HOW TO CHOOSE YOUR FIRST ELECTRIC GUITAR

blog-choose-electric-guitar

Which musical styles go with which guitars?

It’s easy to be intimidated by the range of choices when you are looking for your first electric guitar. There are literally hundreds of different models and styles, and you may FEEL that you don’t know anything about the brand names or features. The good news is that you know more than you think about the electric guitar.

As a music lover, your ear knows the guitar tones and sounds that it loves–just think of your favourite band or guitar player. Which electric guitarist gives you goosebumps with her emotional solos? Which guitarist can bring you out of a blue mood with his powerful riffs and virtuoso solos? Even if you don’t know the brand name of the guitar that this musician plays, you love the sound that it makes.

Below is a very general list of some music styles and a common guitar model you might find artists playing in that genre. It is just to give some idea of the styles and trends in the different areas of music, as electric guitars essentially all function the same way and can play any type of music.

·     Country/country rock/roots……….Fender Telecaster
·     Traditional jazz…………………….. Archtop hollowbody or semi-hollow jazz guitar
·     Jazz fusion…………………………. Paul Reed Smith, Ibanez, Gibson
·     Blues rock…………………………….Fender Stratocaster, Telecaster
·     Rock……………………………………Fender Stratocaster, Fender Telecaster, Gibson guitars
·     Indie rock……………………………..Rickenbacker, various hollowbodies, Fender Mustang
·     Hard rock……………………………. Gibson Les Paul, SG, Explorer
·     Metal……………………………………Ibanez, B.C. Rich, ESP
·     1970s punk……………………………Gibson Les Paul or SG
·     Hardcore punk……………………….Gibson Les Pauls

Choices within the guitar type you want…

Now you know roughly what TYPE of guitar to look for. But most people can’t afford the exact brand and model that their guitar hero plays–it is probably an expensive, high-end model. Fortunately, the guitar manufacturers of the world know that you want to have a guitar like the one played by your favourite performer, and so most of the most well-known guitar brands and their features are available in budget-priced versions or copies.

Often the same manufacturer who makes your guitar hero’s instrument will sell a budget-priced version of the expensive instrument. It will have the same look as the expensive guitar, and it will use some of the key features that give the instrument its characteristic sound (e.g., the same type of pickups and the same positions for the pickups).

Why is the budget-priced version cheaper? This is an important question, and it is one that you can ask your guitar-playing buddies or the sales staff in the music store. Ideally, you want to find a guitar in which all of the cost cuts are made to aspects that do not compromise the playability, reliability, or sound of the instrument too much.

If the budget-priced version or copy that you buy uses really low-quality pickups with weak tone and poorly-made tuning machines that go out of tune all the time, this is not a good instrument. If the budget-priced copy you are trying out has shoddy workmanship (sharp bits of the frets sticking out over the edge of the neck, volume knobs that don’t turn smoothly, etc), then this is not a good instrument.

What is a well-made copy of the type of guitar you want? It is an instrument in which the compromises were made mostly on the finish, by using less-expensive (but still functional) types of wood for the body and neck, or laminated wood for the body with a thin layer of real wood on top. Another acceptable compromise is to use less expensive, but still reliable, knobs and tuning machines.

Once you have found out what type of guitar your fave guitar player uses, you have a starting point. You can try out the least expensive versions of the guitar you want, the budget-priced version from the original maker, copies of the guitar made by other manufacturers, and finally different guitars that have the same basic features as the guitar you want.

Types of pickups

One of the features you’ll learn about as you do more research on electric guitars are pickups. Most electric guitars use magnetic pickups, of which there are two main types, each with a particular tone or sound. A guitar will have one, two, or three pickups. The type of pickup and its location on the guitar determines what type of tone it will produce. Pickups can be located near the bridge, near the area where the neck begins, or in between those two locations.

