Don’t Buy A Guitar Without Reading This First

Buying a new guitar is exciting! However, it can also be a little intimidating if you don’t know what you’re looking for. You’re spending a lot of money, there are so many options, and even when you’ve narrowed it down, what if you buy the wrong one? Here are a few things you should consider to make sure that the guitar you bring home doesn’t have any ‘personality traits’ that are going to cause you trouble later on. These are things I look for when I’m buying a new guitar, and reading through this list should give you confidence next time you walk into the music shop with your wallet out. If you’re not 100% sure what you are looking for, I would still recommend having an experienced guitarist take a look before you buy a guitar.

Getting along with your guitar

You’re going to be spending a lot of time together, so you need to make sure it’s comfortable. Here are a few things to consider when you are getting a feel for the guitar:

  • Shape
  • Size
  • Weight
  • Scale length
  • Neck

Guitars come in all shapes and sizes, and you will definitely prefer playing some more than others. My main acoustic guitar is a Crafter JE36/N (below), and it has what’s known as a ‘Jumbo’ shape. As far as acoustic guitars go, it’s pretty big! Especially when you compare it to something like Ed Sheeran’s signature guitar (above).

Electric guitars have even more variety, although most are based on the two most well-known shapes: the Fender Stratocaster and the Gibson Les Paul. These guitars both feel extremely different to play, so make sure you try both to get a feel for which you prefer. One of the biggest differences between the Stratocaster and the Les Paul is the weight. Most Les Paul guitars are extremely heavy, and are not as well-balanced as the Strat. You’ll find the neck will tip upwards when you’re holding it, and it will either be extremely annoying, or you won’t mind.

Another significant difference between the Fender and Gibson guitars is the scale length, the distance between the nut of the guitar and the saddle. The distance between each fret of a guitar with a shorter scale length (like a Les Paul, which has a scale length of 24.75 inches) will be shorter than the distance between the frets of a guitar with a longer scale length (like the Stratocaster, which has a scale length of 25.5 inches). If you’ve got smaller hands, this is something  you want to consider.

The shape of the neck can also affect the way a guitar feels to play. Les Paul’s generally have quite a chunky neck that takes up a lot of space in your hand. The other extreme is something like an Ibanez RG, which has the thinnest and flattest neck Ibanez could create. There are quite a number of guitar neck shapes available, and they all feel different to play. Check out this image from My Cool Guitars to get an idea of the differences in shape.

Ask the guitar the hard questions

Once you have an idea of the feel of an instrument, it pays to check out the technical stuff to make sure the guitar is a quality instrument, and in good working order. You’ll want to be looking at the:

  • Action
  • Intonation
  • Frets and note clarity
  • Neck Straightness
  • Tuning stability

Action

Action refers to the distance between the strings of the guitar and the fretboard. If a guitar has ‘low action’, the strings will be extremely close to the fretboard. This often makes the guitar easier to play, and most shredders have guitars with extremely thin necks, and low action. When the action is too high, the guitar can be hard to play because you have to push the strings further down to get a good sound. When you are learning, make sure the action on your guitar isn’t too high. You don’t have to give up because you’re having a hard time getting your chords to sound good when the problem could easily be fixed. Make sure the action can be adjusted to your liking before you buy a guitar. This one thing will have a huge impact on how it feels to play, and if it isn’t able to be adjusted, don’t buy it.

Fender Stratocaster

Intonation

Intonation refers to how accurately the guitar stays in tune as you play notes further up the fretboard. If your intonation is out, everything you play above the third fret will sound terrible (depending on how bad the intonation is), so it’s a good idea to get it right. Use these steps to check the intonation of your instrument:

  1. Tune the open string
  2. Play the note at the 12th fret of the same string (one octave higher from the open string)

The note at the 12th fret should be perfectly in tune on all the strings. If it’s not, it means the intonation of your instrument needs adjusting. Again, don’t buy a guitar if the intonation cannot be set correctly. You will regret it.

