I have been on both sides of the counter when it comes to guitar shopping, from qualifying a customer to qualifying my next guitar purchase. The salesmen at the big box music stores are there to help answer any questions you may have, and also to ask you questions to help direct you to the right guitar you have in mind, along with all the add-ons you may or may not need, plus qualifying you for that credit card application. A lot of these salesmen work on commission and that’s part of their job, but most are pretty knowledgeable, so if you are not sure of something ask. Here are 5 things that I look for when picking out my next electric guitar purchase.
“What’s in your head?”
The hunt for “that tone” and the sound you are going for. What style of music do you want the guitar for? Rock, Blues, Country, R&B, Alternative, Jazz, Gospel etc.? There are styles of guitars that fit in each genre of music. Look at what some of your favorite guitar players are using for their main axe. Do some research and narrow down what you are looking for before you head out guitar shopping.
“The Visual Contact”
When you see a guitar you like take your time and take a close look at it. Check the craftsmanship of the build and finish. Look at the back and sides of the guitar for cracks or other flaws. Check all the hardware like the strap pins, bridge, pickups, pickguard, volume and tone knobs, switches, the tuning pegs, and the string trees on the headstock. Make sure everything is in place and tight. If it’s a new guitar there is no excuse for bad craftsmanship. If it’s a used guitar some things can be an easy fix, and finish issues can let slide.
How does the guitar feel in your hands? Check the weight and shape of the body. Will it be comfortable to play during those long sets? How does the neck feel? Feel the sides of the frets along the neck to make sure they are smooth and flush with the fret board. If they are sharp you’ll have a painful playing experience. Look at the nut and make sure it is not loose and the string spacing looks and feels good to you. String spacing is not the same on all guitars. Most Fender Strat’s have a 1 5/8 inch nut. A Gibson Les Paul has a 1 11/16 inch nut, while other brands may use an 1 ¾ inch nut. There also is a difference in the front to back thickness and different radiuses to consider on necks. This depends on the manufacturers specs. There are three different types of neck designs: set in glued on necks, neck through body designs, and bolt on necks. Bolt on necks are more forgiving and are easier to make adjustments on. Check for any cracks around the neck joint and that the bolts are tight.
The neck is a vital part of the guitar that has a direct contact to your hands. It has to feel right to you. A quick way to check a neck’s adjustment is by using a string as a straight-edge. Place your first finger of your left hand on the first fret of the low E string and then the thumb of your right hand on the 14th fret of the low E string. Check the gap between the string and the 7th fret by pushing down on the string with your first finger on your right hand. There should be only a small gap the size of a thin pick or less. Check the high E string the same way. If this doesn’t appear to be right then the neck is in need of adjustment. If the neck has a “hump” the strings may buzz and fret out, if the neck has a “bow” in the middle the strings will be high and will impair the intonation. This can be fixed with a neck adjustment. You should also do a visual check by looking down the neck from the head stock and from the body like you’re looking up the neck of a violin. If there is a gap on the low E side and not on the high E side it may have a warped or twisted neck. That’s a red flag and a sign that you should move on to the next guitar.
Strum a few chords without plugging the guitar into an amp… I like to feel the resonance of the wood. It feels more alive to me.
Strum a few chords without plugging the guitar into an amp. Can you hear and feel the sustain from the body? I like to feel the resonance of the wood. It feels more alive to me. Next, plug it in. Play it on the clean channel first. Listen for any fret buzz or rattle by playing single notes up and down the neck. Turn the volume and tone controls and listen for any noise that might mean bad or dirty pots. Check the pickup selector switch positions to ensure that the pickups are working and in the right order. An out of phase wiring job will be a tone killer. Now try the guitar on the dirty or overdrive channel on the amp. Play some of your favorite licks and chord sequences, then stop and listen. Tap lightly on the guitar body. If you hear any unwanted noise coming through the pickups there could be a ground or shielding issue. If everything seems good, play on!
It’s great when you find that perfect guitar on your wish list that seems like it was waiting there just for you, and all it needs is a new set. As we say, “Love one Woman, Many Guitars”