by Mark King
|1966, $18 WONDER, AFTER MANY REBUILDS AND MODS|
HOW TO BUY A CHEAP ELECTRIC GUITAR
I got my first electric guitar back in 1966, it cost $18 at a warehouse sale so I named it “The $18 Wonder”. I still own it and it still works thanks to some upgrades I applied over the last 50+ years.
I’ve come up with some things you should look for when evaluating inexpensive electric guitars which can be new or used. All these characteristics also apply to high priced instruments.
The first section is guitar anatomy, here we’ll consider the important physical parts of an electric guitar. Get to know these so you can quickly evaluate any instrument.
ANATOMY OF AN ELECTRIC GUITAR
Neck, Headstock, Nut, Frets, Fingerboard
Bridge -fixed, vibrato system, Floyd Rose
Pickup(s) - Single coil, Humbucker, Mini Humbucker
|GIBSON AND FENDER STRING LENGTHS SIDE-BY-SIDE|
The scale is the string length from where the string starts at the bridge and ends at the nut. The distance between the frets varies depending on the scale. The longer the scale length the greater the distance between the frets.
Short Scale- I have a 1960 Fender Duo Sonic which is a short scale guitar, the string scale length is only 22-inches and it was sometimes referred to as a “student model”. Newer versions Fender has released utilize a 24” string length. This makes them popular for younger players with shorter fingers.
Gibson Scale- Most Gibson electric guitars utilize a 24.75” scale. Shorter scale length makes the frets closer together on higher notes above the 12th-fret, this can make it more difficult to play in the higher octaves, or maybe easier to play because everything is closer together.
Fender Scale- Stratocaster and Telecaster guitars utilize a 25.5” scale. Fender occasionally takes liberties with scale length so it is something to verify on the model you’re considering. I have a mini-Stratocaster which has a 22” scale, the frets are quite close together up high on the neck. Fender is currently fielding some limited edition shred models which are made in Japan, these are outfitted with 25” scale.
Generally speaking adult-sized hands work best on guitars with scale length of 24” to 26”.
|AMERICAN STANDARD STRATOCASTER|
The Fender Stratocaster body shape is iconic. One reason it’s still so popular is because the body is shaped so it is comfortable to play. Sharp edges are rounded off in the right places so the guitar hugs up close to the player. Alder, walnut, mahogony, poplar and maple are popular body woods because they’re abundant and lower priced than more exotic tonewoods like Koa and Rosewood. Ash and swamp-ash have become more scarce and expensive due to insects and environmental issues but they’re considered high quality tone woods.
|WASHBURN WITH PARTICLE BOARD BODY|
The sound of an electric guitar is influencecd by the material the body is made out of, this is a great source of arguments among guitar players. Some woods are becoming more rare so these typically cost more. My $18 Wonder has a particle-board body but I’ve outfitted it with 1970’s Gibson ES355 humbucking pickups and proved that even an ultra cheap electric guitar can sing when it’s equipped with great sounding pickups. I also own a Washburn electric guitar which has a particle board body lurking under a thick coat of black paint. Three Seymour Duncan “Little ’59” humbuckers made this $55 pawn shop axe into a rock’n monster. All things considered I prefer the body is constructed of solid wood such as mahogony but even particle board and composite bodies can sound very good with the right pickups installed correctly.
|FENDER MAPLE NECK AND FINGERBOARD|
The neck is extremely important, this is where you, the player, interact with the pitch of the notes you’re playing. The neck should be comfortable in your hand. The thickness of the neck from the front (where the frets are) to the back where your hand resides is important and everyone has different opinions. Various terms like “C” shaped, are used in describing the neck shape. I prefer a thin neck from front to back because I have small hands and short fingers. I like a wider fingerboard because it helps me play complex chords more cleanly with all notes ringing clearly.
|FENDER BOLT-ON NECK|
Where the neck joins the body is an important joint. The neck can either be screwed to the body or it may be glued-in and thus becomes an inseparable part of the body. Both methods of attaching the neck can work well. A neck attached with screws is typically referred to as a "bolt on neck”.
