Should You Buy a Guitar Online or In a Store? | Hub Guitar

Should You Buy a Guitar Online or In a Store?

Artwork by Sergey Banityuk

Where will you buy your guitar, and what are the pros and cons of buying online versus in the store?

What counts the most when buying a guitar?

The more experience you have with playing the guitar, the better equipped you are to understand and appreciate the differences between instruments.

Before you go shopping for a guitar, decide what you’re willing to pay. Then look within that price range for an instrument that meets your needs in terms of quality of materials, quality of craftsmanship, playability, sound, and visual appeal. Get the best instrument you can afford. Aim to have one splendid instrument for a lifetime rather than a slew of mediocre ones that will fall apart one after the other.

Many guitar players spend $1500 over the course of several years buying $200 and $300 instruments over and over again, creating a collection of garbage instruments, wearing them out one by one—and never owning a truly fine instrument. One quality instrument will serve you for decades. Budget as much as you can.

Quality of Materials

The quality of the materials used to build the instrument is one of the first considerations. A truly superb acoustic guitar will likely be made of all solid woods (solid top, solid back & sides, solid wood fretboard). The nut and saddle would normally be fashioned from bone (or similar). The tuners would ideally be a recognizable brand such as Gotoh, Shaller or Waverly. And they would cost $50 or more at retail by themselves.

Quality materials will last longer and perform better. They will be less subject to degradation and wear. The guitar is an unstable device made from unreliable materials. It takes good design, good crafstmanship, and quality choice of materials to beat the odds and produce an instrument that plays like new for a lifetime.

Guitars made from poor quality materials will literally fall apart. Believe it. The tension from the strings will pull the bridge up off of the instrument. The neck may warp into some irreversible and unplayable shape. And if the nut or saddle are made of cheap, fragile plastic, it could easily shatter, or at least defy attempts at adjustment or improvement.

The first thing you want is a guitar made of quality materials.

Level of Craftmanship

Check the frets to evaluate craftsmanship. Note the sharp fret end that snags a piece of cloth here.

The craftsmanship that goes into building a guitar is hard to judge from mere appearance. There are many shiny and fancy instruments sitting on shelves that look nice to the untrained eye but which lack fine details in their appointments.

In addition, many cheap guitars are created in factories that produce exact results, but lack the individual attention of hand-made instruments.

Comparing guitars, you should be able to see differences in the grain of the wood, in the finish, in the quality of subtle details.

The more you know about guitars and their construction, the better qualified you will be to judge.

Judging a Guitar’s Quality

  • Rub the guitar with a microfiber cloth to bring it to a polish. A dirty guitar doesn’t reveal itself as well as a clean one.
  • Look the instrument over for imperfections in the finish. This is dismissible at the lower end of the price spectrum, but at the higher end small details matter more.
  • Check the setup of the guitar. Is the action low? Is the neck straight? A high action (or even a bowed neck) can sometimes hide quality issues that start to show up more as the action gets lower down towards the fretboard.
  • Look inside of the guitar at the bracing. If it looks like it was lovingly installed, almost as if the builder was expecting you to poke your head inside and have a look, that’s a subtle indicator of quality.
  • Run your hand down the side of the neck to feel if the frets are poking out and scratchy. This is especially good to do at the highest frets near the sound hole, as most manufacturers won’t expect you to notice if the frets ends are poorly dressed there. Running a cloth along the neck might feel a bit scratchy, but it shouldn’t snag into the frets.
  • Do some bending and vibrato for each string in different places. Does the fretboard (and the frets) allow the string to smoothly rock back and forth, or is there a scratchy feeling as you attempt this?
  • Checking to see that the frets are level is a great idea before buying any guitar, as leveling the frets is a costly procedure. If the action is low enough, chances are the frets are fairly level, as a tall fret will cause problems on a guitar with low action. If you’re going to spend big money on a guitar, consider buying a Fret Rocker [?]Affiliate Link and a Stew Mac Action Ruler[?]Affiliate Link to use as you evaluate the guitars in shops.
  • Be sure you clearly understand the woods used, whether they’re solid or laminate, and the details of other appointments such as fretboard, frets, bridge, saddle, bridge pins, and nut. Before buying a guitar it would be best to know what they’re all made of.
  • Examine the instrument for any spot that looks roughly cut or poorly polished. Everything on the instrument should be smooth to the touch. Things like sharp edges on the nut are revealing of a manufacturing process that pays little attention to the player.
  • If a guitar has strings that appear old, corroded and gritty, don’t even bother testing it. This guitar will compare less favorably due to the old strings. They throw off the test. A BMW with bald tires doesn’t outdrive an economy car.
  • Learn to recognize an excellent finish job. An excellent sanding and finishing job means that just about every part of the instrument’s exterior surface is wonderfully smooth and pleasant to the touch.

