Buying a Guitar: Overview

What you need to know about buying a guitar

Having recently gone through the process of buying a new acoustic guitar, it struck me that others may want to know what I consider to be the best approach to buying a new guitar.

A few things to keep in mind before we begin:

  • Have patience - do not decide you HAVE to buy the guitar that day. Plan on taking at least two trips to the music store before buying.
  • Maintain control - you have the buying power, and thus you are in charge! Don't let music store staff intimidate you.
  • Research - the web is a great place to find info on guitars. Use it to your advantage!
  • Get help - if possible, recruit a friend who plays guitar to help you choose an instrument. If you're flying solo, don't be afraid to ask music store employees multiple questions.

You do not have to be an expert guitarist to get a good deal on a good guitar. What you do have to be is a disciplined shopper.

For novice guitarists, music stores can be intimidating. At any one time, a music store will invariably have several guitarists with amps cranked, intent on showing off their most impressive licks. Understandably, this can be scary for beginner guitarists. Do your best to ignore everyone else, and keep your focus on finding the best guitar possible, for the least money.

How to Handle Yourself in a Music Store

  • Get set up properly. Find a guitar that appeals to you, then ask an employee for a stool and a pick (although I'd highly suggest you bring a pick you're comfortable with). If you're playing an electric guitar, plug into an amp similar to the one you plan to use at home - if you're going to be playing through a small practice amp, don't plug into a Marshall half-stack. And, it may go without saying, but avoid using effects.
  • Play the guitar the same way you would at home. To hear the tonal qualities of a guitar, it needs to be played at a reasonable volume. Strum the open strings hard - listen to the sustain, and note problems like buzzing strings. If you're having a hard time hearing, ask to play the guitar in a separate room, or in a quieter part of the store. (I've been in music stores where owners glared at me for turning up the guitar a little, or for strumming an acoustic firmly. My solution was to hand them the guitar, say thanks, and take my business elsewhere. I urge you to do the same... these people are obviously not very familiar with the way guitars work, thus not the best stores to deal with anyway.
  • Play something you're comfortable with. Now isn't the time to show off - concentrate on the guitar, not on who is listening to you. Play each fret on each string on the neck slowly, making sure there are no buzzes. If you know how, check the guitar's intonation. If playing an electric guitar, try all of the different pick-up combinations, and listen for unwanted noise. There are many more issues to consider when examining a guitar - you'll want to study how to buy an acoustic guitaror how to buy an electric guitar.
  • Take your time. Try many different guitars in the store. Ask questions, and make notes on every guitar you play. Write down the manufacturer of the guitar, the model number, and the price. Ask what type of wood the guitar is made of. Note any special likes or dislikes you have about each guitar. When you feel like you can't stand to be in the store another minute, thank the salesperson, and head home.

So, now you've played a bunch of guitars, and hopefully found a few that you really like. It's time to do some research on all the guitar companies whose instruments you are considering. Use the Brands of Guitarslinks resource to get familiar with what each of these companies has to say about their instruments. Most guitar company websites provide specs on each of their guitars, so you can find out additional information on the instrument you're considering. Search their web site for warranty information, and make note of that also. You can even call or e-mail them if you have any additional concerns.

Guitar company web sites are fine, but obviously they're going to be biased, so you'll need to find out what others think of the guitar you're considering. Fortunately, the web is filled with sites that archive user-reviews of guitars. When studying these reviews, take special notice of the prices people paid for the instrument, and carefully consider all criticism. Be wary of people who give their guitar a "perfect 10" score - many of these reviewers aren't knowledgeable enough to offer constructive criticism.

Next, try using the Yellow Pages to look up other music stores in your area. You should consider visiting each of these stores to try out the guitars they offer. For now, call each of them, and see if they offer any of the same guitars you're considering. If so, ask to be quoted a price. Occasionally, you'll run across a store employee who is hesitant to quote you prices over the telephone. Mention you're about to buy a guitar elsewhere, and they should change their mind. Again, make note of any differences in price.

Armed with all this new knowledge about the guitars you're considering, it's time to take the second trip to the music store. I'd generally wait until the next day to do this - a clear head often gives better perspective, and besides, you don't want to seem too eager.

So, you think you've found the guitar for you? Congratulations. But, your work isn't done - you've got to get that guitar at a price you can be proud of. Many people assume that if the guitar price tag says $599, that is the price they'll have to pay. Not true - music stores make a profit on the sale of items from their store, thus are able to decrease the price of those items in order to move more product quickly. The trick is to get them to do that for you.

Tip-toeing through the bargaining process can be awkward - in order to get the best value for your money, you'll potentially need to engage in an uncomfortable conversation with music store employees. It is important to remember that YOU are in control - music stores want your money, and you should make them earn it. Here are a few tips on discussing guitar price with music store staff:

  • Keep the salesperson on a need-to-know basis. Don't tell them "I have to own this guitar!" Mention you've seen some nice guitars in other stores around town.
  • Before you begin bartering, make sure you know if the price includes a case. Ask whether the case is hardshell (more $) or softshell (less $).
  • Try out several guitars on your return visit. You might want show interest in a much cheaper guitar. Selling you a cheap guitar means a small commission for for a music store employee, so they'll likely be more willing to give you a deal on a more expensive guitar.
  • Don't be in a hurry. Take your time, and carefully consider whether this IS the guitar you really want.
  • NEVER pay list price for a guitar. Just as in car prices, the list price of a guitar is usually greatly inflated.

Manyof us have difficulty in bringing up the subject of discounts with a salesperson. Here's a tip - ask the salesperson to give you the "Whole price, including tax and case," for the guitar. When they provide the quote, say "Hummm, now what can you do for me to get that price a little lower?" Have a price in mind that you'd like to pay - I often aim for a 10-15% discount. If you know of a store that offers a lower price for the same guitar, make the salesperson aware of that. You might have to use a little bit of pressure, but it's something you'll get used to doing.

Sometimes, if the guitar is already on sale, or is a very budget-priced instrument, you'll have a hard time convincing the salesperson to further lower the price. In these circumstances, try asking them to include some guitar accessories for free, or at least at a heavily discounted price. These might include: a capo, guitar strings, a patch cord, guitar polish, a guitar humidifier, a guitar tuner, or even small items like string winders and picks. It might not be the discount you're looking for, but it will at least give you the satisfaction of knowing that you successfully bargained with the salespeople.

With this knowledge, you should be able to bring home a new guitar you're happy with, at a price that won't bust your budget. Best of luck, and happy hunting!