1. Decide on the Type You Want
There are different types of guitars that are used for playing different styles of music, and your first task is to decide on the type of guitar you want. If you make the wrong choice now you will soon regret it. A good way to decide is to think of your three favourite players. If they all play the same type, that's your most likely choice. In approximate chronological order, the main types of guitars are:
Classical guitars - These, obviously, are good for classical music. They are also used for some folk music and, in amplified versions, for some country picking, though this is unusual. Picks (plectrums) are not used - the strings are plucked with the fingertips or nails. Their sound is medium loud, rich and full, but it takes more experience to get the full tonal range from these guitars than from some others. If you are a girl, people will probably steer you towards this type as 1) it's what girls do 2) it's small and light enough for you to handle and 3) the nylon strings won't hurt your fingers. All three reasons are wrong; the first is self-evident nonsense, the second is true of any small-bodied acoustic, and thirdly the least painful strings will be found on a well set up solid-bodied electric (with a well set up classical in second place). If you want a classical, buy a classical, but do it for the right reasons. Watch out for that wide neck - can you reach round it? There is an excellent entry on these guitars elsewhere in this guide. Noted makers - Ramirez, Smallman.
Arched-top acoustics - These are generally used for jazz. They have a vaguely violinish look, with f-holes instead of a central soundhole and, as the name suggests, a gently arched top. They use steel strings and are usually played with a pick, though finger style playing is possible. The amplified versions have recently had a bit of a Renaissance in rock. In their acoustic incarnation, they have a rich, slightly muted tone and (usually) a nice slick action1. Noted makers - D'Angelico, Epiphone.
Flat-top acoustics - These are used for rock, folk, country and all the unclassifiable territory in between. They use steel strings and can be played finger style or with a pick. They are (potentially) louder than the guitars above, and have a wide tonal range. They come in all sizes from very small to Dreadnought and at all prices from cheap to mortgage. They are equally suited to solo playing and accompaniment, and are the nearest thing to a general-purpose guitar, especially if fitted with a pickup. Noted makers - Martin, Taylor, Gibson, Lowden.
Resonator guitars - These look and sound wonderful but are highly specialised - best to stay away until you know what you are doing. Noted makers - Dobro, National.
Twelve-string guitars - These are also somewhat specialised and hard for beginners to play. Try one and see, but don't learn on one unless you enjoy pain. And don't forget the definition of a twelve-string player - someone who spends half his life tuning and the other half playing out of tune. Noted makers - same as flat-top acoustics.
Solid body electrics - Solid body electrics are the workhorses of rock. They must be plugged into an amplifier, use steel strings, and are almost always played with a pick. They can look like anything from a guitar to a map of Texas, as the shape has no bearing on the sound. As the strings are always amplified they can be very thin and the action can be very low, which makes them easy to play. These guitars can be very heavy, which is a consideration as they are often played standing up. The sound they make depends to a great extent on the choice of amplifier and effects through which the raw signal passes. Noted makers - Fender and Gibson, plus many others whose stars rise and set with astonishing speed.
Ovation types - These are acoustic guitars with bowl-shaped backs made of a type of fibreglass. They are fitted with pickups and played like flat-top acoustics. Some models have lots of little soundholes in the upper bout instead of one central soundhole. Their acoustic sound can be a little thin. Their amplified sound is unique, bright and clean and instantly recognisable. They are very robust and suited to stage work. Only noted maker - Ovation. There are cheaper versions such as Applause.
Any acoustic guitar can be fitted with a pickup so that you can amplify it. You could fit one yourself, or (preferably) you could buy an 'electro-acoustic' off the shelf. Some makers such as Takamine specialise in these, and there are many available at all price levels. However, the amplified sound will never quite match the pure acoustic sound, and as the volume goes up so does the danger of getting feedback.
Remember the transport question - even taking your guitar round to your friend's house can be a major task if you have a guitar, a box of effects and a heavy two-part amplifier setup to carry. Buy within your transport capabilities.
2. Set your Budget
A top quality, expensive instrument will not make you into a good player. On the other hand, a bad instrument really can hold you back by being almost impossible to play. In general, buy the best that you can afford and never under any circumstances go below a certain quality level, but be reasonable about it. It's only a guitar. Don't bankrupt yourself.
