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Old 09-10-10, 12:38 PM   #1
SonataInFSharp
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How to Buy a *Cheap* Guitar?

So, I used to play acoustic guitar quite a bit until I outgrew my 3/4-size toy model, then I would just borrow guitars whenever I needed to play for whatever reason (of course I am not talking professional gigs whatsoever--just church stuff, hanging out with friends, etc).

I have been focusing most of my adult life on playing piano professionally, teaching, etc, so that is where my instrument-purchasing knowledge is (pianos).

I have had chances to play guitar more frequently lately, and I have been inspired to put more serious time into the instrument like the old days. Where piano is a serious instrument for me, it would be nice to have a hobby instrument, and guitar would be it.

The problem is that my own guitar is still that 3/4-size toy in my closet, and the only guitar to borrow is my mother-in-law's rickety old thing she used to play for elementary school music 20 years ago. I plan on borrowing her guitar again in the meantime, but...

I would like to purchase a new guitar for myself.

I would love to be able to spend $3000 on a nice acoustic guitar, but I can't. So I have to settle for a cheap one: I am hoping in the under-$500 range. If I find it to be impossible to find something nice in that price range, then I will just put it off until some day in the future.

Anyway, so how do I shop for a nice sub-$500 guitar? My friend who just bought a $200 guitar has been trying to give me advice, but she is a total beginner whereas I have playing off and on for 25 years...so while her advice is appreciated, she can't really offer me much other than "I got a super awesome guitar for $200! You should get the one I have!"

Anyway, my main concern is that the cheap guitar is in tune with itself...can guitars that cheap be tuned? I am not talking about just tuning the strings, I am talking about where a tech services the thing and does whatever-it-is-called so that it is in tune with itself. (Is there a correct term for this?) My toy in the closet was never in tune with itself--the strings would be in tune perfectly, but it was still not in tune with itself, so I am extremely sensitive to this, of course.

I am just going to be playing so-so often when I can; not classical playing (I wish), and nothing fancy--just to entertain myself, my kid, and maybe jam with some friends like I used to in the old, old days.

I know there are some very serious guitar people on FOO, so any suggestions? I hit up Google, but you know how that goes...it seems like all theory and no reality. When sites talk about "inexpensive models" costing "around $3000" then I know it's time to FOOgle, instead.

Thanks in advance....

In return, if anyone wants piano, violin, or slide-whistle buying advice, let me know.
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Old 09-10-10, 01:02 PM   #2
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Musicians Friend is the place to go to get a good but inexpensive guitar. Service is fast and great. Ibanez and Yamaha have high quality standards and use good materials on their guitars for suprisingly low prices. Washburn is also a well known name whose guitars can be reasonable to expensive. No, I am not letting go of any of my guitars!
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Old 09-10-10, 01:04 PM   #3
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Anyway, my main concern is that the cheap guitar is in tune with itself...can guitars that cheap be tuned? I am not talking about just tuning the strings, I am talking about where a tech services the thing and does whatever-it-is-called so that it is in tune with itself. (Is there a correct term for this?) My toy in the closet was never in tune with itself--the strings would be in tune perfectly, but it was still not in tune with itself, so I am extremely sensitive to this, of course.
I think it's called intonation. I'm not sure on acoustic, but I think you'd have to be able to move the bridge around. You're basically adjusting the string length so that the 12th fret is the same pitch as the 12th fret harmonic. That sounds like a royal pain if you can only move the entire bridge. On my electric, each string has its own saddle with an adjustment screw. Also, I think as the frets wear down it will change.
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Old 09-10-10, 01:07 PM   #4
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You are probably talking about intonation - the guitar playing in tune all the way up the neck. For $300-500 you should be fine, providing it is set up properly and you maintain it well, with regular service.

I would:

Stick with decent brand names - Gibson/Epiphone, Takamine, Ibanez....Even Martin makes decent guitars for $500ish the last time I looked (several years ago). They even made one with a shallower body and a bolt-on neck that sounded surprisingly good.

Shop around a lot. Play every model you can. Take your time and buy what feels/sounds good to you.

Better tone is usually had with a solid wood top. That will raise the price, and you may have very limited options at $500ish (forget spruce, but maybe 'smartwoods'). But again, don't drink the kool aid there - just trust your ears. Lots of laminated top guitars sound very nice indeed.

Regardless of where you buy (and you'll probably get better service at a mom&pop, more choices and lower prices at Guitar Center, et al), you should get a good service contract for a few months/years. Be that as it may, for a few extra bucks, I would heartily recommend locating the best luthier in your area and building a relationship there - just like a good LBS.

Get regular tune ups, and don't mistreat your gtr in terms of storage in extreme temps and humidity. The rule of thumb is, wherever you would feel uncomfortable (hot closet, cold/damp basement, freezing trunk of your car, etc), is a bad place to leave your gtr. Keep the temps and humidity as constant as possible and let it warm/chill slowly in the case when you go from one extreme to another.


