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Choosing Your First Electric Guitar

You're interested in purchasing your first electric guitar. Great! But guitars are expensive, and you want to make an informed purchase. Problem is there's a lot of info out there and, this being your first guitar, you don't know how to filter out what's irrelevant.

No problem. I'll walk you step-by-step through everything you need to know.

1. Budget

Guitars are expensive. You want to avoid two pitfalls: Spending too little and winding up with a guitar you'll struggle to learn on, or spending too much and having it go to waste if you find it's just not for you.

The good news: The quality of sound in an electric guitar is not determined by its cost. This is because the elements that actually produce the bulk of a guitar's tone are fairly inexpensive. A good-sounding guitar can be found at any price point.

Where a guitar's price tag shows itself is in the quality of its materials, and more importantly, the level of direct human involvement in manufacturing. What this means is that expensive guitars are more likely to be well-built and therefore easier and more comfortable to play.

However, inexpensive guitars are really good these days, compared to even a decade ago. While I would avoid the absolute cheapest options on the market, you can get a solid instrument for around $200 USD if you know where to look. I bought one of my favorite guitars brand-new for $185, and I love it just as much as my $2.5k one.

My advice: Try to buy your first guitar in person. Bring a friend who plays or ask an employee to look over the guitar you're interested in and assess it for any major defects that could cause tuning or playability issues. Ask them to check the fretwork, the neck for warping, and nut slot height. Nearly every part of an electric guitar can be modified or upgraded with relative ease, expense aside. So long as the neck and fretwork are okay, you can always replace the hardware later on.

Budget brands and brands with budget options include Yamaha, Squier (by Fender), Epiphone (by Gibson), LTD (by ESP), Ibanez, and Schecter. Harley Benton is an increasingly popular budget brand but as they don't sell retail, you will be unable to try one out in person before buying.

There are additional accessories you may need to purchase alongside your guitar. These include:

  • An extra set of strings. They will break from time to time. This is normal, and you'll want extras on hand when they do. Ask for an additional pack of the same size when you get your guitar set up. Any brand is fine.

  • A pack of picks (or "plectrums"). Picks come in many different sizes, shapes, and materials. Any will do, but you may want to start with a medium gauge (around 0.7mm). A variety pack is great for finding out which ones you like.

  • A strap if you intend to play while standing.

  • A tuner. This is a device which tells you whether your guitar is in tune and by how much. Some plug directly into your guitar, others use a microphone, and others clip onto your headstock to read its vibrations. I like clip-ons because they're immediately accessible and I can use them in a noisy environment. You can also tune by ear to another instrument or even a YouTube video if you need to. There are free phone apps for this purpose as well.

  • A case to transport and store it safely. Soft, padded cases are called gig bags. Hard cases are more expensive, but provide more protection.

  • A 1/4" TS cable for plugging into a tuner, amplifier, or audio interface. 10' or 15' in length and any brand is fine. Expensive cables can have a little more clarity, but not enough to be worth shelling out for right away.

These accessories altogether will add maybe $50 - $150 to your budget, mostly depending on what kind of case you choose. A practice amp will set you back another $50 or so. More on that later.

2. Aesthetics

I'm going to be upfront with you:

The most important part of your first guitar purchase is its aesthetic appeal.

The guitar has a steep learning curve, and there will be times that you get frustrated with practicing. You will want an instrument that inspires you to play it — something you look at across the room and can't help but pick up.

When you're new, everything about the feeling and sound of a guitar in your hands will be foreign to you, so buy a guitar you can connect with at a glance.

Don't worry so much about the style of music you want to play — you can play any kind of music on any kind of guitar. Electric guitars sound more similar than they sound different, especially when amplified and recorded. It's more important to start somewhere comfortable and customize or upgrade later on. Guitars are very modular instruments.

With that in mind, let's go over some basic things to keep in mind when looking for your first guitar.

3. Body Type

Guitars come in many shapes and sizes. These shapes are associated with particular brands or models, but you'll find that they're common to most manufacturers. I've put the generic names in parentheses.

Probably what you think of when you think of a guitar. When paired with a Floyd Rose bridge, additional frets, or humbucker pickups, it's sometimes called a "superstrat".

Much like S-types, but one of the "horns" is rounded out. They're popular in the indie J-Rock scene these days.

An unorthodox shape that most either love or hate. They sometimes include extremely detailed pickup selection settings for guitarists who are particular about their sound.

