Guitar/Buying a Guitar
A new guitar can be purchased for a moderate price. Modern manufacturing techniques coupled with mass production keeps costs low while intonation and playability are preserved by precise machining. Most manufacturers offer a full range of guitars from budget to custom-shop.
Acoustic or Electric
The first decision a buyer has to make is which type of guitar to purchase. After deciding this the buyer should research the models available within their price-range. Research avoids impulse buying and allows an informed decision to be made. It is recommended that a first guitar be bought from a guitar shop. Pawn-brokers and charity shops may offer second-hand guitars but all decisions fall upon the buyer who may not be experienced in spotting flaws or damage. Guitar shops will offer a range of new guitars from established manufacturers and a selection of second-hand guitars without faults. It is important that the buyer not be swayed from their informed choice on the day of purchase. If you know that you want to play electric guitar in a band then this is the correct type of guitar to purchase. It is not uncommon that when faced with a bewildering range of guitars in a shop a buyer may choose to purchase a different type of guitar other than their original choice. If at anytime a doubt arises whilst purchasing it is better to walk away and review your aims and buying options.
Singer-songwriters favour the steel-string acoustic guitar as the standard accompaniment for solo performance. The buyer should be aware that acoustic guitars have no internal pickups for amplification so a microphone must be placed in front of the sound-hole for recording. An electro-acoustic guitar is an acoustic guitar with pickups and a quarter inch jack output which allows the electro-acoustic guitar to be plugged into an amplifier. Note that thin-line guitars are not true acoustics and it is a common error that beginners raise the action in the belief that there is something wrong with their thin-line guitar which despite its obvious acoustic build has buzzing strings and produces a weak volume when played unplugged. Thin-line guitars are electric guitars with a body that imparts an acoustic resonance when amplified.
Testing a guitar
- The height of the strings above the fretboard is called the action. If the action is too low the strings will buzz and if the action is too high more effort is required to push the strings down. Acoustic guitars have their action set by the factory and should not need further adjustment and therefore acoustics with a high action should be avoided since this may be a sign of faulty construction or a warped neck. You can test the action by playing barre chords at different positions. If the barre chords are difficult to play then the action may be set too high.
- Intonation is a term used to describe accurate tuning over the range of the guitar which is three octaves. A guitar with its intonation set correctly ensures that an open C chord played on the first three frets sounds the same as a C barre chord played at the eighth fret. Guitarists use octaves to check intonation by striking an open string then fretting its twelfth fret octave equivalent. The open string and its octave should be in tune together with neither being sharp or flat in relation to the other. On all electric guitars the intonation can be adjusted at home by the player using an electronic guitar tuner but for acoustic guitars any adjustments must be made by a luthier since the nut and bridge need to be adjusted by filing and shaving. Guitar manufacturers ensure that the intonation is set at the factory and a further check is normally made by guitar dealers before a guitar is put on display. A second-hand guitar must be tested for intonation problems as sometimes a warped neck will render accurate intonation impossible though the guitar may sound in tune in the first position. Intonation depends on the straightness of the neck, whether the nut allows correct spacing and seating of the strings, the height of the bridge, and the scale of the frets. Intonation and tuning are two related but different concepts. Setting the intonation is about preparing the guitar so that it can be accurately tuned across its complete range.
- The guitar should be played from its first to last fret on all strings to check for fret buzz and wolf notes. Fret buzz may be present when the truss rod is not properly adjusted or the action has been set too low. Worn fretboards or incorrectly shaped fret-wire can also cause fret buzz. Wolf notes sound dull and lack sustain and in some cases they can affect the tuning stability of a guitar. It is common to find a wolf note on the G string in the first position though they can occur anywhere on the neck where string contact to the fret is impeded or incorrect. The problematic wolf note can be corrected by sending the guitar to a luthier for setting-up and adjustment. The luthier will ask you which make of guitar strings you use and will adjust the guitar for that gauge. The guitar must be restrung every time with that particular string brand and gauge to preserve the set-up. Re-grooving nuts, adjusting necks and permanent bridge alterations are best left to a luthier whose traditional skills coupled with modern tools like the oscilloscope and precision calipers ensures a stable match between the strings and the guitar.
