How To Buy An Electric Guitar
When making a guitar-type decision, get as much information as you can by talking to friends with guitars, going to guitar shops, looking online etc - I know it's made harder by star endorsements, advertising, media coverage and the Coolness Factor, but try to ignore all that and aim for something that sounds good and plays well. Anything else is just hype.
Budget electrics are much better and cheaper than when I was at school – the quality of stuff from China, India, Indonesia, Korea etc has improved in leaps and bounds in recent years, and even the cheapest aren’t bad at all.
The Big Secret that the guitar manufacturers won’t tell you (but I will) is that if 10 identical model guitars come off the same production line on the same day, made from the same tree by the same guys, 7 will be average, 2 duff and 1 really good, and you can’t tell until they’re finished and you play them. This is true regardless of manufacturer or cost of the guitar, because every bit of wood is unique, and no one really understands what makes one guitar sound good and another not. I have played expensive guitars which sounded rubbish, and cheap ones which sounded great. The moral here is try before you buy, and don’t be impressed by big names or flash paint jobs, but how it sounds, and don’t be afraid to stick with a cheapo if it sounds good and plays well - one of my favourite guitars is an Encore I was given for free as it had been water damaged.
Setup means how the guitar plays – the action (height of the strings from the frets), height at the nut, neck relief, intonation, pickup height etc are all adjustable, and make a big difference to how the guitar feels to play. It’s worth learning how to do this for yourself, as it’s not rocket science, or if you’d rather, get a guitar tech to do it for you.
Pickups These come in single coil and humbucking varieties. Single coils are brighter and twangier, have less output and are good for clean sounds (eg Dire Straits), though many famous players use them with distortion too - Jimi Hendrix, Richie Blackmore and Yngwie Malmsteen, for example. Humbuckers have more output and are less bright, especially for clean sounds, but are used more with distortion - eg Jimmy Page, Slash, Metallica and all varieties of Metal
Tremolo Systems As a rule, unless you have a burning desire to play Steve Vai stuff, avoid locking tremolo systems as they are needlessly complicated. They take ages to tune up, if you break one string the whole guitar is out of tune, you have to carry the correct allen key, the guitar costs more and sounds worse, and the cheaper units don't stay in tune much better than non-locking systems. Standard trem systems (eg Stratocaster) are best blocked off by tightening up the springs and perhaps putting in a wood block like Eric Clapton does.
The Colour and the Shape Stratocasters and Les Pauls are that shape for a reason - they're comfortable to hold and easy to play. Odd shapes - Flying Vs etc aren't. Colour comes at the bottom of the list - if it sounds great and plays great but you hate the colour, buy it; it's a musical instrument, not a handbag.
Strings are where the sound starts – change them every month or so to make your guitar sound new again, and try a heavier gauge for a bigger sound – perhaps .010s instead of .009s.
If I had known then what I know now, after having my first electric guitar long enough to know I was going to persevere, I should have gone out and bought a top of the range USA guitar and amp, then stuck with that. Why? Because I would have saved myself a fortune in cheap guitars, amps and multieffects over the years, and have had a quality instrument and a good sound all that time - and gear that would have kept its value pretty well too. So - in today's terms, we'd be looking at a PRS guitar and a Mesa Boogie amp - go on, you know it makes sense; in 20 years you'll thank me! (£3000 over 30 years is £2 per week, and by then it'll be worth £30,000)
If you don't do that, then a reasonable compromise would be; get the no-frills option real Fender/Gibson/Gordon Smith for around £500, an Ibanez TS7 Tubescreamer (Kirk Hammett uses one) and a 30-50w valve amp by Fender, Peavey, Laney, Ashdown or Marshall for about £450.
Of course, all this expense can be bypassed by going second hand. All my favourite guitars cost less than £100 used, my 60w valve amp sounds like a Mesa Boogie and cost £150 used, and the best distortion box ever, the Ibanez TS7 Tubescreamer, cost about £25 used.
Your Hero's Guitar 'Aha!' you think, 'My hero, Rik Fudge of the Great Unwashed plays a Fenderson Hypertwang Deluxe in Metallic Midnight Snot Green; if I get a guitar that looks like that, I'll sound like he does.' Er, no you won't, because 1. His guitar is handbuilt in the Fenderson Custom shop, where they made 12 from premium wood (not plywood like the copies in the guitar shop) and picked out the best sounding one for him, because they know 200 million guitar fans are watching to see what he plays 2. He's playing it through a custom modded amp that cost more than your Dad's car and was run at full volume 3. And a rack of effects bigger than a fridge with two Physics graduates to program it 4. That monster sound they got on the last album was actually 14 guitars overdubbed in NY's Gigabucks Studio with ace producer Ziplok Bagg. If you don't believe me, take a close look at Slash's gear - NONE of it is stock.
This doesn't mean you can't get a good sound without spending a fortune; you CAN, but don't imagine that the Epiphone ZW is going to sound like Zakk Wylde's Les Paul just because it has the same paint job.