|JACKSON GLUED-IN NECK JOINT|
|STRATOCASTER HEADSTOCK WITH STRING TREE|
The Headstock is the end of the neck which is home to the tuning machines, string trees (if applicable) and the nut. The tuning machines should be easy to turn and they should hold their position to keep your tuning stable.
|FENDER STRAIGHT HEADSTOCK|
Fender guitars have necks with straight head stocks that don’t angle back, Fender uses little metal pieces on the headstock called “string tree’s, these are there to hold the strings in position and to increase string tension.
|GIBSON ANGLED HEADSTOCK|
Most Gibson guitars have the headstock angled-back which increases string tension and eliminates the need for string trees.
FRETS- These are the little pieces of metal that determine the pitch. Frets need to be in the right places, their placement is determined by a mathmatical equation, if they’re not in exactly the right places the guitar will not play in tune. The ends of the frets should be smooth, not sharp. Finishing the frets nicely is a labor intensive process so lower priced guitars may have shoddy detailing on the frets. If you’re handy you can buy files and polishing erasers from Stew Mac, use the files to remove sharp ends. If the frets are in the wrong places there is no fixing that other than a replacement neck which is usually impractical on a budget instrument.
|LAURELWOOD FINGERBOARD ON SQUIRE BASS|
This is the wood that the frets are mounted in. Typically it is Rosewood, Maple or Ebony. Maple and Ebony are very hard woods. Rosewood can be quite beautiful. The fingerboard material can certainly affect the tone of an instrument but all three of these woods work well. Indian Laurel is a popular fingerboard material on many budget guitars.
NUT- The nut guides the strings from the headstock to the fingerboard and controls the spacing of the strings at the top of the neck. The nut is typically made from plastic, bone or synthetic material. It is crucial for good tone to have the nut properly installed. The slots in the nut need to fit the gauge of string you’re using and the strings need to exit the nut cleanly on the performance side which feeds the frets.
|REPLACEMENT BONE NUT ON GIBSON LES PAUL|
Personally I prefer a nut made of bone, it’s hard, does not wear out easily and when installed correctly the sustain and tone of the instrument is improved. Plastic is my least favorite nut material, it’s very common on inexpensive instruments. Replacing a plastic nut with a bone nut can make a substantial improvement to a guitars tone and sustain. The cost to have a reputable guitar-tech replace a plastic nut with bone is anywhere from $50 to $100 due to the labor involved cutting and shapping the new piece.
|LOCKING NUT WITH ALL-PARTS HANDLES|
Floyd Rose trem systems utilize a special form of the nut called a “locking nut”. The locking nut clamps the strings so they can’t move depending on usage of the tremolo arm.
TUNING MACHINES OR TUNERS
|LOCKING TUNERS ON JACKSON|
The most important characteristic for tuners is that they are stable and hold their tune. Locking tuners have a little knob on the back which holds the string when cranked tightly. It’s like a little vice holding the string and preventing it from slipping in the tuner.
There is a way of installing your strings which makes locking tuners unnecessary in my opinion. Locking tuners can make string changes a little easier but they are not necessary for reliable tuning provided you know how to install your strings so they won’t slip.
Budget instruments don’t usually have locking tuners but I wanted to describe what they are for newcomers. Don’t confuse locking tuners with a locking nut, they are two different locking mechanisms but they both aim to keep your tuning more stable.
Kluson, Schaller, Gotoh, Grover and Sperzel are some of the biggest brands of tuners.
