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How to Buy a Guitar - A Beginner's Guide

Here’s a quick beginner’s guide for those of you thinking of buying a guitar. If you haven’t really got a clue what you are doing, or even what type of guitar you’d like i.e an acoustic, electric, strat or spanish etc. there are a few things you need to look out for and a couple of vital points to follow to ensure you don’t buy a turkey.

Before Reading Street MusicianAfter Reading Street Musician

Bush with a New TurkeyBush with a New Turkey

The most important thing you really need to decide is what sort of music you want to play with your guitar. If you’re a thrash metal head, there’s no point in going out and buying a classical guitar to play Slayer covers on, alternatively, you don’t need a flying ‘V’ to strum a few David Gray tracks either.

Decide what your future goals are. Do you just want to fiddle about a bit, play a couple of chords here and there, or do you want to take it further and play for friends or at jam nights etc.. If you want to join a band or become a serious musician, you need to really think seriously about your purchase as what you buy now could affect your future plans. Buying a low quality guitar and expecting it to see you through to a professional level is unrealistic. There is also no point in spending £400 on a guitar that is going to be gathering dust in the corner of the room for the the next few years.

Are you the sort of person who sticks with things or do you buy new equipment for your latest fad and then leave it hanging around unused for months on end. Ninety percent of people who buy guitars, never really play them.

Think about your goals carefully and in a practical sense. We all want to be able to play like Hendrix or Satriani, but is your lifestyle geared in a way that would allow you to dedicate enough practice time to your playing to achieve that sort of standard. Most people have commitments that rule their daily lives and if your life is jam packed, you may find it hard to live up to your own expectations. Becoming ace on the guitar takes a lot of time and dedication.

If you decide you want an electric guitar, sooner or later you are going to have to pay a few hundred $ more for your sound and fx set up. This will include racks or pedals, amps, leads etc.

Every electric guitarist needs fx like distortion and reverb/chorus/delay etc. to make your electric sound great and keep you interested. If you don’t have good set up you’ll pretty soon get bored with your sound and this will affect your playing.

The two most popular types of electric guitars are the strats or strat copy style and those with double locking trem systems. They both have advantages and disadvantages, and are completely different to play. There is also a new breed of guitars nowadays being referred to as ‘super strats’. Which are a sort of cross between both. i.e a strat with a double locking trem.

Cort Super Strat

Cort Super Strat

Some people love strats. They are great to play, and easy to tune. The only real problem I have with strats is if you really want to go to town and start dive bombing , string bending and hammering the whammy bar to the floor and back, you will end up with serious tuning problems. The idea of a guitar with a double locking trem is that if they are set up properly, they are ‘supposed’ to stay in tune what ever sort of abuse you throw at them. They are however, more difficult to set up, tune and maintain than strats, but once you get the hang of it, this doesn’t really pose a problem. There are hundreds of guides on the net nowadays that will teach you how to set up a locking trem system.

Stratocaster

Stratocaster

For general playing styles like rock, funk, or jazz etc. a strat will do nicely. Famous strat players include the likes of Eric Clapton, John Frusciante from the Chili Peppers, Dave Gilmore (Pink Floyd), The Edge (U2), Jimi Hendrix and Mark Knopfler (Dire Straits).

Your basic heavy or thrash metal styles are definitely more suited to a guitar with a DLT like the E.S.P KH2 shown below.

Esp Guitar with Double Locking Trem and 24 Frets

Esp with Double Locking Trem

Guitars with these type of trem systems are widely used by many famous bands and guitar players such as Eddie Van Halen, Joe Satriani, Steve Vai, Metallica, Slayer, Megadeath etc.

The system locks the length of the string between two points ensuring the guitar stays in tune. If you are not sure if your guitar has a locking trem system, just check the bridge and nut ends.

Locking Bridge

Locking Bridge

Locking Nut

Locking Nut

Personally, I’m not into strat type guitars. For me an electric has to have a locking trem system as a basic requirement. However you must try each of these different styles of guitar to find one that best suits you and your style of music.

If you choose to buy an electric make sure they have 22 or 24 frets not just 21. Once you start soloing, you’ll find you need that 22nd to hit a lot of notes from solo’s written by popular guitarists. There’s nothing worse than spending a few days learning a solo, and then finding your guitar doesn’t fret high enough to hit the last note.

