Things to Know When Buying Your First Guitar

Things to Know When Buying Your First Guitar
Photo by Chris Lane

America loves guitar players, or at least that's what those of us who play keep telling ourselves, so it seems like buying a guitar is something a lot of people are faced with at some point in their lives. Whether inspiration strikes and a person decides to learn to play, or he or she is faced with buying one for a child or loved one, a lot of us end up needing to purchase a first guitar.

I've been playing for 35 years, and have owned many guitars. I get asked fairly often by friends about what they should look for in an instrument to learn on. While some of my views aren't shared by all, here are a few thoughts on how to approach buying a first instrument.

4. ELECTRIC OR ACOUSTIC? One of the most basic factors in that first purchase is whether or not to buy an acoustic guitar, something I've noticed is a common strategy among parents buying an instrument for a child. I suppose the rationale is that an acoustic doesn't need an amplifier, so the initial cost is lower in case the kid decides that guitar playing isn't really all that interesting, and the instrument ends up stuffed in a closet. While learning to play on an acoustic is fine, there are a few problems with this approach if it's chosen mainly as a way to save money.

First, maintaining interest in the instrument can be difficult if a student is given an acoustic to learn on, but he or she mostly enjoys musical styles that are played on electrics. More than one acoustic has ended up stuffed in the old closet because the person it was given to wanted to learn Slayer songs and not folk music. I've also found that inexpensive acoustics tend to be harder to maintain than electrics -- necks can bow, making playing them a chore, and it's harder to correct.

Basically, matching the type of guitar to the person who will be playing it is a good idea.

A "set" bridge such as this is easy for a novice to keep maintained and in tune.
A "set" bridge such as this is easy for a novice to keep maintained and in tune.
Photo by Chris Lane

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3. WHICH FEATURES TO SEEK...AND AVOID All guitars are made up of many materials and components that combine to make it a joy (or a hassle) to play. Despite what some people seem to believe, they're not magical devices, but when they're built well it can feel that way. However, at their heart, guitars -- particularly electric ones -- are fairly simple in construction, and one doesn't have to spend a huge amount of money to buy a good one. With that in mind, a person new to guitar playing should consider when a few things when picking out his or her first one.

In the case of an electric, the type of bridge it has is a major feature to consider. This is the part of a guitar where the strings attach and there are several variations, the simplest and easiest to maintain of which are stationary parts bolted into the guitar body. Nothing moves, and it tends to be easier for beginning guitar players to learn to replace strings and keep things in tune.

The downside is that certain modern playing styles rely heavily on techniques that use some form of tremolo system, and those bridges are mechanically more complex. Anyone wanting to learn how to "dive bomb," or use other playing techniques, will probably need a guitar equipped with a double-locking Floyd Rose type of bridge. Set up well, those are a thing of beauty, but a lot of those that end up on entry-level guitars can be difficult to manage well.

Guitars with quality locking tremolo systems can open up creative possibilities, but might be difficult for beginning players to get used to.
Guitars with quality locking tremolo systems can open up creative possibilities, but might be difficult for beginning players to get used to.
Photo by Chris Lane

Another major consideration is what type of electronics a guitar has. The good news is that most electric guitars have fairly simple electronic components these days, and it's rare to find models made by any reputable company which are truly crappy. This applies to acoustic guitars too, as many modern types have electronic systems allowing them to be amplified.

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While they can sound great, a good amp isn't absolutely necessary for a beginner these days. Other lower cost options are available.
While they can sound great, a good amp isn't absolutely necessary for a beginner these days. Other lower cost options are available.
Photo by Chris Lane

2. DECIDING ON A BUDGET When I was a young teenager buying my first guitar, there weren't nearly as many good, affordable options as there are today. There were quite a few reputable companies, but their equipment was relatively expensive, and the less expensive gear that was available often wasn't of a very high quality.

