Shopping For Your First Guitar (and other Marketing Automation Essentials)

Warning: This post has absolutely nothing to do with marketing automation.

Well actually, I can’t be too sure.  So much has been written about the human need for creative outlets and positive effects that these outlets can have on productivity and innovation.  We can all afford to have at least one pursuit in our lives that is our pure passion!

Marketers are no different from anyone else this way.  We are all artists in our own way.

Guitaring very much feels like a creative outlet for me. I can say without hesitation that practicing my guitar has profoundly changed my outlook on life for the better.  Much in the same way that some other people might describe to me their passion for horseback riding. Or sailing. Or ballroom dancing.  These are pursuits that kindle our imagination. They bring us deep pleasure. They make us wonder how we ever coped without.

If you are thinking that guitaring could be your outlet, I’m cheering you on.  Get started on it as soon as you can.  Below I wrote up some tips to help you shop for your first acoustic guitar.  These are my own opinions of course and for that matter, as a rank amateur I am probably not the best guy to be offering this kind of advice.  So if you are lucky enough to have friends or family who can give you guidance, go get their help.

I started guitaring at 10 years old, encouraged by generous parents who on their meager teacher salaries scraped together enough money to buy me a gorgeous new Hagstrom electic bass guitar for Christmas.  Outfitted with my cherry-red bass, and what seemed at the time like a monstrous Traynor amp in our basement, plus my brother joining in with his Stratocaster, we would live out our rock fantasies.  I took bass lessons for a couple of years, then switched to drumming.   A few years after that, easing into more conventional teenage pursuits, my interest in practicing dwindled, and I stopped playing both.

Some 20 years passed before one day I noticed an acoustic guitar standing in a corner at my brother in-law’s home.  He was intensely private about his new hobby, but after begging him ruthlessly over dinner he finally acquiesced and pulled up a chair to play.  While I stared on intently he started up some jazz chords for a few minutes.  He then handed it over.  My fire was rekindled.  As luck would have it, he was looking to trade up.  So that wintery weekend we drove to Italmelodie in Laval, where he picked out an Ovation he had been eyeing for some time. I promptly paid for it, and the Garisson was mine.  Three years and several guitars later, I have rarely lived a day at home without practice.

Since taking the Garisson home I feel like I’ve learned more about what makes a good quality instrument.  My newest treasure is a Godin Lapatrie Hybrid Nylon. Gloss black body, built-in electronics, locally handmade in my hometown of Baie d’Urfe, Quebec.  It plays like a dream.

It took me a year to pick out this guitar.  I find the whole process of guitar shopping to be onerous.  The typical shop might have 50 models on display.  Visit Steve’s Music in Toronto and there may be 150 or more.  If you can find a quiet seat in the store, other prospective patrons around you may seem exceptionally skilled and it can be humbling to be in such great company.  On the web I found it difficult to find authoritative product reviews, so much subjectivity.  In this way I guess I am no different than anyone else out there offering yet another round of subjective.  Still I hope these tips are helpful to anyone looking to buy for the first time.

First, some basics.

Six-string or twelve string?  I suggest a six to start. Quick to tune, play, wide selection of models. A 12-string could be something to aspire to, down the road.

Nylon or steel?   Steel strings have a fuller sound on chords.  Nylon sounds better for fingering; when you move up and down the neck you won’t hear the scritch and buzz you would normally hear on metal strings. On nylon however, the chords do not sound nearly as full. If you see yourself jamming with someone else while “unplugged,” buy steel.

Body.  All else equal I would generally look to buy a full size (aka “jumbo”) guitar. You can look to own the largest bodied you can sit with comfortably.  Full-size guitars come in different shapes and depths. When you sit, relax and then pay attention to your right arm. Does the edge of the guitar cut into the underside of your forearm?  Try different models until you find one that matches your curvature.  This is where a sales assistant can really help you by checking your posture is correct while you sit and try different models for comfort.  Someone smaller might enjoy a countoured fiberglass body like those found on the Ovations.  Also you can get a cutaway, but it’s not essential for beginners and typically has a somewhat less full sound since the volume is slightly smaller.

