Buying Guide: Electric Guitars
Music123 Electric Guitar Buying Guide
Table of Contents
So you're looking for an electric guitar? Where do you start? First of all, keep in mind why you're buying the guitar.
#Buying an electric guitar for a young beginner:
- Get 'em what they want! Ask your young would-be guitarist what type of guitar he (or she) wants. If he can point to a picture on the Music123 website, you're most of the way there. Some experienced guitarists will tell you it's better to start out on an acoustic—usually because that's what they started on. We say forget that. If he's excited by an instrument, he'll be much more likely to stick with it. If electric is what he wants, electric is what he should get. If the guitar he points out costs too much, don't sweat it, there are more affordable versions of most of the major styles. Fender and Gibson, for example, have sub-brands—Squier and Epiphone, respectively—which offer less expensive versions of their top-sellers.
- Go for the artists. If your student wants to get into guitar because of a passion for a metal band such as Lamb of God, then a nylon-string classical is not likely to inspire his muse. Something like a pointy
- Don't fret! You may not like the image of the artists your young student admires, but remember that learning to play an instrument in any style develops self-confidence, discipline, creativity, and physical coordination as well as providing a platform for social development (and your youngster might someday become a fabulously well-to-do rock star who can keep you in the manner to which you wish to become accustomed).
#Buying an electric guitar for yourself:
- Go for what appeals to you and for what your favorite artists play. Don't be sidetracked by advice from people who don't share your tastes. Like clothing, electric guitars offer a way to express yourself visually as well as sonically.
- Check out music videos, CD sleeve notes, and magazines such as Guitar Player to see what types of instruments are being used to play the music you like.
#Buying an electic guitar for an experienced guitarist:
- Don't go it alone! The margin for error is wide. Seasoned players know what they like and what they don't like. If you can't find out what your guitarist really wants, the best policy is to let him choose for himself with a Music123 Gift Certificate. If your budget is modest, find out if your player wants some specialty instrument such as a
- Call us! If you know the general instrument but not the specifics, the experienced musicians at the Music123 call center can very likely steer you in the right direction. Just give us a call!
- Don't worry. Even if the recipient doesn't like the instrument, any guitar from our site can be returned for a full refund or exchange within 45 days of purchase.
#How much do you want to spend on your electric guitar?
- Buy the highest-quality instrument you can afford. We don't say this to sell more expensive gear, we say it because better instruments are more inspiring to everybody—beginners as well as old hands. Nicer instruments also have greater resale value, either to trade up or to sell if the muse dies altogether. Having said that, you've hit the market at the exact right time to buy an inexpensive, beginner-level instrument that's actually very well-built and inspiring to play. Computerized machining and highly evolved production techniques allow modern manufacturers to sell instruments for $150 to $350 that would have cost two to four times as much just 20 years ago. (And that's not even figuring in inflation.) Since every electric guitar requires a separate amplifier to work, Music123 sells a number of guitar/amplifier packages for beginning players starting at well under $150.
- Those low prices apply further up the line as well. For less than $450, you can buy a new guitar that almost any advanced electric guitarist would be delighted to own as a main instrument.
#Electric Guitar Basics
#How electric guitars work
An electric guitar produces sound by means of an amplified electronic signal resulting from the vibration of strings over a pickup. The most common type of pickup is a magnet surrounded by a coil of fine wire that generates very small electrical impulses as the metal string vibrates within its magnetic field. This tiny electrical impulse is then boosted by a separate amplifier to drive a speaker and make sound. Since the string and pickup are all that's necessary to make the signal, electric guitars don't need a resonating body; they can be solid wood or even plastic. But the materials solidbody guitars are made of has a definitive effect on their tone.
#Four types of electric guitars
Aside from solidbody electric guitars, there are hollowbody, semi-hollowbody, and chambered electric guitars. Though the primary tone is still produced by the action of the strings over magnetic pickups, the resonating chambers on these guitars produce a fuller sound preferred by some players.
- Solidbody electric guitars have no acoustic restrictions and can take any form from little more than a neck and pickups to wild pointy designs. Almost every style of modern music has been played on the solidbody electric guitar.
