Three Golden Rules for Buying Your First Electric Guitar

Finding your first six-string doesn't need to be a minefield.

Ultimate Guitar
For any aspiring Hendrix or Clapton, buying your first guitar is a rite of passage. It's also a fucking minefield.

In my experience, very few guitarists are happy with their first instrument. Due to inexperience, they end up picking out an instrument that either doesn't suit their playing style or is just plain poorly made.

I'm a classic example. The first instrument I bought was a cheap Fender Strat knock-off. I battled with that guitar for months - trying to keep it in tune, struggling to get the tone I wanted out of it - before throwing in the towel and forking out for another instrument.

It doesn't have to be that way though. Over time, I've realized that there are things beginner guitarists can do to ensure that their first guitar is a cherished instrument and a useful tool, rather than an adversary that impedes your playing.

These rules are by no means definitive. But, by following them, you're more likely to find a first instrument that you love.

1. Don't Buy Until You Know the Basics

If you've never played the guitar before and want to start learning, buying a guitar is not the first thing you should do. That sounds counterintuitive I know, but hear me out.

Before you buy a guitar, you need to at least know the basics of playing one. Otherwise, you're going to have absolutely no idea what you're looking for in an instrument. That's not to say that you have to be Steve Vai by the time you purchase your first six string. But, having the ability to play a few basic riffs and form some chord shapes is enough to give you a sense of a whether a guitar feels right to play.

So, how do you go about playing a guitar before buying one? Borrow one. Ask friends, family, neighbors and acquaintances and see if anyone has a guitar, electric or acoustic, that they're not using. Given the amount of failed guitarists in the world, you'll probably find someone quicker than you'd expect. If that doesn't work, then search local listings ads, flea markets and yard sales and see if you can pick up a dirt-cheap instrument to have a go on (hell, you might get really lucky and snag a '69 Les Paul for $40).

Spend a couple of months playing someone else's guitar before you go ahead and buy one. You'll be a more informed consumer by the time you spend your money and are more likely to buy the right guitar for you.

2. Don't Buy Online

I understand why people fall into the trap of buying their first guitar online. Pretty much everything is cheaper on the net these days and it's an incredibly convenient way of shopping.

But, while it's true that you will spend more in store than you would do online, the extra expense is justified when you consider the benefits of buying a guitar the old fashioned way.

First and foremost, you actually get to play the guitar. As I've already established in point one, this is a huge deal when it comes to buying an instrument. You can't get a feel for the guitar through your computer screen - this is something you need to do IRL.

At this point, you're probably thinking about trying a guitar in store and then buying it online. I'd strongly advise against this. Guitars aren't Hi-Fi systems - the set up varies from instrument to instrument. Even though it's the same make and the same model, the guitar you play in store may be completely different to the guitar you play online.

The second advantage to buying a guitar from a real world guitar store is that you can take advice from people that know their shit. At a good guitar shop, a sales person will take the time to discuss what you're looking for in an instrument.

They'll be able to answer all your questions and will be invested in helping you find exactly what you're looking for, and will set the guitar up to suit your playing. After you've bought the instrument, they'll also be on hand to field any questions you have about maintenance, or any modifications you want to make to it down the line.

Find the best guitar store in your area and go there to pick up your first instrument. It will cost you more than buying online, but it will be plenty worth it in the long run.

3. Spend as Much as You Can Afford

In the past three decades, a huge market has emerged around what are described as "beginner guitars." Coming in at around $100, "beginner guitars" are very appealing to inexperienced players because they look cool (they're often based on classic Strat or Les Paul designs) and are inexpensive. But, buying one is a big mistake, and one that could impact upon your motivation.

Beginner guitars tend to be inexpensive for a reason - they're poorly put together and made of low quality materials. These factors make them difficult to play, difficult to keep in tune, and an all-round nightmare to maintain. Buy one, and you'll probably be looking to exchange it within six months of playing.

When you buy a guitar, you want that guitar to last you a long time. So make sure to spend your money on something you can get some mileage out of. $300-$500 might seem like a lot to blow on a first instrument, but it's a worthwhile expense if you're serious about playing. (on a related note, you check out my recommendations of great guitars for under $500 if you want some ideas)

As a rule, look for a first guitar that is well put together and made of quality wood. Once again, I'd highly recommend buying from a store so that you can take advice on these things.