FIXED BRIDGE, SYNCRONIZED TREMOLO, WHAMMY BAR, FLOYD ROSE
The bridge is located at the opposite end of the string from the nut. The bridge is a critical part of creating tone and sustain.
|GIBSON STOP TAIL PIECE AND TUNAMATIC BRIDGE|
A fixed bridge like you’ll find on many Gibson guitars, is capable of good sustain and tuning stability. There is a reason most Gibson Les Paul guitars are outfitted with a tunamatic bridge and a stop tail piece. This combination of solid parts with minimum variables provides copius amounts of sustain and tuning stability. The classic Fender Telecaster is another example of a fixed bridge. As you peruse budget guitars online you’ll see models that imitate the Gibson and Fender technologies.
|STRATOCASTER 2-POINT MODERN TREMOLO|
The bridge function may be combined with a “whammy bar” or “synchronized-tremolo” arm for adding wavering tone to a sustaining note or chord. A cheap inexpensive whammy bar is usually a short path to bad tuning problems you’ll want to avoid. If the whammy bar does not come back to exactly the same place everytime then your tuning will be off after the slightest use.
The bridge is also home to setting the intonation on a guitar. Intonation is the fine adjustment of string length to exactly the right amount so a string plays perfectly in-tune all up and down the neck. The Gibson Tunamatic style bridge is popular to copy because it makes intonation adjustment easy and reliable.
|FLOYD ROSE TREMOLO ON JACKSON|
Floyd Rose is a brand, a manufacturer and a design for a vibrato/tremolo system which attempts to eliminate tuning problems. Floyd Rose systems manufactured by Floyd Rose are of the highest quality and offer the greatest stability and reliability.
|BUDGET GUITAR WITH LICENSED FLOYD ROSE TREMOLO|
Floyd Rose also licenses their technology to budget manufacturers so there are many systems advertised as Floyd Rose but in reality they are “licensed” copies with varying degrees of quality depending on who made them. Look for the wording “Licensed Floyd Rose” and avoid these if possible. The worst licensed versions don’t stay in tune at all, you’ll be constantly adjusting the tuning on these ultra cheap models, avoid them.
Floyd Rose systems use a locking nut to prevent strings from shifting around in the nut and becoming stuck in an out of tune position. If the strings are locked they can’t move regardless of what you do with the vibrato/tremolo arm. A locking nut is an extra source of problems for players who are just starting out.
For a budget instrument I recommend a fixed bridge and no locking nut. Keep it simple, good hardware adjusted well will provide good tones and hours of playing enjoyment.
The pickups on an electric guitar are the source of your sound and they influence the tone more than any other single factor. Inexpensive guitars are usually equpped with very cheap pickups which may not sound so great.
Pickups can be “active” or “passive”. Active pickups have additional in-built electronic circuitry which requires power such as an onboard battery or maybe an external power supply or sometimes both an onboard battery and external power as options. Passive pickups don’t need batteries or external power.
SINGLE COIL PICKUPS-
|STRATOCASTER SINGLE COIL PICKUPS|
For many years Fender has been a big proponent of single coil pickups although they do manufacture guitars which utilize humbucking pickups. Looking at a single coil pickup it is easy to see that there is only one coil compared to a humbucking pickup which clearly has two coils. Single coil pickups typically have lower output volume, sound brighter and have less bass than humbucking pickups. Humbucking pickups may have the coils exposed or they may be under a metal cover.
|SEYMOUR DUNCAN HUMBUCKING PICKUPS|
P-90- The P-90 is a single coil pickup that is made to have high output. It is a bright sound with a lot of midrange. This design gained popularity on inexpensive Gibson guitars like the Les Paul Junior. Leslie West made P-90’s sound amazing.
HUMBUCKING PICKUPS- Gibson guitars are famous for their humbucking pickups, the P.A.F. (patent applied for) is iconic for its use on Les Paul guitars. Over the years Les Pauls have featured P-90 and various other strange Gibson pickup designs but the humbucking is the most commonly used pickup. Angus Young, Slash and Joe Bonamasa use Gibson guitars with full size humbucking pickups.
MINI-HUMBUCKERS- For many years Gibson made a model called “Les Paul Deluxe” which used smaller humbucking pickups. They also used these pickups on “Firebird” models. The mini pickups were not dipped in anything to prevent them from being microphonic so they are notorius for unpleasant squealing feedback.
Active Pickups are popular with a lot of heavy metal players for higher output volume and more sophisticated onboard tone control. EMG is a big brand name of active pickups.
