I played acoustic guitar almost exclusively for almost 30 years before made the switch to electric. Honestly though, I didn’t really make a “switch.” I added electric guitar as a regular tool in my inventory of tone. What drove me to add electric was the style of music that I was starting to explore at the time; plus, my church worship group was turning into a regular band, and though the contemporary Christian music we were playing worked fine with acoustic, frankly, many of them just sounded better with electric.
At that time, I actually did have a couple of electric guitars. But they were guitars that my little brother had lent to me, and they were in various states of disrepair, or when I could get them working, I wasn’t really playing music that needed an electric. And the only amp that I had was a 25 Watt Roland solid state amp that worked pretty well, but I also knew at the time, that I would have to get something with a bit more oomph (but that’s another story). In any case, suffice it to say that prevailing circumstances drove me towards the purchase of a new electric guitar, and thus began a journey into the wilderness of “TONE” that hasn’t stopped, even to this day.
Looking back on my experience, I thought I’d share some insights on what I’ve learned over the years. No, I won’t be telling you anything about a specific brand of guitar that you should purchase; rather, I’m going to simply provide some practical points you should consider when purchasing your first electric guitar.
1. You first have to come to terms with the fact that this will probably not be your last electric guitar.
Budgets notwithstanding, most people I know who have electric guitars almost invariably have more than one. There might be several reasons for this, but different brands and different guitar/amp configurations produce different sounds. For some, one is all they want or need. But for the majority of folks I know, once they got one, they eventually purchased another, then another, then another. I have my theories as to why this happens, but it certainly does happen.
2. You’ll never sound like Eddie Van Halen.
Or anyone else for that matter. You’ll sound like YOU. You can get pretty close to your idol, but understand that just because you get the same equipment as your favorite artist is not a guarantee that you’ll sound like them. Besides, being a copy cat is boring.
3. You can’t just buy an electric guitar. You will need an amp.
The most important point I can make with respect to an amp is that – budget notwithstanding – buy an amp that will fill the space that you will most like play. If it’s on stage, then you’ll need a bit of horsepower; especially if you won’t be miking the amp. But if you’re going to mostly play in your living space, a smaller amp will suffice.
As far as solid state vs. tubes are concerned… That’s a tough one. My personal inclination would be to go with a solid state amp like a Roland Cube or a hybrid like Line 6 DT series amp that runs on tubes but has modeling. These will get you “flavors” of the major tube amps, and that’s the important thing to note about tube amps. Each different major line: Fender, Marshall, Vox, and Mesa have specific tonal characteristics, and you need to test each individual kind to find which one you like. With a good modeling amp such as the ones I mentioned, you can get a feel for what you like before you lay out the cash to buy a traditional tube amp. Truth be told, I gigged with my Roland Cube 60 for a few years, even though I had already purchased Fender Hot Rod (which, I will say is a great tube amp to start out with).
What about boutique amps? Well, truth be told, most boutique amps are modeled after vintage models of most major brands. Victoria amps based upon traditional Fender designs. Aracom (which I play) are based upon vintage Marshall designs. Two Rock and Ceriatone are built upon mystical Dumble amp specs (these were originally Fender, if I remember). In many cases, the boutique amps correct certain design flaws and inefficiencies in the original specs, or perhaps outright copies, but they maintain the basic tonal characteristics of the designs upon which they’re based. So you still have to play several before you make a decision. So a modeling amp will buy you time to discover what characteristics appeal to you.
4. Buy what sounds good to YOU
Lots of folks you talk to about recommendations for guitars will make lots of recommendations on what to buy. The prevailing advice I hear is to get a Strat first. That’s not necessarily a bad idea. Strats are great guitars. Hell! I have three, and I also started out with a Strat based upon a recommendation from a friend. At the time, it was a great choice because I was playing almost all clean. But if I had to do it all over again, knowing what I know now, I don’t think I’d start with a Strat. I’d probably start with a Les Paul or some other humbucker-equipped guitar. I just prefer the fatter tone of humbuckers – always have. Irrespective of that, I would take a lot more time in making my choice to discover what’s appealing to me. Sure, I’d welcome the advice of others, but I’d ultimate make a decision based upon my own investigations.
