THE SO YOU WANT TO BUY A GUITAR FAQ

 

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The So You Want to Buy A Guitar FAQ
Why Buy A Guitar?


How Much Should I Spend?

Should I Buy an Electric or Acoustic Guitar?

A Short History of the Guitar

What Are the Different Types of Acoustic Guitars?

What Are the Different Types of Electric Guitars?

What are Some Unusual Kinds of Acoustic Guitars?

What are Some Kinds of Less Common Electric Guitars?

What Kind of Acoustic Guitar Do You Recommend Buying?

What Kind of Electric Guitar Do You Recommend Buying?

How About If I'm Looking For an Unusual Type of Guitar?

Should I Buy A New or Used Guitar?

 

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Influences and Heroes


Why Buy A Guitar?

The guitar is actually one of the more affordable members of the string instrument family. Good new instruments are available for less than $500 and for those willing to scrounge a bit in the used market, instruments under $200 can be found. If you had decided to buy a piano or a violin your wallet would thin out quicker as you climb the quality scale.

For some of us, even this amount of money for a non-essential purchase is hard to come by, but for those that enjoy it, playing any instrument is more fun that many forms of passive entertainment. A guitar is a great instrument to choose in this context, as it like the piano capable of both choradal accompaniment and melodic lines, is fairly easy to learn to play, and is famously portable. So it’s no coincidence that since the 1930’s the guitar has been of the “folk” instrument of choice for most Americans of limited means.

Remember the words of the nameless bluesman who was asked the question “Why do you play guitar?”

  “You can’t hop a freight train carrying a piano.”

 Of course Robert Johnson couldn’t have hoped a train with a Marshall stack, a full set of effects pedals and a Les Paul either….

 

How Much Should I Spend?

The short answer is what you can afford. The old saw “You get what you pay for” is roughly true, but I’ve seen it used to induce people to spend more money that they need too. I’ve bought perfectly good electric guitars in the past few years for just over a hundred dollars, and I’ve seen decent acoustics under $200. See the other sections of the FAQ for price ranges.

  Remember if you’re buying an acoustic, you’ll spend more for the guitar, but about the same as an electric and some kind of amp.

 

If You Get What You Pay For, What Is It You Get?

Let's say you want to get a Fender Stratocaster, a very popular solid body electric guitar model. If you look in a catalog or go to a larger musical instrument store you'll soon see that there are many new "Strats" to choose from starting from just above $100 to over $1000. 

At the lowest price points, Fender has the Squier line. If you look closely you'll see that Fender tries to hold these inexpensive models a arm's length. The headstock will say something like "Squier by Fender" and that the full official name of the guitar model (Stratocaster) will be avoided and the nickname "Strat" may be used instead. A little up the line you'll see guitars currently made in Mexico but bearing the Fender logo and something like "Fender Standard Stratocaster" on the headstock. Continuing up the price ladder you'll see the American Standard Stratocaster and up from there you'll see the American Deluxe Stratocaster and  the Artist models like the Eric Clapton Stratocaster. Filling in spaces in the lines will be models with humbucker pickups instead of the traditional single coils ("Fat Strat") and feature sets that copy the hardware and shapes of older "vintage" Strats such as the "50s Stratocaster" or the "'62 Stratocaster". 

And these are just new instruments, and just the ones sold by Fender. You might see various Stratocaster shaped guitars from other makers and used instruments from lines not currently sold by Fender.

So what differences will you see as you remove more bills from your pocket?

The lowest priced "Strats" will be made from lower quality materials and will have a more haphazard assembly quality. You may see some cosmetic flaws, the frets may not be as smooth or uniformly shaped and finished. Plugged in you may find some of the controls work stiffly and feel flimsy and the sound will tend to the thinner end. Strings may be higher off the fretboard and the overall heft of the guitar may be too the lighter side.

If you pickup the $800 American Standard Stratocaster you should see and feel a fretboard that with each fret shaped correctly and smoothly. The edges of the fretboard will be slightly rounded as if it has already been played in. The hardware such as the switches and knobs will move smoothly and finish should be perfect. Even if the store hasn't done a individual setup, string height should be nice and low. Plugged in it should have a slightly "fatter" tone with a little more volume and you may be able to note some extra "richness" in the overtones of the notes. 

If you try out one of the Fender Made In Mexico models you'll see and feel something between the two extremes. You may like the individual features or a particular neck shape on one of the other models too.

So is it just as simple as maxing out your credit card or emptying your pockets, seeing how much is there, and then buying as much Stratocaster as you can afford? Sorry, it isn't that simple.

First off remember, if this is your first guitar you're going to need an amp. And that $800 Stratocaster with a $100 amp should well sound worse than a $300 Stratocaster and a $500 amp. And secondly lets look more closely across the price lines. At this point I'm going to go more into personal opinion, so you should know that there are many other opinions out there, some perhaps more informed than mine, and one of those other opinions could be your own.

