(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.)
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
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
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
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.)