A beginners guide to buying a guitar

guitar and amp

Buying your first guitar can be really confusing. You might be asking yourself “Which type of guitar is for me?” or “How do I avoid buying the wrong one?” Well, I can help answer many questions for those feeling a little lost with it all. Here you will find some useful tips on what to consider and look out for before you part with your money.

The main types of guitar

Here are some of the main types of guitar and a short insight into their differences. There are many different types and styles on the market, so having an idea of what you want to play can help when it comes down to shopping.

  • Classical

    These are acoustic guitars that have 3 steel strings and 3 nylon strings. I’m sure you won’t be surprised to learn that they are commonly used for classical music, but they are also used in jazz and flamenco styles too. This type of guitar can be great to start out with as the nylon strings will likely be more comfortable to learn on, as well as there being less string tension.

  • Acoustic

    A popular choice for a wide variety of music. They are strung with steel strings with a much higher string tension than a classical guitar. Don’t let that put you off though, you will build strength in your hands as you learn. 

  • Electro acoustic

    Essentially an acoustic with onboard electronics, allowing you to connect to an amp, record and add effects if you wish.

  • Electric

    Unlike an acoustic guitar, most electric guitars have a solid body and need an amp to use effectively. Of course, you can practise without one, but where’s the fun in that? Being amplified will allow you to play at your chosen volume, adjust the sound to your liking and with many models you can plug in headphones. 

man playing acoustic guitar
Source: Jacek Dylag / Unsplash.

Common mistakes when purchasing a guitar

  • Buying because you recognise the brand name

    Big names like Fender, Gibson, and Ibanez are exciting, especially if there’s a good deal out there. Try not to get lost in the brand and make sure you consider the specification of the instrument. Chances are that there are other brands out there that produce instruments of high quality with specs that will suit for much less of a price premium. Couple that with a decent deal and you’ll be quids in. 

  • Ignoring brands that you’re not familiar with

    In contrast to the above, this is perhaps more important. If you see a brand you have never heard of, do your research or ask someone in the know. One brand that springs to mind is Cort.  Cort have made some great instruments under their own name, as well as more budget-friendly models for the likes of Ibanez, PRS (SE) and G&L. Check out reviews, you may find something perfect for you. 

  • Paying too much

    It’s all well and good getting a shiny new guitar, but are you paying extra for something you don’t need? Beginners won’t really benefit from a high-end instrument that are aimed at seasoned players going for a specific style or sound. Paying more won’t make your playing better, so work your way up and find what works for you. You’ll find your own sound and direction after a while and you can upgrade when you feel ready and confident on what you want and need.

  • Purchasing the wrong size and / or weight

    Another reason to try before you buy, is to get a feel for the size and weight. While electric guitars are generally smaller and thinner than acoustics, the weight can often be overlooked. With some models weighing in at 6kg+, you’ll definitely want to consider when buying for a child. 

    Guitars come in various sizes and you’ll usually find that information listed in the spec sheet, if it’s not already obvious by a model number or name. Usually smaller instruments carry the word “Mini” or “Junior” with the odd exception. If you’re unsure in store, then just ask. However, if you’re shopping online, all of the information should be on the product page.

    • ½ Half size
    • ¾ Three Quarter Size
    • 4/4 Full size
  • Never entering a guitar shop

    It can be daunting heading into an instrument shop for the first time, especially as a beginner. You’ll likely be asked if you need any help, when some people prefer to be left alone to figure stuff out. Even if you say “no thanks” and then approach them later, do remember that the staff are very knowledgeable and even if you don’t buy anything that day, you may come away with a much clearer idea of what you want. It’s a chance to pick up and feel a variety of instruments to see what feels and sounds right. I’d always advise doing this where possible, even to experienced players. 

  • Buying a brand new instrument

    When purchasing there are a few things to consider, especially if it’s your first. The absolute best way to find out if an instrument is for you is to pick it up and play! This can be a bit nerve-wracking if you worry about others hearing, so ask if there’s anywhere quiet for you to try it out. Many stores are very accommodating and want you to be happy with your purchase. 

