Buying A Guitar: Budget & Recommendations

So, you’re looking to buy your first guitar? There are so many models, options, and features to compare, I thought it would be beneficial to outline some of the features to look for, some of my personal picks, and market trends.

Depending on your goals; wether you intend to dive in and learn yourself, take classes, or just dabble around a bit and see how you like playing, Adult player, or youngster there’s a guitar that’s just right for you.

Your budget is your first consideration. Have a price you’re willing to pay in mind before you go shopping. It’s real easy to get up-sold on features or looks when comparing instruments side-by-side. Even online shopping can be a kid in a candy shop experience with your credit card burning a hole in your pocket and thoughts of that shiny new guitar arriving at your doorstep.

With that in mind, here’s a chart outlining typical price points and features you can expect to find in your price range. As the chart shows, beyond a certain point you are mostly paying for cosmetics and/or other professional features. Those top of the line instruments are suitable for collectors, pros, and that retiree that always wanted a custom instrument. But realize this, in the hands of a beginning player they all sound about the same. There’s no magic wood or pick-up that will make you a better player quicker than practice, and lots of it. In fact, I’d wager that very few players are masters of their instrument to a degree that they can squeeze those mystical notes out of them. So, head out of the clouds, budget in mind, let’s find you a guitar.

This is how the market for instruments is trending as of Fall 2011.

$99 – $179 Beginners instruments, suitable for children, and those who really just want to give playing a try but don’t want to invest much in a instrument. There’s a lot of this sort of guitar around, you friends and neighbors probably have one collecting dust in a closet or attic.

Pros: Cheap enough to be pretty careless with them, no concern of collect ability. Generally good enough to learn the basics on. Good instruments for modders, a whole instrument for the price of custom parts.

Cons: Quality concerns. They may look the same to the untrained eye, and to a beginner might even seem to play as well as any. But very quickly the quality of really cheap instruments tends to overshadow their usefulness. Often the components are unique sizes unrelated to industry standard specs, making upgrades not worth the expense. One of my biggest concerns with starting a player off with a very low cost instrument is that the playability is not going to be as good as the mid line models out of the box. While they can be adjusted, fret work done, all the things a luthier (guitar maker/repair person) can do to improve the playability, by the time these things have been done the cost becomes equivalent to a better instrument.

How many new players have set the guitar down for good disappointed at their progress in learning to play never realizing that a lot of the cause was a cheap instrument with a bad factory set-up? I can only imagine.

To their credit there are some good bargain models out there. Today’s $99 big box store impulse buy is a much better instrument than those of just 5 years ago.

Conclusions: If you must and budget dictates shop around for a bargain instrument. Have a player with some experience go with you. Online purchases – as with other instrument purchases online, read the posted reviews, and get your ear to the ground to find out what others have found out about your prospective new instrument – before you spend a dime.

Also, at this level a good used instrument can be a real upgrade in quality though you don’t get to tear open the box.

Rondo music SX series:
Fender Squire series:

Note: often you can find entry level instruments sold as a kit, complete with a small amplifier a few picks and a starter booklet. Not a bad deal, generally, for the absolute beginner or a child.


Ibanez SZ320 Sunburst Carve Top Review

The Ibanez SZ320. New twists on a classic recipe reveals a modder’s paradise out of a toneful sleeper.

The SZ320 has been discontinued, but don’t let that stop you. As of this writing, there are still a lot of them around as closeouts and on the used market. It’s safe to say the SZ line didn’t live up to Ibanez’s expectations unlike the RG and S models. I shied away from them myself for awhile. I think the initial price point and the gaudy appearance of some of the higher end models was a turn-off for me. Finding one, then another of the baseline models in Black and Brown Sunburst with the low key cosmetics of the 320 series, plus closeout pricing pulled me in for a closer look.

The first SZ320 I found was a black model on clearance. Which upon arrival was in perfect shape. Aside from one misaligned seam on the taped faux binding, it was immaculate. A decent player out of the box, with a wide fast neck.

The black finish is shinier than you’d think from Ibanez’s official photos, which made it appear almost matte. The natural binding looks OK, but I’m not entirely sold on it’s necessity. The effect is diminished a bit when viewed on edge a 6 piece top is revealed by the seams. The Brown Sunburst model featured in this review appears to be book matched. Here’s where the sleeper factor really comes in. This guitar really has all the classic appeal of the Les Paul recipe, with some obvious PRS influence thrown in.

Mahogany body and neck, 25″ scale length, wide fat neck, double-cut body with a carved maple top and a belly cut. It’s really got a lot going for it on paper. So where does it stand in person?

Having two SZ320s side by side to compare is kind of a luxury for a reviewer. They both play about the same out of the box. There are some high frets, but overall the fret work was adequate. The frets are high and slightly narrow, a more vintage spec wire than we are used to seeing in Ibanez’s typically spec’d with Jumbo wire. But it’s a nice departure, the SZ’s neck can burn when set-up to your preferences, facilitating fast licks and comfortable chord work if anything I think these have a sort of jazzy feel to them.

