Guitar Buying Guide: Choose the Right Guitar
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Choosing the right electric guitar is not an easy task. We created this guide to make it as simple as possible. If you prefer to start playing as quickly as possible, then you can skip straight to our Recommendations for Beginner Guitars to see the best guitars for every budget. To learn how to make sense of a guitar's spec sheet on your own, keep reading! First, if you don't know anything about guitars or their parts, check out our Electric Guitar Primer. You'll need that knowledge to understand some of the concepts we'll discuss in this article.
We'll start by busting some common myths about guitars and music theory. Next, we'll talk about what to expect (and what not to expect) from guitars in your price point. Then we'll dive into what kind of guitar works best for the type of music you want to play. Finally, we'll talk about other expenses you may not have thought of so there are no surprises when it comes time to spend your hard-earned cash!
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There are a lot of myths floating around that discourage curious, would-be musicians from ever picking up a guitar. From "guitar is too complicated" to "my hands are too big/small to play properly", none of these myths hold any water. Some of these myths are very prevalent and may dishearten you. Not to worry: we'll do our best to get the truth out!
In the basement of a Seattle synagogue, a nervous 16-year old Jimi Hendrix was mentally preparing for his first ever performance with a local band. "Do you really think I’ll have fans?" he asked his girlfriend shortly before going on stage. After the show was over, she found Jimi in an alleyway on the verge of tears. After just one show, Jimi was kicked out of the band.
It's very easy to get discouraged. Learning is a process that takes time and dedication. It doesn't matter if you practice a skill for a few minutes, half an hour, or two hours a day. As long as you make a consistent effort and strive to progress, you can learn anything. Make it your mission to be better today than you were tomorrow. Find music that inspires you to become a better guitarist. Listen to it whenever you feel discouraged.
At one point in your favorite guitarist's life, they were in your position - knowing little to nothing about music, guitars, and music theory. Before his infamous synagogue gig, Jimi Hendrix had just one year of experience playing the guitar, and according to his friends, he "still wasn’t particularly good". But he persevered and dedicated himself to playing what he loved, not what everyone else thought he should be playing. Even though he was fired after his first gig, Jimi didn't give up. A few short years later, he changed the face of music and became a legend.
This is a tale as old as time: a new musician buys a musical instrument, plays a little bit, finds a small thing to complain about, and gets so hung up on this issue that they quit playing. What they don't realize is that there's nothing wrong with them and usually nothing wrong with the instrument. A novice musician needs to work on developing technique with consistent, attentive practice. Proper technique will allow you to play almost any guitar with minimal issue. The more you practice, the faster you will learn how to play properly. There may be other guitars that suit you better, but the majority of guitars are 'in the middle.' As you progress, you'll develop preferences. But for now, don't worry about it. Use the gear you have. Just pick up your guitar and play!
You can play just about anything on a single electric guitar. Maybe your metal riffs won't sound as thick with a single-coil pickup as they do with a humbucker. Perhaps your blues licks won't seem as twangy with a set-neck as they would with a bolt-on. So what!? If you're still a beginner and can't afford multiple guitars, there's nothing wrong with making the most out of what you have. In fact, it will force you to become more creative with your playing. Playing the blues on an Ibanez shredder-type guitar is perfectly fine. Don't let anyone shame you or tell you otherwise! Many people listen with their eyes, so don't let them get you down. In the future, when you can afford multiple guitars or want multiple guitars, you can buy a 'jazz' guitar or a 'metal' guitar. But when you're just starting out: don't worry about it!
As a corollary to the previous myth, you'll eventually come to realize that even the most versatile guitar won't get you 100% there for every genre of music. That's OK. You always have the option of buying another guitar in the future. As a beginner, however, your primary concern should be developing your technique, not worrying about how many guitars you wish you had. A professional uses the right tool for the job, which is why pro guitarists have more than one guitar. But you're not an expert yet, so keep developing your technique, no matter what kind of guitar you own. In our Beginner Guitar Recommendations, we've made sure to suggest the most versatile guitars on the market so you can cover any genre with ease.
In the late 1990s and early 2000s, cheaper guitars weren't always manufactured to the highest standards. Low-quality wood, low-cost labor, and poor quality control combined to create some gnarly guitars that were a never-ending source of headache for their owners.