    I’d suggest having a look at the “Buying second hand” section as well, just for some tips on what to look out for. Most of them won’t really apply to a brand new model, but it helps to know what to look out for, just in case!

    This next part applies to any guitar, new or pre-owned. How far are the strings from the fretboard? This is called the “Action” If strings seem hard to press down, then the likeness is that there’s some curvature in the neck, which will need adjusting. The same is true if you’re hearing the strings buzzing off a fret. A well set up instrument plays smoothly and doesn’t buzz.

guitar shop
Source: Stephen Niemeier / Pexels.

Buying second hand - things to look out for

Buying second hand is a good way to save some money, if you don’t mind previous use. You’ll often find very well priced instruments in all the usual places, such as eBay, Facebook Marketplace and well known online guitar retailers. Here’s a few things to check before you hand over your hard earned cash.

  • Body

    Give the body a good look over in good light, keep an eye out for dents, cracks and any other damage. You’re unlikely to get a totally pristine second hand guitar, so some wear and small dings are generally nothing to worry about. While you’re at it, give the hardware a feel and make sure everything is seated nicely and not loose.

  • Pickups and pickup selector

    Plug it in and have a listen to it… It really is that simple. Use the pickup selector in all the available positions to ensure there are no issues with crackling or cutting out. 

  • Volume and tone controls:

    Just like the pickups, you’ll want to make sure they’re all doing their intended job, without causing issues with the sound when in use. 

  • Neck

    Have a look closely at the neck to ensure there’s no warping or damage there. One place of interest that may be hidden away is where the neck meets the body. Sometimes you’ll see stress cracks which may become problematic if they’re particularly bad. 

  • Headstock

    Just like checking over the neck, It’s also worth inspecting the headstock where there’s usually a joint. This can be a weak spot and damaged fairly easily if it’s ever fallen on it’s back.

  • Bridge

    Is there any heavy pitting, rust or corrosion there? If so, you’ll need to take that seriously as it could easily become an issue later down the line, if it’s not already.

  • Jack

    When plugging in to test, give the cable a little wiggle and listen out for cracking or cutting out. In a lot of cases it’s a simple fix if you’re handy with a soldering iron. You’ll probably want to find out before you pay for it either way.

  • Tuners

    You can get a feel for the tuners by giving them a jiggle, with cheaply made ones there might be some play in there, where they rattle around and don’t really stay in tune for very long. While testing the guitar just play something that might challenge the stability. If there’s a tremolo system on the bridge, don’t be afraid to give it a try even if you don’t really use one in your playing normally. Pushing it down will loosen the strings and pulling it away from the body will of course tighten them up. Once you’ve done that, just give it a little strum and see if it still seems to be in tune. 

    That said, if the guitar is a total bargain and the tuners seem to be a bit of a let down, you could always upgrade them yourself, as long as you’re happy with the rest of the guitar and a little work.

Consider the following before making your final decision

  • Can you reach all of the frets easily?
  • Is it a comfortable weight for you?
  • Do you like how it sounds?
  • Is the shape good for how you play? (A V shaped guitar isn’t so easy to sit with)
  • Does it stay in tune after playing?
  • Are you happy with the price?

If you answered yes to all of the above, you’re on the right track. Of course aesthetics are another thing to consider. When starting out you’ll want something you’re excited about picking up. Grab something that you really like the look of that ticks all of the boxes and you should be good to go. It’s hard to get excited about playing an instrument that just doesn’t look good to you, even if it sounds awesome.

Source: Anna Shvets / Pexels.

Glossary - Parts of the guitar and accessories

  • Amplifier

    If you have an electric guitar you’ll need something to allow you to hear it properly! For most beginners, you can ignore a lot of the high wattage models out there. There are some great 10-15W amps that are plenty loud enough and some even come with built-in effects, tuners and all that good stuff. Wattage isn’t a measure of how good or bad an amp is! 

    Those with an electro acoustic can pick up acoustic model that are tailored specifically for them. You can plug one into an electric guitar amp and it will work just fine. Although it’s good to have a listen in person before you make your mind up.

