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How to Evaluate a Guitar

When you go shopping for a new guitar, it's easy to get overwhelmed by the number of guitars available in every style. It's important to know how to evaluate a guitar's quality to ensure that you are getting the right guitar for you. Knowing how to evaluate guitar can help you understand how two similar guitars can be so different with respect to materials, workmanship, and options.

You don’t have to be an expert to be a good judge of quality. If you have a little experience, you can tell just about all you need to know by playing a guitar for a while. A quality guitar looks good, plays in tune, frets easily, and holds up under abuse (the musical kind, anyway). Apart from finding a guitar that simply looks good, you should check out the following three categories of quality.

Construction

A guitar’s construction determines whether it’s an electric solidbody guitar or an acoustic archtop. Different construction methods use different materials and require a different build approach. Construction considerations generally fall into three categories.

  • Solid wood or laminated wood (acoustic guitars only)

  • Tops and body caps (electric guitars only)

  • Neck construction

Materials

One way to tell why a guitar is expensive is to simply look at the materials used. It’s a good bet that the better materials (abalone inlays as opposed to plastic ones) wind up on better guitars — ones with construction methods and workmanship to match. Evaluating materials comes down to:

  • Woods used: The rarer the wood, the more expensive.

  • Hardware: The better the hardware, the longer it lasts and the more reliably it operates.

  • Pickups and electronics (electrics only): Custom pickups and electronics add value, but also cost.

Workmanship

Most guitars these days exhibit excellent workmanship, or they don’t make it off the factory floor. Still, mistakes slip through, so you do have to inspect any instrument you play for obvious defects, like cracks, bad joints (with gaps or bad fits), scratches, rough-sanded or unfinished areas, and glue spots.

For acoustic guitars that cost more than $600, look for:

  • Gapless joints

  • Clean and glob-free gluing (in the top and back bracing)

  • A smooth and even finish application

  • A good setup

For electrics, you also need to check these things:

  • Check that the metal parts are tight and rattle-free.

  • Check that tuning machines turn easily and that there’s no slop or play in the gears.

  • The metal should be smooth.

  • Make sure that the paint or coating over any hardware isn’t masking any rough spots.

  • The frets should feel smooth as you run your fingers along both sides of the neck.

  • No single fret should stick out enough to grab or catch the skin of your fingers.

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