In the late 2000s and early 2010s, companies building guitars in Korea and Indonesia began to step up their game. World Musical Instruments, a Korean musical instrument factory used by Schecter, ESP, and many other popular guitar companies, currently produces some very high-quality guitars. While Korean guitars may not be as perfect as an American-made Fender or a made in Japan Ibanez Prestige, they are more than adequate for a beginner guitarist. You'll occasionally encounter a bad egg, but that is just a consequence of the scale of these factories and how many guitars they produce. For the price, these Korean-made guitars can't be beaten.
New is not always superior to used. A well-cared-for electric guitar can provide decades of enjoyment. Buying a used guitar will keep your wallet happy and, as long as you don't mind a few small nicks and scratches, you'll get a great instrument that will do everything that a new guitar can.
Your budget dictates the level of guitar you're going to buy. It's prudent to set expectations up front so you don't go overboard and buy something you can't afford. It's nice to dream about a Gibson Custom Shop Les Paul, but not all of us can afford a $5000 guitar. Realize that you'll have more expenses than just the guitar. You'll also need an amp, strings, a case or gig-bag, a stand, cables, picks, a strap, and possibly a professional setup from your local guitar store. These expenses can add up quick, so pay attention to them!
The good news is that the law of diminishing returns applies to guitars. It's generally true that more expensive gear is of higher quality than lower-priced stuff. However, the difference between a $1000 guitar and a $2000 guitar is probably not as noticeable as the difference between, say, a $100 guitar and a $500 guitar. There is always a sweet spot that we'll help you find, regardless of how much money you have to spend!
If you want to stretch your dollar as far as it can go, it can be smart to buy used. Like we mentioned before, a well-maintained used guitar can be every bit as good as a new guitar. That goes for amps and even effects pedals as well.
Generally, accessories won't amount to a significant portion of your budget. Stands, picks, cables, strings, and straps are fairly inexpensive, even for the high-quality stuff. Most of your budget will be for the guitar and amplifier. It's a good idea to buy an amp that's at least half the price of your guitar. Don't skimp on the amp!
A sample budget may look something like this:
50% for the electric guitar
30% for an amp
20% for a case, setup, and accessories
This is just a suggestion. You may choose not to buy a case and instead allocate some of that money to buying a better amp. Some guitars come with a case, so that's some money saved! Maybe the guitar comes with a good factory setup, so you won't need to take it to a local guitar store. That's at least $50 you can keep in your wallet! Your budget and how it's allocated is up to you.
Once you decide on a budget, you'll know how much you can spend on a guitar. It's important to set expectations here. A $100 Squier Bullet won't play as well or look as nice a Gibson Les Paul Traditional. That's a fact. It will, however, serve as a great tool to learn and understand how to play. The important thing is to buy the best guitar you can afford.
Let's take a look at a couple of price points. For each price, we'll roughly describe the kind of guitars that are available. There are always exceptions, of course. For examples of some of the best guitars you can buy on a budget, check out our Recommendations for Beginner Guitars.
A budget of $100 will get you a mediocre electric guitar. Generally, these guitars will be made as cheaply as possible in a factory in China. This means quality control will not be the greatest. You may have to exchange the guitar a few times before you find a winner. With a good professional setup, a guitar in this price range will serve well enough for beginners and intermediate players. The electronics won't be the greatest and there may be some finishing issues, but for a $100 bill, you can't ask for much more.
A $250 budget will get you a significantly better guitar. Generally speaking, the electronics, quality control, finish, and playability will be noticeably better quality than a $100 guitar. You'll find name brand guitars like Schecter, ESP, and Jackson in this price range. Hardware, tuners, and pickups won't be the best, but they will be adequate.
A budget of $500 is the 'sweet spot' when it comes to getting the most guitar for your money. Electric guitars in this price range will include name brand, high-quality pickups from EMG, Seymour Duncan, or DiMarzio. You'll find guitars made of mahogany, maple, alder, or ash, which some people feel provide a better tone than the basswood used in lower priced guitars. The fit, finish, and quality control of these guitars will generally be better. You'll find more varied finishes, colors, and body shapes, making it easier to find a guitar that showcases your personality.
A $1000 budget will get you a very high-quality instrument. You'll find American-made Fenders, Gibsons, and more in this price range. High-end hardware, pickups, and finishes are par for the course here. After this price point, spending more money doesn't mean getting a noticeably better guitar. As a beginner or intermediate musician, a $1000 guitar will serve you comfortably for many years. Choosing to buy a more expensive guitar is a good idea when you have developed your technique and are consistently practicing. Then you can justify spending $2000 or more on a best-of-the-best instrument.
