You’re the absolute best friend/parent/partner in the world and you’ve decided to buy someone a guitar as a present. Presumably you’re reading this because you’ve quickly realised that buying the right guitar is an absolute minefield. Not only are there so many more types of guitar than you thought, but everyone has an opinion on which one is ‘best’ and which one you should start learning on. The safest option is obviously just to take the lucky recipient to a guitar store and let them pick one out for themselves, but a lot of people prefer the element of surprise. So if you’re set on buying one in secret, here’s a few things to bear in mind when you’re looking.
1. Research your player.
You’re going to want to do a little digging to see what your friend likes. You probably have a decent idea of their music tastes already, so spend some time watching videos of the musicians they like. The first question to ask yourself is “Are they most commonly seen holding an electric or an acoustic guitar?” This will give you your first step towards breaking down your options a little.
A lot of people will tell you that you ‘should’ start learning on an acoustic because it toughens you up for when you graduate to electric guitars. And a lot of people will tell you you should start on an electric because they’re typically easier, and you’ll feel like you’re progressing more. Both arguments are flawed, the instrument you should get is the one that’s going to inspire you to keep playing even when it gets difficult, and that often means the one that your favourite musicians play.
2. Acoustic Options.
If your friend is more likely to want an electric guitar you can skip ahead to the next section. If you’re going with an acoustic you have two main options to consider. Nylon or steel string. The difference here is mainly musical, steel string guitars are the ones you’ll usually see being used for pop and folk music, whereas nylons are more typical of classical and Spanish styles. Again you’ll want to go back to the videos you watched and see if the musicians your friend likes were playing steel or nylon stringed guitars. Here's a couple of visual clues you can use to figure it out if you're unsure.
A common piece of advice I’ve seen given is that nylon guitars are better beginner guitars because the strings are softer. Whilst that is true, they also have much wider necks, making reaching tricky chords a lot harder for a beginner, so there’s a trade off. Nylon string guitars tend to have a much softer sound, so someone who is looking to strum along to their favourite rock and pop songs, rather than play classical tunes, may quickly become disappointed and find themselves looking for a new guitar. Again, the guitar that is best is the one that keeps you wanting to play. There are a couple of common issues to look out for on acoustic guitars, skip ahead to section 4 to see how to deal with those.
3. Electric Options.
If your friend is more likely to want an electric guitar you have a few things to consider. The main sound-altering differences between electric guitars are in the pickups. Pickups are essentially magnets wound with wire that “pick up” (clever eh?) on the vibrations of the strings. There are two main types, and they sound quite different.
Single coils. These are usually characterised by a brighter, slightly twangier sound, are common in pop, rock and funk music.
Humbuckers. These pickups have a much stronger signal, and are most commonly heard in heavier rock music, and also jazz. They come in a couple of different forms. You'll find examples of what single coils and humbuckers look like in the image below.
As before, you’re going to want to refer back to the musicians your friend listens to. You should be able to see what kind of pickups their guitar has. Some guitars even come with a mixture of single coils and humbuckers. Both can be used for any genre of music, but getting what your friend wants will ensure they get a sound they love from their guitar.
Because the pickups are the main source of sound for an electric, guitar builders are able to take more liberties with the designs. The two most common body shape styles are the Stratocaster and the Les Paul. Many other guitar makers have designs based on these classic shapes, and they’re a pretty safe bet. However if your friend likes things unusual there are a few other shapes to consider (google 'flying V' they're completely impractical but some people love them!). Because the sound doesn't reverberate around the body before reaching the pickups, the shape of the guitar won’t affect its sound in the same way it would an acoustic, so you’re free to go with the style you think they’ll like.
4. Common issues to watch out for.
The main issues you’re going to want to watch out for when purchasing a new guitar are the ones that are going to make it difficult to play. You don’t want your friend to be slamming it in to the wall a month after they unwrap it because they can’t get through a song!
Action. This is the biggest one that can get in the way of learning to play the guitar. The action is the gap between the strings and the neck of the guitar, the bigger that gap, the harder it is to play. The ideal action for a guitar should be a few millimetres, and it should be roughly the same across the length of the neck. If it’s too high, or not even, ask the shop to set the guitar up for you. If it can’t be set up to a comfortable playing height, look for another guitar. An example of a fairly good action is shown in the picture below.
Neck Width. This is a variable amongst guitars that many guitarists hold different preferences on. Take a look at the chart on this page to learn a little more about them. http://mycoolguitars.com/guitar-neck-profiles-and-measurements/ If you’re buying somebody their first guitar I would usually recommend a thinner neck. If they already own a guitar you’ll have to do some subtle questioning and find out what they think of the neck on it. Take some pictures with you to the guitar shop to help the attendant pick out the right neck for you.
Fret height. The fret wires are the strips of metal that divide up the neck and allow you to play different notes. They should all be identical in height, fluctuations can cause problems. Once the guitar is set up have the shop attendant play every fret on every string for you. If any of the notes buzz or don’t ring out at all and the attendant can’t fix it, pick up another guitar.
Intonation. The intonation refers to how well the guitar stays in tune when played all across the neck. Typically when a beginner starts playing they mostly start at the left end of the neck, and then eventually learn to use all the other frets. A poorly intonated guitar will go gradually more and more out of tune the further up the neck they play, causing them to be put off playing altogether. On electric guitars the intonation is usually easy to adjust. Have the attendant check it for you and adjust it if necessary. On an acoustic guitar adjusting the intonation is much harder, if it’s significantly out of tune in the higher notes you definitely want to pick up another guitar.
Sound. I mention this last of all, but it is of course the most important thing. Have the shop attendant play you the guitar, maybe even name some of the artists your lucky recipient likes and get them to play the tunes back to you. Ignore what the shop assistant tells you and listen to how the guitar sounds. If you live with the person you're buying it for you're going to be hearing this guitar a lot. Do you like the sound it makes?
So hopefully that’s helped clear a few things up for you. If you have any additional thoughts or questions on what to look for in a guitar go ahead and write them in the comments below. Otherwise. Good luck!
If you want to get some guitar lessons to go along with your present, contact me to see what I can do for you. Vouchers and special offers are available.