What kind of guitar should I buy?
November 4, 2005 8:36 AM   Subscribe

I want to treat myself to a guitar. It's for fun, to play for my own benefit and to do a bit of home recording on my iBook. I don't have any grand plans to play live or join a band. But I'm racked with indecision about what kind of guitar to buy - should I go for an acoustic, a semi-acoustic, or an electro-acoustic? [MI]

I've played before, in a band at university, but that was some time ago, the memories are rather cloudy, and I didn't even own the (cheap) electric guitar I played (badly). I'm not sure whether I'm best going for an acoustic, and miking it up when I want to record, or maybe an electro-acoustic, so I don't have to use a mic. Just to complicate matters I've always coveted semi-acoustics like the Gibson ES-355 too, simply because they look so shiny and lovely. I'll grudgingly admit thoughthat this might not be the best reason to choose that kind of guitar. I've forgotten almost everything I know about playing, so while I do intend to go to shops and try stuff out, I don't want to be fooled by my limitations, hence this question.

What do I like the sound of? Below are some songs that I am enjoying at the moment, with a guitar sound I really like. I'd like to be able to make my guitar make sounds a little like these. It would be nice though to also to be able to turn everything up now and again to make a fat, messed-up feedbacky noise.

Bonus points for advice also on amps and effects. Penalty points for any reference to a guitar with a pointy headstock. Total budget (to include anything other than the guitar too) about 1200 pounds, 2000 dollars. Less could be good. Thank you.

Gillian Welch - The Revelator
M. Ward - most of his stuff. Good examples are Carolina, HiFi, So Much Water
Decemberists - Oceanside, The Engine Driver, Red Right Ankle
Love - The whole of Forever Changes
The Shins - lots of things
posted by reynir to Shopping (15 answers total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
That's a lot of money for what's essentially a first guitar.

First ask yourself how much brand is important to you. Be honest with yourself. There's no point buying a perfectly good Yamaha if your heart sinks a little every time you pass that Rickenbacker you could have had that's hanging in the music shop window.

If you can be pragmatic and level headed then buy a mid priced acoustic - good names around the £500 mark would be Washburn, Simon & Patrick and Yamaha....but buying a guitar is very rarely about being level headed or pragmatic.
posted by oh pollo! at 9:07 AM on November 4, 2005

Just to complicate matters I've always coveted semi-acoustics like the Gibson ES-355

I was going to recommend a nice acoustic (for $2,000 you could get a very nice acoustic) until I saw the line I quote. I still think that if you just own one guitar, an acoustic is the way to go-- electrics are hella fun, but a lot of that fun requires playing with other people. To me, at least, an acoustic is more self-contained. So there's an argument for going to a guitar shop, playing a few Martins or Gibson acoustics, and taking home the one who fits the best.

But you like ES-255s and sometimes you want to rock out. In that case, I'd get one (or the Epiphone Equivalent, the Dot or Dot Deluxe; I've used a Dit Deluxe for years and I adore it. Sounds great, easy to play, looks awesome, and I have a great degree of control over feedback if I feel like using it) and a good tube amp (I'd recommend either a Fender Bassman Ten [yeah, it's a bass amp, but the dinky speakers are easily driven by a guitar, and you're never ever going to blow it] or a Fender Twin Reverb, but those are pretty subjective).

Effects are up to you, but I love-love-love the distortion that I get from my Vox overdrive pedal, and I have a Marshall vibrato pedal that's great, too (and Vox and Marshall are hardly slouches in the amp department, either).
posted by COBRA! at 9:14 AM on November 4, 2005

I strongly recommend the Line 6 POD Effect processor. It replicates a TON of amplifiers and provides endless effects. All in one tidy package. A few years ago they cost $250.00.
posted by punkfloyd at 9:14 AM on November 4, 2005

Based on your music choices and everything I'd guess you'd be pretty happy with a steel-string acoustic. You mentioned not wanting to take the time to mic it up to record. An Acoustic-Electric Guitar will have a pick-up built in so you can plug it directly into an amp. However, you could also buy a regular acoustic and an acoustic pick-up seperately.