The simplest type of magnetic pickup is the single coil pickup, which is made from copper wire wrapped around a magnet. A humbucker pickup uses two coils, which creates a fatter, richer tone. As well, humbuckers use a wiring trick that removes the hum (as the name “humbucker” suggests). Electric guitars with more than one type of pickup have a selector switch that allows the player to choose which pickup they want to use. Guitar players use the different pickups to create different types of tone, such as a warm rhythm guitar sound or a bright solo tone.

Less commonly, electric guitars might have piezoelectric pickups, which sense the vibration on the wooden top of the guitar. Piezoelectric pickups are usually found in hollowbody or semi-hollowbody electric guitars. Since the piezo pickups are sensing the vibration, these pickups tend to create a warmer, “woodier” sound than magnetic pickups.

Types of bridges

The bridge on an electric guitar is usually in the same place as the tailpiece, and both parts are usually made of metal. The tailpiece is sort of like the shoelace holes in your shoes: it holds the strings in place under tension. If you’ve ever watched a guitarist change strings at a live show, the tailpiece is where they put the strings onto the guitar when he or she is changing strings. The strings have a metal ball or cylinder at the end so they don’t slip through the tailpiece. Then the strings go over metal guides of the bridge, and then up over the frets and then into the tuning machines (the little geared keys you turn on the headstock to tune the guitar).

The bridge has little screws that can be adjusted to change how high the strings are (this is called the “action”) or to change how long the string is (this is called adjusting the intonation). On some vintage-style guitars, such as hollowbody archtop jazz guitars, the tailpiece and the bridge are separate parts, and the bridge may even be made of wood.

The basic tailpiece, called a “hard tail”, just holds the strings onto the top of the guitar. A tremolo or “whammy bar” bridge has a spring-loaded “see-saw” action which allows the guitarist to bend the strings down temporarily by pushing on a little metal bar. This can be used to create subtle vibrato effects, or, if you bend the whammy bar way down, it makes a dramatic Jimi Hendrix-style bending effect that can be used on a single note or a chord.

The fanciest type of whammy bar system is the Floyd Rose Double Locking system. It is used by players who want to do serious metal-style “shred guitar” playing, with huge “dive bomb” effects. The benefit of the Floyd Rose system is that the guitar stays in tune even if you do a lot of big bends. However, there is a drawback: the “floating” mechanism that it relies on is complicated to adjust and fix. For this reason, it may not be a good choice for your first guitar.

Where to buy?

Should you buy an electric guitar at the same store you bought your vacuum cleaner? These days, you can buy an electric guitar from a department store or a electronics store. The low prices of the instruments at your local department store or electronics store may be appealing, but remember that the prices are so low for a good reason.

These are typically “no-name” electric guitars made from soft plywood which use cheap pickups and slipshod assembly methods. They tend to have thin, hollow tone and poor sustain, and the internal wiring is prone to breakdowns. As well, in some cases, the guitar has no brand name. Think about what it means when a company doesn’t want to put its name on a product…

There are several good reasons to buy musical instruments from a music store, rather than a department store or an electronics store. At a music store, the staff have can answer your questions about music gear and choosing instruments, and you will have a good range of instruments to choose from.

As well, a proper music store will have guitar repair staff who will set up and adjust the instrument for you before you take it home. “Setting up” a guitar refers to all of the adjustments that a store does to a guitar so that it is easier to play and sounds better, such as adjusting the string height (the “action”) and intonation and filing the frets.

When choosing a music store, you should try to find a store that is OK with you trying out several different instruments. If you go to music stores that pay commission to sales staff, the staff may pressure you into making a quick purchase or push you into buying an electric guitar that is more expensive than you originally wanted.

Consider a used instrument: There are several good reasons to consider getting a used instrument. For the same price as a new, cheaply-made “no-name” instrument, you can buy a used instrument from a trusted, well-known instrument manufacturer, which will have a better-quality wood body and pickups, which means better tone.

