Let’s discuss how to buy a guitar, using my own experiences and learning over the years to help give you some pointers.
This is not a tick-box exercise, a guitar is a personal thing and folks have very different reasons for the guitars they select, but let me give you some pointers to make sure you make the right choices.
I will provide some top tips as well as things to look out for and make it real by reflecting on some of my own guitar purchases; what I did well and some of my mistakes!
A guitar is quite a big investment to make (depending on your choices, of course), but the key thing is, the more you love your guitar, the more likely you are to play it often – and that is what we all want right?
Here I discuss:
- Things to consider when buying a guitar;
- What to look for when buying a guitar;
- Buying a guitar online;
- Round up of tips on buying a guitar.
Things to Consider When Buying a Guitar
It was 1988, I had been learning guitar for about 2 years and it was time to buy my first “proper” guitar!
Having sold my Squire Stratocaster, a tape deck, some records, part of my diecast model car collection and using part of my student loan – I just about had enough money to get my dream guitar (that’s the way it felt to me back then, anyway).
I wanted an American Fender Stratocaster – I had my mind set on it – I was convinced – nothing else would do…and that was a good start, I wasn’t going to get confused by lots of different types.
Why? — Because, at the time, I loved Neal Schon’s playing with Journey, Stevie Ray Vaughan and David Gilmore. Plus, my first guitar had been a Squire Strat – I didn’t consider much past that, to be honest.
And so it was, I ended up with the guitar pictured above, which I have to this day, and still play a great deal.
Yeah Al, what’s the point?
I was fortunate enough to have a good friend with me that day and his wise counsel is how I ended up with such an awesome guitar that, 30 years later, still excites me when I pick it up!
I nearly bought the first one I played…in the first store, I was handed a shiny new guitar to play and I was in love. – So shiny, so much quality – but my friend said “Maybe you like that one, but let’s try some others before you decide”.
With great reluctance, I handed it back and we left for another store (they only had one in stock at the time).
The next store had 4 of the same model, I tried them and began to learn – they were all, subtly, undefinably different.
I think I visited 4 different stores that day and probably played around 12 different American Fender Stratocasters – it was, I think, the 9th guitar I bought, from the 3rd store – this guitar just felt “right” and seemed to “talk” to me the most.
Despite increasing pressure from sales people and a certain amount of guilt about walking out of stores after playing multiple guitars, my buddy Vince kept me grounded and moving on.
The point is, keep your options open – don’t necessarily buy the first one you get to play before trying others and visit multiple stores – it’s your money and your choice.
That guitar felt right because I seemed to be able to play better with it, the sound was exactly what I wanted and it was a happy guitar – set up just right out of the box. It was in tune all the way up the neck and had a nice, even low action. (Yes, I know you can get them set up later, but a guitar that plays well out of the box is unlikely to be a bad one!).
What To Look For When Buying A Guitar
It was 1995 when I bought this beauty…
Derek, the brother of a good friend of mine happened to be working in a large Los Angeles based guitar store at the time and I spent probably 4 hours there – oh boy, there were so many guitars in that place, it was awesome!
By this time, I had played enough guitars to know that I wanted one that would give me a bigger sound on the bridge pickup – that meant a humbucker, not the single coils usually on board Stratocasters.
However, I had been told of Stratocasters that had humbuckers in the bridge position and I had my heart set on one.
Derek pointed out to me that getting another strat would provide much different apart from the humbucker in the bridge, and that I should keep my mind open and try totally different guitars. I knew that he was genuinely trying to help me and because he was my friend’s brother, I trusted him.
Well that day I played Les Pauls, Jacksons, Gibson SGs, Charvel, Ibanez, ESP, B.C.Rich, Kramer and those are just the ones I remember!
I came to realise 2 key things – there were so many fantastic guitars apart from Fender Stratocasters and I wasn’t ready for a Floyd Rose type bridge yet!
