Buying Your First Guitar

Fender guitar

So, you’ve decided that you want to learn how to play a guitar and want one of your very own. It’s a great start but you should be aware of some major do’s and don’ts before you spend your, or your parents, hard earned cash on what should be a long and happy relationship with your new best friend.

This article aims to answer some questions you might have and how to avoid the pitfalls that make so many potentially excellent guitarists give up and move on to other things. It’s also aimed at parents buying their budding protégés their first instrument that will lead them to fame and glory. Fingers crossed…

Set a Price Limit

The first thing you need to ask yourself is, “How much can I afford to spend on a guitar?”.

You should always try to buy the “best” instrument you can afford but also keep the budget at a sensible level. That way, if you decide that being a guitarist isn’t for you, you’ll be able to sell the instrument without losing a huge amount of money. There’s more about this under the Second-hand section.

There are many temptations, mainly supported by guitar snobs that can’t play particularly well but have spent a small fortune on their latest “must have but can’t play” famous name “axe”, that will encourage you to spend vast amounts of money to buy something that you don’t need, didn’t particularly want, and don’t particularly like. Ignore them – as Scott Grove would so eloquently say – they’re “guitarded!”.

What’s a good amount to spend? It’s entirely up to you, but you can buy a good quality electric or acoustic guitar for well under $300. You can also buy a guitar that costs several thousand dollars. As a beginner all you need is something that plays well and sounds good. These two points should be your main criteria.

Should I buy an acoustic or electric guitar?

That depends on many things. You should consider the type of music you enjoy listening to, who you are influenced by, what you hope to achieve with your playing, and what kind of sound you want to make. If you’re into classical, folk, country and western, delta blues, flamenco or any variation of these, then an acoustic is a good choice. If, on the other hand, you’re a fan of hard rock, heavy metal, pop, middle-of-the-road or any variation of these, then an electric is a good choice. Obviously I haven’t covered every possible style of music, but hopefully you get the idea.

Acoustics

There are lots of cheap, nylon strung, so-called “beginners” acoustic guitars available and almost 99% of them are rubbish and should be avoided with a vengeance. The main reasons for this are that they won’t stay in tune for more than ten seconds, have horrible action and intonation, sound completely dead and are difficult to re-string. The nylon strings might be easier on your fingers than metal-stringed acoustics, but at the end of the day – or practice session – you’ll be better off with a relatively inexpensive steel-strung acoustic. I’ve known several people that were given a cheap, nylon-strung, acoustic guitar as a “special present”. None of them tried to learn for more than a month before relegating the guitar to the attic/garage/eBay/never-to-be-seen-again place.

On the “up” side, companies such as FenderFender guitars make some excellent entry level acoustic guitars, and manufacturers such as Cort, Epiphone, Ibanez, Ovation and Tanglewood – to name just a few – produce great acoustics that can be purchased new or second-hand for very reasonable prices. Most of these manufacturers offer electro-acoustic guitars, too.

There are lots to choose from, but never go for the cheapest on the market and always avoid guitars marketed with terms such as “a great beginner’s guitar”. Trust me, they aren’t and you’ll regret it if you buy one…

Electrics

Where should we start? Fender StratocastersFender Stratocaster, in every variation from “USA made” to “Custom Shop” to “Squire” are possibly the most popular electric guitar, with the Gibson Les PaulGibson Les Paul models following at a very, very, close second. Different brands of electric guitars sound, feel, and play completely differently and the choice of which style/type/manufacturer you love most is entirely up to you.

If you want to sound like Jimi Hendrix, buy a Strat. If you want to sound like Jimmi Page, buy a Les Paul.

Most importantly – if you want to sound like you, buy what feels best and trust your instincts. Having said that, read on to tune your instincts into making the right decision.

Which is better – new, second-hand or online?

There is no definitive answer to this question, but some pointers are:

New

You can purchase new instruments online or from your local music store. With a store purchase, you can give the guitar a “try-out” and, even if you can’t play yet, you’ll at least know how the instrument feels in your hands. It takes no expertise to know if you like the feeling or not, and as the saying goes, “if it feels good, buy it”. Or something like that…

If you know someone that’s been playing for a while it’s always a good idea to bring them with you for advice. For the younger readers, this excludes idiots that have degrees in “air guitar” and Hendrix wanna be’s – both of whom should be ignored on every possible level, especially in or around a music shop.

You should never, ever, take what the “sales guy” says as either factual or honest and always trust both your instincts and advice from the guitarist you go shopping with. I’ve been to some great music shops where the instruments are perfectly setup, the staff are knowledgeable, helpful and don’t ever try to force a sale on you.

I’ve also been to others where the instruments haven’t been tuned up or adjusted since they came out of the packing crate and are hung on the wall in a virtually unplayable state. I could’ve bought one, taken it home and done a complete setup to “make it right”, but chose not to. Seriously – if they don’t care about the instruments they’re selling then why should anyone else? Most first time buyers can’t – and should never have to – setup an instrument to compensate for the dealers not bothering to. Here endeth the sermon!

Second-hand

Second-hand instruments that have been well looked after and maintained are as good as any, and believe it or not, sometimes better than buying something brand new and out-of-the-box. They’ve usually been “played-in”, meaning that the wood, neck, frets, truss rod, machine heads and so on have had time to settle into the natural environment instead of coming straight out of a crate after being shipped half way around the world and into your humble abode – where the temperature and humidity levels might just send these parts of the instrument into cardiac arrest.

