(This node is for first-time electric guitar buyers.)

So you've decided to buy an electric guitar, but you don't know too much about them, (maybe you don't even know how to play one) and you're not sure what to look for and what to avoid?

Well, this node is for you.

First, you need to think about what kind of music you want to play. What kind of music you want to play makes a big difference in what kind of guitar you should get. My first guitar, like a lot of people's, was a Fender Stratocaster copy. I just thought they were the coolest guitars, and I came across this one guitar in a pawn shop that just had my name on it. So I got it. Of course I wanted to play heavy metal mostly, and a Stratocaster isn't really the right guitar for that. I know that now, but I didn't then.

So, a good place to start is to find out what kind of instruments your favorite guitar player uses, and use that as a starting point. As a beginner, you probably don't want to blow $1000 or $1500 on an exact copy of your hero's axe, but this will give you a good idea of the type of guitar that you should be looking at. (That's type not necessarily brand.)

Some examples:

You may not be able to afford (or want to spend so much on) the same brand and/or model, but you can usually find a reasonable approximation that doesn't suck at a reasonable price.

By getting a guitar similar to the one used by someone whose music you wish to emulate, you automatically make some choices about specific features. But it helps to know what choices you're making by doing that, so that's what I'll explain next.

pickups: The pickups are magnets with coil(s) of wire wrapped around them and placed under the steel strings. The vibrations of the strings induce an alternating current, a signal, in the coil of wire. This is what is sent to the amplifier. Electric guitar pickups come in two basic types. There are humbuckers and single coil pickups. There are endless varieties of each, but for your first guitar, you get whatever comes with the guitar. The important thing to know is this: Humbuckers are a little louder and produce less noise than single coils. If you want to play heavy metal you really want have a humbucking pickup in the bridge position. If you want to play the blues like Stevie Ray Vaughan then you want single coil pickups, like a Stratocaster.

How do you know the difference between a single coil and a humbucker? Well, a humbucker generally looks like two single coils jammed up next to eachother. (In fact, that's really exactly what it is, with some wiring tricks that cancels a large part of the noise, the hum, hence the name "humbucker"). But a picture (of sorts) will help.


   Single Coil Pickup              Humbucking Pickup

          ___                           ___ ___
         /   \                         /   V   \
         | o |                         | o | o |
         | o |                         | o | o |
         | o |                         | o | o |
         | o |                         | o | o |
         | o |                         | o | o |
         | o |                         | o | o |
         \___/                         \___^___/

The Bridge: To whammy or not to whammy. The bridge is where the guitar strings are connected to the body of the guitar. The main thing to consider about the bridge is whether you want a vibrato bridge or a fixed bridge, and if you want a vibrato bridge, what kind. First, what's the difference?

Well, a fixed bridge doesn't move. This gives it several desirable properties: The guitar stays in tune better, because the bridge doesn't move, and the strings are attached to the bridge. It also means that guitars with fixed bridges usually have lots of sustain, that is, when you strike a note and let it ring, it will ring for a very long time because there isn't a flexible vibrato bridge stealing vibrational energy from the string. On the downside, you can forget about Van Halen style dive-bombing.

A vibrato bridge (or tremolo bridge) has a handle that allows you to move the bridge more or less radically to tighten or loosen all six (or 7 these days) strings at once to raise or lower the pitch. There are two major types of vibrato bridge you're likely to run into. The kind found on a standard Stratocaster, and the double-locking Floyd Rose licensed bridge. The standard strat bridge has the advantage that it's a non-locking design, so you can still tune your guitar with the regular tuning pegs on the headstock, and the springs tend to be very stiff, so tuning the guitar is not too much of a problem as each string may be tuned mostly independently of the other 5 strings. On the downside, if you actually try to use the whammy bar on a strat, you will probably succeed only at throwing the guitar violently out of tune...unless you're Jimi Hendrix. Very slight vibrato effect can safely be used, but again, Van Halenesque dive-bombs are out.

The double-locking Floyd Rose bridge clamps each string right at the nut and at the bridge, and is designed with fine-tuners on the bridge. The advantage here is that you can be amazingly violent with the whammy bar and the guitar will stay in tune. The downside is that tuning the guitar is vastly more difficult, especially for a beginner, and once tuned, tuning corrections can only be made with the fine tuners unless you get out an allen wrench. The reason the Floyd rose makes tuning difficult is that you generally tune the guitar up after changing a string with the lock open at the nut, and as you tune each string, it pulls on the bridge, moving it, thus affecting all the other strings. A standard strat bridge suffers from this same problem but not anywhere near as much as a typical Floyd Rose bridge.

So those are some things to consider when deciding what kind of bridge you want. For a beginner, a fixed bridge or standard strat style bridge will make for easier tuning, but if you're dying to play Van Halen, you've got to have the Floyd Rose.

