Buying a guitar can be a bit of a
mystery for beginners. I thought I would offer a little beginner
guitar "primer" as an aid for those looking to buy their
first guitar, or for those looking to buy a student guitar. I'll
also have a few tips for those musicians out there who would like
to learn a bit more about the mysteries of stringed musical instrument
page is like a beginner guitar helper, or perhaps guitar for
dummies. I was a musical instrument maker (Luthier) for
many years before I turned to composing music and focusing
on my albums. I'll throw up a few photos in these pages
of some of the instruments I have made to give you an idea
about my experience. My guitars were usually on what
is considered to be the "high end". But even though
they were "pricey", I always had a great respect
for those able to manufacture instruments on an industrial
scale and believed that there were great choices for amateur
I should also say that although
I use the term guitar, much of what I write can also be used
for those looking for other stringed instruments.
instruments that have an extension arm or neck that is attached
to a resonating body are called "lutes". So
in this nomenclature, guitars, banjo's, mandolins, dobro's etc.
are all classified in the lute family. The structural
physiology of many of these instruments are somewhat similar.
I hope to eliminate some of the fear that always comes when
covering uncharted territory.
YOUR FIRST GUITAR
of the biggest concerns I hear from parents and potential buyers
is how to choose:
An instrument that will last
An instrument that is right for
ones particular needs
is an acoustic steel string I made many years ago and still have.
It was constructed of mahogany and Sitka Spruce
I hope to take some of the mystery
away from buying your first guitar as it's my belief that finding a beginners
guitar is fairly easy. Finding that second guitar, or the guitar
you are going to play with on a professional basis, is a bit more difficult. It's
then you really have to learn about the subtle nuances of tone, projection,
and feel. These are very subjective elements and it is helpful
to have had the experience of playing other instruments to come up with
a choice that is right for you.
Well really, it's
all good news. The lower priced guitars, mandolins, and banjos
of today are far superior to the instruments I began with in the 60's. Then
you had to have great concern for the "action" (the height
of the strings above the metal frets on the guitar neck fingerboard)
as well as strength of construction. We have all seen yard sale
guitars whose tops are "bellied" or raised in a convex fashion,
whose bridges (where the strings attach to the main body) are pulling
off, whose tuning machines don't work, and whose necks are warped and/or
separating from the body. Quite often these were old "cheapo's",
but I won't name names because there are exceptions to every rule. And
every now and then I find an old Sears Silvertone, or Harmony guitar
that plays pretty well (Ooops! I just named names).
the string height at the "nut" location. It should
hold the strings high enough above the 1st fret so there is
no "buzz" heard.
the string height at the fret board around the body joint is
too high it can make playing difficult.
So, if the "action" or string
height is too high, the instrument will be much more difficult to play. I
generally measure the height of the strings where the neck joins the
body. A distance of 1/8th to 3/16th" is ideal. Some folks
prefer their "action" higher or lower though. It's a
matter of personal preference. Acoustic instruments will usually
demand higher action than electric guitars. Generally speaking,
acoustic guitar strings are also heavier than strings on an electric. This
means more pressure on the fingers. If you are just starting as
a beginner, you will need to practice and toughen up the ends of your
fingers. Please be patient. The classical guitar is a bit different. It
uses nylon rather than steel strings. The nylon is a bit easier on your
fingers, but the tone of the classical is a bit different than the steel
string guitar. It is usually softer and more quiet. The action
is sometimes just a tad higher than on the steel string, and the neck
is wider. So, if you have very small hands, the classical guitar
may be a bit tough. One of the foundations of my
site is to show that there are many characteristics
to musical instruments, but no absolutes. What is right for you, what feels good for you,
is what is important. Today's guitars are made fairly well. Long
gone are the days when the Japanese are making bad cheap guitars. They
became very skilled. Then, the cheaper instruments came out of Korea
and Taiwan. Then they got
good, and India, China, and Malaysia took over. The result is that they
are all fairly well made. I got in a bunch of Takamine Jasmine
guitars recently that are made in Malaysia, and they were constructed
very well. Granted, they were all plywood, but hey, what do you
expect? The real story here is that they function well, and comparatively
speaking, are far superior in action
height and playability than the beginning instruments I had when I
was a kid. Another positive thing about plywood is that it tends not to
crack or split. Instruments made of solid wood, while usually superior
in tone, show a higher tendency to do that (i.e. if the wood is not seasoned
properly before being used in construction). So, generally speaking,
the strength of construction has improved greatly, and the plywood bodies
make it a great choice as an instrument to take on the road, picnic,
or the cookout. Plywood can take more punishment.