It is safer to buy used instruments from a music store with a good return/exchange policy. If you buy a used electric guitar from a private seller (eBay, Craigslist, etc.) or from a pawnshop, even if the neck cracks open the second day you are using it, you are often stuck with the instrument. At Spaceman Music, all store-owned guitars carry a 6-month warranty. (Consignment items do not have a warranty, but they can be brought back during 3-day period after the sale for a full refund if the guitar is defective).

Trying out instruments:

Strap them on: You have to be ready to spend some time looking if you really want to find “your” electric guitar. If you just buy the first instrument you try, you might not get the guitar that best suits your hands and arms, or the guitar with the tone you want, or with the versatility you need. Take your list of options that you developed from the sections above (the “fill-in-the-blanks” section), and go out to your local guitar stores.

Since you will probably be playing the electric guitar standing up in a band, you should try out instruments this way. As well, by standing up with the instrument on a strap, will you be able to feel if the guitar is too heavy and find out if it is well-balanced. If the neck and headstock are too heavy, the guitar will not be balanced when you wear it.

The volume and tone controls need to be easy to access, and when you turn the controls (with the guitar plugged in), there should not be crackling sounds. As well, the instrument has to be well-suited for the style of music you play. (For more details, see the section below on Trying out instruments).

Confused by all the choices?: If you really find the huge range of choices too confusing, a safe bet for your first budget-priced electric guitar is a guitar with a solid body, a bolt-on neck, a volume control and a tone control. As far as reputable brands, there are a number of brands with reputations for quality that date back decades (Fender, Gibson, etc), plus some newer brands that have also earned a good reputation-ask the salesperson for advice.

Compare different brands: Take a few guitars in your price range and try them out. If you don’t feel that you know enough about the instrument yet to play it, ask a more experienced friend to come with you and do the guitar playing for you. Another option is to ask a staffer from the store to play a few guitars for you.

Plug the guitar into a mid-sized guitar amp, rather than a $2,000 Marshall stack that is six feet high, because a mid-sized amp will give you a more reasonable sense of the sound you will get on your own amp. When you change guitars to try different models, keep trying them on the same amp, because if you switch both the guitar and the amp, you won’t know what aspects of the tonal change came from the guitar. If you don’t know about amplifiers, ask for help from the staff, because tube amplifiers can be damaged if you turn one on and it is not connected to a speaker cabinet.

Play an open chord, and then play with the knobs and switches and see if you can hear the different tones that are created, from twangy and bright to deep and dark. These controls usually control volume, tone, and the selection, mix, or phase relationship between the different pickups. If you don’t know what a knob or switch does, ask the sales staff to explain it.

Do not think that “more knobs is better”. Actually, if you are just starting out, too many knobs and switches may just be confusing. This rule also applies to guitar amps, where some people think that more knobs and flashing LED lights is better. The volume and tone controls need to be easy to access, and the knobs should turn smoothly. There should not be crackling sounds through the amp when you are turning the volume or tone controls (this means that the potentiometers inside the guitar need to be cleaned or replaced).

Play a note starting on one of the two lowest, thickest strings, and then play it starting at higher and higher notes on the guitar, so that you try out all of the different ranges of the instrument. When you play a note at the higher-up parts of the neck and then hold it down, does the note sustain, or does it just die out quickly? If a high note cuts out too quickly, it could be that the neck needs adjustment.

Depending on how you play the guitar, and on the style of music you play, some guitars may suit you more than others. If you want to be adjusting the volume and tone controls a lot as you play, to sculpt your tone, you might want them to be very clost to your picking hand. On the other hand, if you play rhythm guitar in a hard-driving rock band, you might want all of the knobs and switches out of the way of your picking hand.

Another difference is she shape and thickness of the guitar neck. The necks of electric guitars have different contours on the back of the neck where your thumb glides along: ask the salesperson to show you guitars with different neck types, so that you can feel which one seems most natural for your hand.

By Nathan Morris for Spaceman Music Corp.
Copyright 2009: Spaceman Music