Choosing the best guitar is often as much about style as sound. However, it's not uncommon for guitar manufacturers to invest all their resources into design and skimp on sound. We'll skip the visuals; you know what looks best to you. Instead we'll focus on sound and feel.
When choosing an acoustic guitar, the most important things to look for are body type, and tone wood. Each of these factors will contribute to the sound and playability of your instrument.
Spruce wood is the most common as it provides a clean sound which is consistent across dynamics.
Cedar is a popular choice because of its warm sound, while rosewood is often praised for its complex overtones.
Body types vary from small travel guitars to the iconic dreadnaught design. In general, the larger the body, the warmer and richer the low end, while smaller bodied guitars produce a cleaner, brighter sound.
Like an acoustic guitar, the electric guitar's sound starts with the wood. Maple is frequently used for fretboards because of its long sustain.
Gibson often uses mahogany as a tonewood, contributing to their warm, fat mid-tones. Fender tends to prefer alder or ash for their lighter weight, rich low end, and generally brighter sound.
The body type has a lot of influence on the instrument's sound as well. Classic model electric guitars like the Fender Stratocaster, Gibson SG, and Ibanez RG use a solid body, which gives them a longer sustain, and makes them less susceptible to feedback.
Hollow body guitars have a deeper resonance, and produce richer tones. These are often sought after by jazz and rockabilly players, however their resonance chamber makes them susceptible to feedback.
Semi hollow body guitars, like the Gibson ES-335, forge a compromise between the two styles, offering a richer tone than solid bodies with a lower threshold of feedback than true hollow bodies.
The last major element of an electric guitar's sound is the pickup.
Single coil pickups offer a bright, crisp tone favored by many rock and blues performers.
Double coil pickups, or humbuckers, have a warmer, fatter tone, and are more resistant to electrical hums.
Pickup placement also plays a big role in the sound. Often, manufacturers include a pickup near the bridge for a more “twangy” lead sound and a pickup near the neck for a thicker sound.
Hybrids and Acoustic-Electrics
For guitarists looking for versatility, hybrid guitars and acoustic-electrics offer a compromise. Acoustic-electric guitars are more common, generally fitting a piezoelectric pickup inside a traditional acoustic guitar body.
Manufacturers like Ovation and Takamine are praised for the sound of both their electronics and the instrument itself. Because they have an open sound box however, acoustic-electrics are quick to feed back when used with distortion.
A hybrid guitar, like the Godin A6 Ultra, combines a lightweight electric guitar profile with closed resonance chambers and feature both a humbucker and piezoelectric pickup. This allows the guitarist to switch between a bright acoustic-electric tone and a warmer electric guitar tone capable of handling a loaded pedalboard with minimal feedback.
While there is a world of variety across the electric bass, the two biggest factors in choosing your bass are pickup type and number of strings.
Most standard bass guitars have 4 strings, however some manufacturers make models with 5, 6 and 7 strings for added depth and melodic possibilities.
The choice of pickup has the biggest influence on the sound of an electric bass. The split coil “P” pickup gives a fatter low end sound, while the humbucking “J” pickup provides a more expressive mid-range at the expense of the growling low end.
Many modern basses provide both, with knobs to blend the two sounds (known as a P-J bass). There are also active pickups which use a built-in pickup to create a brighter, full range sound.
Your amp can have as much of an impact on your sound as the instrument itself. There are 4 basic amplifier types: solid state, tube, modeling, and hybrid. Whether you're looking for an electric guitar amp, an acoustic guitar amp, or a bass amp, choosing the right amplifier is a matter of balancing tone, durability, portability, and wattage.
There are literally hundreds of types of effects pedal out there. A pedal can shape your sound in subtle ways, or it can radically alter it.
Pay attention to the pedals used by artists whose sound you admire, and note the guitar they use it with.
Every distortion pedal sounds a little different, and a distortion pedal that sounds great with one guitar may sound muddy and dull on another. Also keep in mind the build quality and reputation of the pedal manufacturer.
Companies like Electro-Harmonix and MXR have a sterling reputation for build quality and sound.
Buying a New Guitar
The only disadvantage to buying a guitar new is price. Buying new ensures that you get an instrument free of defects or road wear, and also will often receive a manufacturers warranty.
It often makes the most sense to purchase things like effects pedals and amplifiers new, as their complicated electronics can deteriorate from regular use. Alternatively, some choose to browse used guitars for sale to find a great deal.
Buying a Used Guitar
Because technologies and aesthetics change, it's not uncommon for a piece of equipment that was a commercial flop in its time to become a collector's item years or even decades down the line. This is especially true for amps; sometimes the best sounding amplifiers can only be found used.
Buying used gives you the advantage of finding quality gear that was either discontinued by the manufacturer, or from manufacturers who have gone out of business, at a fraction of the price of a more established name brand.
Likewise, when guitar prices are important to you, buying used is a great way to get top quality gear at a price that doesn't break the bank.
When buying a used guitar, it's often a good idea to take it to get a set-up from a professional. Guitars require periodic upkeep to maintain their intonation and electronics. A qualified professional can usually make the most road-weary guitar play like new.
Other Things To Look For:
Many buy a guitar from manufacturers that offer starter kits which include a guitar, amp, distortion pedal, cables, and picks. For the beginner guitarist, these kits can get you everything you need to get started at a reasonable price.
Many of the top guitar makers also have budget lines of their most revered instruments. Gibson has Epiphone, Fender has Squier, and Godin has Seagull.
While these brands may lack the noted build quality of their higher end siblings, they are a great way to get a classic look and sound at a fraction of the price. These may be cheap guitars, but they are of sufficient quality for the hobby guitarist or up and coming musician.
Brands like Gibson, Fender, Martin, and Ibanez are industry standards for a reason. Their build quality and sounds are legendary.
However, don't be afraid to look off the beaten path at instruments from smaller companies like Godin, Michael Kelly, Rickenbacker and Danelectro which all possess their own unique sounds and feels with the same high build quality, often at a lower price than the big guys.