Electric Guitar Buying Guide for Beginners
My first electric guitar
I still remember buying my very first electric guitar with proceeds from my paper-route. It was a black Epiphone Genesis which was an upgrade from having to learn on my Dad’s old acoustic guitar. It didn’t take too many days for post-purchase anxiety to kick in for me. The revelation hit me that I had just spent a sizable wad of cash on this guitar. And, I still didn’t know how to play it that well! “What did I get myself into?” What if I don’t continue playing guitar? Did I spend too much on this instrument?
Buying your first electric guitar represents a tangible commitment and investment. Therefore it’s not unrealistic that you might have similar feelings and concerns when spending your hard-earned money on your first electric. This short buying guide summarizes what I’ve learned after that first initial purchase. It’s my hope that Instead of jumping in feet-first, like I did, you be better equipped with good information and a buying process that will leave you feeling good about your purchase.
Here is what you will learn from this simple guide:
- I can help you think through your search criteria based upon guitar size, your budget, and preferences.
- I will share my simple buying process that I still use when acquiring new guitars or music equipment. This has worked well for me in many cases and I feel confident it will help you as well!
- I will provide recommendations on electric guitars that are reasonably priced built with quality, and user-friendly for new students.
- I also will share my list of recommended accessories that you should consider when buying your first guitar.
Narrow Your Search with these questions:
Decluttering your thinking space is perhaps the most important first step towards making good buying decisions. Typing in “electric guitar” into a search query is an invitation to drink from a firehose. So, the best way to avoid that is to narrow down your search criteria by answering these simple questions:
What is the age of the student?
Identifying the age of the musician will determine whether we want to purchase a 3/4 sized instrument or a full sized instrument. Electric guitars have a much smaller body shape than acoustics and therefore it’s much easier to find an instrument that is sized well so that the student feels comfortable holding it and can maintain good posture while playing it. Here is my rule of thumb:
Students Ages 7 – 10 should start with a 3/4 sized electric guitar. A 3/4 sized electric is much easier for younger students to handle and not too heavy.
Students Ages 10 – Adult will do just fine starting with a full-sized electric. Kid’s in this age range grow quickly and I have found that their 3/4 sized electric quickly shrinks and is simply too small for them to play efficiently. So, money can be saved by just starting with an electric.
What is your Budget?
You will have a much better consumer experience if you establish a firm spending limit that feels comfortable and reasonable. Knowing your limits will also act as a counter-weight against the hype and up-selling that you can expect to encounter when engaging with sales staff. In my opinion, you can find a decent starter guitar somewhere between $150 – $300. This particular price-range falls right in the middle of affordability and sound construction. Unless you are buying a used guitar, you will run into quality issues when purchasing a guitar below $100. Conversely, I don’t think a beginning student needs to start out on a guitar that is over $300. Let me explain:
Your first guitar will likely not be your last:
It’s a good idea to start on the more affordable end with a first guitar purchase because as we play music and grow our skills our preferences, our music and sound awareness, and interests will change. As students develop their skills they will need to eventually upgrade to a higher quality instrument. We might find that we actually prefer the sound of a particular guitar model over what we initially start with. So, knowing that you will eventually need to upgrade within 2-3 years is helpful because you realize that your instrument has a shelf-life.
The journey is just as important as the destination:
Starting with a reasonably priced starter instrument will also create a natural incentive for new students. I have found that students of all ages always benefit from an outside motivational force. Many of my former students who were kids and teens found internal motivation to practice when they realized they would not be getting a better instrument until they could demonstrate measured progress and practice. As adults, we are also wired in a similar fashion and can create our own proverbial carrot by using a potential upgrade as an extrinsic reward for our efforts.
What is your inspiration?
Ask yourself, “Why do I want to learn how to play the electric guitar?” What has inspired you to want to purchase an electric guitar in the first place? Is there a particular goal you have in mind for yourself or a family member? What type of music do you envision yourself playing? Do you have specific bands or guitarists that really speak to your musical wheelhouse?
So here are a few examples of how knowing your inspiration will help to narrow your search criteria:
- If you really like Stevie Ray Vaughn, Eric Clapton, Jimi Hendrix you likely will want to buy a Stratocaster. A Stratocaster utilizes single-coil pickups which gives you a brighter tone. This is a versatile guitar is used in classic rock, blues, country, jazz and most modern music today.
