Electric guitar buying made easy

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Depending on your circumstances, choosing an electric guitar will either be a relatively easy decision or it won’t. For beginners, with so much choice, it can be particularly mind boggling, but fear not – we can shine a guiding light on the entire process!

There’s tons of variables in this scenario but in our opinion there are three things that will directly influence your ultimate decision: budget; feel; and sound. We’ll discuss each in detail.

Budget

Budget is probably the most important consideration because it will have the biggest influence on everything else.

In some cases, you’ll have a fixed budget and that will significantly influence the guitar you choose. If you only have $500 to spend, there’s little point looking at a $3,000 PRS or Gibson Les Paul. This will mess with your mind and make you resent the fact that you can’t afford what you want.

But take heart. The advent of low-cost manufacturing in countries like China, Indonesia and Mexico means that guitar giants like Gibson and Fender manufacture quality instruments made at lower prices.

This certainly wasn’t always the case. 20 or 30 years ago the budget end of the market was littered with absolute junk. Some of the virtually unplayable abominations available scarred would be players for life. But you had no choice. You had to pay big bucks for decent guitars.

Today it’s different and you don’t necessarily get what you pay for. A $1,800 US made Fender Stratocaster for example probably won’t sound three times as good as a $600 Mexican manufactured equivalent.

It will be a better guitar – better pickups, better hardware, perhaps better woods – but it won’t be THAT much better. The bar at the lower end of the market has been raised. You’ll always pay a premium for top quality brands and even more for vintage, highly collectible guitars – but that doesn’t means everything else is sub-standard. Far from it in fact.

Of course more experienced – and more affluent – guitarists will probably know exactly what they want. They may be looking for a particularly rare model or may have an extensive collection already and be looking for something specific. In these instances, choice won’t come into the decision – they know exactly what they want and they’ll be prepared to pay for it.

Feel (and look)

The clue here is in the title. Like a new suit, you want to make sure that the guitar feels right for you. If you’re on a budget, pop into your nearest music store, tell the assistant your price range and try all the guitars within that range.

We’re talking about things like weight, neck profile and body thickness here and of course how the thing looks is important. If you have small hands then you don’t want a guitar with a super chunky neck.

Also make sure that corners haven’t been cut in terms of build quality. Does the fingerboard feel smooth and free of sharp edges? Is the action (the distance between the strings and the neck) set up correctly? Too high and it’ll be difficult to play; too low and you may get fret buzz when you play certain frets.

Perhaps the most important thing is that the guitar stays in tune so make sure you put it through its paces in the shop. There really is nothing worse than having to retune every 10 minutes. It destroys enthusiasm, creativity and enjoyment – and you’ll get really hacked off.

Sound

Probably, the music you listen to will play a significant role in the music you want to play. If you’re a thrash metal axe wielding shredder, you’ll definitely need a different guitar to someone playing avant garde jazz in the corner of a bar somewhere.

So what can influence the sound of a guitar?

Guitar body wood: whilst it’s true that the choice of wood on an electric guitar isn’t nearly as influential on the sound as an acoustic, it still plays a part. The sound of an electric is caused by string vibration and pickups detecting that vibration via a phenomenon called electromagnetism. The ‘sound’ is then sent from the pickups to the output jack, through a cable to the amplifier.

The wood is part of the equation because different woods have different densities and therefore resonate differently. Unless you have a specific wood in mind, our advice is not to dwell on it too much – just be aware that it’s part of the mix.

Guitarists have their favorites – but no single piece of wood is the same as another and aging produces different characteristics again, so it really is down to personal choice.

Common guitar body woods include alder, ash, Korina, maple, mahogany and basswood.

Guitar body types

Not too much choice here – three basic flavors: solid body; semi-hollow and hollow.

Solid body

Without wishing to state the obvious, solid body guitars are manufactured from a solid piece of wood. Unquestionably, there are more solid body guitars on the market than any other and the choice is vast.

Example models include Stratocasters, Jaguars and Telecasters from Fender, and Les Pauls, SGs, Flying Vs and Explorers from Gibson. Solid body guitars have plenty of sustain and are less prone to feedback than semi-hollow and hollow variants. They’re pretty useless unamplified.

Semi-hollow guitars

Semi-hollow guitars are essentially hollow with the inner chamber divided into two by a block of wood that runs through the middle. They’ll often feature two ‘F’ holes in the guitar body.

