What makes a quality guitar: a full guitar buyer’s guide

by Joost Nusselder | Updated on:  May 29, 2022

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When you’re buying a guitar you want to get the most value for your buck.

There are many different factors you need to consider when shopping for a guitar-from the type of music you want to play, to the size and shape of the instrument.

What makes a quality guitar: a full guitar buyer's guide

Even if you choose Fender guitars, there are just so many factors and features to consider, that it can be overwhelming.

Guitar makers are constantly updating and changing the design and parts.

The guitar’s sound is a clear indication of how good the instrument is but there’s more to it. Good fretwork, a high-quality body wood or material, consistent leveling, and durable hardware that keeps the guitar in tune are just some of the features of a good guitar.

In this comprehensive guide, we’ll discuss everything you need to look for when buying a guitar in full detail.

I’m discussing what to look for in both acoustic and electric guitars in this guide. You’ll learn how to pick a guitar with the best sound quality

What to consider before looking for a suitable guitar

When it comes to vintage and modern guitars, there are a few key factors that you need to consider as a buyer.

But before you start to look at the features and build, you need to decide what you’re looking for.

Type of guitar

The first thing you need to do is decide which type of guitar you want to buy.

There are two main types of guitars:

  1. acoustic guitar
  2. electric guitar

If you’re not sure, think about the type of music you want to play. If you want to play metal or rock, then an electric guitar is probably what you’re looking for.

If you want to play classical or flamenco music, then an acoustic guitar is probably what you’re looking for.

If you’re not sure, then an acoustic guitar is a good all-rounder choice.

Archtop guitars are also an option, which is a type of acoustic, or semi-acoustic guitar that has a hollow body. The archtop is often used in jazz music.

Acoustic-electric guitars are a type of acoustic guitar that can be plugged into an amplifier to make the sound louder.

Size and shape of the instrument

The size and shape of the guitar will also impact your decision. For instance, a smaller guitar may be more comfortable for you to play if you have small hands.

Similarly, if you’re looking for an acoustic guitar to take with you on camping trips, you’ll want to choose a smaller guitar that is easy to carry.

Acoustic guitar body styles are different from the electric guitar’s body. The different shapes of the instruments contribute to their distinctive guitar sound.

Price

Of course, the price is also an important consideration. You’ll need to decide how much you’re willing to spend on a guitar before you start shopping.

The highest-quality guitars are expensive – and that can be said for acoustics and electrics alike.

That’s not to say cheaper guitars can’t be good, but usually, the price is a reflection of the workmanship and component material quality (i.e solid wood vs laminate).

Now let’s move on to the actual guitar features and components that make up a quality instrument.

What is a high-quality guitar?

This is a question that has been asked by guitarists for centuries.

With the myriad of choices available on the market, it can be difficult to know where to start when looking for a quality guitar.

With these factors in mind, let’s take a closer look at what makes a quality guitar. I’m listing the common features to look for in both electric and acoustics.

Brand

Professional musicians prefer certain guitar brands and for good reason. There are some excellent brands out there like:

  • Fender
  • Paul Reed Smith
  • Gibson
  • Martin guitars
  • Taylor guitars
  • Epiphone
  • Yamaha
  • Lee Paul

These companies have been around for decades and have a reputation for making high-quality guitars.

Of course, there are many more and it depends on the individual guitar model.

Do your research on different guitar brands before you make a decision. Not all branded guitars are actually that great while there are some small luthiers making amazing instruments!

Build

The first thing you’ll want to look for is a guitar that is well-made. This means that the guitar should be constructed from high-quality materials and should be built to last.

The body of the guitar is the most important part. For an acoustic guitar, you’ll want to look for a solid wood body with no sharp edges.

For an electric guitar, you’ll want to look for a well-made body with no sharp edges and a good finish. 

The best premium guitar woods include:

  • maple
  • mahogany
  • Sitka spruce
  • rosewood
  • koa
  • cedar

All wood can warp over time, but the woods listed above are less likely to warp than other cheaper options.

Examine the instrument from all angles to notice any deformities or warped areas.

Craftsmanship refers to how the guitar is essentially built. It’s important to examine how the parts are glued together.

The parts of high-quality guitars are tightly glued and joined together. Things like frets and the bridge may not stay in place on less expensive guitars.

You need to pay special attention to the neck joint because it is a critical part of the guitar and all of its components must be properly connected for it to work properly.

