Posted Jan 19, 2012 08:47 AM
This is my first guitar specific post of many to come, targeted as an educational tool for guitar players and enthusiasts,
As the first edition, I thought I'd go back to basics and explain the process of purchasing a guitar regardless of skill level. What to look for, what to ask and what's the difference from one style of guitar to the next?
So let's begin with what the definition of a guitar is. A guitar is a stringed wood instrument which is plucked with your fingers or a plastic tool called a pick and is played either acoustically with a sound hole as the main source of audio output or electronically plugged through an amplification device which reads the vibration of the string and translates it into a sound. Guitars generally are made of Alder, Maple, Mahogany, Basswood or Ash wood. Each wood can be used entirely through the guitar building process but it is mainly used in contrast with another wood to produce a unique sound. A guitar can be constructed from a single neck and body bolted together at a joint, glued together or constructed from a single piece of wood running through the body and up the neck to the headstock with two pieces of wood glued at the body to fill out the shape and supply mass to the instrument.
There are two types of guitars I will go into detail which are very separate and yet have similar alterations. An acoustic guitar is entirely reliant on producing sound through vibrations in its solid sound hole design with exception to acoustic guitars with built in pre amps which allow it to be played through an electric amp. Acoustic guitars are harder to play for a beginner due to their larger neck size, tighter string tension and overall body shape. The acoustic guitar is a portable instrument which requires humidifying control in order to maintain quality and consistency. As a piece of wood, it has the natural ability to dry out even when it's applied to various lacquers and stains. Even being stored in its hard shell case does not guarantee protection from weathering but having said that, an acoustic guitar can remain stable and reliable for many years.
The Electric guitar is much easier for a beginner guitarist to learn on due to its smaller size, neck shape and the ability to modify the string height with relative ease. The electric guitar relies on pickups controlled by a selector switch which are magnets screwed into the body of the guitar that gather string vibration as information and send it through the guitar cable plugged into the side of the guitar to the amplifier which reads the signal as a sound. Generally, the harder the wood used for an electric guitar, the higher the pitch of the sound will be. Alder and Maple produce a 'twang' like sound sought by many country and reggae guitarists. Mahogany is softer resulting in a consistent middle frequency sound with a mix of highs and lows creating a 'gut' sound that most rock guitarists lean towards. The electric guitar has the ability to control the volume of the guitars output as well as the tonal shape from adjusting knobs located below the pickups. Electric guitars are easier to mass produce in a large factory and come in various paint schemes, shapes and price points.
Guitars use frets on the neck of the instrument as guides for note location along the net. Frets are metal wires with various thicknesses that protrude over the neck's front flat profile and enable you to control the string's vibrato and pitch. The bigger the fret the easier it is to bend that string which in turn raises the pitch of the instrument for a desired effect. Along with the frets is the radius of the guitar neck or curvature of the frets is an easier way of remembering it. The radius determines the playability of the instrument. A high radius number in inches means the frets will be flatter over the fretboard (the flat surface on the neck) which in turns makes the instrument easier to bend notes, the lower the radius number equates to a much more playable neck the is easy to grasp and move around on.
Now that you understand the electric and acoustic guitar a little bit better. I'm going to talk about what to look for with an instrument in the store and why.
1. Have an idea of how every different guitar in its respected price point feels in your hands, you'll notice generally that the more expensive the guitar, the better it will feel and the easier it will play. Notice the weight of the guitar and its balance. Is it body heavy or neck heavy? Is the body or neck shape too bulky? Would you be able to play long hours with this guitar without it fighting back at you?
2. Do not buy a guitar because of its price. This is a huge error when looking at guitars. Buying a guitar because it's a few hundred dollars more than another one doesn't mean quality, longevity and comfort-ability of the guitar goes along with it. Research different companies and their customer satisfaction records. Make sure to ask about warranties and returns for the instrument at your local store and try everything out before you buy. You'll be putting in time into this instrument so don't just settle for the sake of settling, this is suppose to be a fun experience, not a 5 minute rush.
3. Purchase from a local shop instead of a big chain store. Sure you might save money and there's generally more of a selection on hand without ordering in the end but there's no sense of community when you are purchasing from someone who works off commission and looks to you as a sale rather than a customer. Local shops will work with your guitar company to make sure you are satisfied, they usually offer great discounts to loyal customers and will include tuners, strings, cables and picks in your first purchase. Make sure that when you are buying your first guitar, you aren't pressured into buying but given the time and information needed to make a healthy choice and more importantly, a relationship that is lasting with your local store.
4. Don't be afraid to ask. This isn't something you are expected to master all it's technical know-how before you enter the store. Guitar stores love questions and they love to talk about instruments because it's not just a job, it's a lifestyle for them. That's what it means to me, I would love to work in a music store because it's already such a huge part of my life so try and find stores that have the same passion no matter if they are on shift or walking down the street. Make sure to ask about maintenance of your instrument, string gauge, the differences of scale length on a guitar, recommended companies and the process of bringing the instrument in for repair when the time comes.
5. What do you mean by guitars for different styles, Jonathan? Well, some guitars have a specific purpose to their craft and other guitars are built to be able to play many different genres in one. A heavy metal guitar player generally looks for an instrument that is very durable, very comfortable and easy to play and has pickups that are high output, which creates a strong thunderous tone and a lasting sustain. Jazz guitarists look for instruments with rich tone, high quality woods and pickups with high levels of bass to them to produce a buttery smooth sound. Rock musicians and blues musicians need a guitar that can have shimmery highs and powerful lows so when they play a clean or distorted passage, their instrument can be versatile at the right time and be able to hold their note as they tend to play with passion and emotion along with their lyrics. Dynamics are very key in the sound of a guitar.
Acoustic guitars generally produce richer tones as the size of the body increases. Acoustic guitars with cutaways in the body for accessibility to higher frets lose the tone that is needed to fully develop the notes and therefore it becomes a game of sacrifice between playability and tone. Depending on the style of music from classical, to jazz and from country to rock each guitar has it's own flavor so therefore trying out 5 or 6 different types will not hurt your overall decision.
In the end, the guitar is an extension of who you are, so don't buy something you wouldn't love as much as yourself. If you are planning on just trying out an instrument and seeing if you like it, then rent from a store first or ask about the return policy after purchasing. If you are however planning on taking the instrument on as a hobby, then put the time in to understanding everything about it. Playing music has so many benefits but you only get out what you put into it. You must put time into practicing your instrument because fundamentals are key to being able to explore the instrument fully. Practicing the guitar and jamming with other musicians are one in the same thing but you have to be willing to learn and to put time into developing your own style on your own time alone. There's no easy way around hard work and by developing proper technique, you are able to develop a clearer picture to why the guitar is such a beautiful instrument.