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 » Home » Guitar Lessons » Beginners » Chapter 03 - What Kind of Guitar Should I Buy
By Rhythm Master

Okay. Do you prefer quiet, peaceful, beautiful acoustic guitar music or loud, raunchy, rowdy, roof raising, electric guitar? I myself prefer the latter although my wife wishes I would take more interest in the softer version. There's a tip for the guys right there. Get a nice acoustic guitar and the ladies will swoon in appreciation (or so she leads me to believe).

Back to the subject at hand. There are so many, repeat, so many guitars out there to purchase that it's nearly impossible for somebody other than you to pick one out and say, "This is the guitar for you". All anybody or I can do is point you in the right direction. I can give some advice and pointers (not the dog kind) but actually recommending that you purchase a Gibson, Fender, Ibanez, Peavey, or any make or model is beyond the realm of realism.

Guitar bodies can be made from various woods, which include but are not limited to koa, ash, mahogany, poplar, and alder. Each type of wood gives a certain tone or sound that may be bright and punchy or warm. Some woods weigh more than others causing the guitar to be heavy and become uncomfortable for some. Here is a quick list of some woods used to make bodies.

  • Alder - A lightweight type of wood that produces a warm sound and is fairly inexpensive. Usually painted in solid colors due to the grain pattern.
  • Poplar - Also a lightweight wood which has a sound similar to alder but lighter in color. Usually painted.
  • Mahogany - A hard, heavy wood with open grain and reddish in color. Sounds bright and provides good sustain.
  • Ash - Medium weight with open grain and light in color. Sounds bright with a bit of punchiness in the bass. Makes a great wood for bass bodies.
  • Maple - Generally used as a veneer for bodies due to their "flamed" and/or "quilted" appearance. Not good for a whole body.

Guitar necks can be made from a variety of woods just like bodies. Maple is probably the most common. Rosewood, koa, and others can also be used with varying degrees of sustain, warmth, and brightness characteristics. Fretboards (also referred to as fingerboards) are usually made from rosewood, maple, or ebony. Rosewood is the most common in this category due to the highly accepted sounds it helps produce coupled with the cost. Maple necks with maple fretboards are generally one piece with the fretboard portion being finished in some fashion with a sealer. Rosewood has a more open grain compared to ebony and is more often than not reddish in color while ebony tends to run more of a black in color. I myself prefer ebony fingerboards due to their smoothness.

So what should you look for in a guitar? What should be first and absolute foremost in your mind when looking for a guitar is feel and comfort. If the guitar is not comfortable to play, you won't want to play it. Does that make sense? Hey, I never said the book contained groundbreaking, earth-shattering, revolutionary thoughts out of left field! If the guitar that you fall in love with looks-wise is not comfortable to play, you may be able to push on and persevere and become an amazing player anyway. I just suggest you find a guitar that feels good in your hands and begs you to play. Try to be shallow at first and go with a guitar that looks cool to you. However, don't buy something just because your best friend thinks Johnny Guitarhero's the best so you should get his Wooden Wonder brand guitar with the killer apricot speckle finish. Try not to fall into that trap. The fact is that the company they represent is paying many guitarists and they may not even play the company's guitar but once a night because they aren't fond of it any more than you may be. Just be careful.

I mentioned in the previous paragraph about being shallow in choosing a guitar. What I mean by that is try to find a guitar that you find irresistible. You see the guitar and you want to play that one! Go for looks first. Am I contradicting myself? Not really. My whole point is to find a guitar that you want to play because it looks so good to you that you can't help but pick it up! If you get a guitar in which you don't like the looks, you're not going to have much desire to learn. Go for something in which you like the color, or the shape, or the combination of pickups that are in it, or all of the above. There's nothing wrong with that. After you find something that fits the bill in the looks department, inspect each one for comfort. Eliminate those that aren't comfortable from your list of "possible buys". What you will be left with is a list of guitars or hopefully at least one guitar that meets your criteria.

