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Wednesday, October 31, 2012

Purchasing A Guitar 101

Current mood: optimistic

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So most people that know me know I started playing guitar when I was 12 but really didn't get serious about it till I was 14, leap forward to today and I am 26 years old so it has been an ongoing love affair, in fact it is the only thing I have dedicated any serious time in my life to...guess that speaks wonders about my life!

Anyways a common question I get asked by friends interested in picking up the instrument is "What guitar should I buy?" and its a great question to ask, because you really don't want to go out and purchase an instrument without a little knowledge first.  This will kind of serve as a self serve guide for all.  Unfortunately this is written in regards to traditional 6 string guitars as I personally don't have much experience with 7 or 8 strings.

I usually start by explaining its a multi-question based response as you really need to know what the person wants achieve with their instrument, generally I will ask the following questions:

-What type of music do you want to play?
-Are you interested in electric or acoustic
-Is this a hobby or are you looking to join/make a band?

I then break to explain to them just exactly how hard it is to learn how to play guitar and that it certainly wont be like guitar hero and actually requires some dedication.  Then I proceed to finish off with the following two questions:

-Is it something you think you will dedicate time to, seriously?
-What their budget is?

Once I have all this info is quiet simple to suggest a plethora of various guitars that would suit them anywhere from cheap players packs for the completely unsure right up to top of the line guitars for those that are extremely dedicated.  But never do I recommend someone purchase a guitar that would be a frivolous waste of money.

I'll cover the first question the most as it is the one that generally matters the most for everyone, because obviously you want to purchase a guitar that is going to suit your needs.  No sense in purchasing an acoustic guitar if you want to play viking death metal!  The most common answer I get for this question from younger people is Metal (Metallica, Pantera, Slipknot...) and with older people its usually Classic Rock/Blues Rock (Led Zeppelin, Rolling Stones, Hendrix...) but for the purpose of this post we will tackle this question by genre and not age as music doesn't have age limits.

Metal:

For playing metal you will need you preferred style of guitar (Stratocaster, Les Paul, Explorer...) with the hottest available pickups, generally this means they will be humbuckers over single coils, but it doesn matter as most of the time you will be employing a distortion pedal to achieve the gain levels required.  Most of the time I tell people to see if they can find a model with a 24 fret neck as a lot of metal utilizes the full second octave of the guitar.

Controls on a guitar for Metal generally don't matter as most of the time the guitar is just run full out.  The guys wanting to play Metal will also have to come to the decision of having a Floyd Rose or not, upside is of course dive-bombs; however it unfortunately comes with a little more time and effort for string changes and setup. 

Lastly depending on budget range will be Active or Passive pickups, tons of manufacturers are producing guitars that come with active pickups off the shelf which tend to be the preferred pickup for heavy metal as they can provide blistering amounts of controllable gain but usually push the price of the guitar up another $100 or so and require a 9V power source inside the guitar that the owner must be aware of, a dead battery means the pickups will not work.

Rock/Blues Rock:

This is my specialty area as it is where I fall for playing music.  There are three main staple guitars that almost EVERYONE knocks off; Les Paul, Telecaster and the Stratocaster.  Almost anyone who has been on any top 100 guitar players list will be playing one of these guitars, with the majority probably using a Les Paul, I don't know actual numbers but a Les Paul is almost synonymous with Rock.

For this genre you will want low to medium out put pickups, the general preferred flavor seems to be humbuckers; however single coil pickups do work as Jimi Hendrix and Eric Clapton have proved, so its based on personal preference.  Single Coils tend to be brighter sounds then humbuckers but also do not produce as much distortion as a humbucker, also under larger gain loads a single coil will be extremely susceptible to its dreaded hum.

I would almost recommend only purchasing a guitar with individual tone and volume knobs for Rock as a lot of player especially from bands in the 60s and 70s really made use of the variety of tones available from their pickups with just a volume and tone control.  Jimmy Page was a wizard with this doing soft clean acoustic like parts on his neck pickup and then crunchy distortion on the bridge pickup. Ramble On is a perfect example of this, amazingly this trick works through overdrive and distortion pedals as well as Jimmy pretty much always had his Tonebender on.