The price/quality curve is very steep at first, which is to your advantage. A £150 guitar will be more than twice as good as a £75 guitar, and a £37.50 guitar is probably unplayable firewood. On the other hand, the curve levels off. It takes an expert ear to tell the difference between a £1500 guitar and a £3000 guitar, and as a beginner you will not have an expert ear. Buy within your limits, in every sense.
Allow for the cost of any extras you may need, such as a case - see the last section below.
Finally, there is also a psychological factor that applies exclusively to electric guitars. If you walk out holding the most expensive Les Paul plugged into a megawatt of Marshalls, your audience will recognise the kit at once and expectations will be very high. Can you live up to them? How embarrassed will you be when you can't - and you won't, you know, not at first. For learning, and for your first few gigs, you are probably better off with a decent Squire and a modest fifty watts. And don't forget that Brian May played his home-made guitar throughout a considerably long career.
This does not apply to other types of guitar because the recognition/expectation factor is not so high. From a distance, a £150 acoustic looks like a £2000 acoustic. Doesn't sound like it, though, which is a pity.
3. New or Second-hand?
This is related to the previous point, of course. If you buy second-hand, you run the risk of buying somebody else's problems. On the other hand, you can get yourself an absolute bargain. See 'Checking out the choice' for the right way to evaluate a guitar.
As a very general rule people seem to sell guitars for a little over half what they paid for them. This means that you might find yourself a superb third-hand instrument in the classified ads cheaper than a brand-new but uninspiring one in a shop. If that ever happens, and the guitar is in acceptable condition (see below), snap it up.
Minor scratches have no effect on the sound. If there are structural problems like cracks or loose internal bracing, though, leave it alone. Watch the way the current owner handles the guitar - are they careful with it or do they clout it on the furniture and mistreat it even when you are there? If they have habitually mishandled it, the guitar will have suffered in places where you can't see. Has it been stored well, in a rack or a case, or has it been propped in a corner? Avoid guitars that have been hung flat against an external wall, or over a radiator. Apply all the same tests that you would apply to a new guitar from a shop. After all, it will have to do the same job.
Good guitar shops (see below) accept good instruments in part exchange, but they don't accept rubbish because there is more profit and less hassle in selling brand-new rubbish than second-hand rubbish. A good guitar shop is therefore a possible hunting ground for a second-hand instrument, but they will know its real value, so don't expect stunning bargains.
General rule: a good second-hand instrument is a better bet musically and financially than a mediocre new instrument at the same price.
4. What is a Good Guitar Shop?
A good guitar shop is the only place to buy a new guitar, and it is heaven on earth. Here are its characteristics:
It sells all kinds of guitars at all kinds of prices. It probably sells some rubbish for people who insist on rubbish (and there are plenty), but the rubbish is displayed as a group in a corner and the assistants are slightly shamefaced about it. It also sells really superb instruments for you to dream about. It has a small but excellent selection of second-hand instruments. The assistants are knowledgeable enthusiasts who know all about the guitars in the shop and can play well. There is an assistant who plays classical, one who plays blues, one who plays rock... They are happy to demonstrate the guitars to you and will advise you well. There are many signs, prominently displayed, saying 'Please ask an assistant before you try a guitar'. Do you want to buy an instrument that has been damaged in the shop by over-enthusiastic browsers with no intention of buying but every intention of showing off? On the other hand, if you are serious, you can try all you want for as long as you like. There is a room, or at least an area, where you can take the guitars to try them out away from the sounds of other guitars. They sell cases and all the other paraphernalia that goes with guitars, and they have everything in stock. Where can such a shop be found? If you ever find one, cherish it, and let the rest of the guitar-playing world know about it.
Mail order guitars, by the way, are like mail order marriages. Sometimes they work.
5. Checking out the Choice
If possible, take an experienced guitarist friend with you when you go to buy. Of course, if you have such a person, you probably don't need the rest of this advice.
If the shop is small and the prices surprisingly good, ask if they are selling all first-quality guitars or factory returns. Faulty guitars that have been returned to the distributor by shops with high standards are often redistributed through shops with lower standards at lower prices. You can get a bargain, but you can also get ripped off. It depends on what the original fault was, and do you think the shop will tell you? As in most areas of human experience, if the price seems too good to be true, it probably is. Inform yourself before you buy. And then go to a good shop instead.