The other shape you probably imagine when you think of a guitar. With only one cutaway, it may be slightly harder to reach the upper frets. Hasn't stopped most people.

Like an LP but with a second cutaway. Can be top-heavy. My favorite guitar is one.

These body types are often closely associated with certain features. For example, T-type guitars tend to also have single-coil pickups, whereas LP-types are rarely seen with them. This isn't a rule, however, so don't give up if you have your heart set on a particular body type but want a feature that's not commonly paired with it.

This is not an exhaustive list of body shapes, and not every manufacturer calls them by these names, but they will give you a place to start looking. Pick one you like and try holding it. If it's comfortable to you, go for it.

A note for those who are left-handed: Left-handed guitars exist, though in far fewer quantities than right-handed guitars. You may have to look online to find what you want.

4. Color & Finish

Electric guitars come in almost any color you can imagine. Custom paint jobs are expensive, so get a color you like.

When it comes to the finish, there are two basic kinds:

  • Gloss finishes are shiny and gleam in the sun. They're pretty, but some people don't like them because they can feel "sticky" if your hands sweat a lot.

  • Satin finishes are simple and smooth both to the eye and touch. They can become shiny over time at points where your hand or arm frequently rubs against them, which some people dislike.

Many guitars have semi-transparent or natural finishes so that you can see the wood grain and color underneath. Since every guitar is made of a different piece of wood, the exact nature of these patterns will differ, even in the same manufacturing line.

By the way, if you want a snow-white guitar, keep in mind that it will likely yellow with age. Many guitarists look forward to this, but if that doesn't sound appealing to you, you may consider a different color.

5. Wood Type

The necks and bodies of electric guitars are made of wood. Wood type has an impact on the tone of a guitar. This effect is fairly pronounced in acoustic guitars, but in electric guitars, these disparities are negligible. I recommend choosing the type of wood that you most like the appearance of, particularly on the fretboard.

6. Neck Joint

The neck joint is the point where the neck meets the body of the guitar. There are three kinds of neck joints.

  • Bolt-on necks are screwed into the body of the guitar. This makes them easy to repair or replace if damaged, but the neck heel can sometimes get in the way when playing up high. Some manufacturers have low-profile "all-access" bolt-on joints that alleviate this problem.

  • Set necks are glued into the body of the guitar. They sound "richer" acoustically than guitars with bolt-on necks, though this has little impact when amplified. Some people find them more comfortable to hold. The downside is that if the neck is ever damaged or broken, repairing it is a difficult and expensive procedure.

  • Neck-through designs run all the way through the body of the guitar. As a result, the upper frets are very easy to access, because there is no neck heel to get in the way. They carry the same downside as set neck guitars.

If you're worried about damaging the neck, bolt-on is the way to go. If upper-fret access and comfort is more valuable to you, go with a set neck or neck-through design. These neck joints also affect the sustain, or how long it takes for a note to die out. This difference is negligible when amplified.

7. Scale Length

The scale length of a guitar is the distance between the nut and the bridge, and impacts how far apart the frets are. On most guitars, this distance is either 25.5" or 24.75". If you have particularly small hands, you might feel more comfortable on the shorter scale length, but most guitarists can adapt just fine to either.

8. Pickup Configuration

Pickups are electromagnets that sit under the strings on the body of the guitar. They're responsible for converting the motion of the strings into an electrical signal which can be amplified. More than anything else, pickups have the greatest effect on the tone of a guitar. These come in two types:

  • Single-coil pickups are bright and thin-sounding. They have a tendency to hum slightly when in use, a property that many find charming, though some brands sell "noiseless" single-coils.

  • Humbuckers look like two single-coils wound together, because they are. This has the benefit of cancelling out single-coil hum, thus the name. They're darker and fatter-sounding, with more volume output, so many players prefer them for heavy music.

Pickups can also be passive or active. Active pickups have a higher output than passive pickups and are sometimes preferred by metal players for this reason. They are powered by a 9V battery in the back of the guitar, which usually only needs to be changed once a year (if that). Passive pickups tend to have more clarity of detail, though this difference isn't extreme.

Most guitars will have two or three pickups, called "bridge", "middle", or "neck" pickups depending on their position relative to the body. A selector switch is used to activate one or more pickups, and most guitars have volume and tone knobs to further balance the character of the sound.