Compounding the issue was the fact that much of the cheaper instruments that were available at the time looked nearly identical to higher-quality guitars. That is still the case today, but as a general rule the quality seems to be much higher on many lower-priced instruments. Yes, a high-end Gibson Les Paul made in the USA can still cost multiple thousands of dollars today, but it's entirely possible to spend a few hundred dollars on a guitar that will play and sound great. As a general rule, I have learned that it's best to budget enough to buy upper-entry to mid-priced guitars; lots of models in the $300-$600 range are really good instruments, and a person is less likely to buy a lemon these days.

One thing to keep in mind is that up until relatively recently, if a person bought an electric guitar, he or she would eventually have to pony up some cash for an amplifier, and those tended to be expensive. While someone who falls in love with guitar playing will probably still want to buy an amplifier eventually, plenty of other available low-cost options are perfect for learning with. For instance, a person who owns a tablet or smartphone can use amplifier-modeling apps that sound pretty authentic, and don't cost much or take up any additional space.

So what should a person avoid while keeping a tight budget? I'd advise against buying ultra-low-price instruments manufactured by companies that aren't even carried in real music stores to start. I have found three acoustics made by First Act abandoned in rental properties over the last few years. The brand is a super-budget line that is carried in places like Sam's Club, and the products are not of good quality. I'd also avoid the electric guitars carried in chains like Sam's, just based on the lack of quality of those First Act guitars. I threw one in a bonfire once after realizing that it was impossible to fix, and I swear I heard its evil, untunable soul leave its wooden corpse.

I'd also steer very clear of any instrument being promoted on a late-night infomercial hosted by a sunglasses-wearing guy in a black hat. Esteban may be a guitar-playing badass for all I know, but his line of terrible acoustics aren't fit for anything other than kindling.

There are probably exceptions, but most guitars that cost less than a couple of hundred dollars are generally not all that great, and that seems especially true with acoustics.

Local independent guitar shops like Heights Guitar Tech, offer quality used guitars at reasonable prices, and are a good option for new players who want to connect with the city's musician community.
Local independent guitar shops like Heights Guitar Tech, offer quality used guitars at reasonable prices, and are a good option for new players who want to connect with the city's musician community.
Photo courtesy of Steve Boriack

1. WHAT ABOUT BUYING USED? Buying an instrument used is always an option, and I've bought dozens that way. There are a few things to keep in mind when going that route, especially for the novice player.

Buying from sites like Craigslist or eBay can pose certain risks to the unwary buyer. There are occasionally deals to be found, but as a general rule I would suggest avoiding online deals until a person accrues a little firsthand knowledge; the same can be said of most pawnshops. I've had friends ask me if they're worth looking at for good deals on gear, and the answer is usually going to be no.

The last time I went gear-hunting in area pawn shops, I found an assortment of already banged-up, budget-model guitars that had probably been sold by people who'd tried to learn briefly before giving up. None of them were in particularly great shape, and pawnshops don't usually offer returns. The two times I've ever had significant gear stolen, it all ended up in pawnshops, so I just avoid them on principle at this point.

So what's a good option for buying a quality used instrument? Houston has a good number of great, independently-owned guitar shops that sell used gear. Places like Rockin' Robin or Heights Guitar Tech have walls of previously owned instruments for sale, and purchasing from local places like those builds a relationship between the store and its customers. The person buying can feel confident that any issues with the guitar have been fixed, and can also have access to the local guitar community that no pawn shop or national chain can offer. Having a good relationship with these types of shops is a huge resource to a player, and one that can become very important to them as they grow in their playing abilities.

If I had to sum up a good strategy for a person buying a first guitar, it would go something like this:

  • Try to shop at local independent shops, which will usually offer better and more personalized service.
  • Take along someone who has been playing a few years. He or she will usually have a better idea of what questions to ask, and what gear to avoid.
  • Set a realistic budget and try out as many options within that price range as possible. Also try to replicate the conditions that will be available at home. For instance, try the guitar with the same or a similar type of amp to the one that it will be used with. Playing a guitar through a $3,000 boutique amplifier will probably not yield the same results that it would have playing through a smartphone amp-replica app.

A few other things may come into play, but following a few common-sense strategies can help a person begin their musical journey a lot more happily, and avoid falling prey to "discarded guitar in a closet" syndrome.

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