SO, YOU WANNA GUITAR, HUH?
So you want to buy a new guitar, but you don’t want to spend very much. For purposes of this article, we will define inexpensive as something between $100 and $200. We’re going to limit our choices to new guitars to keep things more simple, and because we have a greater chance of being able to return the guitar if we don’t like it.
In buying an affordable (cheap, inexpensive) new guitar we have a few different choices of what to do. The first place to look is online. There’s eBay, and music stores that not only are brick-and-mortar stores, but sell online as well. The first thing you want to check for is whether the seller accepts returns. You don’t want to get stuck with a crummy guitar and have to resell it. Ideally, the seller will pay for return shipping, but that’s not a given, that’s just a bonus.
WHERE TO GO?
Of course, buying online does not allow you to see the guitar in person. So you’re taking a greater chance that you end up with something you’re not happy with. If you want to buy a new inexpensive guitar locally, the best place to start is with a relatively small retail music store. Larger stores like Guitar Center are less likely to carry many of the less expensive brands. The best place to start looking is the Yellow Pages. Call the small local stores, and ask them what brands of electric guitars they sell. If they only carry the expensive brands, just keep looking. While you’re at it, ask them what price range of cheap guitars they offer. A small music store is more likely to be willing to dicker about price if the guitar is a little more expensive than you want to spend.
I LIKE THIS ONE!
Now let’s fast-forward to finding a small music store that handles some less expensive brands. For purposes of discussion, let’s assume that you’re interested in a Telecaster-style guitar, and you see a nice looking one hanging on the wall that happens to be in your price range. What’s your overall impression of the guitar? It’s basically as simple as whether it looks cheap, or whether it’s nice-looking. If it’s a nice-looking guitar, then you want to examine it more closely. Start at the top (the headpiece). Look at the tuners- are they cheap looking? If they are, that alone is going to tell you a lot about the guitar. Assume the tuners look halfway decent. Now look at the nut. Is the nut slotted correctly for the strings? Look at the fret ends- have the fret ends been dressed, or could you cut your hand on the fret ends if you are running your hand up and down the neck? Look at the finish on the neck of the guitar- is it smooth to the touch or lumpy? Are there imperfections in the finish? Do you see sanding scratches? If the finish and the neck are poor you can bet that the rest of the guitar is going to follow suit. Let’s assume the guitar has passed the tests so far. Check the fit of the neck in the neck pocket. Are there gaps? Has any filler been used? If so, at this point it’s time to move along to another store. Now we’ll look at the body. What’s your general impression of the finish? Is the finish even? Are there any bubbles, scratch marks, or buffing marks in the body? If so, once again it’s time to put the guitar down and try someplace else. Do the pickups sit squarely under the strings or are they not centered completely? You’d be surprised at how many costly guitars don’t have the pickups aligned to the strings. Look at the hardware- the bridge, the tailpiece if there is one… are they cheap pot metal castings, or are they decent looking? We’ll assume the guitar has volume and tone controls- are they loose or are they nice and snug in the body? Pick up the guitar, and sight line it to see if it’s straight vertically. If the guitar has been set up halfway properly there should be just a very slight outward bow to the neck- away from the strings just a bit. If the neck is bowed the other way, towards the strings, that tells you that the truss rod has not been adjusted correctly. If the neck is not straight horizontally, run away. Time to put the guitar down and move along. The point I’m trying to make here to know when to stop looking at the guitar. If the guitar has passed muster so far, generally looks good and doesn’t look cheap, then it’s time to plug it in and play it. Check every string on every fret to see if there are any dead spots or buzzing. Ask the store owner if a setup is included in the price or not. If not, you’re either going to pass up the guitar or you have some work to do. Do you know to set a guitar up yourself? If that’s the risk you’re willing to take, there might just be some simple adjustments needed like saddle and intonation set up or there could be something more serious going on.
YESSIR, I LIKE THE GUITAR
Now we come to the last part- tone. It’s as simple as this- do you like the way the guitar sounds? This is a very subjective topic. Tone depends on the guitar, the amp that it’s being played through, the strings, and your touch, so we’re not going to go into all of that if the guitar has passed muster so far, and it sounds pretty good. If you think you want to buy it, ask if you can talk the owner down if not in you’re comfortable with the price. Is there a case or gig bag included? If not, at least ask for a cheap gig bag. All he can say is “no”. So maybe you’ve just bought yourself a guitar! Once again, make sure that you can return it if you’re not happy with it. After you get the guitar home, go over it with a fine toothed comb for any flaws or defects etc., and determine whether it’s something you can live with or not. After living with the guitar a while, you may decide there are parts of the guitar you like and parts that you don’t. You might decide to part-out the guitar. Maybe you like the neck and the pickups, but you’re not crazy about the body. Keep the parts that you like and consider selling the parts that you don’t like on eBay. I’ve done this with several guitars and ended up with enough parts to put a whole guitar together that was to my liking.
THE BOTTOM LINE
So those are the basics of buying an inexpensive guitar. But, guess what? The same routine applies to ANY axe that you’re considering. Be smart, and go with your gut. The guitar may be screaming “NO!” at you- make sure you’re listening. I hope you find your dream machine.
Good luck, I hope this has helped. In any case, Rock On.