Published Feb 20, 2007Choosing the right guitar isnt, and shouldnt 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 youre buying a used electric guitar, you will gravitate to something youre familiar with i.e. played by someone you idolise, or whose music you connect with. Youre gonna do some kind of research, even if its just looking at pictures of Joe Blow playing it. Usually from there youll 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 isnt 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 youre going, suggests Cripps. " Like, I really like punk rock. Whats 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. Youre 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, youre probably going to wind up with neck, shoulder and carpal tunnel issues playing a guitar that doesnt 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 youve found the guitar that is otherwise perfect, its 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 its hard to press the strings down, or if theres a buzz on the frets, youll 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.
Once youve 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 its outside your price range, by all means try a lower-priced brand that looks similar and is similarly set up.
"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 were 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. Its 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 thats 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, dont rush in. Spend all the time you need fooling around with different models. Express indifference to the sales staff: dont act like you will die if you dont 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.