A $2000 budget will get you one of the highest quality instruments you could hope to play. Fit, finish, and detail will be exquisite. These are finely tuned engines of sound. There aren't many corners cut for guitars at this price range. Once you learn how to play, these guitars will call to you in your dreams.
We mentioned earlier that it's possible to play almost every genre of music on a single electric guitar. However, if you think you're going to focus on playing a particular style of music, how can you tell if you're getting the right guitar? Generally, some guitars are better for less aggressive, low-to-mid gain genres, such as blues, jazz, or country. Others feel more at home playing hard rock and metal styles. Others guitar can run the gamut and sound great at everything!
A guitar's versatility comes from its pickups. You can get guitars with a combination of single-coil and humbuckers for even more choice when it comes to tone. A recurring theme throughout your guitar journey is that there are no hard and fast rules when it comes to gear. Even though a Les Paul doesn't have single-coils or tremolo bridge, thousands of musicians of all genres have made it their guitar of choice because of the warmth and expressiveness you can get with humbuckers. There are no wrong choices here - it's all about the sound you're looking for!
Rock and metal are generally mid-to-high gain music. This means a lot of distortion and a lot of noise! Standard single-coil pickups, used in blues, jazz, and country music, are susceptible to humming when the gain is high. That's why most rock and metal guitars use a different type of pickup: the 'humbucker'. In short, the humbucker pickup 'bucks' (eliminates) the 'hum' (noise), meaning you can play high-gain music without worrying about a ton of extra noise.
Guitars meant for high-gain music are generally solid-body. Most purpose-built rock guitars have either hardtail bridges or a double-locking tremolo bridge, like a Floyd Rose. For beginners, it's usually recommended to avoid guitars equipped with a Floyd Rose because of maintenance difficulties and tuning headaches. However, with some effort, they can be manageable.
Shredder-type guitars are common in high-gain types of music. Ibanez guitars like the RG 657MSK typify the shredder axe. These guitars are purpose-built for speed, with a thin 'fast' neck, 24 frets, easily accessible upper frets, and a Floyd Rose-type tremolo. Some of these guitars even come with 'active' pickups, which are humbuckers that are powered by a 9v battery. Active pickups tend to have less dynamic range than standard passive pickups, but have more output and are less susceptible to background noise than regular humbuckers.
Blues and country are generally low-to-mid gain styles of music. If you compare these genres to, say, hard rock or metal, you'll notice that they don't use as much distortion. Blues and country electric guitars tend to emphasize clarity, sustain, and making the instrument 'speak'. They also need to be able to create a dirty, distorted sound that lends emotion to your playing. Guitars that are well suited to these genres tend to be more open and bright, which is why single-coil pickups are preferred. They're what give these genres of music that signature 'twang'. 'Twang' is a sharp, vibrating, percussive 'snappy' sound that makes the blues so fun to listen to. A non-locking tremolo helps you bend notes and add even more expressiveness. The Fender Stratocaster is the most commonly used guitar for these genres.
A jazz guitar tends to be more mellow, with more warmth than a blues or country guitar. This is why you'll commonly see jazz guitarists playing hollow or semi-hollow body electric guitars, like the Gibson ES-335 or the Ibanez Artcore series. This isn't a rule, however. Many popular jazz players use solid body guitars to get a different sound, but a semi-hollow guitar has a warmth that will fit in perfectly with a jazz band. Because humbuckers tend to sound fuller and warmer than single-coils, you'll find many jazz guitars equipped with humbuckers or even a combination of pickups for extra versatility. Hollow body guitars are very susceptible to feedback, so they're usually not recommended for beginners.
Jazz guitars, especially the semi-hollow types, can also come with a Bigsby tremolo for extra expressiveness while playing, like on the Ibanez AF75TDGIV. While not mandatory by any means, a tremolo can add an extra dimension to your playing.
If you enjoy playing both lower and higher gain music, it's a good idea to find a guitar that performs equally well at multiple genres.
Versatile electric guitars generally come with multiple types of pickups. Some Stratocasters come with both humbuckers and single coil pickups. Coupled with a tremolo bridge, you have a guitar that feels at home playing all genres. The Yamaha Pacifica PAC112V is a beginner guitar that comes with all these features, meaning you can play just about anything on it.
Les Paul style dual-humbucker guitars can also be very versatile. Some humbucker equipped guitars also have with a coil-split feature. By pushing or pulling the knobs on a coil-splittable guitar, you can split the coil of the humbuckers. This lets you achieve a single-coil-type sound for amazing versatility.
