Frets About Frets – November 2009

As posted in Nightflying magazine – Nov. 2009

Frets About Frets

‘Tis the season when you or someone you know begins the task of shopping for a gift. If that gift includes something special for a musician… and the decision is made that a guitar might be the perfect present…

Oh… you don’t play guitar? What? You’ve never HELD one in your hands?  Well, fear not! Here are some things to look for… from a guitar Technician’s point of view.

Even experienced players can “forget” what to look for when purchasing an instrument. They seem to get caught up in the “magic” of the moment uttering phrases like “It plays like butter” and “I hear angels”… not realizing that it plays that way because the frets are worn nearly to the fretboard and that angelic sound comes from the dehydrated top that could crack at any moment.

In this article, I will provide an opinion on several things:

I will discuss the proper way to evaluate a guitar with nothing more than your 5, senses.

I will cover the choices and benefits in materials of which a guitar is built.

I will also (briefly) touch on price ranges verses quality and features.

Remember… This is an opinion…. It is drawn from some 30 years of learning the intricacies of repairing guitars, 36 years of playing music and several years of working in guitar retail… but it’s STILL and opinion.

Common Sense-

When choosing a guitar for your self or someone else, no special equipment or skills are required… Use what you have… Sight, Sound, Touch, Smell and even Taste. OK, You can use your 6th sense if you just HAVE to.

Purists will tell you “it doesn’t matter what an instrument looks like, it’s how it sounds that counts”. Well, if that were the case, I would never get the great sounding USED guitars that come through my shop.

A guitar is a personal item that the player will, presumably, keep for a very long time. With that in mind, when making that initial selection, pick one that appeals to the taste of the PLAYER… visually. For beginners, this can be more important, at first, because the novice has no sound reference from which to base so the look matters most. This is especially true for youngsters although adults are not immune to the “cool-ness” of a particular guitar. Grown-ups just realize that since they are going to learn to play and stick with it, they might as well invest in a quality instrument.

Look…

As with any purchase, buyer needs to inspect the guitar closely for flaws in the finish. Nicks and dings are common in used instruments and even in new ones in certain stores. Don’t mistake a feature in the wood for a flaw. As a player, myself, I actually LOOK for interesting wood grains or marks. I feel that it contributes to the originality of the instrument.

A musical instrument must be structurally sound and it must be MADE correctly. On a used guitar, finish checking or small finish cracks are not a structural problem but cracks in the wood are not a good thing. Look at all the seams and joints to make sure that no glue joints are separating. This is most important where the neck joins the body.  If the guitar is of a neck-through design, then there’s not much worry on this point. A competent technician can adjust electric guitars, with bolt-on necks.

The scale must be true, the neck has to have proper pitch, it must have a truss rod (unless it is a classical guitar) and it absolutely has to have DECENT action.

If this is not familiar language to you, keep reading… and maybe refer to last month’s Article of the same name in this esteemed publication.

Scale can be easily checked. Pluck a string and listen to the note. Then press the string at the twelfth fret (double markers) and pluck it again. The note should be a perfect octave above the first.  Another way is to fret the instrument at the twelfth fret and pluck the string, then move your finger to the thirteenth fret and ABOVE your hand, near the headstock, pluck the string again. The volume will be drastically less but the note should be identical in pitch to the first one. Yet another way is to pull out that measuring tape that you always carry with you and measure from the nut to the saddle. The twelfth fret should be located exactly half way. Even with the intonation out of adjustment, the notes should be relatively close.

Neck pitch is just as easy to check. Look down the neck, from the headstock, and see if the neck aligns with the base of the saddle. You can also use a straight edge along the neck and frets and, again, see if it aligns with the bottom of the saddle.

Action can be appraised at the same time as neck pitch. Look for bow (relief) in the neck as well as alignment with the strings. Also look at the instrument from the side and see how far the strings are from the fretboard. Up to1/8th of an inch is acceptable at the point closest to the body of the guitar. Remember, action is adjustable with a good setup on the guitar.

Listen.

Strum the guitar. It doesn’t matter whether you can play or not. You are listening for sustain as well as buzzes or rattles as the strings are vibrating. A buzz can be as simple as old strings or low action. It can also indicate a loose brace, a mis-filed nut or a loose part.

Feel.

Slide you hand up and down the edge of the fretboard and feel for any sharp edges. Sometimes the wood of a fretboard can get dry and shrink leaving the frets sticking out slightly. This, too, can be easily repaired. Run your hand over the top of the guitar. On acoustics, there should be no noticeable “belly” or dip in the top. The bridge should not make the top “pull out” from string tension. Look at he top in good lighting and if you see ripples or “scalloping” in the wood, this means the guitar is dehydrated. Humidification does wonders.

Smell of the guitar.

If it is new, there’s nothin’ like that new guitar smell. If it’s used, then smell for any musty odors signifying mildew. This may be a result of too much moisture. I saw a couple of “Katrina” guitars a few years back that had been under water and recovered only to be sold to unsuspecting players who were wondering if their guitars were “sweating”.

Smell for smoke. This doesn’t necessarily mean that it’s a “hot’ playing guitar. It might have had a life in a smokey environment like bars or the home of a chain smoker. It could also have some level of smoke damage from a fire… you never know.

And finally… Taste.

… you’ve been waiting for this, I’m sure of it… Well… If the guitar has an active pickup system… taste the battery to see if it is still good.

