Buying an electric guitar can be an overwhelming experience which is why there is an electric guitar buying guide. In this article, you’ll know what to look for, and you’ll surely have fun!
While it’s true that choosing an electric guitar can not only be fun, but it can be exhilarating as well. Here’s a guide to you with the essentials of buying your first electric guitar.
Before we start, I’d like to ask:
Do you know much about parts of a guitar?
If not, you should learn about guitar anatomy first. Learning about the parts + this guide will ease you with decision making.
There are many things you must consider, and the budget is the most important. When buying a guitar, you should think of it as an investment.
If seen as a toy, you might treat it as a toy, the novelty will wear off, and it will end up collecting dust in the basement. Treated as an investment, the time and money you spend will pay dividends for a lifetime.
The best tip for the novice guitarist is to invest the majority of your money into the guitar. You should spend less on extras such as the picks, tuner, strap, and amplifier.
There’s nothing worse than learning to play the guitar and then picking up another guitar only to realize that you’re a much better player. It’s the guitar that’s holding you back.
There are many parts of the guitar where manufacturers can cut corners that the beginner won’t notice, but the advanced player can no longer tolerate.
These include upgrading from plastic nuts to those made of bone or metal and spending more money on higher-end, more reliable hardware like tuning heads, bridges, and tailpieces. The wood choices for the neck and body of the guitar will also factor into a purchase for discerning ears.
Additional Electric Guitar Accessories
Since you need most of these accessories before you can play, you should include these in your budget.
- Guitar Strap: You must get a strap that’s adjustable and secures to your guitar correctly.
- Speaker Amp: A 112-watt speaker amp is a sweet spot for amps. Its versatility works for everything from small venues to large stadiums.
- Speaker Cable/Jacks: Since this is a factor in getting a strong signal from your guitar to your amplifier, don’t be cheap here.
- Tuner: If you’re a beginner, it’s essential to learn to tune your guitar by ear. Until you get to that point, an inexpensive electric tuner will put you on the right path, especially when playing with other musicians.
- Picks: Don’t go overboard with picks. It’s more important to learn how to use one properly before trying to get tricky with your sound quality.
- Strings: break and strings wear out, losing their tonal qualities. You’ll need spares.
- Guitar Stand: You’ll recognize the importance of this one the first time you lean your guitar against the couch, and it tips over and hits the floor.
- Guitar Case: Soft leather cases look stylish, but they won’t protect your investment like a solid, padded case. Think of it like a suitcase, not a fanny pack.
Acoustic-Electric vs. Electric Guitar
Many acoustic guitars have pickups, but there’s a distinct difference from electric guitars. Acoustic-electric guitars amplify the sound through a contact transducer while electric guitars use magnetic pickups to transfer the audio. Taking the time to learn how electric guitars work is worthwhile.
Electric guitars work by the use of pickups that literally “pick up” the vibrations of the strings of the guitar. These vibrations convert into electrical energy that is amplified, magnified, and put through a loudspeaker that converts the electrical pulses into sound waves.
From its origins as an amplified acoustic guitar, three basic types of guitar bodies have evolved. Let’s take a look at their basic construction.
Lloyd Loar developed Hollow Body guitars between 1920 and 1924 when he worked for Gibson guitars. Loar left Gibson to form his own company but it never really got off the ground.
In the 1930s, the Rowe-DeArmond company started manufacturing and commercially selling a magnetic pickup that clipped onto the soundhole of flat-top acoustic guitars.
In 1935, Gibson released the ES-150 “Electric Spanish” model, mainly an f-hole guitar with a substantial magnetic pickup. As the refinement of these guitars continued through the 1950s and 1960s, many professional guitarists endorsed Gibson’s hollow-body guitars.
Hollow-body guitars have a beautiful tone with deep, resonating bass but they have feedback problems and can be as tricky to amplify as any acoustic guitar.
In the late 1950s, Gibson introduced a line of “electric-acoustic” guitars as an answer to the hollow body’s feedback issues. All of these had double-cutaway, thin bodies to easily access the high frets.
The soundboards have f-shaped sound holes, and the backs feature laminated maple. These are authentic acoustic guitars, but they also have a solid block of wood glued between the top and the back.
The idea was to increase the sustain while dampening the vibration of the soundboard to prevent feedback. The distinct sound is full and warm. Problems can arise when trying to service the electronic parts.
The solid-body guitar is the logical extension of dampening the soundboard to reduce feedback. While these guitars are from almost anything, most solid body guitars are made from well-seasoned or kiln-dried woods.
It’s the mass of the guitar that prevents feedback while it’s the type of wood used in manufacturing that determines the natural sustain and vibrato of the strings.
The neck of the is one of the most critical aspects of picking the right guitar. Many seasoned guitarists compel to purchase a guitar simply because they love the feel and the action of its neck.
