5 Things to Consider when Buying Your First Guitar

A lot of people at some point in their lives decide that they too want to play the guitar. Whether you’re 15 or 55, the bug can bite you at any time. If you’ve made that decision yourself, and you are ready to start looking for a guitar to learn on, there are several options to choose from. So many options exist that it can be daunting, and quite easy to buy the wrong guitar to learn on. Picking the wrong starter guitar can be the death knell for your rise to Guitar God status. Here are five key factors to consider when purchasing that first guitar.

Play Before You Buy!

Even if all you know is one E major chord, go to your local guitar store and strum that E on as many different guitars as it takes for you to find the right one. Buying from a catalog or website without playing the guitar makes knowing what you’re getting into that much more difficult. If the guitar’s action (the distance between the frets and the strings) is too high or low for your comfort, you’ll be left to either fix it yourself or take it to someone who can fix it for you.

However, if you go into the store, pick up a few guitars and strum that E chord, you might be able to have one of the folks at the shop fix that action problem for you right there in the store. Think of this as test driving a guitar. You’re not going to know everything about that instrument, but at least feeling it’s weight, shape, size and general playing characteristics will help you make a much more informed choice.

Don’t Buy Too Cheap

Sure, we’ve all seen the seemingly too-good-to-be-true deals at local retail superstores and on-line sellers. Less than $150 for a guitar, amp, cable, and so on. Guitars, as with any product or service fall under the old caveat “You get what you pay for.” Super cheap guitars are super cheap for a reason. Materials and craftsmanship are sacrificed for speed and quantity built. Problems like buzzing and improperly cut frets, poorly finished fret boards and other various imperfections that will make the guitar almost unplayable are almost de rigeur for the super-cheap models.

It’s already going to be a trial of your patience and stamina when you first learn the guitar. Pressing your fingers into the strings in the proper place with the proper pressure will hurt a bit at first, no matter how nice the guitar. If the guitar you buy is so poorly made that you can’t get a decent sound of it, and it’s not comfortable to play no matter how much tweaking you do, you’re much more likely to quit learning sooner.

Don’t Buy Too Expensive

Okay, so you don’t want to buy a terribly slapped together hunk of wood for a super-low price. However, it also is just as unwise to buy a guitar that’s moderately expensive, and you certainly don’t need a vintage guitar for thousands of dollars. All of the major guitar manufacturers have an entry-level of guitar that’s neither cheaply made, nor over priced for what you get. My personal recommendation would be to with something from either the Squier line (guitars licensed and built in Fender run overseas or Mexican factories), or from the Epiphone line (Gibson licensed guitars).

Both Squier and Epiphone have made huge strides in the last four or five years to give customers much more bang for their buck. In fact, amongst some guitar snobs, Squier guitars have improved so much they often times rival those of their Fender brethren that costs twice as much. The fit and finish of Squier and Epiphone models tend to be a little less lush than that of Fender and Gibson, but you are buying this guitar to learn on, and for the price, you cannot go wrong. After all, why spend hundreds or even thousands of dollars on what could turn out to be a hobby you just can’t quite get the hang of?

Acoustic or Electric

Believe it or not, it might be easier to learn the basics of playing guitar on an electric. Acoustics tend to have larger bodies and higher action, making the learning process a little more cumbersome. While buying an electric guitar as your first instrument may also require to buy a small practice amp, you will probably get more out of an instrument that is easier to play than with something you don’t need to plug in.

If you are set on an acoustic or acoustic-electric, Ibanez and Takamine are two great brands to take a good look at. You’ll also want to go with one that has an on-board preamp and preferably an equalizer so you can dial back the treble or bass where needed. Models with built in tuners and a choice between quarter-inch standard outputs and XLR jacks are also nice options to consider as well. In terms of getting the most out of your dollar however, it’s much easier to get a higher quality electric on a smaller budget than a medium-quality acoustic or acoustic-electric.

Buy Used and Save

Just because you walk into a guitar store doesn’t mean you have to walk out having purchased your first guitar from them. Time and again I’ve used the local guitar mega-store as a test laboratory to play around with different models and get a feel for what I like and want in my next guitar. Then I scour sites like craigslist looking for the best deal on a used version of what I played in the mega store.

Used guitars, unless they are vintage, are going to be much cheaper than brand new, but still be just as playable. Until you are more familiar with guitars in general, it might be best to steer clear of eBay. Buying a guitar on blind faith is not for the faint of heart. While I’ve never been burned, it’s still a bit of a risk purchasing a used guitar from a stranger without ever having picked it up to strum a single chord. Buying from a private seller on craigslist, however, will allow you to play the guitar to your heart’s content before handing over any cash.