What makes a good guitar? A cynic might say it depends if you’re buying or selling, but when I started playing I had no idea whatsoever. That made me feel pretty insecure, and much of my working life has been dedicated to figuring it out.
So when you're choosing a guitar, what should you look out for? We can’t tell you what to buy because we don’t know if you’re chasing a particular tone or looking for the ultimate in versatility, but we can provide you with some general guidelines. There are certain structural and set-up issues that you should be aware of, and figuring out if an issue can be put right and how much that might cost should always be factored into any purchase price. Assessing tone is more subjective, but we can help with that too. So here is the Guitar & Bass guide to assessing and choosing guitars.
NARROWING IT DOWN
Most guitarists start out trying to emulate their favourite players, so if you’re looking for your first guitar it makes sense to find out what guitars they play. For instance, if you're inspired by John Frusciante, SRV or David Gilmour, you should probably be looking for a Stratocaster-type guitar. However if you prefer early Eric Clapton, Paul Kossoff or Slash, it’s got to be something along the lines of a Les Paul.
Your research should turn up some key features of those guitars, such as the way the neck is joined to the body and the types of pickups that are typically fitted. When you think about it, it’s obvious that you can’t make a Les Paul sound like a Strat or vice versa, but a lot of people will still spend a lot of money learning that the hard way. Once you know the type of guitar you’re looking for, it’s time to start trawling your local music shops to try some out.
PAIN IN THE NECK
Naturally the condition of the guitar is important. Worn out paintwork, cracked lacquer and dents deter some while others will pay a premium for them, but wear or damage that affects playability can be significant.
The very first thing to look out for is the near-incurable twisted neck. Place the lower bout of the guitar on the floor and look straight down the top of the fingerboard from the nut end of the neck. If you can see excessive twisting then you should reject that particular guitar straight away.
Don’t confuse twisting with neck relief, mind: most guitars’ necks should curve very slightly along their length. If you fret a string simultaneously at the first and the 14th fret there should be a very slight gap between the string and the seventh fret. If there’s no relief, or even a backwards bow, the strings will buzz and rattle or maybe not even sound at all. If there’s too much relief the action will be high, and you might find the guitar hard to play. This can be easily solved with a quick truss rod tweak and any shop should adjust it for you for free if you’re buying the guitar.
These days any new guitar should have perfectly serviceable frets, but if you’re buying secondhand there are some things to look out for. Unless the previous owner was a jazz guitarist, the tops of the frets might be worn flat in localised areas. These occur where you’d typically play in the keys of E, A and maybe G, causing string buzzing and rattling. If some frets are worn, or if there are string indentations, the guitar might need a fret stone and dress, or even a refret before it will play clean with a low action. Both can be expensive.
ACTION & SETUP
Web forum bozos often declare that every Strat they’ve played has a high action so they’re all rubbish, or that one Les Paul is better than another one because it’s easier to play. Really, there’s no mystery or mojo to it: most guitars can be set up to play the way you’d like. If you understand the factors that affect playability, then you can make more informed choices.
Assuming the frets and neck relief are fine, you can alter the action – the height of the strings above the fretboard. Some prefer a very low, easy-playing action ; others say a higher action produces a fuller tone and makes string bending and vibrato easier to control. Also, consider string gauge. Try a higher action with slinky strings, or low action with thicker strings; it could completely transform that guitar.
PLAYING IN TUNE
This can be broken down into two areas – tuning stability and intonation. Most modern guitars are fitted with serviceable tuners, and even cheap Far Eastern models often have smooth, stable diecast machineheads. Most tuning stability problems are caused by friction, usually at the nut. If you can hear a ‘click’ when tuning up or bending notes, the strings may be sticking in the nut. Don’t worry: filing and smoothing the slots is an easy job for a competent tech.
Intonation determines a guitar’s ability to play in tune all over the neck. You’ve probably noticed that some chords will sound out of tune, even when the guitar’s been tuned with a digital tuner, and things will get worse higher up the neck. Moveable saddles change the length of the strings to allow each one to play in tune.
Lastly, look out for wound strings that sound flat or hollow as you play above the 12th fret on Fender-style guitars. It occurs when the pickups are set too high: the strength of the magnetic field is inhibiting string vibration. You can cure it by lowering the pickups.
Setting the intonation is a bread and butter part of any set up, so don’t be dissuaded from buying an otherwise good guitar just because it won’t play or stay in tune: it can probably be fixed quite easily. And don’t change tuners unnecessarily, especially when it involves drilling holes in the headstock.