When gluing, the seemingly simple task is a time-consuming one that must be done meticulously or else the joints of a guitar may become loose over time as it is played.

Action

The next thing you’ll want to look for is a guitar with good action.

This means that the strings should be close to the fretboard, but not so close that they buzz when you play them.

If a guitar is not properly actioned, it is very hard to play. The action is the distance between the strings and the fretboard.

If the action is too high, it will be difficult to press down the strings. If the action is too low, the strings will buzz when you play.

The ideal action is one where you can comfortably press down the strings without the strings buzzing.

Fretwork

The fretwork is another important factor to consider when looking for a quality guitar.

The fretwork is the workmanship of the frets themselves. If the fretwork is not up to par, it will be difficult to play the guitar.

Look for even spacing between the frets, and smooth edges on the fretboard.

Quality parts

Electric guitars also have durable, good-quality electronic parts.

In an electric guitar, you’ll want to look for an instrument with good electronics. This means that the pickups and other electronic parts should be of high quality and should be durable.

The best guitars are made of high-quality materials which means that there is minimal error tolerance and the guitar’s action is aligned in a way that avoids any buzzing noises and unwanted sounds.

Tone

In addition, you’ll want to consider the sound of the guitar.

The tone of the guitar is affected by the type of wood used to construct the body and by the type of strings that are used.

Different guitars have different tones – some are mellower while others are brighter.

It’s important to try out a few different types of guitars to find the one that has the tone you’re looking for.

Size and weight

The size and weight of the guitar are also important factors to consider. If you’re a smaller person, you’ll want to look for a guitar that is lightweight and easy to hold.

If you’re a larger person, you may be more comfortable with a guitar that is a bit heavier.

It’s important to find a guitar that is comfortable for you to play and this plays into the next factor: how hard or easy a guitar is to play!

Playability

Finally, you’ll want to think about how easy the guitar is to play – this refers to its playability.

This means that the guitar should be easy to play and should stay in tune. The best way to determine a guitar’s playability is to try it out for yourself.

You’ll want to make sure that the strings are not too hard to press down and that the guitar stays in tune.

You’ll also want to make sure that the guitar is comfortable to play. The best way to do this is to try out different guitars and see which one feels best in your hands.

Keep these factors in mind and you’ll be sure to find a quality guitar that is perfect for you.

Now let’s move on to a detailed analysis of guitar parts, components, and features to look for.

Here’s an informational video telling you what to look for in a quality guitar:

Buyer’s guide for acoustic guitars

When looking for a good acoustic guitar, there are certain features to examine.

So, whether you want a classical guitar to play Bach or a steel-string acoustic guitar to play country, here’s what to know.

Body style

The first thing you’ll want to think about is the body style of the guitar. The three most common types are the dreadnought, the jumbo, and the concert.

Dreadnought

The dreadnought is the most popular body type for acoustic guitars. It is characterized by its large size and its powerful sound.

If you’re looking for an acoustic guitar that is versatile and can be used for a variety of genres, then the dreadnought is a good choice.

Jumbo

The jumbo is the largest type of acoustic guitar. It is characterized by its deep, rich sound.

If you’re looking for an acoustic guitar that has a lot of volume and can be used for a variety of genres, then the jumbo is a good choice.

Concert

The concert is the smallest type of acoustic guitar. It is characterized by its warm, mellow sound.

If you’re looking for an acoustic guitar that is easy to play and is best suited for softer genres of music, then the concert is a good choice.

Have you ever wondered why a guitar is shaped the way it is?

Body

The next thing you’ll want to think about is the construction of the guitar.

The three most common types of construction are the laminate, the solid wood, and the half-solid.

Laminate

Laminate construction is made up of thin layers of wood glued together. Laminate guitars are less expensive and are not as affected by changes in temperature and humidity.

If you’re looking for an acoustic guitar that is affordable and durable, then a laminate guitar is a good choice.

The sound is not as rich and full as a solid wood guitar, but it is still good quality.

Solid top

A solid top guitar has a solid piece of wood for the top, and the rest of the body is made of laminate.

The solid top gives the guitar a richer, fuller sound. The downside is that it is more expensive than the all-laminate instrument and is more affected by changes in temperature.

Solid wood

Solid wood construction is made up of a single piece of wood. Solid wood guitars are more expensive and are more affected by changes in temperature and humidity.

If you’re looking for an acoustic guitar that has a rich, full sound, then a solid wood guitar is a good choice.

