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Technotes Online > Buying an Electric Guitar

Buying an Electric Guitar

Issue #22
January 10, 2005

Special tips to help you choose the perfect electric to match your wants and needs.

A few months back, during Sweetwater's "Guitar Month," I wrote a special column that detailed all the factors that go into choosing the right electric, acoustic or bass guitars. Since then, a lot of people have written to me and asked if I would re-run this information and possibly elaborate on these points.

Would I? You bet! Because there's nothing I love writing about more than guitars. So if you missed these special tips back then, I'm presenting the special extended "Director's Cut" for each category in my next three columns.

This time around, we'll be tackling the biggest family of instruments, the electric guitar! So let's get started . . .

Some people purchasing a guitar may be buying their very first instrument, while others might be upgrading or even adding a second (or third) guitar. As most of you probably know, there is no such thing as having enough - or even too many - guitars.

But let's get started with some basics. These are the major factors you'll want to consider when purchasing an electric guitar.

What is your budget?
More than anything else, this will narrow down your choices. If your budget is $300, then odds are good that you won't be looking at high end guitars like a Paul Reed Smith Santana II or a Guild Benedetto Signature Model. Those guitars (and others) may list at $8,000 or more.

Still, whatever your budget, you'll be surprised at just how good even so-called "budget" instruments play. Some of the Squier Stratocasters actually list for under $200! Often a person's first guitar may actually be their main "axe" for years to come. Thanks to computer assisted woodworking equipment, there is far less variability between one instrument and another. What's more, all guitar builders, no matter how big or small, have had the opportunity to closely inspect high-end instruments and have begun incorporating some of the features that make these specific guitars so desirable.

Type of guitar
Most electrics are solid bodies, meaning the body is made of solid wood, either stained (to allow the wood to show through) or in solid colors (which cover the body, hiding the wood) One example is the Fender Stratocaster, which became a best seller in part thanks to its wide range of custom colors, like Daphne Blue, Dakota Red and Surf Green. Types of wood used in solid body electrics include alder, ash, mahogany and basswood. Often (as in the case of many PRS models) there will be a carved, figured maple cap over a solid mahogany body.

Semi-hollow instruments are usually thin and lightweight, with either part or most of the guitar body being hollow. These would include guitars like Gibson's popular ES-335, which is hollow, but has a solid block of maple running down the middle of the instrument to minimize feedback.

True hollow-bodies will have a deeper body (more space between the top and back) and usually "f-holes" which are tuned to allow the guitar's body to resonate acoustically, though pickups are installed allowing the guitar to be played through an amplifier. Examples of hollow-body guitar would include the Gretsch Black Falcon and the PRS McCarty Hollowbody II.

One other model worth mentioning is the Synth guitar. In most cases, this is a standard electric that has also been fitted with additional hardware that allow it to be connected directly to a synth or guitar modeling module via a 13-pin RMC System. Many of the guitars from Brian Moore and Godin feature this option.

What type of music do you play?
While nothing is engraved in stone, odds are that if you play in a country band, you won't likely be looking at a hollowbody guitar like a Gibson ES-5 or an ES-175. You'd be much more likely to want a guitar along the lines of a Fender Telecaster or the Stratocaster or even the classic Gretsch electrics. These guitars tend to produce a cleaner, brighter "twang" (for lack of a better word), while classic humbucker-equipped models will produce a darker, warmer tone with a bit more sustain.

Likewise, if you will be playing in a jazz ensemble, you won't normally be looking at single-coil guitars whose sounds are often described as having "spank" and "sparkle." Again, humbucker-equipped instruments, like a Gibson ES-5 or the Paul Reed Smith McCarty Hollowbody II would deliver the warmer, smoky timbres you'd expect in a jazz setting.

Colors and finishes
This is usually a very personal choice. Some players prefer the bright, solid colors available on guitars like the Fender Telecaster, while others want the beauty of the wood to show through in single-color transparent or translucent stains like amber and cherry all the way to royal blue. Most manufacturers today offer a full range of guitars in both solid colors and a wide range of stains.

Fender became a hot ticket item in the late 1950s thanks to their imaginative use of "custom colors" like Olympic White, Inca Silver and Fiesta Red. Today, Fender is again making these popular colors available both on their upscale reissues and their standard production line instruments. Fender also was the first company to offer the so-called "relic" guitars, which are new guitars that are specifically designed to duplicate the look, sound and feel of a 30- or 40-year-old instrument, complete with chipped paint and checked finishes.

Guitars from Paul Reed Smith, just as one example, are much coveted for their spectacular flame maple tops and their specially formulated finishes which duplicate the original finishes found in some of the very best vintage instruments produced during the so-called "Golden Age" of guitar building, which is usually accepted as being the 1950s through the late 1960s.

Number of pickups
This one is easy! Most guitars today have two pickups, either single coil or the so-called "humbuckers." Single coils produce a brighter sound with a pronounced attack, while humbuckers (which were designed to eliminate noise - or "buck the hum") will have a darker, warmer tone. Some manufacturers will mix both types of pickups or have some way of converting the sound of a particular pickup, so for instance, by "coil tapping," humbuckers can produce a sound much closer to a single coil.

