Buying guitars: is it normal to get the one you see and play in the shop?
May 22, 2012 3:45 PM   Subscribe

Buying guitars: is it normal to get the one you see and play in the shop?

I don't like the idea of someone else (or lots of other people) playing my guitar, but buying guitars "off-the-shelf" seems to be the norm (from my experience in the UK, at least).

If you buy a new phone or TV, you'd get a new one in an un-opened box. Why is this not the case for guitars?

Even with online guitar shops, most of them also have brick-and-mortar shops. The last guitar I bought online had marks and scratches, and had obviously just been taken from their actual shop and shipped off.
posted by fry to Shopping (33 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
Well, if it's marked and scratched, you should point that out. Personally, I only buy the actual guitar I play because same model guitars can vary to a large degree depending on the guitar make and model.
posted by lumpenprole at 3:51 PM on May 22, 2012 [2 favorites]

You don't want one out of a box. You want the one that you played. At least, everyone else besides you wants the one they've actually played. That's why stores do it that way.

It's like shoes. You try on shoes. You like them, you walk out with them. Other people may have tried on those shoes and not liked them. But if you do like like them you don't give them back to the clerk and ask for an unopened box from the back room. You take the ones you've tried on. At least that how every shoe purchase I've ever seen takes place.

Of course, if the shoes are scuffed you can ask for a different pair. That's totally reasonable. But then you'd try that pair on two, at least maybe you would, before buying it.

You want to be comfortable with an instrument, just like shoes. Even relatively cheap instruments are, at some level, handmade and have variations in them, just like shoes. So that's why it works that way. But you don't have to buy damaged goods in any case.
posted by alms at 3:58 PM on May 22, 2012 [4 favorites]

It's not like a new iPhone. Any instrument worth owning or playing is the result of thousands of little choices along the way, from the way the wood is sawn, down to how the action is set up.

I would always want to play a number of guitars then choose the one what felt the best, even if they were the same make and model.
posted by Danf at 4:03 PM on May 22, 2012 [3 favorites]

No two pieces of wood are acoustically identical.
posted by Jode at 4:08 PM on May 22, 2012 [3 favorites]

I would buy the one I played. How the guitar feels in my hand really depends on the actual guitar, and no two are exactly the same.
With my last guitar, I knew which model I wanted, but I still played a dozen or so. Actually, I'm willing to be flexible with the color as long as it feels right in my hand.
posted by xmts at 4:13 PM on May 22, 2012

Yep. As far as I know, this is the same for all non-electronic instruments. I worked in a music store that sold guitars for a few years, and all music stores in town operated the same way. Each individual instrument just has the potential to be so different, even if it's the same model.

I picked my piano by playing every one in the store and choosing a Kawai with an unusually bright tone. If I'd just gone by online reading and by playing the identical make/model Kawai next to mine in the store, I would have assumed the Kawais were too sweet for me, and I should go with a Yamaha.

In fact, there would have to be some fairly extraordinary reason for me to ever buy an instrument without getting a chance to play it first.
posted by wending my way at 4:13 PM on May 22, 2012

Yup. Totally normal.

In the first, second, third, and possibly-but-probably-not-guitar-player-superstition place, even in this age of mass production and CNC machines, there are still enough variations in construction that this guitar feels or sounds better than that guitar even if they're supposedly totally identical.

In the (where was I?) fourth place, brick-and-mortar music shops are usually operating on very very thin profit margins, so most of the space of the store is going to be taken up with stuff for sale on the floor, and not much hidden storage in the back. And then what happens is someone tries a guitar, and asks if you've got one in green, or maybe with a different pickup configuration in it. So as a store you've got to sink cash into having several versions of the "same" guitar available for the customer to buy right now today, and therefore the store is much less likely to have a "brand-new-in-the-box" model of the guitar you just tried out in the back.

Around Christmas time you do tend to see more of the "pile-'em-up-high" approach for really cheap beginner guitars.
posted by soundguy99 at 4:16 PM on May 22, 2012 [1 favorite]

You really do need to play any guitar you plan to buy, just to make sure that particular guitar feels and sounds right to you. If you're really that concerned with other people's grubby fingers having been all over your new instrument, you could ask the salesman to grab you an untouched guitar out of the stockroom to play, but as noted above that may not always be possible. However, Every guitar I own has gotten sweeter-sounding the more I've played it and the older it has gotten. The last guitar I bought had been hanging in a Guitar Center for several months, and was doubtlessly pawed over by countless people before I got at it. I kind of figure that those faceless hordes fondling my guitar have done me the service of breaking her in a bit for me, so that I have less noodling to do before she starts sounding good (ooh, and she does).

