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What factors should you consider when buying a guitar?

Updated: May 26, 2019

The experience of starting or adding to your guitar collection can be exciting, satisfying… and daunting. Thousands of models to choose from, so many shapes & sizes, where on earth do you start!? However, we are the bearers of good news. Ray Beck from Beginner Guitar HQ has created a guide of factors according to science to consider when buying a guitar. Continue reading to explore more...



The guitar as a crafted instrument relies heavily on science for its construction as well as the sound it produces. The measurements and fine-tuning that go into making a guitar are extremely precise. An understanding of the science behind the guitar is, therefore, an invaluable tool to measure quality, and determine what is the best guitar.


Tone-wood and Sound Waves

Sound travels differently through varying materials. It moves through wood nearly thirteen times faster than air. This makes it an ideal material for musical instruments where responsiveness is key.The first instrument makers sought out the best material and settled on wood.


Electric Guitars and the Tone-wood Fallacy

The importance of tone-wood cannot be understated when considering an acoustic guitar, but does it have the same impact on an electric guitar? Though enthusiastically debated to this day and marred in a conflict-ridden history, the short answer is a science-backed resounding no, or at the very least, the impact is very small.

Electric guitars use magnets and electronic circuitry to carry the sounds from the vibrating strings to an amplifier. The wood has no substantial impact on the quality of the vibrations which create the sound.

Unlike an acoustic which uses the wood to amplify and enlarge the sound, an electric guitar doesn’t rely on the wood to do so. The wood simply acts as a strong base capable of sustaining the tension of the strings and onto which the other components are fixed.

Choosing an electric guitar is, therefore, much more reliant on the components, the quality of the craftsmanship and how these two affect the tone.


Acoustics

The basic premise of acoustic guitars is the transfer of the natural sound of the strings to the body of the guitar. This cavity then acts a resonance chamber where the sound waves from the strings cause the wood of the guitar to vibrate. The air inside the chamber then distorts and creates compression waves which are then amplified. This travels out into our ears, which translate it to sound or music.

Due to the complexity of measuring the intricacies of these waves, the science behind the way sound waves interact with the wood inside an acoustic guitar is limited. With this in mind, it is up to each consumer to determine what sounds best. Following your gut instinct is highly encouraged. Word of mouth and help from more experienced guitarists is also invaluable.



Harmonics and Tone

Consider a single musical note played on a guitar. To the ear, it is a singular sound. In reality it is formed of numerous related frequencies vibrating simultaneously to create that specific note. These are called overtones. When they are multiples of the original note played, they are called harmonics.

It is impossible to notice all frequency-level variations of the tone, the human ear is able to discern overall characteristics. These allow the listener to determine whether the sound is pleasant, overbearing, weak or otherwise. When considering the purchase of a guitar, trust the information provided by your ear.


Pickups

If you plan to buy an electric guitar, pay heed to the pickups. The acoustic vibrations of non-amplified strings are fairly quiet, making only low volume treble sounds. An amplifier allows the pickup to translate the vibration of the strings into a much louder, amplified output.

There exists a variety of pickup types, but they rely on the basic principle of the two most common, Single-coil & Humbucker.

An understanding of the science behind these two types of pickups is useful when determining what suits your needs.


Internal wiring and Components

Basic electronics require a steady, constant signal to maximise the efficiency of a circuit. The same applies to a guitar.

Due to the relatively low voltage required to power an electric guitar, the quality of the wire used has no effect on the guitar. The important factor is the quality of soldiering work and the knobs, switches and selectors that contro each transfer of signals from the pickups to the jack output.

Numerous lower end guitars offer basic models of these components that are prone to malfunctioning. Wires that detach due to shoddy craftsmanship, jack inputs held loosely in place affecting the signal, and unresponsive switchers that fail to turn on pickups, are all common problems. There is a direct link between the cost of the guitar and the quality of the wiring/components. To avoid any issues, be ready to spend a little more.


