Electric Guitar Holiday Buyers Guide
Written by SethChapla on December 14, 2013
I’d like to start this post by saying that I’ve been playing guitar for 20 years now, and building them for 10. I’ve set up easily over a hundred of them, and between gigging, teaching, making guitar video games, and hanging out with my musician friends, I’ve likely played over a thousand. I’ve played Fenders, Squiers, Gibsons, Epiphones, Jacksons, Charvels, Ibanez’s, Washburns, Deans, Gretschs, Heritages, G&Ls, Suhrs, Melancons, and of course, the pinnacle of electric guitar craftsmanship, the ever elusive holy-grail [insert blatant self-promotion here] “Chapla” brand of guitars, of which there are perhaps at most, 15 in existence, and are hand crafted only for the builder himself and close personal friends. Suffice it to say, when they tasked me with writing this buyer’s guide, I was mondo juiced. Finally the day has come that my guitar nerdery is a true benefit rather than a massive lifestyle hindrance (looking back on my life, I should’ve been a banker) and I’m able to impart some guitarrical knowledge on those of you that are as green as I was when I started this journey with that first tentative step into a tiny music shop with my dad nearly 20 years ago - that fateful day when I got my very first electric guitar, and the course of my life was irrevocably altered.
Keep in mind that each and every one of those guitars I’ve played, worked on, modified, built, or otherwise messed with sounds and feels unique. This is in part because the materials are never identical - no two guitars are made from the same piece of wood. Variances in the types of wood used, the density, the weight, and the age of the wood that makes up the guitar neck and body will have an effect on it’s tone. That’s not to say that some don’t sound similar to others, especially if they came from the same factory and were built by the same set of hands, with the same electronics, but they will sound and play different. It is for this reason that I have to recommend you PLAY THE EXACT GUITAR THAT YOU BUY BEFORE BUYING IT. That means if you pick one up off the wall at the local music shop or a big box music store like Guitar Center, and that particular guitar speaks to you, buy that one, and not the one sitting back in the warehouse. Since no two are alike, the one you picked off the wall could be a gem, and the one in the storeroom could be a dud.
First, I’ll start with a list of ideal things to look for in any instrument. Then, a breakdown of good guitars by price range, and the reasonable expectations for an instrument in each.
Part 1: Things to Look For in Any Guitar
The frets on a guitar are like the tires on a car. If you’ve got a Ferrari, and you put a $40 tires on it, or it’s a used Ferrari and the tires are 20 years old, you’ll be in for a surprise - and it won’t be a good one. In all honesty, a guitar is only as good as it’s fretwork, as that’s your interface with the instrument, and it will determine many other things - like the action, and the relief on the neck, which will all affect how easy the guitar is to play. At $350 and up, you won’t have to worry too much about the fretwork, but if you’re looking for a guitar in the sub-$350 range, it’s important that you select a guitar carefully based primarily on it’s fretwork - also, keep in mind that if the guitar is used, and the previous player put a lot of “miles” on it, the frets could be worn out, and you’ll end up with dead spots on the neck, meaning notes will just die out regardless of whether or not you’re fretting them properly. Here are a few tips on how to suss out a guitar with good fretwork.
Fret edges - Inspect the edges of the frets for smoothness. On a good fret job, the edges of the frets will be rounded over (see image below).
A cheaper fret job can have sharp edges - meaning that they’ve simply been filed off at an angle, but have had no additional hand work to round them over. In the lower price brackets, you can’t always expect that the fret job will have the same amount of attention to detail, but it’s important that the instrument feels comfortable to play, and if you run your fingers across the edge of the frets horizontally like so:
and they feel sharp or uncomfortable, I would consider continuing your search.
