Before you buy: Choosing the right Guitar

Choosing the instrument you play is always an important decision. If you are buying your first guitar, the decision is more difficult because you may not know where to start or what to look for. So, before you do anything, please read these friendly words of advice.

First let us dispel the popular, but completely wrong belief that “any guitar will do for learning to play”. Your first guitar should be carefully chosen to be fairly easy to play and tune. It should also be versatile enough for you to be able to play different kinds of music on it.

If you already have a guitar and want to know if it is suitable for playing, keep reading. An old guitar will need checking very carefully. Old instruments can be very good — or very bad. The old guitar which has been around the house for years may well have so many things wrong with it that it could be almost impossible to play and not worth repairing.

If this is the case, or if the guitar is not the right type for the music you wish to play, you should look around for another instrument. If your guitar seems okay, ask a guitar playing friend or your music shop to check it out before trying to play it yourself.

Classical, Acoustic or Electric?

Choose the type of guitar which best suits the type of music you wish to play. Do not buy a nylon strung instrument simply because it will be easier on your fingers. If you want to play in a band or with a group at some point you will need an instrument that can project, either an electric guitar or an acoustic guitar. These are the types of guitars most commonly used in popular music in North America.

If you are leaning more towards Classical or Flamenco music the choice must be for nylon strings as these styles require it. Guitars for both types are suitable for accompanying singing. If this is the only thing you want to do, choose the guitar with the sound you prefer.

Go Window Shopping or Internet Surfing

Before you decide on anything go window shopping to see what is available and get an idea of the different prices. Try going to different stores and viewing and trying as many guitars as possible.

Weekdays are a good time to go to a music shop because the staff is more likely to give you more time. If the store is not busy, ask to be given a demonstration of guitars in the price range you can afford. If you are undecided about steel or nylon-strung guitars, ask to hear one of each. However, do not be pressured into buying before you have visited several stores and compared as many different guitars as possible.

Secondhand Guitars

These can be an excellent buy — if you know what your doing. However, unless you are an expert, it is unwise to buy a guitar from anyone but a well known guitar store. You may find bargains offered all over the place but unless you know the value of the instrument and how it has been built it is best to stay away from these. If you are considering a secondhand guitar, make sure you get someone who is an experienced guitar player to check it over for you.

Size and Weight

If buying acoustic, avoid heavy guitars. As a general rule, the more wood there is in an acoustic guitar, the poorer its volume and tone are likely to be. Compare the weight of several guitars of the same type and size before you decide to buy. The lightest guitar will usually be the best.

Steel strung acoustics are heavier then nylon (or classical guitars) but their method of construction and their louder strings compensate for this. On the whole, smaller bodied steel strung guitars are a better buy in the lower price ranges. Large guitars, such as Jumbos have to be very carefully designed and very well made if they are to be any good, and this makes them more expensive. If you want a Jumbo, choose very carefully and compare the sound and weight of several.

The weight and size of Solid-body electrics and Semi-Acoustic guitars depends on the number of pick-ups and type of design. It does not affect the sound, but a very heavy instrument may be tiring to play and a burden to carry around.

Please note, 3/4 size guitars are for small children only. They are not recommended for adults, or anyone over the age of ten or eleven years.

Appearance

Try to avoid selecting a guitar just because it looks good. How it sounds and plays is far more important. Fancy decoration does not make a guitar sound better, but it does make it more expensive. In fact, too much plastic or decoration on a guitar may spoil the tone and reduce the volume.

Checklist: Before you buy

  • Check that the fingerboard is straight and the frets all the same height by laying a straight edge over the frets along the fingerboard. Look over the bridge and up along the neck of the guitar to see if it is warped or twisted.
  • Check that the strings are the correct height above the fingerboard. At the ‘nut’ the strings should be about 1/16” (1.5mm) high, and about 1/8” (3mm) high at the 12th fret. If the strings are too high, the guitar will be hard to play. If they are too low, the strings will buzz the frets.
  • Play every note by pressing each string behind every fret with a left hand finger while you pluck the string with your right thumb — each note should sound clearly. Any rattling or buzzing noises when the guitar is played could mean trouble.
  • Look for worn frets on secondhand guitars — particularly the 1st to 5th frets under the 1st, 2nd, and 3rd strings. Some wear is normal, but deep depressions in the frets mean the guitar may be inaccurate, difficult to play and tune, and may buzz unless it is re-fretted.
  • Make sure all six strings are on the guitar. Check each tuning machine by gently turning its peg a little, to if it adjusts the string to which it is attached. Make sure each string is wound in the right direction on the correct tuning machine. If any are incorrect, ask for them to be changed around and the guitar re-tuned. If any strings seem old or worn, ask for a new set to be put on, and the guitar put in tune.
  • Examine the face, bridge, sides, head, neck and heel for cracks or splits. On ‘Classical’ or Round-hole Guitars, there should not be any gaps where the bridge is glued to the face of the guitar. If the guitar is seriously dented or looks as though it may have been dropped or badly repaired, it could be a bad buy.
  • If there is anything seriously wrong, do not buy the guitar, at least until it has been corrected or repaired. In most cases, you will be best advised to look for another instrument, even though this may delay your having a guitar.
  • When you buy your guitar ask for a full written receipt and keep it in a safe place — you may need it for insurance or customs if you travel.
  • You should also buy the strongest guitar case you can afford to protect your instrument. A hard case made of wood, fiberglass or fiberboard is best for expensive guitars, but a soft case or even a thick polythene bag is better than nothing.
  • If you are a beginner, ask if the guitar is in tune before you leave the shop, and be careful not to knock it on the way home.

Follow these suggestions and the checklist above and you should end up with a decent instrument that will be fun to play for a long time.