Buying an Electric Guitar

I got my first guitar some time in the early 80’s. I can no longer recall if it was ’80, ‘81 or even ’82. But I know I had it in ’82. I take that back, by ’82 I had what I consider my first guitar. But truth is, there was a six-month period in there when I had a ¾ scale acoustic which I rapidly outgrew.

I hadn’t wanted an acoustic guitar. I had wanted an electric. At one point, I had wanted an all-black Fender Stratocaster like I’d seen The Edge play on U2 Live at Red Rocks. But I’d also wanted a Gibson Explorer like Dez Dickerson played in the videos for Little Red Corvette and 1999. Those would all post-date my acoustic. So, I’m not sure what I actually wanted instead of an acoustic. But I swore to my parents if I got an electric I’d practice every day, but, alas, it was not to be. An acoustic is what my parents got me, telling me I if did well at my lessons we could think about an electric down the line.

But I didn’t do well at my lessons. Not only was my guitar an acoustic, but it was a nylon string acoustic: a classical guitar. And the neck was beefy! My instructors wanted to teach me fingerpicking and to play while sitting with my left foot propped up on a little stool. It wasn’t rock and roll, even if they did concede to teach me “House of the Rising Sun”.

So, needless to say, the lessons didn’t take and the guitar sat in a closet for years.

It wouldn’t be until 1991 that I got my first electric guitar. A friend of a friend had enlisted and was heading to fight in the Gulf War and was selling his electric guitar and amp for cheap. I was at college in Seattle. If ever there was a time I needed an electric guitar it was then.

Since that time, I have purchased close to twenty electric guitars and borrowed another ten for extended periods. I’ve also read books on maintaining and modifying guitars, the history of certain brands and models and often go to music stores to test drive new and vintage guitars. I have replaced pickups, rewired jacks and done a lot of other crazy experiments with the guitars I’ve owned, from flipping around the control plate making the tone and volume knobs closer, to reversing a pickup so the pairing was no longer in phase. I’ve even had a guitar made for me since I wanted something that didn’t exist. Another reason why i modify all of my guitars is it makes them more identifiable and more recognizable. Should one of my guitars get stolen, it will be easier to describe them to the police and pawn shops and easier for them to spot. Some people believe that the more unique looking a guitar, the more likely it won't be stolen in the first place because it's too easily recognized.

Consequently, I’ve been asked a few times for advice when it comes to buying an electric guitar. For the sake of full disclosure, my opinions have evolved over the years, but I’ll get to that later…

Buying an electric guitar – especially your first electric guitar - can be a daunting task. There’s a lot that can come into play: the body style, is it a solid body or hollow body? The wood, poplar, ash, alder, maple or something more exotic (and expensive). The pickups, single coil or humbuckers. And how many pickups? One, two or three? How many strings? Six, seven, eight, ten or twelve? And then there’s color and price. While there are infinite combinations, the truth is short of having something custom made, it’s highly unlikely there’s a guitar in existence that will be perfect for you right off the shelf. That’s not to say you can’t come close, or that you can’t opt for a guitar that’s versatile and will cover a lot of bases. But short of a vintage, road worn guitar, it’s unlikely you’ll find a guitar where all the working parts are exactly what you want them to be.

The reason being is that it’s impossible to purchase a guitar for yourself without some kind of pre-conceived notion of what you want. The guitars I remember wanting first are guitars I saw somebody playing and I either liked the sound they were making, or I liked how they looked, or both. Either way, you’re interested in the guitar either because you’ve heard or seen someone play it already.

When I purchased my first “real” electric guitar, a Mexican Fender Telecaster (which I still have), I purchased it because Tom Petty, Keith Richards, Bruce Springsteen, Chrissie Hynde and a host of other guitarists I admired played one. And to me at the time, that was the sound of Rock and Roll. I remember getting it home and plugging it into my amp and feeling like I was finally hearing the sound I wanted.

Choosing a guitar by how it sounds is probably the most common way of selecting a guitar. Want to sound like Hendrix or Stevie Ray Vaughn? You want a Fender Stratocaster. Want to sound like Jimmy Page or Slash? You’ll need a Gibson Les Paul. Or perhaps you like the jangle of the 60’s and need a Rickenbacker. If you’re more alternative, a Jazzmaster or Jaguar might be the ticket. Plan on being a shredder? Try a Dean, an Ibanez or an ESP. Want the great rockabilly sound of the ‘50’s? Get yourself a Gretsch.

The other reason this is the most common practice for people purchasing a guitar is that ultimately what they’re after is a sound or tone. It’s what they’re going to respond to immediately. They plug it in, play a chord and perhaps like the clarity or sustain. or they like the crunch and the bite. The body style and materials might all play a factor, but you’re really listening to the pickups, the electronics and the amp.