Budget instruments don’t normally have active pickups. I recommend standard “passive” electronics for new guitar buyers.
|STRATOCASTER CONTROLS WITH BLADE SWITCH|
The control knobs are attached to potentiometers which are most often referred to as “pots”. Pots have a couple of important characteristics, the most important of which is the electrical value in the circuit inside your guitar.
The other important characteristic is “how hard is the pot to turn?”. I like pots that are super easy to turn but friends of mine like pots that are more difficult to turn because they are less likely to be bumped into a bad position. It’s a choice you get to make.
Most budget guitars come with cheap miniature pots. If they become problematic it’s easy and relatively inexpensive to replace them with much higher quality parts. Alpha, CTS, Seymour Duncan and Bourns are popular brands of replacement pots. Bourns actually manufactures pots, they make some of the easiest to turn and most reliable components. Seymour Duncan pots are manufactured to their specifications by Bourns.
PICKUP SELECTOR SWITCH
|GIBSON SG ROUND SELECTOR SWITCH|
Guitars that have more than one pickup also have a selector switch to pick what combination of pickups is ON. There are big differences in switches. Some are round like those normally found on Gibson guitars such as the Les Paul and SG.
|BLADE PICKUP SELECTOR ON FENDER STRATOCASTER|
Some switches are a blade-like mechanism as found on Fender Stratocaster and Telecaster guitars. The switch should be easy to operate and not cause any electrical noise when connected to an amplfier.
|STRAT STYLE OUTPUT JACK AND TREMOLO|
The output jack is an often overlooked component but it is a very important piece. Budget guitars are notorius for having poor quality output jacks. Poor quality means a number of things, perhaps the plug on the guitar cord is not held tight which can cause static. Another bad quality is poor metal plating on the jack, this can also lead to static and noise. Noise and crackle when you move around while playing guitar is often caused by a bad output jack.
|LES PAUL OUTPUT JACK|
|SG OUTPUT JACK|
Switchcraft is an old American brand and they make quality output jacks which are available as replacemernt parts for low-quality components. Switchcraft jacks feature sturdy construction, high quality metal surfaces and good insulation materials between the layers. I have replaced many low quality output jacks with Switchcraft number-eleven components which is my favorite for long term reliabiilty. A #11 jack is around $5 from Amazon so a quality output jack is not out of reach pricewise.
Strings are a huge personal choice. Thicker strings require stronger fingers to push down and bend. Lighter strings are much easier to bend but they can be more difficult to play in-tune since slight physical movements equal sharper tuning and less pleasing sound. A replacement set of six high quality electric guitar strings ranges in price from $4 to $14 depending on marketing hype.
|QUILTED MAPLE TOP ON JACKSON WITH FLOYD ROSE|
The chemistry used to finish a guitar can affect the sound. In my opinion the finish is one of the least important tone-modifiers but there are some players who swear this is important.
|QUILTED MAPLE TOP ON JACKSON WITH FIXED BRIDGE AND LOCKING TUNERS|
In my experience the biggest factor when it comes to finish is how the back of the neck feels in your hand. My Gibson Flying Vee came with a “vintage” finish all over it including the back of the neck. The original factory finish felt sticky to me. I paid a guitar shop to refinish it to a glassy smooth finish that my fingers would not stick to.
If you’ve read this far then you’re hopefully more familiar with all the parts of the instrument but “what should you buy?”. Is it safe to buy online? What if the guitar is not right?
Generally for new guitar players I recommend a two-pickup guitar with a fixed bridge (no tremolo/vibrato arm). Some of my favorite electric guitars are two pickups with a switch, a single volume and a single tone knob. Guitars with a fixed bridge have less tuning issues, fewer knobs means less things to get set wrong.
BUYING NEW- Know your dealer, do some research and read reviews. There are big differences between online dealers, some have no-return policies on certain items. Generally guitars are returnable but you should find out before giving the seller your payment information.
