Regardless of whether you are playing just for fun or planning your future on it, playing is fun. I always call my gear my toys, because there is joy in using it. It may be a lot of work, and sometimes frustrating, but playing always has the fun factor and it is inevitable that you will have a special bond with your instrument, especially with your guitar. For me personally, I prefer certain strings, straps, cables etc., but I especially love my guitars and my amp. How to choose the right ones though? There are so many of them! I wanted to put together this article, to share my process of decision making and research and a few links that I find helpful. As there are too many parameters and variables, gathering everything in one document might be too much. So there will be a forum post related to this, and I would love to hear your opinions and questions related to how you choose your gear.
The first thing to keep in mind is, it doesn’t matter who thinks what about certain gear, it is a matter of taste. You should always try the gear and make your own judgment.
This article is mostly for beginners, who don’t have much experience with electric guitars. The number of parameters may be frustrating at first, but hopefully this article will be helpful to some of you.
How many frets?
There are many guitars with 22 frets, and almost that many with 24 frets. If you look for it, you can easily find 27-28 fret guitars. If you are going for a 28 fret guitar, you probably don’t need this article Among the most common 22 and 24 fret guitars, does the extra 2 frets and the 2 notes that you can’t play with a 22 fret guitar make that much of a difference? Well, especially if you are playing covers, and would like to stick to the way they are originally playing the songs, if they are playing a 24 fret guitar and using those extra frets, then it is a good idea to consider it. Not all 24 fret guitars are created equal though. The ease of access is very much different in different body and neck styles. So you have to play and try it yourself to see how easy it is for your hands to play those frets.
My first few guitars were all 22 frets. It wasn’t very inconvenient for me. If there was a solo requiring those extra 2 frets, I would substitute it either with a bended note or another note within the scale. At the moment all the guitars I am playing or planning to get have 24 frets. Even now though, if I see a guitar that meets my needs and wishes in all other aspects except for the number of frets, it wouldn’t be a deal breaker.
The majority of the guitars that you will find will fall into 25-1/2”, 24-3/4” or 26-1/2” scale length category. This is the length from the nut to the bridge of the guitar. Depending on your hand size, you may be comfortable with one of these scale lengths than the others. A longer scale length means a little bit more stretch on your left hand, but I don’t find it asto be an impossible task. I have guitars in all these 3 scale lengths. And I have to admit, after playing a 26-1/2” scale guitar, switching to 25-1/2” feels like a relief for my left hand, but I would still get another 26-1/2” if something happens to it.
Scale length also affects the tone. Shorter scales have a warmer sound, longer scales will create brighter tones. The scale length will also determine the gauge of strings you will be using to obtain a certain string tension. When you use the same gauge with different scale lengths, if you try to tune the guitars with the same tuning, the shorter scale guitar will result in looser strings. If they get too loose, or if you prefer to have strings with higher tension, then you will need to increase the gauge for the short scale, which will also change the tone. There is a tool I like to use to determine what gauge of string is better for a specific tuning and scale length: String Tension Calculator. If you are going for standard tuning you will probably not need to use such a tool, but it is a good reference which shows the correlation between scale length, string gauge and tuning.
Type of Bridge
There are basically two types of bridges on electric guitars. Fixed and tremolo bridge. If you would like to get more information on the bridge types, here is a link on Wikipedia. And if you Google it you can find more detailed information.
Tremolo bridges allow you to change the tension of a string by using a bar, which is generally referred to as a tremolo, whammy or vibrato bar. They come with with some pros and cons. If you have a locking vibrato system (which means there is a locking mechanism on the nut, which allows the strings to stay in tune even after you change the tension of the strings a lot with the bar) you can use the bar for some real fancy tricks. It comes with a cost though. The biggest disadvantage that a tremolo bridge brings is the difficulty in setting up the guitar. Especially if you are changing string gauges or the tuning on your guitar, you need to spend more time to set up the guitar, tune it and work on the intonation. The reason is that the tension of every string affects all the other strings (as the bridge is floating, it moves altogether). So when you tune a string, all others will be affected by it. It is not a super difficult task, but it requires some patience.
If you plan on using different tunings on the same guitar, like play a few songs in standard tuning and play some in Drop-D tuning, then a tremolo bridge will take too long to switch. It definitely wouldn’t be practical for live performance and I would recommend a fixed bridge guitar in this case. I started with fixed bridge guitars. Right now I have both. I am using more and more vibrato bar, so my main guitars have the vibrato system. Especially for stage or tour however, I like to have a guitar with fixed bridge as a spare guitar.
To be able to move the bridge up and down with a bar, tremolo bridges need not to have full contact with the guitar’s body, they need to be suspended. Some people believe that because the contact of the strings to the wood is minimized by using a tremolo bridge, the sound that you can create changes. This is a claim that is hard to measure and quantify. As there are many variables affecting the sound, you can still find a combination that will create a sound that you like with a guitar with a tremolo bridge.