Also, don't change string gauges unless you get the neck adjusted to compensate. You want to to keep the tension on the neck steady. The luthier can help you with any questions on care and maintenance.

Good luck and have fun!
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Old 09-10-10, 01:19 PM   #5
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Buy used, you will get more for the same money. Guitars are a lot like anything else, they take a big depreciation hit right after being bought. Craigslist would be a good place to look, as would guitar center (they take used guitars on trade in, as an example I bought my 5 string music man bass used from GC, 1000 retail, I got it for 400 out the door with a case). Also probably worth checking the pawn shops, since you are a musician, and have been playing you will know quality when you play it. As far as intonation goes, find a good shop in your area that specializes in acoustic instruments, it will probably run about 100.00 or so to do a full set up (plus the cost of the strings). Also note that guitars inherently have pitch issues as you move around the neck, it is a function of the fixed length from the bridge to the nut, unlike a piano where the harp shape and single string single pitch aspect control that.
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Old 09-10-10, 01:29 PM   #6
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Be sure to give the Hohner Essentials series of guitars a look. They are supposed to have great intonation and are very reasonably priced. Search YouTube for some side-by-side comparisons with more expensive guitars. They sound pretty good (but I won't be trading in my 1973 Martin D-35 anytime soon!).
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Old 09-10-10, 01:55 PM   #7
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Look at the Alvarez line. You can get some great guitar for your price point.

Getting to know a luthier and learning what to look for can help you find a deal on craigslist.
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Old 09-10-10, 07:51 PM   #8
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Buy used, you will get more for the same money. Guitars are a lot like anything else, they take a big depreciation hit right after being bought. Craigslist would be a good place to look, as would guitar center (they take used guitars on trade in, as an example I bought my 5 string music man bass used from GC, 1000 retail, I got it for 400 out the door with a case). Also probably worth checking the pawn shops, since you are a musician, and have been playing you will know quality when you play it. As far as intonation goes, find a good shop in your area that specializes in acoustic instruments, it will probably run about 100.00 or so to do a full set up (plus the cost of the strings). Also note that guitars inherently have pitch issues as you move around the neck, it is a function of the fixed length from the bridge to the nut, unlike a piano where the harp shape and single string single pitch aspect control that.
^^^^ Yes! I've bought a couple of pawn shop guitars that I was really happy with. Just remember, though: when you go into a pawn shop, be prepared to leave empty-handed. If you've played every guitar on the wall and still feel like you haven't encountered an acceptable level of quality, trust yourself and leave.
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Old 09-10-10, 08:59 PM   #9
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Musicians Friend is the place to go to get a good but inexpensive guitar. Service is fast and great. Ibanez and Yamaha have high quality standards and use good materials on their guitars for suprisingly low prices. Washburn is also a well known name whose guitars can be reasonable to expensive. No, I am not letting go of any of my guitars!
+1 to Musician's Friend
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Old 09-10-10, 09:01 PM   #10
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+1 to Musician's Friend
FYI, musicians friend is owned by Guitar Center.
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Old 09-10-10, 09:06 PM   #11
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Anyway, so how do I shop for a nice sub-$500 guitar? My friend who just bought a $200 guitar has been trying to give me advice, but she is a total beginner whereas I have playing off and on for 25 years...so while her advice is appreciated, she can't really offer me much other than "I got a super awesome guitar for $200! You should get the one I have!"
No. I have a $200 Yamaha. I bought it in college. It's fine to learn on, but I definitely plan to replace it. There's a lot of easily noticeable differences in sound and feel between my current "super awesome $200 guitar" and the $500-600 models I've tried out. Above that I, in my limited experience and dedication, start to have trouble discerning differences. Some of my more serious friends swear by their higher end instruments, however.

Quote:
When sites talk about "inexpensive models" costing "around $3000" then I know it's time to FOOgle, instead.
Yikes. I don't think any of the people I know would call a $3000 guitar cheap. I have friends who have spent that much, but they're all very protective of their instruments.


Anyways - like the advice above: shop around. Play a whole bunch of different models. Pay attention to the feels and sounds you like. Different makers will generally go for different sounds, so they select the wood type and geometry accordingly. You just need to try them out to see what you like. An Ibanez sounds different than a Takamine which sounds different than a Martin, all of which sound different than an Ovation.

