Shopping For Electric Guitars
Buying an electric guitar can be an exciting experience or a source of great frustration, depending on how prepared you are. In this article I’ll take a look at the different types of electric guitars available, what you should get for your money, and what you should look out for when buying.
Types of Electrics
There are basically three types of electric guitars: solid body, hollowbody, and semi-hollowbody. Each type has numerous variations, including 7 string models and “baritone” guitars. I will focus on standard 6 string guitars.
Deriving from early attempts to “electrify” acoustic guitars, the hollowbody guitar is a blend of old and new. These guitars have large bodies, some are fat and some are thin. Most are arch topped and have sound holes cut out of the body making them both acoustic and electric. Generally, they have humbucker pickups and achieve a very warm, fat tone that appeals to many jazz players.
These guitars were also popular with many early Rock and Roll and Rockabilly players. The very nature of their construction — a large, open, vibrating sound chamber — makes them susceptible to feedback at loud volumes. A fact used to advantage by some rockers actually looking for feedback. Since the market for these instruments isn’t as large as the market for solid body guitars, and they require a lot of labor to construct, they generally cost a little more than solid body guitars.
Semi-hollowbody guitars were created to help fight the problem of feedback that often plagues hollowbody guitars. Most are thinner than full hollowbody guitars and usually have a solid block of wood running through the center of the guitar body. This cuts down on feedback and provides more sustain. The Gibson ES-335 is the most popular semi-hollowbody design. Other semi-hollowbody designs are built by carving out sound chamber in a solid body guitar. Many blues, jazz, and rock guitarist have chosen semi-hollobodies as their instrument of choice.
Solid body guitars come in infinite variations, but they basically boil down to three types:
Bolt-On Neck Guitars
These are the guitars built Fender and their followers. The Stratocaster and the Telecaster, designed by Leo Fender, set the standard for this type of guitar. Typically, these guitars use single coil pickups and have a bright tone with lots of treble. They popular in all styles of music.
Telecasters are preferred by many country players for their “twangy” tone, but have recently become increasingly popular in other styles of music.
Many blues guitarists favor Stratocasters for their ability to play with the pickups “out-of-phase” giving the guitar a nice “quacky” tone.
Shredders (fast, technical players) tend to prefer "hot rodded" guitars with flat necks and "hot" wound humbucker pickups. And often locking tremolo (really vibrato) systems.
Glued Neck (or Set Neck) Guitars
At the opposite end of the electric guitar spectrum are the guitar made famous Gibson and their predecessors. The Les Paul and most PRS models are classic examples of this type of guitar. They are know for their sustain, humbucking pickups, and fat tone. They are great rock guitars.
Newer Technology Guitars
Of course, the art of guitar making hasn’t stood still. Manufacturers have continually added new innovations to guitars. Through-the-body necks became very popular in the 1980s. Steinberg introduced a Carbon/Fiber guitar with no headstock and very little body, plus active electronics. In the 1990s we saw completely new manufacturing ideas from makers such as Parker and Godin. These guitars attempt to blend the best of both acoustic and electric tones in one guitar.
The Parker Fly was a very lightweight guitar that features a radical body shape with a wood body and neck covered covered with a thin layer of a carbon/glass/epoxy composite that strengthens and unifies the guitar. It uses both standard humbucking pickups and a Fishman active piezo bridge system to achieve a variety of tones.
Godin uses traditional wood bodies, but fills them with a built-in preamp/EQ customized for acoustic tones. It also has humbucker pickups and a transducer saddle pickup, but goes one step further with optional built-in synth access.
Only the manufacturers know what new innovations this century of guitar building will bring.
What You Can Expect For Your Money
Before you head out shopping, it’s a good idea to know what you can expect for your money. Don’t automatically assume that an inexpensive guitar won’t sound as good as an expensive one. Often the difference in cost is due largely to cosmetic features, grades of wood, and type of finish used on the guitar. It is very possible to get a good sounding guitar for a reasonable price. Of course, if you have the money, you can get yourself a premium instrument that oozes tone, is a joy to play, a beauty to behold, and will last you a lifetime.