A standard step on a guitar after the frets are installed is a process called “leveling”. This is a stage in which a long, flat sanding stone is run vertically down the fretboard. The purpose of this step is to level the frets - to make sure that any high spots or imperfections in the fretwire are eliminated, creating a perfectly straight plane across the entire fretboard. If this process is skipped, or poorly executed, a high spot on a fret can cause a dead spot further down the neck. For example, if you have a high spot on the 5th fret under the 2nd string, and you go to play a note at the 4th fret of that string, that high 5th fret will choke out that 4th fret note. To check for fret level, look down the neck from the perspective of the bridge, and see if there are any bumps or dips on the fret horizon. Below is an example of a high end fret level job, this is what you should look for if possible:
The fret crown is the physical shape of each individual fret. There should be a gentle curve on either side of the fret, so that the fret comes to a rounded point at the top. Issues with the fret crown are much more prevalent in used guitars than new ones - either a guitar has worn out frets (with dents and divots) from being played a lot, or a fret level job has been done, and the frets were’t re-crowned afterwards (in this case the frets will look flat on top). This can apply to new guitars too, but in my experience, it’s much more likely on used guitars. Below is a picture of a healthy fret:
If the frets are flat on top, the tone of the instrument will suffer (the fretted notes will sound dull and lifeless, lacking the “sparkle” that comes from a well shaped fret) and it will be more difficult to execute bends and vibrato because the friction coefficient is much higher when you have a larger surface area of contact with the string. If you have divots or dents, you can end up with dead notes, just like you would if the frets were out of level.
The nut holds the strings in place as they come off the tuners at the headstock, and it’s the final piece of the fret puzzle - it’s the last non-adjustable element of the guitar that can really make or break the playability. They’re made from many different materials, bone, graphite, steel, brass, ebony, and there are even locking nuts which lock the strings in (good if you love using a whammy bar and want to stay in tune) - the most important thing here is that the nut isn’t cut or set too deep or too shallow. A good way to check the nut height is to play a note at the 2nd fret on each string, and look at the string over the 1st fret. It should just barely clear that 1st fret by a tiny margin. If it touches the 1st fret, then the nut is cut too deep, and if it looks like there’s a big gap there, then it’s cut too shallow. Below is a picture of a guitar with the proper nut depth:
If the nut is too shallow, it will be much harder to fret. If it’s too deep, you can get buzzing, or dead notes.
There are many different types of bridges on a guitar - the two major categories are set bridges, and tremolo bridges (should actually be called “vibrato” bridges but I digress) and there are about 100 different varieties of each, so I won’t get too far into the weeds here. A set bridge is often good for beginners, because it makes tuning a lot simpler and quicker. That said, if you’re a beginner but you love the likes of Jeff Beck, Jimi Hendrix, and/or Eddie Van Halen, than you might want to “spring” for a tremolo bridge, which uses some form of a spring system to counterbalance the tension of the strings on a fulcrum (there are many different designs that achieve more mellow or more extreme results, but they all operate on this basic principle). Choosing the different styles really does depend on what style you eventually see yourself playing, and I wouldn’t necessarily choose the easier option if you think dive bombs and wacked out vibrato is something you’re interested in learning at some point.
A “saddle” is the component on the bridge that the string makes direct contact with. Cheaply cast/machined saddles can sometimes have sharp burrs or corners that will cause premature string breakage, so inspect the saddles on a guitar for any blemishes or burrs. There’s not a lot of choice in the sub $150 category, but some will be better than others, and a savvy buyer will get a better bang for their buck with a short visual inspection. Every bridge has a different flavor of saddle, and in general, I recommend that people stay away from bridges without individually adjustable saddles for each string on their first guitar. It’s much harder to set the intonation on the les paul junior “wrap” style bridge, or the traditional Fender Telecaster bridge which has 2 strings per saddle. While these bridges lend a certain tone or flavor to the sound of the guitar that will ultimately be part of the sonic character that defines those guitars, I think on a first guitar, the best bet is to go for ease of adjustability/playability, and individual saddle height and individual forwards/backwards adjustment for each string is the way to go. This will be further explained in the next section.
The “action” of the guitar is determined by the all of the factors above - the depth of the nut, the saddle height on the bridge, and the precision/quality of the fretwork on the guitar will all affect the way one can set the guitar’s action.
