How To Buy A Guitar
You want a guitar. The music store wants to sell you one. Learn how to buy a guitar with advice that prepares you for the experience. The store is on it's own.
Unless you are prepared, walking into most guitar shops will overwhelm you.
Stores are packed with wide varieties of makes, models, years, colors, and styles of guitars. If you want an electric, they also have stacks and stacks of amplifiers. Your head is spinning. And then... you walk to the accessories aisle! Picks, slides, shirts, hats, tuners, foot pedals... the list goes on and on and on.
It can be like trying to sip water from a fire hose!
It doesn't have to be that way.
Take a few minutes to read through the purchase advice. Learn about what's important. Make a few notes. Prepare yourself to buy a guitar. Then shop.
I've divided the purchase advice into a few sections, making it easier to digest:
- Time is on my side... identifies the ideal time and circumstances for visiting a music store.
- What's Important For Any Guitar?... lists criteria that apply for your first, second, or tenth instrument.
- What's Important On Your Acoustic?... important factors for purchasing a hollow-body.
- What's Important On Your Electric?... solid facts about solid bodies.
- Getting A Good Deal... Think only Donald Trump can land a great deal? Think again!
- The Bottom Line... If you read nothing else on this page, you've got to read this.
You will live with your guitar purchase decision for a long time. Don't rush it.
The perfect time to shop and buy a guitar is when you:
- Do not have to be somewhere for two or more hours.
- The store is not crowded (Monday - Friday, during the day).
- Are by yourself, or with someone who also is not in a hurry.
- Are not hungry or thirsty.
There are two extremely important points of purchase advice I can give you. The first is: tone is the most important criteria for selecting your guitar. Everything else, even price, is less important.
For a beginner who is looking to buy a guitar, the best way to evaluate tone is to listen to the guitar when someone else is playing it. So, when you arrive at the music store, have someone else play a number of guitars for you. This may be an employee, or it may be someone you brought along with you.
I recommend you talk to the employee about your price range, and the style of music you enjoy listening to. Ask that each instrument be tuned before your evaluation begins. Then TURN AROUND and let him or her play several guitars. Don't peek. The most important factor is TONE. Looking might cause you to think that color, body style, or some other visual feature is important when you buy a guitar. It's not, at least not yet.
Narrow your selection down to two or three, guitars.
If you are shopping for an electric, change amplifiers before you make your final decision. You don't want to purchase a guitar that sounds great through a $3000 amplification system, if your budget only allows $250. Have your performer play a bit more on each guitar.
It's finally time for YOU to play each instrument, and focus on "playability".
Important factors when you buy a guitar include:
- Is the neck comfortable in your hand?
- Does the guitar hang at a comfortable angle?
- Can your fingers reach around to each string?
- Can you comfortably reach most frets (at least up to fret 12)?
- Are there any protruding fret edges along the neck?
- Do the strings buzz, even when you clearly depress the strings?
- Do the strings stay in tune as you play?
- Does the tone suffer when you play louder or softer than normal?
- Do strings ring for several seconds after strumming (sustain)?
- If you check the open E string tuning, then recheck it at the 12th fret, is it still in tune?
- Does the instrument have a truss rod for neck adjustments (classical guitars usually do not)?
Once you settle on a make and model, it's time to consider other factors for your electric, or acoustic guitar.
Most acoustic guitars are available with a few variations. The most important are: the type of wood used for the top, sides, back, and neck; the cutaway; and, built-in electronics. Other modifications that might be available are: a cut-away in the body; finish; and, inlays in the fretboard and/or tuning keys.
Type of wood: The least expensive guitar top, sides and backs are laminated woods. Plywood is an example of a laminate. To made laminates, manufacturers stack and glue an odd number of woods together. To add firmness, the grain pattern of each layer is turned 90-degrees from the prior one. Laminates reduce your cost and will not split, but tone is dampened by the resulting stiffness - especially on the top. However, if this is your first guitar, or a guitar that you will drag to places like the beach, parties, or other potentially damaging locations, a laminate-top guitar might be the best choice for you.
Most steel string acoustic tops are made of spruce, typically providing a great balance between volume and tone. Some use other woods, such as redwood or cedar. All can provide great tone. Be aware, though, that the tone of the instrument can change over time, mostly due to temperature and humidity. But, don't think that if you buy a guitar with O.K. tone it will become wonderful over time. O.K. tone is much more likely to become unacceptable tone over time.
The sides and back of your instrument direct sound waves, or reflect sound waves. They should not absorb them or your instrument sounds muffled. Some of the most common woods for the sides and back are mahogany and maple. Other woods available, prized for their attractive grain patterns and sound quality, include koa. maple, or rosewood.
Electronics: Electronics in an acoustic can be built-in by the manufacturer or added after you buy a guitar. I prefer built-in electronics. The engineers working for the guitar manufacturer are in the best position to match electronics to their instruments. That doesn't mean that they will, but they do have the most information and motivation to balance cost with performance. The difference in cost may affect your purchase decision.
The Cutaway: A cutaway, favored by many performance guitarists, provides easier access to the upper frets. However, the removal of a section of the body reduces volume and alters the tone. Most people can't hear these subtle differences, but only your ear counts.
Finish: The vast majority of acoustic guitars have a natural finish so the beauty of the wood is visible. There are also a number of nicely painted or stained bodies available. Does paint affect the sound? I suppose it does in some minor way, but if you like the tone and the paint, does it matter? The part of the finish that you actually touch is often a high quality, highly polished varnish. Immediately under that may be a UV protectant coat.
