The Rocky Road to Buying an Electric Guitar

This article is about my experience of buying my first electric guitar. I used to have an acoustic guitar that I’ve long since forgotten how to play. I’m starting again with an electric guitar from rock bottom.

Your first electric guitar

How it All Began

While out and about one day I discovered a display of miniature guitars and I thought I’d like to get one as a symbol of my musical aspirations. I ordered a beautiful 10-inch model that seemed to sum up what I was about. It was a small purchase that meant something big and I was looking forward to having it around.

It arrived a week later, and what came out of the packaging was a sick looking parody of the advert. It was made with the all the love and care of a gorilla. They didn’t even get the strap peg in the right place. I got it out of the house ASAP.

While mulling that over, it gradually dawned on me that I could and should get an actual guitar and that would be a much more organic way of composing. In a short space of time, I had become convinced – buying an electric guitar became the thing to do.

Starting Down the Rocky Road

A second-hand electric guitar that seems like it might be ok.

I had time and money but zero experience. I knew I could learn the guitar enough to do what I wanted to do but I had no idea where to start. I figured the best place to find out would be a music shop for an initial chat.

Soon I ended up in a small shop manned by a mildly unhappy owner who greeted me like a prisoner accepting a tasty helping of ‘Insect & Gristle Surprise’.

His opinion was that I should have already been using an audio interface for PC recording and that I should get a cheap guitar. Mmmmm nice! He showed me three cheapo guitars costing between £75 and £100 and a PC audio interface for about £180 from a catalogue.

When I asked about the variety of sounds that I could get from an electric guitar, I was told that the length of the fretboard determined the sound and nothing else… I could literally chop the wood away and everything would be fine. At least that’s how I understood what I thought he said …and that really isn’t true. I clearly had a few things to learn so I could at least assess what am I am being told.

Questions were springing to mind that weren’t fully satisfied. As I picked my way through the info minefield his attitude deteriorated from fed up to irritated. When I photographed a page showing an audio mixer, that was probably the last straw.

This visit was practically a suicide injection for my ambition, but this is what I learned:

  1. There are some essential things you have to understand before you can make a good choice.
  2. In a large shop, you will be exposed to a larger range of options, there are people there to help you and they are more likely to be open-minded and patient because they are employees rather than owners.
  3. If you are completely new to this you will need to visit at least three shops to get acclimated to the range and prices. You will also be able to find a preferred shop to buy from.
  4. Don’t discuss your hopes and dreams with anyone who shows signs of being burned out or cheesed off. They don’t see a bright future anywhere, least of all yours.

A spot of internet searching revealed some larger shops with a better spread of equipment and staff. I liked Fender Stratocasters and reviews revealed that it could do everything I wanted it to do.

Cheap vs Expensive Guitars

Over time I developed some broad price categories for the Stratocaster. A great guitar player will make any guitar from £100 to £3000 sound great. However, the more you pay; the easier it will be to play, and the better will be the tone, build quality and electronics. But the law of diminishing marginal utility applies to the balance between need and cost. The further you go up the cost scale, the less you will get back from the improvements offered.

  1. Cheap: £100 – £350
    Basic woods, finishes, metal alloys
  2. Standard: £350 – £650
    All the necessary things are covered to a reasonable standard.
  3. Well Made: £650 – £1000
    Baja (Mexican) made with good woods, metals, finishes, electronics, pickups and sculpting.
  4. USA Classic and Vintage: £1000 – £3000+
    USA made guitars with the emphasis on looking and sounding like the original fender guitars and players. That can mean embracing old-style technology for accurate response.

There are two things you can derive from a more expensive guitar – inspiration and ease of use. Ease of use comes from the details of the woods, sculpting and finishes that make up the guitar. The inspiration makes you happy to have it around and interested to pick up to learn.

Guitar Parts You Need to Understand

Body, Neck and Head

The wood that the guitar is made out affects the quality of the sound that the guitar will make. Even though the body is solid, it will resonate with the strings and care is taken to ensure that it does that well.

