How To Buy Your First Guitar
1. Acoustic, Classical, or Electric?
2. What about size?
3. What about color?
4. How much should I spend?
5. How cheap is too cheap?
6. Where can I buy my guitar in Seattle?
7. Where can I buy my guitar online?
There are three main types of guitars, and the type you choose will depend on the style of music you want to play.
Acoustic and Classical guitars look pretty similar, but they feel and sound different. Acoustic guitar strings are made of steel, and produce a big, bright, brash tone. Classical strings are nylon, and sound mellow. Mellifluous. Muted, even. If you want to play acoustic rock, or sound like Bob Dylan or Neil Young or Jack Johnson, you probably want an acoustic guitar. If all the songs in your iPod’s playlist have Italian names, or you’re Sergeant of Arms in the Andres Segovia Fan Club, you’ll want a classical guitar. You’ll also want a different guitar teacher–my classical music education is limited to dancing to my mom’s Peter and the Wolf record when I was 8. OK, maybe 28.
Also, acoustic guitar necks are narrower and longer than classical guitar necks. This means that it’s a little easier to fingerpick on a classical guitar (those strings aren’t as crowded), and easier to fret some common folk/rock chords on the acoustic.
Electric guitars come in two main flavors, depending on the kind of pickups they have. Pickups are like microphones that "pick up" string vibrations. They’re the lipstick- or matchbox-shaped things under the strings in the area where you strum the guitar. You may want to choose a guitar that has pickups that match your style of music. Or choose the guitar with the palm trees painted on the front. Whatever.
Single-coil pickups are the narrow, lipstick-shaped pickups. They tend to have a brighter tone, and are generally considered to be the best-sounding pickups for clean (un-distorted) guitar playing. They’re also sort of noisy, especially if you’re near a computer monitor or light fixture, or when you’re using a lot of distortion. Fender Stratocasters and Telecasters (and their cheaper cousins, made by Squier) usually have single-coil pickups. Most of my beginning electric guitar students buy $150 Squier Stratocasters, but if you can afford $300, the Fender Stratocasters sound a lot better and don’t fall apart in two years.
Humbuckers are the matchbox-shaped pickups. They got their name (it’s trademarked, actually) because they "bucked the hum" that single-coil pickups were susceptible to. Humbuckers sound great with distortion, so they’re the pickups of choice for the hard rockers. Most Gibson (and the cheaper Epiphone) guitars have humbuckers.
Check out my electric guitar comparison chart.
Buying a guitar is like shopping for a coat–you’ll want one that fits your body type. Guitars that are too big feel awkward when you drape your strumming/picking arm over the top of the body. Guitars that are too small make you feel like Don Ho.
Little people need little guitars, so there are 1/2 and 3/4 sized guitars for kids.
Ask a salesperson to help you decide if your guitar fits.
Looks are important to most people, myself included. I want my guitars to entice me to play them. They should at least look as attractive as whatever’s on TV.
Kids are especially concerned with looks, and I think that’s fine. Luckily, guitars with blue paint jobs or bodies shaped like skulls aren’t necessarily more expensive, so if you’re shopping for a child, encourage them to pick a guitar that they think looks cool. Just make sure they like the sound of it, too.
More expensive guitars have better tone, are easier to play, and are more durable. Even so, I bought my first guitar, a Japanese-made Fender Stratocaster, for $250 in 1983, and it held together, more or less, through two years of high school and five years of college. It even survived my brief flirtation with electronics tinkering, when I used my dad’s 100-watt soldering iron to install a new pickup. When the smoke finally cleared, half the electronics were melted, but that guitar held on.
If you’re shopping for a child, I’d recommend getting a guitar in the $150 to $300 range. They won’t be able to hear much difference in tone, and by the time the guitar wears out, they’ll have saved their paper route money (do kids even do paper routes anymore?) for a nicer one. Keep in mind that if you’re buying an electric guitar, you’ll also need a practice amplifier ($100), cable ($15), and strap ($20).
If you’re shopping for yourself, follow your instincts. If you’re in love with that $2000 Martin shining in the store window, and can afford it, heck, there are worse ways to spend your money. Playing a really nice guitar can be inspiring.
But if you’re on a budget like most people, find a guitar in the $250-$500 range that looks good and feels good.
Check out my electric guitar comparison chart.
Don’t buy a guitar whose strings are high above the fretboard. This condition, called high "action," is often correlated with other conditions, like "Carpel Tunnel Syndrome" and "Guitar Homicidal Tendency". Cheap used acoustic guitars often have high action. If you’re a total beginner shopping for a screaming deal on a used acoustic, ask a salesperson to find you one with good action.
Remember to ask, "What price can you give me for this?" Music instruments are almost always marked high.
Acoustic Guitar Stores
Dusty Strings Duck into a doorway on a busy sidewalk in the heart of Fremont, and descend a flight of stairs into a vast underground acoustic instrument smorgasbord! Pluck "Mary Had a Little Lamb" on one of the $15000 harps! Play "Stairway" on a $5000 Martin! You’ll never want to leave.
Dusty Strings also has moderately priced guitars, and a friendly, knowledgeable staff, but in general, you’ll pay a bit more for guitars here.
Guitar Emporium Funky little acoustic guitar shop in old Ballard. Robb, the proprietor, is a nice guy and always eager to talk shop. Good mix of used and new guitars starting around $350. I got a great deal on a 1978 Alvarez here. It’s meant to be my beach guitar, but I like it so much I don’t want to bang it up!
Acoustic and Electric Guitar Stores
American Music These are the people I go to for strings, tuners, cables, etc. They’ve got a wide selection, but they still have a small-shop feel. Located in Fremont.
Trading Musician Used equipment galore! If you’re looking for a cheap used guitar, this might be the place to find it.
Guitar Center When I can’t find it anywhere else, I get it at Guitar Center, the Costco of music equipment stores. If you don’t mind being addressed as "dude", you can get rock-bottom prices on new guitars and amps here.
Classical Guitar Stores
Rosewood Guitars Pardon me, do you have any Gray Poupon? Seattle’s finest new classical guitars are here.
Craigslist The popular, free online classified website. If you really want a screaming deal, you don’t have to buy a guitar immediately, and you have a friend who can inspect your prospective purchase, trawl the musical instrument section of Craigslist every day and when you see a promising listing, jump on it. I prefer Craigslist to Ebay or Instrument Exchange because I can inspect the equipment before I buy it.
Ebay The online auction site. You can get some great deals on Ebay (I bought my Les Paul there for half the retail price) but you can’t preview the goods.
Instrument Exchange Guitar Center’s version of Ebay is a great place for used and vintage gear, but again, it’s risky.