The problem, however, is that when you test out an electric guitar you’re testing it through an amplifier at a store. In other words, an amp that likely isn’t the same model, make or brand of amp you own. So, in that regard, the way the sound you heard in the store may not be the sound you hear when you get it home. Unless you’re buying the amp you test drove it on. This is why neither my first electric guitar or amp lasted with me for more than a year. They were great at the time. They made a lot of noise, and there was a novelty to that at first. But as things progressed – as I progressed - their limitations became more and more obvious. The sound wasn’t actually what I wanted. So soon the amp was gone for something better (a Fender Champ I should have held onto) and then eventually the guitar followed suit.

I would eventually buy a second guitar. A budget friendly Gibson called a Sonnex. It was heavier and beefier and offered a much different sound to the twang, brightness and clarity of the telecaster. It was fun for a while, but there was something about it that didn’t quite work for me. Perhaps it was the weight. Perhaps it was the wrap around style bridge. Or the Humbucker style pick-ups. Bottom line, it wasn’t the guitar for me.

After almost a decade of playing electric guitars I purchased my first semi-hollow electric guitar. These guitar bodies have chambers, as opposed to being a solid chunk of wood. While the solid body offers more sustain (especially with certain types of wood), it also adds to the weight of the guitar. Full hollow bodies – which are essentially an acoustic guitar with a pickup, however, can be too resonate and prone to feedback. So, the semi-hollow body split the difference for me nicely. Although I didn’t know it at the time, my first semi-hollow body would become my favorite guitar. I would also discover a certain aspect of it which would guide the way I buy guitars today.

The guitar in question is a Gretsch Sparkle Jet which were made for a year or two in the late 1990’s and early 2000’s. There’s a lot of confusion about these guitars to this day because some had headstocks that read “Synchromatic” while others read “Electromatic” while otherwise being indistinguishable. Synchromatics cost a couple hundred dollars more and typically had a Bigsby vibrato system on them, although there were some Electromatics, albeit rare, with a Bigsby. And not all Synchromatics had a Bigsby. To further confuse things, even though the Synchromatic was the more expensive line at the time, it eventually died out, while the Electromatic line remains to this day. So many assume the Synchromatic is the lesser of guitars as the line no longer exists.

In the following years, I would buy an array of guitars: a budget friendly Gretsch, A Japanese SG knock off, an Epiphone Casino, a Gretsch Electromatic, another Epiphone Casino, a Stratocaster, a professional's’ player Gretsch and an Orpheum Steel resonator.

But I’d also do many modifications to the guitars I owned. My Mexican Telecaster bears little resemblance to the guitar I bought in the ‘90’s. After realizing the guitar would stay in tune better if the strings went through the body instead of the back end of the bridge plate I drilled the necessary holes. I’d later replace the plastic nut with one made of bone, and attach a Hipshot b-Bender to it. The pickups, however, remain the same, as in the ‘90’s in Mexico they could use different ore to wind the pickups which result in them being much hotter than their American counterparts. For as cheap a guitar as she was when I bought her, and for all the cosmetic changes and damage I’ve done to her over the years, she still sounds and plays great.

My Sparkle Jet would also see a number of mods. The original pickups weren’t all that great, so I pulled them, replacing the bridge pickup with a Seymour Duncan Dynasonic and the neck pickup with a Lollar P-90. While the original pickups were humbuckers I tend to favor single coils and the mix of the two provides me a lot of tonal variety. I also replaced the tune-o-matic bridge with a Compton bridge which helped stabilized the tuning and added sustain.

Making these modifications wasn’t always cheap. Especially as I realized I was getting in over my head. I also realized that after certain modifications the guitar would need a professional set up and it’d just be cheaper to have someone do the mods and the set up.

As I said before, short of having a custom guitar built, it’s unlikely a guitar straight off the shelf is going to be the exact guitar you want. Some mods are simple like different gauge strings, while replacing the tone or volume knobs, pickguard, truss cover or tail piece are often cosmetic, just so your guitar doesn’t look exactly like all the others you saw at the store.

But others can range from tweaking the poles in your pickups, or adjusting their height, or changing the action. To replacing the pickups or bridge completely. Or in extreme cases even the neck of the guitar.

