Buying Your First Electric Guitar

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Buying Your First Electric Guitar

When you decide you want to buy an electric guitar, you walk into your local music store. Right in front are row upon rows of gleaming, sparkly, brand new electric guitars. You are presented with so many choices that it overwhelm you. Knowing a few basics about the electric guitar will make the decision process much easier. Let's take a look at some essential guidelines.

Woods & Body Types

To a tone connoisseur, woods matter a lot. Where guitar bodies are concerned to an average player, it’s just a piece to support the hardware and pickups! However, woods are essential to your tone of your guitar especially in the Body. Here are a few examples.

(When mention bright or dark in this case, it’s referring to the tone)

Low to entry Level Woods (found on budget guitars)

    * Agathis - Known as commercial grade mahogany. it has tonal properties of mahogany but definitely inferior to mahogany.
    * Hardwood- or just plywood. Found on low-level squier strats. Inferior to Agathis as a tonewood.
    * Basswood- A fragile, light wood, damaged easily. Can also be considered as a mid-level wood. It has a warm bassy tone as implied in its name. Used mainly for rock, metal guitars.

Medium-Entry Woods

    * Alder- Produces a full sound, commonly found on strats, lightweight. (similar woods: Poplar.)
    * Ash- There is swamp ash and Hard Ash. Swamp ash is a very light wood, commonly found on strats, some say its like a balance between Maple and Mahogany. (one very bright and the other warm.) Hard ash has a bright tone and good sustain.
    * Maple- Maple has a very bright tone, comes in quilted and flamed versions.
    * Mahogany- The sound is warm and full with good sustain.

High-End woods

    * Walnut- It is a very attractive wood and has a similar sound to maple but not as bright. It is quite a heavy wood.
    * Rosewood- More commonly found on Fretboards than guitar bodies. Rosewood is an extremely heavy wood and Rosewood bodied guitars are very rare. Not as bright as maple and possess a very dark color.

There are many kinds of electric-guitar bodies. These days, most of them are solid-bodies, which are guitars carved out of a solid piece of wood, or sometimes several pieces that are laminated together

A Fender Telecaster, for example, is usually just a single piece of ash or alder wood, with a maple neck that is bolted on to the body. This simple use of hardwoods contributes to the bright sound these guitars are famous for, especially when combined with single-coil pickups.

Les Pauls, on the other hand, are more complicated, usually having a mahogany body with a maple top and a mahogany neck that's glued in place. This creates the Paul's distinctively fat and warm sound. Sometimes you also run into bodies made of basswood, a beefy-sounding wood often used for Ibanez and other super-Strat guitars (i.e., Strat-style bodies with humbuckers, tremolos, and 22- or 24-fret fingerboards).

There are also semi-hollow bodies, typified by the Gibson ES-335, which is an electric with a block of maple running through the center of the body but then has hollow wings above and below it. This creates a more acoustic-like sound than a regular solid body. A full hollow-body is essentially an acoustic guitar with pickups. Inside its cavity are no solid pieces of wood, but instead a series of braces that keep the top, back, and sides of the box together.

Finally, some guitars have sound chambers, which are routed-out cavities inside solid-bodies that create more resonance and a slightly warmer, more acoustic-like tone - though not as much as a good semi-hollow electric

Tone & Pickups

First off, think about the great guitarists whom you admire and whose tone you'd like to emulate. Though there's no tone like your own, another player's sound provides a great starting point. With that in mind, let's go to the actual tone-producing hardware: pickups.

Generally, you have two pickup choices:

   1. Single-coil (such as those characterized by Fender Stratocasters)
   2. Humbuckers (characterized by Gibson Les Pauls).

Single-coils have that thinner, twangy sound. Due to their more focused magnetic energy. However, single-coils have a lower output than a humbucker and may not provide that much gain. Very suitable for funk and almost anything, but is often favored by fans of blues-rock, country, and roots-rock (it all depends on the specific pickup and your amp.)

