In the last installment, I looked at how much the various “necessary accessories” will cost you. To summarize:
|Guitar bag or case||$50|
|Electric guitar amp (15w)||$150|
|Electric guitar cable||$15|
While you can obviously only get what you can afford, it will probably make more sense to wait and save more and get better quality equipment than get something that is of poor quality. If you get an amp for $100 and it either dies in 6 months or produces lousy sound, you may really want or need to replace it with that $150 model. At that point, you’ve spent $250 and, by the way, you can get a really nice amp for $250.
Now let’s turn and look at the costs of the guitar itself. I’ll look at acoustics here and electrics in the next entry.
I’m going to break down new acoustic guitars into the following cost categories:
|0||Up to $100||Ignore completely|
|1||$100 – $300||Marginal, but can find good values|
|2||$300 – $650||Great beginner range|
|3||$650 – $1000||Often see import versions of guitars with top brands|
|4||$1000 – $1500||Low end of top brand guitars|
|5||$1500 – $3000||Serious guitars, excellent quality|
|6||$3000 and up||Special and custom editions|
You’ll also need to get new strings for the guitar from time to time. Those will cost you anywhere from about $5 to $16 for a set of six. The more you play, the more frequently you should replace them. Plan on at least four sets a year.
Before I get into these categories, let me address the all-in-one offers. These contain a guitar, a gig bag, some sort of tuner, a couple of picks, and maybe a guide book. The electric guitar offers also include an inexpensive amp and a cable. Should you buy one of these if you are starting out?
These combo packs are designed for novices and also make easy gifts for aspiring young musicians. Thus if you are looking for a present for someone who will probably play the same guitar for a couple of years and is not likely to want to move up to better equipment during that time, this could be an excellent solution. Why wouldn’t you get one of these combos?
The basic issue is quality. In order to package everything together at a reasonable price, corners have to be cut somewhere. Thus the guitar is almost certainly an import of poor quality, the gig bag merely something with a handle that keeps the dust off, the strap thin and poor material, and so forth. Incidentally, there are some truly wonderful and expensive guitars imported into the US. This being an “import” is not an immediate indicator of quality.
Some of these combo packs can cost over $200 and so you might think you are getting something pretty good. When you factor in the costs of all the accessories, you’re still going to be stuck with a rather inexpensive guitar. I’ve said this before, but you can get a much better electric guitar for the money than an acoustic.
So here is my advice for you if plan to get serious about playing: do not buy an acoustic combo pack, but do consider the high end electric ones. That said, I think you will systematically replace almost everything that comes in the pack over 18 to 24 months.
In addition to value for money, it is easier for a cheap acoustic to dissuade you from playing than it will be for an electric. With an electric, you can do much more to adjust the volume, tone, distortion, and other effects. With an acoustic, it pretty much sounds the way it sounds. So if the wood doesn’t resonate or the neck isn’t straight or the action (the height of the strings above the fretboard) is too high or too low, you’re stuck, though some minor adjustments are possible. That’s why you need to spend enough money to get the best acoustic you can.
If you become really serious, you’ll be able to convince yourself that you’ll sound a lot better with a more expensive guitar. Practice for a few hundred hours before you make that next investment!
Let’s get back to my categories. As I said last time, skip Category 0, the sub $100 range unless it is some terrific closeout sale of something much more expensive. I think you really want to try to buy something in Category 2 if you can afford it. There are some really good but lesser known brands that have great guitars in the price range. Take a look at Godin Seagull guitars, for example.
If this too pricey, look at guitars at the top end of Category 1. If you can afford more that this, you’ll probably be tempted to look at Category 3. I suspect, though, that you really want a Category 4 guitar. When you try out a Martin, a Taylor (see photo), or a Gibson in Category 5, you’ll probably feel like you are settling if you get something in Category 4 but especially Category 3. And do strum some of those really expensive guitars so you can start to learn how they differ from the cheapest models.
When you are shopping in these higher ranges, emotions definitely take over. So might a bit of snobbery about domestic versus imports. Be smart and only buy what you can afford. If necessary, go home and think about your purchase before you do something rash, especially if you haven’t even learned how to play yet!
The very top range is for the better signature guitars and guitars that are made just for you. If you want to read about one man’s experience while getting a guitar made custom for him, read Guitar: An American Life by Tim Brooks. If you are spending thousands of dollars for one of these guitars, you don’t need advice from me.
It’s not unheard of for people to get so into guitars that they decide to make their own. If that’s possibly you, you want to look at what it takes to become a luthier. These are also the people you would speak to if you want to get a custom guitar created to your specs. The ads in the back of Acoustic Guitar magazine will also point you guitar builders.
Spend a lot of time shopping for your first guitar. Visit as many guitar shops as you can, both large and small. Smaller shops often carry excellent brands that the big chains do not. These also give better advice, in my opinion, and might even accept that first guitar for a trade-in on #2.
I think you’re taking a big risk if you buy an acoustic guitar online unless you’ve played several from different shops and they all pretty much sound the same. You want to feel and hear it. Is it too muddy or too metallic? Is the action too high? Does it slip out of tune within a few minutes? If you are embarrassed about your playing skills, bring a friend along who plays to try the various models for you. That said, you must feel it yourself, especially if your friend is bigger or smaller than you by a fair amount.
When it comes time to get that second guitar, I think you want to jump up two categories. That is, if you are ready for something better, you don’t want something just a little bit better. Save your money and get something that will take your playing to the next level because the instrument is demonstrably better, not just slightly. Otherwise, stick with what you’ve got and practice some more.
Finally, should you get an acoustic electric? These are becoming extremely common. The electronics vary in type and quality. Look at manufacturers model lines that have both non-electric and electric models. That’s the best way to compare sound and the value for extra money. Plan to spend at least an extra $100 for the electronics for Category 3 guitars. Remember that you’ll need an amp and a cable. As if with everything else I’ve said, if you can afford the acoustic-electric, I would get one. It’s a lot of fun to plug in and play loud!
Next up: how much should you pay for that electric guitar?