Some companies offer hollowbody models, but it’s mainly solid bodies in this price range. These instruments are considered “economy” or “beginner” models. They will typically be imports, made mainly in Asia or Mexico. Sacrifices will be made in the quality of the hardware (pickups, tuning machines, bridge, etc.) and the construction of the instrument (no fret bindings, cheaper finishes, lower grade woods, multiple piece bodies.) However, quality standards have risen considerably in recent years and good instruments are readily available. Brands like Gibson and Fender have “budget” brands called Epiphone (Gibson) and Squier (Fender) that offer good quality inexpensive guitars.
$500 - $1000
This is the mid-range for guitars. You can get a high quality guitar for this price. It won’t be a “deluxe” or “signature” model, but it will do the job quite nicely. In this price range you will get better components (pickups, tuners, etc.) and nicer finishes. You will begin to see the use of higher quality woods. You will also start to see some U.S. made guitars. Hollowbody shoppers will have considerably more choices.
Once you break a thousand bucks, you looking at some excellent guitars with abundant features. Gold hardware, Ebony fretboards, fretboard binding, intricate fretboard inlays, custom finishes, “signature” models, innovative construction, custom electronics and pickups, the choicest woods, and other pleasures await you here. These luxuries don’t necessarily mean a guitar will sound better, but they often do. And they usually play better. A guitar in this price range should last you a lifetime.
How To Shop
Okay, you’ve done your homework. Now comes the final part — shopping.
If you are buying your first guitar I highly recommend going to an actual musical instrument store. You should avoid department stores like Walmart or Best Buy. Their instruments are usually lower quality instruments geared for impulse buyers. If you don’t live near a musical instrument store, there are many online instrument store that are the next best option. Prices in the online world are all basically the same so don’t worry too much about who has the best deal. You should be more concerned with customer service. Make sure the store has a good return policy because you won’t get to play the instrument before you buy it. And you should to be able to return a guitar you don’t like without a lot of expense or hassle. Some online stores like sweetwater.com offer multiple photos of the actual guitar you are going to buy, and they do full inspection and setup of the instruments before shipping (except most inexpensive models.) Still, if possible it is better to try out as many guitars as possible before you buy one.
The next important thing to do is set a budget. Then try to find the best guitar for your budget. Although you might want to be a little flexible. If spending $50 more will get you a much better guitar, do it.
The best way to shop for guitars is to get to a music store and try some out. Don’t even think about money at first, just try out as many different guitars as you can. Don’t limit yourself to guitars in your price range, either. Play the “top of the line” models to get a feel for what a good guitar feels, plays, and sounds like. If you are new to guitars, ask a lot of questions. Also, if you are just starting out, have the salesman play several guitars for you so you can hear how different ones sound. A good guitar store will have helpful salespeople who can answer your questions and help you get the best guitar for your budget.
Use Your Eyes Too
It’s important that a guitar sounds good. But it should be well made also. Things to look out for are: rough fret edges, gaps in the neck/body joint, and twisted or uneven necks. Looking at the neck from the side, a very slight bow is normal and necessary to keep the strings from buzzing on the frets, but it shouldn’t be extreme (although this can usually be fixed with a truss rod adjustment.) Looking straight up the neck from the bottom of the body, the neck should not twist to the right or left or have any bumps or dips. Try all the volume/tone knobs and selector switches to make sure they work. Listen for crackling or hums. If you are serious about a guitar, finger every fret position on each string to make sure there are no dead notes or buzzes. Play an open G chord and listen to the tone of the guitar. Is it full or weak sounding.
If you really like the way a guitar looks, feels, and sounds — you’re probably looking at the right guitar for you. Happy hunting.