The Acoustic Guitar Buyer’s Guide
by: Sarah Borroum
Whether you’re a beginning guitarist or a long-time expert, shopping for a new instrument is likely to inspire giddiness that can’t be replicated anywhere else in life. The difference between a novice’s shopping habits and those of a two-decade-long player is that the new guitarist might not know exactly what to look for. You’re still trying to figure out your style and preferences, so getting the best instrument for your tastes might be more challenging. These tips and suggestions will help you pick a guitar that will make joyful noises for years to come – or at least until Mom yells at you to put it down before it goes to the Goodwill drop-off!
First, you need to know that you’re dedicated to this art. If you’ve never held a guitar before but think it could be really cool, sign up for lessons. Depending on where you go, you can get a loaner model for the first few weeks or even a free student guitar if you sign up for enough lessons through that music store. In either case, you aren’t spending four hundred bucks on something that could begin collecting dust. This happens to many would-be musicians, so don’t feel bad if it turns out that you aren’t destined to be the next Rock ‘n’ Roll Hall of Fame inductee. At least you’re saving a big wad of cash by not investing in an instrument that you’ll never pick up again.
If the lessons go well and you know that you’re going to continue playing, it’s time to start looking for your first REAL guitar. By this time you should know the very basics: a few chords, how to tune and string the instrument, and the various body styles and setups. This will help narrow down your options by eliminating the things you don’t like. There are a few different types and styles of acoustic guitars out there. They essentially break down like this:
ACOUSTIC GUITARS have six strings, usually made of steel. The head is solid; the tuning pegs are mounted on either side, not in the middle. These models usually have pick guards because there usually isn’t as much space between strings as you’ll find on a classical model. Acoustic guitars are best for strumming, but can be used for other styles if you’re patient and want to try new things.
CLASSICAL GUITARS also have six strings, but they’re usually nylon. These stretch more than steel strings, so be prepared to tune more often – sometimes after each song. They’re ideal for finger picking because there’s usually quite a bit of space between strings and because you rarely see pick guards. If you’re looking to play Blind Melon or Willie Nelson songs, go for this style.
12-STRING GUITARS are just that: acoustic guitars with twelve strings. They’re usually steel strings, but they’re arranged so that each “pair” is very close together. This produces automatic harmony, but players must tune both strings in the “pair” precisely. These are ideal for advanced players. Beginners should stick with six-string models long enough to learn basic chords, patterns and notes.
You might want to purchase online, but make sure that you test a model in person first. It might look great on the Web site, but it often helps if you can hold it and play a few chords or notes before you make any decisions. You might find that the neck is set at an awkward angle, or that the guitar’s sound isn’t quite what you want it to be. Neither of these problems can be sniffed out online.
For an idea of the best brands and models, seek out opinions from other players. Online forums and consumer-review sites usually provide massive amounts of insight from players of all backgrounds and levels of experience. You can also talk to your instructor if you’re taking lessons or ask employees at local music stores. Just be sure that you go to the guitar section; the guys working near the drums probably won’t be much help.
It’s all right to buy a secondhand guitar as long as you examine it carefully first. Things to avoid include:
Deeply scratched or marred finishes or bodies. Light scratches can be buffed or oiled out – or ignored, if you so desire – but the really deep ruts can affect the guitar’s sound and life expectancy.
Cracks or separations in the seams and joints. It’s very difficult to repair certain problems; don’t put yourself through that nightmare.
Dull or weak sound. Plucking strings should produce reverberated, rich sounds that fill the guitar – not weak, pathetic noises that rupture eardrums and drive the wolves crazy.
Neglected instruments. If you’re looking at a guitar that’s been left in its case with the strings still at full tension for the last year and a half, go somewhere else. You can never be certain what you’ll have to repair on it later. Just because you can’t see problems with it now doesn’t mean you won’t have to worry about separations or weak bridge glue.
There are also some things that apply to new and secondhand models. Looking for these strengths and weaknesses before you buy will help ensure a lifetime of happiness with you and your guitar.
It should be comfortable. You should be able to easily reach all the frets. If you like to sit down while playing, it should rest easily on your upper thigh; you should also be able to reach over the top to pluck, strum or pick all of the strings without rupturing your spleen in the process.
The guitar should be easy to tune. If it slips out of tune every five seconds, there could be a problem – either on your end or the guitar’s. You can always look at a different model if this one acts as if it will be a huge pain in your neck (or fingers).
While you’re in the store or at the Web site, go ahead and buy vital accessories. It’ll jack up the price, but you’ll need them later anyway – and few things in life are worse than getting home and playing for ten minutes, only to pop a string and have to go all the way back to the music store for another set. The accessories include:
An extra set of strings. If they’re on sale, go ahead and stock up. You know that you’ll eventually go through all of them, and many manufacturers package them in airtight seals so that the shelf life is virtually endless.
A tuner. This can be a pitch pipe, tuning fork or digital tuner. You should pick whatever works best for you, and don’t forget batteries if applicable.
String winder. This makes stringing the guitar faster and easier. If your new guitar has bridge pins, look for a winder that has a slot in the base for easy removal. It’s much less destructive than going at those stupid little pieces of plastic with a pair of pliers.
An extra set of bridge pins. This is especially vital if you’ve never dealt with these before. Whether you’re at home or rocking out at an outdoor concert, it’s entirely possible that you’ll accidentally launch one of those tiny little suckers out of orbit. Good luck trying to find it, especially if your cat thinks it’s a toy.
Picks. These can be fingerpicks or hand-held picks. Choose a variety of thicknesses and sizes so that you can find the ones you’re most comfortable using. They’re cheap, so stock up; you WILL lose them.
A case, rack or stand for the guitar itself. Cases are best for traveling, but racks or stands are great for storing the instrument at home.
These accessories will get you started, but you might find other necessities as you progress in this art. You could add capos, a guitar strap, and even another guitar to your wish list someday.
Now that you know what you need, you can save money on it.
Don’t put it on the plastic. Save your money until you can pay cash for it; interest charges and cardholder’s fees will jack up the price.
Look for inventory, forgotten layaway, and end-of-season closeouts. You can save anywhere from ten to seventy-five percent on brand-new instruments and accessories. Sometimes this involves a long waiting period (huge sales don’t exactly happen every single day), but it’s worth toughing it out.
Wish lists. Get someone else to buy all this stuff for you. Spend your hard-earned money on CDs so you can find new songs to learn to play.