As soon as you think you’ve found the right one, another one cathches your eye, and after a while it feels like you know even less than when you started. Sound familiar?
I know that feeling all too well. I made countless visits to various guitar shops in the hopes of finding “the one”, and spent a lot of money finding out the hard way.
Don’t worry, you won’t have to. Let’s go through the process together, and look at how to choose a guitar.
You’re not the only one looking to buy a guitar. As indicated by the chart below, guitar sales in the US is going up steadily.
Some general advice along the way never hurts, so here are three basic things to keep in mind.
Don’t pick the cheapest one
The truth is you get what you pay for, and the guitars at the lowest end of the spectrum are usually not that well built. Many of them are not playable, and so not worth your money. This applies to complete beginners as well as those of you who might have played for a while. Maybe you have a guitar that was given to you, and you want to buy something new.
Buying a crap guitar could ruin the experience so much that you might stop playing altogether. And we can’t have that can we?
What music styles are you interested in?
Most guitars can be played in a wide variety of music genres, but there are certain things you should consider here.
Whether you are into classical guitar, death metal or fusion jazz there are certain types of guitars that are associated with particular musical styles. If you favour a very special music genre you probably already know this, and I bet you already know what to go for. Even if you enjoy many different genres, it’s still worth spending a few minutes thinking about what music you like the most, and what sound you want.
Decide if you want an acoustic or electric guitar
This probably sounds like a no brainer, but shouldn’t be overlooked nonetheless. If you’re just looking to try and see if playing guitar is for you, and you don’t want to spend too much, maybe acoustic is the way to go. You can essentially just pick one up and start playing. It’s simple and affordable.
Electric guitars, on the other hand, need a little more research. You also need an amp and usually a slew of other equipment. A little more expensive, but so much fun it almost hurts.
Are you just looking to play a little sing along around the campfire with your friends? Are you going to play in a band?
Determining your price range
Having a budget makes it all a little easier. Spending time looking at guitars that are too expensive, even though fun, is a waste of your time.
As already mentioned, you ignore the cheapest ones, and then you decide on a maximum price. Everything in between is your hunting grounds. And honestly, you do not have to spend all that much to find a gorgeous, playable, great-sounding guitar.
Save some money for accessories
This is mainly for electric guitars. You’re going to need some accessories along with your new axe, so make sure to include that in your budget. Don’t blow it all on the guitar itself, as you’ll be needing an amp, a case or a bag, cables, a tuner, a strap etc.
Nylon or steel strings
Well, here’s what you need to know. Nylon-stringed classical guitars are smaller in size and therefore easier to hold. The strings are also easier on your fingers, which would appear to make them ideal for beginners. But, their sound is often specific to classical or spanish guitar with a tone that isn’t as full and deep.
The steel string acoustic on the other hand is a lot louder, with a more full-bodied sound. And even though the strings are harder on your fingers, you’ll soon develop calluses. Problem solved.
Get the right size and shape
This is especially important if you’re buying a guitar for a child. It’s good to know that most guitars also come in 34″ 1/2 size and 36″ 3/4 size.
As already mentioned, a steel string guitar is bigger than a classical guitar. There are several different sizes and shapes available, but the most common ones are Parlor, Dreadnought and Jumbo
The Parlor sized guitar is the smallest steel string guitar size apart from Travel and Mini guitars. Naturally, the sound is a little more modest than it’s big brother, the Dreadnought
Dreadnoughts are the workhorse of acoustic guitars, and are by and large the most versatile guitar shape around. They have a more straight body than the Jumbo, with a fat sounding low end and a snappy top end with great clarity. A singer song writer’s dream.
The jumbo normally has a circular style body with a tight waist, with a snappier sound. More for strumming than for finger picking, and quite popular in country music.
What about tonewood?
Wood is of course the obvious material of choice for building guitars due to its ability to effectively transport sound. But different types of wood have different tonal qualities. Some produce brighter sounds while others create warmer, deeper tones. When you choose an electric guitar this doesn’t matter as much, since there are so many other variables affecting the sound, i.e pickups, amp, effect pedals etc.
However, when it comes to choosing an acoustic guitar this becomes all the more important. Let’s take a closer look at the most common ones.