- Look for misaligned screws on electric guitars as these may be a sign of wear or previous adjustments. On acoustic guitars glue spots may point to flaws though in most cases they are just residue that wasn't wiped off the guitar and generally don't affect the tone or playability. Loose switches on electric guitars are common and if dirt has accumulated then the familiar crackling of reduced contact will be heard when a pot or switch is moved. Pots, switches and wiring can be replaced so a good electric guitar with these problems should not be dismissed though the price should reflect the cost of replacing the damaged parts. Look down the sight of the neck to check for a warped neck and to ensure that the guitar strings are all at the same height. The thickness (gauge) of the low E string may not allow it to sit in the nut groove correctly and it may be slightly higher than the other strings. This may be a sign that you need thinner gauge strings or that the guitar needs to be set-up. Run your finger along the neck edges where the fret-wire ends. Fret-wire is tapped into a fretboard and then cut flush with the neck edge. As you run your finger along you should not feel any fret-wire protruding and this is an indication that the manufacturer has ensured a degree of quality control.
- The intonation tuners located on the bridge of most electric guitars should be in a neat staggered row with the high E string intonation tuner nearest to the neck and the low E string intonation tuner furthest away from the neck. If testing a guitar you notice that the intonation tuners are not in a diagonal line from the high E to low E than this is a sign that someone has attempted to adjust the bridge and intonation tuners to set the action and has probably rendered the guitar unplayable. This is not a construction fault and the intonation tuners can be adjusted so that the guitar can be tuned correctly. It is common when you see misaligned intonation tuners that the bridge has also been raised to its highest position. The only time a bridge should be deliberately raised to its highest position is when a guitarist chooses to set-up a guitar permanently for use with a slide.
Buying a guitar that suits your playing style
- Try as many different necks as you can until you find a guitar neck that you feel comfortable with. Gibson favours a flat wide neck and Fender a thinner neck. Some guitarists find that bending strings on a Gibson neck is more stable and precise due to the extra surface while others prefer the thinner neck of a Fender and the ease with which you can bend strings an octave or more. Try different necks until you find one that responds to your playing style.
- The guitar should be comfortable to hold. Some guitarists like the heavier weight of Gibsons while others prefer the thinner and lighter bodies of Stratocasters. More important is the sound characteristics of a guitar. Telecasters are not as comfortable to hold as Stratocasters but many guitarists are drawn to their distinctive sound.
- The majority of new guitars have a medium action either set at the factory or adjusted by the dealer. Lead guitarists sometimes prefer a very low action which sacrifices a small amount of tone for speed and ease. Slide guitarists will raise the action up to a height that renders normal fretting very difficult though this does ensure clarity of tone when using a metal or glass slide with alternative tunings. A medium action is ideal for a beginner as it maintains tuning stability while providing a clear tone.
- Test as many models and price-ranges as you can. You should test guitars in the price range above your budget to familiarise yourself with the differences. Dealers are quite happy to give potential customers a long time to test different guitars without any sales pressure. Note that not all sales assistants are guitarists since a shop that sells both keyboards and guitars may prefer to hire a pianist to demonstrate their keyboard range. In this situation the buyer must rely on their own knowledge.
- Do not be distracted. Testing guitars involves all the mental faculties. It is during these moments that a buyer may make a wrong decision. If at any time during testing you feel as though distractions are affecting your concentration then walk away and refocus.
Where to buy a guitar
- Buying a guitar from a friend or relative who plays is an ideal way to avoid some of the common pitfalls of a first purchase. Relatives and friends may also help you search for a good guitar if they do not have one that they want to sell. It is recommended that the final choice should be made by the purchaser since guidance is never fool-proof.
- A local guitar or music store that has an established reputation. Many guitarists return to the same local shop to buy strings and other extras though a larger dealer should be sought if the range of guitars offered by your local dealer is too small. Second-hand guitars need to tested thoroughly before purchasing. If the buyer is unsure of what faults to look for then a new guitar might be the better option.