As a beginner who wants to learn electric guitar, it’s really difficult to make your first electric guitar purchase. Here is question: What to look for when buying an electric Guitar? The various styles in electric guitar, the different types of woods, various types of pickup system, several bodies to choose from, and how all of them play a role in your decision, all these things can get very overwhelming if you don’t know much about buying electric guitars. After all, it’s your first guitar and you want to make sure you don’t end up buying something you don’t like.
Several factors play into your decision of buying an electric guitar. Everything from its wood, to its pickup, to its manufacturer. Every detail matters. Each of these factors has separate and unique features that come along with them. For e.g., electric guitars made from mahogany have a warmer and richer tone, while those made from maple have a brighter tone. After considering all of these factors, you’ll have to decide which ones you want in your ideal guitar and then make an educated decision.
However, before we start with the various factors that go into considering your first purchase, we need to have a basic knowledge about how a guitar works and what parts it has. If you are familiar with the anatomy of a guitar, then you can skip this part and directly jump to the next one!
Anatomy of a Guitar:
The main hull of the guitar is called the body. The tuning pegs are for tuning your guitar. The head is where all of your tuning pegs are located, along with the manufacturer’s sign.
The head is joined to the neck. The neck has all your strings and will be your main playing area. Where the neck and head(also called headstock) join, we have the truss rod which strengthens the neck, and the nut which provides the correct spacing for the strings when they go through it.
The wood on the neck is called the fretboard which has several pieces of metal called frets which allow the player to change the pitch of the strings.
Inlays are decorations that are sometimes used to decorate the fretboard. Strap buttons allow you to attach a strap to the guitar. The pickguard protects the guitar from scratches and dents at its most used point.
The pickups of a guitar pick up electric signals from strings and pass them to an attached amplifier. The tremolo bar changes the tensions of the strings and adds vibrato to the sound. The pickup selector switch allows the player to choose which pickup they want to use.
The tone and volume switches allow the player to control the tone and volume of the guitar. The bridge makes sure the strings are at a suitable height from the fretboard. The output jack allows the guitar to be connected to an amp.
Now you know how an electric guitar works, let’s get right into the hows and whats of buying an electric guitar!
The very fundamental structure of a guitar is made up of wood, and thus you can see that the type of wood your guitar has, affects its look and the sound it produces. Different woods create different tones and pitches.
There is no ‘perfect’ wood, they all have their own unique features, and choosing the best wood for a guitar is always a matter of personal preference. It’s also important to note that an entire guitar is often made up of different woods. For e.g., a guitar may have a mahogany top but the fretboard may be of rosewood.
It’s uncommon and unproductive to build a guitar all in the same wood since some woods offer good strength but poor sound while some offer perfect intonations but bad durability. Listed below are the various types of wood and the features they offer.
Common top woods –
- Alder – Light with a balanced tone.
- Mahogany – Medium weight, very warm with a great sustain.
- Maple – Medium weight, very bright with long sustain.
- Ash – Open grainy texture with a balanced tone. Mostly used for transparent finishes.
- Basswood – Light and warm with amazing mids.
- Korina – Medium weight, very warm, and fewer highs.
- Poplar – Light with bright and crisp sound.
Common neck woods –
- Maple – Dense and strong with a very bright sound. Great sustain.
- Mahogany – Very warm sound.
Fretboard woods –
- Maple – Durable with amazing sustain.
- Rosewood – Plays smooth and fast. Very warm.
- Ebony – Very hard, smooth and fast playing. Bright with long sustain. Used in premium guitars.
- Pau Ferro – Hard, smooth and fast. Brighter than rosewood, warmer than ebony.
There is no perfect sound for a guitar. All that matters is whether you love the sound when you first string the guitar. It’s also important to note that while some woods are more expensive than the others, like ebony, it doesn’t mean they are of better quality. It just means they have a unique sound that some guitar players would love to spend the extra cash on.
Electric guitars mostly come in three shapes – Solidbody, semi-hollowbody, and hollowbody. Solidbody guitars are completely solid wood.
Solidbody has the most sustain out of all the three types, is more resistant to feedback, and has a more focused low end. Semi-hollowbody has a slightly less sustain and less focused low end while being more susceptible to feedback.
Hollowbody has more acoustic tone than semi-hollowbody, evident by their loud sound without being plugged in. They have the loudest low end, least sustain, and most susceptible to wild feedback.
The neck of a guitar comes in various sizes, shapes, and widths. The perfect neck will be the one that fits in your hand perfectly. Depending on the shape of your hand, you might find yourself comfortable in either of the three-neck profiles, which are nothing but terms for the shape of the neck –
- C profile – Circular neck that is used in many guitars and is perfect for the average guitar player.
- U profile – Rectangular neck that appeared on many Fenders. It is best suited for players with long fingers.
- V profile – Triangular neck which has a comfortable groove on the middle.
Some guitar manufacturers, mostly Parker and Paul Reed Smith, use profiles where widths are “wide, regular or narrow” and depths “fat, regular or thin”. For e.g. “wide-thin”. The best way to choose a neck is to physically feel a guitar and choose the neck that feels most comfortable to you.
Scale length refers to the length of the vibrating strings between the “nut” and the bridge “saddle”. Scale length influences the tonal quality of the notes produced and the tension of the string at a particular pitch.
The placement of frets is decided by a ratio based on scale length, so the more the scale length the more distance between frets. Most modern electric guitars use either of the two standard scale lengths – The Gibson scale at 24.75″ which gives a thicker bass and the Fender scale at 25.5″ which gives a clear, cutting quality.