The pick-ups are kind of middle of the road. They aren’t really hot, nor are they particularly funky. The rhythm and lead pickups use different magnet types. The lead is ceramic, and the rhythm an Alnico model – designed in conjunction with Seymour Duncan®. They are well designed and, I think, make a good matched pairing in this instrument. I have a feeling that the slightly lower output will make these good recording pickups – a situation where many players tend to go over the top with gain. With distortion these pick-ups felt like they needed a push to really sing, but clean they felt right at home and I found myself exploring jazzy riffs and even some finger style playing that electrics can have a hard time inspiring.

Tuning is stable enough with the stock tuners, which follow a grover pattern. I was tempted to mod them out and put on something more stylish, but I’ve held off. The nut was well cut, in the fat and deep Gibson vein, though I have tweaked the string height at the nut for a slightly more relaxed chording feel. With two SZ320s around I can say that there are some slight variances across the line – as you would expect with most production line guitars. The Brown sunburst model is a bit lighter, which makes it seem to favor being played clean. While the heavier black model feels a little more rock and roll to me. Tiny differences, truly. But it may be worth it to hand pick one if you’re buying.

In the end I have done only a few minor mods to them. The black one I am trying out a Epiphone® Elitist® Bridge pick-up in. The Elitist pick-ups are made by Gibson in the USA for the import Elitist line. I have to report that as Impressed as I have been by the Elitist pups in my Elitist’s, I’m not as thrilled with this one in the SZ320 as I thought I would be. I’m no sure if it’s the slightly different position of the pick-up on the 25″ scale guitar versus a 24.75″ scale, or just this particular guitar’s resonance not “gelling” with what the Elitist pups have been good at in my experience – which is capturing a nice Gibnson-esque distorted tone that is deep and rich. Think Led Zeppelin style tone. So in the end, I think I’ll be putting the stock bridge pick-up back in. The trade off in grit for tone is a fair one to make in this case. Sometimes they do get it right at the factory.

Ibanez SZ320 review Continues…>


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HowTo Instrument Build

Gibson 'EBO' Bass To 'SG' Guitar Conversion

EBO Bass To SG Style Guitar Conversion Project

Hidden away in the workshop we found a semi-vintage Gibson EBO bass. The headstock couldn’t seem to keep from snapping off. It had been repaired a few times already and was missing some parts and crucial components like the pick-up. It also just happened to not play or sound very good. Vintage SGs fetch high prices, and this SG body was still intact…so The SG BASS-GUITAR MOD is born.

It was a long and fairly involved mod involving removing the bass neck, reconfiguring the body to work as a guitar, building a new custom neck and then doing some finish matching to pull it all together.

We’re proud to say, this project was a huge success and our studio is now the proud owner of an almost vintage, almost Gibson, one of a kind SG.

Planing Stages

To determine if this project was worthwhile we spent some time laying out components and taking measurements. From our initial assessment we determined that a stop tail could be retrofitted to mount where the bass bridge had once gone. With a new tune-o-matic style bridge being added along with a pair of hum-buckers and the new neck.

Getting The Body Ready For A New Neck

Removing the old neck seemed simple enough. We were extra careful when removing material to avoid cracks or chips to the wood that was left. A hacksaw made quick work of the remainder of the bass neck, cutting through both the aged mahogany and the truss rod easily enough. Hated to do it, but the end result will prove to be worth the sacrifice. What was left of the original neck was then chiseled out of the tenon joint in the body. After that we carefully set up a router template to cleanly cut a pocket for a new neck. This was tricky, as the template needed to be angled slightly so that the new neck would tip back from the face of the guitar so that the strings would align with the top of the new bridge while still leaving room for fine tuning the string height. Too much or too little angle and the strings would ride high or low and no amount of adjustment would be able to correct it.

We turned down the original mounting screws that had held the bass bridge in place. They had gouged and jagged edges which would be uncomfortable to have your hand near while playing. With a drill press and a file, we were able to quickly round them over and then a careful cut to the top with a hacksaw made them adjustable with a screw driver. Luckily, the original bushings and screw placement worked with our new stop tail.

Here you can see the neck where it joins the body and the stop-bar tailpeice mounted were the original bass bridge once was.