You also might want to look into software like Native Instruments' Guitar Rig 2, which allows you to accomplish all kinds of guitar effects and sounds without having to buy a multitude of amps.

PS. The song "Engine Driver", is played with a 12-string acoustic I think.
posted by deafweatherman at 9:17 AM on November 4, 2005

I'd buy a Larrivée with a pickup in case I decided I wanted to amplify it later on. These are fantastic acoustic guitars and within your budget.
posted by Evstar at 9:20 AM on November 4, 2005

Well, given that you've made it clear that variety is important, I think that the maximum bang for the pound would be a Line 6 Variax guitar, which is a bunch of electric and acoustic instruments in a single body, including some esoteric things, such as an electric sitar, banjo and other wackiness. 25 models in all, and if you plug it into a Pod XT, you're good for just about any guitar tone you'll ever need or want, and the whole shebang will cost you less than the $2000 budget.
posted by dbiedny at 9:44 AM on November 4, 2005

I second punkfloyd, Pods are way cool. They double as a headphone amp and recording pre-amp (which you'll need to plug in to your mac).
Another thing to consider is where are you going to be playing. Electrics through a conventional amp have to pretty loud before they sound good. If you live in an apartment or share a house, your neighbors and housemates deserve your consideration before you launch into the 9 PM shredfest. There's also nothing more annoying than listening (through a wall) to some one slowly pick their way through a song they don't know.
My weapon of choice when I lived in apartment was an electric through a pod into headphones or my computer. I could play as loud as i wanted at 3 AM.
posted by doctor_negative at 9:56 AM on November 4, 2005

I got a Pod and it's great. The electric I plug into it is a Cort G-250. It comes with a fixed nut, and not a rolling nut as that page states, but it's still very good value for money. Not quite what you say you're after, but you could do a lot worse.
posted by ajp at 9:59 AM on November 4, 2005

I want to respond to a point in your question that I think has been neglected: you say you want to "treat" yourself to a new guitar. To me (especially coupled with your budget), that means that you want to buy something special, very pretty, that fills you with joy every time you pick it up, look at it, or even think about it. I absolutely understand. However, I'm not sure that this is consistent with the goal of only owning one guitar.

Here's why:
For a do-it-all guitar, you can't go wrong with a nice sounding acoustic with a decent pickup. It's so much easier to just pick up an acoustic and start playing than it is to just pick up an electric (at least in my experience), and the easier it is to play when the urge hits you, the more you'll end up playing. But at the same time I personally would never, ever, ever spend big bucks on (or get overly attached to) my only acoustic guitar. Why? Because there is no way that I would play an expensive guitar around a campfire with friends (heat drying out the wood, drunk friends possibly smashing stuff... etc). There's no way that I'd risk taking an expensive guitar on a road trip without a hard case (heavy, annoying) or on a plane at all. Similar arguments apply to expensive electrics too (although they tend to be more durable).

I would recommend buying a cheap (but not garbage) acoustic that you can always play stress free. Get to know it a bit, and get used to playing again - then buy a pretty, expensive electric with a POD (like everyone else is suggesting). Get a You'll be better prepared to buy a guitar when you're spending the big bucks, and you'll also have an acoustic to play as an everyday sort of a thing.

Just my $.02 based on my own experience ...
posted by aquafiend at 11:16 AM on November 4, 2005

Being both a Beatles fan and a Gibson fan, I've got my heart set on getting one of these. To me it's just a classic looking guitar. If you check one out, make sure it's a later one (after 1999 I believe) with a solid top.
posted by gfrobe at 12:29 PM on November 4, 2005

I think you'll be happy with a steel-string acoustic with a pickup, as mentioned above. While you're at the guitar store, pick up (hah) an electric tuner and a capo. The electric tuner will make your life a lot easier -- for instance, you're going to have to tune down to play New Slang. The capo means you can play more songs, particularly if you're playing from tabs on the internet.

Make your capo one of these. Don't use a capo that relies on a spring to maintain pressure on the neck. The spring is very strong, and does not apply an even pressure. The result is that if you leave it on for a while, it can damage your guitar. A friend who works in a guitar store assures me this actually happens.