Frets and note clarity

If the frets of the instrument you are buying are damaged or worn down you will need to replace them. You won’t have this problem when you are buying a new instrument, however you still need to check the frets for note clarity. You should be able to play every single note up and down the neck of the guitar and hear zero fret buzz or dead notes.  If you do hear fret buzz or dead notes, it is likely that the neck or the action needs adjusting. If you really want to take the instrument through its paces, try bending notes at different points up and down the fretboard, listening for fret buzz or dead notes.

Gibson Les Paul

Straightness of the neck

The straightness of the neck affects the action of the instrument at different points up the fretboard. If the action is extremely high at the 12th fret but not at the first fret, your guitar probably needs a neck adjustment. Do not try this yourself unless you know what you’re doing. You could easily damage your instrument. Check the straightness of the neck by holding the body of the guitar and looking down the bass and then the treble strings. There is a great slideshow at the end of this article that shows what this looks like.

Tuning stability

If your guitar keeps going out of tune, you’re not going to be inspired to play. So make sure you check the tuning stability of any instrument you are planning on buying. The machine heads shouldn’t stick as you turn them, and the guitar should stay in tune during normal use (including normal string bending on an electric guitar). As a general rule, stay away from any kind of Floyd Rose bridge unless you are planning on spending more than $1,500. Also, any tremolo system on a cheaper guitar is likely going to be too unreliable to use for any kind of performance. You’ll just end up with a guitar that’s out of tune.

Do you really need that amp?

If you’re buying an electric guitar, you may want to consider using your cash to get a more expensive instrument and not worry about an amp. A more expensive instrument is generally going to be more reliable, nicer to play, and you don’t necessarily have to plug it in to practice. I haven’t owned an amp for over 10 years, and I  have two high-end electric guitars. When I’m practicing or recording, I usually just plug them straight into my computer and use the guitar effects in my recording software. I’ve also been fortunate enough to have always had access to decent guitar amps every time I’ve needed one for a gig or a performance.

Why you should buy a secondhand guitar

Another benefit of spending more on an instrument, and not having an amp, is that you will likely be able to buy a higher quality guitar secondhand. High end guitars don’t lose their value unless they’ve been mistreated, and if you know what you’re looking for, you can get some amazing deals. I got my Strat for $1,600 when it was retailing for $3,200. I also helped another friend buy a $1,200 acoustic with a case for $600 from Trademe. They were just thinking of getting an entry-level guitar from a store for $500, which would not have held any resale value, but instead they got a professional quality instrument for roughly the same price. If they ever did want to sell it, they could probably even make a profit!

There can be more risk involved with secondhand guitars. I once bought an acoustic off Trademe, but decided I didn’t like it. I sold it and brought the Crafter I have now. I purchased it brand new and after playing it almost every day for five years, it feels amazing! Secondhand instruments often have this ‘played in’ feel, so you don’t have to play them for a few years before they begin to feel incredible. If you do want to go the second-hand route, do your research, or make sure you run everything by someone who really knows what they are talking about. You’ll likely get an amazing deal!

What’s been your experience buying guitars? Maybe you got a sweet deal? I hope you didn’t get ripped off? Maybe you’re looking at getting a new guitar but are not sure what to buy? Leave a comment below and we’ll try and help you out!

About the Author

Matt Stuart

Matt Stuart is the founder of Activate Music Academy. A guitarist and a producer, Matt loves the creative aspect of music and working with others to make music happen!

15 Comments on “Don’t Buy A Guitar Without Reading This First”

  1. If a high end guitar doesn’t lose it’s value how did you buy that high end $3,200 Stratocaster for $1,600? Sounds like that high end Stratocaster lost half of it’s value. A $1,600 loss on a $3,200 guitar is a significant loss of value if you ask me.

    1. Hey Rich, people are not always looking to make as much money on a sale as they can. If someone just wants to get rid of it quickly, they’ll often be willing to sell a guitar for less than they might have got if they were willing to wait for the right buyer. Watch out for situations like this and you can get some great deals!

  2. Should I buy a blaze buddy red electric makani with an ebony fretboard that needs a refret job and has a minor crack on the neck for $300??

