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How to Choose the Perfect Guitar

Updated on February 5, 2012

My Good Guitar, A Custom-Made Rickenbacker 12-String

This Rickenbacker 12-string was once owned by Marty Willson-Piper of The Church.  It is an exact replica of a guitar he had stolen in NYC in 1988.  Don't steal people's guitars.  It's not nice.
This Rickenbacker 12-string was once owned by Marty Willson-Piper of The Church. It is an exact replica of a guitar he had stolen in NYC in 1988. Don't steal people's guitars. It's not nice. | Source

What are you trying to do?

You wake up one morning and decide that you need a guitar. It may be a burning desire for a specific guitar or just a general feeling that you need a guitar of any description. Maybe you are Eric Clapton or Eric Johnson strolling through your giant mansion built entirely of free guitars you've been given, vainly trying to figure out which wall to strum today. Maybe not.

If you're just starting out, there's probably a specific player that's made you want to play. What do they play? Really? I bet that's expensive! Do you think guitars grow on trees? Get real. You are about to buy your first guitar. It doesn't need an on-board computer and the ability to do Mach 1.

The Church Perform "Destination." I bought that black Coronado bass from Steve Kilbey a few years ago.

How do you really choose your first guitar?

Your first guitar is generally chosen by your parents. They base their decision upon the ability of the guitar to be in a box at a major retail chain. They may also use the criteria of "This thing's so cheap I can use it for firewood when my child fails to play like a pro in 2 days and quits taking lessons."

Your second guitar is generally found after you decide to take lessons. Lessons are given at a music store. Music stores have guitars. They have guitars that are way cooler than yours. They have guitars that were once owned by people who actually had jobs and made enough money to buy a good guitar. However, having enough money to buy a guitar generally precludes the time needed to play the guitar. That's why it's for sale at the guitar store.

Colin Newman of Wire playing his Seafoam Green Eastwood Airline with his Black iPhone.

Colin Newman says you should always make your guitar choices based on how cool you look with the guitar.  This guitar looks cool.
Colin Newman says you should always make your guitar choices based on how cool you look with the guitar. This guitar looks cool. | Source

Some Professional Advice

I recently found the perfect interview about guitars with one of my favorite guitar players, Colin Newman of Wire. Colin is notoriously hard to interview. But QRD got a great interview with an interesting guitarist. His smart-alec answers to technical guitar questions are hilarious. His advice for choosing a guitar is spot-on: "Someone getting a new guitar needs to do several things IMO. Firstly go to the store dressed like you would for the most important gig you can imagine. Make sure there is a full-length mirror. Model the guitars. Do you look cool /cute/whatever? A guitar is a fashion accessory; don’t let anyone tell you different."

My most recent guitar purchase was actually based on one of Colin's guitars from the 70s. While I'm sure he had the actual Vox Phantom, I did go for the Japanese knock-off, a Teisco Domino Californian. While the Teisco, according to super-knowledgeable guitar-playing friends is just a beginner guitar, it does look cool and doesn't cost thousands of monetary units.

Wire Performs "The Drill." Guitars should look cool.

Really, Doug, You've Not Been Helpful. At All.

Here's what is going to really happen. You go to a pawn shop and buy a guitar. You will then take it to a music store where they will look at your purchase and tell you it will cost more to repair it than you paid for it. Really.

If you don't buy a guitar from a real guitar store or take a friend who actually knows what they're doing, you're going to make a mistake. Buying the coolest looking guitar in the pawn shop doesn't mean it's the best. It's like buying some sort of sports car: the previous 19 owners all bought it because it was cool and drove it like a maniac. It's been destroyed. Possibly it is just a 2'x4' painted a nice shiny shade of blue with strings stapled on it.

How to Restring a Guitar, maybe. This is a 1968 Teisco Domino Californian.