When choosing, my experience has taught me that the less instruments a store sells, the better their service. The music store that sells everything from saxophones to steel drums might give you a better price (or it might not, shop around), but for specific advice go to a guitar-only store. Or as close as you can get.
posted by teem at 4:01 PM on November 4, 2005

For the price range you're looking at you could easily get two really nice guitars and hit both sides of the coin. My first guitar was a Schecter electric, which I love, and my second was a Washburn acoustic-electric, which I absolutely fucking adore. I'm really glad I have the option of playing both if I feel like it. That said, I only play my electric about 5% of the time because the acoustic builds better fundamentals, but if I really want to rock the hell out I can do it and have fun with it. Playing an acousic through a distortion pedal just seems...disingenuous.

Also, for the price aspect I might recommend playing in store and buying online. You can almost always find a better price. Some people consider this dishonest, but if your pocketbook is the bottom line then do what you have to do. I actually had to buy both my guitars online because I play lefties and nobody stocks any lefties in their stores beyond crappy Fenders.
posted by baphomet at 6:12 PM on November 4, 2005

True, 'tis enough for two good guitars.

Go to a guitar store with a large selection. Sit down on a stool, and have a friend wander around and pick up instruments for you. The friend should be mindful of price, and remember which instrument is which, maybe even writing it down. Call them "guitar 1", etc.. Try a bunch, and maybe have them throw you a curveball, bring back the same model in a different finish, or a guitar you already played but don't recognize. Removing the element of brand and price will help you target in on what matters, sound and feel. I've done this for a couple people with great sucess. They were very happy, and ended up spending less than they expected. The machine made era of guitars has created a funny phenomenon, out of 100 guitars off an assembly line, one might sound incredible, but if it has the same detailing, it will end up selling for the same price. You can walk into some guitar mega stores and find two "identical" guitars that sound nothing alike.

I'm not a fan of effects. I also hate most saddle pickups with a passion. For a natural plugged in sound, I'd say save $150-300 in the budget for a fishman rare-earth w/mic, LR baggs dual pickup, Sunrise with crown internal mic, or accoustic lens. The new Taylors are supposed to sound incredible as well, but I haven't heard them.

Semi-hollow guitars are sexy, but aren't really a good choice for most people, IMHO.
posted by Jack Karaoke at 8:17 PM on November 4, 2005

Response by poster: Thank you all for your comments. I could mark almost all of them as best answer, as they all add something for me to think about.

That's a lot of money for what's essentially a first guitar.

Is very true, and I doubt I'll spend that much in the end, but I could at a push, so I thought it was worth mentioning. The two guitar idea is giving me food for thought.

I'd get one (or the Epiphone Equivalent, the Dot or Dot Deluxe; I've used a Dit Deluxe for years and I adore it.

Cheers - that looks very nice indeed.

Another thing to consider is where are you going to be playing. Electrics through a conventional amp have to pretty loud before they sound good.

Yeah, fair point. We live in a terraced house, and much of the time I might be playing my two young children will be upstairs asleep so turning the knobs up to 11 on a regular basis is pretty much a non-starter.

you say you want to "treat" yourself to a new guitar. To me (especially coupled with your budget), that means that you want to buy something special, very pretty, that fills you with joy every time you pick it up, look at it, or even think about it.

Yes. And that's something I've got to balance with the rest of the very useful and pragmatic advice. I'm lucky to have a bit of cash at the moment, and in general am trying to buy less but better - having spent years always going for the budget option, the temptation to go for the shiny now is very hard to resist. But pointless if it doesn't get used.

Anyway, thanks all for taking the time to comment. Very helpful.
posted by reynir at 7:06 AM on November 6, 2005

I would recommend an acoustic-electric. Otherwise, if you ever want your sound amplified, you'll have to mic your guitar and then run the mic through an amp... which can be a pain in the ass if you ever want to use any effects, and can take away from the guitar's natural acoustic sound.
posted by jitterbug perfume at 3:30 AM on November 9, 2005

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