Check out the structural and cosmetic condition of the guitar. Any scratches or other blemishes? Look out for impact marks. Are all the joints tight, no cracks showing? Are all the frets nicely seated with no rough bits on the edge of the fingerboard? Is the bridge convincingly attached? Does the guitar rattle when you give it a bit of a shake, or when you tap the top gently?
Tune up. You must have a guitar in concert pitch to test it. As you tune, do the strings move cleanly and evenly through the nut or do they bind? Do the tuners themselves turn smoothly?
Check the position of the bridge. This is a bit complicated to explain, but vital. With one finger, lightly touch the sixth string directly over the twelfth fret. Do not press it down onto the fret, just displace it very, very slightly from its straight line. With your other hand, pluck the string firmly above the soundhole, then immediately remove the finger that was touching the string. You should hear a harmonic note one octave higher than the open string. Listen to it. Now fret the sixth string normally at the twelfth fret and play that note. Is it the same pitch as the harmonic? If it is significantly different, the guitar will never play in tune. Repeat the test with the first string. Some electric guitars allow bridge adjustment that can correct this fault. Classicals and flat-top acoustics cannot be adjusted. F-hole acoustics with movable bridges are easily adjusted.
Test every note from all six strings at all frets. There should be no muting or buzzing as you move up the neck and the guitar should be in tune at all frets.
Check the action. Is it low enough to be playable, but high enough not to buzz? If it is unsatisfactory, can it be corrected? Electrics often have bridges that are adjustable for height, but for an acoustic you'll have to replace or sand down the bridge saddle. This is a relatively easy job.
Check the straightness of the neck, not by sighting along it (which is pointless) but by fretting the sixth string at the fret where the neck joins the body and the first fret simultaneously. The neck should not be dead flat, but slightly concave. There should be a clearance of .005" to .015" between the string and the frets half way between the two fretting fingers. This is a tiny gap, but enough to make an audible click if you tap your finger down lightly on the string. Taking along a feeler gauge is probably going too far.
Now get somebody else to play it, and just listen. Do you like the way it sounds? An acoustic sounds different when you are out in front of it from the way it sounds when you are playing it. Surprisingly few people realise this.
Play it yourself, if you know how. All experienced players will know that some guitars feel right when you play them and some don't. If you are likely to be playing standing up, play it standing up.
If it's an electric, test it through an amplifier similar to the one you will be using. If you will be playing loud, test it loud, if only for a short while. Have some consideration for the rest of the customers. Another thing to check in some solid electrics is the vibrato arm, or whammy bar. Do the strings return to proper pitch after using it forcefully? Turn all the knobs to their full extent and wiggle the jackplug - any crackles?
If it's an acoustic, 'solid tops' (made of a single thickness of, usually, spruce) are better and more costly than laminated tops. Given care, they will improve with age, whereas laminates stay as they are. Check the grain - it should be dense, straight and even. Laminates have the advantage of robustness and may suit a clumsy beginner better.
Electrics can be any colour at all, but acoustics should be wood coloured. You will find it much harder to sell on a strangely-coloured acoustic, and it's very easy to hide a lousy grain under a paint job.
When you have narrowed things down to the make and model you like, ask if they have any identical ones in stock. No two guitars are actually identical, and the one in the storeroom may be much nicer than the one you have already identified as the best. This really is true - try it and see - and applies particularly to low and mid-priced acoustic instruments.
Other Stuff You Might Want or Need
Amplifier and lead - Buy the best lead you can afford - it makes a huge difference and will last much longer. As for the amp, that's an entry in itself.
A case - You do need a case. Hard cases are best but keep it in proportion - good ones cost more than cheap guitars. A well-padded gig bag is a good second-best.
A variety of picks - If you have just spent lots of money, the shop might give you a few out of goodwill. If you have to buy them, try out various sizes and thicknesses to which suits you best. Experienced players usually end up with smallish, stiffish rounded triangles, but larger thinner ones might be easier to start with.
A strap - Wider is usually better. And try not to attach it to the nut, as this strains the neck. Get a button fitted at the heel. Or play sitting down, if your subculture will let you.
A tuner - Always handy.
A capo - Guitarists are the envy of players of other instruments because of this handy device. You want to play in C# minor? No problem. Capo on fourth fret, play in A minor. Easy.
A humidifier - But now we're getting into realms that go beyond the scope of this entry.