The Golden Rules of Buying Your Second Guitar

Because buying instrument number two isn't as simple as you'd think...

Ultimate Guitar
Everyone talks about buying first guitars. Perhaps the most daunting moment for a beginner guitarist, there's a sense that, if you get the first axe right, you're somehow innately attuned to savvy instrument purchasing for the rest of forever.

When I was writing my beginner guitar buyer's guide a few months back, I realized this simply was not the case. In fact, it's in many respects easier to fuck up buying a second guitar than it is a first. The problem is that we don't always understand why exactly we need a second instrument, and end up picking up something completely inappropriate for our purposes.

If you've bought axe number two and are already regretting it, don't feel bad. For the record, I fucked up royally buying my first, second, third and fourth guitars before settling on lucky number five (and then buying another piece of shit before striking gold with number seven, which I funded by selling all of the shitty ones - god, teenage me was a fucking idiot!).

Fortunately for you, I make these mistakes so you don't have to. And, through my past guitar-buying misadventures, I've been able to work out what exactly people should be looking for in a second instrument, and the pitfalls they most commonly encounter when buying one.

So without further ado, here are the four things you've got to remember to not fuck up buying guitar number two. Stick to these and you'll end up with a second instrument worthy of your first. Of course, that's assuming that your first guitar wasn't utter bollocks, but we'll come on to that...

Work Out What It's For

Before you buy your second guitar, ask yourself why you want it. This probably sounds like an obvious point, but I've seen so many guitarists pick up a second axe on impulse, only to regret it.

In my experience, there are four different reasons for buying instrument number two. If you're in the market, then work out which of these applies to you.

1. You want an upgrade

Perhaps you feel that you've reached the limits of what you can do with guitar number one. You did the classic newbie guitarist thing of picking up one of those $150 starter packs, but now you've started gigging and your made-in-China plywood Strat copy, replete with warped neck and microphonic pick-ups, isn't up to the rigors of playing live.

Even if you did the smart thing and avoided an all-in-one-box combo deal, you may be wanting something a little extra than you're getting from your first axe.

What you're looking for is an upgrade: a guitar that can take you to the next level.

2. You want a back-up

Guitar numero uno is still working out great for you; you maintain it was the best $500 you've ever spent. But, you're a gigging musician now and string breaks and hardware failure are weighing on your mind. Maybe you've written a sweet new song in DAGDAD, but don't want the hassle of retuning every time you play it live.

What you're looking for is a back-up instrument - a gig-ready guitar to alleviate the need for tuning and to step in if things go wrong with your weapon of choice.

3. You want a different sound

You're a country guy or gal at heart, and chickin'-pickin' on your Tele is one of life's great pleasures. But, last week, a friend lent you his copy of "Passion & Warfare" by Steve Vai and you were blown away. Two-handed tapping, whammy dips and swept arpeggios are your new guitar-learning goals, but Leo Fender's first great masterpiece just isn't cutting it for you.

What you're looking for is a different sound, a guitar to give you something that your primary axe doesn't.

4. You want a project

Gigging has never been that high on your agenda when it comes to guitar playing, and you can't see yourself ever needing a back-up axe. Guitar number one does pretty much everything you want it to. But you love fixing stuff, have been reading up on luthierie, and fancy the challenge of turning trash into treasure.

What you're looking for is a project. A diamond in the rough guitar to shine up, testing out your truss rod adjusting and pick-up soldering skills in the process.

If none of those reasons apply to you, and your current justification for buying a second instrument one of the following:
  1. It looks sparkly

  2. You've got money to burn

  3. Jimmy Page has one
...then walk away. You're on the path towards buyer's remorse.

Set Yourself a Budget

Once you know what sort of guitar you want, setting yourself a budget for your second instrument is vital. Going into a store with no expectations of how much money you're intending to drop will inevitably lead to over or under-spending on a given axe. Either way, you'll end up regretting your decision.