I'd avoid the lowest end of the Squire line unless you are really low on cash. And even if you are low on money, I think you'll do much better taking your chances in the used market for about the same outlay of money. And if your budget is low, you should learn how to do an electric guitar setup. The upper end of the Squire line is actually not too bad but by then you may be within a month's savings of a Made In Mexico line model. Now that we've rejected the sub $190 Squiers, take another look at your budget, make allowances for the amp and see where you fall.

Let's say that you've counted the folding green and you find that it stacks up to a Made in Mexico Strat. What have you really given up?

Well your guitar may need a setup, a series of adjustments that make the guitar easier to play, better sounding and allows it to play more in tune as you fret up and down the neck. That more expensive Strat may have had a good setup done as it left the factory, but if your preference in string gauges or playing style differs from the average, you'd have to have even the more expensive guitar setup. Electric guitars are relatively easy to setup, or for less than $50 a good guitar repair man or luthier can do this for you. 

How about that fatter sound, even with the same amp set the same way that you heard in the more expensive guitar? Guitar sound is not a scale with "good" at the top and "bad" at the bottom. Guitars sound different and that's part of their joy. Remember one person's "fat" is another person's "muddy" and "thin" and "jangley" could be two words to describe the same sound. Because of the range of sounds that certain players or styles require, there is a industry devoted to replacement pickups. So for maybe $100 or so you might replace the pickups on your less expensive model with something else.

What about the hardware? It's cheap to replace if it breaks, and by the time you get beyond the lowest end Squiers it's not that bad. One common upgrade is to put better tuners on a lower end guitar. The parts cost from $25 to $70.

And that nice fretboard with the uniformly shaped frets? That more expensive guitar will play  nicely for the first few months, but if you play it enough the tops of the frets will start to level off on top from being rubbed by the strings (eventually the frets of any well played guitar will need to be "re-crowned" and after a one or two re-crownings, need to be replaced). So if you play it long enough the two guitars will eventually become equal. Before then, you'll sacrifice a little smooth feel and you may not be able to get as low a sting height on the cheaper guitar as you could on the more expensive one, but then some players like a little higher than the lowest action achievable on their guitars arguing that it lets them grab more string to bend with.

If you're looking for Gibson style instrument, mentally replace the Squier and Made In Mexico lines of  Fender with "Epiphone" and expect about 50% higher price points for new guitars.

 

How About Acoustic Guitars, Do You Get What You Pay For?

Just as with electrics the more expensive guitars tend to be better, but there are factors that can maximize the value you get for the money you spend. Where the money savers in acoustic lines?

A satin finish takes much less labor than an gloss one, and some even feel that a thicker gloss finish can dampen tone. Satin finishes show wear and tear faster, but they're big money savers.

Solid wood on the top is a big plus, and a solid back is supposed to aid the richness of a guitar's tone. Apparently solid wood for the guitar's sides makes less of a difference. Get a solid top guitar and move up from there if you have the budget.

Good spruce (the traditional top wood for steel string acoustic guitars) is more expensive. Alternative top woods like cedar and mahogany have their own distinct sounds and can sometimes lower the price of an instrument.

Smaller guitars can sometimes be a bit cheaper, and have a distinctive more "balanced" tone. Instead of a Dreadnaught consider a "000" or "OM" sized guitar or even a "parlour", "baby", or "00" sized instrument. If solo finger picking is your thing, start by looking at the smaller guitars first and working your way up in size.

Smaller guitars may lack volume compared to the Dreadnaughts and Jumbos,  but a bone saddle is a fairly easy and inexpensive addition that will increase volume. A bone nut will also increase volume for unfretted notes, but you can make a similar volume adjustment by using a capo. If necessary, tune down a half step and capo on the first fret.

Setups on acoustic guitars a bit tougher to do than on electrics (they just aren't build to be adjustable with common tools). However many inexpensive acoustic guitars play easier after a good setup.

Acoustic-electric instruments are a must for those that must play with in a loud band situation, but a waste of money otherwise. Consider getting the best sounding and playing acoustic instrument and if you find you need to plug in have it added later. Surprisingly the cost to have the pickup system added later is sometimes less than getting it "built in" on a new guitar. Similarly, cutaways are often unused. I play a lot of acoustic single string lead, and I feel I can reach over the body to get the highest notes that will sound good on my guitars without the aid of a cutaway.

 

Should I Buy an Electric or Acoustic Guitar?

Sure they’re related instruments, but then the Hammond B3 organ, a keyboard synthesizer, a harpsichord, and a piano are all keyboard instruments too.

 

Economic Differences:

At most any quality/price level an acoustic guitar will cost more than the same quality solid-body electric guitar. There’s just more work in making an acoustic. On the other hand, an acoustic guitar if played acoustically is a self-contained musical instrument. An electric guitar is merely the “user interface” and a signal generator for what can be an expensive chain of amplifiers and sound shaping effects. So in the end they cost about the same.

