How to buy your first electric guitar

When I decided to buy an electric guitar, the first thing I did was to search the web for guidance. I searched for articles and videos titled “how to buy an electric guitar for beginners,” “what to ask when buying an electric guitar,” and more.

All advice I found seemed generic, like “you have to consider budget, comfort, and sound.” But no one mentioned how you decide what your budget should be. Or what exactly should you listen for in a guitar’s sound.

So I decided to write my own two cents on the subject. I will refer to budget, comfort and sounds – as well as other issues worth considering.

Budget

I don’t know what your financial situation is, perhaps you are swimming in piles of cash and can afford to buy a $10,000 guitar to start with. For the purpose of this post, I will assume that you don’t. If you are a beginner – playing recreationally – you should aim to spend the least possible amount of money on your first guitar. Why? Because if one day you will start making money playing music, buying a new guitar will become an investment rather than an expense, and you will have enough knowledge to choose a guitar that suits your needs. Until then, opt for a cheap guitar, one you don’t have to worry about too much, one you can let other people play. Playing with others is an important part of your journey to become a rock star, but that is a subject for another post.

Note: a reader asked me to add a caveat regarding extra cheap guitars, the kind that you can get from a stand in the mall (not sure I’ve ever seen any of these). So to clarify, when I say “cheap guitars” I refer to the cheap guitars that can be found in a reputable store.

Comfort

Many posts I’ve seen on buying your first guitar emphasize the importance of getting a guitar that is comfortable for you. Well, if this is your first time playing, how will you know what a comfortable guitar feels like? Any new instrument will feel awkward as you are starting to play…

If you’ve played Spanish or acoustic guitar before, you will find that an electric guitar is easier to play, since the action is lower (i.e. the strings are closer to the fretboard, you don’t have to press down as hard to make clear sound). It will be more painful on your fingers as you begin, since metal strings are harder than nylon strings (but you will develop the required “thick-skin” pretty soon). An electric guitar is heavier than a Spanish or acoustic guitar, so expect a short period of adjustment that can manifest in shoulder and back pain.

If you haven’t played acoustic or Spanish guitar before, and this is your first guitar, the issue of comfort doesn’t mean much. Try a few different cheap guitars at the store, and if none of them feels particularly comfortable or uncomfortable, go for the cheapest one. Over time, if you’re serious about playing, you’ll get to play on other people’s guitars and will be able to compare how they feel. So when you buy your next guitar, you will have a feel for comfort.

Sound

Let’s face it. If you’re a beginner, you’re going to have a hard time judging a guitar’s sound. Also, a guitar’s sound depends on so many variables other than the guitar itself – the amplifier, the venue, the strings, your technique, special effects. To minimize these variations when you try guitars at the store, plug them to the same amp and keep the same settings. Don’t look for the sounds you hear in your favorite songs when you try guitars; effects are often used on stage or at the recording studio, either while playing or in the production stage.

Bottom line: if it doesn’t sound particularly bad for some reason, go for the cheapest guitar.

How it looks

Let’s face it #2. When you buy an electric guitar, you want to feel cool. You want to know that it looks good on you, whether you are playing at home or on stage.

I don’t suggest that you buy an expensive guitar only because of how it looks (especially since many cheap guitars look great), I just think that how a guitar looks, and especially how it looks on you, is a valid consideration.

If you tend to wear a specific color, aim for a guitar color that contrasts with what you wear. If you like wearing red T-shirts, getting a red guitar is a bad idea. Viewed with poor lighting, the guitar can seem to blend with your shirt, and there will be too much red in the scene. If you like wearing different colors, go with a neutral color that will fit nicely with different outfits. Natural wood color or cream can be a good choice. Wear something you are likely to wear when playing when you go shopping for a guitar.

Another thing to consider – if you have a band, perhaps you already have some guitars: a bass guitar, or another acoustic or electric guitar. My personal preference is that when a band is on stage, their guitars look different. You, on the other hand, might like a uniform look. Nonetheless, it is something to consider.

Where to buy

When buying your first guitar, find a store with a decent selection of guitars and helpful staff. Ideally it should be easily accessible to you, so you can pay them a few visits until you decide to buy, and go back if you have any problems with your guitar. You have to feel that the salespeople understand your needs and are not trying to push you towards buying the more expensive stuff. If the store is right, you will feel that the salespeople are trying to build a long-term relationship with you – so as you advance with your music, you will come back for your next purchase. Read more about how to choose a guitar store

Two other things you need to buy

Before you leave the store, get a leash. You’ll need it to play standing up. There can be a few positions for placing the leash, ask the salesperson to help you find the most comfortable position for you. In most guitar stores, they can drill an extra hole in the guitar if needed, to change the placement of the leash.

You will also need an amplifier. As a beginner, if you’re playing at home, I would suggest going for a cheap, small amp, with an output of 10-15 Watts (but this is not a post about buying an amp).

TL;DR

When buying your first electric guitar:

  • Focus on buying cheap until you advance and know what you want
  • Unless the cheap guitars you try sound awful, don’t sweat too much over sound at this point
  • Appearance is important
  • Choose a store that makes you feel comfortable and that you can go back to if you need repairs

Good luck and let me know how you’re purchase went

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