How to Buy Your First Real Guitar

How to Buy Your First Real Guitar

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So you've been dabbling in guitar since high school and you've just graduated college…What's that you say? You're ready to learn some more songs besides “Wonderwall” by Oasis and “Blister in the Sun” by the Violent Femmes? Well, you don't have to be a pro musician to have a real guitar. Put away that Mexican-made Samick TM “strat”, here's a crash course on taking it to the next level without breaking your bank:

How to Buy Your First Guitar

By Matt Miller

Spend Some Money.

The investment is worth it. If you pick the right guitar it could last you your entire life. Start at a minimum of $500. Make a commitment to your decision. They always say that acoustic guitars become more resonant as they age. If you're looking to go acoustic, get a nice one and it'll repay you as the years go by.

Guitar Brands — What's in a Name?

A-fucking-lot. There are so many different brands out there but only a handful of trusty ones. Let's start with the obvious. On the electric side, there's Gibson, Epiphone and Fender. Keith Richards (Gibson ES-335, Fender Telecaster), B.B. King (Gibson ES-335 “Lucille”), John Lennon (Epiphone Casino), Eric Clapton (Gibson ES-335, Fender Stratocaster, Gibson SG), and Jimi Hendrix (Fender Stratocaster) knew having a guitar from a trusted brand is important.Gibson Head

There's a reason these brands have been so prominent for the past 70 years. They make great guitars with great tones that last.

On the acoustic side (for those of you looking to get some panties wet), we've got Martin, Taylor, Gibson and Epiphone. Many people look at Martin and Taylor guitars as the best in the acoustic guitar arena. Reason being, Martin and Taylor have focused on acoustic guitars for many years while Gibson and Epiphone have a much wider range of products. This can be deceiving though. Gibson acoustic guitars have been played for over 60 years by some of the greatest ever. Names include Elvis, Woody and Arlo Guthrie, Bob Dylan and Pete Townshend. Epiphone players include Paul McCartney and Peter Frampton.

God Bless America

Forget Mexico and Japan, when it comes to making guitars, America is #1. (Insert John Mellencamp lyric here.) Before you call me a xenophobe, see if you can ever remember hearing a story about Slash driving down to Tijuana to pick up the brand new Gibson custom shop Les Paul. Neither can I. The fact of the matter is, if you want a lasting guitar, make sure it was made in the ole U S of A.


We are Living in a Material World

The type of wood/materials that the guitar is made out of have an effect on its overall sound. Let's get you familiar with the standard wood types of an electric guitar just so when you're talking to Ed over at Sam Ash you'll at least sound like you know what you're talking about. Generally, the body, neck and fingerboard are made up of different woods. My pride and joy (Gibson ES-333) has a mahogany with a rosewood fingerboard. Mahogany gives the guitar a warmer, fatter tone. Most Fenders traditionally have a maple neck which gives it a brighter, stronger tone. It's easy to hear. Play a Fender Stratocaster next to a Gibson 335 and you'll hear a huge difference. Part of that is in the materials made and part of it is in the pickups.

The two standard kinds of pickups are a single coil and a humbucker. They definitely have different tones and there are many different types of each. The single coil is the pickup commonly seen on an Fender Stratocasters and Telecasters. It looks like one bar. Single coils also come in the P-90 variety which have brighter tones (often seen on the Epiphone Casino). Humbuckers are basically two single coil pickups put together. Sometimes they look like two single coils placed next to each other and other times they have a metal cover over them. Remember the name “Alnico” when it comes to humbuckers. They are trusty and not too expensive.

Ok, enough jibber-jabber…


Test Drive Your Ax

Before making a final decision, go to the store and play the shit out of the guitar. You'll feel it when you find the right one. There are so many factors when it comes to guitars (see previous two convoluted paragraphs) but if it sounds right and feels right, it is right. This is one of the most important parts of the whole process. Now, you don't have to grow your hair long, put on black clothes, walk into Guitar Center, turn an amp up all the way and play Slayer on the show room floor for two hours…but you do need to feel its potential in your hands. If you're looking to slay rock demons with your axe, you need to learn how to swing it.

