Buying Your First Guitar
. and maybe even your second
About the Author
Buying a guitar can be a bit of a mystery for beginners. I thought I would offer a little beginner guitar "primer" as an aid for those looking to buy their first guitar, or for those looking to buy a student guitar. I'll also have a few tips for those musicians out there who would like to learn a bit more about the mysteries of stringed musical instrument maintenance.
This page is like a beginner guitar helper, or perhaps guitar for dummies. I was a musical instrument maker (Luthier) for many years before I turned to composing music and focusing on my albums. I'll throw up a few photos in these pages of some of the instruments I have made to give you an idea about my experience (you can click here to see more of the instruments). My guitars were usually on what is considered to be the "high end". But even though they were "pricey", I always had a great respect for those able to manufacture instruments on an industrial scale and believed that there were great choices for amateur musicians available.
I should also say that although I use the term guitar, much of what I write can also be used for those looking for other stringed instruments. All stringed instruments that have an extension arm or neck that is attached to a resonating body are called "lutes". So in this nomenclature, guitars, banjo's, mandolins, dobro's etc. are all classified in the lute family. The structural physiology of many of these instruments are somewhat similar. I hope to eliminate some of the fear that always comes when covering uncharted territory.
BUYING YOUR FIRST GUITAR
One of the biggest concerns I hear from parents and potential buyers is how to choose:
- An instrument that will last
- An instrument that is right for ones particular needs
This is an acoustic steel string I made many years ago and still have. It was constructed of mahogany and Sitka Spruce
I hope to take some of the mystery away from buying your first guitar as it's my belief that finding a beginners guitar is fairly easy. Finding that second guitar, or the guitar you are going to play with on a professional basis, is a bit more difficult. It's then you really have to learn about the subtle nuances of tone, projection, and feel. These are very subjective elements and it is helpful to have had the experience of playing other instruments to come up with a choice that is right for you.
Well really, it's all good news. The lower priced guitars, mandolins, and banjos of today are far superior to the instruments I began with in the 60's. Then you had to have great concern for the "action" (the height of the strings above the metal frets on the guitar neck fingerboard) as well as strength of construction. We have all seen yard sale guitars whose tops are "bellied" or raised in a convex fashion, whose bridges (where the strings attach to the main body) are
pulling off, whose tuning machines don't work, and whose necks are warped and/or separating from the body. Quite often these were old "cheapo's", but I won't name names because there are exceptions to every rule. And every now and then I find an old Sears Silvertone, or Harmony guitar that plays pretty well (Ooops! I just named names).
Check the string height at the "nut" location. It should hold the strings high enough above the 1st fret so there is no "buzz" heard.
If the string height at the fret board around the body joint is too high it can make playing difficult.
So, if the "action" or string height is too high, the instrument will be much more difficult to play. I generally measure the height of the strings where the neck joins the body. A distance of 1/8th to 3/16th" is ideal. Some folks prefer their "action" higher or lower though. It's a matter of personal preference. Acoustic instruments will usually demand higher action than electric guitars. Generally speaking, acoustic guitar strings are also heavier than strings on an electric. This means more pressure on the fingers. If you are just starting as a beginner, you will need to practice and toughen up the ends of your fingers. Please be patient.
The classical guitar is a bit different. It uses nylon rather than steel strings. The nylon is a bit easier on your fingers, but the tone of the classical is a bit different than the steel string guitar. It is usually softer and more quiet. The action is sometimes just a tad higher than on the steel string, and the neck is wider. So, if you have very small hands, the classical guitar may be a bit tough. One of the foundations of my site is to show that there are many characteristics to musical instruments, but no absolutes. What is right for you, what feels good for you, is what is important.
Today's guitars are made fairly well. Long gone are the days when the Japanese are making bad cheap guitars. They became very skilled. Then, the cheaper instruments came out of Korea and Taiwan. Then they got good, and India, China, and Malaysia took over. The result is that they are all fairly well made. I got in a bunch of Takamine Jasmine guitars recently that are made in Malaysia, and they were constructed very well. Granted, they were all plywood, but hey, what do you expect? The real story here is that they function well, and comparatively speaking, are far superior in action height and playability than the beginning instruments I had when I was a kid. Another positive thing about plywood is that it tends not to crack or split. Instruments made of solid wood, while usually superior in tone, show a higher tendency to do that (i.e. if the wood is not seasoned properly before being used in construction). So, generally speaking, the strength of construction has improved greatly, and the plywood bodies make it a great choice as an instrument to take on the road, picnic, or the cookout. Plywood can take more punishment.
THE TRUSS ROD