Above are picture of good and bad action, below are the factors that determine how the action is set.
The saddle height is adjustable on pretty much all electric guitars, though some are not individually adjustable. Usually this is set with a small allen wrench, or a screwdriver, and it’s important that the saddles be set low enough to make the guitar play easy, but not so low that the strings are buzzing badly or notes are choking out.
Truss Rod Adjustment:
The truss rod adjustment sets the “relief” on the guitar. The relief is the curvature of the neck relative to the strings. The strings will naturally pull the neck in a direction where the middle of the neck moves away from the strings. The truss rod is a metal rod(s) that goes through the middle of the neck and is tasked with counteracting the tension of the strings to keep the neck straighter. There’s usually an allen or screwdriver adjustment at the headstock or the heel of the neck that will allow you to put more or less tension on the neck. If this isn’t adjusted at all, the middle of the neck will have playability issues where the strings are too far away from the fretboard.
Intonation is the process of setting a guitar up so that it’s in tune with itself - meaning that when you strum a chord in the open position and it sounds in-tune, and you strum a chord at the 12th fret, it also sounds in tune. Intonation is a tough thing to check when you’re buying a first guitar, because it takes an advanced playing technique and a trained ear to check. If you know a skilled guitarist with a good ear, I would recommend bringing them with you to help check things like intonation. It’s a setting that can be fixed later on with a setup, but on really cheap guitars, there could be a bigger issue (like the bridge is improperly placed). To check it, play a natural harmonic at the 12th fret on each string, and then play a fretted note at the 12th fret. The two should sound perfectly in tune with each other. If they don’t, the saddle for that string needs to be moved either forwards or backwards. A good setup will include an intonation setting, so it’s always a good idea to have one done on cheaper guitars, because they may not perform this step before the guitar leaves the factory.
Having someone perform a “setup” on a new guitar that involves the adjustment of the truss rod, the saddle height, and the intonation (the lateral position of the saddles) is always a good idea, especially on cheaper guitars, as I’ve noticed that they never feel like they’ve been properly set up to me, which is probably a cost savings measure. A setup is probably the cheapest and best way to make a cheap guitar play well, so it’s worth the investment.
The tuners are very important on a guitar, as they hold and set the tension of a string (which determines the pitch of each string). These are one of the most important pieces of hardware, and one of the big problems I see time and time again in the sub $150 price range on guitars. I once restrung a budget guitar with cheap tuning machines, and the high e string tuning machine broke while I was turning it - I hadn’t even put any stress on it - just the act of turning it caused it to break. These parts see a lot of motion/wear and tear, and because they have rotating gears inside, soft metals and cheap casting techniques can really cause some problems with operation and durability. The best way to check the quality of a tuning peg is to turn each one through it’s paces for a couple rotations. Do this in the direction that loosens the string (goes down in pitch) and not the other way! Otherwise you’ll probably break a string. If you feel any lumpiness/bumpiness/roughness in the rotation of the tuner, you may want to move on to a different guitar. Sometimes, cheap, flimsy tuners are unavoidable on cheap guitars, and if you consider swapping any part on a cheap guitar, this would be where I would spend my money first. A good tuner should provide a smooth, easy rotation. To really feel the difference, try turning a tuning peg on a $100 guitar, then a $2000 one. You’ll immediately feel the difference, and for an extra 50 bucks, you can change the feel of a cheap guitar for the better with some good tuners. If you buy the right set for your guitar, the installation is a snap.
If the frets are the tires on a car, and the bridge is the suspension, then the pickups are the engine. The pickups have the single largest effect on an instrument’s tone, and it’s a matter of musical tastes in terms of what will work the best for you. In general, single coils have a more bell like sound, whereas humbuckers have a very mid-forward chunky sound, though there are several varieties of each - below are the most common pickups (there are many more types but this is a good start):
A single coil pickup is the pickup of choice for Stratocasters and Telecasters, though they show up on all kinds of guitars. They have a very clear, “chimey” sound, and there are reverse-wound-reverse-polarity variants that will cause an out-of-phase sound when combined with a regular single coil (2 and 4 switch positions on a standard stratocaster) that sounds kinda “watery”. These pickups are used for all styles of music, but blues, funk, country, and pop are where they really shine.
