Common Guitar Buying Mistakes

Hello Guitarists and Future Guitarists of Lancaster, PA!

I wanted to take a moment this month to point out some mistakes that I’ve seen many of my students make over the years. I’ve heard countless beginners say to me that they’ve been told to play acoustic first and work up to electric. This is bad advice. Read on and you’ll see why!

Wrong Guitar!

Very often students get the wrong type of guitar for their goals. They can be attracted by low prices, convenient sale from a friend, or straight up incorrect information. Here are the 3 main categories that guitars will come in:

Steel String Acoustic
Nylon String Classical
Electric

Steel String Acoustic

Steel String Acoustic guitars are, when considering quality and playability, dollar-for-dollar the most expensive. They are also the hardest to learn how to play. Starting here first then moving to an electric is like trying to first lift 200 lbs before you can lift 100 lbs. Yeah, a few people have done it this way, but you’re more likely to wind up frustrated/injured and quit.

Why are acoustics more expensive?

Since the overall sound is coming from the instrument alone, higher quality wood and craftsmanship are required to make it sound full and vibrant. While yes, you can get an acoustic guitar for $150 dollars, an electric guitar in that same price range is likely to be of higher quality. Acoustics are also much more fragile susceptible to damage from changes in temperate and humidity.

Why are acoustics harder to play? 

The volume of the instrument relies on the vibration of the strings and the top of the instrument. To get a louder, richer sound, thicker strings are required. A thicker guitar string, when tuned, will be at a higher tension. Higher tension translates directly to more difficulty holding the note down with the fingertips.

Why should I get a steel string acoustic? 

If, after demoing all 3 guitar types, you prefer the overall sound of the acoustic, then get it! If it is your goal to strum some chords and a have a portable instrument, then it may be worth it to you to work through a harder learning curve. If your favorite music is acoustic guitar music, then obviously you’re holding the right guitar. Ultimately, you should buy the instrument that you are motivated to play!

Nylon String Classical

Nylon guitars are the cheapest investment and generally easier to play than steel string acoustics. Nylon guitars are easy to spot because they generally don’t have a pick guard (the black plastic comma shaped thing below the sound hole) and have “plastic” strings. These are often confused as toys, but are not! In the right hands, a nylon classical guitar can sound like an orchestra.

Why are nylons easier to play? 

Because the strings are made out of nylon, they are under far less tension when tuned to pitch. Less tension greatly enhances playability, especially for the uncalloused fingers of a beginner. It is worth noting that the neck is wider on a classical guitar, which can cause problems for very small hands. Also, traditional nylon guitars don’t have fretmarkers (the dots on the side of the neck that help you keep track of what note you’re playing), though this is easily rectified with $1’s worth of painter’s tape.

Why are they so cheap?

Since the string tension is much lower, ultimately the guitar requires far less bracing. Which translates to less labor. Additionally, the instrument is typically made out of  less expensive woods.

Why get a classical? 

The best reason to get a classical is because you want to play complex music with your fingers (rather than a pick). While classical music is often played on these guitars, there is also flamenco music as well as contemporary songs arranged for fingerstyle guitar. Nylon guitars are great for adults that aren’t sure if they can physically play and don’t want to invest a lot of money up front.

Electric

Electric guitars are the most versatile and easiest to play. While less affordable than a nylon guitar, you can get a decent beginner electric guitar AND an amp for $300 or under.

Why are electrics versatile? 

Because the sound isn’t coming directly from your guitar (there’s an amp between the guitar and your ears), AND because we live in the modern age of digital gadgetry, the are infinite possibilities of sound. There are countless add-ons the you can buy (i.e. pedals) to change the sound of your instrument.

Are they really easier to play?

Yup! Remember what I said about string tension and playability? Since the volume doesn’t come from the guitar itself, the strings can be lighter. Also, electric guitars allow for many adjustments in playability that acoustic guitars simply can’t do.

Are they really cheaper?

Yes! The sound ultimately comes from the metal string vibrating over a magnetic pickup (the things that sit under the strings) so wood, structure, bracing, etc. are far less of a concern. Which means less labor and cheaper parts… lucky you!

When to choose an electric?

If you’re a beginner and don’t have a strong preference for an acoustic guitar, I highly recommend that you buy an electric guitar as your first instrument. If you like rock, classical, pop, electronic, blues, jazz, etc… you can do it all on this instrument.

Wrong Size!

For parents, this is a problem that you will immediately notice when your child pulls a cool looking guitar off the wall and almost falls over because it’s bigger then they are. This is not a definitive guide, but is a good start:

Electric Guitar: 

Age 5-8: Half Size or “Mini”     (80-100 cm)
Age 8-12: 3/4 Size                      (100-125 cm)
Age 12+: Full Size                       (125+ cm)

Steel String Acoustic

Age 5-11: 3/4 Size                       (100-120 cm)
Age 11-14: Small Body                (120-165 cm)
Age 15+: Full Size                        (165+ cm)

Nylon String Classical

Age 5-8: Half Size               (100-120 cm)
Age 8-12: 3/4 Size              (120-165 cm)
Age 12+: Full Size               (165+ cm)

It’s Broken!

Always check to make sure the instrument is in good condition. If you at least know how to play a single note, make sure you play each and every note on all 6 strings. Each note should have it’s own different sound. If it buzzes, sounds the same as the last note, or doesn’t make a sound at all, PASS!!! If you don’t know how to play, ask the sales person to do this for you.