Mahogany – Probably the heaviest of them all, this tone-wood is very resonant with a very rich tone. Expect a more twangy sound. Also very durable.
Rosewood – Also on the heavy side. This stunning tone-wood produces a rich and loud sound, and is quite expensive due to its rarity. So expect Rosewood guitars to be on the pricey side. Rosewood is also used for fretboards.
Maple – Primarily used for neck and fretboard. Expect an extremely bright sound.
Apart from the difference in sound, these tonewoods also look different. This might add (or not) to their appeal. Maybe not a major thing, but might still affect your buying decision. If you want know more about these thing, please check out our article on tonewood.
Things get way more complicated once you decide to get an electric guitar. Whether it’s your first guitar altogether, or you wanna upgrade from that low quality guitar you bought on a wim, there are many more things to consider before buying.
My first electric guitar was a cheap stratocaster copy that was part of a “rock package”. Stay away from those. Already after a couple of months I wanted to upgrade to something better. As often is the case, overwhelm sets in once you start to familiarise yourself with the vast landscape of available guitars, and it’s difficult to get a good understanding of what to look for.
So, let’s sink our teeth into the stuff that is worth considering before buying.
What to look for in an electric guitar
First, let’s look at the body. Electric guitars come in three basic body styles: Solid body, semi hollow and hollow body. Perhaps it goes without saying, but a solid body is best put to use if sustain and loud amplification with lots of effects are required.
On the other side of the spectrum you have the more “jazzy” hollow body, which will provide a lot more acoustic sound. Just beware, these body types can cause a bit of feedback at high levels of amplification.
Semi hollow sits nicely in between.
I know there are quite a few guitarists who can argue all day long about the difference in tone in the various tonewoods , even in electric guitars. For acoustic guitars it is definitely a thing, but in all honesty, it’s very difficult to tell any real difference when it comes to electric guitars. There are just so many other things affecting sound, and chances are you’ll never tell the difference. Moving on!
Here it basically comes down to two things; sustain and comfort. Some people say a set neck neck (think Les Paul) has better sustain than a bolt-on neck (think Stratocaster). Whether you have big hands or small hands will definitely be a factor. We’ll get into necks and fretboards a bit further down.
There are several different ones, but the two most commonly used scale lengths are 25.5” and 24.75”. Important for tonal quality, as it dictates the tension on the strings, but is also a matter of feel and comfort.
This is super important, and cannot be overlooked. Intonation determines whether a note will stay in tune as you move up the neck. A badly intonated guitar is best avoided, but just know it can be fixed.
Number of frets
Well, either 22 or 24. Having 24 frets means you can play a full octave about the 12th fret. But it also means a wider stretch for your fretting hand when playing the lower frets.
The two things you need to consider here are tremolo bridge and stoptail bridge. A tremolo bridge allows for a whammy bar, which is great fun but may cause strings to go out of tune. A stoptail is more stable as far as tuning is concerned. There are also tremolo systems, such as Floyd Rose, that have locking systems in place to ensure the guitar stays in tune. These are brilliant if you’re into dive bombs and all that 80’s hair metal stuff. Just be aware that changing strings will be a little more time consuming.
Single coil or humbuckers? Or a combination of both? Don’t worry, we’ll cover that in greater detail further down.
Tuning pegs/machine heads
This is very important, so choose wisely. A guitar that constantly goes out of tune will drive you mad. Definitely worth making sure your guitar has quality ones installed.
Last, but not least, we have the actual look and appearance of the guitar. The finish on the guitar has absolutely nothing to do with how it sounds, only how nice it is to look at. And that’s not a small thing…
Time to get into more detailed stuff…
This is definitely one of the big things to consider, hands down. Some even say they are the soul of the guitar. The pickups you choose will have a huge impact on your sound. Remember, a well built pickup with high-end magnets and carefully installed internal wiring leads to a better output. Period.
Of course, the placement of the pickups also impact sound, but this is something you rarely need to consider when choosing a guitar. Most manufacturers do a good job.
There are a variety of pickups available, but the two most common ones you’ll come across are single coil pickups and humbuckers.
Single coil pickups are very bright sounding, with great clarity. They tend to amplify exactly what you play, your slides and bends and all the moving around the fretboard. This can be somewhat unforgiving for some players, as a sloppy playing style gets more attention.
