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Shopping for a Guitar
Peter Kun Frary, Professor of Music, UH Leeward
What are your goals? Are you anticipating a serious hobby or majoring in music? If so, buy the best solid top guitar you can afford. An inexpensive guitar is a good choice if your goal is casual enjoyment for a semester or so (or if you're poor!). Do you need to be amplified for church or stage? If so, an acoustic-electric classical will afford maximize versatility. Before shopping, decide on a budget so the dealer can show you guitars in your price range.
Hirade TH90 • Acoustic-electric classical guitar
Acoustic-Electric Classical Track • Sons de Carrilhoes performed by Peter Kun Frary on a Hirade TH90 and recorded direct to DAT.
Finding a Dealer
Go to a classic guitar dealer. Besides carrying more models than a regular music store, they have classic guitarists on staff, not rockers or non-players, to help you select the best guitar for your needs. Most importantly, the sales staff can play the guitars while you listen and pick the best sounding one. After the sale, they can make adjustments and repairs and recommend teachers, books and accessories. A good dealer will keep your best interests in mind as they want your repeat business and referrals.
Trying Out a Guitar
Obviously, playability and sound differ between guitar models and brands. However, individual instruments of the same model may differ considerably. Thus, the best way to select a guitar is to play several models in your price range one after the other. If you are a beginner, bring an experienced friend to help judge the construction, playing ease, intonation and sound quality. A good salesmen can play for you if you're short on musician friends. Learn from opinions that differ from yours. However, individual musicians value different things so you are the ultimate judge of your guitar-to-be.
Each guitar is unique in feel due to variations in neck thickness and shape. If the neck is comfortable, the guitar will be easier to play. The string height above the fingerboard--action--also influences playing ease. Action may vary according to personal taste and playing style. High action is difficult to play but allows buzz-free high volume playing. Low action is easy to play but buzzes during aggressive playing. A compromise between the two is best for most players. Fortunately, action can be adjusted to suit your needs. If you are a steel-string player, realize that classical action is higher than steel-string action due to the lower tension of nylon strings.
Listen carefully to the timbre (tone color) of the guitar. A balance between dark and bright is the most versatile. However, timbre preference is subject to taste and playing style. If your right hand technique is on the bright side (long or unkept nails) a dark sounding guitar will help balance your tone. If you play without nails, a brighter guitar will help bring out the upper frequencies.
For solo classical playing, an even balance between bass and treble string volume is preferable. Treble notes must be strong enough to stand out in relation to the bass. The bass should be firm with a long sustain but not overwhelm the trebles.
Play single notes throughout the guitar's range and listen to how they sustain. Treble string sustain should be even among adjacent notes and shorten progressively as you near the 12th fret. Play full voiced chords and judge balance and clarity. If it passes muster, play a classical solo and see if the elements of tone, balance, clarity and playability fit your technique and taste.
Finally, have someone play the instrument so you can judge overall tone and projection.
What's the difference in sound between a $300 guitar and a $3000 one? Budget guitars are less resonate and have a smaller tonal and dynamic range than expensive guitars.
Whether you are a beginning or advanced player, a quality guitar is crucial to your success and enjoyment. A fine instrument is easy to play, exudes workmanship, and sounds resonant and responsive. A quality instrument inspires you to practice and excel as a musician. Buy the best guitar you can afford and it will enhance your learning and enjoyment.
Note the quality of workmanship in the seating and polish of the frets, the binding between the top and sides, and in the finish. In all fairness, you get what you pay for. Budget guitars cost less because cheaper materials and lesser workmanship are used to trim costs. Budget guitars should be playable but will have numerous finish defects, unpolished frets, messy glue joints, unsanded bracing and poorly adjusted action (a good dealer will adjust the action if needed). Premium quality guitars will have a near perfect fit and finish of all components. Even the interior bracing will be neatly glued and sanded smooth.
Before purchasing a guitar, especially a used or budget instrument, confirm that the tuning heads turn smoothly and allow reasonable pitch control. Fortunately, cheap or broken tuning heads are relatively easy and inexpensive to replace.
