It's common to hear guitarists raving about a certain make or type of guitar on this website or the other, and it can be a bit disconcerting for a new guitar player who doesn't really know what's what in the guitar world. Unless very lucky, our first guitar tends to be just about serviceable and kind of average, but with a little guidance it is possible to buy a guitar that plays well and sounds great without breaking the bank. For a next student, ease of playing is really important. Your fingers are going to hurt and so anything we can do to make this easier is welcome.
Next, do the tuning knobs turn easily and seem to be good quality? Stainless steel with the gears immersed in an oil bath are best. Check that the body is sound and there are no rattles or squeaks when you play. That's about it. The rest of it is all part of the construction and can't be assessed really, though the sound will give you a good indication of the guitar quality. For example, the bass note of a cheaper guitar will not sound very rich and will decay quickly. The quality of note decay is called 'sustain'. If you pick the bass E of a Martin guitar, the note will sound for a long time. On a cheap guitar it just won't have the legs.
First thing is to check if the guitar is easy to fret, which means getting hold of the thing and trying it out! Is the action high or low? The action is the space between the strings and the neck. If it's too high, then it will be difficult to play and keep in tune. If too low, then the strings will buzz if you play too hard - it's a compromise. Action set up is best left to a specialist luthier, although there's no harm trying it out yourself on a cheap guitar. All you need is the right allen key to adjust the truss rod located inside the sound box.
What we are looking for here is the best price for a reasonable quality instrument. If we have a range of say, 300 to 3000 dollars, do we really need to push towards the high price end? Actually, the answer is 'Not a all!' Most well-made guitars between 300 and 1000 dollars will do nicely for the vast majority of players. The better sound quality you get for the extra 2000 dollars can hardly be registered by most people, and certainly doesn't stop an audience from appreciating your music.
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