The slot opening displaying the end of the
truss rod that can be adjusted.
This shows the truss rod slot that runs through
the inside of the neck
improvement in the newer cheap guitars is the functionality of the "truss
rod". This is a metal rod running inside the length of the
guitar neck (usually about 1/2" below the fret board) to counter
the "pull" of all those strings. The "pull" of
the strings can create a "forward bow". If you tighten
the truss rod, it creates a counter pull theoretically reducing any
warping. The easiest (yet not necessarily the most accurate way)
of seeing if a neck has a "forward bow", is to sight down
the neck like you would a rifle. If it looks flat, or has just a slight
amount of pull, chances are you are OK.
Note that the classical guitar, utilizing
nylon strings, does not traditionally use a truss rod so don't worry
about your future classical friend not having one. There is usually less
string pull or tension on a nylon stringed guitar. And the neck is usually
bigger having more mass and strength.
Some guitar necks are actually made
of a sandwich of woods glued together. The photo on the right is an example.
This sandwich effect makes the neck stronger. Other
evidence of a "bowed neck" is if the action - or the string
height (the distance between the string and the 12th fret) is high; making
it difficult to press the strings and play.
I used to tear my hair out when repairing
the earlier cheap instruments because many of the truss rods did not
work. My only choice was to toss the instrument, or remove the
frets, flatten the fret board, and reinstall the frets. The labor could
exceed the price of the guitar. Occasionally I can fix a warped
neck by using a heated "neck stretcher" but that is a story
for a deeper look into the guitar.
A Zebra wood electric with brainy fancy electronics
and a photo of Meher Baba inlaid with Ebony and Abalone.
LOOK AT THAT PAINT JOB; THERE'S OZZIES FACE UNDER THE BRIDGE!
One battle a parent will have when
buying a guitar for their son or daughter, is the cosmetic aspect. Most
professional musicians I know don't really care what the instrument
looks like. Well, maybe that's going too far, but I do know that
the emphasis is on playability and sound; the two most important features
in the relationship between man and musician. Many kids are going
to be attracted to that fancy glittery thing shaped like hangman's
here again, the news isn't that bad. Most of these instruments
are fairly well constructed as well, and should provide a structurally
integrated start. If you are shopping for an electric guitar,
you might want to ask the store owner about the strength of the metal
hardware like the bridge and "vibrato arm". Even today, they
are sometimes made of weakened pot metal and can break. But, this is
becoming more rare.
The down side about
fledgling musicians focusing on looks, is that they may exclude a really
great instrument available at a decent price because of a few "dings". I
really don't know what to say about this dilemma, I had to have a Madras
belt when I was 13. Maybe you can show them a photo of Stevie
Ray Vaughn's Strat. It was definitely ridden hard, but very road
my third album A
VIEW FROM THE PLAIN (acoustic-oriented fingerstyle guitar)
I made extensive use of an old Regal guitar I bought for $30.00 at
a flea market. Once I re-glued the back to the sides, it made
a great slide guitar. Matter of fact, all the slide guitar work
on that album was done with the little Regal.
Have a nice guitar, sounds great but strings very high off the neck? Can't
afford to fix it? Voilà, you have yourself a slide
EVERYWHERE THEY'RE EVERYWHERE! ARGH!
