Buying Equipment FAQ

Jun24

We have tons of articles and advice on buying guitars and equipment. Many of the questions you may be thinking of asking might have already been answered here. On this page you will find the answers to questions asked about different types of equipment. This includes, but is not limited to, guitars, accessories and all of the cool tools that a total guitar freak has to have.

What kind of guitar should I buy (acoustic, electric, classical)?

There are many packaged deals out there, mainly around $300. They generally come with a guitar, amp, picks, strings, gig bag, and all the other little things needed to get you started. The drawback of these is mainly quality. The second choice, if you have the extra money to spend, is to start off with a mid-range ($400 to $500 or so) guitar. This way you won’t have to spend more money for a nicer guitar later on. The drawback to this choice is that you are going to have to buy all those little things mentioned above.

You’ll have to choose between electric and acoustic guitars. There are some differences that need explaining. To find out what they are, read the complete answer What kind of guitar should I buy? Guitar Noise has a lot of information on how to buy equipment. You should definitely browse through those articles if you are not sure about what to buy.

What are some brands I should look for?

Many “no-name” brands are actually, generally speaking, good. A “no-name” brand is a brand that has no brand marking or simply a brand that isn’t “famous”. Then, there are also the famous companies, and there are many to take a look at. Of course you should be the one determining which brand and model is best for your next purchase, but we understand that you might need some guidance.

We’ve got a list of some of the more reputable brands. To find out what they are, read the complete answer What are some brands I should look for? Guitar Noise has a lot of information on how to buy equipment. You should definitely browse through those articles if you are not sure about what to buy.

What are the different types of guitar strings?

I got an email from someone last month on strings for a Vox guitar. Which led to my visiting a site dedicated to Vox instruments and amps and an interesting discussion on strings. Which led to my asking Dan Lasley (for the whatever millionth time) about the difference between round wound and flat wound strings. Which led to Dan forwarding me a URL to a great glossary on strings, on the JustStrings website. Which led to me writing them and getting permission to share a bit with you. This is from the “acoustic guitar” section and deals with two of my favorite types of strings:

  • Phosphor Bronze – longer lasting tone than the 80/20 (Bronze) due to phosphorous content. These strings provide about 80% of the brilliance of a new 80/20 set for a bright, rich tone that’s not excessive.
  • Silk amp; Steel – offers the driving force of steel strings and the soft tonal properties often associated with classical strings. A center wrap of silk fiber provides easier fingering and minimizes the brilliance for a sweeter more mellow tone. Popular with folk guitarists and finger-style players.

JustStrings’ glossary covers almost everything imaginable, for classical guitars to basses, from violins to mandolins. They’ve even got a bit on cryogenic strings. If you want to read the whole glossary (and you should certainly bookmark it for easy referral), visit the JustStrings website.

How much is a good guitar for a beginner?

There are some questions you will have to answer first. Do you want an acoustic, electric or classical (nylon string) guitar? What sort of music do you envision playing? Are you serious about learning to play?

Anyway you choose to answer these questions, a guitar does not need to set you back all that much. You can get a decent one (new or used) for under two hundred dollars. Yamaha, for instance, makes very good guitars at very reasonable prices and they are very durable (mine is over twenty years old now!). And all the “big name” manufacturers (Fender, Guild, Gibson, etc.) also have “off-shoot” companies make very reasonable “cheaper” guitars. When I think of a good, reasonably priced acoustic guitar for a beginner, I almost always think of Yamahas. Mostly because I know a lot of people who still have theirs and they are still very playable.

Buying a new or used guitar can be an emotional ordeal, especially if you haven’t the faintest idea of what you are looking for. This is why it’s important to do a bit of thinking and investigating before even setting foot inside a music shop. It doesn’t matter if it’s going to be your first or fortieth guitar, take a moment to gather your thoughts. For an introduction to buying a guitar read The Rites of Spring. You might also benefit from reading several of the articles on our buying equipment page.

Did I get a good deal?

This is a very subjective question. A guitars worth and value is highly dependent to the one who plays it. Reviews do help, but the final judgment should be made by the one who plays, not by the reviewers. For those of you looking for reviews or thoughts on certain pieces of equipment – guitars, effects, amplifiers, etc. – visit Harmony-Central. Harmony Central is a large collection of user reviews for a large range of equipment for all players. As a word of advice, look in the reviews for technical errors with the product, rather than entirely focusing on the type of sound it can produce.

What is a capo?