About 2.5 hours in, Derek handed me the guitar pictured above – I’d never played a PRS before and it was a revelation to me. The build quality, the weight and solidity of the guitar and the sustain just blew me away. As time went on, I kept coming back to this guitar and taking less and less notice of the continuous line of guitars Derek was having me try.
What’s the take away from this?
If you get a sales person in a guitar store you trust, go with their suggestions, they might know more about guitars than you do! Don’t be afraid to try out lots of different styles and most of all, be open to new guitar manufacturers – you just never know.
Another interesting thing I noticed, was that the really dusty guitars were generally not very good – I wonder why they were dusty?
Buying A Guitar Online
Increasingly, guitars are being bought and sold online and this can be both good and bad in my opinion.
But first, there are some key things to consider:
- Who are you buying from? – Does the seller have a reputation and what are your protections on the purchase;
- Is there a returns policy – please read these very carefully. In particular, check for how long you have to ask for a return, be careful that you will get all your money back, check who pays shipping;
- Does the seller have multiple guitars for sale as this might imply a more professional set up than someone just selling one of their old guitars;
- Where is the seller – watch out for huge shipping costs and possibly customs charges if it would be an import.
Good Points about buying online
- Massive choice – obvious really, but the internet is the largest guitar store in the world!
- You can probably find a guitar that meets any specification and combination of features that you want somewhere on the internet;
- Lots of boutique guitar makers will have a presence on the web and this is likely the only way you’ll get to find them;
- Want to track down something rare? The internet is likely your best chance.
I prefer to play a guitar for real before I buy it, but I bought this one online.
So here was my reasoning:
- It’s a limited edition – only 300 worldwide;
- It’s an Ernie Ball Music Man – with a reputation for extraordinary build quality;
- The seller was a large guitar store, established for a long time;
- Terms and conditions (returns policy in particular) were fair and wouldn’t leave me out of pocket if, for some reason, I didn’t like the guitar.
I still have it! And it’s now my “go to” guitar…
Tricky points about buying online
- You don’t get to actually hold and play the thing before you buy it;
- You only have the pictures and description/specification posted to judge whether it’s what you want;
- Regardless of the seller, you are likely to be out of pocket on the returns shipping costs if you don’t like it.
I bought a Paul Reed Smith Private Stock guitar once from a store with an online presence. By all that’s usually true, this guitar should have been totally awesome.
It was a used guitar that would normally sell for upwards of $10,000 and when it arrived at my door, I couldn’t wait to get it out and try it!
It was horrible! The build quality and looks were, of course, stunning – but to me, it played and sounded like a piece of crap!
So, I sent it back – I lost the return shipping costs on this experiment, on paper this guitar should have been stunning – it wasn’t.
So sometimes, you can do all your research and buy what you think is going to be your dream guitar, but you need to accept that sometimes it just won’t be and you have to be prepared to send it back.
Tips For Buying a Guitar – Round Up
- Have a clear idea of what you are looking for in the guitar you want to buy;
- Don’t buy the first one you try – you might come back to it, but try a few before you decide;
- Visit multiple stores if you are able to;
- Try not to feel pressure from sales people – it’s your money;
- Variety is good – buy something different if you already have guitars and be sure you know what it is you want to be different about it;
- Try to understand the motives of a sales person – are they truly wanting to get you the right guitar or just make a sale – any sale;
- If a guitar looks like it has been in the shop for a long time, have a think about why that might be;
- Just because it’s not Fender or Gibson, it still might be awesome;
- When buying online, make sure you know who the seller is and check the terms and conditions very carefully;
- When buying online, be very careful with returns policy and where the guitar is being dispatched from;
- When buying online, be prepared to make the decision to return the guitar if it isn’t what you wanted it to be.
To Sign Off
Buying guitars is great fun, there’s no doubt about it, but remember that it’s your money and your choice – take all the advice you can but make informed decisions.
Most of all, keep your mind open to all the possibilities and be prepared to say “no” at any stage.
I hope you found my article on how to buy a guitar helpful, I would be really interested in your own experiences, so feel free to comment below.
All the best and keep on rockin’