How to Buy a Guitar

So you want to buy a guitar, for yourself, or someone else, and don’t know what to get? Let me give you the guidance you need to start your guitar adventure off on the right foot.

Guitars are either acoustic, acoustic-electric, semi-acoustic, or electric. Most beginners start with an acoustic guitar; they’re simple, straightforward, sound nice and loud naturally and don’t require amps and cords, making them quite portable. If your immediate goal is just to learn how to play, and maybe play in front of family and friends, get a simple acoustic (about which more below).

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Yamaha FG 730s

However, if your goal is to start playing live in public, alone onstage as an acoustic guitar player or singer-songwriter, by all means, buy an acoustic-electric. Or, if your goal is to learn as fast as possible to shred (play super fast solos), or join a rock band, an electric is the guitar for you. Keep in mind, however, that if you’re serious about guitar as a hobby or profession, you’ll almost certainly wind up with at least one guitar from each of the four categories above. They have different applications, after all. Generally speaking, you might as well just grab an acoustic to start with, learn the basics, and go from there.

So what type of acoustic guitar should you buy?

If you are a rank beginner, so that you can’t even meaningfully compare things like playability, my suggestion is the Yamaha FG 730S. (No, I have no affiliation with Yamaha, and don’t get money for touting them). These acoustic guitars are the best bang for the buck out there: solid Sitka spruce top (that’s what you want in a pure acoustic), Indian Rosewood sides and back, a fine neck, and a lifetime warranty. You can buy one for what the sales tax would be on an acoustic from one of the big brands like Taylor, Gibson, Martin, or Larrivee — and the Yamaha will probably sound better anyway. Don’t believe me? Go into a guitar store that carries the Yamaha FG series, and do a blind hearing test. Choose the Yamaha plus a couple of other, more expensive, options, have a friend or employee strums chords on each and see if you can tell, with your eyes closed, which guitar costs 10 times more the other. I predict you won’t be able to, and in fact there is a good chance you’ll choose the Yamaha for sound over the others. (The Yamaha 720S is a smaller version of this guitar, perhaps more suitable to young people or petite women. It is also an excellent guitar).

A few more suggestions. Although your guitar will come with strings, they will lose their sonic brilliance, and start to look old and grungy. within a few weeks. So while you’re at the music shop, I suggest picking up a package of Elixir Nanoweb Acoustic Light Gauge Strings. (No, I’ve no affiliation with them, either). The Elixirs sound great and last far longer than normal strings, due to a thin layer of what they call Nanoweb coating. So even though you’ll pay a couple of extra bucks upfront, you’ll still end up saving a lot of money on strings long-term. (If you’re bewildered by how to change strings, please refer to YouTube).

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Fender Stratocaster

Also, grab a few picks (guitarists always lose them, so yes, get a few). What type you get is completely a matter of personal taste. Try out picks at the store. My personal favourite by far, after trying out eight zillion different types, is the Dunlop .73 mm Nylon Standard. Why? Because the nylon never breaks (plastic picks break all the time); the ridges on the pick make them much easier to grip than smooth picks; the width is a good compromise between flexibility and solidity; and they sound good.

The mulleted music shop employee might try to sell you a tuner to go along with your starter kit. Don’t bother. Simply download a (free) tuner app for your smartphone. Get a guitar case if you want, as well as a basic chord book, and maybe a capo (a clamp-on device which allows you to effectively shorten your guitar’s fingerboard) and voila – you’re ready to go! You can walk out of the music shop with a top class acoustic guitar set-up for around $450.

One final thought: cases protect your guitar, yes. They’re also cumbersome. And with the Yamaha 730S so cheap, my question is, is it really the end of the world if it gets a few nicks and scrapes on it over the next few years? Because you want to tote your guitar with you as much as possible when you’re just starting to learn, I suggest you consider just keeping your guitar nude. Grab it, throw it in the back of the car, show up at the beach or the camp site, boom, it’s there ready to go, and you’re not fussing around with a case. This is a personal preference of mine, of course. Just thought it might be worth mentioning.