By Alec Plowman

38 comments sorted by best / new / date

    My Squier Strat affinity series pack has been great. Although recently I had it modified with a paper in oil capacitor and treble bleed adjustment. Has a much hotter sound now and decided not to sell it after that.
    Guitarus Rex
    Would also include the Squier "Vintage Modified" series as being worthy of your rock & roll dollar.
    Guitarus Rex
    Gotta agree here... I bought a used Squier Strat Affinity with an HSS configuration ($50 at GC) and it is no-kidding, weekend warrior, gig-worthy as a back-up. Is it as good as an American Fender? Well, no. But for $50 versus $1000... it's damned decent. Imports have gotten soooo much better. Even the Korean PRS SEs are excellent; slapped some hot Seymour P-Rails in my Mushok baritone and it roars!
    The Squiers have improved immensely over the last few years. The Vintage Modified series is amazing.
    The first thing on my list of golden rules would be "don't freaking buy a guitar just because of the name brand." In fact, I'd go so far as to say don't buy a big name like Gibson or Fender and do buy a generic brand like Agile or Jay Turser. More bang for your buck. Also, #3 - spend as much $ as you can afford? Yeah, that'll make a lot of sense if you decide to quit three months later and sell your guitar at a substantial loss. I wouldn't ever spend more than $200 on your first guitar. Tons of great guitars in the market for $150.
    Wouldn't say these are "golden rules" exactly. I went on Amazon and bought one of Encore's Les Paul rip-offs that came with a small amp, a case, a stand and all the equipment you need to start off. Cost about £90. My guitar teacher said himself that the guitar played better than an Epiphone, which is high praise for something so cheap. Maybe I was just lucky, but if they still sell these beginner packs, just buy one of those, you can't go wrong.
    Those Encore guitars are damn fine instruments for the money you're paying. I think they're one of the best sub-£100 guitars that I've played.
    I bought all my 5 guitars online and every one of them was a hit, but I'm lefty so I'm basicaly screwed if I ever wanted to buy in store anyway
    I agree DO buy on-line. But first go to a shop try, find the guitar you want, buy it on-line THEN take it to a luthier to get it set up. What you save on the guitar on-line you'll spend on the set-up, but you'll have a more playable instrument.
    This could be helpful but if you don't already play guitar to begin with, you'll most likely never come to UG and see this
    I'd add in that it's a good idea to buy used from Craigslist or similar. The secondary market is full of things you may not find in shops and for the same money you can find nicer instruments that are still in very good condition
    The only problem for a new player to buy used would be that they don't know what to look for to make sure that they aren't being ripped off. You can't trust buying used at music stores either, it's usually overpriced and sometimes not in as good of condition as they claim. If you want to go used and you don't have much experience take someone with more knowledge with you, but if you can do that used guitars are a great option.
    The article does make many valid points but one you missed was Form Vs. Function. Too many first-time buyers get something pointy or their favorite color instead of considering the features of the guitar. Using myself as an example, I started out with an ESP M100-fm. I so wanted to be like Kirk Hammett and Richard Kruspe. But I didn't realize that a guitar with very generic pickups and a Floyd Rose was not the end all be all. After many years and a few upgrades, I grew to appreciate the nuances of the guitar. moral of the story, sweat the important details and don't buy for looks or because its a sig model. its your bread going in to it.
    Some people don't mind the generic pickups and stock hardware. It's all about personal preference. The most important thing is to try the guitar before you buy it. If it sounds good to you and it feels right then it doesn't matter if it isn't the end all be all, best guitar in the world. I've been very happy with my mid-range ESP/LTD guitars. Plus I'm not scared to gig with them and have them stolen or not have fun/move around while playing for fear of damaging them, because I can afford to replace them if necessary.
    I bought a really shitty strat knock off + amp combo for like NZ$120 (prob around US$80?) for my first guitar, and it was awesome. The instrument was a bit shit, didn't stay in tune well, pickups sounded quite hollow.. But it got me into playing, and gave me something to work with. There was no way I was ever going to be able to save enough for a decent guitar at that time, and had I ever gotten that much money together, I probably would have opted to getting a drumkit instead. Cheap guitars are a great way to get into playing, and (IMO) beginner players are better off with a cheap nasty electric, than with a borrowed acoustic (simply because, until your hands work, acoustic takes a lot of extra force to fret properly, and the focus on the technique required to generate the sound, detracts from your ability to learn the creative side of your instrument and actually just explore it)
