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Tips on Buying a Guitar

Random buyer advice from the gang at WholeNote
by The WholeNote Community
Suppose you were buying an acoustic or electric guitar. What are some of the common attributes that you look for? What might you find that would automatically rule out buying that guitar? Here's what some members of the WholeNote community had to say on this topic:

Christopher Sung said:

For me, the following are essential (and keep in mind that this is a matter of taste):
  • Tunability this is the most important aspect for me. I check the intonation and see if it chords played on the first 5 frets sound the same as chords on the 12th-17th frets

  • Action the guitar has to be capable of having nice low action with no fretbuzz. I'm not a blues or slide player (for which I think high action is better) so I've always looked for low action guitars

  • Playability how easy is it to get around the fingerboard? Is it cumbersome or does it flow? I suppose this is a combination of the dimensions of the neck and the type of fingerboard

  • Sound For an acoustic, yes, but for an electric, this isn't necessarily that important to me. You can always dump some other pickups in it. I guess, for me, it's a lot like sniffing a wine cork. As long as it doesn't reek, the bottle's probably pretty good...

Jason Reich said:

I think I'll use my soon-to-arrive ESP as the example of what I look for in a guitar:

  • Price Right here is where it all happens. Usually the budget defines the guitar. (My ESP: $630)

  • Sound Sound is spilt up between what gizmos give the guitar its sound (pickups, body, neck) and how it actually sounds.
  • Gizmos I like EMG pickups (HZ's on the ESP), and the neck joint is important (Neck-thru on my ESP).
  • Actual sound This isn't so important for electrics, because what you hear unplugged isn't what you hear when it's plugged in.

  • Playability I like guitars with fast necks and very low action. Extra jumbo frets are also a plus. (All on my ESP)

  • Looks Whoever said, "Don't judge a book by its cover", must have made some very ugly books. The shape of the body, as well as the finish, are very important to a guitar. A cool-looking guitar gives you confidence, prestige, social status, and financial success (kinda like beer). But seriously, it is very important. (My ESP has a see through finish, and is all black)

  • Brand This can be very important. My guitar is actually not an ESP, but an LTD (like Squier to a Fender). The difference is that ESP makes "affordable" guitars for intermediate players, not beginners.

Thomas Lombardini said:

I've been looking for a new guitar for the last 9 months. I originally placed sound at the top of my list. I narrowed it down to a Martin DC1-E and a Taylor 310CE, and finally chose the Taylor. Then, low and behold, Taylor threw me a curve ball. They came out with a Mahogany version of the 310: a 310MCE 25th Anniversary Commemorative Model. The store got both in for me and I went to check them out. The Mahogany one obviously had a different sound than the other (Spruce) but I can't say for sure if it didn't sound as good.

The bottom line was: the Mahagany guitar was just beautiful. I walked out with it. Taylor is somewhat pricey, but I think the workmanship on these guitars is worth it, and their customer service is the best I've ever come across. The playability and feel was never in question. They live up to their reputation.

So, if hypothetically, this guitar doesn't quite have the sound of the other, then just the way it makes me feel when I'm playing it may affect the way I play. This may sound crazy, but case in point, two weeks after buying the guitar, I got up enough nerve to do my first live performance at an "Open Mike" night at Barnes & Noble. I haven't been playing that long, so the extra confidence that guitar gives me is worth it.


Craig Smoot said:

Here's what I usually look for:

  • Feel If the fingers don't flow and feel comfortable on it, then usually it's a turn-off for me. However, a lot of this is determined by how the music store likes to set up their planks on display, so I take it with a grain of salt knowing that I'll have to set it up to my personal tastes anyway.

  • "Singability" You know. When you pick up a guitar, strum it (unplugged) and the guitar resonates from the top of the headstock to the butt of the body. That's really when I know that I've got a possible keeper.

  • Intonation This is a big deal to me, so it's always something I look for right away. You can have the world's most beautiful guitar, but if the intonation inherently sucks then you may as well display it inside a glass case in your house, because that's where it'll be most useful.

  • Tone In general, I usually look at planks that can offer me something I can't get out of the planks I currently own. For example, since I don't need another Les Paul I can safely say that my next guitar will either be a 7-string or perhaps a good Tele. Why have multiple versions of basically the same thing unless that's all you yearn for?


Here are the factors I don't consider when shopping for an axe:

  • Looks When I was a kid, all I wanted was "..the coolest-looking guitar on the block." I wanted a Dean ML or K style so bad I could taste it. I almost made the mistake one summer of pouring all my hard-earned lawnmowing money into a radical-looking plank called "Infinity by JTG of Nashville", but luckily good taste prevailed. As I got older and my tastes matured, I began to realize more and more that it's not the guitar that makes the player.

  • Bells & Whistles Sure, I'm an admitted hot-rodder when it comes to modding my axes so that I can get the maximum flexibility out of them, but when I'm shopping around for a plank, I could care less whether or not this guitar has more buttons and switches that the next one. Besides, I'll probably end up modding it myself anyway, so to me, I could take them or leave them.

  • Name Brand Case in point: My Epiphone Les Paul. I just wanted that classic Paul tone, but at a reasonable price I could afford. So what if many consider them to be a joke!? Again, it's not the guitar that makes the player. As long as I can still make that guitar sing and scream, who really cares what plank I'm playing? After all, it's all about the music we make with the tools of our trade, not how pretty, how prestigious or how expensive those tools are.

Dick Onstenk said:

How about character? Now that's something in miss in many new guitars. When playing a new guitar in a store I often have the feeling something is not there (yet). You know, it sounds OK but still ...

I don't know what's so special about vintage guitars, but maybe it's a thing called "character". Every time I play my 1951 Gibson ES 125, I hear and feel it. This rather simple instrument (1 P-90 pick-up, no cutaway) is by no means my best guitar, but I am completely in love with it. Many other older guitars seem to have that special quality too. There is more to a guitar than just its looks and sound, so it seems, and many vintage guitars seem to have it...

You can also check out the original Fretbuzz thread about this topic.

Unfortunately, the WholeNote Community has often been regarded as a source of guitar wisdom and knowledge. They vehemently deny this accusation.