What Guitar Should I Buy - Advice From A Pro

Michaels shop in the centre of Bradford, UK.
Michaels shop in the centre of Bradford, UK.

Guest Hub

Todays Hub is a guest post from a very good friend of mine and experienced Guitarist Michael Watmough. Michael has many years experience in selling guitars at his three guitar shops & online music store and has kindly offered to share his experiences of what to look for when buying a new guitar.

1. Like the look.

You've got to like what the guitar looks like. Some people will say this doesn't matter, but at the end of that day you're the one that is parting with the cash and it

isn't shallow to need to love the look of the guitar you're going to part with your hard earned money for.

2. Like the feel / Play it before you / buy it!

The best looking guitars in the world can still play like a dog. So make sure you play the ACTUAL guitar you're going to buy. Don't assume that you will get the same feel from the exact same model from somewhere else. It may well be close but every guitar is different. Every cut of wood is different, different grains, different parts of the tree, different trees!

Also, despite the fact that guitar manufacturing has come a hell of a long way in the past 20 years there's still a lack of consistency. Particularly amongst more expensive guitars. The differences are subtle but when you're shifting a large amount of cash you deserve to get the best.

3. Check the neck.

Strings pull very very hard on the neck, there's a lot of tension there, so the neck is in turn is trying to pull the other way and this balance needs to be just right to give you a good 'action' (height of strings off the fretboard) and stable tuning. Look down the neck with the headstock nearest your face and look closely along the frets.

This should be more or less straight with all the frets lining up perfectly. There can be a very very slight “bow” that is a curve with a dip in the middle around the 12th fret. Watch out for any bumps along the way, again it should be straight and true. Also check both the left and right side of the neck as you look down it, make sure they're equal and there's no twisting going on. If there is a substantial bow, the truss rod will need tightening.  This is a long bolt running down the neck which alters the curvature and let's you correct movement which will always happen over time. If there is the opposite of a bow, so it is actually risen at the 12th fret compared to either end then the truss rod needs loosening. It's likely you will get buzzing strings high up the neck if this is the case.

4. Check the action.

This is the height of the strings from the frets. Quickest and easiest check to do is look at the gap between the bottom of the thickest string and the top of the 12th

fret. On acoustics this should be no higher than 3mm and no lower than 2mm really, on electrics a bit lower, a maximum of about 2.8mm and lowest of 1.8mm or thereabouts. Also check the nut, is it cut cleanly? Again, as a very general rule if you fret each string at the 3rd fret there should be a hairline gap between the

first fret and the string, just enough to see light through, it should touch the first fret. Check this for each string. If the slots in the nut are cut too high, fretting a string will actually put the string out of tune. If it's too low you'll get buzzing. Set up can be tricky and subjective, the best way is to play all the strings at different

parts of the neck to makes sure it's easy to play and there's not much buzzing (very small amounts of buzzing is usually OK, on electrics it only really matters if you can hear it when amplified).

5. Do some research, listen to people, but ultimately you decide.

Guitars are very subjective, one person's dream axe is another person's firewood. So by all means listen to what people in the shop say, read about it on the internet

and read magazine reviews (but be aware there's not always huge amounts of partiality in mags, look at who pays for the adverts!) but ultimately, no-one can tell you what you like. Again, all guitars are different.

6. Pay the Right Price

I've said it a few times, I'm going to say it again. Play the actual guitar you're going to buy. Of course this usually means going into a music shop and trying it. Take your time, try it a few times over a few weeks if you like. If the staff in the music shop don't like you doing this, well, you're probably in the wrong shop. When it comes to price you probably will end up paying a bit more in a shop than buying it off the internet. You have to decide what extra money is worth paying. A shop where you can walk into, ask advice, look around, play guitars within has much much higher costs than someone selling out of a warehouse. Or their bedroom (you might be surprised how often bedroom selling goes on in the music retail industry). Realise this and accept that the trade offs of paying extra is out weighed by fact you're able to walk in and try things, ask questions and easily take things back if there are problems.

As a very broad and general rule expect to pay around 10% more for a guitar in store than online. And feel free to haggle, shops should be used to it. But be nice, friendly and don't get upset if the price doesn't change. If it can't perhaps see if there can be a deal on a case, bag or strings. The key here is be nice! It will go a long long way, if you're arsey and rude you wont get squat.

It helps if you're a familiar face and if you can offer in some way value to the shop, EG. “I love this shop, I'm going to tell all my friends about” or “Oh wow, I didn't know you did them strings, I'll definitely be coming back here more often” etc. If you're looking for discount offer something

back in return. Haggling is an absolute art, it takes time to learn. I'll say it again though, be nice!

7. Make Sure the Returns Policy is Decent

Some shops will offer a returns policy regardless of faults. Some wont. Ask about this. If you're buying online you have, by law, 7 days to return anything you buy under the Distance Selling Regulations. A lot of shops are matching this now, some are offering even more (Musicians Centre offer 14 days online

and in store). It's not possible to get a proper feel or build a 'bond' with an instrument in a music shop environment. You can get a pretty good idea, but sometimes it's possible to make the wrong choice.

8. Don't be Blinded by Brand or Price

On average the people who don't care about what brand a guitar is end up with a better value for money guitar and one that they will love even more. Something happens when a person find the right guitar, there is a spark, I've seen it. If you've gone in for a Gibson but you are convinced to try a guitar brand you've never heard of but you love, then, love the look, love the feel, check the neck, check the action, research and ask questions but don't be put off by it not being a big brand. And don't be put off if it's not the price you wanted to pay. If you have £300 in mind and you try a £450 guitar that is "The One" then... you are probably going to always regret not putting out that little bit more if you don't spend that extra little bit. Yes, I work in a music shop and I'm a salesman. But not a very good one because I'm going to say this too, the price thing works both ways. Don't be put off if you find The One and it's cheaper than what you were expecting to pay. If it's The One it's The One!

I'll leave you with a Frank Zappa quote, he was a wise man:

"If you pick up a guitar and it says, 'Take me! I'm yours!' - then that's the one for you."

Listen out for that. 

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