- Hollowbody electric guitars typically feature arched tops and are more likely to have feedback troubles when played at very high volume. These guitars are favored by jazz guitarists for their full, round tone with robust bass response.
- Semi-hollowbody guitars each have a solid wood center (to avoid feedback issues) and large chambers—usually with soundholes—on either side. There is a huge range of semi-hollowbody guitars used for every kind of music from mellow jazz to pounding punk.
- Chambered guitars each have sealed cavities carved out within the solid body. Many traditional solidbody guitars have spun off chambered versions built for lighter weight and greater resonance.
#Electric guitar scale length
Scale length is the length of string between the bridge and the head nut—the part that vibrates freely when plucked open.
- 25-1/2" is the scale length of most Fender guitars and was taken originally from the standard scale length for steel-string acoustic guitars. This scale length provides high tension and thus a more trebly sound. Since it's slightly more difficult to play guitars of this scale, it is common for guitarists to use lighter strings on 25-1/2"-scale instruments. The most famous guitars in this scale length are the Fender Telecaster and the Fender Stratocaster. Both have been made continuously since the 1950s and have been copied widely. There are also Squier versions of both. Other major manufacturers of 25-1/2"-scale guitars include ESP, Ibanez, Jackson, LTD, Parker, Schecter, and Steinberger, among others.
- 24-3/4" is the scale length of most Gibson guitars. Since it requires lower string tension, this scale length is slightly easier to play and produces a less trebly sound. Typically, this scale of guitar is strung with slightly heavier strings, which adds to the bass response and generates greater output from the pickups. The most famous 24-3/4"-scale guitars are the Gibson Les Paul, Gibson SG, Gibson Flying V, and the Gibson ES-335. Like the most-famous Fender models, these have all been in continuous production since the '50s (with the exception of the Flying V) and are available in more affordable versions from Epiphone. Among other makers, Dean commonly uses the 24-3/4" scale.
- Some makers use other scale lengths.
#Electric guitar pickups
There are three basic types of electric guitar pickups. There are guitars available with any and every combination of these types of pickups onboard.
- Single-coil pickups feature a single magnetic bar that is wrapped in fine wire and mounted beneath and perpendicular to the strings. The fine wire is what picks up the signal and sends it out of the guitar. Single-coil pickups were the earliest of the three most common pickups. They produce a bright, cutting tone rich in higher harmonics. The simplest versions—still found on many guitars and preferred by many players—produce an audible 60-cycle hum when in the presence of certain types of lights, transformers, and other electrical fields
- Humbucker pickups feature two coils wrapped opposite from each other such that they cancel annoying 60-cycle hum. Since the humbucker samples the string in two places—once for each coil—it generates a smoother, rounder tone. And since there are two magnets involved, humbuckers usually generate a more powerful signal, giving the amplifier more to work with. Humbuckers tend to generate more sustain than single-coils but with less note definition and high end. Some humbuckers are available with a coil-tapping control, which allows you to opt to use only a single coil in the pickup, thus generating the characteristic single-coil sound.
- Piezo pickups are made of a non-magnetic crystalline material that generates an extremely weak signal when compressed in the string saddle. This faint signal requires preamplification before it's ready for a normal amplifier. Usually onboard active electronics are used to boost the signal. On electric guitars piezos are typically individual elements incorporated in the string saddle. Some electric guitars with piezos have special 13-pin outputs for synth guitar, in which the guitar's signal triggers purely synthetic tones as on a keyboard. Otherwise, the piezo tone is often used to approximate the sound of an acoustic guitar.
#Electric guitar wiring
The point of mounting pickups at various spots on the guitar's body is to facilitate different kinds of tone. Pickups located near the bridge sample the strings where they have the least overall motion. The result is accentuated treble sounds or "bite." Pickups located nearer the center of the strings—closer to the neck of the guitar—produce a tone characterized by more midrange and bass sounds. There have been hundreds of different wiring schemes for generating different tones from a guitar's pickups, but the following are the most common:
- The blade selector is a flat bar (hence the name) that slides in a slot and usually has five detent positions. (Vintage models and guitars with two pickups often have only three.) In a standard three-pickup configuration, such as that on most Fender Stratocasters, the forward position activates the pickup nearest the neck, the second position activates both the neck and middle pickups, the middle position activates the middle pickup only, the fourth position activates the middle and bridge pickups, and the rear position activates only the bridge pickup. The blade selector is commonly accompanied by a master volume control and two tone knobs that allow you to add or subtract treble tones. The front tone knob controls the neck pickup and the rear tone knob controls both the bridge and middle pickups.
