10 Tips for Test Driving and Choosing a Guitar

How to test drive a guitar in the store

In my experience, choosing a guitar always presents an odd paradox: I’m completely relaxed walking in to the store to hang out or try out the latest guitar model, but the moment I decide I’m going in to actually buy a new axe the place suddenly feels stifling and uncomfortable.

Perhaps that’s been your experience or maybe you need some fresh ideas to make the most out of your guitar-buying experience. Either way, I believe that these 10 tips for testing your next guitar at the guitar store should be invaluable.

Read through these tips before you make a visit to your nearest guitar store. It might save you some unnecessary headache.

1. Determine an Initial Budget

The best thing you can do for yourself before walking into a guitar store is to give yourself financial parameters within which to work. Are you willing to spend $1,000? $500? Do you only have $300 to work with?

Determining your initial budget will not only decrease the chances that you break the bank, it will also help to pare down the number of guitars you take down from the wall and play.

Obviously this doesn’t mean you can’t pick up that $6,000 guitar for a few strums. However, having a budget in mind will allow you to focus your time and attention on the guitars that you are most likely to take home with you.

2. Determine what Matters Most to You When Choosing a Guitar

Once you have a budget in mind, sit down with a pen and a piece of paper to make a few notes. Divide the page into two categories: “I want” and “I need.”

Now consider some of the following example guitar specs that you can jot down under each category. Some of these only apply to electric guitars and others to acoustic guitars, so use only what matters to you when choosing a guitar:

  • Onboard electronics?
  • Wide body or thin body?
  • Cutaway?
  • Solid body or hollow body?
  • Natural finish, sunburst, color?

With this list in hand, you’ll have an easier time narrowing down which guitars you should be taking seriously. At the very least, you can hand it to the store’s sales guy and ask for his suggestions.

Testing an electric guitar in store

3. Go to Your Favorite Music Store in Off-Peak Hours

Nothing kills the excitement of buying a new guitar faster than fighting crowds in order to do so. For example, I love going into a music store on a Saturday to hang out but I would pull my hair out if I had to try to test and buy a guitar in that noisy environment.

If you can manage to get off work early one day or go an hour before the store closes, you have a better chance of having the guitar testing area to yourself.

Not sure if it’s too busy? Consider this: if there’s no chance to close the door on the acoustic room or another practice room to be by yourself, you should probably try shopping another time. Which leads me to my next point…

4. Try to Test Your Guitar in Private

As welcoming as guitar stores usually are, it’s hard not to feel like somebody’s listening to your playing and critiquing your song selection, technique or overall sound. Unless you’re an extremely confident guitarist, chances are you’re like me: it’s hard to concentrate on the guitar when you’re primary focus is not looking like an idiot in front of the staff and the other customers.

If at all possible, find a private room to take each guitar to test. Some stores have an “acoustic room” you can use (and yes, you can bring an electric guitar in there if nobody else is using it) while other stores have private instruction rooms you can inquire about. The point is to cut out all the distractions and other people watching you so you can just play.

5. Play the Same Song on Every Guitar

Once you have that private, relaxing environment to test the guitar, do your best to play the same songs on each guitar you test. Choose a couple songs that can highlight a wide range of tones on the guitar. For instance, you can choose a song that requires you to:

  • tune in “Drop D” to hear the lower bass sound.
  • use a capo for a higher sound.
  • finger pick.

There are a plenty of other examples we could mention here. The big idea is that you want to compare apples to apples on each guitar you test, and the only way to do that is by playing the same songs. However, this is only effective if you…

6. Make Audio/Written Notes

After you play a number of songs and a number of different guitars, you’ll be surprised at how easy it is to forget which sound went with which guitar.

Take along a pad of paper to write on or, better yet, just make some audio notes on your phone. Recording yourself playing isn’t a bad idea, although I wouldn’t rely on the quality of a phone mic to judge a guitar the next day. At the end of the recording, speak notes to yourself about your initial impressions of the guitar’s tone and playability.

These notes will be invaluable later as you sit down to start choosing a guitar that best fits your “I want” and “I need” list from point #2.

Checking out a guitar at a guitar store

7. Don’t be Afraid to Make Multiple Visits

There’s no denying the fact that guitars are usually an impulse purchase, and that’s ok! Give yourself permission, however, to make multiple visits before you buy.

I found this to be especially true when I decided to invest a substantial amount of money to upgrade my guitar (at least it was substantial to me at the time!). I told myself that I wasn’t going to buy on the first visit, which took the pressure off and allowed me to just enjoy the process. After checkking out one other store that had a different selection of guitars and then finally made my purchase on the third visit.

There’s something I did on that third visit that made all the difference in the world, though: I brought a friend.

8. Bring a Friend During One Visit

After I had finally narrowed down my list of possible guitar choices, I brought a good guitarist friend with me to the store that I trusted to provide me with honest and experienced advice. Specifically, I asked my friend to do two important things for me:

  • Listen to me play each guitar and provide instant feedback.
  • Play the guitar so I could “sit in the audience” and listen to what it sounds like.

I’m glad I did! His feedback and the chance to listen to the guitar as it should be experienced (from the front), proved to be the turning point in my purchase.

9. Don’t be Rushed Choosing a Guitar

Holiday sales; 4th of July sales; blowout sales. They all have one thing in common: they are all rushing you to make a decision.

Impulse buys aren’t a bad thing if you have the cash and the deal is right, but don’t let that rush your final decision on a guitar. On the contrary, you can make those sales work for you by testing the guitars a couple weeks prior to a major sale. Don’t be afraid to ask an employee if there’s an upcoming sale. More often than not they’ll be happy to share that with you.

10. Enjoy the Process!

Finally – and most importantly – enjoy the process of testing and choosing a guitar! If you find yourself getting stressed out, worried or anxious, something is wrong. Seriously, what’s more fun than buying a new guitar?

If you’re a beginner guitarist and you’re choosing a guitar, I suggest you check out the following:

They offer good comparisons of some great lower-budget options that are very popular. Not to mention you can get an idea of what your budget should be before you head to the store.

Whether you purchase in-store or online, I hope that it’s a wonderful experience for you Practice hard and enjoy the adventure!

10 thoughts on “10 Tips for Test Driving and Choosing a Guitar

  1. Dear Josh,

    I too am an old rock n roller. Playing for many years, worked in music retail and now own a specialised skin care company (manufacturing). We are about to launch a new product, a first, called ‘Sticky Fingers’. Its a special application that prepares the skin on your hands prior to playing. If you log in to http://www.primeshield.com/ our brochure and near the back of the catalogue you will see the product. It is an absolute winner and if you feel you would like to know more please contact me.

    Stay well

    James Parsons
    Ps. I also have a few guitars, well over a 100 now…

  2. Picking out a guitar was harder than I expected it would be. I ended up ordering one from another state. I needed a classical guitar with a smaller scale and the local shops had little to choose from. Because I had a budget in mind and knew what I wanted, it was easier to take the leap of faith of purchasing on approval sight unseen. It’s a great guitar. I didn’t need to send it back, although I had that option.

  3. I like rock music, so I ‘ve decided to start playing the guitar. This article is a real help and especially I like the part about planning a budget before going to the guitar store. I’ll consider these recommendations and I’ll definitely make a bargain.

  4. Very helpful , especially the advise to bring a friend and listen to him play it
    It will do this and take my time and not be put off by people watching

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