Buying an Electric Guitar
Anyone who's been to a music store has an idea of the sheer number of options available to those in the market for an electric guitar. The guitar section is usually as large as several other departments combined, so it's important to have a thorough understanding of your specific needs before you start looking around. Some preparation will save you a significant amount of time and ensure you're going home with the right instrument. Who you are, your skill level, the kind of music you want to play and the budget you're working with are all areas for consideration, and this guide will go over them all. It'll also explain specifics about guitar design and construction to make sure you're well-prepared to choose the right electric guitar for your situation.
The first thing you'll want to consider is how you're planning on using your guitar. This includes your physical stature, your current familiarity with electric guitars, the skill level you eventually want to reach and the kind of music you want to be playing.
Beginners usually find it much easier to stick with the instrument if it looks and sounds similar to the guitars used by their favorite players. If you're an aspiring metal guitarist, for example, you'll probably appreciate a Dean, an Ibanez or another brand that's popular among your idols. The ability of the guitar to recreate the player's preferred tones should never be discounted. You'll also appreciate it being easy to play and staying in tune.
If you're a petite person or you're buying for a younger player, you need to consider the fact that a full-size guitar may be too large and unwieldy. The same goes for a musician planning on bringing their guitar along for road trips or parties. These are all reasons why 3/4-scale, mini and travel guitars are made. Even full-size guitars can vary tremendously in size and especially weight, so be careful to only choose a heavier wood or build if you can handle it comfortably.
For the slightly more experienced player, you will probably already have a pretty good idea about what you want in your next guitar. Reading reviews from fellow guitarists and experts can be a huge help in narrowing down the precise brand and model you want to try. However, nothing beats going into a store in person and sitting down with an instrument. Even if you're planning on making the final purchase online, it's a wise idea to try to actually play the instrument or at least a very similar model before you pull the trigger.
It's a simple fact that, for most people, price plays a fairly large role in determining which instrument to buy. While the price certainly doesn't determine whether a specific model will be a good personal fit, a higher number on the sticker does tend to pay dividends in quality. It's reasonable to shy away from investing in a top-tier instrument for a first-time player, but it's important to recognize that a beginner will often be better motivated to stick with the guitar if it's fun to play, which includes looking, sounding and feeling like a well-made instrument. Also, investing in a slightly more expensive electric guitar upfront can end up saving you money down the road on repairs, upgrades and replacements.
That being said, there are still a large number of options available for smaller budgets. You can easily find a decent guitar to fit the needs of a beginner for under $300. You will eventually hit a ceiling with these and may eventually require an upgrade, but many hobbyists will be content with their first instrument for many years. There are also plenty of electric guitar packages in this price range that come with a lot of the accessories you'll need to get started. Once you get into the $300 to $500 range, your options open up considerably. Most casual players and gigging guitarists will be quite content staying within this price range. Once you get up to $1000 and even beyond, you're looking at models designed for the most discerning professionals, complete with top-shelf electronics and other premium features.
Unless you're buying an all-inclusive starter package, it's also important to include the cost of supporting gear and accessories into your overall budget. If you're not a practiced musician, you probably won't have an amplifier, cable, strap, tuner, picks, stand, case and extra strings just sitting around. All of these are important or even essential to learning the instrument, but you can certainly spend much less on these items and upgrade to higher-end versions as your skill progresses.
Electric Guitar Body Types
Electric guitars come in three main body types: solid, hollow and semi-hollow. The type of body you choose has a huge impact on your instrument's sound, so this is where it becomes especially important to consider what type of music you plan on playing.
The solid body is the most common type, especially for metal and rock. As the name suggests, the body is crafted from a single, solid slab of wood. It doesn't create much resonance, but the type of wood it's made from does still have a certain impact on the overall tone. These guitars can range wildly in shape and electronics options.
