The Essential Question
I have spent years of my life selling guitars in our flagship Sam Ash New York City guitar department. It is one of those locations where it is safe to say you just never know who might walk through those doors. From professional musicians to soccer moms who have probably only seen a guitar on their favorite late night program, we get them all. While the faces and skill level of those browsing in the guitar department change, the big question that any experienced sales associate can probably recite in their sleep remains the same.
This guitar costs $3,000 and this guitar costs $300.00, why?
The follow up questions are usually less predictable and often less pleasant. Are you some kind of crook? Do you take me for a fool? Ill spare you the complete details and vulgarities and instead offer up this guide to answering that first essential question. A question that is so common in guitar departments it may as well be the opening riff to Stairway to Heaven.
Positioning the Decision
I want you to imagine for a moment that you’re shopping for a new living room chair. You want the best price you can get so you start at the bottom. You look at the $25.00 dollar chair that you have to assemble yourself with limited directions. You immediately know it’s not for you. It hurts your back and you just can’t get comfortable. You still are not sure what you want but know your ideal chair is the polar opposite of this. So you go straight to the top. You waltz down 5th avenue and into that boutique featured on The Real Housewives. And there it is, a chair that even in the dead of the night feels as though it’s glowing, illuminated by rays of sunshine. You sit down and it feels so unwavering beneath you that its fortifications could protect you from all the discomfort, traffic, and long days that came before. It’s the chair you think about at work. It’s the chair you dream about in bed. Bottom line, it’s the chair that you deserve. Now that you have a good example of the two extremes, let’s get back to guitars.
Electric Guitar Sound Test: Pickup Lead Tone
When comparing the most affordable guitar in the starter pack to the vintage 59’ Gibson Les Paul, the name of the game is quality. For Electric guitars, a defining benchmark of quality is the type of pickups. A guitar pick up is a magnet that creates an electric field in which your strings can vibrate. This creates the signal that goes from your guitar cable to your amplifier. Therefore, the quality of your pickups is paramount to your tone. Describing something you need to hear like tone is no easy task but it is a necessity for those working in music stores. So please enjoy some of the following “intra department” lingo. When comparing the tone in a $300.00 guitar to that of a $3,000.00 guitar, the more affordable model would be considered muddy. Muddy means there is a lack of clarity in the sound and makes it harder to clearly hear the notes as you strum a chord (string to string).
Acoustic Guitar Sound Test: Wood Matters
Unlike electric guitars, acoustic guitars amplify themselves so the type and form of the wood heavily influences the vibrations, which in turn influences tone. High-end acoustic guitars like those made at the CF Martin Factory in Nazareth Pennsylvania are hand carved out of solid wood into the shape of a guitar. More affordable guitars often contain layered pieces of wood bound together. When comparing these two options the higher end guitar will almost always provide a louder volume and better clarity.
How does it feel?
Besides what you hear, the other critical sense all guitars players are concerned with is feeling. This is where the finer details scrutinized by makers of fine guitars really show their worth. Everything from the filing of the frets to the speed of your volume knob can impact the feel of the guitar. The affordable guitars that are made by machine on an assembly line will often feel less natural than a Fender Stratocaster crafted by a luthier in the custom shop.
As we wrap up with a virtual tour of a music store guitar department, it is important to remember like with all things music, Muddiness vs. Clarity, Good Sound vs. Bad Sound, are all subjective ideas and opinions. No matter what any one tells you, there are no wrong answers.
Affordable Guitars ($100 – $200)
Intro models that we offer at Sam Ash like the Squire Bullet Strat or the Carlo Robelli F550 are truly great guitars for those on a budget, new players, students, etc. They may not feel as comfy in our hands as higher dollar models or have the smooth and warm projection of a Taylor 800 Series but it is still a solid foundation with which to build your skill. It is also an ideal resource for learning about your own style and personality. Did you dig the type of pickup of your first Stratocaster or do does your new dream guitar now look more like an Ibanez Presitge.
Midrange Guitars ($300 – $750)
Compared to more budget friendly models, a “midrange” guitar will have better components like higher quality pickups (electric) or preamps (acoustic electrics). For acoustic guitars, models in this price point will indeed have the layered woods we referred to earlier on its back and sides. However, these guitars will offer what manufactures refer to as a solid top without layering woods. For electric guitars, you can expect the neck and bodies to feel better because the wood is higher quality. The pickups will also provide more character and life to your sound. It propels your tone from a simple sound occupying your ears for a few moments, to something more real and tangible. All of this empowers you to develop a personal style and ear for what you like. It helps those listening start to recognize you and not just your guitar.
High End Guitars ($1000 – $4000)
Now you look behind the counter to the guitars that glimmer under the showroom lights. The PRS Custom’s, Fender Stratocasters, Martin D-18’s and other premier instruments that rule the world’s biggest stages and most famous recording studios. These guitars are usually made in America or occasionally Japan and Germany. Workers who love making guitars and honor strict guidelines and processes make them in beautiful factories. They seek out tremendous cuts of tone woods from remote forests all over the world. Electric guitars in this price point will boast features like hand wound pickups and electronics carefully wired for pristine tone long into the life of the instrument. Acoustic guitars in this price point feature bodies crafted completely from solid wood all the way around the body. The projection is so clean and effortless that your guitar sings. This echelon of acoustic guitars seamlessly transitions to any tonal characteristic you need. Dark and Heavy/ Light and Bright? I could go on for hours and hours about these types of instruments but take my word for it, playing is believing.
We’re Here For You
I’ll leave you with this. Having an affordable model is always better than having no guitar. And there are exceptions to every rule. I’ve played $3,000 guitars that I didn’t care for, and I’ve played $200.00 guitars that I still play to this day. The most important thing is finding what guitar is the best for you. And don’t forget my fellow guitar associates and I am here to help. So come down to one of our Sam Ash Music stores throughout the country and play all day. Try the $300.00 and work your way up to $3,000. If you cant make it down or don’t live near our store then give us a call at 800-472-6274. We have experts standing by that will help you find your next guitar.