Covered Single Coil
Covered single coils usually show up in the neck position of telecasters, and another variant is the Danelectro “lipstick tube”. Outside of the cosmetic differences, if windings and specs are identical to an uncovered pickup, the covered one will sound more “mellow” or “round” than its uncovered brethren with a smoother top end and a little less bite.
Tele Bridge Single Coil
Similar in construction to a Stratocaster single coil, the Tele bridge single coil has a different shaped bobbin (the form that the copper windings are wrapped around) and it has more output and more “snap” than a Stratocaster bridge single coil.
The P90 is Gibson’s offering in the single coil pickup department. They’re generally categorized as having a single coil sound that is a lot “fatter” and “ballsier” than a Fender style single coil, without the the same glassy, shimmering overtones that the Fender pickups offer. This pickup is great for that 70’s rock sound, blues rock, and any other music along those lines.
The humbucker is a dual coil design invented by Seth Lover who worked for Gibson in the early days of the electric guitar. It’s called a “Humbucker” because the second coil cancels out or “bucks” the 60 cycle hum that is present with single coil pickups. It has a mid-forward sound with a lot of body and bite. These pickups are used in every application, and they even come in single coil sizes, or with rails instead of pole pieces, and they really shine when plugged in to a high gain amplifier. Rock and roll, metal, and grunge are the humbuckers forte.
The covered Humbucker is big in Les Pauls and the more traditional offerings from Gibson. The same thing that applies to covered single coils applies here - the covered Humbucker will have a rounder, mellower tone than an uncovered Humbucker with the same specs.
Active pickups are a newer phenomenon, and use a battery to boost output. These are great for metal, shred, and any other high-gain application.
Part 2: Seth’s Guitar Picks by Price Range
There are only a few players in this price range, and honestly, the phrase “you get what you pay for” rings true here. There’s a good chance that the finish, detail work, and fretwork will leave a lot to be desired on these guitars, and I’ve certainly worked with one or two guitars (one was a “Maestro” brand guitar) in this price range that have tuners that are so janky that they broke or slipped when trying to tune. I would generally avoid what I call the “toy store” brands - First Act being one of the most prevalent. Rogue and Dean guitars tend to be reviewed well in this bracket, though I’ve never played either, and Ibanez has an offering that’s bound to be pretty good for the money - they’re a reputable guitar brand with a long history of making good guitars. Keep in mind that this price bracket is a bit of a no-man’s land, so I can’t really reccomend a specific guitar - you really have to take each one on a case by case basis.
This price bracket is where most of the major players in the uber-affordable guitar market step on the field. These guitars will be more playable than in the sub-$100 category, but I still wouldn’t consider them “stage worthy”. The pickups in guitars in this price range are generally not wax potted, which means that at stage volumes, you’ll get microphonic squeal from the guitar, which is a very unpleasant form of feedback.
Squier, a subsidiary of Fender has a lot of great offerings here (mostly stratocasters and telecasters, and probably the most of any major guitar brand) and their “bullet” series of guitars has more than once caught me by surprise in regards to quality and playability for the price. The Stratocaster is a very versatile and ergonomic design, and the telecaster has a cool vibe, it’s really a matter of personal taste when deciding which one to choose.
