An acoustic instrument’s sound is due to the wonder of material used to build it and is never dependent on electronics – not even in electro-acoustic instruments.
Thus, I always advise beginners and others wishing to purchase an instrument to blindfold themselves and see with their ears! You go into a shop and even as you are glancing over instruments, your eyes will stop over one or two instruments. Believe me when I tell you that you have already chosen the guitar to purchase! Such is the power of vision that it overpowers all other senses, and so, blindfolding yourself takes sight out of the equation.
It is actually a very simple process. Go to the shop with a friend, sibling or spouse and ask them to blindfold you before you enter the shop. Sit down and give the salesperson a price range in which to show you instruments.
Of all the instruments that the salesperson shows you, some will have a bell-like clarity (due to the highly accented treble range), some will have a drum-like booming quality (due to the accented bass range), while still others will be a very happy blend of the two. So, which one should you choose? Let me take the mystery out of the choice-making and tell you that there is no ‘right’ or ‘wrong’ sound. Whatever appeals to your ears is the right sound.
So, choose the three best instruments that your ears pick up for you and have them kept aside. Now, go over the other guitars once more. Choose the best-sounding instrument from the ‘rejected’ lot and have it kept along with ‘the chosen ones’. It is time now to take your blindfold off and actually see what you have chosen.
Of the four guitars on show, you will reject at least two for one reason or another (that’s the way the human brain functions). The remaining two, pick them up and play them, looking for exactly what made your ears choose it.
Once you have made your choice, go through the instrument with a fine-tooth comb.
Here is a list of things to look for:
- Is it a solid wood instrument or is it made from laminated wood (layers of woods)? A solid wood instrument will be costlier but the sound quality will be appreciably better than that of a laminated wood instrument. If you are unsure, ask the salesperson.
- colour inconsistency, if it is a painted guitar
- Scratches, dents, dings in the finish. Give the neck of the guitar a proper once over both with your eyes and fingers because that is the area where your hands will stay the maximum amount of time.
- Take a piece of paper and try pushing it under the bridge, under fretboard extension that is stuck to the top of the guitar, and at the joint where the neck heel is stuck to the body of the guitar. No more than 1 cm of a corner of the paper should go under any of these three places. If it does, reject the instrument outright.
- Check the tuning machines for extra play/looseness. These can give you tuning nightmares later on. Have the salesperson tighten them.
- If there are electronics on board, plug in and play away. Check that the pick-up system is ‘picking up’ all the strings by playing each string individually.
Once you have made your choice, don’t forget to buy a semi-hard or a hard case to go along. It’s like buying a helmet when you buy a motorcycle!
Debunking a few myths
1) I am learning to play so I don’t need to spend so much.
You buy a guitar only once. Buy good. If you must, wait another six months and buy the better instrument.
2) That child will grow up fast; the guitar will never
Initially, six-year-olds will look odd holding an instrument much larger than themselves, but children grow up faster than you think. Don’t make the mistake of buying a small guitar and later not knowing what to do with it. Besides, when children play a full-size instrument, it forces them to stretch the fingers on their fretting hand. Consequently, they learn to ‘get there’ faster than they would have if they had been playing a small-size instrument.
3) This guitar is old and looks used.
If it is a solid wood guitar, or even if it has a solid wood top, chances are that it will have a sound so beautiful that you will fall in love with it. Sound is produced when the top vibrates and pushes the air out of the soundhole of the guitar. The more the top vibrates, the bigger will be the sound. Additionally, the more the guitar is played the more the top moves and gets used to moving. Thus, a used guitar would be my choice of instrument. Don’t trust me? Check out the prices of guitars made in the 60s, 50s, or even in the 40s or 30s!
This should give you a clearer picture.