Sean Behrens Sean Behrens
Posted January 24th
Buying a new or used guitar is a major purchase, whether you’re a total beginner or have been playing for a while and want to explore other options. The guitar is unique in the string instrument world in that there are so many varieties, shapes and types that are used in a multitude of styles. I often sense that a person’s choice of guitar has more to do with iconography than with what may be the best for those individuals’ goals. This is why I’ll also be discussing which type is best suited for certain musical goals.
First off, I would like to impart the following: Cheap is not always best. That said, we can’t all afford an American-made Les Paul or a handmade classical from a luthier. If you want to enjoy playing at any level though, you should be prepared to spend anywhere from $350-$600. Also, don’t be afraid to buy second or third-hand. Every single guitar I own falls into that category, and reverb.com has an incredible selection.
SIZE DOES MATTER!
Back when I taught in music stores, my heart always sunk when my beginning student (who was a 5’ 1” female) would bring in her giant western dreadnaught guitar. Getting the guitar situated so she could play was virtually impossible because her body dimensions did not match the dimensions of the guitar. She would have been better suited to a nylon string classical or a salon style guitar or maybe even a strat. If the guitar dimensions are too big or too small for you then practicing will be unenjoyable.
Consult a teacher before purchasing
Any teacher worth their salt would prefer that a student consult them first so that the student can be sized appropriately for an instrument. Teachers often have connections with music retailers and can get you a deal.
Know what you want to do with the guitar
The kind of music you intend to play will ultimately dictate the choice of guitar you choose to buy.
Learn about scale length
The scale length of the guitar is the distance between the bridge and the nut. Generally, a full-size scale length is 65cm. This is important because of individual hand size. Some classical guitars have a 63.5cm scale length, called a Señorita, which is mostly a full sized instrument but usually made for women of slight figure. Some electric guitars have a slightly shorter scale length in order to accommodate certain kinds of fast playing or to have 24 instead of the standard 22 frets.
String action (string height), bowed neck and string spacing
The action of the strings or the height above the fingerboard is very important. Most of the time, this is adjustable. Nevertheless, it does affect ease of playing. Strings that are too high are harder to press down and also will sound out of tune as you are making the string go sharp by pushing down too far. Sometimes, a bowed neck causes this high action, which in most cases is also adjustable.
When you see a big ski jump with huge string action as you go up the fingerboard that is usually an indication that the build wasn’t very good. Don’t buy that guitar. String spacing is important too and is affected by the string slots on the nut and the bridge saddles. Uneven string spacing can cause problems with fretting and intonation. Electric guitars and western dreadnaught guitars have string spacing that is ideal for flat-picking whereas nylon string classical and flamenco guitars have spacing that is ideal for finger picking.
Now let’s get to the different types of guitar and what they are typically used for.
The Nylon String Guitar
These guitars are typically used in classical and Flamenco styles. Their wider string spacing is meant to accommodate finger picking rather than a flat pick but don’t let that fool you. Al Di’meola used picks on these all the time. They typically have wider necks. Nylon string guitars usually have flat fingerboards whereas steel string acoustics and electrics typically have radiused fingerboards. Nylon string guitars are more likely to have a variety of fractional sizes so if you are starting a young child, nylon string is the way to go.
The steel string acoustic guitar
The most common of these is the western dreadnaught and is defined by a large body and narrow string spacing both at the neck and bridge area. They are typically set up with hard tension strings and can be very hard for beginners to play. These guitars are typically used for strumming chords and vocal accompaniment. Their large size aids in their natural acoustic projection. Steel strings also come with smaller bodies and a cutaway, which is where they have cut away part of the guitar for greater access to upper frets.
These are ideal for people who like to play leads on acoustic in addition to chords. These also are built with smaller bodies and may be better for people of slight figure. Another type of steel string acoustic is called the Salon guitar. These guitars have a rather late nineteenth century look to them. Salon style guitars are smaller bodied and are ideal for women and for people who want to do more elaborate finger style on a steel rather than nylon string guitar. They also have headstocks that resemble those typically found on nylon string guitars.
The semi-hollow electric guitar
These guitars come in many shapes and sizes and go from a very shallow chamber to a deep chamber like an arch top acoustic. The most common of these is the Gibson ES-335 shape, which has been mimicked by many guitar manufacturers such as Ibanez. Typically, jazz and fusion players prefer these guitars as the hollow chamber adds greater depth to an electric instrument.
It is not the rule, however, that jazz and fusion are the only styles played on semi hollow guitars. Many notable rock guitarists prefer them as well such as Alex Lifeson, Steve Howe, Ted Nugent, Tom Johnston (Doobie Brothers) and Brian Setzer. These days you can get some pretty nice entry-level semi hollow guitars such as those made by Ibanez and DeArmond as examples.
Solid Body Electrics
These days, there are more shapes than most know what to do with when it comes to solid body electric guitars. The most common are based on the Gibson Les Paul and the Fender Strat. There are also Telecastors, and Flying V’s. For the purposes of this article it would be impossible to detail every kind. Solid body electrics are ideal for rock and country styles, though plenty of jazz players use them too. Solid body instruments are less likely to feed back when the gain is turned up.
Important differences in solid body electrics
One of the most important things to think about on a solid body electric is the type of pickup used. This factor alone will have a great effect on your tone and overall sound. Those who are inexperienced with this sort of thing really only need to know the two major types of pickups: Single coil and Double Coil (humbucking pickups). Single coils are typically found in strat-style guitars and are skinny with six magnets sticking out, though some such as the Fender Sensor Laced Pickups have a cover over the magnets. Humbuckers have a rectangular shape and are basically two single coil pickups joined together.
Single coil pickups are generally lower output and have a very clear sound. Most Stratocasters have 3 of these pickups with a five way switch that lets you move between bridge, middle and neck tones (or combining 2 at a time to get a quasi humbucking effect). A Les Paul style guitar will usually have two humbucking pickups. These pickups are great for fat crunchy tones and high output which magnify the sustain that is possible from a Les Paul style guitar.
There is far more information that can be imparted on this subject, but hopefully you feel more empowered and confident going forth with your guitar purchase. Happy shopping!