What should your budget be? Well, that depends on what you're going for. If you're looking for an upgrade, you'll probably want to spend more than you did on your first instrument. If you're looking for a back-up or a different sound, I'd imagine you'll be spending something similar to what you did on your first guitar. For a project, you'll likely spend less, though you'll also need to factor in the money for parts and materials.

As always, I'd recommend spending no less than $300 on any given instrument. Anything under that money and you're dicing with unplayability, along with the propensity for serious issues that can hamper your playing (again, this works slightly differently for a project guitar, but see above point about extra expenses). With that in mind, your budget it up to you. Just make sure you decide what that budget is, and stick to it.

Buy From Someone You Trust

As with your first, or indeed any guitar, you want to buy from a retailer that inspires confidence in you. If your premiere axe was the motherfucking nads and you got good service when buying it, then this one is a no-brainer - the store where you bought guitar numero uno is the place to start.

If your first instrument was a plywood piece of shit, sold to you by a sleazebag swill merchant, then don't go back to the same store. Start speaking to friends and checking out reviews to find out the best guitar stores in your area.

Online is always an option, but, as I said in my "buying your first guitar" article, I'd always prioritize going to a real life location. Actually being able to pick-up and play the guitars is a vital part of the experience, and building a good rapport with a trusted local guitar retailer pays off in dividends down the line.

Try Lots of Instruments

Even if you've got a fair idea of the sort of instrument you want, make sure you set aside ample time to try a variety of guitars. Buying a guitar is a big purchase and there's nothing wrong with taking your time and savoring the process. Again, this is where a good guitar shop comes in handy. Get them to set you up in a comfy chair with a nice amp (ideally, you'd bring in your own - after all, you want to know how your prospective second instrument sounds through your rig) and play away. Take as long as you need. Hours, an afternoon, the whole day. If it's a good guitar store, they won't mind. In fact, they'll understand the importance of the process.

Taking the time to put a variety of guitars through their paces will give you a much better idea of what you're looking for. When you do make your eventual purchase, you'll leave much more confident that your decision was the right one.

