My first guitar was a Harmony Strat-o-tone—a cheap knockoff of the legendary Fender Stratocaster. I purchased it because it looked like the black guitar that David Gilmour was sporting in a Pink Floyd poster that I saw in the record store.
The neck was too thick, the action (the distance between the strings and the fretboard) was too high, and it didn’t stay in tune. However, I was more than happy to trade in my garbage-picked tennis racket for something that I could actually strum.
I didn’t know anything about neck radiuses, action discrepancies and tuning issues. Nonetheless, the drive to play Zeppelin riffs was enough to motivate me to press on with my apprenticeship. At the very least, I now had a reference point for my next acquisition.
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Choosing Your First Guitar
Guitars have come a long way since the late 70s and early 80s (am I dating myself again). And, a good beginner instrument doesn’t need to break the bank. In addition, many companies offer beginner kits complete with guitar, gig bag, strap, cable, and amp—everything that you need to get started.
However, if you do a little research and know someone who’s familiar with guitars, then read on and you’ll find some suggestions that will help you choose your first or next guitar.
Making a Worthwhile Investment
Whatever guitar you choose, there are a few pointers that will make your playing more fun.
- A straight neck: The neck is constructed of three pieces (the back, the fingerboard, and a truss rod). The truss rod sits in a canal under the fingerboard. This can be tweaked to straighten the neck; however, I encourage you to find someone who’s experienced with this type of adjustment. A curved neck is not a dealbreaker, but a broken truss rod is. Problems with the neck and action (see below) can also cause tuning issues that can be quite frustrating.
- Easy action: As I mentioned in the 2nd paragraph of this post, action is the distance between the strings and the fretboard. If the action is too high then the strings will be difficult to play. Subsequently, if the action is too low then you’ll hear unwanted noises like string buzz and unclear notes. These adjustments can be made by tweaking the truss rod and bridge (again, by an experienced technician). Action issues and buzzy frets are also not dealbreakers.
- For electrics: Tone controls, toggle switches and the input jack are notorious for shorting out or simply attracting dust and thereby sounding noisy when adjusted. Therefore, when purchasing an electric, plug it in and test these components.
The above are not dealbreakers, as I stated above; but, they are things to look out for even if you purchase a new instrument. Many instruments come off assembly lines and aren’t put through the proper quality assurance tests necessary to ensure that the instrument has no performance issues. So, do your due diligence and check the instrument before you go all in.
How Much to Spend
It’s a good rule of thumb to buy the best guitar you can afford.
Generally, guitars hold their resale value and some even grow in value over the years. On the other hand, very cheap instruments can be hard to play as they are poorly made and, subsequently, discouraging to the beginner.
New vs. Used
A good used guitar can be an excellent value.
Many people buy guitars and either become too busy or simply lose interest. You can find some real bargains by searching want-ads.
On the downside, most private transactions will not offer a return policy or warranty so their a few things you should look for when considering a used instrument.
Evaluating a Used Guitar
- Check that the tuning machines all work and turn easily.
- Inspect the body for cracks. Any crack is a bad sign but not a dealbreaker.
- Press the string down at each end of the fingerboard—it should touch all of the frets.
- Play a few notes and chords to see how the guitar feels and responds.
- Ask the owner if the guitar has ever been repaired.
Questions to Ask a Dealer
- Will they play and demonstrate different brands and styles of instruments for you?
- Will they tune and adjust the guitar to your liking?
- Do they offer repair services or additional warranties?
- What is their return/refund policy?
- Do they provide any freebies—a carrying case, strings, picks, etc.—with your purchase?
- Will they accept the instrument in trade if you decide to “upgrade” to something better?
Guitars are like cars, and like cars, they could use a little bit of maintenance (called a setup) from time to time. The guitar setup includes a general cleaning, string change, tuning adjustment (intonation), oiling the neck (for ebony and rosewood fretboards), truss rod and bridge adjustments. (Remember: not all technicians are created equal, so ask the tech what services are included).
All guitars have the following issues:
- They go out of tune
- Strings break
- Input jacks get loose
- Tone controls (potentiometers or pots) get dirty
- Necks shift and react to changes in temperature and humidity
- The list goes on.
However, these are part of the process and, with experience, you’ll learn how to deal with each issue just like you learned how to brush your teeth, comb your hair, etc. What I’m trying to say is that it all becomes second nature. And, just like the car owner who works on his car, you’ll learn what your instrument needs and when it needs it.
I do many of the adjustment above myself and have a full set of guitar maintenance tools that I’ve acquired over the years. That being said, I’m not a technician. I have a regular tech that sees all of my guitars once a year to provide a full setup and electronics cleanup (I’m terrible with electronics).
Related: Learn about the best guitar straps in 2023.