What type of guitar should you get if you’re eager to get out there and start performing at coffeehouses? Easy – the Yamaha model I mentioned above comes in an acoustic-electric version. Another excellent choice for an acoustic-electric is something from the Yamaha CPX line. (Note: these come with solid Sitka spruce tops or cedar tops. Above I suggested a spruce top for a pure acoustic – that’s because acoustically, they tend to sound better. But I often find that acoustic-electric spruce tops, when transmitted through a speaker, often sound quite “clacky”, even with the best acoustic pickups inside. For that reason, I suggest you seriously consider a cedar top if you ever go to buy an acoustic-electric. They’re an unusual choice, I admit; but you tend to hear more string pitch, and a more pleasing tone, when they’re amplified).

I’ve mentioned Yamaha a lot, so let me say, it is not the case that other manufacturers don’t make fine acoustics and acoustic-electrics. I own a very fine Martin myself, and have played wonderful guitars from other manufacturers. I’m recommending Yamaha here only because the quality for the price is, in my experience, unbeatable.

Anyway, back to your guitar. Let’s say you want to buy your first electric. What should you choose?

Well, a quick question: which guitar sound would you prefer to have – the guitar sound at the beginning of Jimi Hendrix’s “Hey Joe”, or the guitar sound during the solo section on Led Zeppelin’s “Heartbreaker” (scroll ahead to the two minute mark)? These are just two samples to illustrate the difference between the two main voices in rock ‘n roll (the Fender Stratocaster and the Gibson Les Paul, respectively). The clips are not quite a fair comparison, however, in that Hendrix is playing his Stratocaster clean, while Jimmy Page’s Les Paul is distorted. So click here for a more fair comparison that demonstrates the same song (Jethro Tull’s “Aqualung”) through the same amp on a Fender Stratocaster and then a Gibson Les Paul.

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Epiphone released the Supernova model in “Oasis blue.”

As you can hear, Stratocasters have a more hollow, chime-y, bell-like sound than Les Pauls, which sound fatter and thicker. This is largely attributable to the different pickups they use (the devices which pick up the vibrations of the strings). Stratocasters use a pickup with a single coil; Les Pauls use a pickup with a double coil. Another contributing factor is that the length of a Stratocaster neck is longer, increasing the tension on the guitar strings, which helps produce a twangier, brighter sound. Other differences? Les Pauls have 22 frets, while Stratocasters only have 21. And Les Pauls tend to give you more sustain on your notes. Which voice is better? It depends on what kind of part you’re playing on what kind of song, and your own preference. It is hard to imagine the classic Dire Straits song “Sultans of Swing” played on a Les Paul. Likewise, it’s hard to imagine Bad Company’s classic “Can’t Get Enough of Your Love” on a Strat. It would sound weak and ridiculous. (Obviously, if you have the money, just buy one of each!).

But if you must choose one right now, and you decide on the Stratocaster, you have a few options. Luckily for you, Fender (and its subsidiary company Squier) make Stratocasters in all different price rangers. The cheapest are the Squiers. You can get a Squier Stratocaster for under $200, and yes, it will sound pretty much like the guitar at the beginning of “Hey Joe.” Proper Fender Stratocasters can bump into the $500-$600 range, which isn’t too bad. You can also try out a Fender Telecaster. They tend to sound even twangier than Stratocasters (although that twang can be modified through amp choice, of course). Keith Richards of the Rolling Stones has long favoured Telecasters. Bruce Springsteen also plays one. And interestingly, Jimmy Page (known mostly as a Gibson guy) used a Telecaster exclusively on Led Zeppelin I. He also played the solo on “Stairway to Heaven” with a Telecaster. And as with Stratocasters, Fender and Squier give you plenty of choices and price points with the Telecaster.

Les Pauls are a bit trickier. I have no hesitation in saying that the Gibson Les Paul is probably the most over-priced electric guitar (and possibly, object) in history. They’re like two- to three grand, sometimes more, and just aren’t good enough to warrant that cost. (It’s the same with their acoustics, which is again why I recommended the Yamahas).

This is not to say I don’t love Gibson Les Pauls. I do. It’s just that I think they’re overpriced compared to other brands. So, what to do if you’re on a budget?