Check the stress points on the instrument. Common places for  separation are: underneath the nut, by the headstock; where the neck meets the top (near the sound hole); where the neck connects to the body (look under the neck, this is called the heel); and where the bridge (the part that holds the strings to the body) meets the top of the instrument.

  

 

Look down the neck to check for warping. The strings are a string line, so look down the guitar (as if you were aiming a rifle) and compare the neck’s shape to the straight line of the strings. There shouldn’t be any dips or twists.

Make sure all 6 tuning machines work in both directions. If you aren’t sure how to do this, as your salesperson.

That’s a GSO!

Often, parent’s buy their first instrument at a toy store or a department store. This thinking makes sense from a “let’s see if they play it before I sink a ton of money into a guitar” point of view. However, these things aren’t guitars. They are guitar shaped objects (GSO’s). They are hard to play and sound like cardboard. Your child is going to struggle to sound good on this GSO and will become frustrated quicker than normal. GSO’s are more likely to hold exotic houseplants than be played for any meaningful period of time.

Too Expensive!

To the adult beginner, it can be tempting to throw all kinds of money at your new hobby. While I am all in favor of this, I suggest you skimp on a few things and save the extra cash for the guitar lessons that you’re going to need.

Brand Names- Having a long-standing history of manufacturing, customer service, and warranty, a recognizable name-brand can be a great purchase. Keep in mind that the moment that brand’s logo gets stamped on the guitar, the price automatically goes up. Reputable brands like Fender, Gibson, Music Man, PRS, Martin, etc. make more affordable versions. Consider getting a Fender Squier (I have one, no shame there!) or an Epiphone (instead of a Gibson), or a Sigma (instead of a Martin). These lower-end models are manufactured similarly, though don’t have some higher end components. Yes you will be sacrificing some sound quality, but let’s be honest- as a beginner you are going to be buzzing notes and cutting them short anyway.

Bells and Whistles- Don’t be surprised when a salesperson tries to sell you something you don’t need.

You need a guitar. You don’t need a music instrumentation system. If “it’s like 3 guitars AND a piano in one!” you’re better off buying a different guitar.
You need a case. You don’t need a case lined with crushed velvet and has a built in hydrometer.
You need picks. You don’t need a ton of pickup selectors and a coil tapping system on your first guitar.
You need a guitar stand. You can’t practice the guitar in it’s case. It doesn’t have to have a steel re-enforced self-leveling system.
You need a tuner. You don’t need an automated tuning system that tunes the guitar for you.
You need an amp (if electric). You don’t need a 50 watt megalith nor something with 35 different built-in effects and GPS.
You need a cable (if electric). Gold plated cables are for celebrities to endorse. They do the same job as the $15 version.
You need a guitar teacher. You do not need a chord dictionary or method book designed to keep you confused.

On a side note: Kids love whammy bars. Kids also lose whammy bars. Few players actually use them. Even fewer players actually use them well. The presence/absence of a whammy bar should not guide your decision in any way!

Not Prepared!

Here’s a checklist to keep you on target:

  • I am in a MUSIC store (Menchey Music on Manheim Pike, Guitar Center in the Manor Shopping Center, Ken’s Music in Lititz), not a toy store
  • Played a Nylon Guitar
  • Played a Steel String Acoustic Guitar
  • Played an Electric Guitar
  • I LOVE the sound of the _________ guitar (fill in one from above) and will buy this type!
    OR I LOVE them all equally, so I’ll take Eric’s advice and buy an electric.
  • Played several guitars and liked these Brands and Models:____________    $____
    ____________    $____
    ____________    $____
    ____________    $____
  • I’ve checked my priorities and eliminated extra features I won’t use
  • I’ve considered a similar model from cheaper brand
  • I’ve narrowed my selection down two:____________    $____
    ____________    $____
  • I checked (or had the sales associate check) that:
    • The neck isn’t cracked by the headstock
    • The heel is still attached to the body
    • The bridge is still attached to the top
    • The neck is still attached to the body
    • Every single fret on all 6 strings has it’s own unique sound
    • Looked down the neck and checked for twists/warping
    • All 6 tuning machines turned in both directions and slightly changed the sound of the string
  • I enjoy holding this instrument
  • I will play THIS guitar every day
  • I’ve checked online (MusiciansFriend.com or SweetWater.com) and found the price to be reasonable
  • I’ve asked the sales person what add-ons (s)he is willing to throw in if I buy today and didn’t accept “none” as an answer
  • I did NOT buy frivolous extras
  • I DID buy:
    • Picks
    • Tuner
    • Guitar Stand
    • Case
    • Foot Rest (optional)
  • I scheduled a free introductory guitar lesson at www.quarterbendguitar.com
  • I’ve asked my guitar teacher, Eric, to meet me at the music store to look over the instrument before I buy it

Conclusion

Hopefully this brief essay gives you the confidence you need to be an informed consumer. There are a ton of great places to buy a good guitar in Lancaster, PA, and I’d be more than happy to help you find the best guitar for you. Make sure it’s fun to play! At the beginner stage, playability is WAY more important than sound quality.

Lastly, please don’t be another self-taught guitar player. There’s enough of those in the world already. Give me a call and I will train you how to be the best possible guitarist in a very short period of time!

 

-Eric

 

Visit www.quarterbendguitar.com to book your free guitar lesson in Lancaster, PA today!