- Guitars featuring only two pickups—such as the Gibson Les Paul, SG, and ES-335—often feature a 3-way toggle switch that selects among neck, both, or bridge pickups. For most such configurations, each pickup has its own independent volume and tone controls that allow you to control the level and treble on each pickup precisely.
#Electric guitar woods
Because the sound of an electric guitar with magnetic pickups comes purely from the interaction of the strings with the pickup, you might wonder why wood is important at all. The reason is that the wood from which a guitar is constructed determines how long the strings vibrate and affects the shape of their motion. A resonant wood also allows the pickup itself to move. The combination of these two types of motion means that a guitar's wood and general construction have a great deal of impact on the tone.
- Maple is generally used to make guitar necks. It is a very dense, hard wood that is not rare and often displays brilliant figuring when milled. It's figuring, its white/blonde color, and its tonal characteristics make it a favorite wood for a veneer or top laminate on more expensive solidbody guitars. It is also found as a top wood in some archtop guitars, where it is usually laminated. Its hardness brings out the trebles in a guitar's sound. It is sometimes used as a fretboard wood where it adds definition to the sound.
- Mahogany is a very dense, strong, but not terribly hard, hardwood used in all parts of guitar manufacture except fretboards and bridges, which require harder wood. A mahogany neck and back is a common combination on short-scale guitars with maple tops such as the Gibson Les Paul. Another common combination is an all-mahogany body and neck (except the fretboard). Since mahogany is not very hard, it tends to emphasize the midrange and bass tones for a mellower guitar sound. Mahogany is a very resonant wood that enhances a guitar's sustain. It is generally a uniform rich brown color.
- Rosewood is the most common wood found on electric guitar fretboards. It is very dense and hard and can be quite beautiful, ranging in color from almost black to variegated brown and blond.
- Ebony is a very hard, dense wood that is used primarily on fretboards of more expensive guitars. It imparts a silky feel to the fretboard and is usually almost entirely black.
- Ash is a common body material in solidbody guitars. It is harder than mahogany and very resonant, imparting both ringing sustain and bright tone with a well-defined midrange. An attractive, blondish wood, it is often used as an alternate for models with see-through finishes when alder would be used for opaque finishes. Swamp ash is a particularly well-figured and beautiful wood used on higher-end guitars.
- Alder possesses similar tonal characteristics to ash but is less costly and not as pretty. It is perhaps the most common body wood on solidbody electric guitars. It is generally light tan in color.
- Agathis is similar to alder in appearance and tonal characteristics, though not quite as resonant. It is commonly found on affordable guitars of recent manufacture.
- Nato, also known as Eastern mahogany, has a warm resonance, is very strong, and is often used in the necks of less expensive electric guitars because it's not as costly as mahogany.
#Electric guitar neck construction
Electric guitar makers use three different methods of attaching the guitar neck to the body:
- Bolt-on necks are attached into a fitted slot in the body by means of three or four wood screws running through the back of the body and into the back of the neck. This method of attaching necks was critical in the development of the electric guitar because it reduced production costs, making electric guitars very affordable. A bolt-on neck can be replaced, adjusted, or repaired with far less skilled labor than is required for other neck types. Most Fender guitars (among many others) employ this neck style, and some of the world's most sought-after vintage guitars feature bolt-on necks.
- The neck on a set neck guitar is glued into the body and sometimes has an extension, called the tenon, which reaches past the fretboard and deeper into the body. This type of neck is used on Gibson guitars (among many others) and produces a very tight neck joint that freely transfers vibration between the body and neck. A set neck is more expensive to fashion and much more difficult to repair or change.
- Neck-through guitars are built around a single column of wood that extends from the tip of the headstock through to the strap button at the tail. This column can either be a single piece or several pieces laminated together side-by-side.
