How to buy a guitar for someone else when you have no idea what to look for.
First of all, let me applaud you for your cool gift idea. It’s not something you’d usually think of unless the child/friend/mate you’re buying it for has expressed an interest in it. So you can’t go wrong on that front.
But now that you have the idea, maybe you’ve realized you have no idea what to look for. I’ll do my best to round up every bit of knowledge I have on the subject to make the buying process easy for you.
I’m going to assume that this guitar is for a beginning guitarist. Buying for an experience guitarist is a little more involved because the’ve probably developed some specific tastes in guitars. At the end of this article I’ll give a little advice on buying for the experienced guitarist.
Deep breath…. Let’s go.
A First Bit Of General Advice.
For a beginning guitarist, don’t feel like you need to go all out and get a top of the line model. Especially if you think the recipient may lose interest after awhile. You can buy $80 guitars, $8000 guitars, and everything inbetween.
Some people will suggest buying an expensive guitar “as an investment”. But unless you’re spending $1000+, you’ll have to wait an awful long time for it to appreciate. And here’s a big secret, no matter what kind of guitar you give them as a gift, they’ll want to buy another one at some point. One is rarely enough. So just get them started and if they stick with it, then you can both look at moving up.
That being said, plan on spending at least $200. Anything below that and the instruments start to become pretty garbagey. They don’t tune well, sound cheap, and are harder to make sound good. You don’t want to give your beginner a guitar that will be frustrating to play even when they’re doing it right.
With guitars, you really do get what you pay for. Especially in the low to mid-range guitars. A $500 guitar sounds, and is constructed, better than a $200 guitar. And yes, used guitars can be great. I’ll also give you some tips on what to look for to make sure you’re not getting a dud.
There are three basic types of guitars you’ll be considering.
Acoustic – A regular, hollow body guitar that doesn’t use any amplification.
Acoustic-Electric – Just like a regular acoustic, but includes built-in electronics so it can be plugged into an amplifier as well.
Electric – Solidbody (usually) that needs to be plugged into and amplifier.
On acoustic guitars, you’ll have the option of steel or nylon strings in both the electric and non-electric models.
Steel Strings – Made of steel or nickel usually. Good for a variety of music styles.
Nylon – Made of nylon (duh) and generally used for Classical and some Latin (ie. Flamenco) styles. These don’t generally have electronics installed except on very high end models.
My advice: Unless they’re going into specifically into Classical music or one of the traditional Latin styles, go for a regular steel string acoustic. It’s the most versatile. If you find a good deal on an acoustic-electric, that’s fine. But not really needed unless they’re planning on performing somewhere that’s big enough to need to amplify it.
If they’re definitely into rock, metal, and possibly blues, an electric guitar will be a better choice. Keep in mind, an electric guitar also needs an amplifier to work with.
Where to Buy?
I’m always a fan of patronizing local mom and pop businesses. But unfortunately, in this case, that may not be your best bet. Check to make sure they carry at least some of the big brands below (ideally Fender, Gibson, and Martin) to make sure they know what they’re doing. Even then you may not get the best price because the small shop’s wholesale price is higher than the big places.
Usually any place with “Guitar” actually in the name is going to have some good stuff. And you’ll get more personalized service as well. But you can also visit the big places like Guitar Center or Sam Ash. Skip Best Buy, Target, and Walmart. Way overpriced and bottom of the barrel guitars.
I don’t generally recommend pawn shops only because the owners don’t have a specialized enough knowledge of guitars and they’re almost always overpriced.
And for the love of Keef, don’t buy a guitar at one of those mall kiosks. Those things aren’t even good for firewood let alone playing music. If it looks like a toy, it’s a toy.
Besides the local specialty shops and the behemoths like Guitar Center, you can also shop online. Musician’s Friend, Sweetwater, and AMS are all reputable dealers with huge selections of guitars.
A great way to do your comparison shopping is to hit the stores in your area, try out a bunch and, once you decide on one, do a price comparison online for the same model. You may get a better deal online or at least have a price that you can try to get the store to match.
Check the store’s return policy as well. For new guitars you can get between a week and a month to bring it back. Make sure it’s a refund and not a store credit. Used gear return policies will depend on if the store owns the guitar or if it’s on consignment. The benefit of a return policy, especially if you’re buying the guitar without the guitarist with you, is that it’s returnable if they don’t like or want something else.
Brands To Look For.
Coming from a guy who hates buying big brands just for the sake of big brands, you’re more likely to get a quality instrument when you stick with these companies that are known for their guitars. Some of these companies have been making guitars for over 100 years.
Fender, Gibson, Taylor, Martin, Ibanez, Takamine, Alvarez, Paul Reed Smith, Epiphone, Jackson, Gretsch, Washburn, and BC Rich are all reputable names (and make very different guitars) that you can usually count on. When buying used guitars, deal only with reputable used gear shops. Check Yelp for one in your area. Guitar logos can be copied and you may end up with a fake if you’re buying from a private party for a pawn shop owner that doesn’t know what to look for.
Even some of the big names have models you want to stay away from. Fender Starcasters are garbage-y low end guitars that are horrible to play. Ditto for First Act and Silvertone. Daisy Rock guitars are marketed to girls and are way overpriced for what they are.
How To Choose?
If the present isn’t really going to be a surprise, then go ahead and take the guitar player to the store with you. You’ll have a much better chance of getting something they like.
