Martin where are ya???
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If you can, visit several guitar shops and play several types to get a feel for the finger boards and set-ups. If your hand size is above or below average, this could become a very important factor in the type of guitar you start with. One way to begin is to buy a used Fender Japanese Stratocaster or Telecaster copy: $300 to $400. The early 80's Japanese models are sought after and sell for more, but are viewed very desirable by players. Also, some players prefer the Japanese models over the current American made models. There is very little downside for buying a desirable model used. This is because, if you decide to upgrade or lose interest in playing, you can usually sell it on the used market for close to what you paid for it. Any entry-level guitar you buy new will lose quite a bit of its value if you decide to sell it later. If you do decide to buy new, Fender also makes a "Squire" tele or strat version that is an entry level guitar: $250 to $300. Be careful with your home stereo, you may need a preamp to obtain a line-level signal, and if you play loud with distortion, you may damage your home stereo speakers. Also, you will probably want to play along with the music from your stereo. I suggest that until you decide to buy a guitar amp, you can use an inexpensive small, hand-sized "practice" guitar processor/pre-amp designed for headphones. These are neat because with some models, you can input a source and practice or play along with recorded music. Check marsmusic.com or musiciansfriend.com for info on these type units.
Martin: Go to the local shops and try out various guitars. The main flavors to me (I am old fashioned) are still Fender and Gibson. There are many cheap (non USA) Fender Strat's available right now that are nice players, (never liked Telecasters for lead guitar, but they are great for chord work). Gibson's are too expensive and instead you could take a look @ some of the Epiphone copies (maybe even an ES-335 knock off which will play like butter). A guitar that plays all styles (with the right sound) is quite rare and the only one that I ever owned was a late 70's Ibanez (think it was a PF-300) which had many switching options that actually sounded good. If you want a cheap and fun guitar, try to locate one of the semi-hollow body Dan Electro re-issues with a single Lip Stick pickup. They should be around $150-$200 @ a discount if there are any still around. This guitar has kind of a weird sound (but I like it) and it projects just enough volume (on its own) to be played in a small room (for practice/composing) without being amplified. It does not have any where near the volume of a box acoustic in this application, just enough to get you by. I do not recommend playing guitars through home stereo speakers as this can damage the tweeters (it sounds lame anyway). Pick up a small practice amp for $100 or so (they even have headphone/amp combos that are inexpensive if neighbors are a concern). If you wait until you line up a teacher (just start out with the acoustic as theory will be your first lessons) then he/she may be able to line up a used rig @ a good price as well as help you set it up properly. I stopped playing in the early 80's following an accident which damaged my left hand, but following playing the little Dan Electro (mentioned earlier) at a local pawn shop, a few months ago, am considering taking it up again just for fun. Good luck.
Pretty much with Dem, BUY USED and buy the best you can afford. Hardest thing is the world is to want to practice on a guitar that makes it difficult. I play and won't play a guitar or any instrument I don't like. Also, a musical instrument is the one thing I would most assuredly avoid buying online. Can be the same year, make, and model with consecutive serial #'s, but feel and play entirely different. Don't attempt to run it through your home stereo unless you really know what you are doing,go ahead and buy a guitar amp. You get more of an electric sound(plus you can get reverb, chorusing, overdrive all built in) and you will be taking away the likelihood of damage to your home stereo, because one slight foul up and you will be popping a tweeter in a home system.
I would suggest, only a suggestion, but if you are starting out, it might behoove you to to look at an acoustic electric. Takamine and Seagull make a couple of nice ones, all available used, though in most cases not as easy to come by as an electric.
That way to practice you don't have to plug it in and you can practice anywhere. Some of the best blues playing in the world is on Clapton's Unplugged, and that is on an acoustic Martin. . I think the Seagull Artist series cutaway(why yes, I do own one)is one of the best playing acoustic electrc cutaways I have played for the money. Good luck and good playing.
