If you don’t play the guitar yet and are only starting out, it would be wise to start by borrowing an instrument from a friend. The “gotta play that guitar” euphoria can vanish in no time at all, and then your instrument will languish in the corner of your house – will it have been worth buying it in that case?
Once you are sure you want to buy a guitar, as with any other major purchase, it’s a good idea to collect as much information as you can from any musicians you know, musicians’ forums, music forums and web-sites (I see you haven’t skipped MuzLand, and quite right, too!).
Money, money, money!
How much to spend is, of course, the central question. Clearly, it’s best to buy the most expensive instrument you can afford. I can tell you now that the myth that a cheap guitar is all you need to get you started is quite wrong. With a cheap guitar it may be difficult to hold down the strings, it may sound ghastly, or it may be impossible to tune. These problems may be enough to put you off playing at the outset.
Acoustic or electric?
Most people start out on an acoustic guitar. This is because it is a more ordinary instrument (easy to play on with friends, or to take on a trip etc.), and not everyone can afford to buy a good amplifier and other gear.
Since most people learn to play at home, choosing an acoustic guitar shows that you’ve thought about your family and the neighbours – playing an electric guitar is pretty loud and nobody likes that. If you plan to switch to the electric guitar in the future, your experience on the acoustic will be useful for you, but please note that acoustic and electric guitars are not identical, and they each have a distinct playing technique.
If you decide to buy a second-hand guitar be very careful when inspecting it visually and listening to it in order not to buy a poor quality or defective instrument. We recommend that you ask for help from a musician you know who can give advice based on their experience. Some points to bear in mind, however, include:
- Make sure there are no cracks in the body (even the smallest may be the cause of poor sound quality), and that the body is not warped.
- The neck mustn’t be warped, either. It must be flat and parallel to the top soundboard.
- Frets must be parallel with each other.
- The tuning keys must turn freely without making any noise.
- Check that the string bridge support is firmly glued.
- Play several chords and notes and try to work out if you feel comfortable while playing it; do you have to use pressure to hold the strings down, do you like the sound? If the sound is not quite right but you can’t see any other problems have a good look at the strings. It may be some time since they were last changed, perhaps they are old and black, and maybe changing the strings will solve the problem.
- The guitar must be well in tune with itself. Make sure that a chord played on open strings sounds as good as a chord played on the sixth fret. This is particularly important if the strings are relatively new.
- Find out if the guitar has ever been repaired, and how intensely the previous owner played it.
Guitars can be divided into four main types: classical (Spanish) guitars, modern guitar (concert) guitars, semi-acoustic guitars (including so-called jazz guitars) and electric guitars.
The classical guitar is used, first of all, to perform classical compositions, to accompany Latin American songs and dances and Spanish flamenco. The headstock usually has two openings in it (a closed headstock); it usually has nylon strings and the neck is wider than that of concert guitars (due to the demands of playing classical compositions).
As a rule, the modern (or concert) guitar has metal strings (steel, wound with silver or bronze for the bass strings) which make the sound louder and brighter. This guitar is used for solos and can be played either with the fingers or plectrums. Even so, the classical guitar is better for playing sophisticated solos, but the modern guitar is better suited to blues and jazz.
The semi-acoustic guitar is a guitar that has the top (front) soundboard made of wood and the side and back of the body of plastic; this can be quite a cost effective option. In some cases ‘semi-acoustic’ is used to mean an acoustic (classical or modern) guitar with a built-in electric pick-up.
Jazz guitars are sometimes also known by this term. Such guitars have f-shaped sound holes, they are larger than other guitars and their soundboards slightly curved like a fiddle’s. This unusual shape is said to influence the sound quality of the instrument.
Electric guitars can hardly be heard without an amplifier. To enhance the sound, special sound pick-ups and converters (amplifiers, effects) are used. Such guitars have a solid body because the shape, whatever it is, is less relevant to the sound of the instrument. In this case, sound quality is defined to a greater extent by the pickup quality.
Other guitar types
There are also some other types of guitar that I haven’t described above which are nevertheless worth a mention.
Some makers offer special guitars for children and for women. For children these are three-quarter or half-sized guitars. “Women’s” guitars are designed specially for women’s hands as they are usually smaller than men’s’. Some manufacturers produce Travel-size guitars: their sound quality leaves much to be desired, but their advantage is in their small size, which is ideal for an outdoor picnic.
12-string guitars are usually larger than 6-string ones. They use a set of 12 strings: every pair from the third string down is usually tuned in octaves, while the first two are in unison thus producing brighter sound. The playing technique is virtually the same as that of 6-string guitar.
Guitar synthesizers are based on the same principle as the well-known keyboard ones, the only difference being that here strings are used as the sound source. They require the same playing technique, but are able to produce the sound of a grand piano or a saxophone.
Bass guitar is the equivalent, though smaller, of the double bass, and is played using the same method and tuning. Usually this guitar has 4 strings, but 5- and 6-string guitars also exist.
Country of origin
Russian and Byelorussian mass-produced guitars are not particularly good: they may look impressive but their sound leaves much to be desired. You should only consider buying one if you are very short of funds.
In terms of price and performance, the best guitars are made in the East – Korean guitars are very good. Guitars made in the USA are rarely offered for sale, and the price is usually unreasonably high.
If you want to by a classical (Spanish) guitar, needless to say, you should look for an instrument made in Spain (Alhambra, Córdoba).
Why am I so against buying a cheap guitar? Because they are made out of poor-quality wood or even plywood. Therefore, these guitars sound "like a log"; the only advantage they can possible have is durability, but is that really the most important quality to look for in a guitar?
The best and most expensive classical guitars are made of the following materials: the sides and the back are made of Brazilian or Eastern Indian Rosewood; the top soundboard – of spruce or Canadian cedar with an even grain; the neck – of Spanish or Honduran cedar; frets – of ivory. But even if only the top soundboard is made of wood, that is already good. One of my many guitars has the sides and the back made of plastic – it’s more practical and cost-effective, doesn’t need the care that wood does, and yet the sound it produces is quite up to the mark.
The electric components are very important in an electric guitar; listen carefully when it is being played. If there is a lot of background noise this will be even more noticeable when the sound is distorted. There should be no unwanted sounds when the strings are touched.
Buying a guitar is not something to be done in a hurry; it takes both time and patience. When choosing your instrument you have to balance what you need and want in an instrument for enjoyable and comfortable music-making.
Once you have bought your guitar, please remember to take care of it. At the outset buy a case (soft or rigid). A guitar cannot simply be left lying about; without the most basic of protection it is at risk of exposure to humidity or dryness, abrupt changes in temperature etc.