A hollow body guitar has an empty chamber in the center, much like an acoustic guitar does. It also usually has an archtop shape. This leads to a much more resonant sound, with deeper bass tones and an overall richer and fuller feel that many musicians, especially jazz players, tend to prefer. Their main drawback is that they're prone to creating feedback, especially when played at louder volumes.
Musicians looking for a resonant sound but with more versatility often settle on a semi-hollow body guitar. They have a similarly hollow chamber but with a solid wood block in the center that adds structural stability. It also helps maximize attack and sustain while minimizing feedback. Nearly any genre of music is possible with a semi-hollow body.
Pickups and Electronics
Next in line for having the largest impact on an electric guitar's sound are its pickups and electronics. No matter which style, brand or model you choose, all electric guitars work more or less the same way. When you pluck one of the metal strings, it vibrates within a magnetic field above the pickup, which translates those vibrations into an electrical signal. That signal then travels through a preamp circuit into the cable and finally reaches the amp, where it gets boosted and modified with your preferred tone controls and effects. Finally, you hear the signal as it is output through the speaker. Because of this "signal chain," each part is able to have an effect on the guitar's overall sound.
Single Coil Pickups
This is the most basic and traditional pickup design. It contains a strip of wire-wrapped magnets, placing a single magnetic field around each string. With their cutting tone and bright, crisp dimensions, single coil pickups are excellent at making your guitar heard in even the densest band mix. Many professional musicians are known for their love of the single coil pickup, including John Mayer, Eric Clapton and Stevie Ray Vaughan. Its main drawback is the fact that it often generates humming and can be impeded by magnetic interference.
To counteract the humming of single coils, humbucker pickups were introduced. They're laid out as two parallel single coils wired in series with opposite polarity, which allows them to cancel out the hum - hence their name. They also have the benefit of offering more powerful, denser tone than single coils. Extremely versatile, they're especially popular in jazz, metal and rock. Renowned artists like Jimmy Page and Slash are famous for their use of humbucker pickups.
Using mechanical vibrations instead of magnets to convert vibrations into signals, piezo pickups are most often embedded in an electric guitar's saddle. They can trigger digital effects and are often used to create an acoustic-like tone. They're much less common than the other two pickup types and, when they are used, it's usually in conjunction with magnetic pickups to bring more versatility to the instrument.
Active Pickups and Electronics
Although most guitar pickups are passive, some incorporate a preamp for sound-shaping. These types generally require batteries as a power source. Active pickups tend to produce cleaner, clearer sound thanks to their higher output power levels, and they can even include filters and equalization circuits to give the player more tonal control.
Electronics Arrangements, Combinations and Switching
Pickups and electronics are what put the “electric” in “electric guitars,” so all electric guitars have at least one variety (but typically multiple pickups). For example, a guitar that uses only single coil pickups will usually have two or three of them.
Many instruments have some combination of different components which work together to offer a much larger variety of possible tones. A common pairing is with single coil and humbucker pickups, which you'll often see abbreviated as “S” and “H.” A pickup configuration of “SSH” means the guitar features two single coil pickups and one humbucker, arranged in that order from neck to bridge.
The location of a pickup on the guitar does make a fairly substantial difference in the tone that comes out. String vibrations are widest in the center, close to the neck, and narrower as you approach their anchor points. This means a pickup placed near the bridge will better capture the higher register, while those closer to the neck will emphasize the bass and midrange more clearly.
The tonal variety comes in by adding knobs, blade selectors and toggle switches that individually control each pickup or a group of pickups at once. These allow performers to quickly and easily choose pickup combinations to alter their guitar tone on the fly. For instance, on a "SH" guitar, you might have the option of using the single-coil or humbucker individually, or both of them together at once. Guitars also usually have volume controls, which allow a guitarist to change the strength of the output signal, as well as tone knobs to help them move along the continuum between distorted, bright sound and mellow, warm tone. Further still, some models offer phasing options and output on-or-off toggling.