Scratches and marks, though, those are no good.
posted by Pecinpah at 4:21 PM on May 22, 2012 [1 favorite]

Beyond the individual characteristics of each guitar, it's also worth noting that the reputable brick-and-mortar stores (less Guitar Center, more the joint in your hometown that has been in business since the 1960s) frequently tweak the action of guitars they receive from the factory prior to putting them on display. This makes the instruments much more playable than if you were to buy direct from the factory or many online retailers, some of who don't test their instruments for playability.

My luthier has been in business since the '60s and chides folks who bring him instruments they bought online. More often than not they are just big boxes of undisclosed problems.
posted by The White Hat at 4:34 PM on May 22, 2012 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: Very interesting responses. I guess it's just me that would want one direct from the factory.

Can you explain what you mean when a guitar feels good or plays well? What specifically do you look out for?

I'm quite an inexperienced player, but 'plays good' to me is pretty much just good fretwork - consistent, level, no raised frets that buzz, no sharp fret edges. The sound is completely changeable (on electrics, at least). I like to set the action and intonation myself.
posted by fry at 4:36 PM on May 22, 2012

More often than not they are just big boxes of undisclosed problems.


I bought a guitar on which all the tiny little screws that hold the pickguard on (which covers the electronics, which sometimes need to be accessed, as was the case with this guitar's wonky grounding) were completely stripped. Fun!
posted by Sys Rq at 4:51 PM on May 22, 2012

I'm quite an inexperienced player, but 'plays good' to me is pretty much just good fretwork

well, that's not a bad measure, but everyone frets a bit different and everyone has certain areas of the neck they concentrate on, so that's not going to be the same for everyone.

Tone is a whole other thing, and while important can set guitarists arguing for days, so suffice to say, buy the one you think sounds rad.
posted by lumpenprole at 4:52 PM on May 22, 2012

I wouldn't consider buying a guitar before playing it. I wouldn't even accept a guitar for free (which I recently did) without trying it out first. If I don't actually play it, I don't know if I actually want it.
posted by John Cohen at 4:52 PM on May 22, 2012 [2 favorites]

The sound is completely changeable (on electrics, at least)

Ho ho ho ho ha ha ha, my friend - you obviously have not spent anywhere NEAR enough time browsing the various guitar player forums. Epic battles have been waged over the difference between a curly maple top and a solid swamp ash body. Epic, I tell you.

I mean, personally I tend towards your thinking - the biggest change you can make in an electric is the pickups - but guitar players definitely have opinions about the wood and the finish affecting the tone. And the bridge. And the nut. And the tuning pegs. And the other electronics.

"Feel", well, that's highly personal, but possible components are the width of the neck, the thickness and shape of the neck, the radius of the fingerboard, how heavy the guitar is, how well it balances hanging from the strap, the thickness and shape of the guitar body, where the bridge and controls sit relative to your picking hand, the scale length, the finish of the neck, the material of the fretboard, that's about all I can think of off the top of my head. Action and intonation are, of course, big components, but if you're setting that yourself you've got that covered.
posted by soundguy99 at 5:06 PM on May 22, 2012 [3 favorites]

in my experiences its entirely normal to buy the one you see and hear in the shop.
Buying a guitar is a lot like buying, say, a bicycle. You want to ride it and see how it feels to you. Another reason is because most people believe that each guitar with some unique, they're not entirely mechanical devices. So to guitar is out of the same factory and out of boxes may not actually sound exactly alike, not to the purist anyway.
posted by jak68 at 5:10 PM on May 22, 2012

Musical instruments are kind of special. I mean, even though the reality is most guitars you'd see are mass produced on an assembly line, musical instruments are treated still as "one off" works of craftsmanship. When you buy a Stratocaster, you aren't just buying a generic product like you'd buy a box of cereal, you are buying that Stratocaster. Which is a bit silly, I know, but it would feel very wrong, to me, to play an instrument in a shop, then for them to go out the back and give you a shrink-wrapped one.

Actual damage on the instrument, scratches and things from other people playing it? Don't buy it, or return it. But it is completely legitimate for the "display model" to be the one you walk home with.
posted by Jimbob at 5:12 PM on May 22, 2012

The shop where I bought my acoustic guitar in the 80s (Andy's Guitar Workshop in London) had a few of the model I liked on display. I played them all and they all sounded a little different. One had easily visible imperfections in the wood that made up the top, but that made it sound lovely so that's the one I chose.
posted by w0mbat at 5:15 PM on May 22, 2012 [2 favorites]

If you buy a new phone or TV, you'd get a new one in an un-opened box. Why is this not the case for guitars?

