Buying Advice - Electric Guitars
(Please note: the following information is for
guidance purposes, and you should always verify that a piece of gear
is suited to your specific needs.)
Don't get blinded by that lovely paint job!
Guitars in many ways are like cars. Their appearance
is a major factor in your buying decision. But also like cars, especially
for the first-time buyer, there are far more important factors to
know about in order to ensure you buy a guitar that is both properly playable
and that stays in tune, enabling you to make progress with it. The
unfortunate reality is that a lot of entry-level (and some
not so entry-level!) guitars are so poorly set up that
they will make you feel that learning to play is just too
difficult. The problem is, without experience, how do you know whether
you are buying a playable instrument or just something that looks nice
hanging up in the music shop? An experienced player can make a poor
guitar seem reasonably playable, but the same guitar could end up
defeating the beginner's attempts to learn. So here are some
basic pointers about what qualities a viable guitar should have.
Soon we will be adding information about other aspects of making
a purchasing decision such as different pick-up types etc.
Make sure the guitar has been properly "set-up"
For a guitar to play at its best and to be as easy
as possible to play it needs to be
properly "set-up". This can be split into two key areas,
"intonation" and "action".
Correct intonation means the guitar plays in tune both with itself
and with other tuned instruments all the way up the neck, i.e.
although the open strings might be properely tuned, you may find
that when you play higher up the neck it is no longer in tune
either with itself or other instruments. Good action means that
the strings are set close enough above the frets to make them easy
to hold down, but without causing unwanted buzzing of the strings
against the frets under the vibrating portion of the strings.
To check intonation, play an open string and listen to the note carefully, then
play the same string again, fretted at the 12th fret (this usually has a
double dot marker on the fingerboard just before it). This note
should be exactly the same but an octave higher than the open string note.
You can also then play the "harmonic" note at the 12th fret
(to do this place your finger lightly on the string directly above
the 12th fret without pushing it down to the fret, pluck the string
and it should ring), it should have the same pitch as the fretted
note at the 12th fret. If you can hear a difference in pitch then the
intonation is out and needs correcting. If the guitar has a fixed bridge
without adjustable "saddles" where the body ends of the strings
go over then the intonation can't be adjusted and the guitar should
be rejected. If there are adjustable saddles then ask the shop to set
it up properly.
The action is affected by three key factors:
saddle-height and nut-height.
Firstly, a guitar's neck should have a very slight curvature in it in such
a way that when you hold the low "E" string down both at
the first fret (F) and at the highest fret on the same
string with your other hand, the middle of that stretch of string
should be about half a millimetre about the frets. This curvature
can be adjusted by tightening or loosening the guitar's
"truss rod" - best left to a guitar tech as over tightening
can result in a broken truss rod and/or a ruined neck.
On budget guitars you may find that half a millimetre causes too
much fret buzz and may it need to be a little more, a top quality
guitar could be less as the alignment of the frets will have greater precision.
String saddle-height can offset this buzzing
to a certain extent. Adjusting this will provide the best string
to fret angle, with the same aim of to keeping the string-height as
low as possible whilst being just high enough to eliminate fret buzz.
To get the best possible action from a guitar you need to have the
optimum combination of neck curvature and bridge/saddle height.
Nut-height is the third factor affecting the action.
The nut is the piece of (usually) plastic or brass that holds the strings
in place at the head end of the neck. If the string channels are
the right depth the strings should be less than half a millimetre
above the first fret, on a quality instrument they could be almost
touching the first fret. It should be quite easy to hold a string
down on the first fret. Try a bar chord in this position, if you
have to push the strings down a long way here then the string height
all the way along the neck will be higher than it needs to be,
making the guitar more difficult to play and making learning
seem that bit more challenging.
There is one exception where it is desirable
to have a higher than normal action. This is when a guitar
is being used for playing "slide" style where a metal tube
is put on a finger and slid up and down the strings to pitch the notes.
Here, if the action is too low, the strings will easily touch the frets
when the tube is pressed against them, interfering with the
seamless slide sound. Some guitarists have an extra guitar specifically
set up for this if it is a style they use frequently.
Come back soon for new info about:
- humbuckers and single-coil
- maple or rosewood - what difference does it make?