Guitar Buying Guide

April 16, 2020

  • Product Type

  • Brand

Always a tricky subject as everyone has their own opinion, favourite brand and style. Stick with your budget and choose well. There are guitars out there to suit virtually every pocket.

Here are a few points to consider…….

1. First-time buyers

Children – Struggle with size and reach and generally need a shorter scale guitar, such as 3/4 scale models and ideally a small-bodied instrument. Scale length refers to the distance from the bridge to the guitar nut, just below the headstock. Scale length varies slightly between brands but full scale is around 24” – 25.5”

Electric – Know the style of music you wish to play. What model and brand of guitar do your heroes play? Understand the difference between pickup types – Humbucker or Single Coils (just for starters)? Tremolo or Bigsby? Will you use it, do you really need it?

Maybe you cannot afford that high-end Gibson Les Paul but Epiphone probably make a decent copy at 1/10 the price. Then you need an amp’…….

Acoustic Guitar – again decide on style of music. Classical guitar (nylon-strung) or steel-strung? Many children learn on Classical guitars as nylon strings are much easier on the fingertips. Be aware you cannot put steel strings on a Classical guitar.

Acoustic guitar prices vary depending on the quality of woods used for construction. The best guitars have solid tops. Cheaper models will have veneered plywood tops – perfectly adequate for a beginner.

Do you really need an electro-acoustic – one that can be amplified? The answer is probably no. If you are buying an electro-acoustic guitar with fitted hard case, you need to consider just how much of the purchase price has gone into the production of the guitar alone. Case and pickup can be bought at a later date if needed. Many electro-acoustics are never plugged into an amp and the facility is wasted. It is also worth noting that many electro-acoustics are designed to be amplified and do not produce a high acoustic volume unplugged – this may or may not be beneficial.

If buying brand new try different guitars within the same model range. They do vary and can feel and sound different between identical instruments. Consider the weight, feel and balance. Will you play standing up or sitting down? Take your time, try not to be intimidated by shop staff. Respect the instrument. Take off your jacket or anything that may scratch the guitar.

2. New or Used?

Bear in mind the majority of brand new guitars sold through retail outlets in the UK include VAT in the ticket price, currently at 20%. That’s a 20% tax on your hard-earned money. Many guitars are shipped in from the USA, so you can add an extra 4% import duty on top of the VAT.

The model range of the big brand names is now hugely confusing, particularly if the purchase is by a non-player. Prices can vary from
£100’s to £1000’s for what ostensibly appears to be the same instrument to the uninitiated.

Quality of new models seems to be slowly degenerating as parts are constantly re-sourced and cheaper components fitted in an effort to shave cents of the manufacturing price. Same model, but an older, used version, can often be better quality.

Used guitars can be a lottery if you are not familiar with potential problems. You could buy a guitar that will shortly require work such as fret dressing or more. However the price point maybe 40% less than the brand new price. Generally used guitars, provided they have been maintained, hold their prices, at any level. Brand new guitars do not.

Decent retailers should be upfront with you over any foreseeable work needed on a used guitar, offer a guarantee and hopefully have inspected and set-up the guitar. However be aware that the vast majority of used guitars sold are not owned by the retailer, they only act as agent for the owner. The guitar is sold on commission and is unlikely to come with a guarantee of any substance. Once the owner has been paid out the retailer has no recourse should a problem arise.

3. Vintage Guitars

Popularity and prices of vintage instruments have steadily risen. Some costing up to five or six-figure sums. It would be unwise to buy purely for investment purposes, but I need to say that! Buy to play and enjoy the guitar. There is no doubt that older guitars play and feel differently – so if that makes you take it out of its case frequently that cannot be a bad thing.

Any modifications will devalue a vintage instrument – by up to 50% for a re-finished paint job, no matter the quality of the new work. Vintage correct cases can push the price up further.

Vintage guitars containing Brazilian Rosewood, typically the fingerboard, should have a CITES certificate on sale or purchase. Further information here

4. Set-Up

Many guitars are sold as “set-up” – this means if you are lucky it has been dusted and tuned before you bought it. A good set-up can transform the way a guitar plays, at any price point.

It does seem odd that you can spend a small fortune buying a guitar only to realise, or be told, it “needs a set-up”. Imagine buying a car and the salesman saying “I wouldn’t drive that off the forecourt without a service mate”

However, in this increasingly cut-throat, discounted world, margins on musical instruments are very low. Retailers struggle to compete with internet box-shifters and staff are pressured to hit sales targets and sell finance. The majority of stores do not have an experienced repair-man in-house and usually have limited repair facilities – though you may be told a different story.

Manufacturers argue they do not know your playing style or string choice. The guitar may have shipped 1000’s of miles through varying climates, so a factory set-up is not practical.

There we have it – your new or used guitar will need setting up at your cost. If you’re a player, take it around the block first. If a beginner, get it assessed and done by a proper repair shop before you start.

A set-up should assess the instrument, playing style and string gauge – or advise you on this. The guitar is then re-strung and adjusted to maximize its playability, tuning and tone. The most common adjustment being “string action” – the height of the strings above the frets. This can be crucial for a beginner.

At the same time, a used guitar will be cleaned and checked over and any other repairs advised. Generally, if frets are heavily worn and pitted a set-up is wasted unless fretwork is undertaken at the same time.

5. Guitar Cases

Most high-end branded guitars are sold with a fitted hard case. The cheaper models generally sold with a soft bag. Hard cases look cool, are perfect for transporting and storing your guitar but can be heavy and difficult to store in a domestic situation.

Many old Fenders and Gibsons were sold in the UK and Europe with optional factory hard cases. Fender practised this up to the early 1980s. Branded cases were relatively expensive, on top of the guitar price and often not purchased at the time.

If you are buying used or vintage and the guitar does not have a hard case – ask why, assuming it was originally supplied with one.

6. Fakes

Be aware there are fake branded models out there. Hopefully, you would never be offered a fake through a retailer, so this applies more to the used online marketplace. Fake parts, logo’s, serial numbers and decals are readily available to buy on-line.

Fender guitars were designed to be maintained, parts replaced and can be completely disassembled. Fake Fenders tend to be home-produced, mismatched parts, often from an original copy donor guitar such as Squier, with fake decals applied.

Gibson guitars suffer more from the factory-produced Far East fakes. These can be bought new to order. Typical fake indications include: incorrect truss rod nut, 3-screw truss rod covers, slot head bridge posts, un-bound fret ends, incorrect binding details, cheap electrical components, black painted body cavities & metric threads.

I have seen many of these, including customers who have been caught out, thinking they were getting a bargain. One individual rolled up with six Les Paul Custom Shop Signature models – all fakes. Ironically as guitars go they are probably ok around the £200 – £300 price point and play accordingly.

It is illegal to sell a guitar that is falsely badged, as an original. Beware wording such as “in the style of”.

7. Importing a guitar

It is easy to buy from outside the UK and have a guitar shipped, particularly from the USA. Be aware that you will pay import duty and VAT on top of the purchase & shipping price before you can receive the guitar. There may also be a shipper’s Customs handling fee. Royal Mail charge this. Taxes are charged on the total cost of guitar + shipping costs. If you manage to persuade the vendor to provide an artificially low invoice you cannot insure shipping for the true guitar value.

8. Buying at Nottingham City Guitars

We do not sell on a commission basis and own all the stock we sell.

All our guitars are thoroughly checked and any necessary repairs undertaken, before being offered for sale. Guitars are set-up and re-strung. We will happily adjust the set-up and change strings if you require when buying.

All guitars are sold with a 12-month warranty.

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