BUYING A GUITAR
I was recently contacted by a previous student of mine requesting help with a guitar purchase. The student was making an inquiry on behalf of their cousin, a young adult who was not particularly musically inclined but wanted to try something new. I was happy to help, but the feedback I received from the buyer wasn’t particularly helpful: he mentioned music of various styles that he wanted to learn, but when I asked what type of guitar he needed he wasn’t aware of the different builds.
Given all the students of various disciplines that visit this website, I thought it would be beneficial for me to share this information. Hopefully my years of playing guitar (I have a B.M. in Jazz Studies on Guitar from Loyola, New Orleans) and time spent in music retail will come in handy to anyone interested in buying a guitar, whether you’re new or have been playing for awhile already.
Before you buy:
Figure out what type of guitar you need.
Using the previously mentioned buyer as an example, I would probably recommend more than one type of guitar to him. This depends on a variety of factors, but generally not money (you can find good quality guitars for the same price in each category). My initial recommendation would be to focus on one particular kind of music you would like to play and see what type of guitar those musicians are playing, but let me break it down for you…
There are three basic types of guitars:
Solid body instruments that are typically connected to an amplifier via a 1/4″ trs (guitar) cable. Amplifying this instrument opens it up to exploring different sounds; one could not only adjust things such as tone or volume, you also have the possibility of adding effects. Because of this flexibility, the electric guitar is found in a wide variety of playing styles: Jazz & Blues (warm tone, occasionally slightly distorted sound), Rock & Metal (distortion and other effects such as reverberation), Country & Bluegrass (again distortion or a clean, bright tone).
Steel-String Acoustic –
Typically un-amplified (although there are models that allow you to plug in his kind of guitar), this guitar achieves its resonance from its large, hollow body and bright sounding steel strings. It is not as flexible as the electric guitar, but is still found in a variety of music: Country, Folk, Rock, and Pop to name a few styles. One thing to note is that its strings typically have more tension and its neck is more narrow than the other two types of guitars. This presents problems to people with big hands or weak fingers, but comfort comes with time and regular practice.
Nylon-String (“Classical”) –
Properly named “Classical” for its association with music of that genre, this kind of guitar has a smaller body than an acoustic and more of a mellow/warm tone due to the fact that all the strings are made of nylon (the lower strings are typically nylon wrapped in metal). Outside of classical concert music, this type of instrument is also found in Folk and Flamenco styles. In the classical style it is typically played with your fretboard-side foot on a foot stand or using an Ergoplay Leg Rest. Both of these methods assure that the guitar is upright at a 45 degree angle, since posture is of upmost importance in the classical discipline.
2. Play the guitar in person.
One of the biggest mistakes you can make when buying an instrument is not trying it out before making your purchase. If you can, bring a friend with experience to give you a second opinion and always remember that you can weigh your options outside of a retail store instead of making impulse decisions.
Some things to look for:
- Volume – Does the guitar have a wide range of volume (soft to loud)?
- Craftsmanship – What sort of wood is it made of? The top wood (piece of wood on the surface there the bridge is) on the non-electric guitars are important because they are the most resonant part of the body and thus define the tone of the instrument. Any of the major wood types are a good choice (Maple, Ash, Mahogany, Rosewood, Basswood, etc.) Also, if the top wood curves into the sound hole of the guitar (as opposed to just being plainly cut) it in sound quality.
- Intonation – Are you able to play all the notes on the fretboard clearly? This is a VERY important thing to check. Sometimes certain frets will “buzz” when played, meaning the neck is out of alignment or misshapen. This is something that should be left up to a professional instrument repair person to fix.
- Electronics (electric guitars) – Are the knobs and pickup selectors working properly? Sometimes knobs will make a crackling noise and this is because there is dust in its electrical mechanism (potentiometer). Other times you might have loose wiring. If so, make sure it is something that can be fixed (preferably before you purchase).
3. Price Range
How much are you willing to spend on a guitar? From my experience, I’ve found that if you’re looking for a decent guitar expect to pay within these ranges: Beginner – $120 to $300, Intermediate – $400 to $800, Advanced/Professional – $900 and up (typically above a grand).
If anyone has any questions please feel free to leave a reply at the bottom and i’ll be sure to get back to you as soon as I can.
Good luck to those searching for their first guitar!
Sebastian I. Valenzuela
Professor of Music Composition and Theory, String Ensemble Director
Music Academy of Virginia