By Alec Plowman

28 comments sorted by best / new / date

    "building a good rapport with a trusted local guitar retailer pays off in dividends down the line." Of all the things in the article, I feel this should be one of the main points. They've done things for me that GC employees would / could never do to keep me as a customer - better service than the chain stores.
    I couldn't agree with you more. I almost exclusively buy from a local guitar shop called Billy O's Dynamite Music in Griffith, In. He always has great used gear. I'll hang out just messing around with whatever catches my eye or ear. He always gives me really good deals and will set something aside until I have the dough because I've built a rapport with him. Can't beat a great local shop man
    I can't emphasise the first point enough. I once spent 3 months looking for an octave pedal, trying out different ones at different stores, even trying the same one multiple times. When I noticed I kept going back to the same one I bought it.
    1. "You want an upgrade" I started with an Epiphone Les Paul, upgraded with an actual Gibson - much better! 2. "You want a back-up" I started playing professionally and got a second Les Paul (a custom, this time) as a backup 3. "You want a different sound" Felt the need for some single coil tone and bought a cool Fender Strat 4. "You want a project" Got a Danelectro 12 String, because why the hell not, they're cool and quite inexpensive. 5.... Now I've got too many guitars, according to my wife -_-
    The Tempest
    I think I've got quite lucky with my buys. Haven't got one that I deeply regret, only a minor point. 1: Cheap shitty strat copy. My OG guitar. Still have it, still play it. It's awesome. 2: ESP LTD MH-1000 NT. Knew exactly what I was looking for when I dropped the best part of a grand on this. Something that could shred, with a much rawer/metal tone than the strat could give me. Plus 24 frets over 21 on the strat. This is my main axe of choice (although it's getting a little dusty due to guitar number 5 which I purchased recently) 3: Freshman acoustic. Technically this was a birthday present from my parents, but I played it and chose it in the shop, and I've got nothing to complain about. Comes with a couple of flaws but it's a 200 quid beginner's acoustic rather than a top spec piece. Plays fine as long as it's maintained properly, used it live, still play it all the time when I just want to muck about. 4: Schecter Omen 7-string. Probably the guitar I've got the most regret over. Bought it when I joined a 'djent' band (sigh). Ordered online (second mistake). Actually for the money I paid it's a really solid guitar, but it simply doesn't get the use it deserves. Would recommend to someone serious about taking up extended range though. I got some definite usage out of it but since I discovered the AGCFAD tuning that Periphery (among others) use it tends to sit in the case a lot nowadays. 5: Ibanez Artcore, not sure of the exact model offhand. Bought very recently. Beautiful hollow body and surprisingly versatile, can hack a whole load of different styles. I tend to use this as my main axe at the moment although it'll probably drop again in favour of the LTD (currently used as my drop-tuning guitar). On the other hand I know a whole lot of people who HAVE fallen for the 'Jimmy Page has one' thought process, so it's definitely easily done. Top article!
    Ahem... Because Tony Iommi Custom SG... AND STILL THE BEST PURCHASE EVER!
    Ok Guitar Number 1 Kit-set guitar and for some strange reason its actually good, even the guy that sells retail guitars thinks its great. Guitar Number 2 that was a POS but baught it as a project (jammed truss rod appalling fret work crappy pick-ups shoddy neck pocket and heal of bolt on neck) swapped in some better pick-ups, made a bone nut fixed the truss rod and fixed up the neck angle a bit it was just a polished turd. Put the original pick-ups in swapped it for a real project (new owner it plays right for them) Guitar 3 the project replace the nut shim the neck fix the jammed pot and its a 1984 peace of mojo. Guitar no 4 the wife’s Start with a POS strat clone body that had been bastardised (neck pocket) use the pick-ups that where in guitar 2 Get a neck from somebody elces 3rd or 4th project, fix all alignment probs with neck pocket and neck, find a slightly crappy 6hole squire bridge and some crappy tuners, take out the locking nut and replace it with a fits Gibson graphteck nut put it all together and magic (I was ready to sell it if it was crap). Oh then there is the two acoustics with smashed headstock that i put back together, and the steel string that I did a fret job on. one word "HOPELESS" describes my GAS
    Invest in quality and you can't go wrong. There is a place for every guitar if it is not a piece of crap. First guitar was a sears catalog Sebring when I was 13. When I was 16 I got a job and saved up for a Les Paul. I still play that guitar today, 24 years later. After the LP, it was a PRS Custom years later because it feels 100% different than an LP but is also extremely high quality. Took me a while to get the cash for that one but it is 100x better than owning 3 knock offs. So go to Sam Ash or Guitar Center, play as many guitars as you can. Find the one for you regardless of price, then save save save. Don't get short sighted and cheap out just to get the thrill of the purchase. EDIT - and oh yeah, never ever buy online. I refuse to do that. Every guitar feels different, even 2 guitars of the identical model. Perfect example - years ago I was in a store and played a Fender JazzMaster. I had never wanted one or thought of one before but I was just fooling around and played one. It felt tremendous. Set up perfectly for me. All 3 switch positions had an awesome sound... I was loving it. Almost laid out the $450 that day but didn't and kind of regretted it after I left. Thought about buying one online but didnt. A few months later was in a different store and played another JazzMaster... it felt like a brick. I absolutely hated it. I was so glad I didn't go online based on that one experience. So play your guitar before purchasing!!