Inlays: Inlays are decorative designs set into the wood, usually around the sound-hole and the edges of the body. Many people like the appearance. They will add to the cost when you buy a guitar.
Fretboard: Most fretboards have simple markers at odd-numbered frets, beginning at fret three, plus a double marker at fret twelve and twenty-four. Some add fret markers on the neck so you clearly see them when glancing down at the neck of the guitar.
Tuning Keys: Tuning keys come primarily in two variations: open and closed. Open tuning keys expose the screw that forces the post to turn. Closed tuning keys have a sealed housing. Open tuning keys require some maintenance (cleaning and lubrication). Closed tuning keys are maintenance free. Photos of each type are included on the Guitar Maintenance page.
This section covers solid-body electric guitars. If you are looking for a hollow-body or semi-hollow body electric, read the section on What's Important On Your Acoustic, above... The same factors apply when you buy a guitar with a hollow or semi-hollow body.
Type of Wood: Tone and sustain are influenced by the wood and the electronics. Common woods are maple, mahogany, alder and ash. Each is capable of producing great tone. Ash is lighter in weight, if you are concerned about holding the guitar for long periods of time. Other woods include koa, spruce, and walnut. The best way to select a wood, if your guitar is available in several, is to listen to that model guitar with various bodies.
Noise: Believe it or not, it's also important to listen to your electric guitar when you're not playing. How quiet is it? Does the noise level change when you move the switch from one position to the next? Keep in mind that amplifiers do exactly what they are supposed to do: amplify sound. You want that sound to be music, not the noise, pops, or crackles from the guitar electronics.
I'm going to start with the most important reason most people don't get discounts when they buy a guitar... Ready?
They don't ask for one!
Yes, it really is that simple.
But, since that's the reason, it means that many people don't feel comfortable asking. If you don't want to haggle over price, you can still receive a fair deal by being prepared. If, however, you want to try and save a few more dollars, I've included a few negotiating tips as part of the purchase advice.
1) Check prices on the internet, but don't automatically buy a guitar online. If this is your first guitar, having a local store to help you select an instrument, fine-tune the one you purchase, and resolve any questions or problems, can easily be worth paying a bit of a premium. However, if you have several stores in the ares, take the time to find out what others are charging.
2) Keep two guitars in play... the one you really want, and a less expensive one. Let the seller believe that you are just as likely to purchase the lower priced instrument and they may offer a better deal on the one you really want.
3) Ask what the price is, then keep quiet. A mentor of mine in business once told me "If you want someone else to talk, don't fill the dead air yourself." The same is true with price negotiations. You need to make the sales person think that you are having serious doubts about the cost of the guitar. Let his imagination run wild as you quietly watch him think about a price that will make you want to jump at.
4) If the salesman won't budge (or you can't stand quietly staring at him any longer) approach the problem differently: rather than ask for a discount on the instrument, ask what accessories could be included as part of the deal. Consider the value of the extras when deciding on the deal. For this, you really must know the price of the guitar, and the accessories offered, to avoid paying too much. Also...
5) Beware the store's bundled deal. I'm not saying that bundles are bad, they can be good or even great. But they make comparison shopping very difficult. A store that bundles is likely to put together a package that no competitor can offer, including such items as a unique case, strap, or lesson. These mask the true cost of the instrument. So, stop and carefully consider the value of each item. Can you even find each item? Can you put your own package together for the same price? Will the store subtract out an item you don't need or want? Of course, the offer of a bundled deal can also be used as a powerful negotiating tool when you buy a guitar. If the store claims that the accessories are 'worth $149' then ask if they'll keep the accessories and just knock $149 off the price.
6) Offer to make an additional purchase if the price is flexible. If you know that you will also purchase a case, an amplifier, or some lesson DVD's (see our Must Have Accessories section), then make an offer such as "Could you give me 10% off the package if I also purchase...?"
7) If you don't think you're getting a fair deal, give the salesman your name and phone number, then leave. Do so courteously, you don't want to alienate the store. There are many reasons a store firms up their prices... Perhaps you spoke to a new salesman... Perhaps they just had a great sales week. Buying the guitar immediately should not be your primary goal. Keep in mind that the store wants to stay in business, and might be willing to make a deal on a slower sales week, or month.
8) DO NOT get angry or create a situation where the store never wants to deal with you again - you may need them to troubleshoot problems or provide other assistance. The objective of this guitar buying guide negotiating section is to get you to a point where both sides feel they've been treated fairly.
Finally, as well as you might negotiate, some factors can prevent you from getting what you believe is a good deal, despite the most effective purchase advice:
- The guitar is a brand new model, or is in short supply.
- The store already offers very competitive pricing.
- The store is a chain, sells lots of volume, with regionally set pricing, and plenty of customers willing to pay those set prices.
All of the above can help you find a great instrument at a great price, but if you take just one piece of advice, it's this:
Take a friend you trust or your instructor with you to the guitar store. You can pick out the guitars you like best based on color and style. Your friend will narrow them down to two or three that are quality instruments, and if you're lucky, add one or two others for you to consider. Then, turn around and select your instrument based on how each sounds when played. Remember, buy a guitar primarily based on tone!
Acoustic or Electric - Filled with purchase advice on one of the hardest decisions a beginner faces: should your first guitar be an acoustic or an electric guitar? Also, learn about the various types (dreadnought, concert, solid-body) and more...