From the June 2018 issue of Acoustic Guitar | BY GREG OLWELL
Even if you’re the kind of guitar-obsessed nut who spends hours cruising reverb.com or your favorite online guitar shops for your dream guitar(s) when you really should be sleeping, the stark reality is that when it comes down to it, most guitarists need to make cost-conscious buying decisions. The realities of balancing family needs, repairing that car you need to last another year, or paying off crushing student-loan debts force many guitarists to tap the brakes before spending and come up with ways to squeeze the most out of their money and their equipment.
Just because you may be aware of your budgetary limits doesn’t mean you have to suffer, however. For help, we turned to a few of our trusted contributors for advice on getting the best guitar-playing experience without necessarily spending a lot of money. Our one guideline was that “budget” doesn’t have to mean selecting the cheapest option. Often, spending a little more on a higher-quality item pays off in both the short term and the long run. With some of the tips included here, you might find a few ways to get a good price on your latest gear crush, give new life to an old guitar, or discover small, low-cost hacks that will make your life as a guitar player just a little bit sweeter.
While luscious photos and countless websites offer hours of window-shopping for guitars and gear, it’s almost dangerously easy to buy a guitar online that you’ve never played. But a few of our experts agree that it’s important to know what you want before you buy. How do you really know? Play as many guitars as possible before you make your purchase, suggests Paul Mehling of the Hot Club of San Francisco. He warns that you may have to “kiss a lot of frogs before you find your Prince Charming,” but it’s a fun process and a huge education for any player. “Play a ton of instruments and get to know what you like in a guitar—its feel, its tone, its vibe,” adds Mehling.
Contributing Editor Adam Perlmutter suggests that after you zero in on the right guitar for you, use sites like reverb.com and eBay to do lots of comparison shopping. He also cautions that you should make sure the seller has a good return policy, especially if you’re buying a used guitar.
Many of our respondents also agreed that you often end up getting what you pay for. “As with anything, quality trumps price,” says Pauline France, a regular AG contributor. “Would you rather have to replace a cheap instrument frequently, or invest in a high-quality instrument that will last you a lifetime?”
Whether it’s a guitar or an outboard piece of gear, another theme that kept popping up from our panel was to avoid the bells and whistles and focus on the quality of tone. For example, when it comes to choosing amps, guitarist, author, and educator Pete Madsen recommends that players build an amplification rig with no frills and instead focus on getting a good sound. “I’ve usually found onboard effects either suffer in quality or don’t have enough control parameters to dial in the sound I want,” he says, suggesting that instead, players should, “Find a pedal [reverb, delay, etc.] that you really like and go with that,” after selecting an amp or PA for its tone, not for its spec list.
Madsen also suggests that if you already have a guitar that’s precious to you and you plan on gigging often, it might be worth budgeting for a less-valuable guitar outfitted with a good pickup system. “The overall tone of the instrument could be sacrificed in favor of the feel,” he suggests, adding, “I’d choose a guitar that’s as close as possible to having the same appointments as my prized guitar, like body size, scale length, neck feel, nut width, and string spacing.”
WORK WITH WHAT YOU’VE GOT
Many little things can extend the life, boost playability, and even get more tone out of your trusty guitar. And with several of these tips, not only are you saving money (or not spending it in the first place), you’re being a more attentive caretaker of a guitar that might outlast you.
Onboard your guitar, Madsen recommends swapping out plastic parts like bridge pins, nuts, and saddles for bone. Plastic works well for these essential parts, but you might be surprised at the gains you’ll pick up with each component change. With each upgrade, you can expect more clarity, sustain, and snap once you shed plastic for organic materials.
When heading out to gigs or rehearsals, teacher, singer-songwriter, and first-call guitarist Adam Levy recommends storing picks and capos in a small container—like an Altoids tin—instead of in your pockets. Besides not having to fish around for them, he says, “You’re much less likely to lose picks and capos if you have a dedicated place for them, where you pack them at the end of each gig, rehearsal, or practice session.” At home, it can be a good idea to keep picks, slides, and capos in a bowl near your favorite playing spot. It keeps them tidy and in an easy-to-reach place
Depending on the acids and oils in your sweat, this next tip might be essential for extending the life of your strings or even your guitar. “I wipe my strings down every time I put the guitar down between sets on gigs or after each practice session in the woodshed,” says Mehling. “I used to use rubbing alcohol and a soft cloth, but now I use John Pearse String Swipes.” Regularly wiping down your guitar with a soft, lint-free cloth, like a microfiber or an old t-shirt, can also help keep it clean and the finish healthy for a long time.
