Rants & Raves

(Don Chance)

Getting Tricked into Buying a Guitar


I cannot tell you how many times I or someone I know has gone to a music store, played a guitar, and fallen in love with it.  And I cannot imagine how many times, a guitar has been purchased on the basis of such an experience.  This is like kissing someone for the first time and immediately deciding to marry them.

First you should understand that the sound that comes out of a guitar is a function of a lot of things.  Obviously the guitar in general is a major part of it, but it is not the only part.  A given guitar can feel and sound quite different depending on various adjustments that have been made either by the store or the manufacturer or possibly the last customer who played this demo model.  The most obvious one is the action, which is the height of the strings off of the fretboard.  Low action makes a guitar easy to play but can result in an annoying buzzing sound.  This occurs when you pluck a string and it vibrates up and down.  If the string is too low to the fretboard, it will vibrate against the frets to the right (left, if you’re left-handed) of the fret you have held down.  This problem will be most evident on the lowest strings, the 6th and 5th or low E and low A for standard tuning, because these strings are larger and will move up and down a greater vertical distance.  This buzz will become more evident as you fret higher notes on these strings because the action is lower on the higher notes.  The key is to get low action and no fret buzz.  Finding that position is a matter of trial and error.  To a music store, low action is more important, because it dupes the customer into thinking the guitar is easy to play.  So check for fret buzz before raving about how easy the guitar is to play.

Another important factor, in fact a real important matter, is the strings.  Guitar strings tend to come in four sizes:  heavy, medium, light, and extra or super light.  Music stores will typically put light or extra/super light strings on.  These make the guitar easier to play, but they do not produce the best tone.  Moreover, tone is a function of many other factors.  But these light or extra light strings can sell a guitar.  Think you’re playing a guitar that’s easy to play?  You’re probably just playing strings that are easy to play.  I predict that if guitar stores put heavy strings on their instruments, their sales would go down, but then, we’ll never see that experiment.

Light and extra light strings are fine for rhythm guitars, that is, just plain strumming, but they are poor for playing individual notes, such as for lead guitarists and in fact for almost all guitarists from time to time.  Medium and heavy strings give the most distinctive tones.  Moreover, light and extra light strings bend more easily.  Thus, they are more susceptible to slight fingering mistakes.  Thus, if you put your fingers down on a note and position it ever so slightly off of where it should be, the tone will change.  This is, of course, a well-known technique called string bending and is widely used by guitarists to get a note to sound slightly off of its normal sound.  In other words, when you want the strings to bend.  Most of the time and nearly always when playing chords, you do not want the strings to bend.  When they do, simply because you’re fingering is ever-so-slightly off, you’ll get a sound you don’t want.  That’s what you get from light and extra-light strings.  Easy to play and easy to play badly.  But a great way to make a potential buyer think, “Wow!  This guitar is so easy to play.”

For an electric guitar, other factors that go into the sound you hear are the amplifier and all of its controls.  The amplifier itself is obvious.  Different amplifiers sound differently.  But amplifiers have a nearly infinite number of tones you can get by adjusting the controls.  Many amplifiers also have built-in effects such as tremolo, reverb, chorus, etc.  Add to that the control adjustments possible with the guitar and you have a lot of possible tones.  For example, the controls on one channel of my amp permit 64 million possible tones.  Of course, most differ only a slight bit from others, but still, it’s overwhelming.

Go into any music store and you’ll often here some dude playing an amplified electric guitar with a huge amount of distortion, like he thinks he’s Jimmy Page.  Effects boxes and pedals that can create distortion and other tone alterations are very popular and I certainly own some.  Distortion in particular makes me sound better than I am.  Distortion is often called “dirt,” “fuzz” or “overdrive.”  While I’ll admit that it can sound really cool, it creates the impression that the guitarist is playing faster than he really is.  I know, because I’m not that fast but I can sound fast with a little distortion.  There are plenty of videos on the Internet of people who sound like great guitarists but are simply making heavy use of distortion.  Watch carefully for extremely young guitarists who mesmerize viewers into thinking they’re guitar prodigies.  I would hold off judgment until you hear them play an unamplified (preferably miked) acoustic guitar.

So, distortion boxes and pedals are a staple at music stores, not as much to sell as to make guitarists think the guitar they’re playing is just the right thing for them.  In reality, that potential buyer has no clue whether this is the right guitar.

A few other factors affect the sound you hear when you play a guitar in a store, such as the store acoustics and the cables that connect the guitar to the amp.  These effects are somewhat secondary, but the stores have optimized them to contribute to the positivity of the experience, in much the same way that jewelry stores use a lot of light and always keep the watches set on the right time.

All of these tips also apply to buying amps, strings, cords, whatever.  So what’s the best way to buy a guitar?  Back in the olden days, we were forced to buy whatever guitars the music store had in stock or we could find in the classified ads.  With the Internet, the choices are overwhelming and we should not restrict ourselves to guitars we can play in a store.  I advocate reading the reviews of those who already own the guitar.  Find the pros and cons.  If possible, play one in a store, but if not, just try to play a close relative of the guitar.  Pay attention to the biases that I have mentioned here, in particular action and string size, and don’t be awed by the amp or any distortion boxes.  In fact, even for an electric guitar, play it without an amp as well as with one.  Then play it with the worst, cheapest, piece of junk amp in the store.  If it sounds good, then you can bet it will only sound better on a good amp.  Don’t be fooled by the low action and light strings.  There’s not a lot you can do about it but just be sensitive to it.

Likewise for an amp.  Play it with the cheapest piece-of-junk guitar in the store.  If it sounds good, it can only sound better with a better guitar, which hopefully you have or will get.


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Last updated: May 27, 2012