How do I choose? Some years ago, I found this in Vintage Guitar magazine, that there are 33 million guitar owners in the USA! And what do each of them want? Another guitar!
There are so many kinds of guitars – besides just the obvious differences of acoustic and electric, there are literally thousands of types of guitars: resonators, lap steels, pedal steels, basses, short scale, long scale, fretless (well, OK, that’s mostly basses), solid body, hollow body, semi-hollow body, cigar box, tenor, jazz box, flying V, explorer, double neck…..you get the idea.
And for each type, there are hundreds, maybe thousands, of makers. How do you choose? Some of you just want one of everything, I know!
A dying guitarist says to his friend, “Please don’t let my wife sell my guitars for what I told her I paid for them!”
A lot of players just head for the local music store (itself, a dying breed), and start pulling them off the wall to play, one by one. That’s a good way to get yourself thrown out of the store, especially if you start every test with ‘Stairway to Heaven’!
Here’s a better plan. Start with the music you’re already listening to. What’s on your playlist? Shredders? Segovia? Jimi? Jeff Beck? Clapton? Glen Campbell? Stevie Ray? Yngwie? Look into what axes they play. Pay particular attention to what brands and models. Sure, some of them play one-off customs, but not all the time. Most of them have a go-to axe that they use on the bus, or in studio, or live, and you see them with those guitars in their hands on a regular basis. Those are the ones you want to focus on.
Sure, you need to understand that the sound, the tone, is manipulated in studio, or on stage, with all kinds of filters and other electronics, but the tool that makes it all possible is a guitar that feels good and has the possibility of making that spectacular tone!
So, decide on a type, then a maker, then a model, and then locate some to go try. Online is the best bet. Find out what place in your area has the exact thing you’re looking for. It will also help if you use the same lick to test each guitar. Finding the one that feels the best, while playing your test lick, will whittle the possibilities down fast.
If there’s pickups or other onboard electronics on your choice, be sure to test the complete range while you’re playing. It’s a road to grief to play a 3-pickup guitar on only one pickup at the store, and then later find out the tone on the other 2, or the combinations, are sounds you just can’t live with. If it’s got a whammy bar, be sure to try it.
Also, understand that the perfect axe may not feel right until it’s been properly set up. If the string height is wrong, or the bridge adjustments are out, or there’s a fret or two not settled from the factory, or the pots are greasy, you won’t be able to tell that it’s THE ONE.
Develop a relationship with someone who knows how to properly set up guitars, preferably the brand you’re looking at. It may not be the salesman at Big Box Guitars.
If it’s an electric your heart is set on, be aware that not every amp speaks to every guitar. And of course there’s the idea that the great makers, like Fender and Marshall, have all undergone changes in ownership, bench workers, and design over the years. So for example 2 silver face Fenders with consecutive serial numbers, maintained exactly the same, may sound completely different.
Think – one of the bench assemblers went to lunch while the box of capacitors he was working from got changed out, making that chassis slightly different than the one next to him.
In the acoustic realm, know that you’re dealing with a bunch of pieces of wood. Just as every tree is different, so is the wood in every guitar. There will always be slight differences from one guitar to the next, even with the same maker and consecutive serial numbers, sort of the same as the amp assemblers.
Variations in grain, thickness, moisture content, glue application and drying time, and many other factors can affect the sound. Try each one.
If possible, try several of the same model, only with different strings. Fresh, new, strings make a huge difference in all guitars, but especially in the acoustics. Try different materials, weights, and string surface treatments – if you’ve never paid attention to these things before, you will be amazed at the dramatic differences.
A fairly cheap guitar can be made to sound a lot better with just a new set of good strings! Always a possibility for the budget-conscious.
Everything that touches the strings affects the tone. Start from the headstock. The nut material affects the tone. The saddle material affects the tone. Bridge pins affect the tone, some. The weight and mass of the bridge has a huge effect on the tone.
More mass generally makes a darker tone. Try them all and hear. Train your ear to hear these changes, and it will affect the kinds of guitar you’re interested in.
– your comments are welcome!