Pickups are a rabbit hole, so if it feels overwhelming, don't worry about it. You can easily change their height (and therefore tonal character) or change them, so don't worry about being stuck with the pickups you have. If you're a hard rock or metal fan, you may want a humbucker in the bridge position. If the blues is more your thing, you may prefer single coils in all positions ("SSS"). If ultimate versatility is your goal, an "HSS" (a humbucker at the bridge, a single-coil at the neck, and another single-coil in-between) or "HSH" configuration is ideal. An "HH" config plus "coil split" (a feature that disengages part of the humbucker to mimic a single-coil sound) is also a great choice.

9. Bridge

The bridge of a guitar is where the strings meet the body. These come in many forms, but they boil down to two types:

  • Tremolo bridges have a detachable lever ("tremolo arm" or "whammy bar") which is used to create pitch-bending effects on both single notes and entire chords. There are many kinds of tremolo systems, and some of them are made for more extreme use than others. They are useful, but they can be difficult to manage and keep in tune.

  • Hardtail (or "fixed") bridges lack the ability to create these pitch-bending effects, but are significantly more stable tuning-wise. They're reliable and easy to work with.

You can still bend notes on a guitar with a hardtail bridge. You can even apply (very subtle) vibrato to chords by gently rocking the body of the guitar. You just can't get the more extreme effects a tremolo bridge would allow. You can replace a hardtail bridge with a tremolo bridge later on, but this can be expensive.

If the guitar you want has a tremolo system but you don't want to use it, simply remove the arm and leave it alone. If it's a "floating" bridge and the tuning instability irritates you, it can be blocked temporarily or permanently with household objects.

10. Cautions

While most kinds of guitars make great beginner choices, there are three that I would caution you to consider carefully if you're new.

1. Guitars with double-locking tremolo systems (Floyd Rose, Edge Tremolo)

Floyd Roses are the Ferrari engines of guitar bridges. They are complex mechanisms that allow for tremendous tuning stability and wild pitch-bending effects, but are difficult and tedious to maintain. Everything from tuning to string-changing is significantly more complex on a Floyd than on a traditional bridge, and they make certain kinds of bends harder to play in tune.

As a newbie, you'll have enough to deal with already, so I recommend avoiding these on your first guitar, unless you are specifically interested in playing Van Halen or Steve Vai-type music. If you have to have one, consider temporarily blocking the bridge while you get the basics down. You can do it with household objects.

2. Guitars with unorthodox body types

Flying V's, Explorers, Warlocks, and the like may look badass, but they can be uncomfortable to play while sitting, and may require expensive cases to fit them. If you really want one (and don't mind paying a little more for the case), try the shape you want in person first and see how it feels.

3. Extended-range guitars

7, 8, and 9-string guitars allow you to play very low and very high notes and are great for extreme metal (or jazz, for some). For beginners, however, they can be unwieldy and may compound your troubles when learning to mute, how to form chords, and so on. If your interest lies in low-tuned music, all you have to do is put thicker strings on your guitar and tune it down. If you need to get really low, a baritone 6-string will do the job.

11. Amplification

Electric guitars were made to be amplified. While you can practice unplugged (I do all the time), you'll probably want a small practice amp of some kind. Any amp will do, but if you can budget above $100, they'll sound better. If space, noise, or budget is an issue, a headphone amp is also an option.

Just check to see if the amp has a distortion circuit or not — if not, you'll need a distortion pedal to get that sound. Don't worry about effect pedals right away. You'll get better results if you practice without them.

12. After Your Purchase

If all these options start to overwhelm you, stick to finding a guitar in your budget that you like the look and feel of. Even though some guitars may be better-suited to certain styles than others, any guitar can be used for any kind of music.

If you can, pay a guitar tech to give your guitar a basic "setup" soon after you purchase it. This is a general maintenance procedure that's typically performed annually and will likely be necessary when buying for the first time to get your guitar in good playing condition. You may be asked to choose a set of strings, because they're often replaced during a setup. Ask for the same gauge that's currently on it. If you don't know, the tech will be able to determine it. If you have an interest in tuning lower than standard, this is a good time to communicate that, as lower tunings require thicker strings. Most guitars can be tuned down on the fly, but if you intend for it to "live" in a low tuning, it's best to have it set up for that purpose.

When you first begin playing, be prepared for your guitar to go out of tune frequently. This is not an indication that you made the wrong purchase or that you've done something wrong. Guitars need to be tuned often, but your guitar also needs time to acclimate to your home or studio, and new strings need to be stretched out. It should stabilize within a few weeks.

Your first guitar will take you a long way if you take the time to make an informed purchase. When in doubt, see where your heart takes you and follow it. Good luck.


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