There are many sources for buying
instruments these days. Even Wal-mart has
guitar packages. Now, here is where I have one slight exception
to my belief in the cheaper instruments being well built. I have played
the Wal-mart guitar and amp packages. My response was mixed. I
was impressed with its tone. It had a very nice Fender Stratocaster
sound, but both on an experiential as well
as intuitive level, I felt they were assembled rather sloppily. Action
a tad high, frets sticking out the side of the neck. Just not a smooth
set up feel. But then again, it sure was cheap. And well,
I guess I have to admit that I hate Wal-mart's corporate policy of taking
over the world. When is enough money enough money? Oh well. :)
We can't avoid Ebay. I
have bought a number of instruments there. Because of my experience
building and repairing, I can buy with a bit of confidence. If
there is a major problem with the instrument I can usually fix it (I
wish I could say the same about my car). If you know how to buy
on Ebay you are fairly safe. Make sure that the person you do business
with has a good track record. Right next to their screen name, is a number
that indicates the number of transactions this person has accomplished. You
can then check his "feedback" and see if positive comments
were left by other folks he's done business with. A few negative comments
can really ruin a persons ability to continue to do business on Ebay. Although
there are a few bad apples, the Ebay experience is built on the need
for a seller to maintain a positive experience rating. He does not want
unhappy folks in the world.
When buying a used instrument from
an individual you go by three main
How does the guitar, look structurally
(see important structural points below).
How does the guitar play in your
hands? Is it comfortable? Is it easy to play?
How do you feel intuitively about
the person you are doing business with? Does he or she feel like a
When buying from a music
store, you ask the same questions as if you are buying
from an individual. Now, providing the store operates honestly
(and most do since they don't want to make people mad), they can
offer a bit more professional advice.
While the stores don't have the depth
of knowledge that an instrument builder has, they know what instruments
are right for a particular individual based on their size,
their musical interest,
their budget, and the instruments resale
value should you decide to trade to a better instrument
or sell this one. Furthermore, most reputable stores can assist in minor
adjustments in setting up an instrument to an individual's needs. They
can also show you how to restring the instrument as well as provide information
So, you need to weigh the options,
and travel the path that seems best to you. I wish there was a way I
could download myself to a potential buyers house and go with them to
offer advice in making a choice - especially in purchasing a used instrument. But
I'm afraid technology hasn't gotten that far yet - thank God!
If you are buying a used instrument
from an individual, perhaps if you leave a deposit, they will allow you
to take the instrument to a person who is more knowledgeable. It
is really a lot to ask, but maybe some of you are bold? And again,
the market is very much a buyers market. Today's starter guitars
are generally pretty good and you can't go too wrong. The most
important thing is to find an instrument you can "connect" with. There
is a magic to some instruments. One that "fits" a particular
person can encourage him to continue to practice, and more easily see
the victories rather than the struggles and defeat.
Non-professionals seem to be more
concerned with "appearance" or cosmetics than professional
musicians. Many real "pro's" are concerned with sound,
feel, and playability. But some of you parents out there who are
not sure your child will stick with it, may want to take some consideration
in re-salability. I thought I'd drop a few observations.
Classical or nylon string guitars
don't sell as well as steel string instruments. So, if you want
to be able to sell the instrument easily if your child looses interest,
you may want to take this into consideration. It has nothing
to do with what is better or best - just what will sell.
If you want to sell your student
or first guitar, remember that your potential customers are going
to be non-professionals who will take the look and cosmetics into
this reason, try to convince little Johnny or Sally to treat
the instrument well.
ABOUT STRINGED INSTRUMENT MAINTENANCE
of all, there is a lot of pressure on a stringed instrument. This,
combined with other factors such as variances in climate, and the
unpredictability of wood, can make things tricky. Wood is
a living breathing thing. It isn't as stable as metal, and
like people, can be unpredictable. That is also the beauty
of wood. It's
mass and characteristics make it the perfect
medium for making musical instruments. Be aware that wood
has a cellular structure and changes in climate, temperature, and
humidity, can effect an instrument. In the winter months
when we have our heaters on and the level of humidity in the air
declines, wood can exhibit some shrinkage.
the wood was not dried properly before the instrument was constructed. Conversely,
during the summer - especially here in the Midwest - things can
get very humid. This
of course means that wood can absorb some of that moisture and
actually expand somewhat.Now, if you were to expose a stringed
instrument to drastic and repeated changes in atmosphere, and climate,
it can hurt the structure of the instrument. This is one reason
why you don't see well known musicians touring with their favorite
only do they go from Arizona to Georgia in a matter of one day,
frequent jet travel will also expose the instrument to variances
of atmospheric pressure.
New Article: How to Review and Buy a Guitar