How to Buy an Electric Guitar for a Beginner
You’re about to buy your first electric guitar! What an exciting time!
Let Freya Guitars help you make the correct choice.
The guitar you choose will play a big role in shaping your sound. There are lots of different styles, and the type of music you want to play can have a big bearing on your choice of guitar.
A well-made guitar with good sound will make your journey from beginner to pro much easier.
A bad-sounding instrument that’s hard to play will probably make you wish you’d taken up the drums instead, though I must point out here that sometimes a guitar that is hard to play might just need some adjustments, so if you really like it see if the shop can adjust it for you (if they can’t, or simply won’t, take your business elsewhere).
If you’re looking at a used guitar and it seems to play badly, insist on taking it to a qualified person to look at it before you buy it. At the very least bring a very knowledgeable friend to look at it.
Try not to bring a brand-name snob with you. You are looking for value here, and the big-brand name on the headstock has nothing to do with this.
Starting off on a quality instrument means you will be more likely to stay with it.
But if you’ve never picked up an electric guitar before how are you supposed to know the difference?
You’ll remember your first electric guitar for the rest of your life. I remember every one of my early guitars………choose wisely.
Decide on Your Budget
How much should you spend on your first guitar? The answer, obviously, depends on your wallet, and your dedication to learning the instrument. You want to buy the best guitar you can, but you don’t want to spend too much money if you aren’t sure you are going to stick with it.
This is an especially vexing situation for the parents of wannabe guitar heroes. You want to set your child up for the best chance at success, but you also know they may become bored with the instrument in a few months. An expensive guitar does no good for a child who can’t find it under their bed.
It’s worth noting here that quality instruments will always have a better resale value than the cheap guitars you can find at a big discount shop. That means if you decide things aren’t working out with the instrument you can get more of your money back should you decide to sell it, and if you want to trade it in for a different guitar it’ll be worth more too.
That cheap guitar most likely will not have had a proper setup, and if you’re buying it at a shop that sells groceries, toys and a whole lot of other different items they won’t be able to do it for you, and you will have to bring it into a repair person who’s going to charge you €35-€100 to get it playable. Not so cheap now, is it? We get a lot of these in here after Christmas………
Here at Freya Guitars, every Freya guitar we sell comes with a full professional setup when new and you can have a free lifetime setup, anytime you need it (this is for the original owner only, all we’ll charge for is strings and any other consumable items that might be needed).
Set your budget, and try to stick to it. Be realistic though, and if you see something you really like the sound of and it feels great, sounds great and you can stretch to it, be prepared to be flexible, if you can afford to…..
Remember, you’re going to need an amplifier also, and you’ll want to set aside a budget of at least €€50-100 for that alone. Because of this, guitars in the €130-€400 range will suit most new players. At that budget level you can grab an excellent instrument that isn’t too expensive, but still has everything you’ll need to succeed as a new guitar player. You can also avail of a Starter Pack, which gives you everything you need to get started at a good price. Be aware though, that most of these are of fairly poor quality. Freya starter packs use good quality guitars from our regular stock, and we can build a starter pack for you using any guitar we have in stock. Just ask….
Choosing a Body Style
Electric guitars are made in all kinds of shapes and sizes. When it comes to beginner guitars you might be tempted to say the shape doesn’t matter. After all, a new player should be concentrating on learning the basics, not looking like a rock star.
True enough, but I also think there is something to choosing a guitar you like, even if for no other reason that it just looks cool. Guitar players who love their guitars are more likely to pick them up and play, and the more you play the better you get.
Some guitar shapes are more associated with heavy metal, and a new player who picks up the instrument because they want to play metal might lose steam if their first guitar looks like something a jazz musician would play. Likewise, a new player who is interested in learning jazz isn’t going to be too happy picking up a metal-looking guitar.
Fortunately, certain body styles are associated with a wide range of genres, so new players who are interested in several musical genres have a lot of options.
However, there is a huge crossover element here, and many metal guitarists use Jazz guitars, and vice-versa (think Ted Nugent here, using his hollow-body Gibson Jazz guitar for really loud rock, and Steve Howe of Yes)).
Here is a quick summary of some of the different body styles that are very popular:
This is the most common type of electric guitar, especially for beginners. Solid-body guitars are made from a solid piece of wood for the body or from several pieces of the same wood species glued together (good-quality, quite expensive guitars from famous makers have been made like this for years. Think Fender Stratocasters…….).