A more expensive guitar will have better sculpting and be more comfortable to use. For example, the fretboard has a slightly curved surface. The amount of curvature varies with the model and you should at least be aware that it exists. The largest radius is about 10 inches, making the fretboard flatter than standard. That helps when bending a string since it won’t be muted or start buzzing by colliding with frets higher up the neck that are raised by the curvature. Depending on your preference, it is easier to play barre chords as well.

A Fender with a 10-inch radius fretboard exhibits a visible but shallow curvature

Metals

I’ve discovered that the metalwork can be brass, zinc, steel, titanium, aluminium and alloys. Cheaper guitars will likely have a percentage of cheaper metals, and so will be lacking whatever improvements there may on more expensive models. Although my concern was for the strength and resilience of the metal the majority are concerned with the resonance affecting the sound.

Pickups/Coils

The pickups/coils are the most significant contributors. Some pickups are paired for noise cancelling and are called Humbuckers, but I’m told that 9 out of 10 customers go for the singles. Fenders have three pickup positions and the first can optionally be a Humbucker.

The different configurations are referred to as HSS or SSS, where H means Humbucker and S means single. I judged the Humbucker to sound more muffled (less treble) than the single coils. Generally speaking, if you want a Heavy Metal sound you will need a Humbucker (HSS), but all other sounds can be reached with a Fender in SSS configuration.

The neck coil will have a warmer/deeper tone than the bridge coil which will sound thinner. The Fender 5-way switch will select one or two coils in each of those positions as you move it: neck, neck+mid, mid, mid+bridge, bridge.

A fender carrying a humbucker and two single coil pickups. The bridge is fixed with 6 screws.

Bridge

The bridge can be fixed in place with 6 screws or 2. These are sometimes referred to as pivot points.

The reported differences are:

  • 6 screw fixings are thought by some to give a deeper resonance but go out of tune faster when using the whammy bar/tremolo arm.
  • 2 screw fixings have a slightly narrower string spacing which some find easier to play and stay in tune longer.

The 6 screw arrangement would be favoured by the vintage and classic categories. Here is a great article discussing the pros and cons of 2 and 6 point pivots.

Machine Heads & Tuning Keys

These are the screws in the head of the guitar about which the strings are fixed and tuned. Vintage, Classic and Cheap guitars will probably use a machine head that the strings will be wound around as you tighten the tuning keys. The alternative is a locking tuner. The string is pulled through the hole in the nut leaving no slack and then locked into place via a screw on the underside. You then tighten the string with the tuning nut in the normal way. I suspect that locking nuts will stay in tune longer because the strings are not being stretched over an elastic bed of previous windings.

Guitar Set-Up

You should check to see if the guitar will be ‘set up’ as part of the cost. In general, it means the guitar will be adjusted so the strings are approximately in tune and at the proper height above the frets. Temperature and humidity will affect the tuning so you will need to refine that for each use.

Here is the detail of what is being set-up:

  1. To ensure the fretboard is not bending inward, outward or to one side or the other.
  2. To set the strings almost parallel to the fretboard.
  3. To set the strings high enough above the frets so they don’t cause a buzzing noise via accidental contact with higher frets.
  4. To set the strings as low as possible to ease playing. An aggressive style needs more room for the strings to vibrate freely.
  5. To ensure that when the octave fret is in use that the string emits a correctly tuned octave vibration. These depend on the bridge saddles rather than on the head.

When I collected my guitar I noticed that the strings were set much higher in the middle than at the head and I was told that this is normal.

guitar bridge saddles
You use the saddles to adjust the string height and tune the octaves.