Playability

There’s nothing like a smooth, flat playing surface.

A good guitar is highly playable.

For most people learning guitar, the “playability” of the instrument should be the number one thing to think about.

In the high-tech age, due to high-precision manufacturing processes, many cheaper instruments appear reasonably playable. At first. But if the quality of the materials and workmanship is not high, you may end up buying an instrument that is difficult to adjust later, should it become less playable. All guitars (especially cheap ones) tend to get pulled out of order. The tension from the strings, the effects of wear and tear, gravity, humidity, temperature and the like will tend to put strain on the instrument that will warp it out of shape and affect your ability to play it later on.

An acoustic guitar is an instrument made of wood (highly sensitive to environmental changes in humidity and heat) that puts six steel cables at permanent tension exceeding 200 lbs, and is supposed to withstand that tension indefinitely. This is a serious engineering challenge, and it’s one that many cheaper guitars don’t hold up well against as the years pass.

Every so often, a guitar will need an adjustment. This adjustment is called a "setup", and is very important. A guitar made of higher-quality materials can be worked with and made to play better. A guitar that is made of poor-quality materials is basically irredeemable. Over time, it will likely become less and less playable, and there will be no real way to fix it.

Signs of Playability

  1. The strings are as low as possible to the fretboard. Ideally .080" on the low E string at the XIIth fret.
  2. The neck is as straight as possible. Sometimes a slight curve is desired, but normally a fairly straight neck is considered ideal.
  3. The fretboard and frets are very smooth; bending notes over them is smooth and produces no strange noises.
  4. There are no strings with buzz, dead notes or other issues.

Sound

The first thing to understand about comparing the sound of two acoustic guitars is that you should try not to kid yourself.

If someone tells you one guitar is made of recycled paper bags and the other is made of wood harvested from the heart of the world’s oldest tree (or, better yet, the sunken treasure ship of Blackbeard), that’s going to affect what you think you hear.

If you go to a high-end shop and pick up an instrument crafted from "7A Sitka Spruce" and the last remaining piece of genuine Brazilian Rosewood, that’s going to affect your perception.

If the instrument is the most beautiful thing you’ve ever held in your hands, it’s going to be pretty hard for you to hear anything else but a beautiful sound.

There are also too many variables affecting the sound you hear on a demo guitar. It’s ideal to eliminate them all, but virtually impossible to do so.

Factors Affecting a Guitar’s Sound

  • The environmental background noise
  • The acoustic nature of the room you’re in (huge)
  • Your physical position within the room you’re in (huge)
  • The pick you’re using
  • Your own technique and playing ability
  • The examples you use to compare guitars (try to play the same thing on each one)

When comparing two different instrument, be aware that certain factors may confound a comparison of two guitars.

Factors That Throw Off a Comparison

  • Different strings (or one set that is dead and one set that is new)
  • Different woods used
  • Overall different manufacturing conditions
  • Different finish, particularly finish thickness
  • Different bracing
  • Different size / dimensions
  • Different material of nut, saddle

The discernible differences between the sound of two guitars diminish after you’ve spent $400 or $500 (underneath that you may indeed notice real differences); and after you pass $1000 or $1500 they shrink further. After you’ve passed $2000, a skilled expert may not be able to reliably hear any difference in the sound between two guitars of similar style and construction. That means a $10,000 guitar may not sound appreciably better in the objective sense than a $2,000 guitar. And it also means that a $10,000 guitar with crappy old strings may not even hold up to a $2,000 with brand new ones.