    I disagree about not starting on an acoustic. In the beginning it is better to get the technique and strengthen your fingers because you don't know enough about playing to really get too creative and then once you can afford an electric you'll have enough experience to start exploring what you can do and be creative.
    I think the biggest factor is be careful when buying any instrument under £100. Buy a guitar and Amp made by a known big brand. It may cost you a bit more but the manufacturers standard will be there. Even the cheapest ibanez/fender/gibson will play well so long as its looked after.
    Actually I (partially) disagree and wanted to add this comment specifically. Not sure what you meant by "big brand", but either way, go for an established brand but look BEYOND the super-big names of Fender and Gibson. Plenty of respected and well-established brands that offer better guitars for slightly less price, because they don't ride on their popularity made in the '50s - Schecter, Jackson or LTD, to name a few. In doubt, use the power of the internets to see if anyone has anything particularly good/bad to say on the guitar you'd like to buy.
    I highly agree. Sometimes Squier and Epiphone is a little over priced for the quality and materials used just because they are linked with such big name companies. I've heard Epiphones that (to me) sounded terrible and my uncle's Squier had some serious fret buzz and rough frets (that with some work was fixed). I love my ESP/LTD guitars. I also have tried some Schecters and liked the sound, but I'm not a huge fan of their look. Dean is supposedly a good company too, but I've never played one.
    I'd like to add something here, as an aspiring guitarist: There's nothing wrong with fucking up with your first purchase. I bought an Epi LP Special II. It's not the best guitar ever by far, but it does the job just fine. It was the cheapest thing I could get that wasn't begging to be smashed as a prop on a punk festival (one of the guitars I saw at the shop almost seemed like it was pieced back together after the fact!). And yeah, it's a bit of a struggle to play it... ...but at the low stage I'm at, I'm not exactly sure if it's the struggle of a bad guitar or if it's the struggle of a beginner who still has baby fingers and lack of dexterity. I'm somewhat enjoying the experience, despite sometimes not finding time to practice much; but I don't know if the guitar is calling me or if I'm just that enthusiastic about learning. Would a "better guitar" bewitch me into carrying it everywhere and play it non-stop forever, or would I find that I suck just as much and struggle just as much even though others say the guitar is the best instrument ever to grace this unworthy Earth? I bet the latter would happen.
    Let me speak from experience homie: I started off with an SX strat knockoff. Action was almost an inch off of the fretboard at its highest point. I practiced as much as I could on that thing, when I finally went to a 'better' guitar (just a schecter omen 6 diamond series), I played twice as comfortable IMMEDIATELY! My advice, go with what you got. Learn as much as you can, then when you know that you are serious about your playing, invest in something that feels good for you. Also, a better guitar will not bewitch you to play more, that's all from the heart. If you are not tempted to play your turdwrangler, then your prolly not gonna be inclined to play an expensive guitar
    Only get a guitar with a tremolo if you really plan to use it. A good tremolo is expensive whereas a cheap guitar with a fixed bridge can actually sound good, play well and last a while. This is not going to happen with a guitar with a cheap tremolo. A guitar with a fixed bridge is easier to tune and adjust for intonation and the like. So if you're pumped up and ready to go, the tedious process (for a new guitar player) of tuning such a guitar could kill the passion. And chances are that most of the time when you're practicing or jamming, you won't effectively use the tremolo anyway. Spend the money you saved on a proper setup. Low action and all that is nice, but it is probably going to take a while for you to discover that your intonation is off which caused everything played higher up the neck to sound bad. Eventually you'll be able to do it yourself, but it is nice to start out right. You know, Ikea is nice and fun but you can't give the baby the wood, bolts, allen key and manual and expect her to build her own bed.
    Almost any guitar from a name brand should be at least a good playable instrument. These companies have a record to uphold.