  • Bridge

     Supports the strings and allows the vibrations to travel to the body and of course over the pickups. There are a few  types of bridge such as hardtail, Tune-o-Matic and floating. A hardtail bridge doesn’t have a tremolo and remains fixed in one position. 

  • Body

    This is where the pickups, bridge, controls and jacks are seated. Usually made of woods and come in a huge variety of shapes and weights.

  • Guitar Strap

    If you prefer standing to play, a strap is essential. Most guitars have a strap button, which is located on the heel, or bottom of the guitar and another up top. Locations vary based on the type of guitar and where it makes most sense for them to be to ensure a good balance. Some acoustic instruments may not have one at the top, in which case you can tie it to the headstock. Many straps have strings on one end specifically for this.

  • Headstock

    Home to the tuners, truss rod cover and nut.

  • Jack

    If you’ve got pickups in your guitar, you’ll have a jack attached to it. This is where the lead goes in, when connecting it up to your amplifier.

  • Machine Heads / Tuners

    These are used to tune your strings. A good tuner will be well built and keep a guitar in tune for longer.

  • Neck

    The longest part of a guitar, which is where you’ll find the frets. The headstock sits at the top with the truss rod running through it. Composition varies from model to model.

  • Nut

    Holds the strings in place at the top end of the guitar, while the bridge is doing the same at the bottom end. These are commonly made from plastic, bone or man-made bone alternatives.

  • Pick / Plectrum

    Used to pluck the strings, they are usually made out of plastic or other flexible materials. They come in different shapes, sizes and thicknesses.

  • Pickups

    They pick up the vibrations made by the strings and convert them into the sound you hear coming out of your amplifier. There’s a huge amount of choice out there and the only way to find what you like is to hear them in action.

  • Strings

    All strings are not equal! Electric guitars typically use steel or nickel strings. Which ones you use is down to personal preference. Steel will give you those nice lively, bright sounds, whereas nickel will feel more full and warm. 

    When it comes to acoustic strings the main types are brass or bronze You’ll generally get a warmer tone from bronze and they are a nice choice for finger picking. Brass strings will produce brighter sounds, so again… it’s all down to your preference.

    You’ll want to ensure you get a string gauge (Thickness) that works for you and your guitar. It’s good to check what strings shipped with your guitar, just for reference. If you buy super heavy gauge strings, you may need to have adjustments made to the nut to accommodate. 

    The thicker the string, the more bass and volume they will produce, which of course means the opposite for lighter gauge strings, which offer brighter more treble rich tones.

  • Tone & Volume Knobs

    A tone knob is used to control the high frequencies. Turning it to a low number will remove the most amount of high frequencies, resulting in a darker sound. By having it set to the highest number you’ll get a harsher sound. Play with it and find what you like!

    You’ll even find different thicknesses and widths, which should be taken into account when finding your perfect guitar.

  • Tremolo

    A system incorporated at the bridge of the guitar that allows you to manipulate the pitch of the strings, by either stretching them or making them more slack by using the whammy bar for control.

  • Truss Rod

    You may have never heard of a truss rod before, but it’s the hidden hero that keeps the neck from giving way to the tension of the strings. They’re most commonly made from metal and run down the neck. As you tighten your strings, the truss rod is countering the tension and stopping the neck from bending. If you notice buzzing on the frets or that the action is higher than it once was, you may need to adjust it. For those not confident in doing this, then contact your local music shop to see if they offer a service.

  • Tuner

    Used to keep your guitar in tune so that your playing sounds just as it should. They come in a few different forms, such as pedals, clip on devices and standard box tuners that detect using a microphone. There are other types, however to get started one of the above 3 will be more than adequate for most.

  • Whammy Bar

    An arm that’s usually made from metal, that attaches to a tremolo system at the bridge. This is used to control the pitch and create a multitude of different effects.

Guitar Buying FAQs

I can’t get to a music shop to try a guitar out, what can I do?

If you have an online store in mind, check the returns policy out or get in contact with the seller to see what your options are if you don’t like it.

Should I start with a guitar featuring a tremolo system?

What wattage amp is ideal for learning?

Do I need a guitar tuner?