Are you buying your first electric guitar or a gift for someone else just starting their musical journey? Then this guide on how to buy an electric guitar for beginners is for you.
This article will walk you through some things to think about before making your first electric guitar purchase. If you’re buying a guitar for someone else as a gift, try to put yourself in their shoes and think about what will apply to them.
First things first… Who’s your favorite guitarist?
It’s time to get an electric guitar. So what next?
Passion is a huge factor in creating music. Before you run to the store and grab the brightest, shiniest, most absolutely epic looking guitar you can find, take a moment to consider where your passion lies.
Who are your favorite bands or guitarists? What do you want your guitar to sound like? Having the same guitar as your heroes will not automatically make you sound like them, but it may get you headed in the right direction.
The sound of a guitar is unique, and a few significant factors play a part in creating that sound.
Electric Guitar Body Style
The body style of a guitar is about more than looks. Don’t worry, whichever body style you choose, you’re going to look cool. We’re here to help you sound cool. There are more than several options for electric guitars, but they break down into three common styles.
Solid body electric guitars
The solid body design represents the majority of “classic” electric guitar models.
While the Gibson Les Paul was the first solid body guitar introduced, the Fender Esquire was the first commercially available.
The Esquire was a single pickup version of what is now commonly known as the Telecaster.
The Fender Stratocaster or Strat is the most popular electric guitar model ever made.
The solid wood construction of the body allows for a more sustained sound. These guitars are less prone to feedback and offer a versatile range.
Rock guitarists commonly use this style, with solid body models preferred by such greats as Eric Clapton, David Gilmour, and Jimmy Page. Outside of rock, Bob Marley was also known to favor this style of guitar.
The body’s exact shape and the type of wood a guitar is constructed from can impact the sound, but it doesn’t matter that much as a beginner. You want something that you’re comfortable with, both how it looks and how it feels to hold.
Semi-hollow body electric guitars
The bodies of these guitars contain hollow chambers that alter the sound at its core. Often, when you find that a guitarist has a particularly unique sound, it’s due to a semi-hollow body guitar. These guitars carry less sustain, and the tones produced can be less consistent between models than solid body offerings. While guitarists such as Dave Grohl and John Lennon are known for using this style of guitar, the wide variation in quality and consistency can make choosing one difficult for a beginner.
Hollow body electric guitars
These are essentially acoustic guitars fitted with electric pickups. Construction techniques vary wildly, but the result is the same. In short, they’re louder acoustic guitars. If you’re looking into buying an electric guitar, chances are this isn’t the sound you want. On the other hand, if you find yourself sitting on the college quad strumming away on an acoustic guitar and it’s just not loud enough to attract the attention you want, then, by all means, have at it.
Beginner Pickup Styles
Next, let’s get into how the sound gets from the body to your amp. The majority of electric guitars are solid body designs, so what differentiates the electric sound? The pickups! Sometimes there’s only one set, and sometimes there are several. Sometimes, there’s a single pickup to a set, and it’s not a set at all! Luckily, it’s not nearly as difficult as it sounds. When you’re buying your first electric guitar, you can gloss over the technical details of the magnets and electronic coils inside the pickups and find assurance in the fact that it comes down to two options.
These tend to offer a smooth, bright sound that strays towards the higher end of the spectrum. If you want it in way-too-simple music terms, these are the treble to their counterpart’s bass. Stevie Ray Vaughn and Jimi Hendrix both often used single-coil pickups. The cleaner tone allows for a crisp sound that helps each note to stand out. However, they can be more prone to picking up feedback than alternative styles because of the design. This last fact matters far more when playing live vs. when recording in a studio or practicing in the garage. Fender’s most famous guitars, the Stratocaster and Telecaster, are designed with single-coil pickups, as is the Gibson P-90.
Humbucker (dual coil) pickups
If you’re wondering what a humbucker is – it’s right there in the name. It bucks or removes hum. The not-too-technical difference is that having multiple coils in a pickup helps to cancel out electromagnetic interference. In other words, they can help you avoid the feedback and obnoxious hum that you’ll sometimes get with a single-coil pickup. Isn’t it great that, with every aspect of electric guitars we’ve touched on so far, the names tell you right off the bat exactly what things are? The humbucker design tends to create a warm, full sound. The thicker tone produced by the dual pickups adds natural distortion, making them the favorite of metal, punk, and hard rock guitarists. Most Gibson guitars, including popular models such as the Les Paul and the SG, use humbucker pickups.
Beginners Should Avoid Tremolo Bridges
The tremolo bridge, better known as the “whammy bar,” is a part of the traditional rockstar image as long hair and the perfect on-stage sneer. The whammy bar alters the tension of the guitar’s strings, creating anything from a slight vibrato effect to wild dive-bomb effects. While this can be an excellent addition to your repertoire, it can also cause a few problems (especially for beginners). Because pounding on that whammy bar affects string tension, it can cause issues with keeping your guitar in tune, especially when you begin experimenting with string bending. It also adds a layer of difficulty to changing your strings. Let’s be honest, as a beginner, not only are you going to break a lot of strings, but you’re probably going to want to change them frequently as you experiment with different types and brands of strings in search of that perfect sound and feel you prefer.