Ok, so now you should know approximately what kind of guitar you want, what kind of pickups, and what kind of bridge it should have. So what else should you look for?

A straight, unwarped neck. Sight along the neck, using the strings as a guide for what's straight. A very very very slight concave bowing is OK, even desirable (it's called relief and helps keep the strings from buzzing on the frets) but a convex bowing is definitely to be avoided. Some of this can be controlled by manipulation of the truss rod, but don't attempt this yourself.

Make sure that every string sounds a clear note fretted on each and every fret with no buzzing.

Make sure that the strings aren't too high above the frets, a high action will make the guitar more difficult to play. (Some players intentionally like a high action, Stevie Ray Vaughn for instance, but most beginners don't need extra challenges.)

Quality tuners, make sure the tuning pegs feel solid and tight, and try to make sure the guitar will stay in tune. If you're a beginner, it helps to bring someone along with you that knows something about guitars too, of course.

On used guitars If you're looking for a used guitar, depending on the type, you might be able to do alright in pawn shops. Decent Ibanezes seem to be plentiful, but Gibsons and Fenders are rarities and won't be priced much below what you'd find them new. But Fender Strat copies and Les Paul copies aren't too hard to find either.

Be sure to try out some of the more expensive guitars so you can get a feel for what they're like. Then try to find one in your price range that feels and plays like the more expensive one. (Here it helps if you close your eyes and ignore that gorgeous flame maple top on the expensive one.)


Did I leave anything out? I'm sure I did...

Well, once you've found your perfect first guitar, you've only got half an instrument. You still need an amplifier. Maybe someone will write the How to buy a guitar amplifier node.


Update Sep 8, 2000: wharfinger's right, a vibrato bridge, espcecially a Floyd Rose, is probably too much of a pain in the ass for a beginner. It's been a long time since I was a neophyte, (not that I don't still suck at playing guitar) and I forgot what it's like. BTW, for setup tips on Ibanez vibrato bridges, www.jemsite.com has some really excellent info. (I thought about trying to node the info that's there, but, it's just not practical...too many pictures.)

ferrouslepidoptera has good advice up there, but as he says, there's always more to be said.

First, I'd advise you in the strongest possible terms to avoid any kind of vibrato device or "whammy bar" as people seem to call them. ferrouslepidoptera understates how wretched they can be. They require delicate adjustment. You probably don't have money to waste on that. Any beginner-priced guitar you buy with a vibrato tailpiece is very likely to be a piece of shit to begin with, and if it's used it'll be out of whack to boot. What I mean to say is that in many cases you'll be lucky to keep it in tune for three minutes at a stretch, and your life will be a constant misery with it. Eddie van Halen has very nice guitars, and professional guitar techs to look after them; you don't. For a beginner, in practical terms, the thing is a useless gimmick anyway. You'd be better off spending your first year or so learning to play the instrument. You'll have enough to contend with doing just that. A fixed bridge can't get out of whack, so you'll be able to concentrate on making music instead of ad hoc mechanical engineering. A cheap Floyd Rose in the hands of a naïve beginner is a one-way ticket to Hell; don't ask me how I know.

In fact, avoid anything gimmicky. Simplicity in all things; why pay extra for more problems? There's less to go wrong, and you're not yet in any shape to be fixing the thing. Try not to worry too much about how cool it looks. When you're fighting with a cool-looking guitar that won't stay in tune or sounds like shit, you'll wish you had an ugly one that behaved itself. This is counter-intuitive, but think of it as a musical instrument first, and a fashion accessory second. If you want both, it'll cost you.

Second: The density of the guitar is important. Density == sustain. Sustain matters a lot. All other things being equal, go for the heavier guitar.

Third: ferrouslepidoptera advises you to bring a knowledgeable friend. He is a wise man. Everybody who wants to sell you a guitar is a thief. They are fiends in human form. They will drink your blood. When you walk into a music store with a baffled look on your face and money in your pocket, the salesman's eyes will light up with little dollar signs: SUCKERRR! Two out of three cheap used guitars are worthless junk. He's got one with your name on it. When your friend starts muttering about how the frets are worn, the salesman will probably become hostile (that's if the frets are worn; if not, your friend has made an ass of himself). If the salesman becomes hostile, you're in good shape. That hostility is a sign that he's had to resign himself to making an honest living that day. It means you've got a fighting chance.

There is a food chain here, and you're on the wrong end of it. You will probably get ripped off, whatever you do. A year or so later, you'll unload that hunk of junk on some bright-eyed sucker who thinks it looks cool, and in that moment you will be enlightened.

Finally: Humbuckers are indeed louder than single-coil pickups and they tend to have less hum (hence the name), but that's not the whole story: They also sound thicker and punchier.

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