A guitar that's "new-in-box" could be damaged any number of ways and you would never know. What if it was stored in a too-hot room all summer, and a too-cold room all winter? You open up what is ostensibly a brand new guitar and find that the neck has dried out and the frets are poking out.
posted by Lorin at 5:19 PM on May 22, 2012

mrgood, if I were to show him this question, would wax about how guitars are like women. Even if you had identical octuplets, each would have some minute variation that would lead to some preference. He'll talk about how his guitar or bass wants to be played and what it needs, rather than how he plays it. When he purchased his acoustic bass, he had the choice between two of similar age, both Kays; one from Bob Wills' touring band, as it turned out - better provenance. But he bought the other, one just from an old High School band most likely, because it sounded better and the neck felt good to his hand.

So, as he said after showing him this question, he's more one to wander into a vintage guitar shop and fall in love with something rather than buy something brand-new from a Guitar Center. Not to put that choice down, but if all guitars sounded the same, why would there be so many gorgeous options in the world and so many ways to customize them? Why does he take down the Martin instead of the Takamine sometimes? It's not the brand, it's the sound. The sound doesn't come from it being just a guitar - it comes from it being that guitar. Everything that went into making it up, and everything that was done afterward to achieve a certain sound or playability. He went back upstairs and is probably nerding on some forum about it.

But look at it this way - it's not just the guitar. Or the player. Or the set-up. It's the strings too. Recently a friend of ours who's guitar tech for a band currently on tour put out a call to all of his friends for the oldest and most used bass strings anyone could provide - it turns out that's a major component of that guy's sound. It seems that do many elements must be factored in that "brand-new" is the least of them.

So, the longer you play, the more you'll know what you like. The more you know what you like, the more you'll shop before you buy. Some day a previously untouched guitar might be the very last thing you want. But for all the reasons given above, primarily the store-stock reasons, it's usual to go home with the floor model if that's the realm you're shopping in. For ordering online, you want it inspected before it's shipped even if it's from the factory. For the record, my guitar? I bought it at a flea market because it was pretty. For as much as I even attempt to play, which is almost never, it's fine. But I'm not trying to match what I do with it to any sound in my head.
posted by peagood at 5:26 PM on May 22, 2012 [1 favorite]

peagood, that is an excellent answer, but you are still a bad, bad, bad person for putting that store link in there. . . . .

want want want want want
posted by soundguy99 at 5:37 PM on May 22, 2012 [1 favorite]

Maybe this is less true for guitars than for other instruments, but at a nicer shop, it wouldn't be at all unusual to ask to try out several different instruments of the exact same maker/model to find one that had just the right sound, boxed or not.
posted by Hither at 6:07 PM on May 22, 2012 [1 favorite]

In addition to peagood's comment about vintage shops, if you listen to the way certain guitarists speak about guitars, such as John Mayer, or Eric Johnson, they talk about 'that one particular guitar'. Even if a guitar is built to the exact same specifications, each one has the slightest (or not-so-slight) difference from the next. One guitar may resonate in such a way that it carries a little more low end, and less high end. Some may call it 'darker-sounding'. One guitar's strings, even though everything is exactly the same as another of the same model, may feel slinkier or tighter, with a little more play.

To sum it up, you should try to play a guitar for a period of time before you buy it.
Most small guitar shops have at least 2-3 copies of a given model of guitar.
Big chain stores may have more than ten. Ask to play them all (though I'd imagine that's a terrible pain for the employee assisting you...). Of course you want to get what you pay for, but sometimes you might be bringing home a lackluster guitar, or you might be missing out on something one-in-a-million.
posted by chongnosall at 6:12 PM on May 22, 2012

I have to chime in and say that this advice goes beyond guitars and into all levels of buying musical instruments. With the exception of the few instruments where I acquired them via non traditional methods, I have always tried out multiple instruments in the store before deciding to buy one. When I bought my guitar (a Taylor Baby) I played it in the store for about a week (among other models in the store) before deciding it was the guitar for me. When I bought my clarinet in high school I travelled around to all the instrument stores in the area playing all of their clarinets before deciding on a used le blanc that was about 10-15 years old. The sound from that clarinet was music to my ears and could not compare to the high end R-13 Buffet that was $1000 more. Moral to the story is play ALL the instruments before buying one!
posted by ruhroh at 6:25 PM on May 22, 2012 [1 favorite]

Another 25 year plus player here saying I'd never buy something I couldn't play -- and that hadn't already been strung, broken in, and played at least a bit by others, so I'm getting a reasonably authentic understanding of how it sounds once it's aged a little more.