    Not all starter guitars are crap, and not all expensive guitars are worth a damn.
    all i want is a guitar with more than 21 damn frets! how am i supposed to shred a d minor solo if i can't hit the 4th octave even on a bend? (i play in d tuning, so top string only goes to B, with an option to bend to C#, but no higher)
    My guitar buying has never progressed out of the budget to midrange, but most have been upgraded or modded, something I'd rather do to a sub £200 axe than anything else; if I like the feel of it and it sounds good, who cares how much it cost. My "it's a £40 Squier so it doesn't matter if it gets ruined at uni" has turned into one of my favourites (after a cheap set of active 'buckers).
    I clicked on this article purely out of curiosity when I saw it. Wasn't planning on buying on a new guitar, but given that I have an acoustic, a Fender, and don't need/want a backup, now I know not to Great article!
    Yeah i can totally relate to this article. My first guitar was an Ibanez GRG170DX, 2 years later i thought i need an upgrade and after working a month in summer, i bought an Ibanez S520EX. I did not know too much about guitars back then and so i liked the model I had tried in the store and then ordered it online from them. Still i did not like the sound and in retrospect the grg170 did sound better. Three years later I bought a Charvel SoCal MIJ and absolutely loved it. I changed the pickups to the SD JB/Jazz 35th Anniversary Set and i could not be happier. Then after a year i thought, ok now i need a Strat and went for a used MIJ Strat, i put some money in the guitar, new nut, new electronics, CS69s a callaham trem but i never bonded with it and sold it. With the money i had from selling the Strat and the two Ibanez guitars i bought a used Music Man Silhouette Special, a friend of mine rewound the pickups and i could not be happier, it's the best playing and sounding guitar i ever had, but it took me a long time to get to the point where I have two guitars I really love. In my opinion the same thing can be said about amps. I raided my savings account when i was 17 and bought a used Marshall TSL100 Halfstack as my first bedroom amp. The previous owner had modded it and 17 year old me thought wow that must be extra good. Yeah it wasn't. Two days before one of the first bigger gigs i played (prom in our school), i sold it and bought a Peavey Valveking 100 Halfstack. I loved it for about a year, then I couldn't stand the sound anymore. So I traded the head for a Marshall JTM60 (or JCM600). Again it did not give me the sound I wanted and I began to get really frustrated and started to dislike tube amps. I sold the JTM 60 head and bought the Peavey Vypyr 120 Tube head. Modelling preamp and Tube power amp. Nice idea, bad execution. Around the same time i bought a Fender Mustang II Combo so i could practice at lower volumes (only took me years to realize a halfstack is a tad much for a small room). I really liked the small combo and then sold the Peavey Vypyr and bought a Fender Mustang V Head. Very bad idea, i played the amp once, it sounded horrible and then i was really pissed at cheap amps, my judgement and so on. My best friend had always had a large collection of amps, so when we played gigs he'd always lend me one of his amps, (Marshall JCM slash, AFD100 and JVM410) and that's when i realized I really need a tube amp again. So i sold all the crap I had (except for the Mustang II), and bought a used Mesa/Boogie Mark IV Combo. Now I'm 26 and looking back at how much money I lost the last 10 years by trading in amps, guitars and trying to upgrade guitars that weren't good in the first place, i often get a little angry at myself, but then again I think it's part of the journey as a guitarist and at least now i have the sound i always wanted. So all in all a great article, but I know younger me wouldn't have listened
    what advice do you have for a dude on his 34th guitar ?
    thanks for the article! really considering to buy a backup guitar for FAGDAD tuning.
    I went from buying more guitars to building what I want. Not for everyone but it works for me.
    Mr Winters
    I'm still using the shitty Stagg strato I've had for about 8 years now. I guess the "you need an upgrade" bit applies to me
    Remember, it's 90% player and 10% gear, I bet that after 8 years you can work magic with this guitar
    Way back in the day, I literally did this by accident. I was looking to upgrade from my old Korean Squier to something else, and I ended up buying my old band's vocalist's Peavey Raptor, and it was one of my main axes for over a decade afterwards. Plus I ended up with a pretty good case in the deal. I mean, I didn't even think of any of this stuff, it just happened that way and I'm pretty grateful for that.
    I got lucky buying a 12-string Alvarez for $113 (including shipping). It is so easy to play, sounds great and I love it. I was very fortunate in buying it on eBay from a pawn shop... It has an MSRP of $299, but I paid less than half that... Boy, did I get lucky!