The de facto semi-hollow guitar is the Gibson ES-335 as used by hordes of artists over the years from B.B King to Dave Grohl. Great for blues and jazz but also used extensively in rock. Just watch the feedback when you crank up the volume and distortion.

Hollow Body instruments (archtops)

Well they’re hollow. There’s no wood block inside and they’re widely used by jazz musicians for their warm, mellow tone. They feedback like a banshee at high gain so they’re not the best fit for rock guitarists but for jazz virtuosos, models like the Gibson ES-175 are legendary.

 

electric guitar anatomy
Electric guitar anatomy

Necks and fingerboards

Essentially, there are three main woods used for fretboards on electric guitars: rosewood, maple and ebony with the first two being the most common.

Like many aspects of guitar construction, there’s a ton of subjectivity here. The rosewood vs maple debate has raged for years but there are differences in sound. You really need to try both to see what you prefer.

The choice of fretboard material is important because it’s the most tactile part of the guitar. Your fingers are in contact with it all the time so the feel – and subsequent sound – needs to be right.

Be aware that we’re using words to describe sound here so it’s not an exact science. Maple is a hard, dense tonewood that is brighter and more percussive sounding than rosewood.

They are often (but not always) paired with maple necks (glued on) or are literally made from the same bit of wood. Fender Stratocasters and Telecasters are famous examples. Rosewood on the other hand has a warmer, darker, mellower sound.

Ultimately, the fingerboard flavor you choose will, to a large extent, depend on the type of music you’re playing. The darker sound of a rosewood board may suit your genre – or you may prefer the bite and tonal brightness of a maple fretboard?

Although comparatively rare, we should mention ebony fretboards. These are less common but their dark, smooth appearance and ‘brighter than rosewood’ sound will appeal to some. Ebony fretboards feel particularly smooth to play.

Can you see the join?

Somewhat obviously, the guitar neck needs to be attached to the body somehow and for all intents and purposes, there are three main methods.

Set necks

With set neck guitars, the body and neck are joined in perfect harmony via a mortise and tenon or dovetail joint and then glued – so they’re difficult to repair. They offer good resonance transfer between neck and body and the fact that they’re used extensively on Gibsons in combination with humbuckers indicates that they produce nice, fat, warm tones.

PRS is a fan of the set neck approach also.

Bolt on necks

Here, a heel on the base of the neck fits snugly into a pocket in the guitar body and are held together with four screws on a neck plate.

Fender use bolt-on necks because they lend themselves well to the bright, snappy, twangy tones – particularly with maple necks – that single coil instruments like Stratocasters produce. An advantage of bolt-on necks is that they can be replaced in the case of a breakage or interchanged with different neck materials for greater tonal variety.

They are also the cheapest means of attaching a neck to a guitar body.

bolt-on neck
Fender Stratocaster showing bolt-on neck and neck-plate

 

Straight through necks

With a straight through neck, as the name suggests, the guitar neck is an integral part of the guitar body and extends the whole length of the instrument down the centre of the body. The Gibson Firebird is a famous example.

So which is best?

Well if you want a Stratocaster, you’ll get a bolt-on neck. If you want a Les Paul, it’ll be a set neck. If you want a certain type of guitar, the neck choice will be decided for you.

Generally, on the sustain and resonance front, through necks are the dog’s dangly bits simply because it’s a single piece of wood running the length of the guitar, but set necks are no slouches in this department either.

Our advice is not to get too hung up on the neck attachment method. The guitar you choose will be based on things like overall sound, feel and budget and, unless you’re particularly anal about these things, the way the neck attaches to the body will be almost academic in the overall scheme of things.

Pickups

Apart from the human being playing the thing, body style and pickups collectively have the biggest influence on an electric guitar’s sound so let’s talk about pickups.

In principal It’s not rocket science. Play an electric guitar unamplified and it sounds thin, weedy and anaemic; plug it in and it comes to life. So what’s the magic ingredient in-between? Yep you guessed it – pickups – and they come in two basic formats, single coil and humbucker.

The most basic original pickup designs were single coil. You’ll find three of these on the vast majority of Fender Stratocasters, Telecasters and guitars of that ilk. They comprise a magnet with wire wrapped around it which creates a magnetic field. When you pluck a string, the vibrations are converted into an electrical signal.