Check out www.elderly.com for some nice used guitars from a VERY reputable dealer. The guys there will give you honest advice/evaluations & you can mail it back if you don't like it. I would go for a used 1996+ fender strat or an older japanese strat. ESP 400's were pretty nice too.
I just took a look at their web site, I like :
DANELECTRO 56 U3 REISSUE $245 (not a fender copy)
FENDER LONE STAR STRATOCASTER (1997)$700.00 (good quality)
FENDER CALIFORNIA STRATOCASTER (1997) $475 (ok/good quality)
G&L LEGACY $545.00 ( good quality but hard to resell )
TOM ANDERSON CLASSIC (1997) $1150 (top quality)
Of the above guitars I would personally spend the bucks and buy the tom anderson. That's what I own and it's head and shoulders better than my former ($800 new street price) fender american standard strat. They're handmade, sound like vintage strats, and are very easy to play. You'll have more capital invested but it will not lose value nor will it need much maintenance. Tom Anderson and crew only complete two each day. Beware that cheap guitars need quite a bit more maintenance than quality guitars.
For an amp, I highly recommend a new $75(?) pignose amp. If you want something with tube tone, try some of the fender hot rod series tube amps (300-500).
Just a suggestion for a new guitar, Cort Matt Murphy model is nice, the p.u.s can be split to get both single coil and humbucker type sound. Body is in wood similar to mahagony in density, neck is comfortable (at leat to me) fretwork is nice. The big head gives good sustain. I still kick myself thinking I could have gotten a brand new one for $549. CDN but my wife said the colour was ugly, reminded her of sponge toffee. Never ask your wife or girlfriend what they think of components or guitars. Even if you don't agree with their position, it will play on your mind, By the way, get yourself a tube amp. My recommendation: Fender Blues Junior. Oh, and unless you are truly gifted, don't expect to sound like B.B., SRV or Gatemouth Brown any time soon. Good luck in your endeavours in the new year. Regards, from a mid-fi kind of guy.
The best piece of advice given so far is go out and play a bunch of guitars to: A) get a feel for what type of finger board scale you like. Fenders are way different in feel than gibson types. It took about 15 years of playing before i figured out how to live with a fender. B) after you think you know what type of guitar you want you need to find that particular one that you can "be friends with". I've owned a bunch of Les Pauls and there is one '78 standard that is still near and dear to me (made during the the bad years of gibson if you believe the stereotypes)and it killed all others before and since in tone and playability. I've also played cheap mexi-fenders that were killer and bested the $1200 american versions...play a lot of them and be patient. I traded a new gibson firebird for an 2nd epiphone johnny smith because i couldn't form a bond with the former and fell in love with the latter despite getting killed financially on the deal(and i love firebirds). Moral of overly long story: you will know when you find the right piece. Play it un plugged. Is it resonant and alive? If it's dead unplugged no amp is going to save it. If it seems like you are 90% there but it don't play quite have it set up. A god (that was a typo but on reflection, accurate)tech can make an alright piece killer with a 2 minute truss rod/action adjustment worry about intonation later. If you go epiphone or mexi/jap fender plan on less than $300 new and $around $150-200 used. Epiphones should get you for about $600 or less new for the 335 sytle to less than $300 for some of the solid body lines (take a copy of musicians friend along with you for mail order prices and go to a pro oriented shop rather than one that sells grand pianos along with a couple of squire strats. Get a cheap practice amp. Your home speakers should be able to handle your guitar but you will need a direct box or something like a line 6 pod to use as a pre-amp into your stereo (I'm not a modeling amp person but for the cash a pod and a pair of headphones is an unbeatable practice combination period end of discussion) Sorry for the disertation mut you've hit me in my true love. my guitar collection is worth a bunch more than my high end system...it is a TRUE addiction. I Think of myself as a caretaker of fine instruments, not an owner. good luck and feel free to email me with any questions