Pickups really do not have much room to mess around with here, best bet is a set of passive pickups modeled after a PAF pickup which is considered the Holy Grail pickup, it was the originally humbucker created by Seth Lover in 1955.  Of course you can't get an authentic PAF without shelling out a lot of money, but tons of manufacturers still make them to those exact specs, Seymour Duncan make a Seth Lover pickup which is actually still made on the original winding machine that Seth used while employed with Gibson.  This is a medium output pickup, and defined an entire Genre of music that went on to inspire several other genres.  Saying this you can use a hotter pickup with success for rock you will just have more gain on tap at your guitar; however I would stay away from active pickups for this genre, this is personal opinion and not a written law or requirement.

When it comes to Strats and Teles there isn't really much that will vary from the factory, there are certainly tons of aftermarket pickups for these guitars however the only real difference I have seen from the factory is Standard Pickups and Noiseless Pickups, which do not hum but retain the single coil tone as it is a completely different tone in comparison to a humbucker.

Country:

I don't play any country but I have seen enough country players on TV and in magazines and stuff to say that the Telecaster is pretty much the staple guitar for country music.  The Telecaster has a uncommon scale length to it and unique pickups that give it a real twangy bite. 

Aside from personal customization of the guitar the only thing that really varies is if the guitar has a B-Bender or not.  In country music sometimes the guitarist will play that typical country lick that sounds slightly banjo like, well its a B-Bender.  A B-Bender is a device installed into the guitar that attaches to the high B string of the guitar and to the front strap button.  When the player presses down on the neck of the guitar it pulls the front strap button up which in turn pulls on the B string changing it's pitch.  This device however can only be used while the guitar is hanging on a strap on your shoulder.

Acoustic, Jazz, Prog, Free form:

Form here a lot of other genres of music are pretty free form so there are no real specifics that I can get into, plus these are the genres where people generally know what they are looking for already.  Now you might say "But, Lucas, you only told us what electric guitars are good for these genres what about acoustic?" and I will say "you're right" however guitar parts arranged for an acoustic do not require much difference in the acoustic guitars that is the beauty of them.

For the most part when purchasing an acoustic you have to decide what shape and size feels best for you and most importantly if you want an Electric Acoustic or not.  Electric Acoustics allow you to plug the guitar into an acoustic amplifier so you can project your guitars sound over a larger distance; however these pickup systems can not be compared to an actual electric guitar so don't expect to play viking death metal on a electric acoustic!

Guitar Price Points:

So everyone knows that guitars come in all shapes and sizes and can cost anywhere from $100 to $10,000 or more.  This is one of the things that baffles most new players, but in reality it's like a Honda Civic and a Ferrari Enzo.

Lower price guitars are generally mass produced via CNC machine with inferior quality parts and woods to keep manufacturing costs down which keeps the overall price of the guitar low.  High quality guitars like Gibson Custom Shop guitars are all strictly hand made by master luthiers, use the highest quality parts possible resulting in extremely high priced pieces of art. 

All price points of guitars have their place in the market and it is actually the cheapest guitars that sell the most because a lot of people purchase a guitar play for a month or two and quit after realizing it's not as simple as guitar hero .  The following will break down what price point is suitable for a specific player.

Low Price Point:

The low price point will include any guitar you can purchase for $299 or less in my books, and will most contain all the "players packs" that a lot of companies sell.  These "players packs" are general a guitar and all the accessories needed to play.  Packages can be acoustic or electric, with the electric kits coming with a small 5-15 watt solid state practice amp.

These guitars are usually made out of wood, but some can be plastic or other cheap materials, and are produced offshore.  Do not expect it to sound amazing as it is a cheap guitar but they are great to learn the basics on and don't cost a lot if you decide the instrument is not for you.  Once setup properly they will play great and last a long time if maintained properly.

The low price point guitar is best suited to young children, people who unsure if they will stick with the instrument or those confined to an extremely tight budget.

