So you have decided to take up playing guitar but are not quite sure how to go about picking up the right equipment. You know you want the best guitar and amp for your budget but being inexperienced how can you make that determination?
Sure the salesperson at the local mega-store or hock shop will sell you a setup but there are a few pitfalls to watch out for along the way. Hopefully after reading this, you will have a better understanding of what to look out for when purchasing your instrument.
What kind of guitar and where to get it?
Everyone and their dog seems to have the answer to which guitar you need and where to get it. Be it a brand X guitar purchased from guitar superstore Y, or brand Z from a pawn shop. One word of advice before purchasing, homework. As in, do your research before buying so you are relatively informed as to the guitar you want.
The pawn shop: Not a bad way to go however an inexperienced player could get burned going that way. There are great deals to be had when you know what to look for. I would suggest taking a more seasoned player along when going the pawn shop route. Some shops pricing structures are very close to new guitar prices at which point I would just buy new if unable to haggle them down. Instruments are typically sold as-is meaning no warranty.
The guitar superstore: Also not a bad way to purchase a guitar. Though be ready for a salesman to swoop in and possibly try to oversell you equipment. On the other hand there are some decent salespeople at these types of stores who will not attempt the aforementioned hard-sell type of tactics. The large selection is a plus but can also leave you dazzled and open to the up sell. Again this is where doing your homework will come into play. You can also haggle over the "out the door" price with your salesperson. Further you will likely have some recourse if the equipment is defective but this policy will vary from store to store.
Online: A selection that cannot be topped. If you have decided on the guitar you want this is not a bad way to go. The biggest drawback is not being able to play the instrument before buying. This makes the previously mentioned homework even more important when going this way. Some people will use the guitar store for testing and then purchase online after the decision is made, to try and mitigate this dilemma.
The Paper: Many papers, such as the Recycler, have a used instrument section where there are hidden gems to be obtained. Again like the pawn shop scenario, for a novice it is recommended that you take someone who knows what to look for in a used instrument. Some people will attempt to sell a used guitar for what they paid for it. It begs the question why bother to buy used for the price of new.
What to look for in a new or used guitar
Before tackling the budget question, or even a brand you want to have a general idea of what you should be physically looking for on an instrument in question. If the guitar looks beat to hell you probably want to pass on it. Well what do you consider "beat to hell"? A few key factors make that determination. Some should be considered instant deal breakers, while others are relatively livable flaws.
Is the neck straight or bowed in/out
Solid body electric guitars, or any guitars that take steel strings, have a metal "truss rod" inside the neck. This truss rod serves two purposes, the first being to counteract the force put on the neck by the strings (reinforcement) and second to control the bow of the neck and consequently the fret board. The truss rod is adjustable via a small cover plate on the headstock and is usually an allen head screw. Whether new or used the neck of the guitar should always be straight. The easiest way to judge this is to look down the neck from the body (postured similar to a violin player) and inspect both sides of the fret board. This way you can also look for lateral twist of the neck. If there is a slight concave bow it is possible heaver strings were installed without doing a truss rod adjustment. A slight convex bow could mean lighter strings were installed without performing said adjustment however this would lead to dead spots and uneven action. A slight bow would not be a deal breaker in my opinion but be aware you will want to fix that as soon as possible.
Is there excessive fret wear or fret board scarring
Frets are small contoured pieces of steel wire hammered into grooves in the fret board that will, over time, wear down. Once they have worn so far they end up producing fret buzz and/or dead notes. To inspect the frets, just bend the strings up or down and look at the area where the string contacts the fret wire. The fret(s) will be ground down creating a pit or a tapered area.
This can be fixed with a re-fret but with a quality job going for around $200+ this could easily be a deal breaker depending on the initial cost of the guitar.
So, tell me more of this deal breaker you speak of...
A few conditions exist that would cause me to instantly pass on a guitar. First would be a cracked or broken neck that has been repaired. Yes, there are some great luthiers out there and quality fixes can be performed, however unless the deal is extremely good it is not worth stepping out on a limb for. Bent tuners could indicate the guitar has taken a dive, and may have sustained damage that is not immediately noticeable (hairline cracks in or under the paint).
So how much should I spend?
The subject of budget is a relative one. Obviously everyone wants the best guitar they can get for any outlay of funds and what breaks the budget of some is spending cash for others. That being said, I would advise a beginner to aim squarely at the entry level segment for a number of reasons. There is a fairly high attrition rate for learning to play guitar because of the commitment required to progress at the (or any) instrument. If a person decides learning guitar is not for them, it is not like there is a mortgage payment sitting on a stand that will never get touched again.
Also while some more seasoned players will badmouth entry level instrument quality, the models available in this segment today stand head and shoulders above the "starter" guitars of yesteryear. While the action will be a bit higher and the "fit & finish" (pickups, tuners, bridge, etc) will not be as great as that of intermediate level guitars these are the perfect gateway to see if guitar is your thing. Lastly I can assure you, if you were to hand your favorite guitarist an entry level model, they would still shred. Another illustration that equipment is only complementary of, not a replacement for, technique and style.
To bottom line it, $150 to $400 (on the high side) will be all the guitar a beginner will need for quite some time.
If you found this guide useful feel free to link to it. If you would like to comment on it, feel free to post your feedback on the metalofthe90s forum or email admin at metal of the 90s dot com... and welcome to the rewarding and occasionally frustrating world of learning to play the guitar.