How to Buy a Guitar by RA (Bob) Campbell

So, you want to play guitar?  Or maybe you already play and are ready to buy a new one, but would like a little guidance.  Well, I'm here to help.  Here's a checklist of things to consider:

1) Playability
2) Sound
3) Cost
4) Features
5) Appearance

1) Playability - without this all other things really don't matter.   A guitar that isn't playable won't be played, right?  You can budge on the other points but this one can't be skimped on.  By playability, we're talking about ease of playing (or action), feel of the neck as well as body, the ability to play any note up and down the neck with clarity.  A good dealer will set these things up before the instrument is offered for sale.  Keep in mind, every person is different so there may have to be some adjustments to suit your particular style but the overall playability should always be there.

2) Sound - this is what it's all about.  This is a close second to playability for the guitarist who's been playing for awhile.  Even beginners should be concerned with sound.  Does this instrument have good sustain?   Evenness in the full tonal range?  Even unplugged, an electric should have these qualities.  Bear in mind that certain aspects of the sound can be changed with strings, pickups, etc. but you shouldn't buy a guitar with a less than desirable sound expecting to drastically improve it with modifications.

3) Cost - this is the great equalizer.  Of course, everybody has a budget but try to remain open to all possibilities.  The cost will determine many factors and in some cases you're better off saving your money to get the qualities you want.  The money you spend will limit what you can expect but there is no reason to give up playability.  A lower budget amount ($175-$350) will still get you a fine instrument, typically made overseas suitable for the beginner.  Any less than that and you won't get something that will allow you to learn on.  Medium price ranges ($350-$700) will get you some nice pieces with better construction and hardware.   These instruments would be suitable for performing.  The upper region ($700 and up) will net you fine, professional instruments with superior hardware, finishes and overall construction.  The differences can sometimes seem small to the untrained eyes but the quality is in the details.  These are general guidelines, there are far too many variables to be more specific.

4) Features - what is it that you want?  Locking tremolo equipped guitars will cost more typically than non-locking ones.  Solid wood acoustics will sound better and cost more than laminated.  Active electronics will add to the price but aren't suitable for everybody.  This is the point where you make your shopping list.  Not all companies offer all features.  Some features are more practical than others, for instance, a curly maple top will look great and cost substantially more but add no real sound benefits.  What must you have and what is negotiable?  Does your next acoustic have to have a pickup/preamp for performing or is that something you won't use much.  Write a list if necessary.

5) Appearance - a good looking guitar will make you want to play it.   If all other aspects are there and you have the choice between two models, one in that cool day-glo orange you love with matching case or that plain white, lumpy shaped one, which should you choose?  Once the other criteria is met, why not have something you enjoy looking at and showing off?  Go on, you deserve it!

   Additional points to consider - No one manufacturer uses special wood that is grown by leprechauns on the east side of Mt. Whatchawhosit and harvested during the 3rd week of the wood stretching festival.   There are so many good manufacturers out there, using good quality components that no single company holds the exclusive over good sound.  In fact, most companies offer similar instruments to one another so the same type of sound or features can be had across several different makers.  Keep an open mind to alternatives.

    Second, deal with someone you can build a relationship with.  If someone gives you a hard time or won't answer your questions, don't buy from that person.  If they don't know what they're talking about or won't stand behind what they sell, don't buy it.  Even over the internet you still deserve special treatment, it may just be another guitar to the sales person but it's YOUR guitar!   Don't put price above service, you will pay in the long run.

    Third, keep in mind that most catalogs/internet based/big box stores do not offer any additional service with the purchase.  Anybody can slap a shipping sticker on a box, but not everybody can setup a guitar, tell you about the smaller details, personally stand behind the instrument, that is service.  It's not uncommon for people to pay a local shop to set up their guitar once received from the mail order company.  This is money you're not saving!  Service is not just fixing something when it goes wrong.  And if something does go wrong, how long will you be without your instrument while it gets shipped off to some service center (4 to 6 weeks is common with the catalog/internet/bigbox store). 

All in all, there's a lot of options out there and a lot to consider.  Choose wisely and be rewarded.

Need more info?  Read these articles and be enlightened!