Single coil pickup guitars sound thinner than their humbucking stablemates – but in a good way. They offer a bright, crisp sound characterised by some pretty legendary players down the years – Jimi Hendrix, Eric Clapton, Mark Knopfler and a million others.

The classic three single point pickup configuration often comes with a five way selector switch. Selecting position no. 4 – a combination of middle and bridge pickup gives you that characteristic quacky funky sound.

Single coil pickups are versatile: great for chorusy thin clean sounds but also ballsy overdriven, bluesy and distorted tones. A downside is that they’re pretty noisy – the dreaded 60 cycle hum has been annoying players for years and it can be distracting, particularly on quieter stuff.

The best way to eliminate this is to use a noise gate which offers a threshold-adjustable control which you can set to close at the same time as the hum and buzz kicks in. Noise gates can be software derived – they’re available in most guitar amp software packages like Overloud TH-U and Amplitube – or in rack mounted/pedal hardware formats.

Properly set, they work really well.  We found this video to be particularly useful in discussing ways to eliminate or minimize single coil pickup hum.

By definition, humbucker pickups were designed to minimize hum. Two single coils wound together with opposing magnet polarities result in much reduced buzz and hum.

The sound of humbuckers is different to single coil pickups. They lend themselves to heavier styles of music – think Slash, Angus Young, Billie Joe Armstrong – but they’re also extensively used for mellow jazz type applications.

Active Pickups and Electronics

Passive pickups – single coils and twin coil (humbuckers) – have been around for years but a comparatively recent development are active pickups from manufacturers such as EMG..

They still use coils of wire – only fewer – which means less output passively, but their circuitry incorporates a 9V battery powered preamp which boosts the signal significantly and offers greater control over Eq. This, coupled with the fact that active pickups are looser wound resulting in less hum, is their main attraction.

In general, passive pickups have a greater dynamic range than their active counterparts so if your playing style demands being able to play quiet parts one minute and then wailing like a banshee the next, then passive may be your best option. If you’re more of a full on player, then give active pickups a try.

Not surprisingly, they are popular with heavy metal guitarists and shredders. Active pickups are more aggressive tonally than passives. Bear in mind though that most guitars are passive.

Pickup switching configurations

Whilst single pickup guitars certainly do exist, in the majority of cases electric guitars feature more than one pickup. The three single coil pickups on a Fender Strat are a trademark feature both in terms of look and sound.

Similarly the twin humbuckers of a Gibson’s Les Paul and SG models are equally iconic. Although it should be noted that certain Strat models (HSS) feature a humbucking bridge pickups and three pickup Les Pauls and SGs are also available. There are many variants and configurations.

Electric guitars with multiple pickups also feature switching options to select use of individual pickups or combinations of two or more. This is achieved via rotary controls so you can effectively ‘mix’ outputs to achieve the desired tone, toggle switches or blade selectors depending on the model. Tone controls are also provided.

Other switching options found on some guitars can control phasing between pickups (like the 5-way selector switch on a Fender Strat) for more interesting tones or eliminating one coil of a humbucker, or toggle the output on and off.

Coil taps and coil splits

No they’re not the same thing, although it could be argued that operationally and sonically, the results are similar.

Coil splitting only applies to humbucker pickups. These use two coils of copper wire with inverse magnetic polarities allowing them to keep the lid on noise whilst producing a more powerful output than single coil pickups.

However it is possible to wire humbuckers in such a way so that one of the coils can be switched off. You instantly lose the hum cancelling capabilities and some of the output power  but you do get a sound more akin to conventional single coil pickups. Not exactly, but close.

This is coil splitting. Check out Charvel and Schecter guitars for examples or the PRS SE Custom.

Coil tapping is entirely different in terms of construction. Here you have a single coil of wire wound to a certain value which is then tapped off. Then the winding continues until the coil is completed. So there’s two windings.

In a guitar pickup, this could lead to a lead to single coil pickup capable of producing two different sounds – perhaps vintage and modern – from within the same pickup. The coil tap switch enables you to access the sounds from each winding step. Two sounds; same pickup.

That’s coil tapping. And this applies to humbuckers as well. Check out ESP guitars or Les Paul models from Epiphone.

As we’ve said the perceived results from both are similar. The way they get there is different. We should also emphasise that coil splitting is more common than coil tapping.

