So you want to know how to choose an electric guitar – but where do you start? Well, we’ve created the Ultimate Electric Guitar Buying Guide to give you that start; to help you understand all the different things that go into choosing a good guitar. If you’ve got time, settle in and watch the whole video. If not, bookmark it for later, and you can catch the highlights underneath in the meantime. If you have comments or questions, please leave them at the bottom of this page, but also please know that I cannot give advice on specific models that you may be looking at. If you have two identical guitars of the same make and model, they can still have very different characteristics, so please understand that my best advice is here on this page, beyond that you’ll have to use your common sense.
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The Ultimate Electric Guitar Buying Guide
There are so many models of electric guitars out there, and you can find some really good buys if you take the time to look around a bit. Don’t buy by color, brand, or model! Once you have a price range, your next thing is the shape of the neck. Yes, the guitar has to be visually appealing (would you be motivated to play an ugly guitar?), but don’t let looks be the basis for your purchase. You need to go by the feel of the guitar, not the look of a guitar.
Also, don’t buy an electric guitar from a department store. Go to a music store. The people who work at music stores want you to be happy with your instrument so you will recommend them to other people, so they will put in the effort to help you find a guitar that’s perfect for you. Music stores also know how to properly store and transport instruments, so the guitars will be better in quality there than at a department store.
An important thing to remember is that it’s okay to not start off with a really good guitar. Get to know what you love with a guitar after playing for awhile before buying a really expensive guitar.
Feel and Sound of the Guitar
You need to buy a guitar that is proportionate to your size. If you are a smaller bodied person, you need to get a smaller guitar that won’t strain your arms while you’re playing it. You also need to keep in mind the thickness of the neck of the guitar. People with small hands should not buy a guitar with a thick neck, or they will have trouble playing bar chords.
You need to ask yourself if you can see yourself playing that guitar for the next several years. Picture yourself playing it for hours – would you be satisfied with the guitar? Play a few chords on it – do you like the sound? For an electric guitar, you need to play the guitar with all the different pickup options; use distortion, play it without distortion. Play around with every option on the guitar, and make sure you like it.
Hollow Body Guitars
You can get all kinds of thicknesses of hollow body guitars – from decently thin to a rounded back. A hollow body guitar means exactly what you think – the guitar is hollow in the middle. They’re usually built by taking the two frames of the guitar and attaching them together. These guitars will sound different from solid body guitars, so you need to go by what sound you like. The hollow bodies will have a softer tone to them – a smoother tone. You don’t have to limit them to softer music though – you can play rock and roll with a hollow body. When you crank the juice up on your amp with these guitars though, it will cause more feedback than a solid guitar.
Tremolo Bar Guitars
Tremolo bar guitars have the floating bridge that allows you to loosen all the pressure on your strings, and then bring it back up to its normal playing tension without going out of tune. This was invented when Eddie Van Halen collaborated with his neighbor, Floyd Rose, and created the locking bolts on the nut and bridge to keep the strings taut and in tune. When you use the tremolo bar, it brings the pressure on the neck of the guitar from over a hundred pounds of pressure down to no pressure at all. This causes the “dive bomb” sound.
The downfall of a Floyd Rose is that if you break a string, your guitar will go completely out of tune. You can’t quickly change a string either, so you need to have a backup guitar if you’re going to be playing a gig with this guitar. They’re also temperamental to tune, and may be more challenging for a beginner to learn with.
Parts of an Electric Guitar
The binding is the trim of the guitar. It’s mostly ornamental, but it also covers up any imperfections from when they glued the guitar together.
At the top of your neck you have a string nut. This bar keeps your strings evenly spaced along the neck, and keeps the strings elevated above the fretboard. It also maintains the tension on your guitar, and this is where the vibrations start.
At the base of the guitar you have the saddle. The role of the saddle is it works with the string nut to keep the strings evenly spaced. The saddle can be moved back and forth, which affects your intonation.
Intonation is the string length distance between the saddle and the string nut. For a beginner, you don’t need to know much about this, but it helps keep your guitar in tune.
The steel pieces that go across the neck of the guitar are called the frets. When you run your hand along the edge of the neck, they shouldn’t be too sharp or rough. On Gibson guitars the binding goes over the frets; on most other guitars the frets go over the binding. It’s personal preference. If you’re buying a used guitar, you can pull the strings back on the neck to see how smooth the frets are. The more grooved the frets are, the more playing time the guitar has had. That can repaired, and frets can be replaced, but that requires more money. A fret job can be between $150-$200, so you have to make sure you like the guitar enough to bother with that.