    1. I’m not familiar with that make so I can’t give you a specific opinion. Try looking at some gear forums or Ebay auctions to get an idea of the value and what they typically go for second hand. You also want to make sure you consider how much a refret job is going to cost and how bad the crack is. If it’s purely cosmetic, it might not matter much. But if it’s a little more severe it could be a problem down the line. If you’ve got someone in mind to do the refret job, it might also be worth enquiring about the cost of fixing the neck as well.

      1. I have a 12 string Prestige Acoustic guitar for sale. No strings. A few scratches. Is $50 a reasonable price for sale?

  3. Hi,im a beginner guitariat and looking to upgrade soon..
    I’m looking to buy a Vintage V52 Icon by Trey Wilkinson.
    It has a very slick vintage design,which I really like. Its in a second hand store (thrift shop) and has no strings.
    I believe this may have been unstrung due to Storage or some other reason.

    The annoying thing is that the people that work in the store have no knowledge on guitars…
    So Basically my question is, what would be the best way to test if this guitar works,before walking out the door to find that it doesnt work?

    1. Hey David,

      That’s a tricky one. Is this the guitar you’re looking at (https://www.vintageguitar.com/19545/vintage-v52-icon/)? Make sure you check the price they go for new and compare it to what you’re paying in the second hand shop. To be honest, there’s probably no way you can check the guitar without strings on it. You’ll need to check intonation, action, whether it works plugged in, and that all requires the guitar having strings. I’d explain this to them and ask if you can return it if it doesn’t work. Or you could ask if you could put a deposit on it, then take it to a music shop and get them to put some strings on and test all the stuff I mentioned. If you can’t arrange something like that, you’re probably going to have to just take a gamble.

  4. Hello, I am a beginner guitar player and I have small hands, I want an acoustic guitar that doesn’t have buzz and stuff I want the best guitar I can get on a very very tight budget, can you recommend a acoustic guitar I should buy? I would really appreciate it!

    1. They best one is the one you are going to enjoy playing. Without knowing your budget it’s hard to suggest and exact one, but I’d recommend heading along to the music shop and seeing what they have in your price range. Check out some of the more expensive guitars too so you can see if you notice a difference in how it feels to play. Even if you can’t afford it brand new, you might be able to find one second hand online.

  5. Hi admin, do you monetize your activatemusic.academy ?
    There is easy way to earn extra money every month, just search on youtube
    – How to earn $25/hour selling articles

  6. Hi I want to buy a guitar for my teenager because they want to go back to learning the guitar again. The problem is, I don’t want to spend too much money if they decide they don’t want to play anymore. What should I do.

    1. You should be able to get a cheap(ish) guitar from a music shop that still plays well. I’d talk to the guys at the music shop about what they have available. Sometimes, it’s better to go for the slightly more expensive guitar as it will be better to play and have more resale value if your teenager decides they don’t want to play. A cheap guitar might be hard to sell.

  7. Hi
    I bought a Fender Stratocaster for £800 I feel I been taken advantage of.
    It plays ok but anything after the 12 feet it doesn’t sound alive doesn’t sound like an Electric guitar and the notes at lower strings doesn’t sound right it’s hard to explain it’s like the notes are straining and sound deadish if that’s a word. Even when I turn the gain right up it doesn’t sound like an Electric guitar. I bought it at a second hand shop and I am angry at myself because I didn’t play it plugged in in fact I wasn’t even offered and the strings was so right to tight to bend.
    Can you tell me what you think is going on please as I am taking it back hoping to get money back or at least get a decent sounding guitar.

    1. Hey Dai,

      It sounds like the guitar is just in need of a set up. Guitars are like cars and need a set up from time to time to keep them running properly. A good luthier will be able to set the guitar up so if feels awesome to play (assuming that there is nothing wrong with the guitar). Ask your local music shop if they can recommend anybody. The luthier will either be able to set it up for you or let you know if there are additional issues.

  8. Thanks for your article on guitar maintenance and care as always you hit on things that I don’t know or think about.
    Thanks for all the work you put into your articles.

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