Help me choose an electric guitar.
January 9, 2004 11:05 AM   Subscribe

Any recommendations for buying an electric guitar? [more inside]

Something mid-range, maybe no more than a few hundred bucks, would be ideal. I'll also need an amp and patch cord, perhaps a pedal. I know nothing about electric guitars. I'm a beginner-intermediate player so I don't need a custom Les Paul or anything. And, anyone in Toronto know a good shop? Thanks.
posted by Succa to Shopping (31 answers total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
You might just want to check out used equipment. Otherwise, regular-joe Fenders aren't too expensive. Most major guitar makers (Fender, Gibson, Ibanez, etc.) have a basic electric guitar or two in the $300 or less range.
posted by LionIndex at 11:19 AM on January 9, 2004

Just get something that will stay in tune and feels good to play - be careful w/ used equipment unless you've handled it and gotten a feel for what it's like to play. I have a low-end Ibanez that I've had for fifteen years that stays in tune and plays great. I've upgraded the pick-ups, but that's about. I also have one of the new Dan Electro reissues and really like it - it was 100 bucks used, but doesn't stay in tune as well as the Ibanez, which can be frustrating, esp. for somebody just starting out.

As for amps - I highly recomend the Vox Pathfinder - it's around 100 bucks new, and even though it's fifteen watts, loud enough to play w/ a drummer, has decent built-in gain, and built-in tremolo. It's the best-sounding amp for the money I've heard.

Also, invest in an electronic tuner - makes things go a lot smoother.
posted by drobot at 11:33 AM on January 9, 2004

If you're choosing between a new low-end guitar, and a used higher-end guitar, provided you get credible guidance from a shop I would go for the used guitar, because in my experience cheap guitars are so hard to keep in tune. That's especially frustrating for a beginner.

What kind of music do you play or want to learn to play? What kind of tone do you like?

I suggest narrowing down your choices a bit and then finding a guitar community online somewhere (shouldn't be hard to find) that you can ask about specifics.
posted by luser at 11:34 AM on January 9, 2004

consider a fine canadian guitar! my guitar connoisseur friend picked one up a few months ago after fooling around with it in the shop and prefers it over his brian setzer model gretsch. I picked one up over the internet for about $180 and have been thoroughly pleased. I turned it into my own signature model!

as far as amps go...if you're just looking for something low wattage to practice on, I recommend going to the pawn shop and getting a bass amp. I've found low-watt bass amps sound way better than low-watt guitar amps. if you want something you can gig with, I'd go for a peavey classic series combo (a combo is an amp head and speaker(s) all in one unit). if you want to sound good with high wattage, a tube amp is definitely the way to go.

and for effects...the essential effects are distortion and reverb. electro-hamonix makes a legendary pedal called a Big Muff that is just about the only distortion you'll ever need. they're not too bad on ebay too, here's one for $49. for reverb, electro-hamonix makes another pedal called the holy grail that I'm fond off. you can probably score one for under $80 on ebay. if you don't mind spending a little more for something really great, try the DigiTech DigiVerb. don't let big-spendin' effects purists give you a bad taste for digital!

but before you buy anything, check the user reviews on harmony-central.
posted by mcsweetie at 11:38 AM on January 9, 2004

The Epiphone dot deluxe hollowbody can be had for $300-$400 if you find a deal or a sale (or a used one), and from what I've seen it's the Cadillac of cheap guitars.

And drobot is dead-on with the amp and tuner info; don't get an amp bigger than 15w unless you're planning on rocking out in public.
posted by COBRA! at 11:41 AM on January 9, 2004

I'll vouch for Godin on the acoustic guitar side; their "Seagull" division has amazing guitars at reasonable prices. I expect the Godin electric line is just as superlative.
posted by five fresh fish at 11:45 AM on January 9, 2004

Response by poster: Great recommendations, all.

I'd really like to learn blues or jazz guitar in the future, but realistically this one will be a jam guitar. i.e. rock. I'm not so sure of the difference between the guitar types. Is it just the number of pickups or are there more subtleties of which I am unaware?
posted by Succa at 11:55 AM on January 9, 2004

Sounds obvious, but I really recommend playing it and just seeing how it feels. I recall that my favorites were always ones that felt good. You'd be surprised how much of the "sound" is in your fingers. I had a Kalamazoo w/ just one humbucker, and people laughed at it: it wasn't heavy like a Les Paul, it wasn't "pretty" like a Fender. But all that didn't matter, because when I played it, it felt really good. My first guitar was an Ibanez that intermittently stayed in tune, but it was fun to bash around. My second was the Kalamazoo, the third was a low-priced Yamaha which was heavy, versatile, and played great.
posted by Bootcut at 12:09 PM on January 9, 2004

One thing that will probably make purists cringe is the fact that my practice Peavey amp has built-in effects. The whole thing uses DSP to emulate effects in pedals and, for my purposes, it works pretty well. I would recommend giving a look at amps that include these features if you're looking to just "fool around," and second the call for buying pedals.

