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Buying a guitar: The beginner

Prepared by Alan Humm

1 OK, you are thinking, "I come to this page to read about buying a guitar, and he tells me to ask someone else....what's up?" I can, and will tell you some stuff, but I can't go shopping with you, well, unless you live in the Chapel Hill, NC area and are planning to have me be your guitar teacher. However, there are features that separate even identical models of the same guitar that really require a player to evaluate by feeling and playing the instrument.

2 I bought my first bass from my teacher, and have been known to pass on instruments to students. Professionals often also know about 'good deals' out there of which the novice is likely to be unaware.

3 Somewhere in the range of 2mm (≈3/32in) from the top of the fret at the body juncture for an acoustic guitar, maybe a tiny bit less for an electric, up to 3mm for a classical. If the guitar is second hand, you also need to check that there is minimal wear on the frets. Frets can be replaced, so if it is a $5000 guitar that they are selling for $50, forget the frets!

4 Although, if the strings are old and have not been cleaned (very likely in a music store) this will throw off the intonation. Your friend will be able to tell if this is the case right off. If the guitar costs more than $150, the store may be willing to restring it for you since the instrument is virtually unsellable like that, but make sure you have checked the other things before you ask. They may also have other models of the same guitar in the store with newer strings for you to try.

5 Second hand instruments are different. You can get some really good deals off of Craigslist or the like, but you absolutely must not go this route without experienced council. Pawn shops can also be good, but they never have setup techs, so the same advice applies–caveat emptor.

6 The guitar in the illustration is 7/8 size, and very inexpensive. It apparently is reasonably intoned and has decent action. I can tell, just looking at the top, that the tone quality will not be wonderful (see below under top woods), but for a child's first instrument, size is more important than tone. The other factors, however are essential. For those prepared to spend a little more (your child has been playing long enough that you can be sure it is not a passing interest), Martin makes a higher quality small size guitar, as do others, I am sure.

7 See my page on Tuning the guitar (for the non-beginner).
Several other questions will have an impact on your decision even at this level, but there are some commonalities. First and foremost, if you are really just getting started, don't go it alone (I'm not talking about lessons here, although that is also a good idea). If you have more than two friends in the world, at least one of them probably plays guitar. The better he or she plays the better,1 although style is a consideration-I would not recommend asking your hair-band playing friend how to buy a classical guitar. If you are considering taking lessons, asking your potential teacher is a good move. She may even have a good one she is willing to part with (guitarists have a tendency to collect more guitars than they need).2

size trying
A young player tries different sizes.

The most important features of a stringed instrument for a beginner are playability, tunability, and correct size. The first is a function of what we call 'action'; this refers to how close the strings are to the fingerboard. If they are too far away, the instrument will be hard to play; if they are too close they will vibrate against, or even actually touch, the fingerboard, destroying the sound.3 You should also look down the neck from the head toward the bridge to make sure the neck is straight. Figuring out which is easier to play is easy; making sure it is not too close is part of why you brought your friend (it should not rattle, and all notes should sound). Some of playability is personal taste, and you may not even know what your tastes are until you have been playing for a while. Guitars come with different scales (distance between the bridge [on the body] and the nut [up by the tuning keys]), and different neck widths. Both of these will affect the 'feel' of the instrument.

Tunability, the ability to get the guitar in tune, may seem like such an essential quality that any guitar that hasn't been damaged in some way would include that automatically. Not so, I am sorry to say. Again, the more of a beginner you are, the more you need your experienced friend along for this. There are two aspects to keeping the guitar in tune. First it has to be properly intoned. That means, basically, that the frets and the bridge need to be in the right places. For acoustic and classical guitars, if an acoustic guitar is off in the store, it will always be off, so be careful.4 If you are looking at an electric guitar, there is often some adjustment wiggle room on the bridge. Still, if you are in a music store and it is off, I am going to assume it cannot be right (either the store's setup tech tried to adjust it and couldn't, or the store is too slack to make use of a setup tech-either way, keep looking).5 The other thing that affects tuning is the quality of the tuning keys. An experienced player probably has experienced the difference between good and bad. They should turn easily and the note you hear on the string (pluck before turning the key) should move steadily, without jumps or pops.

Starter guitar
Smaller size, smaller price, but definately beginner quality.

Correct size depends, of course, on how big you are. Scale, which I mentioned earlier, is the more important part of this. This is an area where the guitar sales staff may be able to give you useful advice (I generally trust your friend more, since she does not have a financial interest in your decision). If you are ten or older, and reasonably normal-sized, you are ready for an adult guitar, although you may still want the shorter adult scale (24), depending on your size. If you are younger and/or smaller, see what is available.6 The other aspect of size is just how big the body is. This makes absolutely no difference on your first guitar (size affects volume and tone quality, but bigger is not necessarily better). Get what feels comfortable, all other things being equal. Do not get something you will have a hard time holding.

Those are the beginner essentials. If you have a little more wiggle room in you expense account, you will probably find it helpful to keep on reading.

A little more technical stuff on intonation

Some guitars are so bad in this area, it is immediately obvious that you are going to have problems. But some issues only appear in time. I mentioned earlier that dead strings will keep any guitar from being properly intoned. More nefarious, some instruments sound fine with new strings, but become impossible to tune after only a couple of weeks, well before the strings should need to be replaced. The best bet is to find a guitar with two week old strings (Yeah, right!). Moving on to actually checking the intonation, the first place to start is to compare the 12th fret harmonic (beginners, this is why you need a friend) to the same note fretted. They should be as close to the same as possible across all strings. Even expensive instruments will not always hold up under this test, particular on the lowest strings.

Now you need to get it as close to in tune as is humanly possible (by they way, those of you who are dependent on electronic tuners, that will not get you there7). If it is not humanly possible, no need to move on: Unless the strings are dead, the guitar is flawed. Once you know you are in tune, check it with a number of different chords, up and down the neck-one note at a time. If they still all sound right, you are probably OK.

Truss rods

truss on headstock
Truss access on headstock.
truss from hole
Truss access from sound hole.
electric bolt-on truss
Truss access on bolt-on neck.

Most steel-string and electric guitars have truss-rods. This innovation was introduced by Gibson, but once their patent ran out, pretty much every one else jumped on the band-wagon. A truss-rod allows you to adjust your neck's response to the tension that comes from the strings. If you can get someone who knows what they are doing to show you how to adjust it, that is better than working from the seat of your pants. However, don't look for one on your Martin-they still don't have them, which, has not particularly reduced their popularity. If you are purchasing second-hand, look for a little (usually plastic) cover just on the other side of the nut (on the head), or an adjustment bolt accessible at the other end of the neck, either directly, with a bolt-on, or through the sound hole. However, if the guitar is over 30 years old and doesn't have one but still plays well, it is probably stable enough not to worry about, as long as you are happy with how it feels (the neck is probably slightly thicker).


© 2013 Alan Humm