Advice On Buying A Guitar
People ask me all the time "What brand and model of guitar should I buy?" I cannot
really answer the question, but will gladly beat around the bush for a little while and maybe you will feel better.
First of all, what guitar is best depends on your needs and tastes, and what you plan to do with
it. I drag mine all over the country, and leave them in rental car trunks on hot and cold days, and ship them on
airplanes. I do not like to travel with a rare and precious instrument, and tend to choose newer, replacable ones.
I also play a lot of styles of music, and I try to coax bluegrass, blues, folk, ragtime, celtic and rock & roll
sounds out of a single instrument. For this reason, I tend to favor a large-body instrment with medium-gauge strings.
My Taylor and Larrivee guitars I have been touring with for some time are good all-purpose instruments. If I were
playing only old blues tunes, I might get an old Gibson, or if I played only Celtic instrumental music, I might be
tempted to put a pickup in my little grand concert Larrivee LS-05, which is awful at bluegrass and blues. If I wanted
to play Bluegrass I would likely play a Martin, Gallagher or Collings. My 1974 Gallagher is an astonishing Bluegrass
guitar, and you can compete in volume with a banjo, but you have to play it hard to make it sound good. It does not
respond well to gentle, bare finger playing, and is not much good for folk and celtic music. Some guitars respond
very differently than others when played at different volumes. If you play quietly in the living room, you can get
great pleasure from a guitar that you could never use effectively on stage.
Secondly, the 1990's is an extraordinary time in history to buy a good guitar. You could swing a dead cat in a lot
of music stores and not hit a bad guitar. A lot of the complaints I had about certain brands of guitars a few years
ago have evaporated, and the well-known high-end brands like Martin, Taylor, Larrivee, Santa Cruz, Collings, Bourgeois
and others are all making great guitars. They have improved their intonation, and shaped their necks better, and added
truss rods, for example. Even the lower-priced instruments such as Washburn, Seagull, Yamaha and other Asian imports,
as well as the budget-priced versions many of the top-shelf companies have started making are also really good-sounding
and very playable instruments. In the past, there have been times when the high, middle, or low part of the spectrum
were deficient, but not now. Don't be afraid to look at a really cheap one.
Used guitars are a good thing to buy, as long as there are no obvious or not-so-obvious problems.
If you buy from a reputable dealer, then their price tag and knowledge will reflect these situations, and for the
most part you will get what you pay for. New wood can do unpredictable things, and if the guitar is a few years old
then it is likely that if the wood was going to freak out, it would have done so already. Sometimes tops pull and
necks warp, and frets get worn, but more often than not, people sell perfectly good guitars for less than new ones
would cost. I have a friend who said once "I am getting too old to break in a new guitar. I like to let younger guys do that, so I buy older
instruments." The danger of this is that the playablity, and intonation of modern guitars vastly surpasses what
guitars could do even 20 years ago. You don't see many really serious guitar players playing vintage instruments. Most
of us get better results from new, sleek, well-made modern guitars.
Guitars sound better with age. Period. (Up to a point-- they say that mahogany guitars peak at 25-30 years of age,
and maple and rosewood 35-50 years) This also means that guitar makers who make new guitars sound too good may do so
by making them too fragile for road use. A company that has been around for a long time and has made many thousands
of instruments shipped to all climates will have modified their constuction techniques accordingly, and you will be
more likely to get an instrument that holds up well over time. If you find an instrument made by one of those companies
that really sounds great, then you may have found what you want, since you can be sure that it will improve with age,
and that the warranty will protect you if something goes wrong. If you don't travel much or abuse your guitar, you
can buy one from an individual builder who can make an instrument that sounds unbelievably good, but might be fragile
or have a dangerously thin top or braces.
Which brings us to the last point. Where do you find such instruments? Mail-order and special order are chancy, since
you never know what the instrument is going to sound like. The best method is to play a lot of instruments, and go
to a variety of stores for a period of time, and play everything they have on the wall. When a really great instrument
comes in, it does not stay on the wall long, and it might require a few visits to catch one that just came in. When
a really sweet instrument arrives, a lot of employees and their friends start talking, and somebody will buy it soon.
Making friends with the store, and being a good customer can help you, and possibly you will be one of the ones who
gets a call when something special arrives.
And remember that you can buy one of the greatest guitars on Earth for the cost of a lousy used
car, and that compared to most other instruments, guitars are cheap. Pianos, violins, horns, even banjos and mandolins
cost a lot more than guitars. So don't be afraid to spend some money. You won't regret it. Some of my favorite guitar
moments have been when I brought a really nice guitar to the Greek Islands or riskily hiked up a mountain with it
on my back, and I was so thankful that I did not have a cheap plywood "campfire" guitar in a magical setting.
A cheap guitar can sound great at a beach campfire, but a beauty of a guitar can have a permanent mystical effect
on you or someone else when played in a special outdoor setting. They are tougher than you think. And lastly, don't
be afraid to buy an instrument that is better than you think you deserve. You vote for the company and keep them
making good instruments, and if you don't travel with it or play it much and leave it in the closet, you are giving
a gift to someone in the future (possibly your children...) If there had not been people in 1940 who had bought expensive
guitars and left them under the bed, we would not have those beautiful rare old mint-condition vintage guitars we
all love so much...
Harvey Reid (March 1998)