As we mentioned earlier, there are many expenses you must consider. Think of this section as a checklist of gear you will need.
No doubt this will be the first piece of gear you buy. Without your guitar, you won't be able to play music! You've seen examples of guitars that fit in many different budgets. Narrow your search down by checking out our Beginner Guitar Guide.
The amplifier is what makes your electric guitar sound like an electric guitar. It's what gives your guitar tone most of its character and body. Without it, you and your audience wouldn't be able to hear what you're playing! After choosing your perfect guitar, check out our Beginner Amplifier Guide to find the best amp for your needs.
If you plan to take lessons from a local teacher or eventually start playing in a band, your guitar will need some protection from the elements. A hard case naturally provides a lot of protection if you're traveling a lot and need absolute peace of mind. A gig-bag is a guitar-shaped bag with padding. They're not as protective as hard cases, but they're cheaper and less cumbersome. You can even wear some of them like a backpack so you can have your hands free.
A stand for your guitar may seem like an afterthought, but a stand is crucial. Without one, you won't have a safe place to rest your guitar when you're not using it. Leaning your guitar against a wall or on the couch can cause it to fall and develop cracks, dings, or scratches. Good stands don't cost much, so consider it a worthwhile investment to protect your instrument.
Your pick is the interface between your hand and your electric guitar. Picks come in all shapes and sizes, so it's worth your time to try out a few different types. If you've been using the same type of picks since you started playing, you might find that a different style suits you better. You may find that using a thinner or thicker pick makes playing easier, or maybe trying a pick made of wood or metal gives you a sound you like more. Perhaps a thinner pick will provide with you that twang you're missing when you're playing the blues. Maybe a thick 2mm pick makes your downstrokes heavier when you're playing those Metallica riffs. You never know until you try. And, because picks are so cheap, you won't break the bank buying a few packs to try out.
Cheap or old strings will make even the most expensive guitar sound brittle and dull. To get the best sound out of your electric guitar, you'll need good quality strings. They don't cost much! Even the sets that the pros use only cost between 5 and 10 dollars per pack! Depending on the sound and feel you desire, you might need different types of strings. Round-wound, flat-wound, semi-flat wounds, different gauges - all of these types of strings will affect your sound and the feel of your guitar differently. It may sound overwhelming, but it's relatively straightforward! We cover all of these considerations and more in our String Guide.
Unless you plan on sitting down the whole time you're playing, you're going to need a strap for your guitar. You'll want a good quality strap that will not fray or tear, along with strap locks that make sure your strap will not separate from your guitar. After all, the last thing you want is for your precious instrument to suffer a drop from four or five feet off the ground. A guitar is an investment and it's your responsibility to protect it!
Your guitar's fretboard is made of wood. If you don't take care of it, it may start to wear down or even crack. Be sure to buy a fretboard conditioner that keeps the fretboard wood in top shape. You should apply the conditioner every time you change the strings - so every couple of months or so.
As you advance, you might want to start experimenting. There's no better way to do it than with effects pedals! Even if the amp you buy has built-in effects, you'll love the versatility of that pedals give you to sculpt your sound. Check out our All About Effects guide sometime and learn all about the different guitar effects, their uses, and sounds.
Guitars are usually set up to play at the factory. Guitar setups usually vary in quality and, depending on a multitude of factors, it's possible your guitar may not play 100% perfectly when it arrives at your doorstep. Some online dealers, like Sweetwater, offer an add-on option to set up your guitar before they ship it to you so it plays like a dream when you open up the box.
However, if your guitar buzzes or makes strange noises while playing, it may be a good idea to take it to a local guitar dealer for a professional setup. A professional setup will make even the cheapest guitar play like a dream. Your guitar tech will set the action (string height) and intonation (tuning accuracy), install a fresh set of strings, set the pickup height, adjust the truss rod, and make sure the fretboard is oiled and healthy. A good setup costs between $50 and $70, but it's worth it to get your guitar playing as well as it can. Check out Google Maps or Yelp for a highly rated guitar shop close to your home that you can entrust your guitar to.
After reading through this article, you now know to ignore the prevalent myths that only serve to discourage you from starting your musical journey. You've learned what to watch out for and what kind of guitar to expect for your budget. There's no doubt that you are ready to pick the right guitar for your needs. Check out our Beginner Guitar Guide for the best-of-the-best guitars for all budgets.