Have them sit down and hold the guitar in a playing position (even if they don’t know how to play yet). Make sure that they can wrap their hand around the neck comfortably and that body isn’t too huge or too small. This is especially a concern when buying for a child.
If neither one of you knows what a good guitar sounds like, don’t sweat it too much. As the player’s ear becomes more discerning, they can move up later. If you want to hear the difference, ask they sales person if you can try out a more expensive guitar to compare.
BUT, stick to your budget! Don’t be pressured into buying an expensive guitar for a beginner just because it sounds better. For a beginner, as long as the guitar is comfortable and playable, high quality sound can come later.
I have a personal rule when shopping… I don’t test drive cars I can’t afford and I don’t play guitars I can’t afford. You’ll be happier with what you do purchase. When I’m not in buying mode, I try out those expensive guitars all I want so I know what I want to move up to.
Issues To Look For In Used Guitars
Even though you don’t have a trained eye for guitars, there are certain things you can look for in a used guitar that will either help you bargain for a better price or avoid a disasterous piece of driftwood.
Check out the input jack if it’s an electric or acoustic-electric. See if it’s loose it will short out quickly. Most guitar repair shops will throw a new jack in cheaply. It’s a common problem, especially on budget guitars. Be sure to plug it in and see if the guitar makes sound.
Don’t worry that you don’t know how to play. You just want to make sure the electronics are working and the thing makes some sound. Turn each of the knobs from 0 to 10 to make sure they work. You’ll find a volume knob (obvious function) and a tone knob that changes the tone of the guitar from trebley or bassier. If you hear a crackling sound, pots are dirty. Another easy fix, but use it to get a better price.
Try the pickup selector. This is a 3-5 position switch that changes which pickup is in use. Each change should make the guitar sound a little different and there should be no pops or crackles.
Now we’re on to stuff that applies to both electrics and acoustics. Check out the fretboard, specifically the frets. Those are the metal wires that run across the fretboard. Run your hand over the sides of the neck and see if the ends of any frets stick out. It should feel smooth in your hands. Also look to see if the frets are rusted for grimy. Fret work is not cheap and this will be a dealbreaker if they’re not in good shape.
Check for fret buzz. Play each fret on each string and make sure you’re not hearing buzzy noises. Fret buzz can mean a few different problems. Some cheap to fix, others not. The “action” is the distance between the string and the fretboard when not pressed down. Most players like fairly low action as long as there’s no buzz. If the action is too high the strings will be harder to press down.
Check out the hardware. This is all the other parts of the guitar. Do the tuning pegs turn nice and smoothly? Are there any cracks in the nut or bridge? Thos are where the ends of the strings sit on either end of the guitar. The nut near the headstock and the bridge on the body of the guitar.
Look for rust on any of the metal parts. That can be cleaned off with some elbow grease, but it’s another bargaining chip. And check the strap buttons, where the strap is held to the guitar. Make sure they aren’t loose.
Lastly, just take a look at the thing. Got some nicks and scratches in the paint job? Most used guitars will have some “character” to them. And usually that doesn’t affect the playability at all as long as it’s not a huge crack in the body. So it’s up to you if some scratches are ok or not.
Most guitars, even new ones oftentimes, will need a setup when you first get it. Take it to a guitar repair shop and tell them you need a setup. They usually cost about $50. They’ll tweak the action, fix any intonation problems, straight the neck if needed, and throw some new strings on there. Other fixes like a new bridge or nut, or fret milling will cost extra.
Buying a guitar isn’t a “pay the sticker price” activity. You may hate bargaining. I know I do. But with a few simple techniques you can either get a better deal or get some freebies thrown in. Don’t pay the sticker price though.
First, you should have already have a good idea of which guitar you’re interested in buying and have a general idea of the price it’s going for at most places. That’s where your comparison shopping comes in handy. You should also check out online reviews for the guitar you’re interested in. Just Google “<guitar brand and model> reviews” and you’ll have plenty to look at.
As with any bargaining situation, play it cool. Don’t tell the salesperson, “I HAVE TO HAVE THIS GUITAR!” Just mention that you’ve been looking at some nice guitars at different places around town and you’re not sure yet.
Make sure you know whether the guitar comes with a case or not. Hard cases cost more than soft cases.
Try checking out a cheaper guitar first and let the salesperson “upsell” you to the guitar you actually want. They’ll work harder to get you the deal you want if they think you’ll just go back to the cheaper one instead.
To get the bargaining going, you can ask the salesperson, “Give me the whole price, including tax and case.” Then, when they give you a number, say, “Now what can you do to get that price a little lower?” You should be looking for a 10-15% discount. If you know the guitar is cheaper at another store in the area, let them know.
Sometimes you’ll be dealing with a guitar that’s already on sale or clearance or it’s just a really budget priced guitar. In this case try to get them to throw in some accessories or at least heavily discount them.
You didn’t think you could just get away with buying a guitar, right? 😉 There are loads of toys and trinkets that go along with playing guitar. Some of them are essential, some not so much.
Strap (for playing standing up)
Cable (for electrics)
Less Essential, But Still Very Useful:
Armed with this knowledge, you’re now ready to go out and buy a guitar for your loved one. It’s not as hard as it seems and the return policy is there if you don’t get the right one the first time. Trust your instincts, even if you think you don’t have any. 🙂
Click here to read about the importance of unfocused guitar practice (listen up parents…)
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