To whammy or not to whammy…

tremolo system
                               Bigsby tremolo system on a Gretsch semi-hollow guitar

If you’re a budding Gilmour, Beck, Vai or Marr, you’ll probably want a tremolo (whammy bar). These are great for guitar gymnastics and musical expression but if they’re poor quality they’ll put your guitar out of tune before you can say Hank Marvin.

There are a number of different types: Bigsby, which is a spring, rocker bridge style arrangement with great vintage looks and commonly used on hollow bodied guitars – Gretsch for example. Bigsby’s certainly look the part, but are prone to tuning issues.

Then we have the Fender synchronized tremolo unit first used on Stratocasters in 1954. The strings are fed through the rear of the guitar and the tremolo is part of an integrated bridge system, originally with six individually adjustable saddles which can be ‘tremoloed’ simultaneously (synchronized) to bend the pitch.

Today, Strat models use a two point stud pivot arrangement rather than the six saddles. In use the system is pretty stable.

Back in the day, the aforementioned Mr Marvin made effective use of tremolo quite subtly and effectively on songs like Apache but it was really Jimi Hendrix that pioneered the tremolo in conjunction with an overdriven guitar sound for some really dramatic ‘dive bombing’ and extreme vibrato effects. Messrs Marvin and Hendrix both used Fender Stratocasters.

The reality is however that use of a tremolo does put the tuning mechanism of the guitar under strain and you may well experience tuning problems. If your style dictates the use of a tremolo, there are dedicated locking systems – like those made by Floyd Rose – that are rock solid.

Basically, these involve cutting the ‘balls’ off the guitar strings and securing them, usually via Allen screws, at both the bridge and the nut on the guitar so the strings can’t move once they’re secured in place. Fine tuning is carried out by tuners at the bridge.

In essence, this means the string – at least theoretically – can’t go out of tune because the string is fixed at both ends of the guitar. The downside is that changing strings takes much longer than on conventional guitars.

If you don’t need a trem system, don’t get one. That’s the best advice.

Final thoughts

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Try before you buy: In this age of the Internet, it’s just so easy to buy stuff online, but in the case of buying an electric guitar, we’d really suggest popping down to your local music store and trying as many guitars as you can.

Apart from anything else, music stores should be supported and are worth their weight in gold. They offer advice, staff often have years of invaluable experience and it’s the only way you can get to physically get up close and personal with gear to see what feels best to you.

We don’t want to disrespect online sellers; they absolutely have a place, but for something as personal as a guitar that you’ll perhaps keep for years, you really need to know what you’re buying.

Decide your budget and just play loads of different models within that budget. Trust your instincts; you’ll know when something feels right.

Don’t forget the extras: with an electric, you’ll need an amplifier, strings, tuner, strap and perhaps a case so bear this in mind if you are on a budget. Guitars are usually set-up for a certain gauge of strings so ask questions in the shop.

We could be heroes: if you have a favorite guitarist then it makes sense to go for a similar guitar they use. Sometimes your guitar idol may have a signature model so if that’s affordable to you, this would be a good place to start.

Value for money: unless you’re after a specific guitar or have a pretty extensive collection already, consider buying a guitar with coil splits or taps. You’ll have the best of both worlds – humbucking and single coil pickups – or at least somewhere near it – from a single guitar.

New or used: we’ve made a massive assumption here that you’ll be buying new but of course there’s a very healthy second hand market out there.

Personally, unless you’re buying vintage, we’d recommend buying a new guitar from a reputable dealer. There’ll be a warranty and you’ve got peace of mind if things go wrong.

But there’s some great bargains to have second hand. The problem is you don’t always know what you’re getting. I once bought a US Fender Strat on eBay that was selling for a bargain price. I bought the guitar and it just wouldn’t stay in tune. Fortunately the seller was a decent guy and refunded me. I kind of learnt a lesson that day.

Whether you’re buying new or second hand, there’s a few basic things you should be looking for: are the frets excessively worn or damaged? Is the neck bowed or twisted? (check by looking straight down the neck from the tuners to the bridge).

Bend some strings and see if the guitar stays in tune. Do you like the action? Is it too high or low? Check the machine heads (tuners). Are they smooth and positive?

Check the hardware. Any crackle on the pickup selector switch or volume and tone controls? Is the guitar lead input jack working OK? Any crackling?

Fortunately, when buying new, even budget guitars are pretty good quality these days. If you’re a total beginner, you won’t go far wrong with reputable brands like Yamaha, Epiphone, Ibanez or Squier.

 

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