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How to Buy a Guitar

Buying a guitar can be a daunting task. What should you look for? What makes a good guitar?

The first thing you should do is find a music store with a large selection and spend some time trying out different ones. If you’re just learning to play, the guitar you choose can have a real impact on how much you practice.

Many people don’t want to spend a lot of money on their first instrument, but, if you get a really cheap guitar it can make the learning experience a difficult one. A poor instrument can be hard on the fingers, goes out of tune easily, and can be awkward to hold. My advice is to try and find a middle ground. Don’t buy the cheapest one you can find, but don’t spend a small fortune either on the best guitar out there. The reason for not getting the best guitar you can buy is that until you’ve played for a while you won’t really know what it is you need/want in a guitar.

SIZE: Some people (especially kids) get guitars that are way to big for them. After a while a guitar’s size can work against you, making it tiring to hold. I started off with a large guitar, but when I finally bought a new one, which was a fair bit smaller, the pleasure in playing it was amazing. It just felt right.

ACTION: Another important aspect is the “action” of a guitar, or how close the strings are to the fingerboard. In a poorly made guitar if the strings are too close they will rattle against the frets when you play. If your guitar has a “good action” the strings are quite close but play cleanly. To test the action of a guitar, play notes at various points along the neck on each string, then play some chords up and down the neck. There should be not rattle or buzz coming from the strings at any point.

WARP: Cheap guitars are usually made of cheap wood. Since the neck is under a lot of pressure from the strings it can start to warp. Look down along the length of the neck and check to make sure it isn’t twisting to the left or right. Then take a look at the neck from the side and make sure it isn’t bowed so that the strings rise dramatically away from the neck in the middle. Cheap guitars can seem fine when you play chords close to the nut but they will begin to rattle when you move further up the neck, this can become extremely frustrating when you start learning bar chords.

BUILD: Check all the parts to make sure they’re firmly attached to the guitar. Is the bridge firmly in place, or is lifting away from the body. Bridges are usually attached with glue and dry air causes the glue to degrade and the bridges can snap off. This has happened to me twice and I jumped a mile the first time - it was like a small explosion.

TUNING: Do the knobs for tuning feel secure and firm? Loose parts here will cause the guitar to go out of tune as soon as you start playing and that can be extremely frustrating. Another test is to play an open string and then play a note on the same string at the twelfth fret (which is the same note one octave higher). Do they sound in tune or does the note at the twelfth fret sound slightly off pitch? If it sounds off pitch then the frets may be poorly placed or the neck is warped, which means once you start playing chords higher up the neck they’ll sound off pitch.

SOUND: People spend a great deal of money on well crafted guitars because the sound is so wonderful. You can get a guitar that sounds plunky or one that sounds rich and musical. Cheap guitars are usually quite thick so they can sound dull and lifeless. Try and find a guitar that sounds pleasant to your ears, either strumming loudly or playing very quietly.

LOOK: Finally, how does the guitar look? Do you love it? The colour, the shape? Don’t underestimate loving your guitar. It takes many, many long hours of practice to become good and if you hate how your guitar looks then you’ll never feel like the music star you were born to be. Of course DON’T buy a pretty guitar over a good one. Size, action, warp, build, these are the things that will help you persevere in learning a new instrument.

So how much should you spend? It’s hard to get a good guitar for under a hundred dollars, a really good guitar will cost you thousands. But somewhere in between you will find a vast range of quality. Expensive does not necessarily equal quality! You may luck out and find a cheap 2nd hand guitar that is well made and sounds great. So take your time, check out lots of instruments, because somewhere out there is that special one just for you.