You will always have to make regular adjustments to keep your strings in tune, but a guitar with a fixed bridge won’t suffer from these added difficulties. That said, it’s advisable that, for your first guitar, you choose one that doesn’t have a tremolo bridge. If it is something you’re attached to the idea of, I strongly recommend that you avoid what’s known as a floating tremolo. Floating bridges are far more complicated tremolo bridges, capable of moving both up and down, vs. a non-floating bridge that can only be pushed down. This amplifies the difficulties mentioned above exponentially and can wreak absolute havoc on your tuning stability.
How Much Should a Beginner Guitar Cost?
Okay, you’ve got this figured out—sort of. I mean, in theory, you do. You know what kind of body construction you want and what style of pickups you want on it. That starts to narrow it down, but there are still literally hundreds of options. Before you decide which guitar you want to buy, it’s essential to determine your budget.
The short answer is, “it varies.” If you’re learning to play, you can get a guitar for a couple hundred bucks. That’ll sound just fine. In fact, in most stores that sell guitars (both your classic brick-and-mortars as well as online outlets), you can find “electric guitar starter packs,” so to speak, that are a bundle including a very inexpensive guitar, an amp, and accessories. While that’s a great way to figure out if you even want to play guitar at all, it’s also an easy way to waste a couple of hundred dollars.
You just spent when you almost immediately decide that, yes, playing guitar is, in fact, just as awesome as you expected. Now you need to go out and get a proper one.
The good news is, you don’t have to spend a fortune to get a quality guitar. Though, if you want to, you certainly can, and there are reasons why professional musicians can easily spend thousands of dollars on a guitar, but there’s also a reason your first car probably wasn’t a brand new corvette. No matter how much or how little you spend, it’s important that the guitar feels right.
Not to worry, some low-cost guitars still have a great sound! Fender produces less expensive versions of their most popular products (the Squier series), as Gibson (under the Epiphone brand).
The problem with the lower end of the budget is that there isn’t much resale value when go to sell or trade in your old guitar when purchasing an upgraded model It may save you money in the long run not to pick the cheapest model.
Right in the middle
As you carry along to the next tier of electric guitars, you’ll notice that Fender and Gibson/Epiphone have an offering at nearly every level of pricing. While these mid-range, name-brand guitars won’t magically gift you a unique sound that changes the world, there is a reason these remain the top brands. They tend to sell quality products. Furthermore, musicians are often demanding. If they spend an extra few hundred dollars on a guitar, they expect an appreciable increase in quality. You can also expand your search to a broader array of brands. Sublime’s Bradley Nowell used a moderately priced Ibanez guitar throughout his career.
The low end of the high end
Here you find the standard versions of those classic guitars that anyone who’s ever thought about playing has probably heard of. The name-branded Stratocasters and Telecasters from Fender and the Gibson, labeled Les Paul and SG fit into this category. While they’re no small purchase, these models won’t require you to spend the equivalent of a month’s mortgage payment, either. I’ve known some new musicians who scoffed at paying more on what is labeled a “standard” model. In this case, though, the context of standard means “the industry standard” rather than “no-frills base-model.”
The high end of the high end
If you’re buying your first electric guitar, there is absolutely no reason to spend thousands of dollars on the most expensive model you can find. Many of the most expensive guitars produce a gorgeous sound, most noticeably in a studio surrounded by even more expensive equipment. Once you get past the guitars we’ve discussed, the differences become increasingly subtle.
Where to Buy Your First Beginner Guitar
A lot of this comes down to your preference. Some people prefer the personal experience of buying face to face, while others revel in the fact that, these days, they don’t even have to leave the house to buy groceries. There are a few factors that come into play here that are specific to electric guitar shopping.
With the magic of the internet
In many cases, you can find things cheaper online. Since you’re reading this online, I assume you’re aware of this fact. Do you want to buy a guitar you can’t test drive? Going to purchase a guitar in person allows you to try it before you buy it. If this is your first time playing an instrument, you may be surprised to find that it can be a rather personal purchase. While you know what you want on paper, often, the guitar that “feels right” is the one you fall in love with.
The national chains
Shopping online is at one end of the value vs. experience trade-off. Right in the middle, you have the big box stores, such as Guitar Center and Sam Ash, that also offer competitive pricing, as well as the opportunity to play before you buy.
Your local music shop
On the other end, you have smaller local music stores. You may notice a slightly higher markup in these stores. Still, you’re also far more likely to find someone with an extraordinary passion for music who is willing to spend a little more time talking about your favorite bands, guitarists, and sounds. Just as you tend to get what you pay for guitar quality, the same can generally be said of the buying experience. Like every other aspect of playing the electric guitar, personal preference plays a significant role in deciding where and how you want to purchase one.
Beyond the purchase
You don’t want to say you own a guitar. You want to pick it up and think. This is my guitar. Like love, sometimes you know. And remember, when you do buy the perfect guitar and become a rock star, I expect backstage passes.
In addition to an electric guitar you may need some more gear to get started playing. See our What Do You Need to Start Playing Electric Guitar? for some more helpful tips.