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Six big mistakes to avoid when buying a guitar

Nick Coyle

Six big mistakes to avoid when buying a guitar

For most of us, a guitar is a special sort of purchase. While a guitar may not cost as much as a house or a car—at least not usually—many players treat the purchase of a new axe with a similar amount of care and consideration. Like a house or a car, a guitar can be deeply personal and a way to express oneself outwardly. But at the same time, there are many practical considerations that go into choosing one. 

In short, for reasons both pragmatic and sentimental, it's vitally important to get things right the next time you're in the market for a new guitar. Whether you're actively looking or still trying to decide if now is the right time, here are six common mistakes to avoid when buying a guitar. 

1. Buying for the wrong reasons

Guitars hung in a row

It's a tempting sight to see dozens of shiny new guitars lined up in the shop, but the thrill of buying a new guitar often only lasts so long.

Before you focus on finding the one perfect guitar, determine whether you should even be considering a new guitar in the first place. Gear acquisition syndrome is a well-documented affliction, and it affects guitarists of all sorts.

If you've had your eye on a prized guitar for a long time or you know that a new instrument is what you need to take your playing to the next level, then by all means, indulge. But if your problem is that you're merely bored or stuck in a rut because you've been idly playing the same riffs for years, you may find that the excitement of a new guitar wears off before you've even fully broken in the factory strings. Instead, try changing up your routine, jamming with new people or playing along to new and different types of music. 

To be sure, a new piece of gear is often just what it takes to breathe new life into an old musician. But just as often it's an expensive solution to a problem that could be solved simply by breaking out of old habits and trying something new. 

2. Focusing on brand name

Focusing too much on brand name is a mistake to avoid when buying a guitar

Many guitarists focus on brand name when buying a guitar, but in reality, it doesn't matter who made the guitar so much as how the guitar sounds and plays.

One common form of this mistake is when guitarists pigeonhole certain manufacturers and assume their guitars are worthless outside of the specific genres they're best known for. For example, we all "know" that Gibson is superior to Fender when it comes to hard rock, and most of us wouldn't even consider a Tele or a Strat for that application. But lucky for us, Eddie Van Halen never got the memo. 

The other common form of this mistake is when players unfairly dismiss the mid-market options in favor of manufacturers' marquee brands. In reality, both Squier and Epiphone have come a long way in the last few years, and guitars from both brands are legitimately solid options for players who want a serviceable instrument at an affordable price. That's not to say that Fender and Gibson instruments don't come with a higher degree of quality along with their steeper prices. But the gulf is narrower than it once was, and mid-market guitars can be great options for both new and experienced guitarists.

No matter what form this mistake takes, what's certain is that way too many guitars are sold not for the way they play or the sounds they make, but rather for the brand name on the headstock. 

3. Focusing on things that can easily be changed

Les Paul guitar shown with multiple pickguard options

Some aspects of a guitar's appearance, such as the color of the pickguard, can be changed easily with aftermarket parts.

Rarely does a suit fit perfectly straight off the rack. Instead of wasting hours trying to find one that measures up perfectly, the sensible thing to do is to find a suit that fits where it matters most and then have alterations made to the parts that can be easily changed.  

A guitar can be much the same way. If you've found the perfect axe but you dislike the pickguard or the color of the tone knobs, just pull the trigger—it'll be easy to replace those parts later on, and you won't have let an otherwise perfect guitar get away.

Like a suit, there are parts of a guitar that are much more difficult to replace than others. Just as a suit jacket should always fit in the shoulders, you probably shouldn't purchase a guitar with the idea that you're going replace a set-in neck. But if the only thing holding you back is a relatively easy fix, why not go ahead and take the plunge?

4. Focusing on looks rather than sound

A guitar with an unconventional design

Guitars with radical or interesting designs may look cool, but they're not necessarily the best sounding or most practical instruments.

There's no denying that looks are an important factor when it comes to buying a guitar. But all too often, prospective buyers let looks come before sound and playability. Of course, if you don't like the way a guitar looks, you probably won't be satisfied with your purchase. At the same time, if a guitar plays and sounds like a dream, you might quickly lose interest in what color it is whether the inlays are ivory or mother of pearl.

 

There are a few great ways to strike the right balance between appearance and other factors. First, make peace with the fact that some body styles may simply be poor choices for what you want in a guitar. There's no rule that says you can't play black metal on a Telecaster, but if you love the Nashville look and the Copenhagen sound, it might be best to choose one or the other. Second, you can put the previous tip (not worrying about things that can easily be changed) into practice if it's just a small cosmetic difference that's holding you back. Finally, consider building your own guitar; it's the one way to ensure you get a guitar that looks, feels, sounds and plays exactly the way you like it. 

5. Buying without playing first

Searching for 'guitar' on an online auction website

To get the best deal, sometimes it's necessary to buy a guitar sight-unseen. But unless you play a guitar first, there's no way to know for sure how it will sound or feel in your hands.

Perhaps the best way to avoid the mistakes mentioned above is to simply play any guitar you're thinking about buying before you commit to it. Guitars are made of wood, and for many guitars, a large portion of their parts were made and/or assembled by humans. As a result, no two guitars are alike, even if they came out of the same factory on the same day.

And the differences between guitars made years or decades apart—even guitars of the exact same make and model—can be staggering. Processes and materials change, quality control goes up and down, technology evolves. Unless you're building your own guitar, there's no way to guarantee the way it will feel and sound until you've played it yourself.

6. Worrying too much

Guitars are serious business, and there's no doubt that choosing the right one for you will go along way in assuring your happiness and satisfaction as a musician and a guitar player. But at the end of the day, it's all about playing. Great musicians can coax beautiful sounds from the cheapest, most beat-up instruments imaginable. But not even the finest guitar in the world would sound impressive if played by an unskilled and unpracticed amateur. And no guitar, no matter how cheap or expensive it may be, does anyone any good at all if it's hanging forgotten on the wall of a music shop somewhere. 

A new guitar is a purchase many players make only once or twice in a decade, so make it count. But don't get so hung up on the details that you turn something meant to be fun and enjoyable into a chore. 



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