This is the next article in my series on How to buy a Guitar. I’ve covered How to choose a guitar as a gift and How to Buy an Acoustic Guitar for a Beginner. So now I’ll give you advice on how to buy an electric guitar. Again, the presumption is the guitar is for a beginner and that you don’t want to pay too much.
I could make this really easy and tell you just get a Fender Stratocaster. Low priced beginner Stratocasters are going to be by Squire (which is Fender) and from their Affinity line – which are thinner than a standard Strat or Tele.
But maybe you want more choices and some additional help in what to look for in an electric guitar. OK, here goes.
Choose a solid body electric. A first guitar that is both inexpensive and yet not too fragile seems the perfect thing for someone who is just learning. There are also fully hollow body electric guitars (many jazz musicians favor these) and semi-hollow electrics (B.B. King, Chuck Berry and many others have used semi-hollow instruments). But solid body guitars cost less and are more rugged than the others. Eric Clapton, Jimmy Hendrix, Stevie Ray Vaughan and a host of others have played solid body guitars.
Choose a guitar with a bolt-on neck. There are guitar geeks who argue about whether a bolt on neck can ever be as good as the other kind (glued-in, dove-tail). Don’t listen to them. Don’t let a salesperson talk you up to a more expensive guitar because the sustain is better with a glued-in neck joint. We’re talking about a guitar that costs less than $200 (so you can still afford an amplifier for a total outlay of about $300 in 2010). I’m less worried about the neck angle being set right in an electric guitar than in an acoustic but in this price range it’s still a slight concern. Adjusting the angle of a solid body with a bold on neck isn’t too difficult (but take it to a professional). Don’t even bother trying to get the neck angle fixed on a low cost glued in neck guitar because you’ll probably be able to replace the guitar for less.
Action can be checked the same way as described in How to Buy an Acoustic Guitar for a Beginner but the action can be slightly lower than for an acoustic.
Body Shape. The basic solid body electric guitar body shapes can be summarized as Fender Telecaster, Fender Stratocaster, Gibson Les Paul and Gibson SG. There are other shapes of solid body guitars but few are available in the under $200 price range.
Pickups. Once you’ve chosen the body shape, in this low price range you’ve also chosen the type of pickups installed on the guitar. The Fender style guitars will have single coil pickups while the Gibson style guitars will have humbucking pickups. What does that mean?
Humbucking pickups were invented by Seth Lover at Gibson to solve a problem that single coil pickups have – noise. Specifically hum. Single coil pickups amplify not just the vibrations of the strings but also some of the electrical noise from nearby, unshielded equipment. Fluorescent light bulbs are a common source of noise. But electric motor and just about any other type of electro-magnetic signal floating through the ether can be amplified. 1
Humbucking pickups take two single coil pickups and put them together in such a way that only one of them detects the strings but both pickups detect the bad hum – then the pickup that detected only the hum, the “dummy coil” cancels out the hum but leaves sound from the strings when the signals are combined. Really, you don’t need to know more about how they work. Humbucking pickups are sometimes called double-coil pickups because of how they are made.
Sounds good. Why would anyone want a single coil pickup? Here’s three reasons.
- Because single coil pickups have a different sound that many people prefer.
- Many single coil guitars such as Stratocasters let you use two pickups at the same time where the pickups have been wired so they will also cancel noise.
- Stratocasters and Telecasters are iconic and have single coil pickups.
I’ve already mentioned that the Affinity series Stratocasters and Telecasters are thinner than the real thing. That can be good and bad. Thinner makes the guitar weigh less so it is easier to play for a long time wearing a strap. This could be important for a young person. Thinner wood also makes the guitar a bit more fragile.
The classic Gibson Les Paul was a heavy guitar. One of the reasons I’ve preferred the Stratocaster over the Les Paul is because the Stratocaster is lighter and the body is contoured so it is more comfortable.
Brands to look for:
The Stratocasters and Telecasters in this price range that are from Fender will be from their Squire division and from the Affinity line. But there are other Stratocaster-like shaped guitars. Yamaha makes a nice Stratocaster-like instrument.
Low cost Gibson Les Paul guitars will actually be from Epiphone, a division of Gibson. Many companies make electrics shaped similar to a Les Paul. Ibanez is one of these companies.