One area that is not common knowledge to many beginning guitarists (or even told to them) is the subject of necks. A guitar neck may be the single biggest determining factor in comfort. Guitar necks come in a variety of shapes from a thick, oval shaped neck (known as boatneck or V), to being extremely flat. When I say "shape", I'm referring to the backside portion of the neck. A flat, thin neck is usually preferred by players with smaller hands and thicker necks by people with bigger hands. A thin neck will make a larger hand tired prematurely to the point of pain and smaller hands will have a difficult time wrapping around thick guitar necks. There are necks that are wider (fretboard wise) than others and they are usually preferred by people with larger hands as well.

Oh, right. I haven't even mentioned another factor in purchasing a guitar. Price! How much can you afford? Let me tell you my first story.

A friend of mine is a guitarist that I would place in the category of "plays for the fun of it because he needs a hobby". He has gone through a number of guitars over the years for various reasons. Some he liked, some he didn't. Lo and behold after all these years, he found a guitar in a pawn shop for $99 that he just fell in love with because of the comfort factor.

That is part of my argument in the "what should I buy debate". Just because a guitar has a $3,000 list price does not mean that is the best guitar for you. It may have some features that you find appealing and you may even be able to afford it but it doesn't guarantee that you will enjoy playing it. I have played guitars that range in price from a couple hundred dollars into the thousand category and some just aren't what I would want. Again, spend your money wisely because it's your money.

Electric guitars come in hollow, semi-hollow, or solid body with the hollow and semi-hollow bodies incorporating a resonating cavity found in acoustic guitars. The most popular electric guitars are solid bodies.

Lower priced guitars are considered those that cost up to $500 (many guitar magazines have picked that price range and it's become accepted thinking). These will generally have lower priced materials (woods, tuners, bridge) and electronics (pickups, switches, input jacks). Higher priced guitars will usually have a better grade of wood for the fretboard and body, higher quality tuners, stronger pickups in the case of electrics, and possibly just better overall quality control when they were assembled. You can sometimes get a feel for the quality of an instrument just from talking with others that have owned a certain make or model, especially if they bought theirs new. Did they have to make major set up adjustments, if any at all, when they received their pride and joy from the factory? I know of one major company that produces a signature series line (you know, the guitar has the name of the artist) that when they arrive at the store, they require little or no adjustment by the store personnel before hanging it out for sale. That's quality control! Are there other companies that put that kind of effort into their product? I'm sure there are, so just do your research.

Going back for a minute to the lower priced fare that's available, price doesn't always reflect quality. A $200 guitar manufactured and assembled properly can perform quite well. Many people bash guitars made outside the United States when the fact is many quality instruments come from outside the US. Notice I did not say all guitars made outside the US are decent, just many. Use your own judgment and input from others in this area. I have owned guitars made in both the US and other countries and there are differences but it all depends on what your requirements are.

Be aware there are lower priced guitars available where the body is made of laminated wood. Laminated wood bodies consist of a few to several layers of wood glued to each other and then shaped at the saw. Usually it is layers of inexpensive wood that will not produce very good tonal characteristics or sustain. You can tell a laminated guitar by removing the back plate covering the knobs and switches or the plate covering the tremolo cavity and looking for the layers. You can easily spot them.

High priced guitars (over $1,000) will usually have more features and better materials but that doesn't necessarily translate to a better guitar, period. Most low to intermediate priced guitars will come with a rosewood or maple fretboard while higher end instruments will at least offer the choice of ebony. Higher priced guitars may also come as a neck-through model only while the lower priced version will be a bolt-on neck only.

Once you start advancing in your skill level with the instrument, you may decide that you need something a little more advanced to place in your hands. You may also decide that what you have is perfectly fine except the tuners, bridge system, or pickups just aren't to your liking. Pickups are usually the first thing a player wants to change. More about that later, though. The point is that anything can be changed on a guitar from electronics to the paint job. You can even change a neck on bolt-on versions. It depends on what you want to do and how much you're willing to invest (or endure).