And, of course, rawk out.
posted by hijinx at 12:13 PM on January 9, 2004

Go to the guitar store and play them until you find one that's "just right". I've been playing on and off for about 15 years (yowch, i'm old..)

I'm a big fan of the OLP MM1 I picked up a couple of months ago for $199 at Guitar Center. It's an "Officially Licensed Copy" of the Ernie Ball "Music Man" guitar designed by Eddie Van Halen. My next guitar (er, additional guitar) will be an Epiphone Les Paul, at about the same price as the OLP.

For an amp, I got the Marshall MD15DFX with built-in effects.
posted by mrbill at 1:00 PM on January 9, 2004

My general guitar buying advice is the "make sure it stays in tune" danelectro's are cheap and stay in tune, but they're not very bassy. If you have small hands, get a thin neck like a Gibson SG knock off or the affore mentioned Danelectros... Epiphone makes good cheap guitars, but on the other hand, if you put all your money into a really nice instrument now, you can probably resell it for close to what you bought it later. In an odd way, when you're first starting out, it's better to learn on good equipment, because then you know it's you making the mistakes and not the guitar...

Having rambled that, also, when buying an amp for playing (not just practice), get the best one you possibly can. A bad guitar can sound good on a great amp, anything will sound bad on a bad amp.

Also, realize that if you really commit to playing a guitar, you will be poor for most of your life.
posted by drezdn at 1:05 PM on January 9, 2004

When I bought my first guitar, I skipped buying the amp right away and just got a Line 6 Pod, they're awesome little things that model a bunch of different amps and effects digitally. (be sure and listen to the samples).

You can listen to it through headphones and later, when you buy an amp, you can run the pod into your amp and still use all the effects. Or run the pod into your computer and record yourself.

Well worth it, I think.
posted by GeekAnimator at 1:11 PM on January 9, 2004

Oh, and I wanna echo that the product reviews over at harmony-central are a great resource. Read 'em before buying anything.
posted by GeekAnimator at 1:18 PM on January 9, 2004

I have a Vox Cambridge 15 myself and it's a lovely bit of kit.

If you're tight on cash then I'd recommend a Zoom 505 which costs next to nothing and comes with tons of effects and a tuner (v important when you start off, particularly with a cheap guitar). It's not the best multi-fx out there and you wouldn't use it on stage but is otherwise good value for money.

As for what guitar you should get, I'm with the Sisters of Mercy on this one:
Stage guitars have to look good, sound good and play good. In that order. Looks win by a long way, although none of it's as important as a bad attitude. In the studio, sound is nearly everything, but it still helps if it looks good. Even with the lights off.
posted by dodgygeezer at 1:23 PM on January 9, 2004

If you're at all interested in do-it-yourself you should know about Stewart Macdonald. Every imaginable guitar part, tool or supply, reasonable prices, dead-reliable shipping in my experience. Several have mentioned how hard it can be to keep a low-end guitar in tune; the main reason for this is the crappy cheapo tuning pegs used on low (and middle and too many top) end instruments. If you're willing to risk a little surgery (namely drilling or reaming out the stock pegholes to the 10mm size required to fit decent replacements) you can fix that tuning problem for good and always. In fact, one of the attractions of low-midrange guitars is that you can drill/saw/replace/refinish little bits without having to be scared of ruining a $5000 status symbol. By and large, with midrange electrics it's the replaceable little details like tuners and pickups where they cut the corners, and re-doing these details often gives you a remarkably good-sounding, playable instrument for very moderate cost.
posted by jfuller at 2:03 PM on January 9, 2004

Related to the Dot Deluxe, I recently got an Epiphone Casino for about $550. I've had a Strat for a long time, too. Both are very playable and fun, but the Casino is just rocking my world. If you're checking out a Dot or other hollowbody electrics, see if you can play one of these as well.
posted by cortex at 2:05 PM on January 9, 2004

Find someone who plays and buy them a six to go with you to the store. Guitar players never need much of an excuse to go guitar shopping.

a) Eyeball 4 or 5 guitars that you like the look of and are in your price range. Have the guitar player play each one. He or she will spot any obvious defects pretty quickly.