Within this classification there are a variety of body styles, including:
- Single-Cutaway: A “cutaway” refers to the curve in the guitar body which makes it easier to play notes high up on the fretboard. A single-cutaway guitar has one such curve, on one side of the fingerboard. A classic example of a single-cut guitar is the Freya TL-E Ultra, or Freya LP-1.
- Double-Cutaway: A double-cutaway guitar, as the name implies, has two curves (cutaways) in the body. This makes it easier to play notes with your fretting fingers, and also allows some room for your thumb in the other side of the fingerboard. Examples of double-cutaway style guitars are the Freya SG-1, SG-2 or ST-1.
- V-Shape: This style is pretty easy to recognize, and it’s all in the name. There are many v-shaped guitars on the market, each with their own take on the design. We can trace them back to the 1950’s. One downside is that they can be hard to play sitting down. They look cool though. Not quite a V-style, but check out this Freya FB-2 Firebird style guitar.
Hollow and Semi-Hollow Body
These are electric guitars with hollow bodies, something like acoustic guitars. Most semi-hollow guitars have a solid centre block to help cut down on feedback and unwanted resonance. Hollow and semi-hollow-body guitars are often used in jazz, but they find their way into blues, country as well as rock (remember Ted Nugent & Steve Howe?). These guitars can be either single or double-cutaways. An example of these is the Freya FES-35 guitar, available with either humbuckers or P90 pickups.
Electric guitar pickups are, for the most part, simply magnets wrapped in wire. Yes, there are a few variations, but the principle is essentially the same for all. Pickups create a magnetic field, and when a string vibrates it disrupts that field, creating an electronic signal that is transferred to the guitar amplifier. In other words, the pickups are what allow you to amplify your guitar sound.
Most popular are two kinds of electric guitar pickups:
- Single-coil pickups are one magnet or set of magnets wrapped in wire. These are the skinnier pickups you see on guitars. They have a bright sound with plenty of bite, and they are the preferred choice for many blues, country and rock players.
- Humbuckers, or double-coil pickups, are a pair of magnets or sets of magnets wrapped in wire. They were invented to eliminate the hum that plagued early single-coil pickups, so you can see how they got their name. Humbuckers have a thicker, bassier sound compared to single coils. Rock, metal and jazz players use them to get gutsy sounds out of their guitars.
You don’t have to stick with tradition when it comes to these basic pickup recommendations. There are metal players who use single coils, and country players who use humbuckers. These are general guidelines to help you better understand what kind of electric guitar might be best for you.
It won’t hurt to spend some time learning about the different types of guitar pickups, but remember: choose your pickup type using your ears.
The bridge is place on the guitar where the strings are anchored to the guitar body.
You will see three basic types of guitar bridges:
- Hard tail: These are also called fixed bridges. This bridge is mounted solidly to the guitar body. The main advantage here is tuning stability and ease of maintenance. There are many varieties of hard-tail bridges, but they all do the same basic job.
- Tremolo bridges: These bridges have an attached arm that you can use to change the pitch of the strings. They move (as opposed to the fixed bridge above) and in doing so they tighten or slacken the tension on the strings, changing their pitch. The idea is to create a vibrato effect, but many guitar players have used them to get some very creative sounds over the years (Jimi Hendrix springs to mind here, LOL).
- Double-locking tremolos: Some beginner guitars may have double-locking tremolos such as the Floyd Rose. These are similar to tremolo bridges, except the design allows you to “lock” the strings in place at the nut (on the headstock of the guitar) and at the bridge. This leads to strong tuning stability, even with heavy use. The trade off is more time and effort spent setting up and maintaining the instrument.
Floating tremolo bridges will require an expert to set up properly, and will require a setup if you want to do something simple, like change string gauges. Not everyone has the skills to set this up, and if you can’t then you’ll have to pay someone to do it for you. Tread carefully here…..
I will suggest starting out on a guitar with a hard-rail bridge or simple tremolo bridge. They are easier to work on, and one less thing you need to worry about.
Tonewoods are simply the woods your guitar is made from. On an electric guitar this usually means the wood used for the body and the neck. Both parts of the guitar could use the same wood, or different wood species. For example, a Les Paul usually has a mahogany body and a mahogany neck, where a Stratocaster typically has an alder body and a maple neck.
So, what does this mean for you as a beginner? It’s not something I’d spend a lot of time worrying about, except that you are going to see different woods mentioned when you look at the specs for guitars you are interested in. Because of this, it pays to have a basic understanding of tonewoods and what they can do for your sound.
Woods like mahogany and basswood are rich and resonant with excellent low end and a nice woody quality. Alder and maple are brighter with a defined high end. You may also see some other strange names, as guitar companies are searching for affordable alternatives to traditional tonewoods that have become over-harvested.