There will also be some guitars with a single pickup (though these have almost disappeared) and others with three, such as the hugely popular Fender Stratocaster. As you might guess, the more pickups, the more tonal variations an individual guitar may produce.

The electronics
Historically, electric guitars have a basic set of volume and tone controls along with a pickup selector switch. A few guitars have active circuitry, like the Eric Clapton Signature Stratocaster, which allows users to dial in up to 25dB of midrange boost to approximate the somewhat fatter, warmer sound of the humbucker.

Another breed of electric guitar (one which I touched on earlier) is the "hybrid." These may be specific models that add a set of piezoelectric pickups to more closely duplicate the sound of an acoustic, but without having to switch guitars on stage or in the studio. Godin, Brian Moore and PRS all offer electric solidbodies and hollow body guitars with piezo pickups onboard.

Another hybrid is the so-called "synth guitar." This is a standard electric that has also been fitted with additional hardware that allows it to be connected directly to a synth or guitar modeling module via a 13-pin RMC System. Many of the guitars from Brian Moore and Godin feature this option, and Fender offers a specially-designed "Roland-ready" Strat.
These guitars get their signals either from specially-designed piezo arrays or from built-in GK-2A pickup.

Tone woods
In general, manufacturers design their guitars using specific woods that will help deliver the tone they wish to produce. Denser, heavier woods include mahogany and maple, while woods such as ash, alder and poplar will be less dense, and so instruments made from these woods will be slightly lighter and sometimes more resonant.

In the 1950s, Gibson first began building instruments with mahogany bodies that were capped with carved maple tops, some of which were highly figured (and it's generally these that fetch truly astronomical sums). Several manufacturers now offer some variation upon this theme, and many players own such instruments as much for their aesthetics as their playability.

What does your favorite "guitar hero" play?
Often, guitar players are heavily influenced by the style and tone of a particular player. So if you plan to carry on in the footsteps of the late Stevie Ray Vaughn, you'll naturally gravitate towards a guitar he would have used, which is a Fender Stratocaster (and Fender has released an SRV model that was designed to accurately reproduce the glossy blues tone associated with Stevie's music).

Other examples might include Eric Clapton, Mark Knopfler, Robert Cray and Buddy Guy, all of whom have Stratocasters that were built to suit their individual style and specifications. Meanwhile, If Carlos Santana's fat, warm sound is appealing to you, you'll want to investigate some of the Santana-influenced Paul Reed Smith instruments. Are you into the "retro" stylings of Peter Green back in the 1960s when he formed Fleetwood Mac? Then a Gibson Les Paul will probably be just what you're looking for.

These are just a few examples. Naturally, there are many players, both past and present that will influence your decision. What's more, manufacturers are adding features (like active midrange boost and coil-tapping pickups) that can expand the capabilities of certain models.

How about appearance?
If you're into so-called "death metal" you won't likely be very interested in a Fender Telecaster with a shell pink finish. Most manufacturers have now introduced "genre-specific" axes that will please heavy-metal players, like an all-black Gibson Les Paul or Fender Showmaster in the "Goth-friendly" blackout finish.

If you want a guitar that will elicit "ooh's" and "ahhs" from an audience, many manufacturers have introduced models with gorgeous flame maple tops and finishes that complement these showpieces. Both Gibson and Paul Reed Smith devote a lot of effort into finding stunningly figured timber for their high-end instruments. From a Gibson 1959 Les Paul reissue in heritage cherry sunburst to a PRS Custom 22 with a quilted maple top in violin amber, the sky is the limit in terms of looks.

Do frets really matter?
Most guitar players really don't give a lot of thought to the frets, though it can influence both tone and playability. Instead, most players will view the frets as an integral part of a guitar's fingerboard. If a guitar has a smooth, playable neck that allows you to bend notes, do hammer-on and pull-offs and deliver clean articulations at all positions up and down the neck, it means that the frets have been perfectly matched and properly "dressed" to provide the best overall action. The bottom line is that frets do matter, but it's the manufacturer who is best qualified to determine what size and thickness of fret wire matches the fingerboard of their instruments. If a guitar plays well, it has the right frets. If it's hard to bend a note, that instrument probably doesn't have the right frets for challenging solo work.

Let's recap . . .
As I have already mentioned, the good news is that even so-called budget guitars are available these days that look impressive, yet are still affordable. And Fender's curvaceous Stratocaster still looks great, even 50 years after its introduction. Today, you can find guitars in every price range that will appeal to your individual tastes and Sweetwater carries just about every conceivable style in price ranges that run the gamut from affordable to astronomical and everything in between!

I hope this discussion helps (and satisfies all of you who wrote to request this information). Next time around we will tackle acoustic guitars. In the meantime, your Sweetwater Sales Engineer is ready and willing to help you make an intelligent decision regarding your first, next or last guitar purchase. In fact, many of our sales staff play guitar themselves! As always, if you would like special assistance from me, you can always send e-mail to the address below and I'm only too happy to help.

Questions? Comments? Discuss this article in Jim Miller's Forum

Questions, comments, rants, suggestions, unwanted ‘62 Stratocasters and any other form of correspondence can be addressed to jim_miller@mindspring.com.

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