In continuing this series on Frequently Asked Questions for beginner guitarists, today we’re going to discuss a great question that I’ve heard from quite a few people who have been in the market for a new beginner electric guitar – either for themselves or for their friend/child/etc.
Question: What should I look for when buying a beginner electric guitar?
If you were to Google this question, you’d come up with a whole bunch of articles about “12 Tips to Find the Right Electric Guitar” or some sort of “Buyer’s Guide to Electric Guitars“. While these are certainly valuable, the problem is that they give you too much information. The reality is, especially as a beginner guitarist, the type of guitar neck (bolt-on/set-in?) or the type of pickup (single coil vs. humbucking) isn’t as important as “Does it sound good?”
So I suggest we take a step back for just a moment and let’s clarify the question a bit before we answer it. Instead of looking for a comprehensive buyer’s guide, I think we need to ask the following:
How can I be a smart and informed buyer when choosing a beginner electric guitar?
Below is a quick rundown of things you should be aware of before walking into a music shop and picking up a guitar.
What to Look For | Buying a Beginner Electric Guitar
It’s much easier to make an informed buying decision when shopping in a brick-and-mortar store as opposed to shopping online. Actually holding the guitars and playing them can make all the difference in the world when you’re looking to find the right beginner electric guitar.
Even if you decide to order online, I highly recommend you physically walk into a store, pick up and play the guitars you are considering purchasing. When you do, take these tips into account.
Tip #1: Test Through the Same Amplifier
When you’re in the store and you’re testing out the various beginner electric guitar models, try to do so through the exact same amp. Why is that?
There are hundreds of types of amps that are on the market today – probably even thousands – and each amplifier has its own unique sound. By playing each electric guitar through the same amplifier you ensure that the various tonal differences between the guitars is strictly that – a difference between the guitars, not the amplifier.
If you switch amps you run the risk of falling in love with the sound of a specific amp instead of a specific guitar. Then when you bring that guitar home and plug it into your own amp you may be in for a bit of a disappointment.
Tip #2: Perform the “Cheap Hardware Test”
Unfortunately, when it comes to beginner guitars, one of the #1 ways in which manufacturers cut down the price is through cheap hardware. This is to be expected, of course, but there are some things you just want to avoid at all costs.
If you were to look around at various guitar review sites you’d notice that one of the first complaints people make about their electric guitar goes something like “Sounds great but the three-way switch already bent” or “Great guitar except the knobs have already cracked“.
Before you get serious about a specific guitar, check out all of the hardware. Does the pickup jostle a bit? Is the switch loose? Do the plastic knobs just look like they’re ready to break?
If so, keep looking.
Tip #3: Check the Action for Buzz
Although action is something that can easily be adjusted, if you still hear buzz in a store that’s usually not a good sign. They are incentivized to set up the guitars properly so if they can’t do it…watch out.
So how do you check the action of a guitar?
You could bring a ruler with you and measure the distance of the string from the fretboard at the 12th fret, but that may be a little weird. I prefer to other ways of checking the action setup: 1) strum the guitar hard and see if you hear buzzing or 2) play barre chords along each fret up the fretboard and listen for unnatural buzzing.
In terms of the first method, you’re always going to get a little buzzing if you play hard enough. So at least consider the hardest you think you’ll play the strings and see what happens.
Tip #4: The “Eyeball Test”
This is one tip that only works in-store and won’t help you if you’re buying online. Obviously you want to check for nicks in the paint, dents, etc. But, the eyeball test should also be used to answer one other important question: has the guitar been properly stored since manufacture?
Guitar manufacturing techniques nowadays are amazing. Guitars jump off the production line in near-perfect condition. But what if they are stored in a dry warehouse for a couple months? Or what if the guitar store isn’t properly humidified? These things can have a terrible affect on a guitar, as wood changes with temperature and humidity.
So how do you check for these problems? Easy. Pick up the guitar. Place the headstock of the guitar near your eye. Find out whether the neck is straight going directly to the body of the guitar. Even the slightest dip or raise is cause for serious concern.
Again, 95% of the time you won’t find anything wrong, but you don’t want to get stuck with a guitar that’s in the 5%.
Tip #5: Check the Guitar Intonation
This is a tip that most people aren’t really aware of but is a must for any guitar you buy. You can check the intonation of a guitar by simply plucking the open string and comparing that tone with the 12th fret harmonic. If they don’t match, there’s a problem.
Not quite sure how to do that? Check out the video below where I give a brief explanation:
Tip #6: Forget the Warranty
There are quite a few stores that will try to up-sell you on some sort of warranty on your guitar. The fact is that most reputable guitar manufacturers offer a warranty and anything more than that is just overkill.
As long as you properly care for your guitar, you will have no need for any warranty – manufacturer or otherwise.
Conclusion to Buying a Beginner Electric Guitar
Hopefully these tips will give you confidence as you walk into the music shop and pick up guitars, even if you’ve never done so before. Of course, it always helps to take somebody along who knows guitars better than you do.
In the end, what really matters is how it feels in your hands and how you like the sound. Everything else is just marketing.
My final tip would be this – once you find a guitar that you like, do a bit of price comparison online. You might find that the store is competitively priced or you might find a better price online. If you haven’t already, I recommend you check out this helpful electric guitar comparison chart. It should be able to give you a good idea of what price you should be expecting for the type of guitar you’re looking for.