The Amplifier & Cabinet

You could consider the amplifier and cabinet to be an extension of the guitar. You will need to choose which ones have the sound that appeals to you. Amplifiers come in a range of sizes, for example:

  • Mini  – a radio-sized amplifier with a small speaker used for practice
  • Combination – an amplifier and speaker cabinet joined together
  • Head – a powerful amplifier intended to be used with a separate speaker cabinet
  • Cabinet – just the speakers in a cabinet to be connected to a head amplifier

I decided to get Boss Katana Head amp because of two things. The first thing is that every review I’ve found rates this amplifier as extremely good, definitely better than others at this price.

The control panel of the Boss Katana Head amplifier. This amplifier has been given an excellent rating by all the reviewers I checked

It has just a handful of very straightforward controls. But if you want to go further, hidden within it are 57 user selectable processing effects that can be controlled with an ‘expression pedal’. This is a pedal that reports a value between 0 and 100 according to the angle of the pedal surface. The amplifier sends the value to the currently selected effects processor.

The second reason is that this is the first head amplifier to contain a speaker. That allows for home practice. For those out gigging and touring, the internal 5-inch speaker provides an output independent of the cabinet of speakers that head amplifiers are conventionally connected to.

In addition to the amplifier, the speaker cabinet will have an effect too. If you investigate digital modelling amplifiers, you will find that both the amplifier and cabinet sounds can be emulated in software and there many tens of amplifier and cabinet models to choose from, adding up to hundreds of permutations. These models provide a phone app to allow you to select settings via Bluetooth.

The Shopping Experience

The real-life issues of shopping can be a pain. You need good prices, assistants, a helpful culture and somewhere easy to get to for returns and other concerns. Consideration of this minutia keeps things smooth through and beyond the purchase. I chose three similar outlets that I could use as a cross-reference for each other.

Absolute Music

Website

Probably my favourite store – it’s warehouse style with parking for about 10 and 2 unmarked spaces in front of their window. It has a familiar feel about it like PC World in a good way. It’s slightly smaller than PMT’s warehouse but is still big. They have a stage where bands compete on occasion or try out kit.

Absolute Music stage
The stage at Absolute Music where your band can try out equipment or take part in competitions

Downstairs there are keyboards and a separate room with drum kits as well as some glass display cases with mixers and other tech. All of the guitars are upstairs, with a separate wall for second-hand guitars and cabinets for pedals. There’s plenty of room and plenty of stock.

They also have a handy cafe near the door. I left the unidentified hamburger meat that had a strange whiff about it. Coffee is served in big heavy mugs. Rock Gods don’t mess about with sensitively prepared food.

Andertons

Website

Andertons is on a busy road in Farnham with a barrier in the middle and a roundabout at both ends. There isn’t much chance you’ll get one of the few parking spaces out at the front, but there is a multi-storey car park about 500 yards away. Not so good if you are lugging equipment.

The shop looks like a converted house, and there is equipment everywhere making the atmosphere pleasantly claustrophobic. While I was waiting to talk to someone I spotted three of the people who had made the YouTube reviews I had studied for many hours. These people were long-term pros, as were the people who were coming in off the street, and that was daunting.

Eventually, I got some time with a 20+ guy and the conversation was amiable but not smooth. The problem was that I was looking for a well-engineered guitar for pristine studio recording whereas he was delighted to use a battered guitar in a live situation. The difference in our mindset made the conversation a little awkward. I also knew more than he did about the things I was interested in, which I suppose isn’t so surprising having sunk so many hours into the reviews, specifications and costs.

Professional Music Technology

Website

PMT is a warehouse unit on a light industrial estate with a hazardous right angled approach road. The car park was full, and I had to fend off a 4 x 4 owner who wanted the space I was fishing for. Puzzlingly, once inside I couldn’t see many customers.

The place was large and there was a lot of stock hanging from the walls and in several rooms attached to the main hall showing off more equipment. It was certainly a useful place to come to or know about.

PMT don’t have a video of the Portsmouth store, but this London store might help to get a feel for the chain that owns the Portsmouth branch.