Personally I find myself leaning towards the Takamine dreadnought sound and feel, but opinions are all over the place.
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Old 09-10-10, 09:11 PM   #12
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Go used. Music go Round, Craig's list, local music stores. Support your LMS.
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Old 09-11-10, 05:17 AM   #13
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another thought - a dreadnought shape (like the Martin D-18 D-28, D-45, etc etc) will typically have a deeper tone, more volume and less clarity. Originally they were intended to played with a pick and produce more volume for use with larger bands. They may have been intended for strumming but they are more or less the gtr of choice for fast single-note bluegrass flatpickers (Tony Rice et al). If you prefer to finger-pick, you may be happier with a smaller, rounder traditional shape which should have more highs. Those models may have a slightly wider fretboard and strings a hair further apart, although that kind of specific design is less prominent at lower price points.

Personally I just prefer the smaller shapes or a J-200 Gibson ("Jumbo" - large wide bouts but a small waist) type body, as I am just not comfortable physically holding a Dreadnought (which has a very wide waist). Again, try all the models you can. If you know you are more of a flatpick player or fingerstyle player, you can tell salespeople that to help narrow your search, but don't hesitate to try whatever is in the store in your price range.
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Old 09-11-10, 05:31 AM   #14
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Are you looking to get a nylon string acoustic or a steel string acoustic?

Do you want a warm mellow tone or a brighter tone?

Yes your talking about intonation in regard to keeping the instrument in tune with itself and with steel string electric guitars its normal to have a bridge that you can adjust the intonation with but most nylon or steel acoustics have fixed bridges. There is some room to adjust the bridge on these instruments if you get a file out and adjust the bridge.

Anyway I'll take a jump here. I've bought a few instruments on eBay (ukulele's) from some Vietnamese/Taiwanese sellers and honestly there instruments are fabulous and they sound great. These are ALL solid wood instruments with bone nuts and bridges and the quality just astounds me. OK, now I have read in the past of some complaints about these instruments but my experiences have been top notch but when buying anything on eBay you need to consider the risks and the postage is EXPENSIVE so take it into account in the total price. Watch a few auctions and find what you want at a good price and you will be WAY ahead.

I've bought numerous brand name ukulele's such as Kala and I have a top notch Cole Clark ukulele as well and these eBay instuments are better than the Kala's in numerous ways and right up there with the Cole Clark.

When it comes to intonation (staying in tune with itself) one of my Vietnamese ukulele's is as perfect as a stringed, fretted instrument can be and better than the Cole Clark. None of the Vietnamese ukuleles I have has bad intonation.

Anyway check out this seller and see his other items, http://cgi.ebay.com/Solid-Koa-6-Stri...#ht_7551wt_913

and another, http://cgi.ebay.com/Solid-Mahogany-G...#ht_5636wt_913

Here's a classic from another seller, http://cgi.ebay.com/SOLID-FLAME-MAHA...item35ab8e0e47 This seller is a little more controversial with many people claiming his guitars aren't up to scratch but the instrument I bought of him is acoustically top notch although the electrics are poor. Keep an eye out for a low starting price auction and limit what you are willing to bid and you could end up with a top notch bargain.

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Old 09-11-10, 06:42 AM   #15
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Dont do Musicians Friend or online for an Acoustic !!!
Low end acoustics vary wildly in quality no matter who makes them.
If it hurts to play, you wont stick with it. My Ibanez is a mid-range
model and totally sucks. period. Other cheaper ones at GC play better
but you have to try them. Make sure you can do single note stuff
in frets 5th thru 8 at minimum, and it'll prolly be OK.
I never use barre chords on an acoustic but you might want to do
a few up and down the neck and see how much pressure it takes to
get a clean sound. Less pressure means more painfree play time
Good luck and let us know what you got !!!
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Old 09-11-10, 07:32 AM   #16
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FYI, musicians friend is owned by Guitar Center.
Doesn't matter who owns it. I have always demo'd before buying online and send back what I don't like. MF is hassle free on returns.
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Old 09-13-10, 09:29 AM   #17
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Are you looking to get a nylon string acoustic or a steel string acoustic?

Do you want a warm mellow tone or a brighter tone?

Yes your talking about intonation in regard to keeping the instrument in tune with itself and with steel string electric guitars its normal to have a bridge that you can adjust the intonation with but most nylon or steel acoustics have fixed bridges. There is some room to adjust the bridge on these instruments if you get a file out and adjust the bridge.
I am looking for steel string accoustic, and a larger tone. The salesguy also said that the acoustic guitars had fixed intonation as they come from the factory. He said the only adjustments had nothing to do with intonation, like adjusting the neck for string height to accommodate different gauge strings, etc.

So, does this mean that if the intonation is off as it comes from the factory, then it's off for good?

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Other cheaper ones at GC play better
but you have to try them. Make sure you can do single note stuff
in frets 5th thru 8 at minimum, and it'll prolly be OK.
I never use barre chords on an acoustic but you might want to do
a few up and down the neck and see how much pressure it takes to
get a clean sound. Less pressure means more painfree play time
Good luck and let us know what you got !!!
I played a few and tried bar chords (not that I normally would, though) and it was tough to get a tone out of it no matter what, but I think it's more from my lack of playing in the past decade or so.