There are two lines of thought about guitar modifications. One camp believes that all original or stock guitars appreciate more than modified, non-original guitars, and this is definitely true of the guitars of the 50’s, 60’s and 70’s. But in the 80’s many guitar manufacturers made cutbacks and the quality of their brands went down. This gave rise to after market parts, which many guitarists used to enhance their guitars. So, while it’s true certain guitars have and will appreciate better if they remain untouched and original, not all guitars will. And considering a guitar as an investment does little towards making it playable or a useful tool. Just playing live, under hot lights, while sweating in a smoky bar will cause some wear and tear on your guitar, and unfortunately, accidents are inevitable. My Mexican Telecaster has been dropped more times than I care to remember, but the dings, nicks and cracks give her a nice character I’ve come to appreciate in retrospect.

Keith Richards go-to guitar, a 1953 Fender Telecaster known as “Micawber” has been heavily modified over the years. John Lennon had the varnish on his Epiphone Casino sanded off with the intent of repainting it, but decided he unfinished guitar had a “more woodsy” tone which he preferred. And there’s a reason Eddie Van Halen’s guitar is known as “Frankenstrat”. Guitar modifications are so common that every guitar manufacturer offers “artist series” guitars so consumers can purchase a replica of their heroes’ guitar. From Brad Paisley to Slash, from David Gilmour to David Murray. All have signature models.

Because of all my experimentation and research, my brother asked me to help his in-laws buy an electric guitar for their daughter. I spent an hour at Guitar Center putting every imaginable guitar within their price range into her hand. She test drove them all on the same amp with the same “clean” setting so she could hear the differences that all the guitars had to offer, and then I left for a meeting. My brother later informed me that he’d convinced his in-laws to buy a Gibson Les Paul that was twice their original target price because it was the best sounding guitar and would appreciate in value. The fallacy of this is that it being the best sounding guitar is his opinion. The second fallacy is that he’s 6’2” and weighs nearly 200 pounds while she was half that weight and 5’5” and the average Les Paul weighs between 12 and 13 pounds.

While I’m sure she still owns that guitar, I doubt she plays it often. It never seemed like the right guitar for the music she was writing (I thought an Epiphone Casino or something similar made more sense) and there are plenty of male guitarists who find it uncomfortable to play a Les Paul for an entire concert. As good as the guitar may have sounded, it’s not the most playable guitar for her.

It was my Orpheum resonator, though, that brought this fact into relief for me. I love the sound of resonator guitars, and had been wanting one for ages. I even had a Fishman pickup installed in it so I could play through an amplifier and use it for recording. But as much as I loved the sound of the guitar, there was something about the neck that never sat right with me. There was something about it that made it uncomfortable. Necks come in a variety of profiles, U, C, D and V. I never checked, but I suspect it was a U. All my other guitars are either C’s or D’s. meaning they have a rounder and more shallow profile.

I had hoped that if I kept it at my office I would play it more and get more use out of it than just the occasional recording, but even when I had downtime at work I didn’t pick it up. It just lacked playability. And even when I forced myself to sit down and play it, it lacked a comfort which I couldn’t get over. So eventually I realized it needed to go. What was the point of owning a guitar I avoided playing?

So, I took it into my local guitar store for a trade in. And while there I stumbled upon a Gretsch Center Block guitar. Like the Sparkle Jet, the Epiphone Casino and a different Gretsch Electromatic I’d once owned, all the guitars were built in Korea and all of them had the exact same neck profile. Like those others before, the Center Block felt good in my hand. And this is when I realized what I’d already knew, but hadn’t made conscious. If the guitar isn’t comfortable to play, you’re not going to play it, despite how good it may sound. And the guitar that’s the most comfortable to play is likely the one you’re going to not only practice on, but be inspired by when writing music. I’ll pick up a guitar and noodle around on it but after a while I’ll discover a riff or chord progression I like. From there I’ll plug into an amp to see what it really sounds like. Then maybe I’ll be inspired to add an effect pedal or two and before long I’ll have the germination of a song and how I think it should sound. But this doesn’t happen on an uncomfortable guitar. Uncomfortable guitars get put away long before you discover a cool riff.

So, despite conventional wisdom. I’ve come to realize that playability and comfort are what really matters. The weight of the guitar, it’s neck profile. Everything else can be changed. These days there’s most certainly better pickups available than the stock ones in a guitar off the shelf. And while such modifications aren’t cheap, the truth of the matter is the longer you play guitar, the more you’re going to discover what you do and don’t like. The more you’re going to hone in on what you want to sound like. Invariably you’re going to discover that the sound you thought you wanted isn’t exactly the sound you want, and some modification is necessary. I don’t know any guitarist who hasn’t done some sort of modification to their guitar. Getting a guitar that is comfortable and that you enjoy playing will ultimately serve you better in the long run than a guitar that sounds great, but isn’t as comfortable.