Second-hand instruments are actually a good idea to investigate for your first purchase. The “ROI”, which is marketing slang for Return On Investment, will be much higher on a second-hand quality instrument costing half the price of a mediocre and/or poor quality new instrument should you decide that being a rock star isn’t your thing and want to sell your guitar after you’ve given up. Many people have found themselves in this situation – which is why you can find some great second-hand deals.

When purchasing a second-hand instrument, it’s always good to have a “guitar-tech” acquaintance that can sort out any issues you may find. Hopefully you won’t need one – but “just in case” …

Shopping Online

Online purchases of both new and second-hand instruments (or just about anything else, for that matter) can be either a mine field or a joy – but only if you know what you’re looking for and, once again, have a “guitar-tech” acquaintance that can sort out any issues once your delivery arrives.

I’ve purchased and sold (okay, I’ve purchased a lot more stuff than I’ve sold) instruments online and here’s a brief summary of my experiences. As you’ll see, the good far outweighed the bad but even I’ve been caught off-guard:

  • Bought – Danelectro retro-styled Longhorn bass. Not as described, played and sounded horrible and I sent it straight back.
  • Sold – Fender Precision Bass (circa 1986). The purchaser was happy and the description matched the item. Before shipping it, I’d also done a complete setup, including brand new strings, prior to sending the bass. If only everyone did this! I really wish I’d kept it.
  • Bought – Tri-cone Dobro Resonator guitar. All stainless steel and a b¤%ch to polish. Just required a new set of strings but arrived in great condition and was properly setup. Nice, and worth every penny.
  • Bought – New MK 6-string bass. Really great bass and excellent quality for a ridiculously low price. When it arrived, the first things I had to do were change the strings and setup the action and intonation. Not much and, considering the price, I was more than happy.
  • Bought – Alembic Mark King signature bass (made in 1996). Expensive, perfect, beautiful, and the best online purchase I’ve ever made.
  • Bought – Aria electric upright bass. From The Bass Centre in London. Arrived in perfect playing order, which met my expectations as I’ve know those guys for a long time – just never met any of them face-to-face.

Is there a difference between cheap and inexpensive?

The short answer is a huge and resounding YES. The long answer is as follows…

Many well-known manufacturers offer inexpensive versions of their premium products. A couple of prime examples are the Fender Squire and Gibson’s Epiphone range. They are usually a fraction of the price of the premium models – for example, a “Fender American Deluxe StratocasterFender American Deluxe Stratocaster” may cost $2099.99, whereas a “Fender Squire Affinity StratocasterFender Squire Affinity Stratocaster”, which comes complete with a Frontman 10G amplifier, costs $349.99. If you can tell the difference between them please let me know because I’ve played and listened to both and they are just as good as each other – at least to my hands and ears. I’ll be happy to discuss this at length with you and buy you some beers with the huge amount of money I’ve saved. For your first electric guitar, the Fender Squire wins hands down on all counts. Check out the prices and be amazed.

Guitars advertised as “cheap”, “budget”, or “beginner’s” guitars are generally to be avoided at all costs. You’ll be paying out for a rubbish quality instrument that is usually barely playable and that will turn a challenging yet wonderful journey into an unbearable experience.

Okay, I’ve done some research – so what’s a “ghost built” instrument?

A not too well kept secret in the guitar manufacturing world is that there are many lesser known companies that “ghost build” guitars for well-known manufacturers. According to this article:

“Ghost building is when a person other than the original builder/company makes a guitar and puts the original builder/company’s name on the headstock or anywhere else it’s required to make it look EXACTLY like the guitar being copied.”

This isn’t necessarily a bad thing, and a good example of this is the Cort Guitar Company that has built acoustic guitars that have been authorized by and bear the Martin logo. Buying a guitar with the Cort name and logo costs a lot less than half the price of their ghost built Martin’s, but the quality is just as good. Hmmm. Google the term and see for yourself…

I’m still confused. Who can I ask for more advice?

Yes, and so is everyone in this modern age of “TMI”. I’m still not sure if that acronym means “too much information” or “too many idiots”. I usually assume that it is applicable to the latter… There’s so much information, misinformation and advice available that it can be overwhelming.

Opinions are vast and variable, so who should you listen to and take advice from? Well, first and foremost, listen to your own feelings and impressions, and secondly the opinions from someone that you trust – whether they’re a musician, guitarist or not.

A prime example of this is my wife – a complete non-musician who can’t play a note but has more knowledge about guitars and basses than almost any person I’ve ever met. She can tell the difference between a Strat, Les Paul or PRS electric guitar, a Martin, Gibson, Fender or Ovation acoustic guitar and a Precision, Jazz, or Alembic bass (fretted or fretless) after mere seconds of listening and knows, instinctively, if a guitar or bass is “right”. Scares the hell out of me at times… The jury is still out whether she’s a natural listener, a genius, or simply a martyr for living with me for so long.

Take into account all of the above and go with what you feel, but know what you’re feeling.

I bought my first real six-string

And you’ll hopefully follow the next line in the Bryan Adams Summer of ’69 song:

“Played it ‘till my fingers bled!”

Trust me, when you begin to learn how to play a guitar your fingers will almost certainly bleed (mine did!) and, if you love it enough and have the right instrument, that won’t bother you at all.