One last thing to keep in mind is if you're looking to play electric guitar, spend some time looking at amps. A $2000 electric guitar through a $100 8 inch speaker isn't going to cut it. You don't need a wall of speakers, especially if you don't have plans to ever really play out in clubs, but you do need something with a warm tone that will be rewarding when you play through it. I would suggest a tube amp with a minimum of one 12 inch speaker. An example of a great, decently-priced amp is the Fender Blues Junior (tube amp, one 12 inch).

Bottom line, take care in your decision and be willing to spend some money. Look, there are no rules when it comes to music because it comes down to how we feel about the sounds we make.

Oh and if you're left-handed, good luck, I feel your pain…

Matt Miller is currently a performing songwriter in Los Angeles, CA. Check out his music at or

  • Evan

    Awesome post. I’ve been thinking about upgrading from the strat I got in high school for awhile now.

  • Dylan

    That Gibson is hot.

  • Mike K.

    good points. a good guitar makes so much difference. i like your bit about the amp, too.

  • Greg

    If you’re looking at buying an upper-end guitar you can always consider buying used. There are a lot of guys who buy nice guitars that never play them.

  • tom

    cool post

  • Jeff

    Schecter makes some great bargain-priced guitars with the construction of much more expensive guitars. I have a Schecter C-1 Plus and it’s a great guitar. Mahogany body, Rosewood fretboard, neck IS NOT bolted on, humbucking pickups. It sounds 95% as good as my Les Paul Studio, which cost twice as much.

  • Zia Hassan

    Matt, why didn’t I see this article a week ago when I was buying my first post-college guitar 🙂

    I played a ton of Martins and wasn’t that impressed. Nothing in the super nice range, no D-28s or anything… but even the rosewood D-15 didn’t blow me away. Tried some Guilds and I hit one that was love at first strum.

    Guild D-V6. Why I never bought a dreadnought to begin with I’ll never know. Anyways, hope you’re doing well.

  • Michael Converse

    Great article. I would argue one point though. I don’t deny American-made Fenders are a prime pick but while you’re at Sam Ash or Guitar Center go ahead and play the hell out of the Mexican-made Fenders. I’ve found that many (allthough not all) are on par with some of the American models and you’ll save some money. My first guitar was a Mexican-made Fender Telecaster and I still play it to this day.

  • Kevin Rohrer

    It’s funny that you mentioned the high quality of American made guitars without a reference to P.R.S.

  • Matt Miller

    Yeah, I agree Kevin. Paul Reed Smith’s can be great guitars, as well as Gretsch, Carvin,etc. In the end, buying a guitar is such a personal choice. Everybody’s different.

    As for Greg’s comment, the option of buying used is definitely a good one.

    It was hard to write the article and not going into painstaking detail because, as you know, there are huge books written on the same topic. Fender and Gibson are obviously the standard when it comes to guitars (they’ve been around pretty much longer than anyone else) and I think for someone who isn’t looking to play professionally, doesn’t have the time to go out and sift through pawn shops and do extensive research and wants something trusty and proven, those two brands are the most reliable.

    American-made. I still would stick to the idea that Mexican and Japanese made, while may sound good for a while, don’t have the same rich tone AND longevity that an American guitar will have. There are instances where the truss rods and alignment of Mexican-made guitars are not as reliable as American guitars after years of playing.

    The real quality and sound ultimately comes from the player. I say have a guitar that’s a little out of your league and learn how to tame it!

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  • OrchidMantis

    I would recommend not getting a guitar with the action too high – meaning the strings aren’t too high off the fret board. I’ve found, as a teacher, that beginner guitarists have hell of a time trying to play guitars where the action is much too high. With low string action, you lose a bit in tone but gain a lot in ease of play from my point of view.