 

Playing Differences:

As a general rule an electric guitar is easier to play for a beginner than an acoustic steel-strung guitar. Electric guitars have thinner strings and an electric guitar is played with enough effects or the right amplifier and settings covers up slight imperfections in tone generation.

  However, many players believe that the strength and good tone producing habits learned on an acoustic are an aid to electric guitar playing.

  My feeling is that you should play the one you like the best, as they are different instruments. If you can’t make up your mind, don’t fret too much over the decision. Later on you can always start on the other. A good tie breaker: are you intending to play in a band? If so, most bands are based around electric instruments. But if you’re not planning on playing in a band, an acoustic guitar usually makes better sounding music played alone than an electric.

 

Sound Differences:

The “standard” steel-string flat-top acoustic guitar has a resonant sound produced by its hollow body. Acoustic guitars are great choices for accompanying singing, and furthermore since the early 1960’s a school of playing purely instrumental music on them had gained adherents. In most cases these instruments are played in a chordal manner. The player either: 

  1. picks the strings with a thumb and one or more fingers (“fingerpicking”) which arpeggiates the notes of the chord formed with the other hand.
  2. Strums the chord using the thumb or a pick in patterns from simple to complex (when a pick is used, more complex patterns are usually called “flatpicking”)

  It is also possible to play single note melodic lines on an acoustic either as “breaks” or “runs” between chords or as the lead melodic voice with another player providing the chordal component.

The “standard” solid body electric guitar is a shaped plank of wood with one or more pickups that convert the movement of metal strings into electric impulses. These electric signals are then feed into an amplifier which makes the sound. Often various gizmos (“effects’) are placed in the chain to modify the sound. Although players can and do play the electric guitar with no other instrument, it is most often found in a band context. In many bands, one guitar player provides the harmonic/chordal part of the song (“rhythm guitar”) while another guitar player plays the melodic lines (“lead guitar”).

  Because the electric guitar itself only starts to shape the sound, the materials, size, and construction of the guitar body is less important than it is in an acoustic guitar. This leads to the panoply of shapes and colors found in electric guitars. Because the string is not producing as large a part in the sound of the instrument as an acoustic, it can be thinner, making it easier to play and allowing additional expression by manipulating the lighter string. Of course, even though the strings and construction are less important in an electric guitar, they still have an effect, one that is often greatly debated by electric guitar players.

 

A Short History of the Guitar

The guitar emerged from other kinds of stringed instruments in Europe during the Renaissance. Early guitars had, by modern standards, small bodies and they were strung with strings made of gut. In the early 20th century recognizable modern acoustic guitar designs started to emerge. The critical change: the move to strings with steel cores which greatly increased the guitar’s volume and a supported a wider tonal range compared to the quiet sound of gut strings. Steel strings have higher tension, which lead to overhaul of the construction of the guitar. And following one of the iron rules of  rock’n’roll, just because steel strings were louder, their introduction didn’t keep builders from trying to make guitars louder still.

  By the 1930’s and 40’s the search for the guitar that would “go up to 11” lead to designers to perfect these three acoustic guitar designs: the dreadnaught body shape, the archtop acoustic and the resonator guitar. The dreadnaught (named for a class of battleships which were the largest of their time) was an acoustic guitar with a large body and typically a powerful sound especially in its lower ranges. The first dreadnaught owners must have marveled at the low, meaty booming sound they could get out of the bottom couple of stings. It was the pre-WWII, acoustic version of 1999’s electric 7 string revolution. Players in the emerging field of “Country and Western music” were the early customers of the dreadnaught sized guitar. Over in the jazz ranks, players who still didn’t have volume knob to resort to, also had a volume crisis. Jazz, which had started out as a small combo phenomenon, had now grown into a popular music format that supported “big bands” with whole lines of wind instrument players and the original drum sets. These bands were starting to play auditoriums and dance halls that were in many cases he same places that later were filled with stacks of amplifiers in the late 60’s. In order to be heard, guitar players and makers went to the archtop guitar. Archtops also had large bodies and arched tops and backs like smaller cello or larger violin. It wasn’t rich deep notes the players were seeking, it was acoustic power in the midrange to upper midrange of the instrument, and archtops of the era could cut though the din of the massed horns as long as the player used heavy strings and a heavy percussive attack with a flat pick. You can see the need for the electric guitar developing, but the resonator guitar took one more interesting side trip before players plugged it. A resonator guitar (sometime called by the name of one of its original manufacturers “Dobro”) is a purely acoustic guitar with a speaker built in. In an electric guitar amp, an electro-magnetic coil makes the sound waves in the center of the speaker cone and cone then makes big fat loud waves out of the original waves the coil has started. In a resonator guitar that back-breaking amplifier and troublesome patch cord are done away with and the strings move the bridge of the guitar which acts directly on a speaker cone that sits in the face of the guitar. The resulting noise doesn’t sound quite like Jimi Hendrix and a big stack of  amp cabinets, but it is loud for something that doesn’t have a plug. The speaker cones used were made of metal for durability and some models went so far as to make the everything else about the guitar save for the neck out of metal too. Three kinds of players liked this guitar: those who used a steel slide to play swooping melodies in a style imported from the Hawaiian islands, Country and Western players who extended this style of “steel guitar” often while listening to blues players who were doing all the R&D for what will become rock’n’roll a few years later, and who also liked the ability to rock a noisy house with the din of a resonator guitar.

