Guitar Buying Guide

It is easy to be overwhelmed once you see the guitar you want to buy. This guide is a checklist of what to do once you have the guitar in your hands to audition.

Ultimate Guitar
This is the day! You are going to buy that guitar, take it home, and jam all night. Armed with nothing, you will go to the store or meeting place, take a quick look at that beautiful guitar, excitedly pay for it, and take it home. Only to find faults the next day. 

It is easy to be blinded by the beauty of a guitar. Here are a few guides to overcome your emotion and be logical about the purchase.

Do not be late

Make sure that you are early to give yourself time to check the guitar. A guitar is a major purchase; you probably took several months to save for the cash. When you arrive late, you have the tendency to do a quick check on the guitar to make up for the wasted time of the seller. When buying at the store, the salesperson may be giving hints to hurry up because the store is closing.

It is not good to buy a guitar when you are in a hurry. This does not mean that you can take an hour to decide. If in a store, you can look at the display as long as you want, but do not take long when testing the guitar.

Bring cash, but not too much cash

Bring cash. It is unethical to check the guitar if you do not intend to buy, unless the buyer is aware that you only want to look and he agrees.

How much cash should you bring? Bring cash that do not exceed the amount you are willing to pay for the guitar. If you want to pay for an amount lower than the offer of the seller, tell him upfront that you only have such amount and will buy the guitar now if the seller agrees. If the seller does agree, buy the guitar and do not haggle for more discounts. If the seller refuses, leave. Do this after checking the guitar to show that the amount you are offering to pay is based on your evaluation of the guitar.

Bring a portable guitar amp

A battery-powered amp would be nice so you can check the electronics. If you do not have one, buy a used guitar headphone amp for testing, and then sell it after. It will not give you a great tone, but this will save you from buying guitars with scratchy pots, loose wires, or a dead pickup. This is very important if the seller is unknown.

If you have a car, and will be buying at the seller's house or store, it is best to bring your own amp for testing. Their tube amp may bring out the sweetest tone from the guitar you want to buy, but you will still plug that to your old amp when you get home. The tone will be different.

Do not leave the guitar tuner at home

Bring your guitar tuner to check the intonation. This can save you some cash if you do not know how to do it yourself.

Tag a friend along

It is best to bring someone who knows guitars if you are a beginner, especially if you are rich enough to buy an expensive guitar as your first instrument.

Physical check

Do not plug the guitar yet. Check the guitar body for possible cracks. Inspect if the neck is bowed. Try the string action. Can you still adjust the screws to fit your desired action? Rotate the knobs and feel if they are smooth. Check the wood. Is the hardware condition acceptable to you? Check the fret wires. Try the tuners. Does the guitar feel right when you hold it?

You can try asking the seller if you can look at the joints and cavities, but I personally would not advise that for older guitars. Removing and replacing screws repeatedly can damage the wood's screw holes if done carelessly and that is un-doable. If you have to do that, do not force the screws.

Plug the guitar and set the amp to clean channel. Adjust the volume and tone controls and listen for scratches. Does the tone and volume change when you turn the knobs? Toggle the switches. Are all pickups working? If they do not have the same volume, can you adjust the pickup height? If the electronics are all working, then it is time to check the tone.

Keep the tone in your head

You should listen to good recordings of the guitar model you want to buy, a few days before the purchase. The tone you want should be in your head when you walk into that store or meet the seller. A good tone is one that you heard and like to have.

Unfortunately, tone is subjective so I cannot advise the tone that is good for you. Only you can do that, based on the tone in your head. Fortunately, a guitar's pickup has the greatest effect on the tone of a guitar. This means that you can easily improve the tone by upgrading the pickups, if you really like the guitar.

Spend time on the physical check, but not on the tone check. The sound will not change even if you spend one hour as compared to ten minutes. If the tone is good for you, you will like it at the first few notes. When you play the guitar longer, you are forcing yourself that you like the tone you hear. If you do not like the tone and you have no plans of upgrading the pickup then just let go. Do not waste the seller's time.

The place matters

The store's environment can affect the tone you will hear, if playing on a guitar amp. A big showroom will weaken the sound from the amp. A noisy showroom will influence the tone you hear. Even the poor or yellow lighting can hide a crack or change your impression of the finish. Take note of these limitations when testing the guitar. It may sound and look better in your bedroom.

