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Guitar - How to buy a guitar

Updated on April 26, 2014

Why take my word for it?

Buying the right guitar, and amp for that matter, is important if you want to make fast progress, and even earn some money! A guitar can also make a great present - although it's even better when combined with a few lessons. Just remember that Part 2 of this article will be How To Sell A Guitar - an altogether more difficult area!

  • What is the worst - case scenario? - buying the wrong size of guitar! The number of kids I've seen struggling with a guitar that is twice their size! For kids, try a travel guitar such as the Taylor GS mini, secondhand if at all possible.
  • Even adults have a huge range in terms of hand size, and if you don't get it right it will definitely slow down the learning process.
  • Youtube is a great way to audition guitars, as many of the best guitar shops will post a video of their guitars - you may also be able to check out the neck size.

I can point you in the right direction as a result of 30 year's experience, not all of it good! I don't claim to know everything about guitar construction, but I own some great instruments and also do a lot of research. This includes reading all the reviews in many of the guitar publications. Guitar Player magazine is widely available, and also does online editions where you can see and hear demos of guitars and amplifiers.Their reviews are comprehensive and excellent.

I'm happy to give you advice via the comments box below, so feel free.

First, some good news: there has never been a better time to buy a guitar, as overall the quality has greatly improved over the last few years, at least in the area of beginner guitars, and also at the top end of the range.

Problem No.1: There is a bewildering amount of choice. It is dependent not only on your favourite styles of music, but also on physical limitations such as hand size. Fortunately, the internet has made it easy to research other player's reactions to different guitars,including build quality, comfort, sound and customer service. I would be very circumspect about buying from e-bay due to various scams, but I have found that internet shopping from shops, including international shipping, has been totally reliable, and even fun. I have linked some good guitar shops below, which are full of great gift ideas.

Acoustic Guitar magazine, December 08 issue has a very good article on guitar construction which will help you reach an informed decision on what to buy.

Martins are generally good, Collings are fantastic but a big investment.

All-round electric: Fender Telecaster, but USA made or new Mexican Road-worn series.

THE TWO VITAL THINGS: Action (height of the strings above the neck, whether there is any clanking or buzzing on frets) and neck size. Both of these factors have to be right.

Baby Taylor travel guitar

Types of guitar

  1. Classical nylon-string. Nice sound, but wide necks and limited stylistically. Could well slow your progress.Very poor design for lead playing, as the lack of dots or inlays make it easy to get lost. This is because Spanish people want to stop competition on their instrument. Discuss. If you have unusually large hands, this type of guitar could suit you well. (BTW, somebody accused me of being racist on the basis of this little jest!) Oh, maybe I'm handist as well.
  2. Acoustic steel-string. Generally good, but small bodies are better. Must have low action. Yamaha acoustics are often a good inexpensive option, or Baby Taylors. Ideally, solid woods should be used, not laminates, as this will give you much better tone, and an instrument that will continually improve over a 20-year period.
  3. Electric. Often the best option because they are easier to play, and loud enough for playing in ensembles.The Telecaster and Stratocaster are popular partly because they are so comfortable to play, and not too heavy - an important consideration in a gigging guitar.
  4. Hollow-body electric (or "semi") Great for blues and Jazz. Gibson 335 type guitars are great. For those on a limited budget, Epiphone make pretty good semis, such as The Sheraton and The Casino. Although the electrics generally and the pickups specifically really let them down, they are easy to play and a good deal secondhand. I also like many Ibanez guitars such as the PM35, which practically plays itself with a great neck and a great design overall.
  5. Electro-acoustic. Don't like them. At all. The worst of both worlds - sorry if you've just bought one! The piezo design of pick-ups never really works that well. I'm going to allow one exception in the shape of the Taylor T5, which sounds pretty good and has a near perfect neck and playing action.

If you are a beginner with small to medium hand size, try electrics such as Stratocaster, Telecaster (Fender designs) or a 3/4 size classical nylon-strung guitar. Acoustic steel strings can be hard work, so try small-bodied types and use a capo on fret 3 or 4 to reduce the action (height of the strings) and fret size. It's worth considering putting very light gauge strings on your guitar to help you get started quickly.

You should definitely visit your local guitar store and try as many as possible, as the neck width especially will make all the difference. The action is the other really vital aspect - take a guitar-playing friend for advice. Electro-acoustics are nearly always terrible when amplified, best avoided. Acoustics- check for solid woods,which always sound best. Anything with pointy bits, pointy headstocks,camoflage or skull finishes - don't say I didn't warn you!