Carbon fiber

Some acoustic guitars are made of carbon fiber. KLOS guitars is a popular brand that specializes in carbon fiber guitars.

These guitars are very durable, and they have a rich, full sound.

The downside is that they are more expensive than traditional acoustic guitars and their tone is a bit different.

Tonewood

The type of wood used for the body of the guitar is called tonewood. The most common types of tonewood are spruce, cedar, mahogany, maple, and rosewood.

  • Spruce is the most common type of tonewood used for acoustic guitars. It has a bright, clear sound.
  • Cedar is a softwood that has a warm, mellow sound.
  • Mahogany is a hardwood that has a dark, rich sound.
  • Maple is a hardwood that has a bright, clear sound.
  • Rosewood is a hardwood that has a warm, mellow sound.

Neck

The next thing you’ll want to think about is the neck of the guitar. The two most common types of necks are the J-neck and the V-neck.

The J-neck is the most common type of neck. It is characterized by its rounded shape. The J-neck is easier to play, and the sound is more mellow.

The V-neck is less common. It is characterized by its V-shaped. The V-neck is harder to play, and the sound is brighter.

It’s important to have a properly arched neck. The neck should have a slight curve, so the strings are not too close to the fretboard.

This arching is also called ‘the relief’ and it should only be a slight curve, not a big arch.

Look at the truss rod cover. If the cover is at an angle, then the neck is too bowed.

Solid hardware

The guitar’s solid hardware refers to the metal tuning gears, bridge, and saddle.

These parts can be made from various metals, but stainless steel is the best choice because it’s the most durable.

The next best thing is chrome, which is also quite durable but not as rust-resistant as stainless steel.

Tuning pegs & tuning system

The tuning pegs are located at the head of the guitar. They are used to tune the strings. Twisting the tuning peg will tighten the guitar strings.

Many people don’t realize that the tuning system is extremely important. Cheap guitars aren’t as good because the strings get out of tune very quickly.

You’ll play a song and then you’ll notice your instrument is already out of tune! That’s why you need a good tuning system and it must be solid.

The most common type of tuning peg is the friction peg. It is made of plastic and has a small metal screw that you use to tighten the string.

The downside of this type of tuning peg is that it is not very durable and can break easily.

The other type is the machine head. It is made of metal and has a knob that you use to tighten the string. The machine head is more durable and doesn’t break as easily.

Strings

The next thing to consider is the type of string. Guitar strings can be switched out but you’ll have to buy a new set.

The most common types of guitar strings are bronze, phosphor bronze, and nickel-plated steel.

The two most common types of strings are nylon strings and steel strings.

The nylon string is softer and produces a mellower sound. It is easier on the fingers, making it a good choice for beginners.

Nylon string guitars are often recommended as the ‘first guitar’ for a beginner.

Steel-string is harder and produces a brighter sound. It is more difficult on the fingers, making it a better choice for experienced players.

Most acoustic guitars have either 6 or 12 strings.

The 6-string guitar is the most common type. It is easier to play and the sound is more mellow.

The 12-string guitar is less common. When playing guitar, it’s hard to get used to 12 strings but the sound is brighter.

Bridge, nut & saddle

The bridge is located on the body of the guitar. It is used to hold the strings in place. There are two types of bridges: the fixed bridge and the floating bridge.

The fixed bridge is more common. It is attached to the guitar body and doesn’t move. The strings are held in place by the bridge.

The floating bridge is less common. It is not attached to the guitar body and can move. The strings are held in place by the bridge.

When looking at the bridge, you’ll want to make sure that the saddle is made of bone or brass. These materials produce a richer sound.

The nut is a small, white piece of plastic that is located at the head of the guitar. It is where the strings are held in place.

The saddle is a small, white piece of plastic that is located at the bridge of the guitar. It is where the strings rest.

Fingerboard

The fingerboard is the black, glossy strip of wood that goes along the neck of the guitar. It is where your fingers press down on the strings to make a sound.

The fingerboard is made of either rosewood or ebony. Rosewood is the most common type of fingerboard.

It has a warm, mellow sound. Ebony is less common. It has a bright, clear sound.

Frets need to be properly leveled and crowned if you want to play clean.

If the frets are not level, then the guitar will be difficult to play. The strings will buzz when you press them down.

Some cheaper guitars have a bad fret layout meaning that one fret might be slightly higher than the others.

This means some notes might not sound since the string is on an adjacent fret.