Other Electronics Options
There are even a few newer systems that use digital technology to emulate other guitar and instrument sounds, such as acoustic, 12-string and resonator guitar, or even piano and violin tones. Moreover, some guitars can simulate alternate tunings without the need to manually adjust the string tensions. There are even models capable of quickly and automatically tuning your strings based on preset options.
The distance between the nut and the bridge of a guitar is referred to as its scale length. This is the length of string that vibrates when you pluck it, and the string tension is usually higher the longer the scale length. This tighter feel emphasizes the low end and adds brightness to the tone. On the other hand, the lower string tension that comes with a shorter scale length allows for easier note bending, a warmer tone and can be more comfortable, especially for smaller hands.
Gibson, for example, usually uses a 24.75-inch scale length, while most Fender guitars are 25.5-inch. Still other brands, like PRS, use a 25-inch scale length, designed to combine some of the benefits of both. Ultimately, scale length comes down to a personal preference of feel and sound.
The entire area from the top of the body up to and including the headstock is the neck. Virtually all guitar necks (with the notable exception of graphite necks) contain a stability-enhancing metal truss rod in the center that can be adjusted to help your guitar stay in tune. It has a fretboard on the front, which is usually made from a thin layer of rosewood or ebony and decorated with dots or other markers for easy fret identification.
Most necks are either “C” or “U”-shaped, and the shape that's best for you depends on the size of your hands. You'll want to try out a bulky neck if you have particularly large hands. If you're a young player or someone with a smaller palm and shorter fingers, try a shallow, narrow one instead. Comfort is the only real determining factor here.
Guitars can be divided into three categories of neck construction, namely bolt-on, set neck and neck-through. Bolt-on necks are attached onto the guitar's body using metal bolts, and many lower-priced models are made this way. The benefit is that the neck is easily replaceable, but the downside is a reduction in the instrument's resonance and sustain.
A guitar with a set neck is one where the neck has been glued into the body, which leads to a more stable connection. As you can probably guess, this helps with sustain and resonance. There is, however, a significant drawback in that this design is much more difficult to repair.
The last category is neck-though guitars. These feature an extra-long neck that extends inside the guitar body, where it flares out into wings that are glued to the inner sides. This design results in an even better sound, but is more difficult than even a set neck to repair. The upside is that the neck is so much more stable, repairs are substantially less likely to be needed in the first place.
Electric Guitar Tonewoods
No conversation about guitar tone is complete without an examination of tonewood options. The type of wood used to craft an electric guitar influences how long and in what pattern the strings vibrate, as well as how the pickup "hears" them. Each wood has differences in density, hardness and strength that can have a profound effect on the way a guitar sounds.
This wood is particularly strong and dense but not very hard, making it ideal for bodies and necks but not fretboards or bridges. It helps create a mellow, resonant and well-sustained tone with prominent midrange and bass frequencies.
Strong, warm and resonant, Nato is also referred to as Eastern mahogany because of their similarities. It's less expensive, however, so it's commonly used to make necks.
The hardness and density of maple makes it ideal for crafting necks and for adding definition to sound when used for fretboards. Its tone is bright and it emphasizes the treble register. Maple is also used as a veneer or top laminate and even as a top wood on archtop models because of its tonal properties and handsome grain.
Rosewood and Ebony
When it comes to fretboards, rosewood is certainly the most commonly-employed wood. It is sometimes used to make bodies, but its hardness and density make for a very heavy guitar in this case. Visually, it's one of the most interesting and beautiful tonewoods. Ebony is similarly hard and dense, and is used mostly on the fretboards of higher-end guitars.
Ash and Alder
Ash wood is particularly hard and resonant, so it's commonly used to make the bodies of solid body electric guitars. It defines and emphasizes mid-range tones while creating an overall bright sound with good sustain. Alder has similar tonal properties, but is less expensive because it's not as visually appealing. This makes it one of the most common tonewoods you'll come across, especially for more affordable solid body electric guitars.
Very similar to alder, Agathis is just slightly less resonant, making it another popular choice for budget instruments.