The sounds your guitar produces will decide what kind of music you’ll be playing. These sounds will be produced by your strings, wood, and intonation. For example, a Blues player will prefer a guitar with softer tones so it’s most likely he’ll buy a guitar with mahogany wood.
A Metal player on the other hand will need wood that is loud and bright, so he is more likely to buy a maple and always a solidbody, since hollowbody’s acoustic tones won’t help in Metal. Always keep this in mind before buying a guitar, so you don’t end up buying a guitar that doesn’t suit your music style.
One more important factor about sound is intonation, which is the ability to play notes in tune as you move up the neck.
It’s also standard procedure to strum up the guitar a bit before plugging it into an amp, to check how much acoustic it has on its own. If it doesn’t sound that well on its own without any help, then we’d have to adjust the guitar or sell it if it’s out of warranty.
Most electric guitars design come with 22 frets, which is the standard number for electric guitars. However, if you like to play in the high register then a 24-fret neck will give you all the full octave above the twelfth fret. It’s also important that you check the frets for any quality issue. You don’t want an electric guitar with removable frets, or frets that were glued hastily. It’s an important part of a guitar and requires time and patience to do.
Electric guitars don’t rely heavily on wood for their finishes, unlike acoustic guitars. Electric guitars have several amazing paintjobs and color variety. While the finish on your guitar may not have any practical use, it’s always an assurance that you are playing an instrument whose looks are guaranteed to be perfect for you.
The finishing on a guitar is not limited to the top either, other parts of a guitar can also be done with finishing. How a fretboard shines subtly with its inlays, how people specifically design custom inlays so their guitars have a great design, these are all examples of finishing of a guitar. And at the end of the day, even if it plays like the best guitar in the world, it’s useless if it looks like trash.
Most guitars have two types of bridges – tremolo bridge and stoptail bridge. The tremolo bridge allows you to bend all the strings at once, but it can throw them out of tune. The stoptail bridge on the other hand is more stable as far as tuning is concerned and also because it is fixed into the body.
Reportedly, some players have even said that the stoptail bridge has more sustain than the tremolo bridge. Choosing from either of these bridges according to your preference is a decision for you.
Pickups are magnets coiled with copper wire that transfer electric signals from the strings to an amp. Electric guitars can either have two of the separate types of pickups – single coil or humbucker – or have a combination of both.
Single coil pickups have only one coil of wire. They have a clean, thin, and transparent sound and are common in Fender guitars. A humbucker (also called a double-coil) pickup has two coils of wire, with each coil carrying two different signals. It has a warm and smooth sound and is used mostly in Les Paul guitars.
Most electric guitars come with 2 pickups – one near to the neck which provides a thick sound, and one close to the bridge which provides a more treble sound. If you have a pickup system switch, then you’ll be able to switch between different pickups available on your guitar depending on what you are playing.
The type of tuning machine your electric guitar has is also very important. This is what enables you to fine tune and hold the pitch of the guitar. The tuning machines can be either closed or open. Enclosed tuning machines resist rust and corrosion and thus don’t require as many replacements as the open tuning machines.
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Below are the various popular styles of electric guitars and the genres they are used for.
Stratocaster style – The Stratocaster is one of the most well-known electric guitars in the world. It is every guitarist’s prime choice as it offers versatility, comfort, and style all at once.
The Stratocasters don’t have much gain and thus are not suited for metal or punk music. However, if you need an amazing all-rounder with a range of amazing tones, then you should definitely go for a Stratocaster.
Genres – Rock, Blues, Pop, Indie, Country, Funk.
Les Paul style – Perhaps the second in line for being the most popular guitar in the world, the Les Paul style is very similar to the Stratocaster. However, since it’s made from mahogany, it has a much warmer tone and better sustain than the Stratocaster. It is suited for players who want something heavier for their guitars. This style has an immense range of guitars to choose from.
Genres – Rock, Metal, Blues
Jazz style – The Jazz style are hollowbody acoustic guitars that specialize in big, warm tones and lots of natural resonance from the body. These guitars are not made for people with heavier styles as the feedback on the Jazz style is really hard to control if you apply a little too much overdrive.
Genres – Jazz, Indie, Blues
Telecaster style – The Telecaster is Fender’s another blessing to the guitar world. These telecasters have a twangier sound and are thus perfect for country and indie. The most unique feature about the Telecaster is that not a lot of manufacturers make these guitars, except Fenders. So if you want to stand out, then look no further than this guitar.
Genres – Indie, Country.
SG style – The little brother to the Les Paul Style from Gibson, the SG style are very iconic guitars. These are specially made for rock and blues and can be found in the hands of many talented guitarists. The SG style is the most stylish out of all the styles. Not only that, but their frets are more easily accessible than most guitars and the body shape is perfect for practicing for hours on end.
Genres – Rock, blues.
Metal style – Metal style guitars don’t have a distinctive body shape, but they offer utility specifically for playing heavier styles of music like metal or punk. They have active pickup which gives a slight boost to the signal before it reaches the amp and have a thinner neck that eases the fingerboard action at high speeds. These guitars are not known to be all-rounders; they only have one purpose. Rocking out the stage until it’s on fire.
Genres – Metal, Punk.
We hoped this guide helped you in choosing the best electric guitar that you as a beginner should buy for yourself. Preference plays a major role in this guide, so please be aware that your own opinion matters a lot when you are buying your guitars and looking for What to look for when buying an electric Guitar? The choices, well, have been presented to you in the guide above, with pointers as to which player they will be suited to.
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