This is an important thing, the "green" ness of new guitars. They need time. A great guitar sounds better as it ages, a shitty guitar worse. It's really hard to tell, on a guitar that's never been played by anyone, never been under tension very long, which way it's headed.
posted by Miko at 6:36 PM on May 22, 2012 [1 favorite]

Just like buying a car.
posted by gjc at 7:09 PM on May 22, 2012 [1 favorite]

I played roughly ten or fifteen basses before getting my first real (non-beginner) bass. There were basses I just started to play and thought, ew, no, because of how the neck felt, or the feel of the fret board on my fingers. I played through that with a couple of them, and one I came really close to buying, until I found one that just fit me. There were some that sounded great, but just didn't feel right to me, and some that played easy, but sounded like crap. I found a happy medium. It took roughly three weeks and visiting several stores in roughly an hour's trip radius. Still love that bass, even though I don't have a lot of time to play as much as I'd like.
posted by Ghidorah at 1:39 AM on May 23, 2012

In a word, yes. Musical instruments in general, and string instruments in particular, can have a great deal of variation from instrument to instrument, even within the same model. Things like the grain of the wood, the thickness of the varnish and the cut of the bridge can have a huge impact on the sound of an instrument, even if the differences between individual instruments are seemingly miniscule. If you choose a particular instrument (particularly if it's on the higher end, quality- and/or price-wise), and a music store tries to give you a different one from the storage room or something, I wouldn't necessarily say you should refuse to buy it, but you should sit down and have a good play to make sure it has the same sound qualities you liked in the instrument you decided on originally. Or buy the one you saw originally.

If a store gives you a hard time about trying out more than one copy of the same model, I would be hesitant to buy from them. Even if you're buying a beginner's guitar, that's still a fair amount of money, and if they're pushing you to buy a particular copy or model, that's probably not a great sign.
posted by FaustianSlip at 6:46 AM on May 23, 2012

Last year I came within spitting distance of putting a deposit down on an Electrical Aluminum Guitar. I'm still fairly well convinced that it's my dream guitar, but I couldn't fathom paying for a guitar I had never played.

So, yeah, not only is it normal, it's sometimes crippling.
posted by lumpenprole at 9:26 AM on May 23, 2012

I'll be the counterexample here. If you just consider guitars you can demo at stores, you're missing some really incredible guitars that aren't readily available (my experience with a lot of big box stores is they have a surprisingly small variety in their selection--e.g. I wanted to try out an Epiphone Casino but all they could provide me with was some hollowbody Epiphone jazz guitar, which was not in any way helpful).

Last year I got this fantastic amazing guitar off ebay for $490.

Except it had a "les trem" whammy bar. Reverend used to offer them on their new guitars for $150 more than the regular price. They no longer do that because the guy who used to send them these les trem whammy bars had died (found through some google research). And these whammy bars work magnificently. In sum I saved a third of the retail price plus whatever you'd value an extremely useful and discontinued feature all because I didn't go to Guitar Center (the only guitar store accessible to me where I live) and get the best mid-priced P90-pickup guitar that happened to be in stock.

YMMV but if you're considering buy a new guitar, don't just limit it to what you can physically find and play. It's true guitars aren't like iPhones where each one is exactly the same, but that's all the more reason to order a unique one from far away.
posted by Luminiferous Ether at 10:45 AM on May 23, 2012

For me, it all boils down to this. If I can physically play the guitar before I buy it, I do. If not, if it is something I think I will like, I take a chance. So far, that philosophy as worked very well for me.
posted by Silvertree at 12:55 PM on May 23, 2012

If you buy a new guitar from an internet site (I almost wrote mail order place) you will get exactly that.
posted by tremspeed at 4:07 PM on May 26, 2012

This is just my opinion, but...

I think 'the way a guitar feels in your hands' is a bit overblown, myself. Consider that plenty of people own multiple guitars- so clearly there isn't one 'feel' that works for them. Also consider the luxury of so much choice- and how so many classic guitar players didn't have those options: dudes would be completely famous for years before they ever got to try a Strat or Les Paul. They seemed to make do with what they had.

In my life I've had an SG, a Les Paul, a Telecaster, a Strat, a Jaguar, a Rickenbacker, and 3 Ibanezes. That's about as varied as you can get. The way I play, and the amp settings I use, the differences between the SG and the Les Paul, and the Telecaster and the Jaguar were at times SO MINOR that I honestly couldn't imagine playing a bunch of strats until I found 'the one.' I love guitar stuff and will nerd it up with the best of them but this is where we part ways.

So, the amp you use, in my example, can have a way more lot to do with the overall picture than variations from instrument to instrument. Concentrating on minutia with this stuff is an expensive waste of time. Pretty much everything on a guitar can be changed, but we all know we have a gut reaction to certain guitars. Play those and fix what you don't like about em.
posted by tremspeed at 4:16 PM on May 26, 2012

I was definitely confining my comments to acoustic guitars, for which yes, all of this makes a huge difference. For electrics, perhaps not so much, since you are doing so many other modifications to the sound already even before it hits the amplifier.
posted by Miko at 5:58 PM on May 26, 2012

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