We’ve seen a lot of guitars lately. We’ve been to guitar shows all over the UK and in the US, and the array of available manufacturers and models is amazing and getting bigger all the time. At the same time, improvements in manufacturing technology and further manufacturing facilities in the far east means that prices continue to fall at the budget end of the market.
I have been spending some time thinking about the main factors that you should think of when buying an electric guitar, the importance that should be attached to each, and the importance that is often attached to each when it comes to making a buying decision.
Here are the main factors that influence the decision:
Price. We all have a budget after all, and sooner or later you have to limit your search within what you can afford. Interestingly, you can get some amazing deals for used guitars, although some people like to buy new and would not consider a used guitar.
Playability. This is a much harder one to pin down, as playability is in the hands of the player and changes massively with playing style. If you’re looking to shred you might want a flat, wide fretboard and ultra-low action. If you’re looking to play rhythm you might want a thinner neck that’s comfortable for bar chords. If you play slide then you might want a higher action. I’d also include in this section the choice of tremolo / hardtail, as this choice is also dependent on playing style.
Tone. This is the mystical element of a guitar and is dependent on the individual ear of the player. A lot is said about tone, the material the guitar body and neck are made from. In actual fact the main thing for tone (on electric guitars at least) is the selection of pickups and the switching configuration(s) available. Everything else is secondary. Interestingly though, pickups are one of the easiest mods to make to a guitar. It’s possible to get a good playable guitar that you like the look of and upgrade the pickups later when you have more cash.
Looks. We all like a guitar with good looks. I was chatting to a luthier who makes custom guitars recently, and he was bemoaning the fact that you can get any old piece of wood machined to a guitar-shape, give it a good paint job and hey presto – people will buy it. It’s true though – we’ve all drooled over some guitar or other just on looks alone.
Brand Trust. When you buy any expensive product you might want to have some sort of confidence that the company behind it knows what they are doing, and will be able to resolve any issues you get after purchase. This is where the big brands score very highly because people trust the Fender and Gibsons of this world. They’ve been around a long time, they’ve got millions of people playing their guitars, they must know what they’re doing – right?
Peer Recognition. This may seem like a strange one to have on this list, but it is a factor. Maybe not everyone, but many people at least pay a small amount of attention to how the choice of guitar they make will be perceived by others. For a musician, choice of guitar can be a style statement just as much as clothes. In the way that some people want a certain label on their clothes, people will buy a certain branded guitar not just because of the qualities of the instrument, but because they identify with the brand. Again, the Fenders and Gibsons score highly here, but Fender perhaps even more so as their pricing is that much more accessible (no-one will know it’s a MEX strat right?).
Putting all of this together, if you’re a serious musician you ought to be prioritising in the following order:
For the best possible price, choose on:
- Playability (very high)
- Tone (high)
- Looks (much lower)
- Peer Recognition (low)
Brand Trust is difficult to quantify and should be in the mix somewhere with the bottom two.
However, many people choose on the following priorities, for a given budget:
- Peer Recognition
- Brand Trust
This is the only way you can explain the sheer number of guitars for sale with awful cheap electronics in them, but with fantastic paint jobs. The manufacturers know what sells, and within each price bracket they have to cut their cloth accordingly.
If I was going to advise a beginner to intermediate player on what guitar to get, I’d say get the one with the best playability that you can afford, then go for tone. This is the main factor that will help you develop as a musician. Get the frets dressed and the action set up professionally. When you get some more money invest in better pickups, and maybe a respray on the paint if you feel it needs it.
But then again, I’m as likely as anyone to buy a Fender Strat with a nice paint job! Here’s mine….
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