This can be fixed by a guitar technician, but it’s better to avoid this problem in the first place.

Another thing to consider is how the frets are finished or ‘dressed’.

Your guitar’s frets should be well finished and smoothed out so there’s no scratchy surface that can cause your fingers to bleed.

Frets are metal bars placed perpendicular to the guitar neck. This seemingly simple part of the guitar can make your guitar playing experience miserable if there are any issues.

Some cheaper instruments have sharp, unfinished frets and those need to be smoothed out with steel wool but that’s kind of annoying, isn’t it?

Buyer’s guide for electric guitars

Now that we’ve covered the basics, let’s move on to electric guitars.

When you’re shopping for an electric guitar, you’ll want to keep in mind the following:

Body

The body of an electric guitar is where the strings are attached.

There are three main types of electric guitar bodies: the solid body, the semi-hollow body, and the hollow body.

  • The solid body is the most common type of electric guitar. It is made of one solid piece of wood. The strings are attached to the body.
  • The semi-hollow body is less common. It is made of two pieces of wood: the top and the bottom. The strings are attached to the top.
  • The hollow body is the least common. It is made of three pieces of wood: the top, the bottom, and the sides. The strings are attached to the top.

Find out about the best strings for electric guitars here

Body material

The body material affects the sound of the guitar. The most common material is wood.

Wood is the best material because it produces a rich, warm sound.

The best quality electric guitar woods are:

  • ash: this tonewood is mellower than alder but it’s also very balanced.
  • alder: this wood gives a balanced tone and you can hear lows, mids, and highs equally.
  • mahogany: this is among the most popular tonewoods because of its warm sound. Mahogany guitars are used in blues, rock, and metal.
  • basswood: this tonewood is also bright and warm but the mids are accentuated. Some cheaper guitars are made with this tonewood.
  • maple: this tonewood is bright but with less sustain.
  • poplar: this tonewood is neutral and has a low sustain.
  • korina: this tonewood is known for its warm sound.

Finish

The finish is another thing to consider when buying a guitar. It’s not so much the sound of the guitar that matters as much as the icing on the cake, in that case.

While not essential, it will help protect the guitar from damage and add to its aesthetic appeal.

If you have a keen eye for detail, you can tell if the finish lines are tight or if there is bleeding or aberrations by closely inspecting the finish.

The most common types of finishes are lacquer and polyurethane.

Lacquer is a hard, shiny finish. It is easy to care for and doesn’t require much maintenance.

Polyurethane is a softer, more matte finish. It is more difficult to care for and requires more maintenance.

These finishes make the guitar look like it’s made of plastic or metal but it’s just an optical illusion as a result of the finish.

Fretboard

Most good fretboards are made of:

  • rosewood: smooth, fast, warm tone
  • maple: hard, dense, fast, sounds bright, and has a great sustain
  • ebony: hard, fast, smooth, sounds bright, has long sustain
  • pau ferro: hard, fast, smooth, bright, warm

The size of the fretboard affects the playability of the guitar. A smaller fretboard makes it easier to play chords and melodies.

A larger fretboard makes it easier to play lead guitar solos.

Pay attention to the fretboard inlay. It should be tight and flush with the fretboard.

The most common type of fretboard inlay is the dot.

The dot is a small, round piece of material (usually mother of pearl) that is flush with the fretboard.

Also, consider the fret finishes and ensure there’s nothing sharp that can snag your fingers.

Frets

The number of frets on a guitar affects the playability and the range of notes you can play.

The more frets there are, the more notes you can play and you can reach those high notes.

22 and 24 frets are the most common.

The more frets there are, the higher the notes you can play. If you have 24 frets, there are more semitones.

22 frets are enough for soloists and lead guitarists and the guitar has a warmer sound.

Neck

The neck of an electric guitar is where your fingers press down on the strings to make a sound.

A guitar’s neck joint is very important. It’s what connects the neck to the body of the guitar.

There are three main types of electric guitar neck joints: bolt-on, set-in, and neck-through.

Bolt-on necks are the most common type of electric guitar neck joint. They are easy to repair and replace.

Set-in necks are less common. They are more difficult to repair but they offer a better tone.

Neck-through necks are the least common. They are the most difficult to repair but they offer the best tone.

The type of neck you choose is a matter of personal preference.

Some people prefer the bolt-on neck because it is easier to replace if it breaks.