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An acoustic is ideal for playing nicer types of music, and has the added benefit of sounding great without the need for expensive fx pedals or amps.

Steel String Acoustic

With an acoustic, you can easily impress your mates just by learning a few chords and a couple of songs. Take it anywhere with the minimum of fuss and do some busking when you get bored.

If you get an acoustic, get a steel string electro acoustic with a cut out so your fingers can reach higher up the fret board for soloing. As a beginner, you may not need to use your acoustic for much soloing at first, but as you progress and start to take up more challenging pieces, if your guitar has no cut out, you will find it practically impossible to get above the 15th fret when playing.

Acoustic with Cut Out

Acoustic Guitar with Cut Out

Try and get your acoustic with as many frets as possible. Preferably 21 or more.

Make sure your choice of guitar has an equaliser built in. A few years ago, electro acoustic guitars with graphic equalisers were really expensive. Nowadays, most electro acoustics come equipped with eq’s. Electronic components are smaller and cheaper than ever before and manufacturers even stick eq systems on budget guitars.

If you are thinking of getting into styles such as Spanish, flamenco or classical, then you should go for a gut or nylon string classical guitar.

Classical Guitar

Classical Guitar

An electro acoustic is a must as sooner or later you will have to plug it in to get more volume for your gig or street session.

Make sure you try loads of guitars in loads of shops before you buy. Don’t just buy the first thing you get your hands on and don’t be pushed into buying a guitar unless you absolutely love it. You will know when you find the right guitar because you will just have to have it. If you don’t feel the urge or the guitar doesn’t make you smile, don’t buy it. If you don’t have many guitar shops where you live and you don’t find what you are looking for, take a full day out and go to your nearest big town or city. You need to find a guitar that you are going to love so much, you’ll want to play it every day.

It’s not just the sound of the guitar, you must also like the look and feel of it, the whole vibe. I once bought a guitar in a rush for a gig I was doing as my main one needed repairs. It sounded beautiful and was easy to play, but I didn’t really have any connection with it as I bought it in such a rush. I used it for the gig and then never played it much after that. I just never really had the urge to pick it up. I’d happily play all my other guitars daily.

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One thing to be aware of is the difference between standard backed acoustics and bowl back guitars. As the term suggests, they have rounded backs. Ovation guitars are generally bowl backed. Some players prefer them and they sound good, but you may find practicing on a bowl back can be slightly more awkward than a standard straight backed guitar, especially when played in a sitting position as they can have a tendency to gradually slip from your knee whilst you play.

Putting your guitar down and leaning it against walls and things becomes more of a hassle due to their rounded nature. It may be a minor issue but I find it a real hassle not being able to sling your guitar down anywhere you like for a few seconds without it slipping of the edge. You shouldn’t really put your guitar down anyway without it being in a secure position, but everyone does now and again.

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Once you’ve found it, and know which guitar you want, get the make and model and check online. See if you can get it cheaper than your shop price and then go in and bargain for it.

If you’re just messing with the idea of playing and not too serious, just get your self a starter guitar pack for around £100-150. You should get an amp, straps lead and stand all thrown in for that price.

If you are looking for a reasonable guitar that will take you right the way through to advanced stages of playing, and get you into an average band, you should be thinking about spending £200 – £350 on your ideal guitar.Then think about fx and amps on top of that.

Bear in mind that generally, the more expensive your guitar is, the nicer it will be and the easier it will be to play. Once you start heading for £400 – 800 and above, you are looking at some seriously nice guitars at professional level.

Make sure you get a strap and lead, or maybe a gig bag, tuner or guitar stand thrown in. Or money off extra purchases.

Get a sturdy guitar stand. Preferably the type that hang the guitar from the neck like the Hercules or similar. Don’t lean your new guitar up against a wall when you get home. Someone’s bound to knock the thing over sooner or later and that’ll be your pride and joy knackered.

One last thing, make sure you check the guitar thoroughly for scratches, dents and blemishes before you buy it. It is not unusual for a guitar to have been damaged in transit or been knocked by a buyer previously trying it out. If you find any, get them to replace it with an undamaged one or ask for an extra discount.

If you’ve got any other tips to add to this guide, feel free to post them in the comments below.

Posted 13.11.08

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Guitar Practice
The Correct Way to String a Guitar
Conquering Bar (Barre) Chords
Guitar Chords Made Easy

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