Choosing an Electric Guitar That's Right for You
By John A Burton
How much you want, or can afford to pay, has to be the first consideration. I have played many guitars, from a (new) 100 pink Stratocaster copy to a vintage Martin acoustic worth thousands of pounds. In my experience, the cost of a guitar is nowhere near proportional to its quality. A 600 guitar is not twice as good as a 300 guitar: it's usually just a little bit better. To buy something significantly better than a 300 guitar, you might need to pay 3,000. If you find a guitar that meets your needs, don't be tempted to up-grade to its fancier cousin. 300 is something of a "golden number". It's pretty much the start price for a mid-range guitar. A mid-range guitar is one that encompasses the features of more expensive guitars while remaining affordable.
All electric guitars need an amplifier, and a poor guitar can sound great when played through a good amp, while a fantastic guitar can sound pretty average, when played through a cheap and nasty amp. If you are upgrading a guitar, then you might also need to upgrade your amp too. Amp and guitar should be quality balanced, and spending a little less on a guitar can make a good amp purchase more feasible. The quality of an amp has nothing to do will how loud it will go; it's a matter of improved tone and response, so a fabulous little amp such as the 4w Vox AC4TV can be bought for under 200. If I had a budget of 500, that's how I would spend it: 300 guitar, 200 on a low output, superior amp.
Deciding on a budget may seem like an obvious first step, but it is a simple way to reduce the vast choice available to a more manageable level, and safeguard against a superficial shinny thing taking your fancy.
2. Neck and scale length.
When considering the features of a guitar, one of the most significant has to be the neck design and scale length. Neck thickness and profiles vary across all makes and models of guitar. The guitar neck has to be a good fit for your hand, and the only way to test this is to handle some different guitars. Scale lengths (the distance between the nut and bridge) also vary between manufacturers. The range is typically somewhere between 25 1/2" and 24 3/4". There are tonal and playing differences between scale lengths. I am not interested in trying to explain these, but want to point out that the 3/4" difference between typical scale lengths is a big deal. You can really feel the difference.
If you have smaller hands, a shorter scale length makes life easier, and you should be looking at Epiphone/Gibson/Gretsch/budget Fender (Jaguar, Mustang, Bronco) type designs. You might want the sound of a Buckethead Les Paul, but at 27" you wont be playing too many open chords.
If you have big hands or long fingers, then you might appreciate the less cramped fret board of a Fender/Ibanez/Jackson type guitar, especially when you play beyond the 12th fret. You may delight in the look of a Richenbacker 325, but with a 20.7" scale length it will not be heavenly to play.
3. Neck/body joint.
The size and structure of the neck/body join is an area where makes and models of guitar differ greatly. Some are specifically designed to offer easy access to higher frets, while others pay no heed to this consideration. This may be a real issue if you want good access to the upper frets, so I will simply flag-up the consideration, and move on.
The type of bridge on a guitar is pretty important. It has to be adjustable (so that intonation can be set correctly) and it needs to be very stable. Tremolo bridges are very popular, but they are not actually good for much, nor are they used very often in day-to-day playing. Tremolo bridges introduce tuning instability, and increase the cost of a guitar if they are complex Floyd-Rose inspired devices. Personally, I would prefer not to pay extra for something I have little need of, and which might actually work against me. Don't buy a guitar with a tremolo unless you really want one, and have a good idea how and when you are going to use it. With most guitars there is a less expensive non-tremolo model variant.
My final consideration is does it sit well on your knee (or a strap), or does the headstock nose dive? If this happens, the guitar will drive you mad in a very short time, and you'll wish you had bought something else.
So you've got a budget, may have eliminated a whole bunch of manufactures on the basis of scale length preferences, worked-out what kind of neck/body joint to look for, decided to ignore all the guitars with a tremolo arm, and come up with a test for balance.
What's next? Whatever you like except the following.
Don't get a signature model. They are not going to make you play or sound like your favourite Artiste. Most will incorporate a slightly quirky twist on a normal guitar, which manufacturers would not generally consider as a good selling point (like miss-matching knobs). Wanting a guitar that looks like one that somebody famous plays is childish. Paying for the privilege is madness. Don't buy a signature model, unless it's out of fashion and so has a significant price reduction, and works for you.
Finally, never ever buy a guitar on the basis of the way it looks. I know its is easy to say and hard to do, and I have made this mistake more than once, but the look of a guitar has absolutely nothing to do with how it plays and sounds. I'm not advocating the purchase of ugly guitars, because we need to like our guitar to want to pick it up and play it. I'm just saying don't be seduced by pretty things.
Unfinished guitars are a good bet, because the manufacturing cost saving is normally reflected in the price of the guitar. A few of my guitars have simple finishes. It's not because I'm tight: I just happen to like the look.
Guitar teacher and author of the "Learn to play and understand Guitar" instruction course, available on-line at http://www.portraits.srv2.com.
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