  Well somebody had to plug in, or we wouldn’t have any unplugged CDs in the store today now would we. It was a three way race: C&W players, jazz players, and blues players all kept reaching for their volume knobs, and all found they didn’t have one.

  The best historical research seems to indicate the first electric guitars were made for the Hawaiian and C&W slide guitar player market and they are the direct ancestors of the “steel guitar” instruments still used in country music today. However in the late 1930’s pickups had been combined with the archtop guitar. A fellow named Charlie Christian got a hold of one of these and hooked up with a very popular jazz band of the time and the electric guitar was on its way. Blues and non-steel guitar C&W players with enough funds and an available electric outlet are buying these new guitars too.

  Flash forward about 10 years and move to the dynamic Southern California region of the US.  A fellow named Leo Fender has a business making amplifiers for the C&W steel guitar market. Leo certainly knows about the electric archtop guitar, and probably knows about a hand-built guitar Paul Bigsby has recently created. Bigsby’s guitar doesn’t have that difficult to manufacture arched top, or a big bulky hollow body either. Its body is a plank of good hard wood with the pickup screwed right onto it.

  Leo has a little factory. Leo has good old American Know-How. Leo made the Broadcaster (later renamed the Telecaster) as an inexpensive, simple to manufacturer and maintain powerful sounding solid body electric guitar.

  The idea was so good it couldn’t stay contained in the circle of  Southern California C&W players that Fender was selling to. Another leading guitar maker Gibson started listening to a guitar player/inventor named Les Paul who’d been bugging them about his own ideas for solid body electric guitars. Blues was being called Rhythm and Blues now and in awhile would be called rock'n'roll. But that’s another story.

  In any case by the early 1950’s the basic concepts and designs for the guitar for the rest of the 20th Century were set.

 

What Are the Different Types of Acoustic Guitars?

The vast majority of acoustic guitars sold today are “flat topped steel string dreadnaughts”. Unless I indicate otherwise, when I talk about acoustic guitars below, I’m talking about this popular type. What does this mean?

  “Flat topped” is a short-hand description of the how the guitar body is constructed. “Steel String” means that the strings with a steel core are used, even though the windings on the four lowest sounding strings will be made of a golden colored bronze alloy. “Dreadnaught” is a body size, in this case a fairly large body size. It’s not mentioned, but assumed in this description that the guitar has 6 strings, though a guitar shop will no doubt have some acoustic guitars with 12 strings.

Size

Because the body of an acoustic guitar is its sound source, size and construction of the body is critically important to how it will sound. In general the larger the guitar body the louder it will be and louder and more predominate in the overall sound the bass frequencies will be. Conventional names for different sizes of acoustic guitars have emerged over the years, some tied to the schemes used by Martin Guitars, a leading maker. Largest is the Dreadnaught body or it’s close cousin in size the Jumbo. Next down in size is a range that can be called various names: 000, Orchestra, or Folk. Below that size are the less common 00 or even 0 sizes, sometimes called Parlor (after their use as home entertainment 100 years ago) or Travel guitars (just the thing for the businessman who needs something that will fit in an overhead bin of an airliner).

 

Construction

The top of an acoustic guitar is largely responsible for its sound. The most common word used for this is spruce, but cedar and mahogany are also used. The light, thin top cannot support the strain of string tension by itself, so a series of braces underneath the top add strength while also shaping the tone of the guitar. Rosewood, maple or mahogany are generally used for the back, side and neck of the guitar, but any other hard wood can and probably has been substituted. The back and sides aren’t as important as the top, but that doesn’t stop guitar aficionados from debating the contributions they make to the sound. Lastly, some kind of hardwood is used for the fretboard of the guitar, usually rosewood or ebony.

  In less expensive instruments some or all of the body woods will be laminated, or to put in a way that your local builders supply would understand: plywood. In terms of the structural integrity of the guitar, plywood is plenty strong (done right, it’s stronger than solid wood) and the top ply can be as good looking as solid wood. Tonally however laminated wood is less impressive. So as one moves up the price range you should start to see solid wood tops, then solid wood backs, and finally solid wood sides.

Buyers beware, catalog and marketing materials will try to disguise the absence of solid wood in the guitars body. They will talk about “select spruce” “beautifully grained rosewood” or “birdseye maple” but if it doesn’t say “solid’ it probably isn’t.

  Especially if one doesn’t have the budget there are no absolute reasons to avoid guitar with some or even all laminated wood bodies. Sure solid wood tends to sound better, but a properly made and setup laminated wood guitar will sound OK. A good compromise is to try to afford a solid wood top, since the top is by far the most important sound producing part of the acoustic guitar.

