One of the most fun parts of learning guitar is buying your first guitar.
Here's a guide for what you should look for when purchasing your first electric guitar.
Should I start on acoustic or electric?
Contrary to what most people think, you shouldn’t necessarily start on an acoustic guitar. Acoustic guitars are actually more difficult to play because you have to press harder on the strings. While this might not seem like a big issue, it can be a deal breaker. There is nothing more frustrating than stretching your fingers into position for five minutes only to realize your fingers aren’t strong enough to actually make sound. Electric guitars are significantly easier to play and transitioning from electric to acoustic once you've gotten comfortable with the basics is a piece of cake.
How much should I spend on my first guitar?
There are two extreme schools of thought on this. It seems students either buy the cheapest piece of wood with strings attached or they spend $3000 on a guitar that they only play twice. I fall somewhere in the middle. The kind of guitar you love is all about personal preference. I have played $12,000 guitars that I don’t like as much as my Martin. Still, there are only a few Martins that I have a strong affinity for. If you are just starting guitar, you have no idea what your personal preference is so you really shouldn't spend a ton of money. I waited 3 years before I purchased my first “nice” guitar and even then, after a few years I realized it still wasn’t the right guitar for me. You're not looking for your soulmate, just an instrument you don't mind rooming with for awhile.
A Basic Package
If you're looking to keep it pretty inexpensive, and just want something to practice on in your room, stay away from the beginner all-in-one packages! Music stores love to sell beginner guitar packages because they make better margins and it allows them to move a lot of product at once. Usually these packages include a cheap electric guitar, an amp that sounds like fingernails on a chalkboard, a tuner that hardly works, and a guitar cable that starts shorting out the moment you plug it in.
If you want something basic, I have compiled my own suggested beginner guitar package that’s a little more expensive than a standard one but is a significant upgrade in terms of gear and sound quality. If it’s too pricey, you could always start with the guitar and add the other pieces as you need them.
If you are really commited to learning and are playing in a band with other people, you're going to want something with a more flexibility. This is going to require a trip to several music stores and making sure it passes these 5 tests:
1. It needs to feel good. One of the most underrated attributes of a guitar is how it feels in your lap. It should be comfortable to hold with strings and frets all within easy reach; not too big, not too small. You'll need to play a lot of guitars to know the difference.
2. The action should be low. This means that the strings sit very close to the neck and are easy to press down. While this is something that can be adjusted with a professional setup, you don’t want your finger to fit between the neck and the strings.
3. The notes should resonate well. Pluck a note and see how long it lasts then compare it to other guitars in the shop.
4. Play each fret individually to make sure there are no dead notes or buzzes. If you are unsure of your ability to do that, bring along a friend who has some playing experience.
5. I probably shouldn't tell you this but it does matter how it looks. Buying a beat up, used hot pink electric guitar because it was $20 cheaper than that sweet red Fender is probably not worth the savings. You want to be inspired by the instrument you own.
Final Shopping Tips
1. Play a lot of guitars before you fall in love with one.
2. Play some really expensive guitars before you play the cheap ones. When you know what’s possible, you can find a cheap guitar that plays above its price range.
3. Just because it says “Gibson” doesn’t make it great. Names only go so far.
4. Don’t just take a salesman’s word for it. Half the time they don’t know what they are talking about.
5. When you find a guitar you like, find out what it costs on sites like zzounds or Sweetwater and use that price to negotiate a lower one at your store. Whether they admit it or not, stores will usually bend when confronted with losing a sale to the internet.