Ah! When it comes to physical appearance, the options are limitless! And one of the major visual things is the shape of a guitar. Not all of them are as ergonomic as the others, but they sure may look cool! And you gotta love how you feel with the guitar. I am not going to list different shapes here, there are so many and it is very much a matter of taste. As long as the ergonomics of a guitar is good enough for you to play standing up, sitting down (you will probably need to sit down during the long hours of practicing), the way your arm and hands sit on the guitar feels good and you have the proper means of transportation, go as crazy as you can 😉 (Are you using the bus to go to a rehearsal? Do take that into consideration! Some guitars like V-shaped guitars generally require hard cases and it may be harder to carry them around due to its shape)
When you try out different guitars, you may notice that some of the necks feel more comfortable than others. Necks may differ not only in the wood they are made of, but also in shape and thickness as well. The most commonly used neck profiles are C-shape, D-shape and V-shape. They change the way your hand sits on the neck and it is totally a matter of personal choice. Also thinner necks (some manufacturers use the term “slim”) claim to be better for faster playing. Personally, I believe that more than the thickness of the neck, how comfortably your hands sit on the neck is important in how fast you can play. You should try out different neck profiles and decide for yourself which one you like most.
Hunting for the right sound
This is the trickiest part in selecting gear because there are so many things affecting the sound. From the wood of the guitar, to the strings, from the pickups to the amp. Even the room you are playing in! When you search on the internet about reviews on a certain type of guitar or pickup etc, you can find a lot of videos. Frankly, I think unless it is a controlled experiment where they are changing only one variable, most of the comparisons are not really on the target. When you compare two totally different guitars, how can you be sure that the difference in sound is coming from the change in wood but not the different pickups? To compare different pickups, for example, the right way would be to use the same guitar to eliminate the effect of the wood, the same amp and change only the pickups, which would require rewiring. To compare different sets of strings, again the proper way is to use the same guitar, which requires restringing. As you can see, these are not just plug and play comparisons, and require some time. So even though the comparison videos and audio samples might be helpful, the online research will only give you a general idea. It is always a smart move to actually go and try out the guitars that you are considering to buy.
For the sake of keeping this article short (!), I will mention only the wood of the guitar, a property which cannot be modified after.
Wood and sound
There are different schools of thought when it comes to the effect of wood type on the sound. Some think that it is one of the biggest factors, some not. The truth is, there seems to be no scientific research on how different wood species affect the tone of solid-body electric guitars. Regardless, wood is the one of main features of a guitar so I am going to include it as part of this article.
The wood types most commonly used in a guitar body are mahogany, alder, maple, swamp ash and basswood. Every wood has different characteristics. Mahogany is said to have a warm sound, whereas alder stands between warm and bright. Basswood has a smooth and dark sound whereas maple and swamp ash are on the brighter side of the spectrum. This is all information I found when I did research for my gear and it is very much subjective. As I mentioned earlier, these descriptions are not the result of proper research. To make things more complicated, not all wood is created equal. Every individual tree is different. Also, manufacturers use trees from very different parts of the world, and even though they are named the same in the catalog, they may be different species and they will probably have very different characteristics. If you would like to do a little bit more reading on the wood types used in guitar building, www.eguitarplans.com is a pretty cool site. Selecting_Guitar_Wood.pdf gives a summary of most commonly used wood types.
Wood and Weight
Other than the sound, different wood also has different densities, which affects the weight of the guitar. This may not be a big deal depending on your size, but it is something you should consider if you don’t want to injure yourself playing a very heavy guitar on stage for a couple of hours and messing up your neck and shoulders. I think weight is a very important factor in selecting a guitar. You can work on changing the sound but there is only very limited things you can do to make the guitar feel lighter on your shoulders. The good thing is though, you don’t need to cross off heavy woods from your list just because of that. Here is why: Generally, electric guitars have solid bodies. However, they can also be chambered or weight relieved. Below is an example of chambered and weight relieved (may also be referred as Swiss Cheese) guitar bodies. (I don’t own the copyright to this image, and I couldn’t find the owner. If anyone knows who it belongs to, let me know please!)
These types of modifications to the wood make a huge difference to its weight. Even though this is not always advertised (it is a turn off for some musicians), I read that there are more weight relieved guitars than it is thought. I did use weight relieved guitars, and I absolutely love the weight advantage it brings. They claim the tone of the wood and the sustain of the sound it is creating doesn’t change “that” much as the bulk of the wood is there. How much does it affect? It is almost impossible to measure that difference. So if you like the sound of the guitar as is, who cares if they put holes in the body to make it lighter?
As I mentioned before, when it comes to the relation between wood and sound, you should always take others’ observations and comments with a grain of salt. They are very subjective and the trees/woods used will be quite different from one guitar to another. You can always change the pickups, which has definitely more effect on the tone of a guitar.
Thanks to internet, you can do a lot of research online before hitting the store. There are a couple of sites that I find helpful when it comes to reading reviews of other guitar players. There are many of them! Below are just a few that I have been using for years:
http://www.sevenstring.org/forum/ (Even though this site has started to be dedicated for mainly 7 string guitars, they have discussions for 6 string guitars as well)
Frankly, I wasn’t planning to have this article this long. And there is a lot more stuff that can be added under this subject. There will definitely be a forum topic and tons of subtopics related to this subject. I hope to hear your feedback, opinions, and experience on it!
Written by: Metal Piggy