Hardware

Guitar hardware is loosely defined as any component other than the internal wiring, components and wood. This includes machine heads, the bridge and the tailpiece. Different types of hardware have varying functions. A correlation exists between a price-tag and quality. Hardware is, therefore, a trustworthy gauge of a guitars overall quality. The reasoning behind this is that better hardware improves tuning precision and keeps strings in tune for longer, notably after temporarily altering their pitch with a tremolo or whammy bar.

Importance of ‘Action’

Action is jargon for the space between the strings and the fretboard. A smaller gap allows the player to press down on the string with more ease. This represents the basic principle of guitar playing and is one of the key points of contact with the instrument. Numerous advanced techniques depend on suitable action.

Always check the action when searching for a new guitar. Play around and experiment along the length of the fretboard. Make sure it is suitably low to facilitate ease of play, but not enough to create unwanted sounds. Having the perfect action is crucial to a quality guitar.


Cosmetics

The attractiveness of a guitar is hotly debated topic that ultimately falls within the realm of subjectivity. A classic guitar with much of the wood’s natural characteristics intact may be beautiful to one player, while deeply ugly to another. An area where there is less space for discussion, is the finish work applied to guitars. We are talking lacquers, shellac and oils, notably their effect on tonal quality.



Guitar Necks and the Hunt for Sustain

Unfortunately, no studies exploring stability and tension/stress exist, so we are unable to accurately determine which neck type is best in this context, though the general consensus is that neck-through comes out on top.

In general, bolt-ons are far cheaper than their counterparts and the jointing technique has no detrimental effect on sustain. If anything, it improves it. A good tip when searching for a guitar is to therefore be open to bolt-ons rather than immediately veering towards the much pricier neck-through models.


Finances

Purchasing a guitar invariably involves a financial consideration. There are guitars available for those with the most thrifty of budgets, all the way to those with sizeable amounts of disposable income. Ultimately, buying a guitar within your budget will be the biggest factor.


The Science of Tone

Basically, the interpretation of good tone is a subjective matter that differs greatly from person to person. As mentioned previously, this all comes down to the human ear and the way it perceives sound, or more precisely how the brain processes the sound. This process varies depending on a person’s musical upbringing, their mood or even the environmental factors at play during the listening experience.


The Importance of Setup

From the points raised above, it is clear that numerous factors affect the quality, but more importantly the playability of a guitar. A good setup is able to unify all these elements into a well-oiled machine that is enjoyable to play.

Think of it as a car tuneup. Regardless of how expensive or good the car is, it will necessitate some fine tuning to get it into optimal condition. The same applies to guitars.

A basic setup checks the relief in the neck, fixes any issues with the action and intonation, and tightens up any of the fixings such as the machine head or a loose jack socket. This means that a tired looking secondhand guitar is likely to come to life after being setup properly. Don’t discount older models as they may be hiding a second lease of life.


Motivation

It is important to buy a guitar that will motivate a player to spend time honing their skills. The science of motivation is linked to the release of dopamine in the brain. Picking up an instrument you are proud of will invariably make you feel good. Guitar playing is about enjoyment so though science plays its part, it ultimately comes down to personal preference.





Beyond Science

A scientific approach to choosing the best guitar is a useful tool to understanding what factors determine a good guitar. However, the guitar remains an instrument with a rich history and a certain mysticism. Tapping into that undefinable, emotional quality also plays its part in finding the best guitar.

Personal preference when it comes to aesthetic appeal or tone is so subjective that it cannot be explained or analyzed by science. A young person inspired to learn the guitar is a powerful force and even the most basic guitar will put them in good stead, giving them a suitable tool to hone their skills.

Beyond ensuring the guitar is well crafted, within your budget, and meets the requirements of the style of music you hope to play, trust your instincts and if it sounds good, go for it.

To conclude, there is no such thing as an agreed upon, universally recognised, best guitar. Finding it is impossible, but the above points should help you take a more critical, science-backed decision. You will now have a firm grasp on the ins and outs of the instrument, and understand how all the parts work together to make one of the coolest instruments out there.


Full article originally posted by by Ray Beck at Beginner Guitar HQ.