Shopping online for a guitar can be risky. You don’t get to try out a few instruments before you buy, shipping might result in damage; you might waste your money on a junker or even get scammed.
So why would you ever want to buy a guitar online? Well, prices tend to be lower than those at local music stores, selection is enormous, and in some cases, you can find incredible discounts. However, if you don’t know what to look for, you’re running more risks than you need to. Armed with a little knowledge, finding the best guitar for your budget can be fun and easy.
Some of the best sites for finding guitars include Musician’s Friend, Ebay, and Just Guitars Online. Their prices and selections are among the best, though many other good sellers are easy to find through a Google search for “guitar shopping” or “buy guitar.”
Once you’ve picked a site, check out the descriptions of the instruments. You will almost always want one with a solid “top,” or face, usually made of spruce. Other materials are used, but spruce is generally considered the best. Backs and sides are often mahogany, which gives the guitar warmth and sustain; necks are typically mahogany as well. The fretboard is almost always rosewood on less expensive instruments, and as the price climbs, ebony is fairly common as well.
Solid-wood instruments have the advantage of “breaking in” over time, and the more you play them the better they tend to sound. “Laminated” guitars, with pieces of good wood glued onto plywood, not only sound muted and poor to begin with, but they will not age as solid wood guitars do.
If you’re looking for the cheapest instrument you can find, keep in mind that buying a guitar isn’t like shopping for jeans — higher price tags and better brand names actually mean superior quality.
Gibson, though better known for their Les Paul electric, also produces very highly respected (and priced) acoustic instruments. Their 60’s style Hummingbird, for instance, can run from $2,000-3,000, and most other models are well over $1,000. But if you have the money, most experts and professionals will tell you they are worth the price.
If you like the looks of a Gibson, but don’t want to take out a loan to get one, less expensive versions are manufactured under the name Epiphone; these typically have lower quality wood and fewer bells and whistles. These guitars are still very nice, but be careful! Always check pictures of the head of the instrument (where the tuning pegs are) and make sure that you’re not dealing with an unscrupulous seller or mistaking an Epiphone for a super-cheap Gibson.
Martin is another top-of-the-line guitar company. Unlike Gibson, Martin guitars are priced from $500 all the way up to $4,000 or more, highly regarded instruments as well. They company produces an interesting variety of guitar models, including one made of koa (a Hawaiian wood often used in ukuleles) and the “Backpacker,” a tougher, cut-down guitar that travels exceptionally well.
Until recently, Taylor was known only for its acoustic instruments — professional guitars by anyone’s standards. They tend to have more homogeneous appearances than some of their Gibson and Martin competitors; sleek, elegant natural finishes are the norm. While a few Taylors can be found for $500-700, expect to pay $1,000 or more for the higher-level guitars.
Of course, not everyone can spend thousands of dollars on a guitar. Mass produced instruments, usually made in Pacific nations, are increasing in quality while maintaining lower prices. Ovation guitars, from $150 and up, have unique bowl-back construction, not unlike early mandolin styles. Ibanez acoustics are usually under $500, and most have electronics that allow them to be plugged directly into amplifiers. Yamaha is another good brand for inexpensive guitars.
While not terrible, low-priced Rogue guitars, some as cheap as $40, can have inconsistent workmanship. Most sellers will let you return lemons, but shipping costs and frustration can accumulate and end up costing more than the guitar is actually worth. That’s not to condemn Rogues completely; if your budget is tight or you want to see if playing guitar is something you’ll stick with, a good Rogue guitar can be a great value.
So what should be universally avoided? Ebay is flooded with cheap (think $.01), no-name instruments that are of dubious quality. They may come in a lot of pretty colors, but you’ll be lucky if you can return one when something breaks or falls off.
Don’t touch “Wal-Mart Specials” either. Usually under the brand “First Act,” these aren’t manufactured to compete with other instrument makers — they’re manufactured to be sold at Wal-Marts. If they become damaged, repair people may not even be able to fix First Act instruments.
Even worse than getting a bad deal, though, is getting a scam. Ebay regularly has extremely suspicious listings. If there aren’t many pictures of the guitar, the instrument is located in a foreign country, the seller has little or no feedback, or the description is taken directly from another auction or website, take your money elsewhere. If you pay a scammer you may not be able to get your money back.
Knowing the guitar you want, and what its normal prices are, will help you get the best deal. Avoid the junkers and, for Pete’s sake, avoid the scams; you’ll find the best instrument for your needs, and you will enjoy your guitar for a long time.