Pick the 2 you liked the sound the best, and then play them yourself. Yes, I know you don't know squat about playing (leave it unplugged if necessary), but what you are looking for is how comfortable your hand feels wrapped around the neck. If the neck feels too thick or too thin, too wide or too narrow for your hand, reject it. Don't ignore that topmost string; you want to be able to reach it comfortably with at least your index, middle and ring fingers. If your pinky reaches it too, that's an added bonus.

If you reject both, return to a).

b) Have your guitar player play the amps in your price range with the guitar you know you will be buying.

Picks: Get all three: a thin, a medium and a thick. At least 3 of each.

Storage: My guitars all sit on their own stands, but then I play each one every day. (Think feather duster) A guitar that is always out and handy is more likely to get played. Also, buy at the very least a gig bag for transporting it. A hardshell case at this stage may be overkill for you.

If you have a Guitar Center near you, they have a 30 day no-questions return policy. Wherever you buy, get their return policy in writing.

Price ranges: $100 - $250 will buy you something that will get you started but chances are good that someday you will smash it in frustration. $300 - $500 will buy a decent guitar that could someday be your backup axe. $600 and up is more or less professional territory.

One thing to always remember: EVERY guitar/amp combination has a unique sound. An amp that sounds great for someone else could very well sound like shit with your guitar. The same applies to effects. That said, take any advice concerning specific brand names and models with a big ol' pinch of salt.

As for Harmony Central: Many reviews there are by kids who don't know what the hell they are talking about. Other reviews are by those who only played the instrument or amp in the store and all you are getting is a first impression. Some reviews are purely spite reviews and complete lies. I estimate that only 5 to 10% of the user reviews there have any merit.
posted by mischief at 2:09 PM on January 9, 2004

Guitars, (like cars and computers) are great pieces of machinery because there are a seemingly infinite number of factors that affect the sound you get. From type of metal the strings are made of, to the amount of dust on the speaker cone. Hence, I think at the end of the day, you should try everything, in terms of amps, guitars, and effects, within your price range. Music stores don't mind, they're made for it. Buying a second hand guitar could be a good idea, but you'll have to be careful - in my experience cheap second hand guitars have often been abused and may not be all they are cracked up to be - but once again, try them out, spend a bit of time on them, and see what feels right. Second hand amps are a safer bet, solid-state amps even more so - apart from maybe some crackling in the knobs, there's not much that can go wrong with them. And for pedals? Pawn shops. Musicians buy them on a whim, then then sell them when they need a dimebag for a party (first hand experience). Boss or Ibanez (particularly the older metal ones) are the way to go - they've never failed me. Look out for an Ibanez Sonic Distortion, it'll tear your heart out.

On preview: Yeah, what Mischief said about picks - like everything else, you'd be surprised how much the thickness of a pick can change your sound and how "easy" it is to play.
posted by Jimbob at 2:17 PM on January 9, 2004

Side note concerning guitar magazines:

Guitar World focuses on the beginning to intermediate player with its lessons and prints tab (music notation for guitar) to 5 or 6 songs each month. The articles are pretty much for fanboys but occasionally they print an article that is top-notch guitar journalism.

Guitar One focuses on the intermediate to advanced player with its lessons but offers plenty for beginners. 6 tabbed songs each month, including at least one jazz song that will turn your fingers to spaghetti but also one very simple strum-along song as well. The articles focus on playing music but also some fanboy creeps in. They set a higher standard for guitar journalism than GW.

Guitar Player has changed their focus to gear. Their lessons are few (but in each issue) and are for advanced players but if you pick up theory quick, you can get a jump start. GP does not print fully tabbed songs. Occasionally they print a dog article, but generally their journalism is the highest quality.
posted by mischief at 2:26 PM on January 9, 2004

What kind of music are you into? Certain kinds of guitars are more suited for certain broad swathes of music (though these boundaries are easily transcended). Fixed-bridge guitars stay in tune more readily, and humbuckers provide a meatier sound, so Les Pauls and SGs are more often used in heavier rock and metal (of course, I do the same with a Strat). Think of your favorite artists whose sound you want to emulate, and go from there in guitar style (not that you have to have a, say, Clapton-signature-model Stratocaster to play white-boy-blues, but in general--pickup type, body shape, hollow vs solid, bridge type, etc). Important considerations to be made...

