Need a Cheap Guitar
September 26, 2008 2:19 PM   Subscribe

What should I look for in a $50 guitar?

I want to buy a very inexpensive acoustic (steel-stringed) guitar to teach myself some basics. This instrument would be used for campfire/classroom singalong type situations; I do not intend to be any sort of a performer on the thing. As a musician, I realize the peril in buying the cheapest instrument possible, but I really do just want to learn a few chords of "functional" guitar.

SO, having said that, what should I look for when trying to buy a cheap guitar? I'm assuming that Craigslist is a good place to look (I'm in Seattle), but what do I need to know? Should I plan on putting new strings on it (or having someone else put new strings on it, as the case may be)? If Craigslist is not a good place to look, where else should I go? I am willing to spend a little more than $50 if necessary, but no more than $100, certainly.

Any resources on guitar buying would be welcome -- and if you live in Seattle and are selling a guitar (or know someone who does!), by all means, email me! (username at gee-mail).

[I've seen this link but I'm looking for something much cheaper than the stuff that Trading Musician has on their site).
posted by rossination to Shopping (23 answers total) 4 users marked this as a favorite
I picked up an Indiana Scout for less than 100 bucks at a small local, non-chain, guitar store and I've loved it. It's full size not 3/4 size so if you're taking it camping it might be a bit bulky. But it runs less than $100 brand new, no haggling, from a shop (no looking for sellers), no restringing, easy to test at a shop in your area, etc.
posted by Science! at 2:43 PM on September 26, 2008

Sorry, I am not in your area at all, but you could always order it online.
posted by Science! at 2:43 PM on September 26, 2008

My guitar cost $100 new--it's nothing fancy, but it's been fine to learn on. You can get something comprable at just about any of the big music stores. Heck, Walmart has one for $70.

I've bought a few thrift store bargains, one for $10 and one for $30, and both have been OK after a little work. Nope, not concert quality, but I gave one to my daughter and I keep the other in the back of my car. If you're reasonably handy and musically inclined, that (or Craigslist) might be a good option, but a loose strut deep inside the body or a sub-standard nut would be difficult for a beginner to detect, and could cause the instrument to sound really bad.
posted by MrMoonPie at 2:47 PM on September 26, 2008

I know you said you don't want to hear it, but 50 bucks is not enough budget for a real guitar. You might get really lucky and get a functional guitar at that pricepoint, but you're probably going to get a toy. The guitar has a fairly rough, discouraging learning gap at the very beginning, where you're trying to torture your fingers into place and build up callouses, and you can't play anything; this is where people succeed or fail at becoming guitar players. A cheap guitar makes this period longer and more difficult. The price band for functional guitars starts at around 150 bucks, and I'd recommend bumping that up to 300 for a nice, solid, playable guitar--probably an Epiphone.

BUT, if you were going to proceed with your plans, I'd say get a nylon stringed acoustic. There's not as much tension on the neck, so they can make them better for cheaper. Here's an Ibanez for 100 bones.
posted by Nahum Tate at 2:50 PM on September 26, 2008

Best answer: I gauge from the wording that you don't know anything about playing the guitar at all. Is that correct?

If so, do you have a friend who can show a few chords on their guitar? That'll make finding a guitar to suit you much easier. Honestly, the best way to pick a guitar is to sit down and play it for a bit. At your price point, you're going to find massive variations in quality, from bargains to horrible, horrible finger traps. What you end with will have a large impact on how much you enjoy learning the instrument. I'd highly recommend hitting the high end of your budget if you can. Maybe go to a local Guitar Centre, see what they have for $100 or so, and then you at least know what you can fall back on if need be.

I'd take a good look at the distance the strings are from the fret board. Is it significantly difficult to fret (push the string down against the fretboard) any of the strings on any of the frets, especially halfway down the neck? If so, move on, as fixing that isn't worth the monetary investment for a cheap guitar.

You'll also want to look out for string buzz. Do any of the strings buzz? Push them down against the fretboard halfway down, and then strike them again. Do they buzz now? Count 12 frets from the left hand side and then fret the string there. Strike it. Do they buzz now?

You'll probably need new strings if it's a second-hand guitar. Unless they've been changed recently then it's going to make a big difference in your everyday enjoyment. Rusty strings will hurt your fingers and sound bad.

You'll also probably want an electronic tuner. There's nothing sadder than an out of tune guitar. A couple of plectrums and then you're set.

