Buying Your First Electric Guitar – What to Check Out in a Strat Style Guitar

So, you and a buddy who can play (or your Guitar Teacher) are standing in your local Music Shop.  You have come to take a look at a Strat style guitar – choices, choices, choices! Before you came to the shop you will have done some research to home-in on some makes in your price range. In general the quality of budget guitars is very good today thanks to modern computer based manufacturing however there are still a few points you need to look for.

So which one do I check out first. Well the first thing that will probably catch your eye is the colour. Is the colour important? Well it is to you but it will not make the guitar sound any better (but some say red guitars sound the best!). Colour choice is a personal thing – you may like a sunburst  one because your favourite guitar player has one or it’s the colours of the team you support. As just mentioned colour does not affect the sound but it can affect the re-sale value of the guitar – most budget guitars will be a stepping stone to a higher priced model and often you will need to sell your first guitar to be able to afford the new one. “Safe” colours that generally sell well are black or white. Sunburst or red ones (or other “bright” colours) tend to be polarising – that is, you will either love or hate them. All that said, if it don’t like the colour don’t buy it!

Now the first thing you will notice when you pick up the guitar of your choice is its weight. A typical weight will be around 8 pounds (3.5kg) plus or minus a little. There has been a lot of discussion about whether light or heavy guitars sound the best but I won’t get into that other than saying what matters is how the guitar sounds to you.  What is important however is how comfortable is it to play. My personal preference is for lighter guitars as I find them more comfortable to play both sitting down and standing.

The next thing to look out for is how the neck feels in your hand. Necks can come in all shapes and sizes (as do hands!) – they can be “C” shaped, “V” shaped or “U” shaped, wide or narrow, fat or thin. In the budget category manufacturers do a lot of market research to offer you a neck that, to most people, will feel good – not too wide (a typical width at the nut is around 42mm) and not to big in the hand (the “C” shape is a good compromise).  A good tip is to try a few different necks and compare how they feel. Always buys a guitar with a neck that feels right for you.

Starting at the “pointed end” – called the headstock, point the guitar away from you and look down the neck. What you should see is essentially a straight neck with a very slight under curve (called the neck relief – which if measured should be around 0.010″ at the 8th fret but that’s getting a bit technical!). Also the frets should look even – with no high ones. To an inexperienced eye “sighting” a neck can be difficult so again ask a friend who knows what to look for to check it out for you. As you have gone to you local Music Store, they will have checked all the guitars they stock so it’s unlikely you will get a major problem with a new guitar (buying a used guitar can be a different matter though!).

On the headstock there will be six machine (tuning)heads – check that these turn smoothly and easily. Defective machine heads can be a major source of tuning instability. I am continually surprised that the quality of the machine heads on budget guitars is really very good these days but you can get exceptions so check them out.

Moving down the neck we find the “nut” – usually made of hard plastic (but can be bone or metal) with six slots cut in to it to act a as string guide. A badly cut nut can be a major contributor to poor playability and tuning instability since the strings don’t move smoothly and freely through the grooves (they get “pinched” and can stick). A quick and easy check is to gently lift the string out of its slot – it should lift out without catching or sticking.  As an additional check, play each string open (not fretted) and listen for any “rattles” or “buzzing”  – this can be caused by the nut slots being cut too deep and the string is fretting out on the first fret. Again the Music Store should have checked that all is OK but it does no harm to double check.

In the next instalment I will share tips on what to look out for with the fingerboard & frets, electrics and the Tremolo.

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