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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 merely casual enjoyment for a semester (or if you're really poor!). Do you need to be amplified for church or stage? If so, an acoustic-electric will afford maximize versatility. Before shopping, decide on a budget so the dealer can show you guitars in your price range.
Finding a Dealer
Go to a guitar dealer. Besides carrying more models than a regular music store, they have guitarists on staff 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 books and accessories. A good dealer will keep your best interests in mind as they want your repeat business and referrals. Check the list below for recommended dealers.
Takamine G340 One of the best inexpensive acoustics available
Trying Out a Guitar
Obviously, playability and sound differ between guitar models and brands. However, even individual instruments of the same make and model may differ considerably. Thus, the best way to select a guitar is to examine and play several models in your price range one after the other. It is helpful to bring an experienced friend to help you judge the construction, playing ease, intonation and sound quality (a good salesmen should be able to play for you as well). Learn from opinions that differ from yours. However, individual musicians value different things so you must be 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--the action--also influences playing ease. The 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, the action can be adjusted to suit your needs. If you are a steel-string player, remember that classical action is higher than steel-string action due to nylon's lower tension.
Takamine ETN40C NEX Cedar is known for its warm and woody tone
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. A darker more woody sounding guitar may be preferred by finger-style soloists and jazz players. Brighter guitars are often coveted by strummers needing to stand out in a dense praise band mix.
Play single notes throughout the guitar's range and listen to how they sustain. Listen to the relationship of the bass notes to the treble. The bass should be firm with a long sustain but not overwhelm the treble strings. Play full voiced chords and judge balance and clarity. Finally, have someone play the instrument so you can judge 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.
Takamine EG544CK NEX Hawaiian Koa NEX Guitar
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 greatly 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. However, in all fairness, you normally get what you pay for. Budget guitars cost less because cheap 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 turning heads are relatively easy and inexpensive to replace.
Takamine T50th Anniversary The tuning heads on this $10,000 50th Anniversary model turn pretty dad burn smooth...
Soundboard and bridge checks are essential when buying used instruments. The strings exert 75 to 150 pounds of stress on the bridge and soundboard of a classic guitar, and 150 to 200 pounds on a steel-string. 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.
Professional guitarists often play instruments handcrafted in custom shops. Depending on the maker's reputation and materials, these guitars cost $3,000 to $20,000. Quality production line instruments such as Takamine, Almansa, and Taylor cost from $600 to $5000. For the typical beginner 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. Really 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 very little maintenance. However, a little 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 the 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 will damage the delicate soundboard bracing.
- Wipe your guitar off with a micro fiber or soft cotton cloth after playing. Clean and polish your guitar occasionally with a light polish such as Martin Guitar Polish. Avoid heavy paste waxes as they eventually build up into a thick, vibration muffling coating.
- Check preamp batteries monthly. A leaking battery can quickly destroy battery contacts and circuit boards. Never leave a battery in a guitar when being stored for extended periods.
Finally, change your strings periodically. While old dead strings won't harm your guitar, worn strings reduce your enjoyment factor, are out of tune and make the most expensive tone laden instrument sound like it was made from cactus wood and cardboard.
Enjoy your new guitar!
Budget Quality $100-250
Takamine G124 (classic)
Good Quality $251-499
Takamine G128S (classic)
Takamine EG340SC (steel/acoustic-electric)
Takamine EG124C (classic/acoustic-electric)
High Quality $500-1000
Takamine C132S (classic)
Premium Quality $1001-2500
Takamine TC132SC (classic/acoustic-electric)
Takamine TNV460SC (steel/acoustic-electric)
Hirade H5 (classic)
D'Addario Phosphor Bronze EJ16, Light .012-.053
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)
8/1/1998 Revised 10/18/2012
©Copyright 1998-2012 by Peter Kun Frary • All rights reserved
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