I know you're not going to be super-fussy with $100, but you might as well get something you'll end up enjoying.

Good luck!
posted by Magnakai at 2:52 PM on September 26, 2008 [3 favorites]

Putting your own new strings on a guitar is not difficult at all. A used guitar selling for that little will almost certainly need them. Electronic tuners are fine, but if you're trying to be extra-cheap, a pitch pipe or tuning fork will do about as well.

Check for buzzing on all of the frets on all of the strings (put your finger down behind a fret, pluck the string, listen for buzzing/rattling) - this is out of scope for a beginner to repair themselves, and is really annoying. If you're just going to play basic chords, buzzing above the 8th or 9th fret probably won't be an issue.
posted by 0xFCAF at 2:56 PM on September 26, 2008

Good advice from Magnakai; even being able to sort of play two chords will help you determine if a guitar is usable or not.. If that isn't practical, and you can't bring someone whose opinion you trust, you might want to consider saving up into the $99 range and getting some recommendations from a Guitar Center employee or something rather than buying something you can't return or determine the quality of on Craigslist.

Otherwise Musician's Friend will ship for free on orders over $99, so once you're at that point (and you'll need picks, a tuner, etc.) that option becomes a bit more attractive and you'll probably get something playable if you just pick one.

(you will need to learn to restring your guitar at some point, BTW, but it's not difficult)
posted by substars at 3:04 PM on September 26, 2008

There is a guitar center at 520 Westlake Ave N (South Lake Union, Seattle). They'll have the cheapest new guitar you can find, probably $100, perhaps $79 on sale. It will come with a warranty. I wouldn't recommend anything other than a new guitar if you don't know anything about guitars - pawn shops and craiglist are risky bets if you don't know what you're looking at. Another good item for a newbie is a chromatic tuner. It's a lot easier to tune with one if you're still developing an ear.

Other than that I would recommend getting some help from a guitar savy friend if possible. -- Good luck!
posted by Craig at 3:22 PM on September 26, 2008

A few things come to mind:

- Make sure the neck isn't warped, frets don't buzz and the action isn't painfully high;
- Make sure the strings stay in tune all the way up the neck;
- Make sure it's comfortable -- it won't produce an amazing sound, so if it's going to have a redeeming quality it should be that it fits you physically, in the same way you'll keep wearing a beat-up old pair of ugly shoes if they're the most comfortable you own -- it'll encourage you to play it more often.
posted by davejay at 3:29 PM on September 26, 2008

You may want to buy a cheap digital tuner as well; if you don't have any way to generate a real "E", it's hard to tune your guitar correctly- you end up way high or way low, which can mess with the action.
posted by jenkinsEar at 3:45 PM on September 26, 2008

1. Watch out for loose tuners or anything else not screwed in all the way or glued down securely. Nothing wiggling around. Neck and body should be tightly joined.

2. Check to make sure that the strings closest to the edges on the neck actually run parallel to the edge of the neck and that they do not suddenly slide off the neck when pressed down.

3. Make sure there are no sharp edges, splinters along the edges or back of the neck.

Although I successfully play guitars with the above defects, they might put off the causual player. Good luck.
posted by Mrs. Buck Turgidson at 3:54 PM on September 26, 2008

Check out some pawnshops. Guitarists are the pawning type. I've heard you can dicker with the invariably creepy proprietor.
posted by spork at 4:00 PM on September 26, 2008

I was about to mention a pawn shop. Also, find out if the local music shop has a used section - often you can get really good deals on not-completely-destroyed trade-ins.
posted by eclectist at 4:21 PM on September 26, 2008

Best answer: I would second the nylon string suggestion. Here's a really nice looking job on Seattle CL for $90. Classical guitars are easier on the fingers (for someone who's probably not going to play enough to build up big callouses) and are nice and mellow when you make a mistake (like not getting the strings all the way down, playing on the fret, etc.)

If you're really sold on the steel string sound, check out this Takamine. I bet it's pretty nice.

The folks above who suggested learning a few chords and/or bringing a guitar-savvy friend along to play the guitar are absolutely right. Sometimes you just can't tell by looking unless you really know what you're looking at.