Although amazing tonal qualities for clean and overdriven sounds, they do tend to feedback a lot when the amp is pushed a little harder into distortion. Especially through a distortion pedal. The way they are built makes them prone to pick up pretty much anything around them, like an antenna. This can become a bit annoying when playing with a lot of distortion. So if you hear a hum from your amp, even when you’re not touching the guitar, that’s what’s going on.
Single coil pickups are very popular in the blues & rock genre, and can be found on Fender guitars and many other brands. In terms of sound, think Eric Clapton, Jimi Hendrix, Stevie Ray Vaughn, Keith Richards, David Gimour etc.
A humbucker uses two coils to “buck the hum”, or to cancel interference. In other words, unlike the single coil they don’t attract a lot of other noises or vibrations around them, making them rather quiet and forgiving.
Unfortunately they lack the clarity of the single coil, which is why some guitarists shy away from them. Instead they are famous for producing a warm, full sound, with a lot “of meat” to it. This is why they have attracted a big following in jazz and heavy metal.
The two coils mean extended power and a higher output. This allows for more range and control for volume and tone. That, and the fact that they don’t pick up so much noise around them make them ideal for distortion. You can push the amp to its limits and still have great sound control. A lot more forgiving in other words.
Guitar necks explained
Again, yet another subject that is fiercely debated among guitarists. This is hardly a surprise since no two guitarists are alike, but is it all just down to personal preference? Mostly, but not entirely. There are definitely features that stand out that are good to know about. Those things are wood, neck joint and profile.
As already mentioned there are tonal differences to the various types of woods, but also differences in weight and how hard and durable they are. This should not be any of your greatest concerns before buying, but is good to keep in the back of your head.
Set Neck – This means the neck is glued into place for a seamless fit, which is a very traditional way to mount a guitar neck. They are very sturdy and durable, with great sustain and playability. Only problem is they are tricky to repair. A good example of a set neck is a Gibson Les Paul
Neck-Through – Here the neck is actually a part of the guitar’s body, and extends the whole length of the instrument. These necks are said to produce the best sustain ever, and offer amazing stability. Just don’t break them, cause you might just have to get a new guitar.
Bolt-On Neck – Yes, you guessed it. These necks are bolted, or screwed, onto the body. Although these necks are believed to produce the least amount of sustain, they are cheap to make and very easy to replace if broken.
The shape of the neck, or the profile, is without a doubt the part on a guitar that is most personal. I mean here it is down to one thing only, and that is what feels good in your hand. What fits your hands and fingers the best? And this matters a lot. The more comfortable a guitar is, the better you’ll play. Try a few and go with one you like the most
Do frets matter?
Yes, but very little. The main takeaway is that jumbo frets can provide more playability and better sustain, as your fingers probably won’t touch the fretboard. You can play them with a lighter touch, but it will take a little getting used to if you have only played guitars with medium frets before. Not something that will make or break your decision to buy.
Having a fact based, scientific approach to choosing a guitar has it’s advantages. I mean it’s fantastic to have a good understanding of the factors that determine a good guitar, right?
However, personal preference when it comes to aesthetic appeal, and how the guitar feels in your hands, cannot be ignored. It’s so subjective and difficult to explain, and it’s difficult to analyse why we like the things we like. It’s the emotions that we attach to the instrument that make it all the more valuable to us.
Owning a guitar you’re proud of will often motivate you to play more. A guitar you really like will make you feel good, and that’s ultimately what playing guitar is all about. I’m not saying you should only pick a guitar that looks cool, but it’s important to take into consideration alongside musical qualities.
Are you confused? I hope not. Choosing the right guitar for you entails many things, and there is a lot to consider. Sometimes we’re not able to tick all the boxes. It might also be a longer process than expected.
But, you should definitely have enough knowledge by now to make a good, informed decision on where to spend your hard earned cash. So remember, stick to your budget, consider what music you like the most, and what sounds good to you. Try out different necks and pickup combinations, and then just go with the one that immediately jumps at you.
There is no such thing as “The Best Guitar” that we can all agree on. Beyond making sure the guitar is well crafted and meets your technical requirements, trust your instincts. If it sounds good and looks good, just go for it.