The salesperson quelled my concern that the Yamaha Mixer’s Phantom power might damage an electric guitar. Makes sense that it wouldn’t, but Yamaha’s online manual does not explain this point.

I had visited PMT in order to get hold of the amplifier that Absolute Music was unable to source in a reasonable time for my order. I guided the sales dude towards fetching an unopened boxed version and paid for it while they signed me up for spam mail.

The Buying Process

This part didn’t go smoothly!

Trying to Get Some Discount

With a total expenditure of £1400, I was hoping to get a discount of around £150. At Andertons I was given the assurance that I would get some kind of a discount, but there was no attempt to provide an idea of what that might be.

Absolute Music was efficient enough to create and supply a specific quote but it wasn’t a very good discount and they said as much. I phoned up a couple of other suppliers and found a similar story elsewhere.

Taking the Plunge

I opted to go with Absolute Music because I felt more at home there. It also had the particular instance of the guitar that I wanted and getting a similar but different one didn’t appeal, though logically it shouldn’t make any difference. I had bonded with it already.

They had a good looking website that was as functionally competent as you could hope for, which is a good sign that the management is organised. To set the sale in motion I paid a £10% deposit. The amplifier had to be ordered which meant I had to wait a week for that part to arrive.

Situation Normal (SNAFU)

On the morning of the arrival date, I phoned them and it was obvious they had no idea that my sale was waiting for action. I was told that the amplifier I had ordered wouldn’t be arriving for another 6 weeks, so I was advised to buy it elsewhere.

The next day I sourced an amplifier at PMT then bought and collected it myself. I did not attempt to get a discount from them since one of the Absolute Music sales team had previously advised me there were no margins for discounts on this product. My quote had shown a lower than normal cost for the amplifier, and the salesperson at that time explained this as just being a convenient way to gather the discount together and it didn’t mean the amplifier was cheaper.

We’d Like You to Do Our Work For Nothing Please

When I reported my amplifier purchase back to Absolute Music, they decided that my discount would be cut in half because I was no longer buying that part from them. I explained how what I had been told at an earlier time affected my decision not to seek a discount at PMT. He appeared to take that into account, but I was still losing a big chunk of the small discount.

Is it Time to Abandon Ship?

I was incensed that I had lost discount, time and money to patch up their sale. I considered cancelling the deal and deposit so I could seek a proper discount at PMT, where I had bought the amplifier.

In the end, I decided that I wanted the exact physical guitar I had chosen in Absolute Music, so I would have to take another hit on the miserable discount in order to get it – now at a laughable 3.8%. I had lost control of my spending power.

If you are chicaned by this type of situation, it may be worth cancelling the transaction rather than trying to solve it as I did. Keep your eye on the discount.

Let’s Get This Over With

On the day I had arranged to collect the gear for the second time I was not happy with how things had panned out. It must have shown because the first thing I was asked was if I was ok, which I wasn’t.

I wanted to get the equipment out of their hands as soon as possible and safely back home. I made sure we got the scratched plastic protection off of the pickguard to check it was ok underneath before handing over any more money. All was well, front and back.

Interestingly, a plectrum isn’t supplied with the guitar by Fender and nothing was offered at the point of sale, both of which seem like obvious oversights. After asking, I was given three freebie marketing plectrums that cost 1p per 100,000. This act of kindness brought a tear to my eye *sniff*. It’s not often that you meet people that are so kind.

But they didn’t stop there – we accepted a wonderful offer of a free coffee from the Roadkill Cafe, which cost them another 1p for the dust and water. When I got home I couldn’t unpack the gear straight away. Their gifts had affected me deeply and I needed some time to get over it.

Aaww shucks! you guys… what are you like!?

Home But Not Dry

Getting a Buzz Out of Playing

A day later I connected the guitar and amp together and found a buzzing noise coming from the bridge pickup. If I moved the selector toward the neck pickup the buzzing disappeared. It also dissipated if I grounded any of the metalwork by touching it. I swapped the guitar lead with another and got the same result. It looked like one of the noiseless coils was not working or the electronics wasn’t grounded properly.

