How to Buy a Guitar

You’ve been saving. You’ve played about a hundred guitars. You know what you like and what you don’t like. You’ve considered the style of your playing. You’ve even thought about where you’ll be in five years and what you’d like to be able to play. Now that you’ve narrowed it down to a few instruments, how do you make the final decision? What questions remain before you open your wallet?

Probably the most important thing left to do is to approach this decision in much the same way you would buy a car. A proverbial kick to the tires is in order. Now, WAIT, that’s not an invitation to abuse an instrument, especially one of ours. But you should apply the same deliberate thought and thorough review as you would when buying a car. Here are a few thoughts for you:

When a guitar has been under-humidified, a common problem is cracking at the top seam.

1) Check the construction and general condition of the guitar

Examine the seams of the guitar. Take special care to look at how the neck joins the body. Does the seam look clean? Check all around the sides of the guitar where the top and back meet the sides. The seams should all be tight and clean.

Look over the surface of the guitar as well. There should be no warps, ripples, or bulges. You can gently knock on the top and back of the guitar to listen for rattles that might indicate a loose brace.

Determine if the top is solid or laminate. A solid top offers, by far, a superior tone but at a greatly increased price. The woods appropriate for solid tops are rare in commercial timbering; only about 1% of all that is harvested. Of those woods available, they must be quarter sawn in order to be used for instrument making. Now consider that some woods are more highly respected than others due to their resonance. Lastly, many of the woods most highly respected are now endangered species. Those factors alone account for the increased cost of solid tops. Laminates are thin layers of wood that are glued together, usually crossing the grains. By nature, they are much stronger than solid woods, but don’t have the resonance of solid tops. While laminate top guitars offer strength and a cost benefit, they cannot stand up in the tone department to solid top guitars.

An easy way to determine whether a guitar’s top is solid or laminate is to look at the edge of the guitar’s top at the soundhole. Follow the grains of the wood across the face to the soundhole. If the grains appear consistent all the way across the edge, you have a solid top guitar. Keep in mind that most painted, heavily-stained, or other method that would prevent you from seeing the grain at the soundhole usually infers a laminate top.

Notice how the grain runs through the entire top. This is a solid top guitar. Notice how the “lines” seem to run sideways, not up and down. This indictaes a laminate top.

Laminates can be used for the sides and back of the guitar without as much effect on the instrument’s sound or value. Laminate sides and backs are a great way to save a little money in mid-priced instruments. To determine whether you have laminates on the sides or back, look inside the soundhole to find distinctive grain features. Now look on the outside of the instrument for the same feature. If it’s not there, you’ve got a laminate.

The guitar’s finish oftentimes can give clues to the value of the instrument as well. High quality finishes are usually clear, uniform in gloss, and display sharply-focused highlights. Low quality finished tend to be thick, produce rounded corners at the joints and seams, and while bright in appearance tend not to show the beauty of the wood with much clarity. The reason high quality finishes are thin is that it requires great skill to apply a finish coat thin and then buff it out without buffing through it. Mass produced guitars simply cannot afford this kind of attention to detail that smaller run or hand built guitars do.

2) Review the playability of guitar step by step

Play up and down the neck on every string to check for buzzing. Check the intonation of the instrument. That is, play the open string and then play the same note at the 12th fret. Does it sound like a true octave?

Old Strings…

While many experienced players may notice old strings simply by touch or sound, many beginning players have not yet developed those skills. Here’s a quick check list:
1) Do the unwound strings feel smooth? If no, oils and dirt may have begun to build up.
2) Is the color of the wound strings consistent all the way up and down? If no, the strings are beginning to tarnish and may have reduced resonance.
3) Look at the grooves on the wound strings. If there’s a dark colored build-up between the winds, it’s probably time to change the strings.

Next, simply play at the extremes of your style. Play a fast, difficult tune. Follow it with a slow, melodic piece. Listen carefully to the sound of the instrument. Does it have the treble and bass response you’re hoping for in each piece? If not, evaluate whether you have the correct style of guitar for your playing style; i.e., dreadnaught, OOO, OM, etc. Is it possible that the strings are old and a restring would solve the problem?

Check the action (the distance between the string and the fretboard). If the action is high, look over the neck for bows. Also, review the saddle and bridge. How high is the bridge? Does it stand erect or bend forward or backward? Is the saddle flush to the instrument’s top? Many of these problems can be overcome with simple adjustments to the truss rod, nut, bridge, or saddle. Be sure to ask for a technician’s assistance.

Likewise, if the action is too low, check the saddle. Is it solidly mounted to the top or has there been some shifting? Has the bridge or nut been previously modified? Once again, many of these problems are easily correctable too, but be sure to ask all the right questions.
3) Review the facility of the instrument

This is probably the most subjective portion of the process. Play the instrument for awhile. Does the neck feel comfortable in your hands? Is the reach appropriate to the size of your hands? Does the guitar feel comfortable resting in your lap? Does your right shoulder and arm drape appropriately over the instrument? If you are going to stand to play, does the weight of the instrument wear you down?

Do your fingers move with ease over the fingerboard? Are you able to play familiar pieces accurately on this instrument? If not, can you determine a reason? All of these factors will help how you feel about this instrument 3 months from now.

4) Ask questions

It may be obvious, but it may be the most important part of this process. Undoubtably, the process you’ve gone through thus far has raised questions. Some you may be able to guess at the answer. Some may seem trivial. Unless you’ve got the ability to buy and sell guitars at will, it’s likely you’ll be living with this choice for some years. Isn’t it worth asking for clarification?

5) Make decisions on the factual data you’ve gathered

Hopefully, by now you’ve been able to determine if the construction of the guitar meets your budget and expectations. The tone and playabilitymay have kept this instrument in the finalist category as well. Now is the time to review any doubts that were raised by your inspection. Ask a technician to review your instrument, if necessary. But, be prepared to remove the emotion from your decision. If you’re not sure you’ve found a new “friend,” think it over.

At Music Folk, we’re happy to lead you through this process. We’ll ask questions about your playing style and what features interest you as well as your budget. Whether you’re looking at a starter instrument or a fine collector piece, we’ll be happy to work with you to find it. Keep in mind too that we do all of our own set up work so any guitar* you purchase at Music Folk has received proper attention before it hits the sales floor. Minor adjustments are part of the service we offer when you buy from us as well. We look forward to seeing you soon.

* Music Folk does not set up consignment instruments. That is, they are sold on an “as is” basis. Be sure to ask about the policies related to a consignment purchase.

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