Updated: May 24, 2019
When buying a guitar your best bet is to go old school: your local music store. There you can try different guitars and get a feel for what sounds good to you and what is comfortable to play. Keep in mind it is not all about price, some $100 guitars may feel and sound better than a $500 one. Here are the 4 red flags to watch out for and avoid when buying a new guitar.
Read about buying the best guitar for your child here.
Read the 7 essential guitar accessories here.
1. The Action
The action is the distance between the neck of the guitar (see guitar anatomy here) and the strings. The greater the distance, the harder the guitar will be to play. If there is not enough distance, some of the notes on the guitar may buzz or become muffled. It is always a good idea to see who is in charge of guitar repairs and if they are a reputable luthier or guitar tech ask that a 'set up' be included in your purchase. This should consist of the luthier/guitar tech adjusting the action of the strings. To check the action, hold the neck at eye level to see how high the strings are from the neck. Be sure to look at the entire length of the guitar neck. If there are large variations in the distance from the string to the neck, this can clue you into a warped neck.
This is good action. Very close to the neck without buzzing.
This is an example of bad action. Far away from the neck and very uneven showing warp.
2. Warped Neck
I have seen instrument salespeople at the most prominent chain instrument stores and local shops gleefully rid themselves of warp-necked guitars to unwitting customers. Know what to look for. The only way to be absolutely sure a neck has no warp in it is so lay something that has a straight line (a 12-inch ruler is perfect) on top of the frets. If you can rock the ruler back and forth on the neck OR see a scoop where the frets dip down then come back up to touch the ruler again, the neck is warped.
Scoop warp on a $500 guitar. The neck scoops away from the string, and it is very visible in the red circled areas where there is space between the yellow line and the frets.
3. The Neck is too Heavy
This issue is usually found on guitars from lesser known manufacturers or from moderately well-known guitar manufacturers in their $100-$400 range. The problem is simple, the neck of the guitar is heavier than the body of the guitar. When this is the case, the guitar will not rest properly in your lap, and it will be a constant struggle to keep it in place and from falling on the floor.
4. A Deal that Sounds too Good to be True
While many music stores have great sales that go on during the year, if you see a top brand guitar marked down 15% or more while there are no store-wide sales on...beware! Ask a sales representative why it is on sale. Many times it can be as harmless as a scratch or dent that won't have any effect on you playing the instrument. Often, it can be an attempt to ditch a warped neck. Remember many salespeople get paid part of the total price of your purchase (a commission) so ask plenty of questions, take notes and never be afraid to walk away from a deal that may not be good for you.
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