 

What Are the Different Types of Electric Guitars?

 

Fender and Gibson

Fender and Gibson are the two predominate manufacturers of electric guitars. This doesn’t mean that other manufactures don’t make good guitars, but since the 50’s these two have been the market leaders. Many of the guitars produced by other makers are copies close and far of the most popular Gibson and Fender designs.

  Though Gibson and Fender each produce a large line of guitars there are some generalizations that can be made about each family. In general:

  Fender guitars have bolt on necks (makes them easy to repair and maintain, reduces sustain a bit).

  Most Fender guitars have single coil pickups (which start the sound chain off with a more distinct or thin sound depending on how you look at it).

  Fender guitars have a slightly longer “scale length” than Gibson. Scale length is the distance between the nut and bridge of the guitar. Longer scale length means that everything else being equal the stings will be a bit “tighter” and so will the sound but at a cost of the strings being a bit harder to bend.

  Fender guitars often have a vibrato arm (Fender called them tremolo arms, a misnomer that still sticks around). The “Trem” or “Whammy bar” lets a player raise or lower the pitch of all the strings at once. Vibrato units take away from sustain and can cause tuning problems, but are very popular, or even necessary, for some styles of music.

  Gibson guitars have set in necks which cost more to make and improve sustain somewhat.

  Most Gibson guitars have humbucking pickups, a design that reduced background noise and static leaking into the guitar’s sound, but have the side effect of making the sound either “fatter” or “muddy” depending on how you look at it.

  Gibson guitars have a shorter scale length which makes string bending easier but reduced string tension works against “ringing” sustain.

  Although they each produce a wide price range of instruments, at any relative point in their lines, Fender is cheaper than Gibson.

 

What are Some Unusual Kinds of Acoustic Guitars?

Besides the 6 string wood bodied flattop acoustic there are a number of other acoustic guitars that can be found in well stocked shop.

 

The 12 String

Many of the guitar’s ancestors had a pairs of closely-spaced like-tuned strings (“courses”) in place of the single singles of a 6 string. The 12 string guitar is a survivor of this idea. Each of the 6 regular strings has a respective second string, and the lower string pair are tuned so that the additional string is tuned to the same note but an octave higher. The highest strings (usually the highest two strings) are tuned in unison. The resulting sound is full of the high string overtones and the unavoidable micro differences in pitch and vibration produce acoustically something of the same effect that electronic chorus pedals produce.

 

The Classical Guitar

Early guitars had strings of animal gut, but the 20th century invention of Nylon made it possible to replace this less consistent product. Even after the introduction of the louder steel strings in the 20th century, guitars based on the older school continued to be made. During this a school of playing concert music on such instruments became well known. Much of the early repertoire of this school was drawn from the great classical music composers, and so this style of guitar is often called the “classical guitar”.

  Besides the softer sounding Nylon strings, classical guitars have wide flat necks (for the same reason that “shredder guitars” noted below have them, it’s the best design for fast single note playing), smaller bodies for the most balanced sound between the ranges of the guitar, and some traditional appointments such as slotted headstocks.

There are some that feel that the Classical guitar is the best for learners, because the nylon strings are much lower in tension and easier to press down to the frets. The wider neck is also a help in preventing unwanted muffling of notes on adjacent strings, assuming that one has decent hand size to span the neck. Others argue that the sound is too different from steel string guitars and that trying to learn popular styles on this instrument will leave students with a tonal impossibility.

 

The Acoustic-Electric Guitar

Ah, the “jumbo shrimp” of the guitar world, the acoustic-electric.

  As soon as the “Charlie Christian” revolution occurred, players started to fit pickups to guitars that originally had been acoustic. A popular design then that remains available today is a separate pickup that clips or otherwise fits onto the guitar without being permanently mounted. A convenient mounting place is the round soundhole in the middle of the guitars face. This type of pickup is a variation the magnetic pickups used on “real” electric guitars and produces a sound more like an electric guitar than a merely louder acoustic one.

  Another way to amplify the acoustic guitar has come along in the last 30 years or so. Using piezo elements, a type of crystal that produces faint electric impulses when vibrated, a pickup capable of sensing vibrations can be mounted under the saddle of an acoustic guitar. The faint signals are then boosted and shaped by a preamp to a level more like the more robust signals of the magnetic pickup. While many feel the piezo produces a more faithful reproduction of the “true acoustic sound” of an instrument than magnetic pickups, piezo pickups tend to hear the mid and upper midrange more clearly than the lower register. Preamps and amplifiers designed to deal with piezo-equipped guitars can minimize this, but it’s still a compromise.

  This compromise is still a welcome choice for someone who needs to play an “acoustic guitar” in a loud band context. In fact, the need to sound “acoustic” in an amplified context has lead to a third kind of acoustic electric, one that does away will all or most of the hollow body of an acoustic guitar and goes straight to the sound of the piezo pickup shaped by a preamp installed in a body that looks like a solid body electric guitar. Or coming at the same thing from the other direction, some manufacturers are installing piezo elements in a solid body guitar’s bridge to allow it to somewhat emulate the sound of an acoustic guitar with a piezo pickup.