Do not under any circumstance purchase an Esteban guitar. Just sayin'.
posted by nosila at 4:32 PM on September 26, 2008

Look, for 80-100 dollars you an get a new guitar. You'll at least get some basic warranty. With a used guitar you have no idea what youre getting. You dont want to learn on something with a bad neck which is impossible to tune properly and when you finally get it in tune it quickly falls out of tune. All this frustration is not worth saving 30-40 dollars.
posted by damn dirty ape at 4:40 PM on September 26, 2008

1. Do not, under any circumstances, buy a new guitar. New guitars are for people with more than $500. New guitars that cost less than $500 are not worth learning on.

2. Go to yard sales. Seriously. Better than pawn shops, better than Craigslist, better than ebay. At yard sales, people often don't know what something's worth.

3. Understand that that's the only way you're going to get a guitar for $50 - by getting lucky. Shoot for $100, maybe, and just hit pawn shops and stuff. You'll get something. Just go into a bunch of places and say, "what's the cheapest guitar you have?"

4. Again, never buy a new guitar for less than $500. I guarantee that it will be about a thousand times worse than a guitar you might be able to buy down the street for half as much.
posted by koeselitz at 4:47 PM on September 26, 2008

Hey! That Takamine looks kinda nifty! And it looks almost like the guitar I learned to play on!
posted by koeselitz at 4:48 PM on September 26, 2008

Will you settle for $90? That's how much they are at Costco.
posted by The corpse in the library at 5:08 PM on September 26, 2008

I have no experience with the guitars on sale at costco and guitar center that cost less than $100 new, but my 20 years of shopping for and buying guitars on the cheap would lead me to believe that they would be a waste of your money. You need to have something that won't put you off from playing, and the cheaper guitars will be poorly intonated, won't hold any tuning, and will be uncomfortable to play. But for about $100 you ought to be able to get a used guitar, with a guitar-playing friend helping you shop, that has less of those problems.
posted by mzurer at 6:13 PM on September 26, 2008

Response by poster: Thanks for the advice, all. To clarify -- I know absolutely nothing about guitars (can't play anything), so the tip to go with a guitar-playing friend is a good one, I guess. I will go shopping this weekend and post back with my findings...
posted by rossination at 8:12 PM on September 26, 2008

Do not go to Costco. Do not go to Best Buy. Do not go to Guitar Center. Do not go online.

Do go to your locally owned music store. Buy a used one. That way someone else has eaten the depreciation for you, and you get a $250 dollar guitar for under a bill.
posted by sourwookie at 8:52 PM on September 26, 2008

I definitely recommend taking a (good, experienced) guitar player with you, and if I were in Seattle and not the UK I would definitely help you out!

For what it's worth, my first proper guitar (my first actual guitar being a very very crappy nylon strung classical jobbie), I still have and cost about £200, over 15 years ago (I was 15 when my parents bought it for me). It was a fairly entry level washburn, and has great action, intonation and sound quality; all of the things that people say you can't get at that price point. I've seen my same guitar on Ebay second hand getting no more than £30 (of course I can't guarantee that those are in the same condition as mine, but it is what keeps me selling it when I no longer need it!). If I'm being honest, it's probably still the best sounding guitar I own, and the others cost more for the most part. The only reason I don't play it much anymore is because I prefer the convenience of my electro-acoustic (also Washburn, also sounds great).

What I'm essentially saying is that you can get decent guitars for less than $100, but it generally takes either a decent music store (locally owned, non chain), or a decent guitarist to find them. At the very least it requires a guitarist with a good ear who can fret chords at different places on the fret board and recognise that they are in tune, and who can look down the fretboard and see that the frets are aligned correctly, and for any buzzes etc. They should also check the intonation (easiest way is to compare harmonic and fretted note at the 12th fret). You also want a guitar with action that isn't overly high (someone recently bought me a Daisy Rock guitar as a gift,which was designed for a beginner, and it has the worst action I've ever seen on a guitar designed essentially for kids (he bought it for me because it was pink, I'm too damn sentimental to have sold it), and which I personally would never have recommended for a beginner.

Having said all that, you will definitely struggle at $50 I'm afraid (assuming guitars generally work out at the same cost as they do over here anyway).
posted by nunoidia at 1:20 AM on September 27, 2008 [1 favorite]

I've found a few $50 guitars in stores that played just fine, but the thing is, I wouldn't have been able to tell the difference a year ago when I wasn't playing the guitar yet.

Take a friend with you and have him/her try all of the cheap ones and find the one that feels good. If you have a particularly good friend, they could even accompany you to pawnshops or craigslist sellers and find a good deal on a used guitar.
posted by mmoncur at 10:06 PM on September 27, 2008

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