If you buy a new guitar online treat it very carefully until you’re positive you want to keep it. If you put a ding or scratch in the finish you might lose 15-to-20% of your purchase price if you decide to return the instrument.
Reputable dealers have guitar technicians who go over returns very carefully, they can spot nicks and dings that normal humans don’t see.
Play each string at each fret up and down the neck. Do the strings ring clear or do they buzz against some of the frets? They should ring clear with no buzz.
Look over the finish carefully, look for flaws that could reflect construction problems or possible defects.
Do the tuners work smoothly? Do they hold position? Does the guitar play in-tune all over the fingerboard?
Does the pickup selector switch work smoothly and without clicks or pops when connected to an amp? The switch should be noise free. Most really cheap switches are not noise free when you’re selecting pickups.
With an electric guitar plugged into an amplifier, turn the pots up and down while playing. The volume should change but there should not be noise or crackle. A dirty switch or noisy pots may be corrected with a shot of electronic-cleaner but a new guitar should not need that.
When you plug a guitar cord in does it fit the jack on the guitar well? It should be easy to insert but should not spin around or be loose. It should be easy to pull the plug out of the guitar without feeling like you’re going to break something.
Buy an electronic tuner. You can get a clip-on Snark tuner for under $15. Players usually clip these on to the headstock of the guitar, the tuner picks up the note by sensing vibrartion through the body and neck.
My personal favorites are the strobe tuners by Peterson. They offer clip-on models and floor stomp box style tuners which are very stable and easy to read. Learning to get your guitar in-tune and keep it there is one of the most important tasks for any new guitar player.
Buy a guitar that excites you, the more thrilled you are the more likely you are to succeed at learning to make good noises with it. You might also keep in mind when it’s time to get rid of the instrument, a good brand name can help a used guitar sell on Reverb or eBay.
A FEW BUDGET GUITAR BRAND SUGGESTIONS- Please note, I don’t get any revenue or perks for recommending the following, they’re just companies I’ve had good luck with. Shop wherever you get the best product, the best service and the best price.
|HEAVILY MODDED FENDER SQUIRE SHORT SCALE BASS|
I like a lot of Fender Squire guitars and I’ve owned several. These are produced in foreign countries for Fender, the quality is generally good. I have a Fender Squire bass that sounds as good as my friends $12,000 Alembic (after I added new pickups, nut and bridge :-)
JACKSON- Jackson offers guitars starting at only $149 at Sweetwater. Generally speaking I think the quality of the Jacksons are better than Squire. Fender owns Jackson so all these low end models may be produced in the same factory. Do your research!
IBANEZ - Another big brand with models starting under $200. I’ve found that even the inexpensive Ibanez guitars are pretty good because they’re hoping to step you up to a higher priced model as your skills improve.
MONOPRICE- I don’t know how this company sells guitars for these prices. If I was looking for a REALLY cheap new guitar I’d see what Monoprice has in stock.
GUITAR FETISH- Another online source for unique budget priced instruments with a lot of features. I like the simplicity of their Earl Slick guitars.
There are lots of places to buy instruments. I’ve found some amazing deals in pawn shops where I look for guitars that don’t work, stores hate when they have a dead guitar, this drives the price down even lower. Usually it’s just a simple broken wire or a bad output jack.
|$55.00 WASHBURN PAWN SHOP SPECIAL WITH SEYMOUR DUNCAN LITTLE '59 PICKUPS|
I’ve bought dead Fender Squire Stratocasters for $49, I installed a new switch or jack or just soldered a wire to get these bargain finds back in action. Don’t hesitate to think outside the box to find your perfect cheap electric guitar, maybe a friend has a guitar languishing unplayed that you can buy for low cost.
I gave you a lot of information about guitar anatomy because you should not let “cheap price” be your only deciding factor. A cheap guitar you don’t play is no bargain. Find one that is fun and easy to play, does it excite you? It should! Playing guitar is fun, creative and a great way to spend an afternoon.
Good music to you!
This article is ©February 2021 by Mark King. It’s not ok to copy or quote without written permission.