Hah! Gotcha!

Seriously, check out the battery compartment for any signs of corrosion. Sometimes battery compartments can get damaged. Make sure that doors or lids open and close smoothly.

Pricing-

A guitar can sell for as little as $100 and for as much as… well… As much as you are willing to pay. Used guitars are generally less expensive but typically have no warranty. I setup the used guitars in my shop and will stand behind that adjustment for a minimum of 30 days.

New electric guitars can sell for as little as $100 and still be a decent beginning instrument. Used electrics that would sell for $100 new are worth what ever you are willing to pay for them. Preferably not the new price! The resale value is heavily dependent on the condition of the instrument. If it plays fine but looks as if it was dragged behind a truck… then the value is deeply depreciated. It’s hard to justify refinishing a $100 guitar.

New acoustic guitars are a bit more for the same relative quality. Plan on a minimum of $200 for a guitar that can be setup properly. Used acoustic instruments need to be scrutinized thoroughly due to the likelihood of shortcuts in the original construction. Again, condition is paramount in the evaluation of price.

Decisions-

Electric vs. Acoustic… This is always a dilemma that beginners (and shoppers for beginners) ponder… Well, consider that most inexpensive acoustic guitars (>$400) will need adjustments to play decently.  This is not a real problem because guitars are DESIGNED to be adjusted. That’s not to say that you may “luck up” on a $250 guitar that plays like a Taylor and sounds like a 1942 Martin… but it’s not likely. In general, instruments from a big-named MART or Toy store are likely to be just that – Toys… and not real musical instruments. This goes for all instruments.

A big benefit is an acoustic guitar is easier to transport. No amp is needed just to play and get sound from the guitar. Pickin’ on the porch is easy!

An acoustic guitar’s sound relies on how well it was manufactured and the materials from which it was made. For a beginner, try your best to get a guitar with a solid wood top. This provides for a much more resonate sound to be produced from the instrument. A laminate (very thin plywood) is used on the back and sides of a guitar >$400 because of the relative ease of bending the ply with out breakage. One positive of a laminate back and sides is the strength and toughness. The instrument can take some pretty hard bumps without cracking the wood. A laminate top is not as resonate but, for a very young player, the toughness could be an asset as well.

An electric guitar with better action is easier to find in the less-than-$400 range. The sound is mostly governed by the type of pickups that the instrument has. You will need an amp of some kind to take full advantage of the instrument and this can be cumbersome for portability. Electrics are generally thinner and therefore better for smaller players. Many youngsters think that it’s “Cooler” to play an electric… but try to avoid some of the more exotic shapes. They tend to be harder to hold while the student is seated.

It boils down to this: If you’re buying for a youngster, ask yourself this: what will keep their interest? What kind of music do they like? This will dictate whether to get an acoustic or an electric guitar. The last thing that you want to do is to dampen enthusiasm right off the bat! For an adult, think about getting as much quality as you can afford. They will be more appreciative.

Acoustic vs. Acoustic-electric… Yet another decision that beginners wrestle with…. But this time for no good reason!

Think about this – The whole reason that an acoustic guitar would have a pickup installed is to let more people, beyond your living room, hear what you are playing…. Ask yourself this question: Do I REALLY want more people hearing how I play right now? You’re a novice guitar player… and, unless you are some sort of prodigy, you’re probably not ready to be gigin’ just yet.

If the player is experienced, there are a couple of options to the acoustic-electric question. If they have an acoustic guitar that they love to play, think about getting a good pickup to install in their instrument. If you are shopping for a pickup, make sure that you know the make and model of the instrument. This information is crucial to the selection of the RIGHT pickup for their guitar.

If the experienced player is ready for a new instrument, prepare yourself… this could get expensive. However, there are many good used (pre-loved) instruments out there. Just be careful to check the instrument thoroughly…use your senses… and if possible, get a tech to look at the instrument for evaluation.

Check List-

Here is a quick guide that you can clip and take with you on your next guitar shopping trip

1 – Ask the Salesperson if they play. A player usually can answer your questions better and they can demonstrate the guitar if you do not play. Quiz them on their preferred style of music and their years of experience. Get to know them a little. Remember you may be relying heavily on this person’s experience and knowledge to help you make a purchase of an item that could cost several hundred dollars. If you don’t feel comfortable, ask for a manager. I feel that customer service is very important.

2 – Look for a guitar that appeals to the player. You wouldn’t want to buy a pair of shoes that were comfortable but Reeeaallly ugly, would you? Remember that some guitar players like “Funky” too… I do!

3 – Hey, look it over… lend it your ear. Inspect the guitar carefully. Check the neck pitch (the angle of the neck in relation to the body), Check the action (the distance of the strings from the fretboard) Feel the guitar neck and body… Strum it… Smell it… Taste it!  (If you’re comfortable with that)

4 – Ask about a warranty. On new guitars, a warranty can range from 1 year to a lifetime. On used guitars, ask about the return policy. If you have questions once you made the purchase, take the instrument to a qualified technician for evaluation. Most don’t charge for this… I don’t.

5 – Remember, a good setup is essential for a satisfying guitar playing experience. New or used guitars need to be setup for the individual player. A few extra dollars can be the difference between a beginner sticking with it or not. A setup makes a great gift for ANY player… anytime!

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