Some people may consider the option of putting together their own guitar from pieces/parts that are available from a parts warehouse type of business or hiring somebody to do it for them. I don't recommend going down this road if you're just getting started in the whole equipment game. I can tell you from experience and my own research that this is a very expensive proposition (or can be), when compared to buying an off-the-shelf guitar. The economic factor aside, you more than likely won't have a very good idea of what you're looking for when it comes to features and tones until you have a decent amount of time and experience under your belt to answer some of your questions. Again, nobody is going to know exactly what you are looking for except you. Leave this option alone until such time as you are ready. It would be unfortunate to invest say, $1000 in putting together what you consider your dream machine, only to have it turn out to be a nightmare because of the tone produced or the playability isn't your cup of tea.

Now, back to the electronics issue or more precisely pickups. There are many pickup manufacturers out there that make many different types of pickups for folks to choose. Brand new from a store, you're looking at anywhere from $50 to $150 per aftermarket pickup. Do you want active or passive? Humbucker or single coil? Adjustable pole pieces or set? Do you want coil-tapping capability? Are you looking for a jazz guitar type of tone or crunching, heavy metal tones? It's enough to make your head spin when you start looking at all the choices.

Single coil pickups are famous for providing that warm, bluesy tone like Eric Clapton or Stevie Ray Vaughn. They are usually a bright sounding pickup. A small downside (to some people) is that single coils also produce noticeable hum and noise.

Humbucker pickups are essentially two single coils wired together. Wired a certain way, they cancel out the noise and are much quieter. They buck the hum, so to speak. These are popular for producing the hard rock tone heard from such players as Zakk Wylde and Angus Young from AC/DC.

Both styles of pickups come in a variety of colors and tonal characteristics. Depending on the type of magnets used and/or number of wire windings, they can be completely different sounding from one manufacturer to another.

The sound of electric guitars is produced by magnetic pickups and controlled by volume and tone knobs.

To produce sound, an electric guitar picks up the vibrations of the strings electronically and directs this signal to an amplifier. A simple magnetic pickup consists of a bar magnet wrapped with as many as 7,000 turns of fine wire. The vibrating steel strings produce a corresponding vibration in the magnet's magnetic field and therefore a vibrating current in the coil.

There are many different types of pickups. For example, some pickups extend a single magnet bar under all six strings (illus. A) while others have separate polepieces for each string (illus. B). Some pickups use screws for polepieces allowing height adjustment of each polepiece because the closer the polepiece is to the string, the stronger the signal. However, if you adjust a polepiece too close to a string, the magnet will basically grab hold of the string and not release it creating problems.

Different types of pickups

Many electric guitars have two or three different pickups located at different points on the body. Each pickup will have a distinctive sound, and multiple pickups can be paired, either in-phase or out, to produce additional variations. Most electric guitars are passive. This means they consume no power and you don't have to plug them into a power supply. Some have "active" electronics meaning they are powered by an onboard battery.

Again, this is an area where talking to people or logging on to the Internet can be a huge help. Reading user reviews in magazines or on the Internet can help in decision making for just about anything in this arena. Do your research.

I want to discuss hardware options next. This includes the tuners, type of bridge, nut, strap buttons, etc.

Tuners (tuning keys on the headstock) come basically locking or non-locking. Locking tuners are good when used with a guitar that has a tremolo system (sometimes called a whammy bar) but no locking nut. They help keep the guitar in tune much better in such cases. They are essentially meaningless if you also employ a locking nut.

Bridge types can be separated into two types; tremolo systems (floating and fulcrum) and non-tremolo or fixed (sometimes called hardtail). Fixed bridges are probably easier to learn with but not as fun. Fixed bridges are very easy to work with and maintain compared to the floating and fulcrum bridges. Fixed bridges allow you to tune the guitar without having to worry about the other strings going out of tune. There are different types of fixed bridges in existence with the most popular being the Tune-o-maticÒ. Without going into details, these bridges are very easy to use if you purchase a guitar with a bridge of this type.

In association with floating systems is the locking nut. This little invention keeps the strings in tune by utilizing a clamping action on the strings. After a guitar is tuned, you simply clamp the strings in position. Sound flawless? They can still go out of tune but the locking nut helps immensely. My recommendation between a fixed bridge and floating? Go with either one but keep in mind that changing strings, tuning, and keeping a floating bridge working like it should takes some effort.