Which brands?   If you can afford it ($500 and up) stick to domestic. A lot of well-known brands now offshore their manufacturing and put out fairly crappy guitars that should be avoided.  Below are the brands I can confidently recommend. I’ve found these below to be of excellent, handmade quality. A lot of Canadian in here (except Taylor):

Godin (Lapatrie, Richmond)
CF Martin & Co. (Martin)
Art & Lutherie

To be avoided unless stuck on a desert island:
Fender (yes, I’m sorry to say that times have changed)
Anything else sold at Sears, Walmart, Best Buy, etc.

A few brands have relatively shoddy stuff at the low-end, but also make some excellent high-end craft guitars at their small domestic mfg locations:

Try to find a guitar with an onboard auto-tuner (built right into the body). Handy.

Built-in pickup is also worthwhile if you see yourself playing with others.  A small portable amp 10-20W costs $100 and cranks enough volume to jam.  A guitar with an auto-tuner usually has the built-in electronics and mic/output jack as well. You could install aftermarket electronics but I shudder at the idea of taking power tools to a brand-new beautifully handcrafted guitar.

Picked out a contender?  Test the construction and fit.

Check intonation. Sit down in a quiet place and play the guitar on the 1st open string, then the 12th fret.  Are the two notes in tune?  Next, try the 1st string 12th fret, then the 6th string, 12th fret.  I’ve found this simple test to be an excellent way to rule out guitars with low-quality construction.

Check the neck width.  When I started out I really didn’t appreciate how important neck width is to ease of play and overall enjoyment.  Start your shopping by trying out a classical nylon guitar.   These tend to have super wide necks, lots of room between strings.  Then having played this for a few minutes, try a traditional guitar you have in mind.  How easy is it to finger notes accurately, especially in the middle strings?  Someone with smaller hands might find a classical guitar difficult to play, really having to stretch hands to play two strings that are 4 frets apart and the result is a lot of fret buzz. I find with my hands I can finger more accurately on a wide neck.

After you’ve tried a few models, you’ll want to check the action of the strings.  How firmly do you need to press down on the fretboard make the notes play without any buzz?  When you play, your fingers should press immediately below the fret. If you shift ever so slightly from that ideal position, is it forgiving enough to ring without buzz?  You will find that some guitars have higher action than others, meaning you have to press harder which affects your play. Also keep in mind that “medium” strings will be higher action than “light” strings, all else equal I recommend buying a guitar that comes with “medium” factory strings and still has the lowest action.  A guitar with light strings will be super low action. So you can really shred, but prone to sounding out of tune from string bending.  My Garisson had super high action, which made it harder to play than others (on the other hand, it was good training!).

Once you are down to a model you like, inspect the seams and surfaces very carefully for any gaps, cracks, or other signs of warping. This is especially important where the body joins the neck, or where the string plate joins the body.  Any visible cracks or separated wood grain is a big red flag.  I’ve seen a couple of stores try to sell new guitars with cracks and warps that will cause the instrument to deteriorate down the road.  Unforgivable!

If you have a choice of cases, pick a hard case with thick foam insulation which is more resistant to temperature swings. Gig bags offer virtually no protection.

You’ll need a stand for home. I recommend a wall mount bracket (around $15). If possible mount it high on the wall to keep your prize safe from knocks, ideally on an inside wall that is not exposed to sun or prone to temperature swings.

2 Replies to “Shopping For Your First Guitar (and other Marketing Automation Essentials)”

  1. Hi Ken, I've finally got myself a used Seagull last night. The purchuse was long overdue. A terrible traffic broght me to a guitar store. I'm super excited about the guitar. Thank you for the tips.

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