I'd also second the consideration of a better used guitar over a cheaper new. Scratches be damned, the sound comes from the quality, and some of the best guitars now were made in the fifties and sixties.
posted by The Michael The at 2:45 PM on January 9, 2004

so...what's a good cheap battery driven practice amp for just noodling around? (not important enough for a fpp)
posted by mecran01 at 3:29 PM on January 9, 2004

Succa, take a look at Song Bird on Queen St. W.; they have some used/refurbished things that you might find a good price on. Also, Richmond Trading Post and some of the other pawn shops near Queen and Church.
posted by transient at 3:39 PM on January 9, 2004

Buy an instrument that looks good and feels comfortable. Store it somewhere you are likely to trip over it every day. It doesn't matter how nice the guitar sounds if you never play it, so your instrument should look attractive and make you feel good when you pick it up. Trick yourself into practicing a lot!
posted by Mars Saxman at 3:49 PM on January 9, 2004

i recently researched and purchased an amplifier. i'm an apartment dweller so it had to sound good at low levels, yet have enough balls to handle a small club, and, i wanted something i could carry. i can highly recommend the Fender Blues Junior. it puts out 15 watts (HA!) into one 12" speaker. it is the loudest 15 watt amp i've ever heard. it is all tube driven, the master volume can act as a power brake in conjunction with the preamp volume so you can get those thunderous rock tones at low volumes, the tonal range itself is incredible, sweet beautiful and clean when you want and a rich, warm tube driven boutique tone when you push it. it weighs 32 pounds. i paid $386 for a new one in the box from and just LOVE the little beast!
posted by quonsar at 4:53 PM on January 9, 2004

as an intermediate guitar player, i'm going to second (or third) the danelectro recommendations above. it's not expensive, it's fun to play, and most importantly, it has a (one. only one. what do you want for that price?) really good and distinctive sound.

now you may not like that sound, or the way it plays. that's fine. a guitar is a highly personal instrument. but if you do, then it's a great deal for the money. make sure to take some time to play one of them.

buying quality equipment is a fine goal, but i don't think a beginner should have to shell out 600-1500 dollars just to find out if they like to play the guitar.
posted by lescour at 5:53 PM on January 9, 2004

I'm a beginning player, it's been a couple of months now. I went down to the locally owned music shop and asked them what to get. I was ready to spend a few hundred bucks on a guitar, then more on an amp and so on. The owner said that while he'd be happy to do that but recommended that I start with one of the beginner packs. He pointed me at the Peavey. It has two single pickups and a humbucker, a 15 watt amp, tuner and a strap.

One other thing I'd recommend is taking lessons. I was suprised how reasonable they were. My instructor is a classical guitarist but he also really enjoys blues and rock, which is what I'm interested in. For 12 bucks I get a half hour to an hour of his time and he corrects things I'm doing wrong before they become a problem. When I have questions about theory he always knows the answer and he knows a Hell of a lot of interesting music that isn't too difficult to start out with.
posted by substrate at 7:01 PM on January 9, 2004

As with learning anything, there's more than a curve; there's a wall.

When I was starting to play, there was a definite point where I thought 'Fuck this; I'm not getting any better.'

As a beginner, IMO, it doesn't matter if you spend $120 on a guitar/amp/tuner pack or whether you spend $900. Keep at it and keep at it and go to jam nights and play with other guitarists you know and buy lessons and when you start to think, 'Crap, I'm never gonna be as good as [whoever]', just keep playing and learning.

You'll know when you need a better guitar the same way you do when you know you need a faster computer, or a bigger car.
posted by armoured-ant at 7:16 PM on January 9, 2004

If you really like your instrument, don't be afraid to spend money on it to keep it in playable condition... First off, get it set up (costs about $20) once every 6 months or so.

Currently, I play professionally about 4+ shows a month, and the bass I play cost me $100 and my amp cost about $250 total. To keep it sounding good, I've probably spent about $150 or more on getting things fixed on my bass, and keeping it in working condition. In fact, today I drove in a mild snowstorm to a guitar shop to make sure my bass was intonated properly.
posted by drezdn at 9:34 PM on January 9, 2004

digital strobe tuner. DIY!
posted by quonsar at 10:37 PM on January 9, 2004

I'll second the earlier notions about buying a used axe, as far as value goes. (I've been playing almost 15 years, and I've never bought a new one!) Definitely take a knowledgeable player with you to check it out, though. Look for things like neck straightness, all the knobs/switches and all pickups to work, etc.

You described yourself as a beginner-to-intermediate player, which means you know how to play something, right? So your ears know what sounds best to you. Trust them.

You might find this article to be helpful: How to Buy a Guitar.
posted by arto at 5:11 AM on January 10, 2004

Response by poster: Thanks to everyone who contributed to this thread. I ended up purchasing a lovely and very boss-looking used Fender Stratocaster, and it plays like a dream.
posted by Succa at 4:53 PM on January 11, 2004

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