Strap buttons are what holds the strap to the guitar when playing in a standing position. Most off-the-shelf guitars come with the basic buttons that enable you to slide the strap over them. Higher end guitars may or may not come with locking strap buttons. The locking strap buttons are great for use in situations where you are concerned about the strap coming loose and the guitar falling to the floor. These can be picked up for a rather small price when compared to repairing your favorite 6 string.

One area that tends to be overlooked when buying an electric guitar is cords. A guitar cord is the lifeline between the guitar and amp. This is one area you shouldn't opt for the cheapest route, in my opinion. You don't necessarily have to spend excessive amounts of money but you should buy something sturdy that can take abuse like bending, stepping on it, kinking, etc. After all, the sound coming from your guitar is forced to travel through that cord and into your amp. If the path is interrupted somehow, you won't have much sound. Spend a little more and you'll get a little more.

Let's talk a little about acoustic guitars. This class of guitars can be just about as confusing as the electric class. You will discover dreadnought type acoustics that are normally associated with country music. These guitars produce beautiful, full sounding tones. They can be rather difficult for a smaller adult or child to hold the instrument properly due to the size thus making it frustrating to learn and play. You never want to get frustrated or hold yourself back in learning just because the guitar is uncomfortable. Where have I heard that? They do make smaller versions, which can be of good quality though. More research! Acoustics come in classical, jumbo, dreadnought, parlor, nylon string (classical) and steel string. Acoustics vary in prices with higher end models having solid tops compared to the more affordable laminate topped guitars. You can also get them with solid tops and backs. Some of the higher end names include TaylorÒ, OvationÒ, and MartinÒ.

Steel string guitars are more popular and louder than their nylon counterparts. They are ideal for strumming and fingerpicking and produce a brighter tone than nylons.

Nylon string guitars are softer and warmer sounding than a steel string. They are designed for individual note playing and classical pieces. They are slightly easier to play but have larger necks and wider spacing between strings compared to steel strings.

There are guitars that are called acoustic/electric or "A/E" for short. These are acoustic guitars that have a built in pickup, input jack for a guitar cable, and sometimes a 3 to 5 band equalizer along with a volume control. They can be the dreadnought style (big and thick) or thin. Thinner A/E guitars are usually favored among rock musicians for their similarity in feel to the electrics. Prices, styles, and quality can vary just as much as their electric cousins. Do you want a radical looking BC Rich Warlockâ or the timeless classic look of the dreadnought style?

A guitar that tends to fascinate people right off is the 12-string model. I do not recommend starting out with one of these. Learning to play for some can be a daunting task despite their enthusiasm. Learning to play a 12-string as your first guitar raises the level of difficulty. I didn't say it was impossible, just more challenging. Stick with a 6 string for learning purposes.

One thing to consider when comparing acoustics to electrics is the fact that the action (distance of the strings to the fretboard) is generally higher on the acoustics. A higher action tends to make a guitar slightly harder to play. The benefit of such a condition is that it will force you to play "cleaner". The definition of playing cleaner is picking out notes or playing chords where each is distinguishable and not melting together in such a fashion, as they cannot be detected. Playing cleaner is the goal (or should be the goal) of every guitarist. While electric guitars may be easier to play, they can allow you to get sloppy and develop bad habits that are more difficult to break yourself from later. The sloppiness develops while using distortion on the electric. That's why we buy electrics, isn't it? Distortion is king! Louder, bigger, better! You can hide mistakes and sloppy, lazy playing a hundred times easier than on an acoustic. Two more thoughts I wish to mention on this subject of acoustic vs. electric is the following: If you decide on an electric for your first guitar, just be aware of forcing yourself to play cleanly when practicing. Always take it slowly and build upon that. Have you ever heard the saying, "You have to crawl before you can walk"? It's true. The last thing is that if you choose an acoustic guitar, you will have no need for an amplifier. You want electric? You're going to have to fork over some more dough to get something to play through. Oh, boy.

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