Guitar Buying Guide

SIDEBAR: was redesigned and re-launched on November 28, 2007. As a result, this page was updated and released as How to Buy a Guitar?. I encourage you to take a look.

You can alco click here to visit the new Home Page, then look at the navigation bar on the left side of the page for all of the lessons.

You want a guitar. The music store wants to sell you one. This guitar buying guide 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 various makes, models, years, colors, and styles of guitars. If you want an electric, they 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's like trying to drink from a fire hose!

It doesn't have to be that way.

Take a few minutes to read through this guitar buying guide. Make a few notes. Prepare yourself. It's easy!

This Guitar Buying Guide contains only a few sections:

Time is on my side...

You will live with your guitar purchase decision for a long time. Don't rush it.

The perfect time to shop for 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.

What's Important For Any Guitar?

If you learn anything from reading this guitar buying guide, I hope it's this: tone is the most important criteria for selecting your guitar. Everything else, even price, is less important.

And the only way to evaluate tone is to listen to the guitar when someone else is playing it. So, the second most important tip is to find the person in the guitar store who can play a number of guitars for you. This may be an employee, or it may be someone you brought along with you.

SIDEBAR: Every music store I've visited has several people who are accomplished guitarists, who also enjoy playing a variety of guitars for potential customers. Why? They love to play; they enjoy helping others who want to learn; it's a ton of fun to sample guitars you don't own! So, simply ask. If there is no one who can help you, find out when you can come back. If no one wants to help you, take your business elsewhere.

I recommend you talk to the employee about your price range, and the style of music you enjoy listening to. Ask that each instrument is in tune 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. 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 guitar buying guide factors 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.

What's Important On Your Acoustic?

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: finish; inlays in the fretboard and/or tuning keys;

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 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, mostly 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.

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 this are mahogany and maple. Other woods available, prized for their attractive grain patterns and sound quality, include koa. maple, or rosewood.

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.

Electronics in an acoustic can be built-in by the manufacturer or added later. 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.

What's Important On Your Electric?

This section of the guitar buying guide 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.

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.

Believe it or not, it's also important to listen to your electric guitar when you are 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 your playing, not the noise, pops, or crackles from your electronics.

SIDEBAR: Noise problem could be the amplifier, so try the instrument on another amp before ruling it out, or try another instrument on the same amplifier to see if the amp itself is making the noise.

Getting A Good Deal

I'm going to start with the most important reason most people don't get discounts... Ready?

They don't ask for one!

Yes, it really is that simple.

But, since that's the reason, that 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, here are a few Guitar Buying Guide negotiating tips.

1) Check prices on the internet, but don't automatically buy 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 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?

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 your most effective negotiating tactics:

  • The guitar is a brand new model, or is very popular.
  • The store already offers very competitive pricing.
  • The store is a chain, which sells lots of volume, with regionally set pricing.

The Bottom Line

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 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. Then, turn around and select your instrument based on how each sounds when played.

Good luck!

Related Articles:

Choose Your Perfect First Guitar - Learn all about how to decide if you should purchase an acoustic or an electric. Also, learn about the various types (dreadnought, concert, solid-body, more!).

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