Humbuckers are simply double coil pickups. Have a fatter, warmer tone and are often favored by hard rock, metal players and jazzers. They have a stronger mid and treble than single-coil and are hotter i.e more gain and output, sound generally thicker than single coils, can be very hard to cut through instruments in a gig compared to a single coil......great for hard rock and metal.But there are no strict guidelines; you can play jazz with single-coils and country with humbuckers. Use your ears here, and know the difference.

Now let's talk about specific sounds. For example, if you want a funky single-coil tone more like Stevie Ray Vaughan, start with a Strat. (You'll also want a Stratocaster if you're trying to emulate Jimi Hendrix (in fact, Fender produces an upside-down Strat if you really want to take the Jimi challenge). If you're more into the fat tones of early Eric Clapton, Carlos Santana, or, say, Soundgarden's Kim Thayil, try a Les Paul or other mahogany-bodied guitar with humbuckers. Another popular pickup choice these days is the P90.

P-90 soapbars
Basically Gibson's version of a single-coil pickup. It is often found on old vintage electrics, or new retro models that seek to recreate that vintage tone and look. It's size is somewhere in between a humbucker and single coil. Warmer than a single coil but still as twangy.

Stacked pickups
Stacked pickups are actually humbuckers in a single-coil size. Some actually sound as bright as a single coil with the ability to cut through instruments but with the heat of a humbucker. Others such as the Seymour Duncan hot-rails have humbucker-like tones and are just there for guitarists who want a humbucker-like tone and sound on a single coil guitar. But some are just simply provide a humbucker tone in a single-coil slot.

Be aware, however, that good tone is really created by a combination of pickups, body wood, and your individual technique, not to mention your choice of amplifier and effects. So if you buy a Jimmy Page Les Paul, I'm afraid you're still going to have to spend some time practicing. There's no magic bullet here. Pickups are just one piece of that larger tone puzzle.

Neck & Fingerboard

Necks and fingerboards are as different and varied as bodies. With rare exception, though, necks are made out of mahogany or maple. Maple is mostly found on bolt-ons and mahogany is mostly found on set-necks. However, some necks have a very rounded back and are somewhat "fat" feeling, while others can have a V-shape in the back that fits into the palm of your hand. Ibanez and Jackson, as well as other hard-rock guitars, frequently have thin, tapered necks make for fast playing. See what fits your hand and your technique best.

Bolt-on Necks- Bolt-ons can be found on budget guitars to top-of-the-line ones. Almost all Fenders have bolt-ons. Bolt-on meaning the neck is joint to the body by screws or bolts. One tip-necks with only three bolts have lesser sustain than necks with four bolts or more, commonly found on 70's style strats. Check the tightness of the bolts, as loose bolts means less sustain.

Set Neck- Which actually means it’s a glued in neck. Found commonly on Les Pauls, it has more sustain than a typical bolt-on neck. When buying a guitar, check that there are no glue residue on the side of the neck joints.

Neck-Through- Literally means that the neck and the body is one piece. This provides immense sustain and mostly found on expensive guitars.

Fingerboards typically come in three wood types

Maple is a hardwood and is usually lacquered, creating a hard, slick surface to fret on, which many player prefer.
Rosewood is softer to the touch and is common on many Gibson-style guitars. Ebony is a premium wood found on high-end guitars, and is often preferred by pro players for its silky, fast feel.

Scale length
This applies to both the neck and fretboard.
There are four common scale lengths available. 24.75 (Gibson-styled.), 25 (PRS-styled), 25.5 (Fender Styled.), 27 (Baritones meant for downtuning)

My suggestion is that you go and try these scale lengths out for yourself and see which one you prefer. Note that string tension would change on different scale length. Most manufacturers use the tension on strings on a 25.5 scale length for their strings.

Fret ranges go from 21 frets on old-style Stratocasters and Telecasters to 22 frets on most guitars to 24 frets on fast instruments stylized for hard rock playing. It's all a matter of preference (do you need 24 frets?), but some players like a certain fret range. Try them all out.

Controls & Electronics
The pots (dials) on electric guitars come in a number of configurations, but generally control the pickups in similar ways. Every guitar has either one or two volume controls. Strats have one master volume, while many humbucker-fitted guitars have a volume for each pickup. The volume control boosts your output level, which can in turn boost the overdrive to the amp.

