So, you want to be a rock star. You’ve got the clothes, you’ve got the looks – what you need now is a guitar. But if you’re new to the game how do you pick a good one? You read on, dude, you read on….
You’re probably already set on a solid-body axe, but it doesn’t hurt to know your options. The three types of electric guitar body are:
Solid body – solid wood reduces body vibration. This means better sustain and less chance of feedback.
Semi-hollow – adds a little acoustic to your sound, but still allows significant volume before you enter feedback land.
Hollow body – almost an acoustic guitar with a pickup, often used by jazz guitarists. Watch out for feedback at high volume.
Choose a guitar with a body that suits the music you want to play. You won’t want an axe that delivers a mellow jazz sound if you’re into heavy metal.
Pickups have a profound influence on the sound of an electric guitar. Generally your choices are:
Single coil – you’ll have seen these on guitars like the Stratocaster. They have a clean sound well suited to blues and mellow melodies.
Humbucker – double-coil in design, these pickups suffer less electronic hum than single coil pickups. They’re louder, too – great for rock and metal.
Again, two basic types: fixed bridge and tremolo bridge (the ones with a whammy bar).
Obviously, if you love the sound of those bending strings you’ll go tremolo. If it doesn’t matter to you, though, it might be worth noting that fixed bridge guitars generally have better sustain as the string vibrations aren’t absorbed by a moveable bridge. A tremolo bridge may also affect the ability of the guitar to stay in tune.
Good machine heads are essential if your guitar is to stay in tune. Whether they are exposed (you can see the cog and the screw) or enclosed (the workings are covered by a metal housing) the tuning pegs should feel firmly located, shouldn’t wobble about and there shouldn’t be any play in the peg when you tighten or loosen a string.
Machine heads are a very visible statement of the guitar’s quality. Poor workmanship here may mean the rest of the guitar isn’t up to scratch.
You’re going to spend a lot of time with your hand on this, so make sure you like the feel. There are a number of different neck shapes, some thinner, some thicker, some broader, some narrower. Choose one that suits the size of your hand and your playing style.
The neck also influences the quality of sound an guitar produces. Pick the guitar up, sight along the neck using the strings as a reference – the neck should have an extremely slight concave bow. This is known as “relief” and is necessary to stop the strings buzzing against the fret board. The neck should not appear twisted in anyway and should definitely not be convex.
Guitar necks are either set into the body of the guitar, or bolted on. The style used is no indication of quality – the Strat, after all, uses a bolt-on neck.
The action of a guitar refers to how high or low the strings sit in relation to the frets – too high and the instrument will be difficult to play, too low and the strings will buzz against the frets. Make sure the guitar you choose has an action you like. If you love the guitar, but don’t like it’s action, ask the staff if it can be adjusted.
In the Shop
Try all the guitars in your price range. Try them all at the same level of volume – if one guitar happens to produce more volume than another it might sound good just because it’s loud.
Test all guitars through the same amp. Amps have their own individual characteristics and you won’t get a true comparison if you chop and change.
Give the guitar a thorough going-over. Put it close to an amp – is it overly prone to feedback? Work all the knobs and slides – do they produce any unwanted noises? Do they all actually work? Are the strings set snugly into the nut, or do they move about as you play? Does the design of the body allow you to reach those top notes comfortably?
Ask about a warrantee – you want to be covered if the electrics short out a month after you take your baby home.
And, a really big plus – if you have a friend who knows about guitars, take them along.
What Price Fame?
Buying an electric guitar can be a time consuming exercise – lots of guitars to try, lots of shops to visit. It isn’t too much fun having to play in front of a shop full of people, either. But remember, everyone has to start somewhere and the effort you put in now will help you secure an instrument that gives you many years of playing pleasure. And maybe, just maybe, you’ll see yourself on TV one day….
Want to know more about buying an electric guitar? Check out this video.