Anyway, I played about 10 guitars at Guitar Center (heh) and found a decent Seagull (S6?) for about $380. The salesdude said it's the hottest acoustic guitar right now, but that doesn't influence me. It was loud, more bright than mellow, and the sound took a long time to decay. Then I tried a $3000 guitar for fun and I didn't see any reason to have a $3000 guitar, to be honest. Of course I played guitars in the $99-200 range, too, and immediately understood what made the Seagull better.

That being said, I wasn't happy with any guitar being totally in tune with itself, but I think it was because I was using a tuner with a low-ish battery in a noisy environment. I tuned the strings to the tuner, but when I would *listen*, it still sounded a bit out of tune. Maybe my ears were having a bad day.
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Old 09-13-10, 10:22 AM   #18
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I could be off-base here, but if you are not used to roundwound bronze strings, and you have a good trained ear, you might just be hearing natural overtones.

Otoh, maybe those guitars just suck? Did the $3k gtr sound off to you also?

I think that's BS about acoustics coming 'fixed'. A Good Luthier can compensate at the bridge. It might involve installing a new saddle piece for the strings - which might be too cost-prohibitive, but I am sure players like Segovia or Parkening (who used every part of the neck) would not have settled for an instrument with poor intonation.
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Old 09-13-10, 10:26 AM   #19
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There is also a right & wrong way to tune - did you start from a flattened pitch and tune slowly up to concert pitches? If you tuned down to a note it is possible the guitar was drifting flat as you were playing.

How well the strings were installed has a huge effect on tuning stability as well, and many stores do a crappy set-up job, especially on lower-priced instruments.

Finally, not sure how it compares to the hammered notes of a piano, but - especially on the lower wound strings, you will get considerable fluctuation in pitch as you hit a string and it decays. You can see this yourself on the tuner's gague, if you hit a single string hard as when playing normally - an open E string will boing as high as F# after being struck, before resolving down to E or even E flat if the tuning is drifting at all.
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Old 09-13-10, 10:51 AM   #20
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There is also a right & wrong way to tune - did you start from a flattened pitch and tune slowly up to concert pitches? If you tuned down to a note it is possible the guitar was drifting flat as you were playing. ...
Finally, not sure how it compares to the hammered notes of a piano, but - especially on the lower wound strings, you will get considerable fluctuation in pitch as you hit a string and it decays. You can see this yourself on the tuner's gague, if you hit a single string hard as when playing normally - an open E string will boing as high as F# after being struck, before resolving down to E or even E flat if the tuning is drifting at all.
on my electric, I bend the strings a bit to set them in place. maybe not a good idea on acoustic? as for the fluctuation, what's the correct point to tune to? moderate picking/volume? i've toyed with the idea of getting an acoustic.
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Old 09-13-10, 11:01 AM   #21
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You should be able to get a good acoustic guitar for 500ish. Look for a Yamaha, Alvarez, Epiphone. Sigma , or Takamine. For $500 you might find something with a nice solid spruce top used. Make sure the neck is comfortable to your hand size in the open positions. DO NOT buy an acoustic with old strings, ask the shop or seller to change them or you will never know if the intonation is right. To check the intonation just tune the open strings to an electronic tuner then check all the octaves and open position chords (c a g e d) If you're a professional pianist I am sure you know a guitar player who can help here or maybe even has a spare for sale?
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Old 09-13-10, 11:59 AM   #22
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There is also a right & wrong way to tune - did you ...
MMM. Sesame seared yellowfin tuna is the right way to tune a fish.
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Old 09-13-10, 01:34 PM   #23
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on my electric, I bend the strings a bit to set them in place. maybe not a good idea on acoustic? as for the fluctuation, what's the correct point to tune to? moderate picking/volume? i've toyed with the idea of getting an acoustic.
by 'bending' do you mean as in bending notes?

That could work well, but what I was shown many years ago and it seems to well for new strings especially is to tune to the pitch or close and then gently but firmly grab them from underneath and tug away from the instrument. You're basically tightening and taking all the slack out of the windings around the tuning pegs and at the bridge/tailpiece. I do this three or four times per string, retuning up to pitch after each tug. You should notice less and less drop in pitch each time as the string gets more taut/stable.

I think the pulling would work fine on acoustic or electric. Once the slack is gone, I would pluck the notes firmly, not feathering them, but not doing a hard hit either. you have to expect some drift as the note rings if you strike the strings with any power and let them ring. this is much more obvious with open strings.
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Old 09-13-10, 01:41 PM   #24
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Old 09-13-10, 01:46 PM   #25
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I got an epiphone les paul for around $600 and it was a pretty good guitar. Unfortunately I needed some money a while back and had to part with it But I still have my alvarez acoustic that belonged to my mother before I was even born. I'm never letting that thing go.
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