A Guide to Buying Electric Guitars Part I.

I’m going to start this with a disclaimer, I cannot tell you which guitars you should buy. I can’t tell you which one is best either. Guitars, like musicians, are a unique art form and each and every one is different. But in an online world dominated by guitar forums debating which Strat is better and guitar magazine articles advertising “guitar of the year”, let’s all take a step back and think about our experiences buying guitars.

Beginner Instruments

By reflecting on my own youthful experiences with buying guitars, amps, and pedals, I remember swapping gear out all the time, losing money on deals, and still be generally unsatisfied with my playing and tone. Players of any age commonly make the mistake of, well if my favorite front man played instrument x, I need instrument x. I ran into this problem with a friend of mine who has begun to learn the guitar in his late 20’s. He went out and bought a Squier Deluxe Stratocaster because his favorite guitarists played Fender’s with humbuckers in them.

His arguments for why he thought he would love it were as follows.

  • Chris Shifflet (Foo Fighters) used to shred a Deluxe Tele
  • Billie Joe Armstrong had a strat copy with a humbucker in the bridge
  • It was cheap, and what the Guitar Center employee pushed on him as a good beginner
  • It was aesthetically appealing

I understand that many of the fantastic readers of sites and forums like these obviously understand the difference between good and bad guitars, but I find that most online guitar communities (unintentionally) ignore the beginners coming to them not to chat, but to learn. That same friend had spent hours on sites reading through peoples rigs and looking at demos on YouTube deciding that this guitar would be great.

These Squier and Epiphone beginner packs and entry level models obviously have value as they give the beginner everything they need at a set price point but is the convenience worth it? Beginners are most at-risk to quit, get frustrated, or lose interest. An instrument that doesn’t stay in tune, has a rough neck, or lackluster tones can make all that a whole lot easier.

Shopping Around

No matter what your buying experience or playing experience is, go play the guitar before you buy it. Or at least play a model that has the same neck, the same pickups, or the same brand name so you can begin to familiarize yourself with how the guitar gets you to that dream tone. That same friend who bought the Strat has since played a few of my shorter scale Gibson-style instruments and realized that they are easier for him to play and find notes on. Scale length, fret size, and pickups are not often things a beginner would know to look for. Even when a demo says “oh this has jumbo frets” or “this is a baseball bat neck”, not everyone in the audience knows what that means, yet many of us experienced players forget that in my opinion (myself included).

These cheap instruments are so abundant and available for a reason: they generate more income for the business than other models. Production costs are lower in bulk, the general market for beginner’s is always high, and not everyone’s guitar acumen is equivalent to their wallet size. I.e. some of the best, most knowledgeable people on this site may still only be able to afford a sub-$500 guitar. So, let’s conclude these guitars are valuable to the manufacturer and that is why they are pushed on customers, advertised in excess, and flood the market.

Remember: Guitar prices fluctuate, especially when buying used.

This doesn’t mean the instrument is valuable to the guitar community. It is not a controversial opinion to say that the guitar market’s goals do not line up with the guitar player’s goals. While we may drool over their products, they are businesses that have to keep profit margins up no matter how musician-focused they claim to be. When buying your first guitar, or last guitar, I highly recommend not buying the one that seems the easiest to get, the most available, or is the newest model.

(NOTE: There are exceptions when buying guitars to modify, or budget isn’t an issue, or you’ve specifically fallen in love with a new model that does get you to that dream tone. Many of these recommendations are for a broad base of players.)

Branching Out

Don’t interpret this as to avoid cheap guitars, as there are many affordable models that are absolutely fantastic. For example, for only an extra hundred dollars or so, pass up the Squier affinity series and check out the vintage modified options. They look unique, sound great, and give off a whole different vibe than your average beginner Telecaster or Stratocaster. And with traditional retail expanding used gear sections and online retailers like Reverb growing, you can find really great instruments for fractions of what you’d pay new.

Furthermore, in the pursuit of tone or feel, don’t box yourself into just the most familiar Gibson/Fender/ESP families of gear. Maybe in your hands, a Mexican-made Telecaster is all you need to be the next Jimi Hendrix. But what if what you’re looking for was in that old $300 Tiesco sitting in Sam Ash’s used section? What if it is the partscaster that is worth nothing because retail doesn’t value parts and modifications, they value brand name.

Always Remember to check out more than just the most well known version of the guitar model you are shopping for.

Trying a new brand can mean different things to different people, moving to a Gretsch (smaller than Fender but still a huge brand name) can be a huge jump for example. Or maybe it is going out and buying a Reverend Sensei Junior instead of a Gibson Les Paul Junior. Especially on a budget, it is easy to see the value of getting a known quantity like an Epiphone instead of trying something new. I get it, you only have money to buy one nice guitar every few years, just get what you know will work and get you in the same ballpark and move on. But in reality, limiting yourself to only a handful of brands will hurt you in the end. Like you just said, you only get to buy one every few years or so, that’s a long wait to try again and settle for just okay.

Final Thoughts

In my opinion, the influx of YouTubers, magazines, and forums has helped us a guitar player community be exposed to more information than ever before. But with this information came increased opportunities for advertising and market manipulation by major brands and retailers. Being a smart shopper is only getting more important as retail begins to shift to more and more online platforms at the expense of the mom and pop stores that fueled many of rock music’s beginnings. With the sudden increase in available guitars of all prices, it is more important than ever to do thorough research before buying and pick a guitar based on feel, comfort, sound, and inspiration instead of brand name, price, or aesthetics.

The guitar industry is changing at a rapid pace, shifting from traditional retail to online and second-hand sources. According to Digital Music News, the average price of electric guitars has increased since 2008 while overall volume of sales has decreased. This is due to the increasing parity in the abundance between low-end and high-end guitar models, with my mid-range options and used gear moving online. As the market changes, we as consumers must adapt as well and stay educated to make sure we get the best value for our hard earned money.

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