Then there's the tone control, which is usually just a passive treble roll-off: set it on 10 to hear more high-end and on 1 for more mids or lows. Some guitars, however, have active tone controls, meaning they're battery powered and capable of more minute tonal changes. If you're just starting out, this feature isn't a necessity. It's a luxury sought by some players.

Finally, if you have more than one pickup, as both Strats and Les Pauls do, then there's also a pickup selector or toggle switch. This is a switch that allows you to turn on one pickup and turn off another, as well as combine them to create different sounds mixes of the pickups. The type and position of a pickup determine its characteristics, so different combinations can greatly vary your tone.

Pickup positions and configurations

   1. Neck pickups  -  Provide a hell lot of mids and bass, Slash loves this pickup and like most mid-rich tones, soloing can have good sustain. On clean, it also works well for jazz especially on a single coil.
   2. Middle Pickup  - Usually a single-coil some guitars have none. This pickup is great for chord strumming to emulate an acoustic tone. Not too bright or bassy. Stevie Ray Vaughan used this pickup quite a bit.
   3. Bridge Pickup  - Screaming pinch harmonics and high-gain. Gigantic sounding riffs, mostly come with a humbucker but Fenders mostly come in single coils. Kirk Hammet and Dimebag Darrel use this for bone-crushing riffs!

Other aspects of electronics include coil splitting, tapping and pickup selection, here I'll explain it.

Pickup Selection- This selects the pickup in use, pickup selectors come in a toggle kind and a blade kind (found mostly on Les Pauls and Strats Respectively.) Most guitar makers won't scrimp on the options but maybe the quality of the selector may be compromised on cheaper guitars.

    * Coil Split- Splits can come in separate switches or can come in with the pickup selector. Coil splitting is essentially isolating the current from one coil of a humbucker to make it sound like a single coil. Mostly found on mid-high end guitars.
    * Coil Taps- Coil Taps increase guitar output and in short make the pickups hotter great if you want to up your gain with less of a hassle in an instant.


    * Stoptail Bridge Teles, some strats and almost all Les Pauls. Known to have better sustain and tuning stability, but it will not be very noticeable to the untrained ear.

    * Vintage Tremolos - Vintage tremolos are basically strat style tremolos. If set-up properly, it can have reasonable tuning stability especially after fierce dive bombs (making the tremolos go down a lot.) Recommended for beginners who want to experiment with a tremolo but without the hassle of floyd roses.

    * Floyd Rose - Floyds mainly come in two kinds, licensed and original floyd. Original floyds are of much higher quality than a licensed. With a floyd, you can dive bomb and bend the tremolo up. However, changing strings and tuning can be a nightmare especially to the beginner.

    * Wilkinsons  - Basically a vintage but much smoother, lesser friction, found mostly on high-end guitars. Wilkinsons come in the floating (can dive bomb and bend up.)
    * Bigsby trem- The good old 50's......that's where the bigsby came from. Tuning stability ain't that great and kinda ancient but still come in some guitars now. Great for country or rockabilly.

One of the main accessories for electric guitars is the tremolo bar or whammy. This bar allows the player to alter pitch by wiggling the bar back and forth. The bar is connected to the bridge, and as it's depressed, the strings start to slack; some bars can also be pulled up, which raises the pitch.

On old guitars, the tremolo bar was meant to be a soft effect, but thanks to innovators like Jimi Hendrix, Jeff Beck, and Eddie Van Halen, players today can make dramatic changes in pitch, such as Van Halen's legendary "divebomb" sound. This innovation was aided by the development of the locking nut, which locks the strings in place where the fretboard meets the headstock. With a locking nut, you won't go out of tune after a deep, multi-octave divebomb.

The trem is not, however, an essential item to have on an electric guitar. They're standard on Strat models, and never present on Les Pauls. If you like the tremolo sound, by all means try one out, but there are plenty of great electric guitarists who do without them and create vibrato with their fingers.
Again, like everything else in the electric guitar universe, it's all a matter of choice.


Use this quick guide to understand the basics, and then go into a guitar store to try out a variety of different axes. Eventually, you'll start to know, hear, and feel just what kind of electric guitar is right for you.

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