A capo is a device that allows you so move the nut of your guitar around. Okay, not really, but if you think of it in those terms you’ll be able to get a lot out of one. Essentially a capo is a strip of hard material (usually rubber or plastic) which is clamped onto the neck of your guitar at a position of your choosing, effectively providing you with a full barre on whatever fret you place it. It is a floating nut, if you will. Capos can look fairly high-tech in spite of their simplicity of function.

A simple capo

You can find more about capos, including how to use one to transpose the key of a song (and make it easier to play), in the article The Underappreciated Art of Using a Capo.

What are jumbo frets?

I hope that I can explain this right…Jumbo frets are a cheaper way of producing what is known as a “scalloped” fretboard. The idea behind this is to make it so that your fingers don’t have to actually press all the way down onto the neck of the guitar, thus allowing you to have a lighter (and therefore (supposedly) faster) touch. What some guitarists would do is to have the fret board slightly dug out (scalloped) between the frets. Putting slightly higher (or “jumbo”) frets is a lot cheaper than having a scalloped fretboard.

But does it help? When you use a guitar with either a scalloped neck or with jumbo frets, you have got to know that your fretboard is now supersensitive to touch. If your finger is not fretting a note precisely, you are going to be a little shaper or flatter than normal. This may not seem like much (and can be compensated for with practice) if you are playing single note leads. But if you are playing chords, well, you can imagine that it’s not going to sound pretty.

Bottom line, if you are already a guitar virtuoso, perhaps jumbo frets might be a new direction for you. If you’re just starting out, it can cause you a lot of grief and you’ll never know why you always sound slightly off.

What’s the difference between Spanish and Hawaiian guitars?

The term “Spanish guitar” is what we nowadays call a “classical guitar.” The guitar as we know it now was developed in Spain close to three hundred years ago. The classical guitar came to America, and later Hawaii, along with the Spanish explorers and sailors. It was smaller than the typical acoustic model of today and the strings were made from gut (nylon in the present day). Nowadays people use the term “Spanish guitar” and “classical guitar” almost interchangeably, although it more often than not describes the music the guitar is playing rather than the guitar.

The Hawaiian guitar, is just as confusing a term. Believe it or not, Hawaii was apparently the birthplace of the steel string guitar! I can’t confirm this, but there is a great story and you might want to read All about the Hawaiian Steel Guitar.

Presently, if only to be more confusing, most people think of any guitar that you play on your lap to be a Hawaiian guitar. “Lap steel guitar” is also a typical name for it. Lap steel guitars look like short, stumpy pedal steel guitars but without the pedals.

But in Hawaii, a “Hawaiian guitar” is any guitar played in “slack-key” style. Slack-key is, essentially slide guitar done on an instrument with lowered (hence “slack”) tuning. Traditionally Open G is the tuning of choice.

I hope this helps. I do not profess to be a guitar historian and, like most things in the music world, where you come from often dictates what you know. Post a thread on the Guitar Forums page and let’s see how what our readers can add to this knowledge.

What are some good effects or pedals for the acoustic?

An effect or two can add something to an acoustic guitar sound. Generally, you can add any effect pedal or multi-efx unit that was designed for electric guitar to your acoustic setup, too. There are also effects that are made specifically for acoustic guitars.

I don’t know your budget and if you prefer multi-efx or single boxes, but I guess I can give you some ideas which effects you might check out. BTW, if you gonna use effects, you have to amplify your guitar, otherwise, nobody will hear the effect but only your acoustic sound.

  • Not an obvious one for an acoustic guitar, but if you’re playing Led Zep, why not try out an overdrive or distortion pedal?
  • More often used with acoustic guitars is a reverb effect. It gives the sound more depth. You can adjust the controls: would you like to sound as if you were playing in a cathedral or in a bathroom?
  • A delay – This can fill different shoes. If you keep the delay time short, it sounds similar to reverb. If you increase the delay time, you get echoes (you have influence on how many echoes and how quickly after you play a note). This can be used in different ways:
    • give the sound more depth, just like a reverb
    • slap-back echo: listen to some rockabilly songs – an echo right after the note, very short, very “hard”
    • playing harmony with yourself: play a note, play another note for example a third above the first: the delay will repeat the first note and if you timed your second note correctly, this will happen right when you play the second note.
    • spacy sounds
  • A chorus: makes your sound shimmer a bit, hard to describe with few words. Often used in pop and rock songs.

Basic line: get your guitar, go to a music store and play.

What are some good guitars for people with small hands?