- If you enjoy listening to Led Zeppelin (which dates me) you might be inspired by the guitar playing of Jimi Page. He primarily played a Gibson Les Paul which uses double-coil pickups known as hum buckers and had a chunky wood body that really supported a mid-range tone and sustained notes played in guitar solos.
- Perhaps you really prefer heavier distorted rock, grunge, alternate rock or metal… You will want to find out what the guitarists of those groups are playing. These guitars typically have hum buckers that are really designed to give you a robust distortion with chords and solos.
So, let your inspiration and music preferences be a tool to narrow your preferences. This will also help you decide what guitars you should try as part of your search process.
My recommended buying process:
Once you have narrowed down your options and created a “short-list” of potential guitars then it’s time to move onto the second phase of defining your search and purchase process.
My recommended approach most likely is not a mystery to you and also very simple to follow. Here’s what it entails:
- I conduct online research
- Test-drive many different instruments in-store
- Walk out of the store and pause to fine-tune my preferences
- Take active steps to negotiate price and purchase my chosen instrument.
- Additionally, I try to bundle accessories into my purchase so I can save more money than buying them individually.
Conduct Online Research:
For starters, I take time to do online research and try to find the best price the market will give me for the guitars under consideration. This also might include me visiting Youtube to watch demo’s of these particular instruments. Sometimes I will download manuals, promotional materials, and even look for reviews on instruments I’m considering.
Recently, I’ve come to really appreciate the price information found on reverb.com. Reverb is the music retail equivalent of Ebay where individuals and stores can sell their new and used music inventory online. When I am trying to gain a market perspective on a particular guitar I will often look up both used and new listings for my equipment of interest. If you implement this step you might be shocked at the wide disparity between the retail sticker price and what you could realistically expect to re-sell that same piece of gear used.
Take a moment now to try this yourself:
- Let’s investigate the price of a Squier Stratocaster Mini V2
- Toggle between new and used prices
- Take a look at the price guide at the bottom of this page. Reverb often provides a median price range that’s quite helpful.
Test-Drive guitars in person.
After you have taken some time to conduct online research you are now ready to go visit your local music dealer to try out as many guitars as possible. Your goal during this stage is not to make a final purchase decision. In fact, it’s helpful to let store staff know that you will not be making any purchase that day. What you really are trying to accomplish is to look back at your in-store visit and figure out what your guitar preferences are. Here are a few things for you to ask yourself:
Ergonomic preferences: Do I feel comfortable with the weight and shape of this guitar body-style? A Les-Paul is heavy. Does that still feel comfortable to play? Request store-staff if you can borrow a guitar strap when trying out instruments. This will also help you determine if you feel comfortable with the weight of the guitar against your shoulder.
Neck: There are quite a few different parameters when it comes to guitar necks (which falls way outside the scope of this guide). In short some necks are rounded and resemble base-ball bats whereas others are thin. There are different types of wood finishes and lacquers that are also used on necks. Without going into a great amount of detail in the particulars, just make sure that your left hand feels comfortable holding the neck and that you can create a sustained note when you press your fingers down on the strings against the frets.
Guitar Tone: What are my ears telling me? I would recommend that you listen to how a guitar sounds without being plugged into an amplifier. Just strum all the strings and listen to the overall tone or color that you hear. In my opinion, what you hear naturally, without an amp, is the truer essence of what the guitar sounds like overall. The next step would be to plug it into an amplifier that is set to a clean (non-distortion) setting and just listen again to the tone when strumming the open strings. A Stratocaster or Telecaster will sound much brighter than a Les Paul or Gibson SG. Ask yourself if you like a brighter guitar tone or something a bit darker and nuanced.
Pick-ups: Do you prefer single-coil, hum buckers, or a combination of both?
I would recommend trying both guitars that have exclusively single-coil pickups (Think Fender Stratocaster or Telecaster) or hum buckers (Gibson SG or Les Paul). Play these guitars with the clean and distortion settings on the amplifier (the store-staff will help you because they want to sell you an amp as well!). After contrasting those two types of pickup-configuration you can then try guitars that have a combination of both single coil and double coil pickups.