 

The Ovation Guitar

In the 1960’s a company called Ovation was founded and started producing guitars with normal wood tops but with backs and sides made out of a plastic bowl. Early on they adopted pickups to this guitar design helping start  the “acoustic-electric” trend. The bowl back construction imparts a distinctive sound to the guitar, something more like the “cutting” sound of an archtop guitar and less like the “rich” sound of  a regular acoustic guitar.  And to go along with their “acoustic-electric” orientation, many Ovations have shallow bowls that produce even less acoustic warmth while making them even more suitable for playing on stage.

 

The Acoustic Archtop and the Resonator Guitar

You may recall from the history rundown that  archtop and resonator guitars emerged as intermediate solutions on the way to electric guitars, but their distinctive sounds are still kept alive by currently available instruments.

  The resonator guitar seems to have undergone a surge in popularity borne upwards by the growth in interest in the blues and bluegrass. When looking at a resonator be aware that there are two kinds of necks round and square. The round back neck allows the guitar to played with conventional fretting techniques, while the square neck is meant to be played with a slide only, with the guitars back facing the ground and the face turned up to the player in the “lap steel” position.

  The purely acoustic archtop is still a very small market, but some electric archtops have large enough bodies and sensitive enough tops to be played acoustically.

 

What are Some Kinds of Less Common Electric Guitars?

The Shredder Guitar

During the 1980’s a school of guitar playing based on impressive speed and technical mastery emerged. The flash licks this style flaunted as players tore into their strings with amazing speed were called “shredding” and it’s players “shredders”. Shredders looked for a number of features that the large manufacturers didn’t provide (at least at first) in their standard models: hot pickups, locking vibratos (heavy use of the vibrato bar would cause the strings to go out of tune, “locking” clamped down on the strings at one or both ends to minimize this), wild body shapes and paint jobs to match the showy playing style, and wide flat fretboards with thin necks to allow the already fast to play at their top speeds.

 

The Department Store Guitar

As the guitar grew in popularity throughout the 20th century, many folks had no local music store to serve them. But they might have the local Sears or Montgomery Wards or access to one of their catalogs, and so the area of department store guitars thrived until the 90’s hobbled these giants and specialty stores and catalogs (including ones devoted to musical instruments) took over that market.

  There is a better than even chance that if someone grew up in a non-guitar playing family in the US before 1990 that their first instrument was from Sears or Wards. Earlier in the century this meant a guitar made of low cost materials in a handful of American factories such as Harmony in Chicago or Dan Electro in New York.  By the later 60’s importers had taken over this business and Japanese Tiesco’s, Italian Eko’s and the like produced the mail order guitars.

  Most of these guitars we made of lousy parts and were poorly setup to begin with and only grew more so by age. Only the best were on par with even the worst new guitars you’d see today in a music store. But they had a certain wacky charm and some folks are nostalgic enough to keep a market in the survivors from this area viable. However, in retrospect these were absolutely terrible first guitars, hard to play, unreliable, and incapable of producing the most popular guitar sounds.

 

The Dan Electro Guitar

As improbable as it sounds, in the 1990’s the brand name of one of the leading producers of  department store guitars was purchased and Asian copies of and take off of some of the “vintage” designs were produced for sale in musical instrument stores. Perhaps it helped that the Dan Electro line was one of the better of the wretched offerings back in the old days though it had a full serving of  the goofy charm (bridges that looked like a Popsicle stick on top of chunk of pot metal, pickups stuffed inside of lipstick cases, and weirdly shaped bodies made out of masonite).

 

The Archtop Guitar

The archtop hollow body “jazz guitar” is still around and still appropriate for certain styles of music. A surprising amount of early blues and rock and roll was played on such guitars too, but with exception of Gretch no one seems to be reaching out to that rock'n'roll side of the small archtop market.

 

Gretch

The typical hollow body archtop is understated with a nice woodtoned finish and an air of jazzbo seriousness about it. But Gretch continues to produce the flash contrast to this with wild colors an accessories and such non-jazz accouterments such as vibrato arms.

 

 

What Kind of Acoustic Guitar Do You Recommend Buying?

Unlike an electric guitar an acoustic guitar is it's own self-contained sound generating instrument. This means that moving up or down the price ladder gains  not only playability and construction quality, but also tonal richness. And while many abysmally setup electric guitars (especially those with bolt on necks) can be made playable for a few dollars, major setup work on an acoustic is tougher and more expensive if done by a luthier--and major action adjustments such as a neck reset  are definitely in the "don't try this at home" category.

