How to Buy a Guitar

Choosing the right guitar isn’t, and shouldn’t be, easy. Like Jimi Hendrix and his upside-down, reverse-strung Stratocaster, your choice of guitar could end up defining your sound and your career. Plus there are the small matters of price point and aesthetics to consider.
Most young guitar players start out wanting to emulate the look and sound of a famous guitar player. Colin Cripps is a guitar player, producer and serious vintage guitar collector. "If you’re buying a used electric guitar, you will gravitate to something you’re familiar with — i.e. played by someone you idolise, or whose music you connect with. You’re gonna do some kind of research, even if it’s just looking at pictures of Joe Blow playing it. Usually from there you’ll go to a store that sells used or new guitars, and at that point [your choices depend on] certain guitars that lend themselves to certain kind of music more than others do.”

In terms of research, this isn’t a bad strategy. If you like the sound that your favourite guitarist gets, study the specs of that guitar — not just the factory make and model, but any conversions to the pickups and accessories. Pickup conversions are very common and have a radical impact on the sound of the guitar.

"Start with the kind of musical influences that are in the direction that you’re going,” suggests Cripps. " Like, ‘I really like punk rock. What’s the best guitar?’ Play as many guitars as you can. Solid body, single coil pickups, humbucking pickups, hollow bodies — get an overview of what different guitars do. Some will be brighter; some will have more horsepower. You’re gonna react to that.”

How the guitar feels and how it plays is individual to every musician. First and foremost, you need to feel comfortable with the guitar. The width of the neck, the weight, and how it balances on your body are really important considerations. A guitar that hurts to play should be out of the running: if you play a lot, you’re probably going to wind up with neck, shoulder and carpal tunnel issues playing a guitar that doesn’t fit. If the only issue is balance, take a look at the strap pegs and ask whether they can be adjusted. Some musicians may recoil in horror at the idea of putting another hole in the body, but if you’ve found the guitar that is otherwise perfect, it’s worth considering.

The "action” of the strings (action is the distance between the strings and the frets) is a key indicator of personal comfort with the guitar. If you find it hard to get a clean note because it’s hard to press the strings down, or if there’s a buzz on the frets, you’ll need to adjust the action. Make sure the guitar has an adjustable bridge so you can raise or lower the action, but be aware that this sometimes affects the tuning and even the tuneability of your guitar. "Most used guitar shops don’t set up a guitar before they put it up on the wall,” says Colin Cripps. "They assume you know [what it should sound like]. You should assume that any used guitar can be made to be played better than when you find it in the store.”

Once you’ve identified the make, model, and style of pickups that seem right, spend an hour at your local guitar shop playing exactly that. If it feels good but it’s outside your price range, by all means try a lower-priced brand that looks similar and is similarly set up. "It’s not uncommon that a well made knock-off sounds and plays better than the high-priced model it’s trying to copy,” says guitarist and walking encyclopedia of guitars Clive MacNutt. "There are some Tokais from the ‘80s that kick Gibson and Fender’s ass.” This brings us to a key issue in guitar buying: new or vintage? "Ultimately, you have to buy the guitar that you can play the shit out of,” says MacNutt. "The ‘one’ could be some un-heard of brand or it could be a Les Paul Goldtop [made in the ‘50s]” Guitar designer Robert Godin (see Meet & Greet) advises caution when looking at certain vintage models for new genres of rock. "The big thing is, [many of] those guitars have been designed in the wrong period — people didn’t bend the strings too much. For example, the Gibson SG is extremely difficult to tune. The neck is too flexible. They have a double cutaway [body] and you just touch it and it changes pitch. It’s not the designer’s fault, but at that time, they had nothing to measure [pitch changes], no equipment, and the guitar really wasn’t used like we use it today. The SG has a major, major problem just by its construction and you can do nothing about it.” The electronics on older guitars may also be antiquated, Godin feels. "I’m amazed that they still use passive pickups today. Everybody says ‘I don’t like active, I only want passive pickups’ and they’ve never tried active pickups. They use the most sophisticated amp but they use a microphone [pickup] that has been designed 75 years ago. There’s a lot of marketing, prejudice and things like that [against new guitar technology]. Today you have way more advantage using a micro pre-amp on your pickup and things like that, to have a better range of frequencies and more control of tone.”
"A 1959 Les Paul is as classic as you can get,” argues Colin Cripps. "When it was first introduced, it was designed to appeal to jazz players, but it has transcended. If we’re talking about durability, perhaps [Godin] has a point. You can break any guitar. The problem is that most guitars made today, whether cheap or multi-thousand dollar guitars, are essentially a rehash of stuff that was done 50 years ago — that says it all right there. There are a few companies that have stretched the boundaries design-wise, but all the classics are based on design and materials available 40 years ago. You can get all those woods today, but you can get them for mass-production. It’s the reason why vintage guitars (besides a bunch of cultural things) are so valuable and valid in terms of how people interpret what a good guitar is.” The lesson in the midline between these two viewpoints is: buy the guitar that’s right for you, regardless of brand, age, or general provenance. When you go guitar shopping, do your research and take someone knowledgeable about technical gack with you.

The last, most important factor is, don’t rush in. Spend all the time you need fooling around with different models. Express indifference to the sales staff: don’t act like you will die if you don’t buy a guitar within the hour. As with any big-ticket item, the less keen you are to buy, the better a guitar and the better a deal you will get.