Xylem Custom Basses and Guitars

How to Buy a Guitar or Bass:

Guide for First-Time Buyers

Buying your first guitar or bass can be a complex process, especially if you're not sure what to look for. If you need a little help, this article has the information you need to choose a guitar with confidence and get the best instrument for your money!

Custom guitar with colored buckeye burl top, exotic shape

How Much To Spend?

Quality entry-level instruments can be bought new for as low as $150. Instruments below $150 tend to be poorly made, and playing them can be more frustrating than enjoyable. $400 - $800 will get you a mid-level instrument, and $1000 is where the high-end instruments start.

When buying your first electric guitar or bass remember that the amplifier is "half the instrument," so be sure to factor the cost of an amp into your budget. A decent amp can be bought for $100, but $200 is better, especially among bass amps. The better the amp, the better the guitar will sound and vice-verse. Also ensure that your new amp has a headphone jack if you need to play quietly.

When determining how much you want to spend, ask yourself how committed you are to learning guitar or bass. Entry-level guitars are great for learning some basic tunes, but you can spend more if you have the discipline to surpass your idols.

With your budget in mind, head to a nearby music store and get ready to test a variety of guitars in person.

Note: See the section "Buying Guitars Online" below if you don't have access to the guitars you want to try.

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Custom bass with Kahler tremolo, Xylem hook scroll

Visiting Music Stores

Remember the following when trying guitars at a music store:

Don't be intimidated. Everyone is a beginner at some point, so do not worry about how you sound (it can't be worse than the guy across the store who keeps playing sloppy metal licks). If you need privacy, ask a sales person to set you up in a practice room or a quieter area of the store.

Take your time and consider trying the same guitar(s) more than once on different days. The decision is important; the instrument you choose can help motivate you to learn, or discourage you enough to quit.

Music store sales people vary in knowledge, enthusiasm and professionalism. Don't let a sales person's bad attitude, personal preferences or pushiness affect your decision. Also don't assume that the highly-pierced, mohawked punk rocker is the wrong sales person for you, he might be remarkably knowledgeable and helpful.

Bartering is common in music stores. Always try to negotiate a lower price and never pay List Price (a.k.a. Manufacturer's Suggested Retail Price). Not all guitars can be discounted, so instead ask for deals on your accessories including the amp, strings, picks, case, tuner, etc.

Read the return policy before you buy your guitar or bass.

Now that you know how to handle the music store, it's time to handle some guitars!

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Fretless 5 string bass guitar with ebony top

Trying Guitars or Basses

The following information will guide you through evaluating each instrument. Don't be afraid to compare low-end and high-end instruments, even if they are outside your budget.

  • Tune each guitar before you play (ask for help if necessary).
  • If you're testing electric guitars, use an amp similar to the one you'll be using at home.
  • Play each guitar in both seated and standing positions.
  • Listen for the guitar that you think sounds best. Most electric guitars can have more than one sound if you adjust their tone knobs and pickup selector switches.
  • Note each instrument's weight. Ten pounds can feel pretty heavy after a long practice session.
  • See if the neck falls toward the ground when you aren't holding it. This is called "neck dive" and, while not a deal-breaker, it can be inconvenient.
  • Note the space between the frets and strings, or the "action." Strings with high action are harder to press with your fretting hand, reducing your dexterity.
  • Try to find the guitar that feels most comfortable in your hands.
  • Avoid guitars that repeatedly go out of tune (check with an electronic tuner).

Once you've found a guitar or bass you like, run some final tests. Play every fret on every string, placing your finger behind each fret, not in the middle of two frets. If there are more than one or two notes that sound buzzy or strange, the guitar might require adjustment. Ask a salesperson to adjust the guitar, or try a different one of the same model. The knobs and switches of electric guitars should be adjusted over their full ranges. Sharp crackles or static sounds from knobs or switches may indicate that the instrument's electronics are poorly shielded or require cleaning. Inspect the instrument for scratches, defects, stripped screws, etc. Scratched instruments are usually discounted, and small problems can be corrected at the store.

When you find an instrument that passes these tests it's time to negotiate your purchase and return home with your very first guitar!

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Recommended Guitars & Basses

Large brands usually have good warranty departments that cover defects (particularly Yamaha). Be careful when buying off-brand guitars that you cannot easily find online. These companies may have gone out of business, or may be too small to afford the same warranty policies as larger companies. If you can't try any instruments in person, the following entry level guitars are a good bet for their prices (however, please remember that this article was written in 2011, so model numbers and prices may have changed).

Acoustic Guitars Electric Guitars Electric Basses
Yamaha FG700S - $199 Yamaha PAC012 - $179 Yamaha RBX170 - $199
Washburn WD10S - $249 Ibanez GRX70 - $199 Ibanez GSR200 - $199
Schecter SGR C-1 - $179

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Used Guitars

If you find the right used guitar you will get a mid-level instrument for an entry-level price. Conversely, certain used guitars are almost worthless. When buying used guitars from music stores, pawn shops or individuals, follow the same steps above, making sure to research return policies. Most individual sellers will not allow returns, so examine their used instruments with extra scrutiny. Ask the individual what is wrong with the instrument, or if it has any quirks that are distracting. Ask why they are selling the guitar. Their answer may reveal more about its condition. Missing screws, excessive scratches or a grungy appearance indicate poor treatment, increasing the probability that a guitar has additional unseen issues.

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Fretless bass with blue burl radius ramp, single-cut shape

Buying Guitars Online

If you can't try the guitars you like in person, there are still a few ways to evaluate them. Search for guitar reviews online or in magazines, paying extra attention to common trends. Several mentions of the same issue in a certain guitar can be trusted, while a single review may be less accurate. Also utilize the many music-related forums on the internet (search online for 'guitar forum' or 'bass forum'). You can search forum archives for info on the guitar(s) you want, and you can post your own questions if you create an account. Be thorough in your search for information and you will end up with a great instrument!

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Problems After Purchase

So your new guitar has developed a problem, what should you do? First, call the store. A music store should be very willing to help with any problems on an instrument you bought less than a month earlier (though you may have to push a little in some cases). Most stores will either replace the instrument or fix the problem for free. If the store will not help, contact the manufacturer's warranty department directly. If you can't get the manufacturer to fix the problem, take the instrument to a local luthier or guitar repair technician (not the one at the store where you bought the guitar). Explain your situation and ask for their advice.

Armed with this new information, you are ready to get out there and become a rock star!

Xylem Basses & Guitars

Thanks for reading! You can explore our custom basses and custom guitars or read more guitar articles.

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