For the new bridge, 2 holes were drilled just large enough to allow the larger bushing style adjustment screws to be carefully threaded into the body without the bushings. A hybrid between old and new. Templates were used to align and then route a new cavity for a bridge hum-bucker. The rhythm hum-bucker cavity was already cut from when this body was a bass. Although the cavity was a bit larger than your standard hum-bucker opening. We decided to use another hybrid approach and use a hum-bucker mounting ring for the bridge pick-up and a custom pick-guard for the rhythm pick-up. For pick-ups and electronics a set of Elitist pick-ups were found on Ebay and the other components, (switch, potentiometers, tone caps, output jack, etc) were ordered online. We’ve been impressed with the elitist pick-ups in an actual Elitist guitar, so this was a luck find. We tried to get away with a budget switch, but found that the solder tabs snapped when they were bent even slightly. So for that component we recommend a higher quality part such as Switchcraft. The pots are Alpha quality pots from Stew Mac 500k for both tone & volumes with a standard .22pf tone caps. Nothing really fancy there. Most of the time these standard quality components are just fine for a build of this type. Once it’s established that a guitar is a keeper, modding it additionally with high grade electronic components becomes an option.

With the body prepped and ready, we turn to creating a new neck to turn this ‘once a bass’ into a guitar.

We ordered a maple neck blank, and a rosewood fingerboard, pre slotted in Gibson standard 24 3/4″ scale, along with a dual adjustable truss rod, a tall and narrow vintage profile fret wire, pearloid dot inlay pieces and a bone nut from Total cost of parts was considerably less than what you will pay for a neck from any of the custom shops like Warmoth – though this is a very complex build project which takes a bit of time and experience to complete satisfactorily. So the cost/vrs end result becomes a factor in how you might decide to go about a project like this yourself.

From here on out we are designing, fabricating and assembling a custom neck. Which, aside from carving your own top on a solid body, is one of the most difficult projects to do on a solid body.

The fingerboard comes with a few extra slots, in case you want to make a 24 fret neck. We didn’t, so those are trimmed off using the band saw, cutting right down the 23rd fret slot. And then a touch-up of the edge with a file and sandpaper, leaving some material for a final fit. The fret board comes slotted and radiused, but is not tapered.

Left: The placement of the stop-tail, bridge and pick-up laid out. Right: Trimming the pre-slotted fingerboard.

Our maple neck blank is a standard plain hard maple plank long enough to get both the neck and headstock out of the single piece. We carefully traced out the fret board centered and at one end of our neck blank. From there we determined where our truss rod channel would need to be routed, the taper of the neck (matched to a favorite gibson neck in our collection), and where the headstock begins and ends.

HowTo Lessons

Beginning Guitar Lesson. Fretting Notes

Ready to begin learning to play the guitar? We’ll be starting with the very basics. You’ll need a few things to get started.

A little information about the frets and what they do

The frets divide the length of each string into segments. Notice the dots on the side of the guitar neck, blocks or dot inlays on the face of the fret board. They mark the 3rd, 5th, 7th, 9th, 12th, etc. positions. When you press a string at the 5th marker, you’re limiting the strings length to the 5th fret. The note’s pitch is higher than the sound of the string played “open”. The markers are not exactly related to the musical scale (a concept we will explore in more depth later). They are visual landmarks that you use to guide your playing.

Let’s Begin Playing

Guitar tuned and ready to start? Let’s begin… You’ve probably already strummed the strings and experimented with pressing the strings down against the frets. Let’s go through some specific exercises to begin learning to play the guitar.

The picture below shows the basic position of the thumb and fretting finger and where to press the string down. The nut is at the left which means in this example we are fretting the not at the 2nd fret.

Right or left handed it’s the same for plucking the string and fretting notes. One hand is held in position on the guitar neck, the finger presses the string down enough to touch the fret, while the other hand plucks the string to make the note ring out. It’s important to get the hang of the correct way to fret notes to avoid problems which are difficult to “unlearn” later. Pay attention the position of the fingers, thumb, and wrist angle.



What you see in the picture below is called tablature. It’s an easy way to show you what notes to play and what to practice. Tablature is an old idea, originating in use as lute music. Study this picture to learn the basics of tablature.

Zeros indicate open notes (the open string), numbers indicate fretted notes – the number is the fret that the string is pressed behind. The lines represent the six guitar strings from the thicker 6th string at the bottom; lowE. To the thinest 1st string; High E.  The notes of all the string are from bass to treble are E, A, D, G, B, E in standard tuning.

Use the tablature (Tab) examples below we’re going to start teaching the muscles in your hands to play guitar. Your mind and muscles will learn as you play so that in time this type of exercise will be easy.



Pluck the string four times for each note, then move to the next string. Count notes as you go as, 1, 2, 3, 4. Play this exercise for 2-3 minutes at a time, gradually picking up speed (tempo). Don’t practice for too long, and stop if your hand cramps or you have any pain. Continue with the other patterns as you like.


All open notes, four notes per string, work on an even tempo. This exercise uses just the strumming hand to pluck the single open string notes.


First fret, four notes per string across all six strings, even tempo. For this exercise we add in using your 1st finger to fret the note behind the first fret.

Exercises continue on the next page…