Buying an Electric Guitar

In my last post about buying gear, I walked you through what you need to know to buy the perfect acoustic guitar. This time around I’m talking about guitars again, but we’ll be looking at electrics. Shopping for an electric guitar can be a bit overwhelming if you don’t have a good idea of what you’re looking for. Walking into a music store to find 20-foot walls covered in different types of electric guitars is an intimidating sight for the uninitiated. Luckily, I’m here to make sure you’re not uninitiated… Here’s what you need to know before you head to the guitar store.

Find the right price range

Just like with acoustics, the range in prices for electric guitars is about as wide as the grand canyon–from $100 to several thousand dollars. And while you can sometimes get a very nice electric for much cheaper than an acoustic of similar quality, it’s important to remember that you’ll also need to buy an amplifier, so that instantly adds to the price of your guitar (and it’s a topic for a future post).

Unfortunately, the cost of many woods commonly used to make guitars has gone up over the past few years, meaning guitar prices have risen accordingly. American-made guitars in particular seem to have jumped in price. The Fender American Standard Stratocaster, for example, now sells for around $1,000, whereas it used to be closer to $700-800. The Mexican-made counterpart now sells for $500-$700. But a lot of players seek out American-made guitars because they are generally built well–a quality that means the guitars tend to sound better and last longer. Some popular U.S.-made electrics include Fender Stratocasters and Telecasters and Gibson Les Pauls. Other USA companies include Ernie Ball/Music Man, Paul Reed Smith and any number of boutique guitar builders.  Many guitars are also made in Japan–Ibanez is a popular Japanese guitar manufacturer.

Many high-end companies not only make budget versions of their guitars (like the Mexican-made Strats and Teles or the Paul Reed Smith “SE” series), but also have subsidiary companies that create guitars in a similar style at a lower price. Squier makes cheaper Fender-style guitars and Epiphone makes cheaper Gibson-style guitars, for example.

How much you want to pay for a guitar is ultimately up to you. Shelling out a few extra bucks can mean a better guitar in the long run, but you may also be paying for stuff you don’t want or need–fancy inlays or hardware or a famous player’s signature written on the headstock–so be sure you know what you’re paying for!

Body type and construction

There are three basic types of guitar body: solid body, hollow body, and semi-hollow body. The vast majority of electrics are solid body, which just means their body consist of a solid piece of wood (or several glued together). They are cheaper to make/buy and they suit all sorts of styles. Stratocasters and Telecasters are solid body guitars. Hollow body guitars have an empty cavity inside the body, which allows them to have more sustain and a different sound from a solid guitar. Many jazz players use hollow body guitars for their warm tonal characteristics. The Gretsch Chet Atkins model is an example of a hollow body guitar. Semi-hollow body guitars are a combination: a partly-solid body with some hollow areas inside. An example of this is the Gibson ES-335.

Body shapes are as varied as your imagination. Many guitars follow a standard double-cutaway Stratocaster style or single-cutaway Les Paul style, but there are all sorts of shapes and sizes to choose from–just look at the Gibson Flying V and Explorer, or the Music Man Albert Lee model for some unconventional body shapes!  While shapes are mainly for looks, they can also affect how comfortable the guitar feels when you play it.  Also consider your image and musical style; lots of blues players love Strats, while a jagged, black Jackson guitar looks great for metal players.

Another aspect of guitar construction is how the neck is attached to the body. Most guitars are bolt-ons–the neck is bolted to the guitar body with three to five screws. Other guitars are “set necks,” which means the neck is glued to the body. Least common is the “neck-through” design, which extends the wood of the neck all the way through the body. Each type of neck has its advocates, but it all comes down to personal opinion for which ones have the best sound. The best one for you is probably whichever is most comfortable–the type of neck attachment determines how the guitar feels on your hand around the neck joint area, which you’ll run into when playing on the higher frets.

Tone woods

Electric guitar bodies and necks are made of many different types of wood, including ash, alder, mahogany, basswood, maple, rosewood, and ebony among others. Body woods can affect the tone of the guitars (mahogany tends to have a darker tone, for example), and they can also affect the weight. Basswood is a very light wood, for example, while mahogany is heavy. Therefore, a Les Paul is going to weigh a lot more than a Fender Mustang!

Necks are typically made of maple or mahogany. The fingerboard (where you actually place your fingers against the strings) is usually made of maple (brighter tone), rosewood or ebony (both darker tone). You can tell the difference by looking at the color: light tan fingerboards are maple, while most dark brown fingerboards are rosewood (ebony is also dark, but few guitars besides Les Pauls have them).

Feel is everything

As I said in my post about acoustic guitars, the most important thing when shopping for any guitar is how it feels to you. Guitar players have loyalties to different brands, but none of them are right or wrong. Get into a store and spend a little time with a guitar to see how you like it. Some will just feel better in your hands than others. Always take the path of least resistance–the guitar that plays great is more important than the guitar that looks slicker. Let the guitar speak for itself!

If you take into consideration the options I’ve outlined in this post and try a few guitars out that fit your price range, style and preferences, you’ll find the guitar of your dreams in no time.  Then you can start recording the album you’ve always wanted!

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