I’ve size 5 1/2 hands (glove size) so I know what you mean. I do play my beloved red Guild with no difficulty. After some years of practice and lessons, I think I’m just used to it. I love the sound so much, I worked at it. Dar Williams also has small hands and loves her Huss and Dalton. I’m looking into Daisy Guitars for my daughter. They’re made by Schecter, a great company with solid reputation, and they make acoustic and electric. Some of the acoustic Taylors are 3/4 size and the Takamines aren’t bad. I love my Fender Strat and find it much easier to play than the Guild, but I think that’s the nature of electrics.

And yes, it’s a very common problem among women. I’m on a Yahoo group called GuitarWomen and this has been a topic of discussion. Practice, practice, practice does help. I’ve played classical piano and working for that octave plus reach has helped the guitar playing. Best advice is go out and try a few before you buy. And as my husband would say, don’t forget to look at used instruments; they can be just as good, and much less expensive.

What are omni-directional and uni-directional speakers?

Omni-directional speakers usually send sound in all directions, front and back. They are not standard, and are usually found in outdoor plazas.

Uni-directional speakers only send sound in one direction – forward. This is normal for most PA speakers.

There are also omni-directional microphones, which are not good for live music. It is better to use microphones with a “cardiod” pattern.

The “Sum” is sometimes called “Mono”, as it is the combination (or addition) of the Left and Right signal. Check out the sound engineering Q&A for more on this topic.

What is some reliable and affordable equipment?

I’ve been using my Strat for the last 17 years, for any style! As long as your fingers can get the sound, nothing else will. As for upgrading: You could take your Squire and upgrade the pickups. The Fat Strat sounds like it features humbuckers!? If it doesn’t, you can do what I did. I replaced the bridge position with a Seymore Duncan JB Junior, that’s a humbucker in the shape of a single coil. DiMarzio offers great options too. Make sure that which ever one you go with has a good amount of lows and mids. Otherwise, you’ll be almost back at where you started with the stock pickup.

50 Watts will be fine for small rooms and situations where you can mic the speaker and go through the PA. But it’s cutting it close, or slim so to speak. I’ve recently bought my first transistor in years, the Fender Roc-Pro 700. The nicest features are it’s versatility, the tube in the preamp section, and the light weight! It screams for sure and has 70 Watts. I used to play through an all-tube half stack: Super heavy and way too loud to sound good in small settings.

You have to also remember: Guitar Centers, or any other store’s sales reps will try to sell you something. Anything. I don’t know much about those Marshall combos, but none I have tried ever floored me.

How about some JBL wedges? I don’t know the model name, but I’ve worked with many singers that use them for rehearsals and gigs. Some even have some good digital effects. Wouldn’t know myself about the Fenders, but they could be great.

Wow, when you ask about learning improv, you are asking the question, if there ever was one that is most important! Hard to answer in one email; but you are on the right track with records! Too many students come to me and sometimes without realizing it themselves, ask me to “train” them into being able to improvise. No teacher can do it for you, so listening to those discs and learning solos is an important thing, as well as simply jamming along (some people denounce that noodling with scales). You have to actively make yourself speak in this language, because learning music/improvising is no different than learning a language. Just speak…just play. A great teacher, of course can save you a lot of wrong and tedious turn offs, but lots can be learned on those as well.

Check out dome lessons on soloing and improvisation.

What pickups should I get for great tone?

A humbucker will help greatly with that singing, sustaining lead tone you want to get. There are exceptions to this. Listen to Eric Johnson. He uses strats with single coils. The humbuckers tend to get the bass in there and thicken up the sound a lot. You don’t need to get a new guitar or mess up your pickguard. Get a replacement guard with a cutout for a humbucker and the remaining single coils (the guitar’s cavity may have to be molded for the huumbucker to fit, some strats need to have this done some don’t) a medium to high output humbucker and some matched single coils with electronics and put on guitar. But if GAS [Gear Acquisition Syndrome] is a chronic condition, like it is with me, a new guitar could be in order. heheheh

Another amp…..Yes. You won’t get the sound you are looking for from your current amplifier. Sorry. Santana uses either mesa mark IIC plus a boost pedal in front (usually a tube screamer of some sort) or a Koch. These are a new amplifier out that i hear he is going nuts over. Good luck and i hope i have made sense. Later and good luck.

Which guitar first?

My students (or their parents) will often ask my opinion on which type of guitar to buy. For most beginners, it’s not even a question of brands or manufacturers. It’s whether to get an acoustic or an electric. While I have my personal preferences, I usually bring the question back to them: which guitar is going to make you want to play it? Then we go over the benefits of each.

For complete advice on what kind of guitar to buy first read the complete Which guitar first?.

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