The Setlist

Buying Your First Guitar

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Nov 6th, 2009
This post was originally written on the blog.

This is going to be significantly ‘lighter’ than my recent posts, but also something that I think will be useful for people who are shopping for a guitar.

This is all about buying your first guitar, but the concept is one that can be extended to any guitar purchase. In the end it could save you money if you ‘lean’ towards expensive purchases :-)

Feel free to post your own guitar-buying advice in the comments for the benefit of other readers.

Start Cheap

For your first guitar purchase, I highly recommend starting with the cheapest guitar you can stand. One that feels comfortable, and sounds tolerable. Comfort is a strange thing when you’re starting because your hand is not yet trained to hold a guitar, so on some level, every guitar will feel uncomfortable. But if you hold two guitars, and one feels like it fits your hand better, I think that’s an important factor to consider. 

The primary reason I recommend starting cheap is that at this point you really aren’t in a position to know what you truly like and don’t like about a guitar, except maybe its looks. Fretboard radius won’t matter if you can’t bend, neck back contour won’t matter if you can’t hold chords, and fret size won’t matter if you don’t have the control not to squeeze too hard.

In short, you won’t know what you’re looking for, so why spend a ton of money on features that you don’t even know how to use or appreciate?

Buying Process

When shopping for that first guitar, start with the cheapest guitar that falls in the ecosystem you’re interested in. If you’re after a strat sound, start with the strat style guitars. If you’re a Les Paul kind of player, start with the Epiphones or other Les Paul style guitars. Find the cheapest one that’s still made out of wood :-)

Play it. See if it feels uncomfortable. Make a mental note of anything you dont’ like. Then go find a guitar that is about $50 more expensive and do the same thing. Repeat this process until you can’t tell a difference between one guitar and the next more expensive guitar.

By doing this you will ensure that you’ll be buying the least expensive guitar that you are able to appreciate. You won’t be paying for a better tone wood, better pickups, better manufacturing, or any of that. Unless you can hear it or feel it when you play.


After you’ve played this guitar for about a year, you will probably have a mental list of things you don’t like about it. The more you play, the longer and more detailed this list will be. The great thing about this list is that it gives you detailed guidelines for shopping for your next guitar.

If you had purchased an Eric Johnson signature strat for your first guitar, you may eventually find out that you really don’t like the feel of the neck, or the sound of the pickups. Now you’ve got a very expensive guitar that’s depreciated by an amount that’s more than what you might have spent on a cheaper guitar to figure out the same thing.

Buying High

It’s easy to look at the really high-end guitars and think that people are just buying them because they like buying expensive things. But the fact of the matter is, when an experienced player has played for years and years, and held guitar after guitar in their hands, the list of things they prefer is can be very precise.

It’s not really about necessity for a player at that level, it’s more about preferences. Realistically, they could make any guitar sound good, but that doesn’t mean they’d enjoy playing something that isn’t built to their detailed preferences.

But until you’re at that point where your ‘feel’ of a guitar is that finely tuned, a cheap guitar that helps you develop a more acute sense of quality can be the best investment you make.


This is just my opinion on buying a guitar, if you’ve got some ideas that you’ve used to guide your purchasing, feel free to share them in the comments.

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