The basic construction of the neck hasn’t changed much from the days of the acoustic guitar.
While the necks feature a single piece of wood for acoustic guitars, electric guitars, on the other hand, have three components. The neck of an electric guitar forms the head, the neck, and the heel.
Most necks have a truss rod: a steel rod which runs through a groove or channel through the length of the wood and fixed securely through the heel. This feature allows for fine adjustments to help keep the neck straight when changing the gauges of the strings.
The length from the nut to the saddle/bridge is called a scale length. It is a vital factor in determining the intonation and the tonal quality of the guitar.
A longer scale length offers a tighter feel in string tension. The shorter scale length is suitable for beginners and players with smaller hands because there’s less tension on the string, which makes it easier to bend them.
Gibson style guitars usually offer a 24.75-inch scale length and are responsible for the round feel and deeper bass tones of the Les Paul guitar.
Fender guitars use the 25.5-inch scale length which gives Stratocaster guitars their clarity.
PRS guitars are right in the middle of the 25-inch scale length. In other words, PRS guitars have a distinct sound quality but not considered as a “middle of the road” sound between Stratocasters and Les Pauls.
While the thickness of the neck can be a factor, it’s more likely that the actual shape of the neck will play a more prominent role in your buying decision. The profile, shape of the neck, is about personal comfort and the playing style of the guitarist.
Let’s take a look at the three most common styles of today’s neck shapes.
- C-shaped necks have a comfortable oval shape that’s suitable for most styles of performance. It’s the most common profile available. On Gibson guitars, you can find this shape quite quickly.
- V-shaped necks are more of a retro style and found on many reissued models of guitars. Eric Clapton and Fender popularized a Soft V neck profile that flattens the point of the V. Guitarists who play with their thumb hanging over the fretboard often prefer this style of the neck.
- U-shaped or D-shaped neck profiles are the chunkier necks. This type is suitable for players who like to place their thumb on the back or side of the neck and also for players who play more legato or fast styles. It also provides a comfortable feel for players with big hands.
You can accomplish securing the neck in one of three ways: bolt-on, set neck, and neck-through.
Fender introduced bolt-on necks, and if you want a Fender guitar, this is the neck you’ll get. By definition, they are detachable from the body of the guitar.
Bolt-on allows you for finer adjustments to the truss rod and, in the case of the Stratocaster, the actual angle of the neck. The biggest drawback to the bolt-on style of the neck is that sustain is lower than the other two types of necks discussed here.
Set Neck or Glued-in necks evolved from the dovetail joinery of acoustic model guitars. This type of construction is a permanent joint which means that any damage to the body would destroy the entire guitar and vice versa.
It does, however, have a more significant sustain time than the bolt-on neck. A Set Neck is the hallmark of Gibson’s Les Paul guitars.
Neck-through or Straight-through necks are a single piece of wood running from the head of the guitar to the bottom. The idea behind this design is to increase sustain and eliminate the gap between the frets.
On a few popular brands of guitars, you can still find neck-through guitars.
These lay the foundation for how your guitar sounds without amplification. It’s erroneous to assume that the body’s wood has no impact on the sound of the solid-body guitar.
Because it affects the overall sound of the guitar, the tonewood is a prime consideration when choosing a guitar. The density of the wood determines whether it’s best suited for the body or the fretboard which, by its role, needs to be made of sturdy wood.
Mahogany is the darling wood of guitar manufacturing. Its uniform color and strength make it an ideal base for all parts of the guitar except for the bridges and fingerboards.
Its density emphasizes the mid-range and lower frequencies of the bass notes. Mahogany often forms short-scale guitars.
Maple is exceptionally dense and brings out the high notes in the guitar which means you’ll find it laminated to the top of some high-end solid body guitars. Guitar necks commonly use maple as its base, and sometimes, as a fretboard.
Rosewood is another popular choice for using as a fretboard on electric guitars. The weight of rosewood prevents it from being a popular choice for the body in solid body guitars.
Ebony, as the name implies, is almost entirely black and is a sturdy wood. You’ll usually find this wood on the fretboards of more expensive guitars and for a good reason: both the smoothness and the hardness makes for a quicker finger reaction time.
Ash is quite commonly used as a solid body wood because of the resonance and sustain that can be achieved. It’s harder than mahogany. The grain on this wood is quite attractive.
Alder and ash share many of the same bright, mid-range characteristics, but the grain of alder isn’t as intricate as that of ash. Its affordability makes it a popular choice when manufacturing solid body guitars.
Agathis has a similar look and sound to alder, although there is a more overall muted quality to it. You can find this wood on lower-priced guitars.
Nato has a warmness to its resonance. Also known as Eastern mahogany, this tonewood is usually on the necks of more affordable guitars.