Mid Price Point:

This is the section that the majority of guitars in any store will fall under they generally range from $299-999.  These guitars are usually modeled after a high price point guitar; however they are produced via CNC offshore in China, Korea and Indonesia being some of the largest, and are produced with licensed products.  This means a company (ie Floyd Rose) has licensed an offshore manufacturer to produce an item to the original manufacturers specs and put the original manufacturers name on it even though it wasn't built in their facility, this gets you that awesome product at a lower cost.

These guitars are made out of proper tone woods, though some of the woods are not sourced from the same locations at their high end counterparts however it is still the same species of wood.  They are all made to the original specs via CNC machine allowing mass production.  The parts will either be name brand or the manufacturers offshore version of the high end counter part.  For example Epiphone is owned by Gibson so they use Gibson specs to make a lot of parts; however again they are made offshore.  Which honestly isn't that big of a deal anyways, offshore factories are getting good at making products and they only continue to get better.

The mid price point guitar is best suited to young adults, hobbyist guitar players, people confident enough to modify their own guitars and musicians on a budget.  Another unique aspect of mid priced guitars is the offshore signature models, lots of famous guitarist have signature series guitars from respectable factories and they most certainly fall into the high price point and are generally unobtainable to most.

So the offshore factories make a run of these guitars as well; however since its assembled offshore with a large portion of offshore parts the price point is considerably lower allowing amateur collectors and average joe superfans of those guitarists to purchase this replica as well; however not all guitarist issue a offshore signature model.

High Price Point:

This is it the cream of the crop, the big daddies, nothing can stand up against one of these guitars, but get ready to mortgage your house in order to purchase one!  Well Not really but these guitars will cost anywhere from $1000 and up.  High price point guitars come from Well known American Manufacturers, Custom Shops, Custom Factory Orders and Independent Luthiers.

Well known American manufacturers are your companies like Gibson, Fender and PRS, this is just naming three.  These guitars are best suited to the committed player or the collector, they are not cheap.  They are a mixture of both hand and machine made, rough "blanks" are made out of the corresponding woods using the aid of modern machinery, such as CNC machines making bodies.  These are then finished by hand by apprenticing luthiers and sometimes but not often master luthiers.  This is the first tier in high price point guitars.

Custom Shop models are suited to the hardcore fan and/or collector.  They are replica guitars that are built to EXACT specifications, they take the guitar they are replicating ("master") and measure every aspect of it and build the replica like that.  They will even add aging to the guitar and the exact wear marks as the "master" guitar had, every ounce of detail is put into it.  Some also replicate guitars like the iconic 1959 Les Paul, in the case of this guitar it will come un-aged and with no wear as a new Les Paul would have in 1959. 
Depending on what want this can be the middle of the road for high price point guitars, but if you get real fancy it can get easily get higher.

Custom Factory Orders are exactly that, most guitar factories will take your own personal order for a guitar allowing you to pick body style, pickup configuration, neck profile and all those fine details so you can create you own dream guitar.  Generally there is a long waiting list, were talking years here, and the cost starts getting phenomenal; however we are talking a one off guitar here.

Independent Luthiers do not work for any of the large guitar manufacturers, although some may have at one point.  These are some of the finest master luthiers around and they will make anything you want.  Some may work completely on there own or they may work for a small guitar company.  Again the same options as with a custom factory order apply here, but you tend to get a little finer attention to detail and some will even do some outrageously wild work that one of the larger manufacturers do not offer.

Not many, but some larger Independent Luthiers do have less expensive "production" run guitars that can be had from the lower end of the expensive scale.  They are harder to find in shops and even more so the stocks are never filled as fast as any of the large manufacturers can.  So you tend to wait to get one but they are certainly worth it as you get every penny you paid for.


As you can see to me purchasing a guitar is a big thing to me, then again I fall into the budding collector category.  I still play my guitars and will play all of my guitars; however I tend to like collectable guitars I see them as an instrument and a piece of artwork.  But I am also sometimes held back by my budget and will spring for a cheaper offshore model just so I have it there to play.  Hopefully people can draw some good information from this and make an awesome choice the next time they purchase a guitar, or better yet if it helps you purchase your first one.
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