Protecting your investment

There is good news and bad news. Almost inevitably you are going to want to change the guitar you start with. Although generally guitars hold their value well, if you buy the wrong one in the first place you can expect to lose 50% on depreciation when you sell second-hand. By the time you have done this three or four times, it would have been cheaper to get something great in the first place, and playing guitar would have been a lot more fun. You could start with a cheap electric and then upgrade the pick-ups and tuning machines at a later date - but this is a fast way to lose money in my experience.

Should I buy a vintage instrument? No, I think the market is going to crash very badly. Also, many people believe we are now in a golden age of guitar-making, when standards have never been much higher, and you get more for your money from entry-level up to professional-grade instruments.

Recommended guitars

Go beyond your means if possible, and get something built with craftsmanship. First, research. I like Ed Roman's website, particularily the section entitled rants. Here you will find some great advice and humour.

G+L guitars - USA made, not the tribute series. They are all great, and good value. Asat classic, George Fullerton signature are wonderful guitars.

Fender custom shop -Telecasters, Stratocasters. Excellent guitars, but I would find one second-hand. And relics - why pay to have your guitar distressed when you can do it yourself by being a bit careless/gigging a lot/letting small children near them.

Archtop guitars - generally great value and the best for jazz. Gibson 175 is the best bet, or D'Aquisto,or D'Angelico guitars. Triggs guitars are also fantastic

Collings guitars - they are brilliant and totally recommended

Martin acoustics - another good option

Gibson 335 - a classic design, easy to play, sound great for blues, rock and some styles of jazz (like fusion). Hard to go wrong with this guitar. The new 339 is highly rated in the press.

Low budget choices

Fender Squiers are often very good value for money - they are a cheaper version of the Fender Stratocaster and Telecaster designs. However, you need to be a bit cautious as they are made all over the world - anywhere except America! Depending on the country of origin and the year of manufacture the quality varies wildly. Assuming you find one secondhand they can be a great deal. If the intonation is strange (as it is on my current Squier) here is a tip:

  • The floating bridge assembly can be rubbish. Dispense with the whammy bar, even if it hasn't already been lost, and screw down the bridge screws firmly into the body - they have usually worked loose, and this will hamper your valiant attempts to get the thing in tune.
  • Also tighten up the small screws in the tuning or machine heads, as this will stabilize the tuning.

Buying secondhand

  1. Case- is original case included?
  2. Damage - scratches are OK, but should be reflected in the price. I actually like them, because then you don't have to worry about wear and tear and getting dings on a nice new finish, and you can just enjoy playing a bit more.
  3. Headstock repairs - especially on Gibsons, where neck breaks are common
  4. Electrical switches and jack sockets - are these OK? Many guitars of Far East manufacture have real problems with these parts, Japan -made are usually OK.
  5. Have pickups been changed?
  6. Is the neck fairly straight?
  7. Any fret buzz might indicate neck or fret problems
  8. Is this guitar a fashion victim? - not everybody likes metallic pink finishes with strange pointy bodies. The Telecaster is a design classic for a reason!
  9. Look for any signs of heat damage - guitars should not be stored in a loft! They need to be kept well away from radiators and hot car environments too, but the previous owner may not have known this!

Must Have Accessories

A CAPO is probably the single most useful thing to have. The Shubb capo is good, and will enable you to play lots of Beatles, James Taylor and Beatles songs in their original keys.

Plectrums: an ongoing debate here. I like Jim Dunlop 73mm picks, as the embossed surface really helps, and use the 88mm ones for lead playing. It's a personal thing though.

Tuner: I like the intellitouch type which you clamp to the headstock, as it picks up vibrations and generally works very well.

More detail is in my other hub Gifts for Guitarists

The link below is for Acoustic Guitar magazine - a great source of songs, guitar reviews etc. Another recommended website is, where you will find gear and guitar reviews, and lots of free tuition videos.

Taylor Guitars

Taylor acoustics are really good. I'm using a Baby Taylor as a travel guitar, and also like the Big Baby for open tunings - neither of these was designed as the ultimate acoustic guitar, and they don't give you the full tonal response of the best guitars - but they are very practical and easy to play. So I would recommend them both, especially for kids.


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    • Jon Green profile image

      Jon Green 6 years ago from Frome, Somerset, UK

      Thanks kaylee. All the best with your hubbing!

    • Jon Green profile image

      Jon Green 6 years ago from Frome, Somerset, UK

      Yamaha acoustics have always been a good bet, Currently I'm using a Yamaha FG700 which has a solid wood top (as opposed to a laminate top, which is what you often find on acoustics in the budget price range.)For around £200 it's a great guitar in every way.

