain.
Guitar Center – This national chain is owned by Musicians Friend. They have a very large selection of options and low prices.
Purchasing an Instrument Online
You don’t get to actually check the guitar out before you buy it when purchasing instruments online. Returning guitars is a hassle. For this reason, I almost never buy guitars thru online vendors, but I do purchase almost all of my musical electronics this way.
Musicians Friend – Excellent selection and outstanding prices. Customer service is average to say the least. The product reviews that buyers post on this website can be used as legitimate guides for your purchase.
Sweetwater – Excellent selection and good prices. They pride themselves with excellent customer service. I’ve been assigned the same sales representative for over ten years!!! He calls me after I receive every purchase to make sure that I’m happy with my order. Their customer product reviews are not legitimate, as they obviously delete the negative ones.
Ebay – If you really know what you want, and you’re familiar with using ebay, then this can be a very inexpensive option.
The idea for the consumer is to find the right balance of cost and suitability. Doing some research before you make a purchase allows you to have consumer confidence, and with that, you can be comfortable with your final decision. Having a friend shop with you who is more knowledgeable in regards to guitars can also help you make your decision. Like I mentioned before, no matter what instrument a guitarist ends up with, the ultimate thing that makes him/her sound better on the guitar is diligence and practice!!