The bottom line is this: as a beginner you don’t have to worry so much about whether your guitar is made of mahogany or basswood. However, at some later point you should start to familiarize yourself with these different tonewoods, and their different qualities. There are a lot of Tonewood Snobs out there, take no notice of them, just be properly informed and know your stuff when buying a more expensive guitar in the future. As an example, a lot of people look down their noses at Basswood, yet Ibanez use this wood on their most expensive guitars, and nobody will argue that their guitars sound anything but great. See my point?
As of 2017, there is a worldwide restriction on the sale of Rosewood, so this is a wood you will see less and less of, and a guitar that has Rosewood in it’s construction will command a premium price in the future. Yes, Rosewood is still available, and will continue to be so, but every new guitar sold will have to have a certificate stating that the wood used was responsibly harvested. This, of course, costs money………..
Evaluating a Guitar
If you have never played an electric guitar before, you may think there’s no way you could ever walk into a shop and choose a guitar from the massive displays on the walls.
But you can. The key is to think of the guitar as another piece of equipment you are purchasing. You want to look for solid workmanship, good quality control, word of mouth from someone you trust, and good user reviews (be prepared to take some of these with a grain of though, qualify the source and look for a review by someone who’s actually owned a similar guitar or one by a professional reviewer. Some reviews are simply “opinions”, and can be very ill-informed).
Remember also, that an online review and sound clip played through the tiny speakers found on most computer systems will not give you a very representative idea of the actual sound. If you can connect your home entertainment system to your computer it’ll sound much better.
When you look at a guitar, check the seams and joints and make sure they are snug with no odd gaps. Make sure the frets aren’t poking out the sides of the fingerboard. Check the neck for bowing or warping, and check the strings to make sure they aren’t too far away from the fretboard.
Bear in mind that sometimes the tech at the shop (they do have someone, don’t they?) can fix certain issues before you take the guitar home, but other times, especially with the cheapest models, such as the ones that are sold at discount shops of varying descriptions, they are not really playable, either due to issues with the specific guitar, or problems with the model as a whole. Don’t be tempted by the cheapest price. You will not be getting a bargain. Cheap is cheap for a reason.
Talk to the people at the shop. Tell them you are a buying your first electric guitar and ask them to plug the guitar into an amp so you can hear it. If you don’t feel comfortable trying to play it, ask them to play a little. In most cases they are more than happy to help, and of course some of them will jump at the opportunity to show off. Remember though, you’re on a mission to buy a guitar, not be impressed by a salesperson, and if they only want to impress you with their skill they’re not helping you to choose a guitar…….
Check the knobs and switches on the guitar to make sure they are in good working order and do what they are supposed to do.
As for sound, only you can determine if you like what you hear from the instrument. It is important for a new guitar player to bond with their instrument so they are motivated to play every day. Loving or at least liking the sound is a big part of that. So, don’t settle for a guitar that fails to light your fire.
Buying a guitar online is usually not a problem, but make sure you choose a site with a good return policy and good customer feedback so you have good support if there are issues. Nothing worse than finding out that your new guitar needs a setup before it’s playing right.
A good shop (such as Freya Guitars) will also set it up before they send it out to you, and offer personal phone & internet support in case of a problem. Nothing worse than finding out that your new guitar needs a setup before it’s playing right.
So, what’s next?
Many new guitars players think the best way to get started is to spend as little as possible and “see how it works out”. While I can understand that way of thinking, I also know that this approach doesn’t give a beginner the best shot at success.
On the other hand, if you take the time to set yourself up with an affordable guitar that inspires you, learning guitar becomes a whole lot easier.
I still remember my first electric guitar, a Hofner 164 made back in the early 1960’s, and a Grampian 30w amplifier (all valves, no trannies then) with a 15” Goodmans bass guitar speaker in a separate cab. God only knows what it sounded like, but it was loud and it got me started. It wasn’t the greatest guitar rig in world, but I loved it. I used this until I bought a Vox AC30, also 1960’s vintage, and I use a similar one of those to this day, though the weight has become an issue lately……..
Transistor amps are lighter and can offer a lot of features at a much cheaper piece point than a valve (also known as tube) amp, but most serious players prefer the sound of valves. As money allows, you can consider a valve amp, there are lots out there, and different valves sound different. However, that’s a subject for a different article……..there are lots of different opinions.
Moments string together and days fade into each other, and before you know it, you’re a pretty decent guitar player.
But remember, the first step is to decide what you want in your first guitar. It will set the pattern for your life’s journey as a musician.
Enjoy the trip!