Epiphone, which is a subsidiary of Gibson, also has a limited but solid offering in this price bracket. It’s worth mentioning that they offer guitars in much higher price brackets, and Epiphone is a brand that’s been around a long, long time. There’s a history of good guitar making there, and my hands have held many Les Paul Juniors during my career in guitar gaming. I will say this based off of that experience - that the ones that come from Indonesia tend to be better built than the ones from China. The fretboard sanding and fretwork on the Chinese guitars was a little rough, and the finishes weren’t as good either. That’s not to say I didn’t see good ones from China, but generally the Indonesian ones seemed better. My only main issue with the Les Paul Junior is that there’s only one pickup, which limits the guitar’s sonic potential, and that they use a “wrap” bridge which is only adjustable as an entire unit. This makes setting the intonation on the guitar a bit of a compromise. These two factors make this guitar a bit of a limiting choice for a first time guitar buyer since there aren’t many sounds to experiment with. If you’re looking for a little more guitar, and want to stick with Epiphone, spring for their Explorer model at the top of this price bracket [insert riff from Master of Puppets here].
Ibanez is yet another good choice here - you obviously won’t see all the bells and whistles that you’d find on Steve Vai or Joe Satriani’s personal guitar in this bracket, but I’ve played a lot from them in this range, and the guitars are generally solid for the price.
For you shredders/metalheads, Jackson, Schecter, and ESP have some pretty cool options in this price bracket. While you can certainly find a guitar that looks metal in this price range, don’t expect to be able to play through a marshall half stack at full volume with these guitars - I’ve found that microphonic squeal is pretty prevalent on cheap mass produced guitars like these.
This is the price range where things start to get interesting. If you’re buying a Squier or Epiphone in this price range, you’re likely to find something that plays pretty darn well considering the price. Consider this the “prosumer” grade price bracket for guitars. They aren’t necessarily going to be professional grade, but they’ll get the job done fairly well, especially for guitar gaming.
Below are a few of my picks in this price range:
Squier Black and Chrome Fat Strat - I consider the fat strat to be the most sonically versatile guitar available in terms of standard options. At $230 street price, this guitar is a great bang for the buck.
Squier Deluxe Strat - With a street price at $299, these guitars are a highly impressive offering for the money. With machined bridge saddles, and cool vibey finishes, these guitars have the look and feel of a far more expensive guitar. While the electronics may not be able to keep pace with the Fender equivalent of this guitar - the American Standard Strat - they’re still Duncan designed, which is a good thing, and if you covered the branding on the headstock, you might get confused as to which is which. The only downside is the basswood body - while the guitar will be light and easy to play, it won’t have the high end snap of it’s Fender brethren made from poplar, alder, or ash. Spring for a maple fretboard to get a little closer to the real deal tone.
Epiphone Special II Plus Top - With a laminate maple top, 2 humbuckers, and decent facsimile to the the legendary Gibson Les Paul, this is well optioned, cool guitar for rock and roll, and at $220-250 street price, it’s competitively priced.
Epiphone G-400 - With a Mahogany Body, a set neck, and alnico magnet pickups, this guitar has the goods for the $299 street price. The materials and build method are professional grade. If you’re into AC/DC, you’ll look great doing Angus’ duck walk across the stage with this bad boy.
Jackson JS32 King V - This thing is a METAL MACHINE! String-through-body bridge for extra sustain, high output Zebra pickups! You’ll be headbanging to your hearts content. There’s only one problem… You can’t headbang sitting down, and unfortunately, you can’t play this guitar that way either. V guitars are a standing-room-only deal. Keep that in mind. Also, I’ve noticed that the light basswood body and maple neck sometimes causes a balance issue on these guys - it’s a neck heavy guitar which makes it a little trickier to play. Still, if you must have metal, than this is a great offering at $250 street.
This is what I usually think of as the entry level professional instrument bracket. You can easily find a stage worthy guitar in this price range, and anecdotally - the standard made-in-Mexico stratocaster I bought in 2001 still serves as my at-work workhorse 12 years later. There are a lot of good options in here, but here are a few of my top picks:
Fender Standard Stratocaster and Fender Standard Telecaster - These two choices are at the top of the price range, but you really can’t go wrong with either. The designs have stood the test of time, and the build quality on these is great for the price. The FSR standard Strat HSS has a humbucker in the bridge and for $500 bucks it might be the most sonically diverse guitar you can buy.
