Buying the perfect guitar without killing your bank account has been increasingly easier, and I guess we all owe that to a lot of market competition. But that also means people need to be a lot more careful when picking their axe: I still see a lot of folks spending their whole savings on something that is worst built and worst sounding than competing models that would have cost less than 1/3 (one third) of the price! This personally makes me really sad, because everyone deserves a great guitar or bass, whether they’re learning to play or been doing it professionally for decades.
The market may be cruel and misleading, but if you know how to look, you can find something good. Being a guitar player for 12 years, I learned it the hard way.
Where do you live?
It’s not a myth that guitar quality depends on where you live (the top quality instruments for any brand tend to be shipped to North America, Japan, England and maybe Germany – where the market matters the most, and most reviewers live). It’s a harsh reality, but if you live anywhere else, be extra careful or risk mail ordering from one of those places.
Guitars are not cars (same make/model does not mean same exact quality and tone)
But is that really relevant these days? A lot of people buy guitars online, even if they have guitar stores nearby, to try to save some money or get the exact model.
Well, a) buying online and ship it from US to Azerbaijan is not always easy. b) your Guitar Center or Sam Ash can probably order the model for you to try it out.
But what’s the greatest inconvenient of buying online? Well, guitars are made of wood, which is a natural material. Even though they are rated different quality scores as they leave the factory (to be shipped to different places) the machinery used to manufacture guitars in large quantities is dealing with chopped wood. So two guitars of the same model will probably not sound the same – and that’s why you should first test play the instrument you’re about to buy.
Funny story from the chief of the acoustic department at Guitar Center in Hollywood – I once bought a guitar there, by testing out ten instances of the same basic model, and then deciding the best sounding one. The sales guy was pleasantly surprised, because people would usually do what I did, and in the end ask if they could have one of the same model, but in a box, totally new and untouched. And that kind of defeats the purpose of searching…
Remember: even the guitar with the next serial number in the sequence will have different tonal qualities. It could even sound twice as good, or half as good! Guitar are not cars.
What you need to decide first
Before starting, ask yourself how you want to use your guitar, and if you intend to improve it later. This will make a world of difference. If it’s a medium or long term project, you can have some parts and the electronics replaced. If not, you can still stick to the advice and end up getting something that sounds amazing, spending less than $500.
Here’s a checklist to start:
- What kind of tone am I looking for?
- Blues / Country / Classic Rock: regular single coil, P90 (Soapbar);
- Hard Rock / Jazz / Blues: regular humbucker, mixed;
- Metal: regular humbucker… all the way baby!
- Aggressive styles with occasional option for more twangy tone: humbucker with coil tap system.
Note: simplified for complete beginners (results may vary)
- What kind of tunings do I want to use?
- Always Standard (E A D G B E) or drop-D: 24 ¾, 25, 25 ½ scales;
- Down-tunings (2 or more half-tones below standard): 25 ½ or baritone scales (26 ½, 27, 28, 30).
- Do I really need a tremolo?
- No: preferably a hard tail bridge (Gibson type, PRS type, string-thru) or something you can lock easily (Fender tremolo);
- Yes: better go with a locking tremolo system like Floyd Rose or similar (but they are extremely annoying to maintain, tune, intonate and change strings, and they degrade the sustain – seriously, think twice! I got rid of the most valuable and best sounding guitar I had, partly because it had an original Floyd Rose and I was so tired of it).
If you have a different requirement other than the ones listed here, you just need to look more carefully. But be aware that most beginners often put a lot of concern into details, that in the end are not really going to matter, or force them to pay more money (worrying with things like having EMG pickups or what string gauge comes with the guitar from the factory, can be signs of wrong priorities).
Play it … unplugged
Once you decide the specifications you’re looking for, you can write them down and worry only about tone from this point on! And the concept of good guitar tone is actually more universal than you think.
Assuming all the strings installed are recent enough to compare, you can play on different guitars without even plugging them to an amp. If you have doubts about the strings, and you think you probably found a great guitar, have a new set with you (or buy it) and change them in the store. You only need to change 3 to 4 strings. That should be enough to help you decide.
What you’re looking for in an unplugged guitar (solid body, semi hollow, hollow, acoustic) doesn’t vary a lot: sound projection (you want it loud and “acoustic”), clarity, balance and sustain. Take your possible future guitars to a quiet place in the store, like the acoustic guitar room, and see which one feels better built and has an overall good tone while unplugged. Even if that guitar sounds disappointing when you plug it to an amp, at least you know it’s something you can easily change by replacing all the electronics, or only the pickup(s).
Haggle like it’s the flea market
Guitar Center and other big guitar stores like Sam Ash or little known retailers can be a great place to haggle! Often, there is such a large number of instruments that even a good store team can’t keep them all maintained at the same time, so chances are your “perfect” guitar will have unimportant flaws due to lack of maintenance: little dings and scratches, loose pots, switches, jacks or screws, terrible setup, badly adjusted pickups. These flaws are good things – they allow you to haggle with the store clerks, to get discounts. Sometimes you can save from $50 to $100 or more, if you have nerve, practice and persistence. Then you can take them home and fix them. Don’t worry, a guide is coming up to help you set up and fix your guitar or bass.
Coming up next – The best guitars and basses under $500
But wait! Don’t go off buying something before you check out the tried-and-true inexpensive quality axes. We have compiled a list of mini reviews of the most notable stringed gems in the market today, just for you to get to know them. It is the result of personal experience, discussions with experts on the subject (seasoned guitar players, bass players and even producers), and the work and experimentation of other reviewers.
These guitars (sometimes with careful picking and a specific modification) rival models costing three to six times as much. No joke. (Coming soon to Moozek)