How To Buy An Electric Guitar

by Leon Waters, Nov. 21, 2014

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Welcome to the world of guitar! You’re about to embark on a journey that will change your life. The guitar is one of the most unique, expressive, and iconic instruments of our time. The guitar can make you happy, make you sad, make you laugh, make you cry, and do a million other things – and it does it all through the power of music.

The great thing about the power of music is that it isn’t limited to a select few. Anyone can make music, and anyone can play guitar – no matter what many would have you believe. Some people will tell you that you need “talent” in order to play music, that you need to be “naturally gifted” in order to justify picking up an instrument. Well, let’s get one thing straight from the start.

Those people are wrong. Dead wrong.

If you need hard, real-world evidence of this, check out John Denner, Andrés Godoy, The Vinh, and Frank Posey, to name just a few. Whatever style you want to play, it’s yours to play. Don’t ever let anybody tell you that you can’t do it.

The guitar is one of the most easily recognised and popular instruments on the planet. On the coolness spectrum, the guitar sits confidently and comfortably at the sexy end. The opposite end, meanwhile, is occupied by school orchestra stalwarts such as the tambourine and, of course, the triangle.

Although the triangle is about as hot and sexy as a pair of soiled Y-fronts, dedicated trianglists (and yes, they do exist) have one thing going for them. Choosing a triangle is very easy; you can have a small one, a medium-size one, or a big one. That’s about it. Choosing a guitar, on the other hand, can be a complicated and intimidating process. It can be hard to know where to begin.

But fear not! Right here, right now, we’re going to walk you through it – and by the end, you’ll be able to strut into any guitar store and pick your axe like a pro.

Step One: Get The Look

Ok, so you’ve crossed the threshold of your local guitar store. You’re excited, maybe nervous. You can hear harsh hyperspeed notes flying from the demonstration room in the back, read the ominous NO STAIRWAY sign about the till, and see more instruments than your mind can handle.

The first thing to do is calm down, and not be intimidated. Backroom shredders are a time-honoured staple of the guitar shop experience, annoying customers and staff alike. That anti-Led Zeppelin sign is probably a joke; if the staff in the shop are rude and arrogant, consider shopping elsewhere. And the easiest path to your new axe is a straight line toward the guitar that catches your eye.

Maybe it’s a moody black Fender Stratocaster. Maybe it’s a hot pink BC Rich Warlock. Maybe you can see it from the entrance; maybe it’s right at the back in a dusty cobwebbed corner. But if the shop has a decent selection, it will be there. It has to be love at first sight. When it happens, you’ll just know.

Every musician – beginner or legend – knows this feeling. Welcome to the club.

Now that you’ve spotted the love of your life, there are some more practical points to consider. Does this guitar fit the style of music you want to play? Tech-metal bands don’t often go for hollowbody jazz guitars, and indie bands wouldn’t be seen dead toting pointy Jacksons. Does the guitar fit with the clothes you wear already, or will you need to splash out on a new outfit to make it work? Will it make you more attractive to the opposite sex? Do you care?

If you’re looking to reinvent yourself, a new guitar can be a great starting point.

Step Two: Get The Feel

The smiling sales guy has picked out your dream axe, strapped it up, and handed it to you. The future is literally in your hands. But…now what?

A guitar’s feel and playability are just as important as how it looks. The first thing to consider is comfort. How does the body of the guitar fit against yours? Try wearing it sitting down and standing up; if you want to play gigs, you’re going to be standing up a lot. Experiment with strap heights, and remember that it’s not necessary to sling your guitar as low as possible in order to look cool. Many guitar icons (such as Tom Morello of Rage Against The Machine) strap their axes high. Your guitar is going to become an extension of your body. Decide what’s right for you.

Next up, get a good grip on the neck. How does it feel? Is the neck too fat or too thin for your liking? Is it just right? Is the action (the distance between the strings and the fretboard) too high, or too low? Bear in mind that the guitar shop staff will be able to adjust the action for you (when you have your guitar modified, this is also known as “setting it up”) and change the strings to a different brand or gauge (thickness), should you so desire. Some guitar shop staff can even recommend and perform modifications after watching you play for a minute or two – don’t be afraid to ask! Remember, you want your instrument to become an extension of your own body, and nothing achieves this goal as effectively as a well-set-up guitar.

A quick moment for metalheads here. How many strings does your guitar have? It’s becoming increasingly common to see metal guitarists toting axes with seven or even eight strings. Will you need those extra strings? Can your fingers reach the lowest string comfortably? If they can’t, consider seeking out a six-string and having it set up so you can tune the strings to a lower pitch. It may sound odd, but a down-tuned six-string can actually sound heavier than a seven- or eight- string in standard tuning. This is worth bearing in mind if you want your music to inspire circle pits in the future.

Also, while we’re discussing metal: How many frets does the fretboard have? 21-fret necks are the most common, but metalheads will want 24 frets, forming what’s known as a “two-octave” neck. If you’re an aspiring shredder, having more notes to choose from can only be a good thing. And even more importantly: Does the guitar have a wang (or “whammy”) bar?

Wang bars can be great not only because you get to use the word ‘wang’ in a sentence, but also because they open up an entire universe of extra expressive possibilities. Steve Vai and Joe Satriani have based entire careers on the unique sounds afforded by the wang bar. If you idolise Vai and Satch, a whammy bar may prove indispensable, but if you’re not really bothered then see if it’s possible to get a fixed-bridge (wang bar free) model of the same guitar. Also, bear in mind that wang bars can get very fiddly when it comes to tuning up and changing strings. If you’re not going to use it much, that bar can be more hassle than it’s worth.

Step Three: Get The Tone

The topic of tone – the many contributing factors to a guitar’s individual sound, which tone fits which style, what amp to go for, and so forth – has so many dimensions, and in some circles can be so controversial, that a full exploration is simply beyond the scope of this article. For now, it’s simply enough to plug into an amp, crank it up, and ask: Does it sound good? Make sure the guitar is in tune before you get stuck in; listening to an out of tune axe can be about as pleasant as chewing tinfoil.

Try plugging the guitar into different amps – as many amps as the salesman’s patience will allow, and not just that seven-foot ultra-stack in the back that induces Wayne’s World-style “It will be mine…” moments. If you’re in the market for an amp, now is the perfect time to find the ideal match. And feel free to give effects a shot, but remember to plug into an amp directly, too. If the guitar sounds good no matter the situation, you’re onto a winner.

Step Four: Check The Price

This is the difficult part. Can you afford it? Ultimately, only you can answer this question. Perhaps you’re able to live out another Wayne’s World moment and pay immediately, in cash (cha-ching!), or maybe the store has a suitable credit plan. If you decide to downgrade to a cheaper model, don’t feel disheartened – you now know how to choose the right replacement.

The same goes for those of you looking for a decent budget guitar. By following our four steps you can separate the wheat from the chaff with no fears or worries. And when it comes to your ultimate dream machine, remember: It will be yours.

Oh yes…it will be yours.

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