5. Good tone can be achieved at any price…
Or, worded more directly. Just because you pay a higher price doesn’t guarantee that it sounds good. I’ve played lots of different guitars; some that reach into the 5-figures in cost. But that doesn’t mean the high-priced stuff sounded good to me. In fact, I have a few guitars that I paid well under $1000 that are absolute tone monsters! Case in point: My Squier Classic Vibe Telecaster that I got for $250 brand new on sale. It’s a total rocker, and one of my favorite guitars to play and gig. It has a pine body and maple neck. The prevailing wisdom would be that it shouldn’t sound that good that cheap. But it’s one of the truly great guitars in my collection. And hell, if I ever mess it up, it won’t be difficult to replace.
On the flip side, I have other guitars, like my Les Pauls, that you just can’t get cheaply. From that perspective, for that tone, I’d be willing to pay the higher price.
The point to this is that good tone is good tone. Sometimes you have to pay a high price for it, sometimes you don’t. But know this: High price doesn’t equate to good tone.
6. What about pedals?
Most likely you’ll probably want to get some pedals after you’ve purchased your guitar and amp. But if this is your first one, don’t get roped into buying pedals – yet. That said, with a modeling amp like the Line 6 or Roland Cube, you can use the on-board effects to buy yourself some time to play with pedals. But in spite of that, choosing pedals is a touchy subject because there are literally THOUSANDS of pedals out there. Again, I’m not going to recommend specific brands (though a good starter brand is BOSS), but I will recommend that you start with modulation effects first such as reverb, delay, and perhaps chorus or vibe.
Overdrive and distortion pedals are really tough to decide upon because there are tons of them out there, each providing different characteristics. And especially with overdrive pedals, you have to play lots of them. Personally, because I’ve found my fundamental tone, I tend to go with transparent overdrives like my Timmy and my new love the EHX Soul Food. But it’ll take a bit of time to find what you really like.
7. Ignore the jargon and don’t drink the Kool-Aid
This kind of points back to item 4 above about getting what sounds good to you. But it’s easy to get hot and bothered by a good sales pitch, especially if the salesperson puts on a great demonstration. Remember, you can only sound like you, so my advice when you’re testing out a guitar at a shop is to find a place to plug in and play, and forget about the demo. For all you know, the neck might not feel very good in your hands or once you start playing, the tone isn’t quite what you were expecting.
This advice extends to online demos as well. You can use the online demos as a means to get a tonal “feel” for the guitar, but in the end you will not know how a guitar performs – or any gear for that matter – until you play it yourself.
8. Build materials… er… wood
I was going to avoid talking about this, but lots of people will talk about it when you discuss guitars that I thought I should at least make some mention of it. Many people you speak to about woods will sometimes try to make you think that the woods make all the difference in the world with respect to tone. But several recent studies on this subject indicate that the type of wood has no effect whatsoever on tone, only on decay.
Personally, I’m not sure what side of the fence I fall on as each of my guitars sound different, and while my Les Pauls sound completely different from each other, they have a fairly distinct “Les Paul” tone. Same goes for all of my Strats; they all sound like Strats to me. Is this due to the wood? I don’t know. But what I do know is that I only buy what I like to play and what I like to hear, and my decision really doesn’t have much to do with woods.
For instance, when I got “Katie May” from Perry Riggs at Slash L Guitars for review, I knew wouldn’t be returning it. It felt and sounded like it was made for me! I didn’t find out what it was made of until I was ready to write a review of her, and by that time, it didn’t matter if it was made of mahogany and hard-rock maple with a rosewood fretboard. It just played and sounded incredible.
As for that research, here’s an interesting video explaining the physics behind tone:
I probably could’ve just said, “Look, if you want to get an electric guitar, go and play a bunch and figure out what you like.” But I wanted to discuss some of the “edge cases” associated with buying a guitar that could contribute to you possibly making a choice you regret later that you could avoid if you were aware of some of the gotchas.