Pickup is the third critical piece of the guitar that works in conjunction with the neck and the body to deliver sound. A pickup is a magnetic transducer which converts physical energy (in this case, a vibrating string or strings) into electrical energy.
This electrical energy pushes through an amplifier, magnified many times and delivered to a speaker where it transmits as sound waves.
The pickup is the communication device between your guitar and your ears.
Generally speaking, there are two types of pickup designs on electric guitars: Single Coil and Double Coil (Humbucker).
Single Coil Pickups
Single Coil pickups are magnets with fine wire wrapped around it several thousand times. They tend to sound very bright. One of the drawbacks is that there can be hum and, as they are a magnet themselves, are susceptible to outside magnetic interference.
Most guitars with single-coil pickups have two to three pickups. One pickup is close to the neck, which provides a thicker sound. The second one is close to the bridge, which produces a more distinct treble sound. Lastly, there is a pickup right in the middle of the neck and bridge pickups.
Double Coil (Humbucker) Pickups
There’s a theory in which two coils are wired out of phase with each other, and the electric flow would cancel out rogue interference. Technically, it prevents the hum from passing on to the amplifier. Hence, the name Humbucker or Double Coil pickups.
It worked, and the hum bucked, hence the name humbucker. The resulting sound is somewhat less distinct and less responsive to high frequencies than the single-coil pickup.
Guitars with humbucker pickups usually have two and are located at the neck and bridge. There is a multitude of switches available with both types of pickups that can modify them to create even more tonal combinations.
Generally speaking, the bridge pickup has the harsh, metal sound. The middle and the bridge pickups are suitable for lead lines, whereas the neck pickup is usually more mellow and is excellent for ensemble situations.
The best type of pickups for your guitar will depend on the types of music you like to play and the role you play in your band or ensemble.
Tuning machines usually mount on the Headstock of the guitar. There are posts for holding the strings in place. Each post has a knob adjusting the string’s tension, which allows the guitar to tune. Most modern guitars’ machines are enclosed and lubricated with long-lasting lubrication.
These are great for keeping out dust and corrosives. Some of these tuners have pins that are locking mechanisms, further ensuring your string tension holds to your desired tuning.
Vintage guitars have individual tuning heads drilled into place. These tuning heads are also referred to as open tuning machines. They require more maintenance since the gearing is vulnerable to elements.
The bridge, located in the base of the body, holds the guitar strings. There are mechanisms set on top of the bridge where the strings set called a saddle.
You can also anchor the strings through another piece called the tailpiece. When it comes to stringing your guitar, you have a number of options. These options offer different sound qualities, including the bending of notes or holding the intonation as stable as possible.
Strings are strung starting from the back of the guitar to the saddle and up to the tuning machine. This style is a very stable set-up.
On standard bridges, the saddle shapes like a V to keep the strings stable. The problem is that they wear out quickly, causing the guitar to go out of tune frequently. Sometimes, it even causes the strings to break.
The Tune-O-Matic roller bridge holds the string in tune and at the same time, reduces friction, thus lowering the incidence of string breakage. This bridge created a whole new system of bridges with the most significant type being the floating bridge that allowed for mechanically bending notes.
The Bigsby is the first successful design for tremolo or Whammy Bar. The strings go through a combined bridge/tailpiece system with a bar attached for bending the notes down in pitch. It’s a unique sounding system which is still popular but limited in scope.
The Fender Tremolo Bridge is a floating bridge that’s connected to a spring mechanism located on the backside of the body. This type can counteract the tension of the strings.
This bridge is separate from the body of the guitar, allowing for bending of notes. The original Fender design is a 6-point system where each saddle is individually adjusted. This design has evolved into a more common 2-point system.
These systems came from Floyd D. Rose. While the tremolo system itself is much like the Fender Tremolo, the strings are locked at the nut. With this, it creates more string tuning stability. The locking system introduced at the bridge enhances stability.
Its main drawback is that it’s a real pain to set up. If done by an experienced guitar technician, it can remain in tune for quite some time.
On the bottom of the guitar, the tailpiece is anchored to the “tail.” It suspends over the top of the guitar and anchors the strings.
A Stop Tailpiece is a metal element set back from the bridge. The strings are anchored from here and then pass over the saddle/bridge combination.
Trapeze or Harp styled tailpieces are usually built with the hollow or semi-hollow body guitars although it is also found on solid body guitars.
Sometimes, when a Trapeze is attached to a hollow or semi-hollow guitar, the bridge is usually made of wood.
Final Words of Advice
With this electric guitar buying guide, you should be able to make some intelligent decisions when purchasing your next electric guitar.
Buying a guitar can be challenging. If you’ve done your homework, you should be able to choose your instrument that will fit your personality.
Best Electric Guitars – This is my top 10 list of the best electric guitars out there!
Best Acoustic-Electric Guitars – If you prefer Acoustic-Electric guitar, I also have a list of the top 10.