You’re getting ready to make a pretty big purchase, and in this article I will share with you valuable information I’ve gleaned over my last thirty four years as an electric guitarist to help you make an informed, well thought out decision and ensure you’re happy with the electric guitar you get. Whether you are a lifelong acoustic musician and finally ready to “go electric” like Dylan at the Newport Folk Festival or just beginning your wondrous journey with music and want to get off to a great start with a smart purchase you’ve come to the right place.
What To Look For In An Electric Guitar
There are a number of styles, features and sounds to look at when buying your first electric guitar, from aesthetics to functionality, so let’s dig much deeper.
Design, Look and Finish
There are two basic electric guitar body types that go all the way back back to the the instruments introduction to the popular music landscape in the early 1940’s. One is the “Stratocaster” style guitar pioneered by the great Leo Fender, which features a body with cutaways on both sides of the fretboard. Cutaways are the rounded area between the body of the guitar and the fretboard. This design gives the instrument an almost “V” shape, and provides easy access to the higher frets. If you’re playing the electric guitar you will want ease in getting over the entire range of the instrument. The “Strat” type design also features the tuning pegs for the strings all on the same side of the head of the guitar. This is an aesthetically pleasant style, and has been used extensively by a litany of famous players from Buddy Holly to Eric Clapton and Jimi Hendrix and many, many more.
The other basic style of electric guitar design is the Les Paul, named after it’s inventor, the great musician, recording engineer, guitar hero, TV star and renaissance man Les Paul. The “Les Paul” design features a cut away on only the right side of the guitar where your left hand will finger the strings, and the tuning pegs go three on each side of the head. This design is perhaps a bit more utilitarian, but is also a striking look. This guitar is easily associated with many great and prominent rock guitarists, most notably Led Zeppelins Jimmy Page and Slash, of Guns’n’Roses fame.
You should also buy a guitar that comes in many colors and finishes, one that lets you express your personal style and makes a statement about who you are as an artist, musician and person. Many guitar companies offer a variety of looks including cherry sunburst, ebony, natural wood and all colors of the rainbow. Some companies offer special limited edition models with unique colors and even original artwork. So if you like to keep it simple and classic or prefer something on the wild side, choose a guitar that gives you the option to best represent yourself.
Playability, Sound and Tone
Most “Strat” type designs offer three pickups for a wider range in tone. The pickups on an electric guitar are under the strings on the body of the guitar and pick up the vibration and send them to the amplifier. With three pickup type guitars, you can have five different pickup combinations, therefore the capability to produce higher highs and lower lows and a solid middle as well. In addition to a bit of a wider tonal palette, most Strat style guitars feature a vibrato bar, or as it’s more commonly known, the whammy bar. The whammy bar is a floating bar at the base of the guitar which you can bend and shake to produce longer, bigger and in many cases exaggerated vibrato, emulating the human voice by making the guitar sing and cry. Think Jimi Hendrix playing the Star Spangled Banner at Woodstock, or just about any wild Eddie Van Halen solo.
With Les Paul guitars you usually get two pickups, and only have three pick up combinations at play, with no whammy bar. Where the pickup is determines the tone it produces, as the pickup closest to the neck produces a warmer sound, and the one closest to the bridge a higher, more trebly sound. In comparison, and in most cases, the Strat type guitar will produce a thinner, higher and more biting sound, whereas the Les Paul style excels in the mid to low range growl. Think Joe Perry’s main riff on “Walk This Way” or the deep and soulful shuffle of Robbie Krieger’s “Roadhouse Blues”.
Of course with todays sampling, modeling and virtual sounds technology, most guitars, when hooked up and processed can produce almost any tone or sound. But in their basic and truest forms, plugged in and played live through an amp, the aforementioned tonal qualities hold true.
Second Thoughts And Assurances?
Wherever you purchase your first electric guitar, beyond look, style, sound you want to know that if you get the instrument and for whatever reason you aren’t happy with it you can return it within a set period, usually thirty to sixty days. Most retailers will honor that gladly, and some will offer a refund or a credit towards another purchase upon return. Make sure you are clear on those particulars before making the final decision. You’d hate to want to zig when you should have zagged, only to find out you can’t.
Most guitar manufacturers also offer limited warranties with their instrument, and I suggest you research that before you buy. These are pretty standard in the industry and can be researched rather easily. I suggest it.
Depending on what you are doing with your new electric guitar, and especially if you are going to be performing and traveling with it extensively, or if you are choosing a very expensive instrument to start with, I would also check any and all insurance policies you have to see if it will be covered, and if not, if you can add it.
My First Electric Guitar
Folks here of a certain age will remember having a newspaper route. Some will even remember what a newspaper is. When I was 13 I saved $500 from my paper route for my first electric guitar. My prudent and frugal dad told me if I could save enough for the guitar he would buy the amp, which I thought was a pretty good deal at the time. I can still remember that day, and the large, much older man behind the counter unveiling the electric guitar of my dreams. While I loved and really learned how to play on the beautiful black and white Strat style Eric Clapton looking electric guitar, I sure wish I had the benefit of a buyers guide. If so, I would have bought the same model produced a few years earlier, before the factory moved to Mexico and the “new” technique for fusing the body to the neck hadn’t been proved to be flawed and of lesser quality.
When I did resell the guitar many years later, I was, fortunately, able to get my entire investment back, but could have actually profited if I had known.
I wish you the best of luck and happy guitar hunting!