  • black acoustic guitars

    You should start playing guitar on a friends guitar or a cheap $50 one for the first month. If it turns out to be something you really enjoy, then yes, you should definitely splurge.
    .-= black acoustic guitars´s last blog ..Ibanez AEB5E Black Acoustic Electric Bass Guitar =-.

  • Jeff

    Good info, but I would stick with an acoustic guitar to learn on. You need to focus on learning chords and scales. Electric guitar can come later after you’ve mastered the basics.
    .-= Jeff´s last blog ..Learning Electric Guitar =-.

  • James

    Good article, agree with the other commenters, beg, borrow or steal a guitar to see if you’re in it for the long term, then purchase your own. Likely to become a lifelong obsession!
    .-= James´s last blog ..Edwards Guitars on eBay =-.

  • Matt Miller

    Orchidmantis, I totally agree with you. An important thing to keep in mind is that a lot of guitars you buy off the rack may have been sitting there for years and may need a little tune-up/intonation/action adjustment before thinking seriously about playing. The action can be adjusted on any guitar. I would say the most important thing to look for is tone and really just an attraction to the instrument.

    ‘Black Acoustic Guitars,’ it’s a good idea to get a cheap guitar but a lot of those guitars are very difficult to play (even if they are tuned-up/intonated/adjusted). There’s a learning curve and MOST people will give up if it’s extremely hard at first. There’s a balance. I’ll put it this way, if your first car was a clunker that constantly broke down on you and was uncomfortable and hard to drive, you wouldn’t develop much of an affinity for taking to the road…

    And Jeff, I can agree with you to a degree. That’s the way I started, on an acoustic and then I graduated to the electric. It’s definitely an easier transition but then again there are no real rules in the world of music.

  • Guitar Wizard

    Excellent blog/post! It’s amazing to me that I still have time to read as I keep finding interesting things to read! Very cool design. Paul Reed Smith baby!
    Thanks and appreciate the contribution.
    .-= Guitar Wizard´s last blog ..The Legendary Guitar Solo =-.

  • hair clipper reviews

    Still remmeber the day I first bough my guitar, good times 🙂
    .-= hair clipper reviews´s last blog ..professional hair clippers =-.

  • James

    great post thanks so much

  • j. mathews

    Nice guitars!wow! this is the most imformative site I have found so far, I’m really glad I found this site!

  • Ricardo Presas

    Actually, you’re very mistaken about Japanese guitars being low quality. Major Japanese brands like ESP are considered equal to, and in many cases, funtionally and tonally superior to Fender and even Gibson (ask Metallica).

    Epiphone guitars are made in korea, china, and indonesia. The top-tier epiphones are made in Japan. Most fender guitars are made in Mexico.

  • greg

    Hey, Gibson and Fender make some great guitars but the Japanese especially in the late seventies and eighties, made some of the best guitars out there! When Fender and Gibson were bought out by CBS and Norlin, the Japanese stepped in and duplicated the specs and quality of the older Fenders and Gibsons to a “T” Tokai, Greco, Orville, and Burny are no slouches to guitar manufacturing. The Tokai Springy Sound is a replica Strat that was one of Stevie Ray Vaughn’s favorites, i’m sure a bunch of pros have some of these in their arsenal to this day. If you think about it, the small Korean and Chinese factories are building guitars in some low tech factories not unlike the Fullerton and Kalamazoo factories that put out some of the best vintage stuff out there !If you get a chance, check out the video thats out there about Leo Fender and his Fullerton factory, it’s amazing how low tech the place was,,,very cool video!!!

  • will the thrill

    As other posters have mentioned, this article has omitted a lot of nice guitars that are out there today. Depending on what type of player you are, there are a lot of asian built guitars that rival american made models in terms of looks quality, playability, and in some cases overall craftmanship.

  • The Chuck

    Great overview. I’m a little surprised you didn’t throw in “Rickenbacker” with your list of names, but otherwise, you’ve given a great starter guide.

    Thanks, and keep up the good work.

  • Uncle Sam

    We’ll said! I still play my old ’74 AMERICAN MADE Gibson SG! America!