I have $200 to spend

It's a crap shoot out there in this price range. You could run into any number of failings. Poor tone, structural failure, ugly cosmetic quality control issues, poor setup. Things are better than they were years ago, but your goal should be to find a guitar that has no playing deficiencies. Look for decently low string height and  no buzzing,  I think you can get lucky and find a pretty good player in the used market in this price range, but you may want to stretch up to $200 new. Takamine, Fender, Epiphone Yamaha, Sigma, Cort and Applause have guitars in their lines under $200 that can sound OK and are built to last until you're tired of them. The Cort Earth 100 model line has street prices below $200 and  is a decent deep sounding dreadnaught with a solid wood top. The lower end of the lines made by LoPatrie (Art & Lutherie) are in that "just a bit more" range, though they are harder to find in stores. You might find a used Seagull dipping into this price range.

I have $400 to spend

I have a very simple message here. Find a store or mail order dealer that sells Seagull guitars made by LoPatrie and buy one. They make instruments with very good tone and playability but at a price point that others can't seem to duplicate. Every guitar they make is a good value. Tops of the lower end Seagulls are solid Cedar or Spruce, but the backs and sides are laminated..

I have $800 to spend

You could go up to the top of the Seagull line, or you can go the bottom of some other makers lines. Either way you'll get an instrument with a bit more tonal richness. Martin makes the 15 series including the D-15 dreadnaught that is a good deal on a distinctive sounding solid wood guitar using mahogany. Also in Martin's lower end line is the DM dreadnaught using a more conventional solid spruce top and laminated sides and back. Larrivee makes an all solid wood D-02 in this general price range. 

I could go a little higher

For those seeking the distinctive bright sound of a Taylor, the Taylor 310 series is less than a grand and has that sound. Martin has several models under a grand that sound interesting. But if you've got more than $600 to spend you're out of my price range and experience level. Others will have to guide you.

 

What Kind of Electric Guitar Do You Recommend Buying?

Remember, you're buying a plank of wood, some pickups, and a handful of parts to tie it together. There's less magic here despite what you'll hear some say. If you find a bolt on neck guitar that sounds good but doesn't have the setup you'd like, it's probable that it can be remedies unless you're got structural damage. Pickup and hardware upgrades are cheap and easy to do too.

I have $200 to spend

In "Fender style" instruments the upper end of the Squire line is near to this price range and are a decent deal for the money,  but avoid the lower end Squires (Affinity) unless you're really bucks down.  Yamaha makes some guitars more or less equal to the upper end of the Squire line for around the same price. The Kramer "Strat" style guitars sold my MusicYo at around $100 seem to be playable instruments from reports I've read. A personal favorite in this range is the Squire by Fender Fat Tele. A versatile guitar with good tone for around $200.

For Gibson style instruments or more heavy metal axes, almost everyone in the industry has a sub $200 Korean made guitar with humbuckers, though most have bolt-on not set necks. In this price range for a new instrument the cost saving bolt on isn't entirely a bad thing as it does let one adjust the neck angle on the cheap. Epiphone, Ibanez, Washburn, Hamer, and BC Rich all start their lines under $200. 

In the used market, there a a great many deals to be found on instruments that are playable or can be cheaply made playable.

I have $400 to spend

At this point new market opens up and you can find instruments that are very close to those purchased by those with unlimited funds. Fender makes its "Standard Series" Stratocaster and Telecaster to come in under $300 and they are good instruments faithful to the classic sounds of these popular models. Gibson's "value priced" line Epiphone prefers to set it's prices more at $400 for cheaper copies of their mainstream models, but other Asian models ape the Gibson look and feel with lesser hardware than the "real thing" for under $400. Samick (the company that makes Epiphone and many other guitars originating from Korea) markets a Les Paul copy similar in quality to the better Epiphone Les Paul copies for much less than to Epiphones.

A personal favorite in this price range the Fender Nashville Telecaster. A Mexican made Tele with Strat style switching and three pickups. Very versatile and I've been impressed with general level of quality control on the examples I've seen.

The used market continues to expand at this price point, with many good deals to be found on "non-collector" guitars

I have $800 to spend

The used market now includes virtually anything that isn't a collectors piece. New American Fender Strats or Telecasters are in your range. Gibson has it's entry level instruments in this range too. A mail order only company called Carvin (www.carvin.com) offers several lines of guitars with build to order options under $800. Carvin makes perfect necks for the shredder or those that just want to play on a thin, low action, flat neck. Every Carvin is a good value, and if you happen to come upon  one used in good operating condition, snap it up! Two companies associated with folks that used to work for Fender and Gibson make instruments faithful to the spirit of these companies under another name and their new instruments start in this range. G&L was founded by two Fender principals (the "L" was Leo Fender himself) and they have a line of very well made instruments extending the ideas of the 50's with some later tweaks. Heritage is a Michigan based company that has some former Gibson employees making guitars parallel to the Gibson line. As with Carvin, either of these manufacturer's products are vastly under priced in the used market.

 

I could go a little higher

You're out of my league, but much of Gibson's line is over $1000 new these days and Fender has a whole series of "artist" and "custom shop" models to sell you too.