Customer Care: I do factor in my customer service experience when coming in to try guitars. My buying decisions are also influenced by intuitive factors which include my level of trust in the sales staff who was helping me. Your search for an electric guitar is also an opportunity to build a connection with a knowledgable associate whom you feel comfortable working with. If your customer care is stellar then you have found a good resource for future gear needs, repairs, or help solving technical issues when they arise. If the sales staff are condescending, non-existent, or not willing to go out of their way to connect with you then it’s well worth your time and money to take your business elsewhere.
My recommended guitars
Here are several electric guitars that I would recommend to new students. These following models are all fairly affordable yet retain very good standards in terms of quality and playability. Many of my students have purchased these guitars and have benefited from them being very well constructed and therefore set-up well for new students. These guitars will serve as a good starting point for your own short-list of guitars that you test-drive at your local dealer.
3/4 Sized Electric guitars
Single Coil/Stratocaster models:
Guitars with double/single-coil
Accessories: Save money on the small stuff
Keep needed accessories in mind when negotiating purchase price with retailer if you are buying locally. It never hurts to ask a local retailer if they will give you a discount on a guitar case, tuner, strings, guitar strap, or picks if you purchase them in a bundle with your chosen guitar.
Here are several accessories that I would also recommend that you purchase with your guitar:
What about an amplifier?
Once you have identified the electric guitar you wish to purchase it will be a good idea to start thinking about purchasing a reliable starter amplifier. Please take a moment to read my Amplifier Buying Guide for Beginners. This guide is a summary of my personal thoughts, search criteria questions, and recommendations that will help you start to think about your first amplifier purchase.
There are two ways you could approach buying your first amp:
- Buy your guitar first and give yourself a time buffer before proceeding to purchase and amp.
- Consider combining your guitar and amp in the same purchase. You might be able to negotiate additional discounts on your purchase by bundling these items in the same purchase. It never hurts to ask.
Since I am a much better teacher than blog writer it would be worth your time to read a few additional articles that do a nice job of embellishing some of the concepts I’ve hinted at in this brief guide. I have found Guitar Center to be a great resource for identifying all of the important facets of the electric guitar. They have created a great article called “How to Shop for an Electric Guitar” which covers the different body shapes, pick-up configurations, tone-woods, and recommendations on how to best try out guitars in their store.
Following a similar trajectory, Reverb has written an informative Buying Guide which covers a wider angle on buying both electric and acoustic guitars. They also provide some information on some of the distinct guitar models that I’ve spoken about in this article as well. Using nice illustrations, Wikihow’s article “How to Choose an Electric Guitar” provides helpful steps on how to narrow and refine your search criteria. They also provide some nice tips on how to evaluate the quality of a potential instrument as well. PMT Online has also put together an exhaustive buying guide which provides a very good overview of the distinctive aspects of the iconic electric guitar models that all other modern guitars are derived from. Finally, Spinditty has written an article called “How to Choose an Electric Guitar for a Beginner” which does a nice job of illustrating the practical aspects of budget and provides a very concise breakdown of all the parts of the electric guitar. This will help you feel a bit more confident talking to sales-staff as you acquire tech-speak and ask questions that are specific to your needs.
Buying your first electric guitar doesn’t have to be a harrowing process nor one that results in buyers regret. Take some time to narrow down your search options by first determining which guitar size will best suit you or your student. Define your budget and consider your sources of inspiration that motivate you to want to learn how to play the electric guitar. Once you have narrowed down your options gift yourself with much needed online research on reviews and pricing. Schedule a time to visit your local music store to try out as many guitars as you possibly can. Then head home and take inventory of which guitars spoke to you in terms of their ergonomic playability, sound, and how they relate to your music interests and goals. I also recommend looking into bundling your accessories with the purchase of your guitar and ask sales staff if they would consider discounts off of the small stuff. Finally, Remember that time is your friend and always on your side. There will always be a sale and a promotion available for just about any guitar you have interest in. Don’t let the sales staff push you into a quick sale based upon a time-sensitive promotion they are offering.
Contact Me – I’m Happy to help!
Thank you for reading my beginner’s buying guide to electric guitars. Contact me if you have further questions or want me to be a sounding board as you walk through this process. I have provided assistance to families and students by also giving them feedback on potential guitar options they are considering. So, if you have a specific guitar in mind contact me and also send me a photo and info on the guitar you are considering. I’m happy to help!