The neck shape is also important. The 4 most common neck shapes are:

  • C-shape: the C-shape is the most common neck shape. It is comfortable to play and easy to reach the higher frets.
  • D-shape: the D-shape is more of a vintage neck shape. It is comfortable to play but the higher frets are more difficult to reach.
  • U-shape: the U-shape is less common. It is more comfortable for lead guitar solos.
  • V-shape: the V-shape is the least common. It is more comfortable for rhythm guitar parts.

Scale length

The scale length of an electric guitar is the distance between the nut and the bridge.

The scale also refers to how close the frets are together.

So, if you have short fingers a shorter scale length is best, plus if you do lead you don’t have to stretch as far for further apart notes.

If you have big fingers having a smaller scale might make playing chords more difficult.

When it comes to playability, there’s less string tension with a shorter scale which makes it more comfortable to play.

Thus, the scale length affects the playability of the guitar. A shorter scale length makes it easier to play lead guitar solos.

A longer scale length means there’s more string tension at the pitch. Thus, it can be harder to play. Lower notes are harder to play but the sound is much clearer.

The most common scale lengths are:

  • 24 inches (61 cm)
  • 25.5 inches (65 cm)

The “Gibson” scale, at 24.75′′, gives the Les Paul that round attack. The “Fender” scale at 25.5′′ gives the Stratocaster its clear sound.

Overall, these are the two most commonly used scale lengths in modern electric guitars.

While there’s a third length, it’s not as common. For example, Paul Reed Smith’s use of a 25-inch scale produces a unique, distinct tone.

Bridge

Electric guitars have two types of bridges: tremolo bridge and stop tail bridge.

  • Tremolo bridge: A tremolo bridge is also known as a whammy bar. It’s a type of bridge that allows you to add vibrato to your sound.
  • Stoptail bridge: A stop tail bridge is a type of bridge that doesn’t have a tremolo bar.

The type of bridge you choose is a matter of personal preference.

Some people prefer the tremolo bridge because it allows them to add vibrato to their sound.

Pickups

Pickups are the devices that convert the vibrations of the strings into an electrical signal.

Some people tend to overlook how important pickup clarity actually is!

There are two main types of pickups: single-coil pickups and humbucker pickups.

The single-coil pickup is more common. It is made of one coil of wire. This type of pickup was popularized by the Fender Stratocaster.

These produce a crisp, clean sound but they can pick up some electrical interference.

The two-coil humbucker pickup is made of two coils of wire.

This type of pickup was popularized by the Gibson Les Paul. These produce a warm, smooth sound and cancel out humming.

But other pickup types and configurations do exist, such as the P-90 pickup. These are single-coil pickups that are larger and have a different sound and are commonly used for punk rock.

The type of pickup you choose is a matter of personal preference.

Responsive and solid switches

The switch is what controls the pickups. The three most common types of switches are the toggle switch, the blade switch, and the rotary switch.

  • The toggle switch is more common. It is a lever that you flip up or down.
  • The blade switch is less common. It is a flat, rectangular switch that you push up or down.
  • The rotary switch is the least common. It is a knob that you turn to select the pickups.

All the electronics need to be well made so you can adjust everything easily.

Controls

The controls are the devices that control the sound of the guitar.

The most common control knobs are the volume control, the tone control, and the pickup selector switch.

The volume control is used to control the volume of the guitar. The tone control is used to control the tone of the guitar.

The pickup selector switch is used to select which pickup(s) are used.

The type of control you choose is a matter of personal preference.

Connections and ports

The 1/4-inch audio port on an electric guitar is the most important. This is where the guitar gets its power and its sound.

Electric guitars that are cheap have flimsy components and this critical component may break or cave in on the guitar, rendering it unusable.

These connection points must be rock solid if an electric guitar is to be considered high-quality.

Takeaway

When shopping for a guitar, it’s important to consider the type of music you want to play, the size and shape of the instrument, and the type of bridge.

The pickups, responsive and solid switches, controls, and connections are also important factors to consider.

A quality guitar should have well-made components and a good sound for playing music.

Your choice also depends on whether you’re interested in acoustic guitars or electric guitars. These instruments are different and each guitar’s tone creates a unique sound.

I'm Joost Nusselder, the founder of Neaera and a content marketer, dad, and love trying out new equipment with guitar at the heart of my passion, and together with my team, I've been creating in-depth blog articles since 2020 to help loyal readers with recording and guitar tips.

Check me out on Youtube where I try out all of this gear:

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