 

How About If I'm Looking For an Unusual Type of Guitar?

 Used you'll see all kinds of odd balls things that may catch your interest, and the world is too large to cover all the possibilities you might come across. New,  if you're interested in resonator guitar Fender's FR-50 at less than $300 will let you experience the vibe of that kind of instrument. For acoustic 12 Strings Cort, Sigma, and Alvarez have decent cheaper acoustic models, Seagull makes very good value at just a bit more, and Martin and Larrivee have 12 string models that start under $800. For electric 12 String, Dan Electro and Dean have workable electric 12 strings less than $300 and less than $350 respectively. The acoustic "travel guitar" filed has opened up in the past few years and 3/4 sized instrument at bargain prices are the result. Ironically, they are often the size of a "standard" guitar 100 years ago. The Baby Taylor, Larrivee Parlour,  Seagull Grand, and Martin 00-15 are all under $800 and have interesting sounds. Epiphone makes a decent hollow body jazz guitar that can be pressed into service for early blues and rock styles too, its the "Joe Pass" model and it sells for less than $800. A popular and versatile Gibson model the ES-335 combines the look and (smaller) hollow body chambers with a solid block of wood down the center of the guitar to mount the pickups and bridge on. The result in great for blues, rock, and fusion jazz. Several Asian copies of the 335 are available under $800, and the Epiphone "Dot" at around $400 is an especially good deal (though I hear some stories of quality control variations). Also every acoustic manufacturer offers "acoustic-electric" variations of their most popular models for $100-$150 more than the same model without pickups. Unless you're planning on playing with a band or for larger venues, don't worry too much about getting a pickup in your acoustic guitar. If you find you need one, it can be added later for about the same price the premium charged for acoustic-electric models new. If you need to go acoustic electric right of the bat and in a higher volume setting, I suggest looking at Ovation or another line for LaPatire, Godin.

   

Should I Buy A New or Used Guitar?

Value is always with the used side of this question, so it might be rephrased this way: why buy a new guitar? 

Many new guitars come with a warranty, but frankly I've never seen much added value in a guitar warranty, especially with an electric guitar. The parts to fix an electric guitar are cheap, and the only truly expensive things that are likely to happen to it (breaking off a neck or headstock) are not covered by any warranties I've read.

Although virtually any guitar ever made is theoretically available used, buying new lets you select the exactly model, color and price you want when you want to buy a guitar. The hunt for a particular model as a used guitar at the right price can be time consuming. 

Most guitars will last a lifetime if not abused, store correctly and maintained as needed. A thriving high priced "vintage" market testifies that 40, 50 and even 60 year old instruments can continue to be played. On the other hand, the run of the mill used guitar can sometime need some parts replaced or "worked around".

Lastly, buying used mail order or out of town is more risky. You may have fewer recourses if the instrument isn't what you expected.

Advantages for used? Value Value Value. As long as we aren't talking the vintage market, you'll pay less and get more. Here the way the economics works. Most new guitars are sold for about 30% off of their list price. A year later it's a used guitar and worth about 60-70% of it former sale price. So a $1100 list price guitar becomes a $800 price guitar becomes a $500 used guitar. And if the guitar is a little bit older,  is a less popular or valued model, shows some wear and tear (may be totally cosmetic), and is maybe an ugly color or reminiscent of a trend whose parade has passed? Well things get even cheaper.

 

Differences In the Acoustic and Electric Used Market

My observation is that if not damaged, acoustic guitars have a higher "floor" than electrics in the used market. Why? The acoustic market is less trendy, so guitars don't go "out of style" in the same way that fluorescent color pointy headstock electric guitars of the 80's did. Secondly, it widely believed that solid wood acoustic instruments "open up" with age and playing time and sound richer. 

Another difference: value priced instruments which play as well as much more expensive instruments and maintain 90% of the sonic richness of a more expensive gutiar are a more recent phenomenon in the acoustic market. In the 1980's there were many decently made, good sounding electric guitars made that sold for less than $500 new and now sell for under $200 used. Only with in the last 10 years has then been a parallel trend for acoustic manufactures to produce solid wood instruments for less than $1000. I expect the used acoustic market to grow in quality over the next 10 years and for value to rise.

Unless you have serious woodworking skills, a broken or damaged acoustic guitar is rarely a good deal. "Project" or "basket case" electric guitars with seemingly serious problems can be a good deal.

 

The $200 Used Electric Guitar

Ok, you don't have much money, but you want to buy an electric guitar and make some noise. Instead of buying one of the entry level instruments from Fender/Squier or Gibson/Epiphone what could you get on the used market?

Go over to the My Music section of my site that shows the guitars I play and you'll see some examples mostly bought in the past 5 years, and mostly bought used for less than $200. There's some neat, fun, different stuff out there and some solid "clone" instruments of standard Fender and Gibson models. A few are hot rodded a bit, but others just need a cleanup and setup. And since I enjoy tinkering, I had more fun doing that than I would have with a brand new axe.