Any time you need to work, your pets will be happy to assist you.
Any time you need to work, your pets will be happy to assist you. | Source
Another cat comes to inspect my work.  At least this one won't steal parts.  He'll just sleep on them.
Another cat comes to inspect my work. At least this one won't steal parts. He'll just sleep on them. | Source
Always totally disassemble your guitar when restringing it.  If you can't put it back together, you weren't meant to restring it.
Always totally disassemble your guitar when restringing it. If you can't put it back together, you weren't meant to restring it. | Source
Minkus would like to point out that that last bit was bad advice.  Don't disassemble your guitar.
Minkus would like to point out that that last bit was bad advice. Don't disassemble your guitar. | Source
Strings.  Put them on one at a time.  The lower the number, the smaller the string.  Skinny strings go at the bottom.  Unless you're Sonic Youth.  Then they go wherever you feel like they should go.
Strings. Put them on one at a time. The lower the number, the smaller the string. Skinny strings go at the bottom. Unless you're Sonic Youth. Then they go wherever you feel like they should go. | Source
Changing your strings one at a time is what you really ought to do the first few times.  Obviously this isn't what I did.
Changing your strings one at a time is what you really ought to do the first few times. Obviously this isn't what I did. | Source
There are those numbers I was talking about.  D'addario strings are color coded and the package tells you where they should go.
There are those numbers I was talking about. D'addario strings are color coded and the package tells you where they should go. | Source
I generally have two guitar techs assist me.  Minkus is adjusting a string.  Sydney Viscious is observing.
I generally have two guitar techs assist me. Minkus is adjusting a string. Sydney Viscious is observing. | Source
Sydney didn't approve of the job the other tech was doing and is now doing it herself.
Sydney didn't approve of the job the other tech was doing and is now doing it herself. | Source
Stretching your strings as you install them is important.  Minkus is demonstrating one way to do this.
Stretching your strings as you install them is important. Minkus is demonstrating one way to do this. | Source
A job well done.  The cats approve.
A job well done. The cats approve. | Source

How Should I Really Buy a Guitar?

Here's how you really ought to do things. You won't do this. No one ever does. But here we go:

Go into a music store. Tell then you want to learn how to play guitar. Ask to talk to one of their teachers. Explain to the the guitar instructor once again what you're doing. Be honest, if you want to look like Angus Young in 1975, tell them that. Let them help you find a decent, inexpensive guitar. That's the real answer. If you go get one by yourself, it's going to be horrible. Or hard to play. Or both. Probably both.

Once you've learned how to play at an acceptable level (definition: People can recognize the song you're attempting to play), you can trade your first guitar in for your second guitar. You may want to keep your first guitar and just buy another one. Whatever. It's your money.

I Ignored Your Advice. What do I do Now?

Ok, you bought a bad guitar. What do you do now? You need to restring it. Used instruments always have ancient strings that don't sound good. You ought to take it to the guitar store and have them restring it, but you don't want to do that. Fine. Just look at the pictures here and you'll have an idea of how to restring your guitar. Buy two sets of strings. You're going to break one or two the first time you try to restring something. It's inevitable.

Why are you still here?

Really, why are you here? You should be driving recklessly fast on the way to a guitar store. Perhaps you've chosen to go to a pawn shop and buy a broken guitar that you can pay $3,000 to get repaired. Whatever your decision, it's yours. Stick by it.

Just don't steal guitars. Stealing is bad. Marty Willson-Piper of The Church had some of his guitars stolen in New York City in 1988. He's still mad about it. He's still trying to find the guitars. I'm not kidding. It's not nice.

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    • Liz Green Berry profile image

      Liz Green Berry 5 years ago from TX

      I really like the stuff from Colin. I've always picked my guitars based on how pretty they are.

      I had to look cool while Teddy Trogden taught everyone else to play "Little Brown Jug" and I still didn't have a clue what I was doing.

      I always wanted to be a rock star... but having talent and putting in effort are hard. Having my portrait taken with my neon orange whatever-it-was with the mirrored pickguard and then sending it to all my pen pals with descriptions of how awesome I am/was easier.

    • Michael J Rapp profile image

      Michael J Rapp 5 years ago from United States

      I really got a kick out of this! Of course you should choose guitars based on how cool they look. They all pretty much sound the same anyway with a band behind you. And I ALWAYS take my guitar apart when changing the strings, or for any other reason for that matter.

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