Ping Classic 2623 • Inexpensive tuning heads
Soundboard and bridge checks are essential when buying used instruments. Strings exert 75 to 90 pounds of stress on the bridge and soundboard of a classic guitar. After a few years--especially in hot, humid climates--structural damage may occur. Check that the soundboard is not warped, and that the bridge is not lifting off.
Gotoh Deluxe Tuning Heads • A little fancier tuning heads (Hirade TH90)
Professional classical guitarists play instruments handcrafted by individual makers, e.g., Fleta, Hauser or Gilbert. Depending on the maker's reputation, these guitars cost $3,000 to $30,000. Guitars made by a specialized group of builders in a small shop cost from $1000 to $12,000 e.g., Ramírez, Hirade or Asturias. For most people these instruments are out of reach.
Most beginners are looking for an inexpensive guitar. Buyer beware: most guitars retailing for under $100 are disappointing junk. Don't throw your money away on an undersized toy, pay a little more and get a real guitar. Cheap guitars have unacceptable compromises in design, materials and construction quality. Fortunately, there are many factory-made guitars costing from $150 to $300 that make fine beginning instruments.
You guitar will only last as long as its next bump, drop, splash or exposure to temperature extremes. Protect your investment by storing and carrying your guitar in a sturdy case. The hardshell case depicted below is the best way to go. A decent quality hardshell case will run you between $100 and $200.
Hardshell cases tend to be heavy and bulky so bikers and hikers may wish to trade some protection for a lighter load. Gig bags are lightweight backback-like cases made of nylon. The average gig bag costs between $25 and $75, with more expensive models sporting thick padding, luggage grade fabrics, metal hardware, pockets galore and ergonomic straps. The fashion conscious plucker can purchase designer gig bags with exotic fabrics and leather. There are even sports and blue collar culture oriented bag designs like Body Glove and Dickies.
Taking Care of Your Guitar
Guitars normally require little maintenance. However, care in handling and storage will protect your investment for many years to come.
- Never expose your guitar to high heat and humidity. For example, don't leave your guitar in a hot car or in direct sunlight. Typical heat damage consists of warped soundboards and unglued (detached) bridges.
- Never lean your guitar on furniture or the wall. The guitar is unstable (the lower bout is round) and can easily fall and be damaged. Always store your guitar in a case or on a guitar stand.
- Wash your hands before playing. Dirt and oil will clog and corrode the strings and diminish considerably the sound and life of your strings.
- Handle the guitar only by the neck. Squeezing the top and body may damage delicate soundboard bracing.
- Wipe your guitar off with a soft cotton or mircofiber cloth after playing. Clean and polish your guitar occasionally with a light polish such as Martin Guitar Polish. Avoid paste waxes as they build up into a thick, vibration muffling coating.
- Check preamp batteries monthly. A leaking battery will quickly destroy battery contacts and circuit boards. Never leave a battery in a guitar when being stored for extended periods.
Finally, change strings periodically. While old dead strings won't harm your guitar, they will reduce your enjoyment factor, have poor intonation and make the most expensive tone laden instrument sound like it was made from cactus wood and cardboard.
Enjoy your new guitar!
Need help changing strings? Check my string changing article.
Recommended Classic Guitars
These models are excellent values in their respective price ranges.
Budget Quality $100-250
Good Quality $251-499
High Quality $500-1000
Premium Quality $1001-2500
*Most popular classic in the USA • Also available in an acoustic-electric version
D'Addario Pro Arté, EJ45 Normal
D'Addario Pro Arté Composite, EJ45C Normal (the best strings made!)
Where to Buy in Honolulu
Frary Classical Guitar 1019 University Avenue No. 7 Honolulu HI 96817 (808) 944-8108 (in Puck's Alley above Greek Corner & Varsity)
7/26/1998 Revised 10/01/2012
©Copyright 1998-2012 by Peter Kun Frary • All rights reserved
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