- The "wings" of body wood are glued onto the sides of this central column of wood. Neck-through bodies produce maximum sustain and have the huge advantage of no large heel where the neck meets the body, thus providing the freest access to the higher registers. Neck-through guitars are expensive to manufacture, but there are some amazingly affordable models such as the ESP H-250.
#Electric guitar bridges
|Two-point Rocking Tremolo|
|Wraparound Stop-bar Tailpiece|
|Six-point Rocking Tremolo|
|Brass Barrel Saddles|
The bridge is the part on the body of the guitar over which the strings run before they terminate on the body or tailpiece. Electric guitar bridges are important for two primary reasons. First, they are often used to intonate the strings, varying the string length to compensate for slight differences between the strings (gauge, material, and so on) and assuring that each string remains in tune when fretted on the higher frets. A second, much more fun, feature of some electric guitar bridges and string terminations is that they rock, allowing the player to introduce vibrato into his or her playing by means of wiggling a vibrato arm or whammy bar. The note or notes can be slightly or radically bent down and/or up by rocking the bridge. Bridges which serve this function are often called tremolos. This is musically incorrect (tremolo means a repeating variation in volume, not pitch), but has been used so long it is accepted terminology. Only specific models allow you to pull notes up. Here are the most common types of bridges and string terminations:
- Tune-o-matic bridge—originally developed by Gibson in the 1950s, this is a very common design that allows for individual intonation of strings and overall adjustment of string heights
- The two-point rocking trem, or fulcrum vibrato, features individual string saddles that are adjustable for intonation and height. These are mounted on a bridge that rocks on two bolts in the top of the guitar. The bridge features a broad perpendicular plate that extends through the body of the guitar. This free-floating plate is attached to the inside of the guitar by stretch springs that match the exact tension of the strings. Locking tuners, which clamp down on the string, can make using this type of vibrato much more stable.
- Locking vibrato—This style of bridge was originally designed by Floyd Rose. Like the two-point rocking trem, it provides individual intonation and height adjustments, rocks on two bolts in the top of the guitar, and is spring-loaded. The difference is that it clamps down on the strings and works concomitantly with clamps that lock down the strings at the head nut (over which the strings pass between the tuners and the fretboard). The result is rock-solid tuning for radical use of the vibrato arm. Some guitars, such as Jacksons, feature a route in the wood around this type of vibrato allowing you to stretch the strings and pull the notes way up.
A stopz-bar tailpiece is bolted into the top of the guitar and provides a string terminus that gets maximum resonance from the guitar top. A wraparound stopbar tailpiece
provides fixed compensating ridges and serves as bridge and tailpiece in one. This style delivers perhaps the greatest resonance due to the direct leverage exerted on the top by the strings.
Bigsby is a specific brand of spring-loaded vibrato that appears on many vintage and vintage-style guitars. It is a large, relatively heavy device that includes a rotating bar on which all of the strings attach. Many players like the vintage vibe of a Bigsby.
- Six-point rocking trem—This was the original rocking vibrato designed by Fender in the 1950s. Like the two-point trem, it is through-body, spring-loaded, and provides individual string intonation and height adjustment. Some players feel that because this type of trem rocks on six screws it provides greater vibration transfer to the top and hence better resonance. It is found on vintage and lower-end guitars
- Brass barrel saddles are found on vintage and reissue Fender Telecasters. Many players prefer them over more modern bridge systems because they enhance the bright, twangy tone for which the Telecaster is famous. Three brass bars each support two strings and have small screws to adjust height. Each bar is mounted on a larger, horizontal screw that allows adjustment of intonation in string pairs.
- Trapeze tailpieces are sometimes found on hollowbody guitars, particularly vintage models. This type of string termination swings freely from the tail of the guitar, freeing the top from the leverage of string tension.
- A string-through body allows the strings to run through the body before they cross the bridge. This looks cool and provides extra resonance.
|Trapeze Tailpiece||String-through Body|
Of course 50 years of continuous innovation has created far too many designs in all aspects of electric guitar manufacture to cover here, but this guide should give you a basic framework for understanding what you read as you browse Music123's massive collection of electric guitars.