About the Author:
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14 comments sorted by best / new / date

    You also wan't to do research on the guitar. What tone wood does it have? how many frets? What kind of bridge? What's the action like? What type of pickups does it have? Active or passive? Hi, low, or medium output? How good is the brand's reputation? Are you getting what you paid for?
    I'm sorry for the late reply, it's my first time to submit an article and I didn't know that it was approved for posting. This guide assumes that you have already decided on the type of guitar you want to buy. I have separate articles for those who are undecided on what guitar to buy in my blog. I will try sending them here for posting. Thanks!
    I found that this site is extremely helpful. WWW.FOUNDTREASURES316.COM. They helped me make an informed decision and got me a great deal on a guitar. I saved like $800. Check it out man. They are legit.
    I like this...I'm definetly going to use this list when i get my new guitar in a few weeks
    Or, go to Guitar Center where they won't bitch at you for trying a guitar out or for not knowing everything about what you're buying. However, when going to a local shop, this list would be very useful.
    I've spent over an hour in local shops just demoing guitars, usually the staff are very friendly and helpful; it's how they stay in business. Your local shop must suck.
    Mine sure does! They sold a guitar I had ordered to another customer and accused me of dropping a guitar I had demoed. I'm done with them and now only deal in instruments online. I have no other choice as I see it, and after 10 purchases I have yet to see any kind of disadvantage to buying online. My local store don't have any stock anyway and if you're ordering you're buying.
    This list seems more geared towards first time buyers and buying used. Most of this stuff (or at least the physical check) boils down to 'demo the guitar thoroughly,' which I always do. Pretty much If I fall in love with the guitar, I'll buy it. (Impulse buys for the win)
    Those who bought several guitars already know this, and I am sure that some of them learned it the hard way like me. The physical check applies even if the guitar is new. I almost bought a new tele with defective knobs and switch tip from a store.
    "Removing and replacing screws repeatedly can damage the wood's screw holes if done carelessly and that is un-doable."Who told you that bull? You can just plug it with a wooden dowel and wood glue and then drill a new hole. Of course, you should be careful but sooner or later, especially if you're like me and play around with the electrics a lot, the screw holes will wear out.
    I believe not everyone has the skill to do that, but yes, even a matchstick can be used to plug a damaged hole.
    Yes, this article seems more oriented towards buying from an individual, not in a retail music store. I don't bring cash to Guitar Center, or a battery-powered amplifier. "Can you adjust the pickup height?" Uh, I don't think I've ever seen an electric guitar with non-adjustable pickups, except maybe some 40-year-old $5 junker at a garage sale. "Bring a tuner." Assuming you have a smartphone, there are all kinds of free tuner apps now that work great. They are fully comparable to the $100+ electronic tuners of just a few years ago. Be aware that any guitar may need a string change and/or a good setup before it plays well. I've seen brand new $4,000 guitars in stores that were almost unplayable as they were, not to mention having old, dead strings. And I've seen cheap, low-end guitars that played smooth as butter after a good technician worked on them. And "good technician" does NOT mean your pal Roger who "knows a lot about guitars," nor does it mean the bubblehead at Guitar Center. I ALWAYS include the price of a pro setup when considering the price of a guitar. Also, always check out the guitar you're actually taking home. Don't play the display guitar, then buy one "from the back" still in a box. This is basically a good article, but it left quite a few bases uncovered.
    Thanks! I had to make a few decisions while making this article. Should I make it short or should cover everything? Should it be for buying brand new or used? In the end, I decided to make it brief then get feedback on what should be covered in future articles. I mentioned checking everything, including the pickup height adjustment, because I have tried a brand new, but discounted guitar whose knobs were stuck so it is possible to have rusted screws. On hindsight I doubt if the store or seller will allow you to test it so I should have removed it from the article. I’m not sure if I can edit mine though. Yes, you are also correct that a tuner does not have to be a dedicated tuner. It can be a smartphone app. Lastly, I agree that you need a good luthier to setup your guitar. I scrimped once and I regretted it. These days I only bring my guitars to reliable luthiers.
    I was looking for a great guitar at a good price and found this site to be extremely helpful!