Buy an Epiphone Les Paul Standard (Epiphone is a Gibson subsidiary company). Those cost a few hundred bucks. Sure, you don’t get the Gibson name on your headstock – but who cares? The Beatles played Epiphones. So did Noel Gallagher from Oasis. The pickups aren’t great, but the price is (but I have a plan for that. See below). Another choice is the Epiphone Les Paul Ultra III, which is around $750, but gives you some cool features (you can make it sound kind of like an acoustic guitar, as well as a standard Les Paul). The Ultra also has a slimmer neck, and has a few hollowed-out “pockets” in the body, which make it lighter, and also make your tone sound a bit softer than a normal Les Paul’s.

But let’s go back to the straight Epiphone Les Paul Standard. The price is right, but as I said, the pickups are pretty average. So let’s say you want an amazing sounding Les Paul, and the Epiphone for that reason just won’t cut it, but you don’t want to pay $3000 for the Gibson (whose pickups are better, but still aren’t that spectacular). What do you do?

Easy. Buy an Epiphone Les Paul Standard (or any of the Epiphone Les Pauls you like the look of), and then purchase, online, two high end boutique pickups (one for the neck position, one for the bridge). When they arrive, take your Epiphone and your new pickups to a local guitar repair shop and tell the guy to put them in, plus upgrade your wiring and tone pots (he’ll know what you mean). Yeah, it’s more cumbersome, but when you’re done, you’ll have spent maybe $400-$500 on the guitar, $300 for top class pickups, plus $100 or so for the installation and the wiring upgrades. So for under a grand, you’ll have a Les Paul that sounds way better than the three thousand dollar Gibson Les Pauls I just told you not to buy. And the name “Epiphone” on your headstock is nothing to be embarrassed about. Noel Gallagher conquered the world with one, you can, too (assuming you can write a song as good as “Don’t Look Back in Anger” – but that’s another article altogether).

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Les Paul Ultra III in Midnight Ebony

Which pickups should you order? The good news is that there are many fine boutique pickup manufacturers out there now. They include Bare Knuckle, Throbak, Fralin, and Lollar. Any PAF-style humbucker set (neck and bridge pickup) from those manufacturers will sound better than most stock Gibson pickups. (Although I admit the Gibson Burstbucker series is very good). But let me especially recommend for your consideration my two favourite boutique humbucker choices. Both are not only excellent, but have a relatively reasonable price.

The first is the Dr. Vintage set from Wolfetone. They have a really nice, open and exciting “top end”/treble, to them, without being too harsh. And if you have questions, Wolfe is easy to get hold of on the phone. With these, your Epiphone Les Paul (with upgraded wiring and tone pots) will sound world class.

A more idiosyncratic option is the Crossroads pickup set from WCR. They are built to sound like the classic Eric Clapton “woman tone.” They are more “full bodied” than the Dr. Vintage set – more “oomy” – but also have nice treble on top. I have these in one of my own guitars, and I am blown away by them. They sound awesome, but like no other pickup I know of.

What about semi-acoustics? Sure, get one if you’d like. Do make sure it’s a “semi-hollowbody”, or you’ll most likely have problems with feedback when you play live. And again, instead of spending more money than necessary, buy an Epiphone (or some other inexpensive semi-hollowbody) and put the better pickups and wiring in, and you’ll be good to go. Clapton played a semi-hollowbody. So did Alvin Lee. So do Noel Gallagher and B. B. King. They tend to give you a richer, warmer tone than a solidbody.

What about other guitar brands? Try some out. Yamaha makes great electrics. So does PRS (although I personally dislike their big, chunky necks, but you might like them). Gretsch is good for rockabilly (like Brian Setzer), or playing exclusively power rhythm (like Malcolm Young), but not a good option if you want to do a lot of lead work. And if you happen to prefer smaller guitars, try out a Fender Mustang. Ibanez is another brand worth checking out.

In the end, the most important thing is that you find a guitar you love to play. If it needs some tweaking – new pickups, neck adjustment, etc. – a luthier can do that in no time. I’ve given you lots of information, and hopefully some guidance to get you started, but honestly, don’t sweat it. If you love playing it, and you love its sound, that’s all that matters in the end.

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Tal Bachman’s 1999 debut album contained the hit “She’s So High,” which earned the BMI Song of the Year Award. He followed up in 2004 with the critically-acclaimed Staring Down the Sun. He loves all his guitars equally and refuses to choose a favorite. Learn more at Bachmania.com

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