Care and Maintenance
“Get your guitar professionally set up once per year—just like you go to the doctor for your annual checkup,” says Adam Levy. Doing so will help you get to know how your guitar plays and sounds when it’s at its best—and you’ll know if your guitar is performing below its peak potential. These regular visits are also a great time for a tech to catch any developing problems.
Mehling adds that though a DIY approach can be good, a professional setup is often worth the effort and expense. “For many years, I tried to change my oil and sparkplugs in my cars before it became obvious that the money I thought I was saving was better spent on someone who could do it right in a shorter amount of time. The lesson is: Get a good repairer and trust them.” Finding a good local tech can be as easy as asking around. Many of our respondents said that the best way to find a good local tech is through word of mouth. Ask around and find out who is good and who to avoid.
Though a pro setup and regular checkups can help keep your guitar performing at its best, there are still basic care and maintenance skills that every guitar player should learn. A few of the teachers we spoke with revealed that a surprising number of students (young and old) do not know how to change their strings. Madsen suggests asking for help if you’re in doubt. “Maybe the first time you change your strings you could have a salesman or repair tech help you, but paying someone to change your strings is a waste.”
Changing strings is also a great time to keep your guitar’s fingerboard in its best shape. D’Addario, Dunlop, Ernie Ball, and other companies sell fingerboard-cleaning kits that help remove gunk, clean frets, and condition your fingerboard. You can also do it yourself using 0000-grade (extra-fine) steel wool and a quality oil such as mineral oil or lemon oil (which is mineral oil scented with lemon) to wipe down the fingerboard along the length of the neck. You probably won’t need to do this step more than once a year, so don’t overdo it.
Learning how to keep your guitar properly humidified is essential, especially if you have a solid wood guitar, which is more vulnerable to relative humidity changes than plywood (or layered) guitars. A guitar kept in an environment that is around 40 to 60 percent relative humidity will not only sound its best, it will help keep cracks from forming or glue seams from separating.
While we’ve looked at several ways to save a buck or extend the life of an instrument or component, some of our panel members have non-negotiable expenses. For the folks who responded, these pieces of equipment are often the ones that help them perform with the most confidence and control.
Though your personal ideal tone is subjective, if you plan on gigging often, a few of our panel members suggest spending money on the sound reinforcement pieces that you like to hear. After using acoustic guitar amps that worked well, but didn’t please his ears, Madsen realized, “it’s worthwhile to get a good amp that gives me a sound that really makes me want to play. After all, over a three-hour gig people will come and go, but I have to listen to myself for the whole time!”
Consider what your needs really are going to be and dedicate some of your budget to getting the best piece of gear for where you truly see yourself playing. For instance, if you’re a singer-songwriter who plays coffeehouses, Perlmutter suggests that getting the best amplification and a decent case is more important than an all-solid wood guitar. But, if you plan on recording in a studio, he offers that spending money on “the very best acoustic you can find, but skimp on the ornaments,” is a prudent approach.
Perhaps somewhat surprisingly, several of these gig-saving, musical security blankets are also some of the cheapest. For Mehling, the things he actually has his fingertips on while playing are essential. “Good strings will make any guitar sound better,” he says, adding that a good, stiff pick will make any guitar sound better and “like I had already plugged it in.”
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Levy suggests that “dressing for the job you want” helps you feel your best onstage, and adds, “Invest in a strap you love. A great strap is more comfortable and helps you look and feel like a real pro.”
Protection & Insurance
Though it may be one of the least exciting parts of playing guitar, keeping your equipment safe is an essential part of being a caretaker for your treasured instrument. With tons of regular gigs, Levy strongly recommends a high-quality gig bag or case for keeping your guitar safe for local and long-distance travel. “A $180 gig bag might seem like a lot of money if your guitar costs, say, $500,” but if you’re gigging often, it’s worth the extra money to properly protect your instrument.
In the event that something awful happens, an insurance plan can help to soften the blow of losing an instrument to theft, accidents, or reckless baggage handlers. If your instrument and gear stash is valued at $2,000 or more, it may be worthwhile to have your guitar insured. While many homeowner’s and renter’s insurance policies can help guitarists needing coverage, some insurance companies such as Clarion and Heritage offer special plans for musical instruments and may be a wise and safe choice for protecting your investment. The insurance company websites can offer you more information about what may be the best option for you.