Electric Guitar Hardware
A guitar's hardware includes the tuning machines, bridges and tailpieces and can make a real difference in its tuning stability and versatility. It's usually the case that higher-quality hardware directly correlates with a more expensive instrument, but it's generally also possible to upgrade the hardware - to the benefit of your guitar's sound as well as its convenience of use.
Tuning Machines (or Tuners/Machine Heads)
These are the little geared mechanisms that the strings wrap around on the headstock of a guitar. They hold the strings in place and allow you to turn them to adjust the tension, which changes the strings' pitches so they can be tuned. On most modern electric guitars, the mechanism is enclosed and lubricated, and some are designed to lock in place to prevent the strings slipping or loosening. Some designs can even lock at both the nut and the bridge for extra tuning stability, which is especially useful when using a tremolo system, as discussed below. These may be best avoided by beginners, though, since they can be difficult to adjust properly and can make string changes much more time-consuming for a novice.
Bridges and Tailpieces
An electric guitar's bridge and tailpiece work together to have a noticeable impact on the instrument's tone and playability. Mounted on the guitar body's lower section, the bridge anchors the strings and assists in tuning. It is designed to make up for the fact that the strings on an electric guitar may be different gauges and lengths or even made from different metals. The process of adjusting each string's length at the bridge, called intonation, is an essential part of setting up a guitar properly to ensure it performs its best. There are even some bridges that allow you to set each string's height as well, which is called adjusting the guitar's action. This is done to alter the distance between the strings and the fretboard for easier fretting.
Another type of bridge is the tremolo bridge, which was briefly mentioned above. Tremolo bridges have a vibrato arm, commonly referred to as a whammy bar, which allows the player to move the bridge up and down to adjust the pitch of all the strings at once. This allows you to create a note bending effect, expanding your repertoire of playing techniques and styles.
Types of Bridges
There are a wide variety of different bridge-tailpiece systems, each offering its own benefits to guitarists. Here are some of the most common:
- A tune-o-matic system is a common option that allows the player to individually adjust the string lengths and the overall string heights. It was created in the 1950s by Gibson.
- A two-point rocking tremolo, also sometimes referred to as a fulcrum vibrato system, has saddles for each string that can be individually adjusted for height and intonation. They're all attached to a bridge that's anchored to the inside of the guitar via two bolts through the top. Springs allow for a rocking motion, while locking tuners clamp down on the strings to add some stability.
- A locking vibrato, also commonly called a Floyd Rose bridge after the most well-known brand, is similar to the two-point rocking tremolo in that it allows you to adjust the height and intonation, is spring-loaded and rocks on two bolts. What makes it different is that it clamps down at both ends for extremely solid tuning.
- A common option on vintage and reproduction guitars is the Bigsby. It's also a spring-loaded vibrato system, quite large and heavy, with all of the strings attached to a rotating bar.
- Every rocking vibrato system is a variation on the six-point rocking tremolo introduced in the 1950s by Fender. Because it rocks on six screws instead of two, it's said to transfer vibration more effectively to create more resonance.
- A popular system for hollow body guitars is the trapeze tailpiece, which anchors the strings to the tail of the guitar as opposed to the top.
- The cleanest look and arguably the best sustain comes from the string-through body system, which anchors the strings to the back of the instrument after they pass over the bridge saddles and through holes drilled in the guitar body.
Choosing an Electric Guitar
As you've probably figured out, there is no one-size-fits-all electric guitar to please every musician. The variety of options is actually quite astounding, so you should be prepared to take your time and try out as many instruments as you need to feel comfortable before you finally commit. Choosing an electric guitar is a personal decision, so the most important thing to remember is to test thoroughly and, when all else fails, trust your gut. Take reviews and opinions with a grain of salt and always opt for what feels right in your hands and sounds right to your ears. After all, you're the one who's going to play it. A carefully-chosen instrument makes all the difference in how much you will end up enjoying your playing experience.