I reported this fact to Absolute Music via an email and asked for thoughts when I was really thinking that I’ll go down there and strangle them with the guitar lead at 10 am sharp. Then I went back to the guitar for another go.

When I picked up the lead coil and moved it about the buzzing tone changed which lead me to suspect it was acting like an aerial. With that in mind I switched off a nearby dimmable lamp and the buzzing stopped. It seemed like ‘problem solved’, but it meant that I could still end up with a hum even with noiseless pickups. Good grief. No-one ever mentioned that in all the reviews or sales blurb.

Since I had found that the hum was external, it was a good thing that my earlier email to Absolute Music was neutral. They wrote back and said a hum was normal. I said I expected noiseless pickups to be noiseless. Then they told me all about RF interference.

A Simple Description of RF Interference

Here is a description of RF Interference from World Health Organisation:

At radio and microwave frequencies, electric and magnetic fields are considered together as the two components of an electromagnetic wave. Everyday sources of radiofrequency electromagnetic fields are telecommunications, broadcasting antennas and microwave ovens.

RF Interference is Everywhere

The email from Absolute Music contained a great explanation of the situation I was experiencing as well as a link to a video. The following bullet points are an edit of the reply. You can find a detailed answer in the video below.

  • The guitar electronics are grounded and connected to the ground of the amplifier. If they weren’t then you wouldn’t get any sound out of the guitar.
  • All pickups act as radio frequency (RF) noise receivers and all audio systems experience noise. The amount of noise is referred to as ‘signal to noise ratio’, or ‘noise floor’.
  • To avoid noise
    • Remove or stay away from RF sources.
    • Turn 360° to find the least noisy direction
    • Use the spoon trick (described below)
  • The audible buzz is a harmonic of the original 50/60 Hz frequency.

This is the spoon trick for reducing buzz during studio recording:

(edited) An old trick used in studios is to connect a wire to a grounded part of the guitar, and attach a spoon or similar to the other end. This should then be placed on the player’s skin, usually inside the sock worn on the foot. This grounds the instrument to the player without the need to touch the strings as you would do in normal playing conditions.

Conclusion

Buying an electric guitar has been an assault course. You have to balance technical information, style, goals and cost. Before you can make a sensible decision you need in-depth information about how guitars are made.

You also have to deal with the shops and their foibles in order to acquire the items. It’s wise to consider what the after sales support might be like when you buy anything significant. If you are having trouble with their location, parking, staff, website or phone lines, all of these things will impede your progress when it comes to getting something remedied afterwards. After you have bought your equipment, you can expect less interest. That has got to be scary.

Buying a guitar is a ‘buyer beware’ situation. Make sure that you know what you are buying.

Useful Accessories

Once you have the guitar there are a couple of free apps that will be good to have from the outset.

Free iPhone Tuning App: ‘Fender Tune’

A guitar tuning app that can be used in an automatic or manual mode. It listens for and displays a musical note onscreen. This is good for beginners who are not yet used to hitting a pitch. As your listening skill grows you can migrate to manual methods which are also available.

Free iPhone Metronome App: ‘Tempo Perfect’

I had considered getting a mechanical metronome but quickly decided in favour of a more sophisticated app version. The interface has a cosmetic issue with overlapping text in its ‘Guide’ pane but is otherwise better than good. It has a Tempo (similar to the metronome) but also has two hierarchical subdivisions allowing for complex patterns that a normal metronome wouldn’t be able to give.

Consider Buying a Locking Guitar Strap or Pegs

Most of the straps you will see have a simple hole for the strap peg. The locking strap goes a step further by having a ratcheted plate that grips the strap peg so that it won’t slide off. If you can’t stand the sight of the plastic locks and you can buy higher class locking pegs that look better.

A locking guitar strap will keep a good grip on the guitar

Useful Links

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