The pickups are found on the body of the guitar. A pickup is basically a microphone. Pickups have magnetic fields that are created by winding very thin wire (the thickness of hair) around different styles of magnets. The different types of magnets affect how the guitar is going to sound. Guitars will have single coils, double coils, or a combination of the two. You can swap out the pickups in your guitar, but it can be pricey.
The position of the toggle switch on the guitar will determine which pickup is being used – the up position uses just the front pickup, the switch in the middle position uses both pickups, and the switch in the downward position means the guitar is using the back pickup. Some guitars will have a separate switch for each pickup.
The knobs control the tone and volume of the pickups. One set of knobs operates the front pickup, and the other set operates the back pickup.
The “F” holes, also known as the chamber holes, are found on hollow body guitars, and they don’t really affect the guitar all that much. Not all hollow bodies have “F” holes.
At the top of the guitar are your tuning pegs, also known as machine heads. The tuning pegs are what your strings are wrapped around, and this is how you tune your guitar. Some guitars have locking machine heads. So when you run your string through the hole, the string gets pinched inside, and the locking machine heads hold it in place. This way, when you use your bar, you don’t have the risk of the strings unraveling and coming out of tune when you’re playing.
The bridge pins are on the body of the guitar, and they hold the ball end of the string. They hold the strings in place on the body end of the guitar, while the tuning pegs hold the other end of the string. Some guitars have floating bridges, which means that when you push down on the bar, the bridge moves, loosening the tension of the string. On a guitar that has a floating bridge, you need to have a locking head at the top of the neck so that when you release the bar, the guitar stays in tune when the strings go tight again.
If the guitar has a design that goes down the neck, this is called inlay. It’s strictly ornamental, and should not be considered when looking for a guitar. Always go by the sound, not the looks.
Electric guitars can either be a single cutaway, or double cutaway. The cutaways help you reach further up the fretboard.
Another thing you need to know about is the action on your guitar. Action is the height of the string to the fret board; or in other words, how much movement/distance the string has before it connects to the fretboard. A guitar with a lower action means it’s easier to play. If you want to play a lot of slide, you need a heavier set of strings, and the action should be a little higher. When you want to finger tap, it’s more beneficial to have a low action.
It doesn’t matter if you pay hundreds or thousands for a guitar, it still needs to be tweaked by a technician. So work that into your budget. Make sure you go to reputable music store or someone that is recommended to you. You don’t want to take your guitar to an unreliable source. Regardless of if you buy a new or old guitar, you need to have it looked at by a technician. Even if it’s considered new in a store, it could be a several months old even though it’s just been sitting in the store. Many people have probably played around with it as well, so it’s a good thing to get it checked out. Plus, if you’re a beginner, it’s good to have the action lowered which makes it easier to play. A technician will tweak that for you.
Having a guitar in bad shape can be very discouraging for a new beginner. If the guitar won’t stay in tune, the strings are too hard to press down, or the frets hurt when you move your hand along the neck, these things can all be detrimental in your motivation to keep playing. If the action is too high, it can be impossible for a beginner to learn how to play a bar chord. These are all mechanical adjustments that a good technician can take care of for you.
If you want to clean your guitar – DON’T USE WATER. Use a dry cloth, and a little bit of your own spit. You can get a mechanic to professionally clean it as well.
Extra Budget Considerations
You need to buy a guitar case. You should never transport your guitar anywhere (even from the store to your house) without putting a case on it. You can buy a hard case, or a gig bag, which is a nylon bag with padding. Why would you go through all the hard work of setting the guitar up just to transport it without protection? Temperature and weather will affect your guitar as well, so it’s best to transport it protected.
For an electric guitar, you also need an amp. You can buy smaller, practice amps, that don’t cost a lot of money. However, if you are buying an electric guitar, you need to have an amp to plug it in to. Otherwise, it won’t sound right, and you will lose your enthusiasm to play. It doesn’t have to be a big amp – just good quality.
I hope my Ultimate Electric Guitar Buying Guide helps you make a good, educated decision when you go buy your guitar. Once you’ve got a guitar, I’d recommend checking out our free three day trial of the Riff Ninja Academy. Or, signup for my new series of beginner lessons. So go, buy a guitar, then come back to the website to learn how to play! And remember, have fun!
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