    Hey guys how about this: stop bitching about the money, all of you cheap north americans don't know anything about not having enough money to buy a guitar. $100 guitars??? are you fucking kidding me? how much money do you make per month? the average salary for a cashier in the states is about 15/24K per month, and a GIBSON LES PAUL STANDARD costs about 3/4k if i'm not wrong. Here in ARGENTINA the average salary for a lawyer is about 20.000 PESOS, and do you know how much a les paul costs here? I'll tell you. 60.000 PESOS. That's 3 times the average payment of a lawyer. And I bought one the past month, you can imagine how difficult it is to get a good guitar here. My point is that if you are planning on playing guitar for the rest of your life, don't be a cheap bastard and get a les paul or a strat or whatever you want, but get a good quality instrument. Truts me, i know everything about cheap guitar/bass guitar, I been dealing with that shit for the past 10 years, and the difference between a SQUIER strat and a FENDER strat is beyond my words.
    What? Cashiers making 15K per month? Someone has been pulling your leg, pal.
    Way Cool JR.
    I'm sure cashiers here in the USA are making more like minimum wage. So that means that it's closer to $1k-$1.1k a month. That is barely enough to pay the bills and regular living expenses here in the States. People making that kind of money living on their own will have to save for quite a long while to afford/get a $3k-$4k guitar.
    With knowledge, tools, you can properly setup some junky chinese stuff and make it pretty playable. I'm still rockin an Epiphone LP Special II and basic Squier. I've owned some higher end stuff (I suppose they are "mid-range") But I see no reason to upgrade. I've got the truss rods adjusted perfected for the string gauges and tunings I play them in, frets sanded to accomodate what the truss couldn't fix. The action is perfect on the Squier. And tuner's on the Epiphone are fantastic.
    My advice would be, if you're thinking about buying your first guitar, is think before you buy. Are you going to end up being as good as Steve Via or someone like that ? If not, why waste your time and money? There are a billion bad to average guitarists in the world and a tiny fraction that actually play thier instrument to a level that impresses people instead of making them roll their eyes, waiting for it to be over. That's why i quit, because what's the point if you're not going to be any good ? BE SURE that you have the skills needed to make it a worthwhile purchase. Better still save your money and buy a DJ deck or keyboard instead, cuz at least you can get a computer to do a lot of the work for you.
    Buy used whenever possible. More often than not, those Epi Les Pauls that retail for $500-600 can be had for $250-300 used and in good condition.
    40 years ago I had a beautiful SG Special that I bought from a friend, wonderful neck - just a great guitar. Sometime after college I moved away, sold the guitar and stopped playing. Then about 4 years ago I started to pick it up again and made a guest appearance with my old band. We were never going to play together more than a couple of times a year, so I couldn't justify spending $1K for a new SG. I went to Guitar Center and started going through the various models. Turned out the one I enjoyed playing more than anything else (less than $500) was an Epiphone SG Junior model, with a slightly shorter scale and a single pickup for $90. These days with a little modeling you can make it sound like anything you want, so my advise is to find something that feels right in your hands. Adjustable bridges and truss rods can fix most intonation problems, and the Squires and Epiphones have basically the same hardware as their more expensive kin. I ended up playing more often than I thought, so I splurged and bought a real Telecaster I liked - on sale it was still under $500 - but I doubt I'll be trading up again. Now, as for an amp....
    A teacher I had once bought a $100 fake strat from China, he had it scalloped and it was an awesome guitar. But I figured he got lucky...
    Totally agree, the best guitar I ever owned (ESPT LTD EX-401) was purchased in a guitar shop and I ACTUALLY got to try it out, I got rid of the next 3 (LTD EC1000, LTD Snakebyte and Schecter Custom) that I bought online because they were shit!
    Last night I handed down my 14 year old Epi LP Special I to a young man serious about playing but who was burdened by what I believe is the worst "package" Strat copy known to man. It was a miserable guitar. The Epi Special felt like a Gibson Custom compared to that POS. I'm in 100% agreement that if your seriously going to take up learning the guitar that you save the $$$ ($200 or better)and find a REAL instrument that will reward your efforts with a decent sound and good playing action...NOT one of those pressboard bow-necked "package" deal toy guitars.
    A point about borrowing guitars form people to begin learning: good idea and people might give you their guitar for free. Most of my guitars have been birthday presents or gifts. though nothing has been extremly nice
    I paid AUS $60 for a strat copy and amp. Took it to play at work during lunch times. It's been perfect for learning until I get a decent guitar.
    My first electric was an epiphone les paul trad pro that I got on a really good deal. I love that guitar. With the exception of the bridge pickup, I would record with it
    Guitarus Rex
    Amen! I have an Epi LP 1960 Tribute that is an EXCELLENT guitar - that I HAVE recorded with and played onstage. I also took my 1980 Gibson LP Custom and it stayed in the case all night. Newer Epiphones are legit. The push-pull knobs even split the coils.