Epiphone Les Paul Standard - This guitar has all the construction and design of it’s Gibson counterpart that usually goes for $2000 - 3000 bucks. It’s a great bang for your buck at $400 street. It doesn’t have a fancy top if that’s your thing, but for another 100 bucks you could always spring for the “Plus Top” models and still stay in this price bracket.
G&L Tribute ASAT - I’ve never been anything but impressed with G&L as a brand. This company was started by Leo Fender when he left Fender, and as a brand, G&L has really carried on his legacy of great guitars for a great price. Anything you can find from G&L in this price bracket will likely be worth your while.
Jackson DKXT Dinky - This is a great guitar for a metalhead or shredder. The basswood body will be light and the necks are thin and easy to play. This is a lot of guitar for 350 bucks.
Ibanez RG8 - 400 bucks street is a ridiculous price for an 8 string guitar. These guitars are a great gift for a metalhead, and while I may not reccomend them as a first guitar, every player wishes they had an 8 string at one point or another.
Charvel Desolation - Though these may not be a traditional offering from Charvel, the company makes great guitars for the serious player, and these desolation series guitars are a great alternative to the LP body style offerings from Epiphone or Gibson. The 24 jumbo frets make these things shred-ready.
I often think of this price range as being the working musician’s bracket for an instrument. I don’t imagine a lot of people buying their first guitar in this price range, but keep in mind that you can get a well optioned, great sounding instrument from any manufacturer in this price range, and honestly, guitars that cost upwards of $800 don’t always sound all that much better, though they typically have a lot of extra frills. Look to this price bracket as a no-frills professional grade instrument bracket, or an extremely well optioned lower end professional instrument bracket. If you’re buying a first time guitar in this wheelhouse then I don’t think you’ll be disappointed with anything you end up with. In addition, you may be spoiled. Just make sure you play the exact instrument you buy.
$800 and UP!
The finishes, the figuring on wood tops, meticulous fretwork, and custom options are what you’re paying for in the 800 and up bracket. That, and if you keep these instruments for 30 years in good condition, they’re likely to be a sound investment at some point. The American made Fenders fall here, the real deal Gibson guitars, and a whole bevy of other great guitars from the likes of PRS, Charvel, Suhr, Melancon, The Heritage, Ibanez signature models, and dozens more. So many great guitars up in this range, and most of them American made by true craftsmen, or built to a similar spec in their countries of origin. If you’re looking in this bracket, this probably isn’t your first rodeo and you probably already know what you want.
The used guitar market is massive, and if you find a good used guitar, you’ll generally get a better bang for your buck. In some cases an older guitar will actually sound better than a new one of the same quality because wood becomes more resonant over time as it dries. Also the magnets in the pickups will mellow out over time, which is often a sought after sound. Most shops will carry used instruments, and typically those have been vetted a bit (they generally won’t buy or take a trade in on an instrument that sucks) so as a first time buyer, this might be a safer option, but you really have to look at the frets to see how worn they are, and test all the volume and tone knobs to make sure they work when you buy used. You’ll ultimately get a better price buying direct from someone, so if you take the risk, you may be rewarded. The one other bonus here is that when you buy used, you’re doing the environment a favor - good guitars are made from hardwood, and most of that hardwood is old growth. These trees are being cut down faster than they’re re-growing, so buying used and reducing the demand for new lumber for new guitars is ultimately an altruistic goal. If you know an accomplished guitarist, bring them with you when you buy used if you can (and in general).
I realize this is a huge blog at this point, with a ton of information. It’s really the tip of the iceberg, but hopefully it helps as an education on what to look for in a guitar. Sometimes, the guy in the store is just looking for a sale with high margins, so some education on the way in is a good way to make sure you’re really getting an instrument that’s worth your while. I repeated this about 10 times already in this blog, but the best thing you can do to make sure you’re getting a good guitar is to play it before you buy it. Like I said, each one is unique.
I hope this helps, and HAPPY HOLIDAYS!
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Seth joined BandFuse on November 22, 2013. The last time Seth logged in was on February 26, 2014.