Visual Appeal

Some features are purely cosmetic, such as this abalone rosette.

The visual appeal of holding a beautifully crafted instrument in your hands can affect your perception of an instrument’s sound and playability. The joy you feel when holding an instrument can very much impact the way you play, and the way you sound.

Once you’ve gotten to the point where you’re spending about $1500 or $2000 on an acoustic guitar, any remaining improvements in higher-priced guitars may be mostly cosmetic. These are costly and labor-intensive "extras" such as fancy binding, purfling and inlays that make an instrument a pleasure to hold and look at but may not affect the way it sounds or feels. But what will be affected is the way you feel when you hold it.

Brands

There are many brands that build excellent guitars. But do not buy a guitar simply because it belongs to a brand name you’ve heard of, unless you’ve done your research and you understand why that brand appeals to you. Many beginners like to rush out and buy a guitar from a brand name that they recognize, and as a result they may make a poor choice about the instrument they buy.

Why Buy Online?

Pros

Buying online, you’ll get a new guitar that has likely never been touched or demo'd. you’ll have access to the world’s largest selection. And you can compare guitars within a price point objectively and look at reviews.

Cons

If you buy online, you’ll never be able to try the guitar first, unless you visit a store before ordering and play a similar one.

An online buy is a great idea if you know exactly how much you want to spend, and you buy a guitar that fits the style you like. If you’re not sure what to buy, buying online can be a good thing—if you go to the right place.

Why Buy In The Store?

Having explored the factors affecting a guitar purchase decision, it seems clear that a visit to the shop is the only way to see a guitar in person before buying.

Pros

You can try before you buy. You can learn from knowledgeable staff members (if you go to the right place), you can directly compare many guitars to each other and make clear decisions about what you’re looking for in terms of body shape, materials, brand name, neck style, et cetera.

If you buy in the shop you can negotiate with the shop. Many shops will help you set up the guitar for free if it needs the attention of a guitar tech.

Some shops have excellent service. If you feel this is the case, you can bring the guitar back to ask questions or address issues.

Cons

Guitars sold in shops sometimes have small signs of use from being demonstrated for customers. If this bothers you, you may want to shop online. Some shops may charge higher prices. But you may be pleasantly surprised to find that with guitars, offline and online pricing are often the same.

Price

A reputable shop should hopefully not charge a significantly higher price than what you might find online.

Many brands set "minimum advertised price" guidelines for dealers, and many dealers simply set their price to this amount to ensure a maximum amount of competitiveness.

Quality

You can likely estimate the quality of a guitar simply by checking the materials used to build it. An instrument made of all-solid woods, high-end tuners, with a bone nut and saddle is highly unlikely to be anything but a fine instrument.

Playability

It’s impossible to assess a guitar’s playability without actually playing it. If you are looking at a guitar online, you can come close to assessing this by playing it in a store. But, first of all you'd be wearing out store merchandise that you have no plan to buy, which is a little not cool. And second of all you couldn’t be sure the guitar you buy online will play the same way.

Sound

You simply can’t hear a guitar without playing it first. You can listen to a recording but it’s going to be hard to have any idea what it sounds like in your hands.

Visual Appeal

Pictures can be deceiving. Seeing a guitar in person is much more revealing than looking at pictures. But with the right videos and photos you may well be able to judge how visually attractive a guitar is.

Coda

Some mixture of online and offline shopping is perhaps the best approach. While researching guitars, look at reviews. Learn about the builders and the major brand names. Make a short list of instruments you’re interested, and then go look for a shop to play them in.

If you find the guitar you like in a shop somewhere, consider giving the sale to the shop who went to the trouble of setting up a showroom near you and giving you a chance to try the instrument.

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