    • Jon Green profile image

      Jon Green 6 years ago from Frome, Somerset, UK

      The new Taylor GS Mini has attracted some great reviews. Probably top of the list for travel guitars now.

    • Jon Green profile image

      Jon Green 7 years ago from Frome, Somerset, UK

      Hi zlife - it's worth considering a Baby Taylor as it's also really useful as a travel guitar to take to school etc.

    • Jon Green profile image

      Jon Green 7 years ago from Frome, Somerset, UK

      My current,non-controversial advice on guitars in the budget bracket-

      Acoustic: Yamahas are hard to beat for value, I like the F-310 for small neck size and general price to performance ratio. Electrics - Fender Squiers are great value, although the electrics and switches can cause problems eventually.

    • Used Acoustic Gui profile image

      Used Acoustic Gui 7 years ago from New Zealand

      Good action, nice feel, and sweet sound! Nice info

    • profile image

      Daniel Cowan 7 years ago

      This post pretty much sums up what my entire website is trying to do. It gives you a professional guitar review of many guitars and amps so you yourself can hear what hey sound like and so you know how they are made and what they are made of. Good guitar reviews is what most people need when trying to find the right one

    • profile image

      Fender Acoustic guitar 8 years ago

      I strongly agree with you about electro acoustic guitar, if you want to choose I would also suggest to fender electro acoustic guitar

    • Jon Green profile image

      Jon Green 8 years ago from Frome, Somerset, UK

      Hi Marie - I think piano and guitar are the best instruments for kids, for a number of reasons, but mainly the polyphony and computer compatability. GAK in Brighton usually has some good deals.

    • Marie Dwivkidz profile image

      Marie Dwivkidz 8 years ago from UK

      Hey Jon. New to the world of guitars - about the only instrument not yet in my ouse, but the kids are interested, and so I am interested by proxy. Thanks for the great advice.

    • Jon Green profile image

      Jon Green 8 years ago from Frome, Somerset, UK

      Thanks Antonio - I prefer a drum machine myself, but it is the best practice aid. If you're a Mac user you can just use the Garageband loops. Cheers, Jon

    • Antonio Orrico profile image

      Antonio Orrico 8 years ago

      Great Hub Jon! I'll add a Metronome in your "Must Have Accessories"! I know many students hate it but it's so important to keep the beat! I'll send my students to check your work!

    • Jon Green profile image

      Jon Green 8 years ago from Frome, Somerset, UK

      Hi Jane - Gibson 339 might be worth checking out as it's small bodied and light compared to many semis, assuming that's what you have now.It's a great all-round guitar.

    • profile image

      Jane 8 years ago

      Thanks for the advice,

      I'm about to upgrade my epiphone, which has been a great first buy.

    • Jon Green profile image

      Jon Green 8 years ago from Frome, Somerset, UK

      Update - there is a masterbilt at Guitar center on offer at $699, and it got the editor's pick award from Guitar Player magazine. Don't think you can go wrong there.

    • Jon Green profile image

      Jon Green 8 years ago from Frome, Somerset, UK

      Hi tjp -we don't see those in the UK but I remember seeing very good reviews in Guitar Player magazine. Also try the reviews at Harmony central.

      If you can afford a secondhand Collings, that is the one I would recommend.

    • tjp5036 profile image

      Tim 8 years ago from Pennsylvania

      Jon, would you recommend an epiphone acoustic guitar? For instance, the Masterbilt AJ-500M and DR-500M?

    • Jon Green profile image

      Jon Green 8 years ago from Frome, Somerset, UK

      Thanks Martin.

      Though I do have an Epiphone that I really like (made in Japan)and I agree that they are very good value, I've seen so many problems with the electrics and especially jack sockets failing. Of course you can upgrade these easily enough, but beginners are usually unwilling to spend the cash!

      Cheers, Jon Green

    • Martin Pearson profile image

      Martin Pearson 8 years ago

      Hi Jon. Its refreshing to hear some sound advice aimed at beginners. It can be an absolute minefield knowing where to start. I agree with the "all round" telecaster/stratocaster comments.Epiphone make some great value Gibson copies that are worth considering for both electric and acoustic.MP

    • Lgali profile image

      Lgali 9 years ago

      good advice

    • Jon Green profile image

      Jon Green 9 years ago from Frome, Somerset, UK

      Check the neck size is comfortable for your hand size - trial and error in music shops.If you'd like an opinion check Harmony central reviews, Musicradar reviews,or post a comment and I'll try to help. JG