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Choosing An Electric Guitar

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This page is intended as a basic guide for people looking to buy an electric guitar - providing some background information and things to look out for, particularly for those who are new to the world of electric guitars, and a bit confused by all the different makes and models out there!

We recommend that, if possible, you call into our shop and try some guitars / amps before arriving at a final decision - if this isn't possible, you still have the option of buying an instrument that is properly set-up and guaranteed from our online store. Either way, we hope this is a useful resource - but feel free to contact us if you have any further questions.

How much should I spend?

The golden rule is simply to spend the most you can afford. A better guitar and better amplifier will generally make a nicer sound, and will keep you satisfied for longer. All the guitars we sell at Sheehans are checked over and set up by our own repairer and luthier prior to sale, so they will all have a nice low action, even frets and accurate intonation.

Bear in mind that, at the very least, you will also need an amplifier, strap, lead, and plectrums, and it's usually a good idea to buy an electronic tuner (by far the easiest way of keeping your instrument in tune), and a soft case if you plan to take the instrument out of the house. There are complete packages available which are excellent value, and usually contain everything mentioned above (apart from the tuner); these are a very popular choice for people just starting out

Why buy from Sheehans?

1. The Set-Up

All of our guitars are fully set up and inspected by our own luthiers / repairers before they go on sale. Many guitar shops don't do any set-up work at all on their instruments - some will try to persuade you that it's not necessary, but in our experience this just isn't true!

Why? If you pick up an electric guitar "straight from the box", you will often find that it's not playing at it's best. Sometimes the strings are too far from the fret-board (the 'action' is too high) which makes them harder to press down with your fingers, and can also bend the strings out of tune when you're playing. Sometimes the strings are too close to the fretboard, and you get unwanted buzzing and rattling noises, and some notes may not even play at all.

Sometimes there are rough fret ends that dig into your fingers, and occasionally there are more serious problems, where a well-trained eye will spot that the guitar is not fit for sale and needs to be returned to the manufacturer. Bear in mind that our basic set-up charge for a guitar bought elsewhere is around £55, yet we carry out this vital work for free even on the cheapest instruments we sell.

2. The Warranty

All new instruments bought through our shop or online store have a 5-year warranty*. In most cases, our own qualified and highly experienced repairers can perform the repairs themselves, avoiding the delay of returning a product to the manufacturer.

Also, because your guitars are made from woods which can react to changes in humidity and temperature, you may find that after a few months in your home, the instrument needs some further adjustment. If so, you are welcome to bring it back to us for a free check over.

Second hand instruments (marked S/H on our website) come with a 1-year warranty**.

*This is in addition to manufacturers' standard warranties, and covers your instrument against any problems arising from manufacturing defects.

**Commission sale instruments (marked C/S) are sold as seen.

Classic Electric Guitar Designs

Most electric guitars built today are based around classic 1950s and '60s designs by the pioneering guitar makers Fender® and Gibson®. The most famous of these designs are:

Fender and Gibson (and their respective budget brands Squier® and Epiphone®) are still making these models today, and there are also many guitars by other manufacturers that 'borrow' from their designs, with looks, features and sounds that resemble the originals.

Understanding a bit about each of these classic designs will give you an insight into the different types of electric guitars, and will hopefully allow you to make a more informed purchase!

The Fender Stratocaster® (or 'Strat'®)

Arguably the most popular guitar design of all time. Hank Marvin, Jimmy Hendrix, Eric Clapton, and Mark Knopfler are just a few of the guitar legends who have famously used a Strat.

Fender Stratocaster electric guitar

The body, made from alder or ash, is quite light in weight for a solid-bodied guitar (especially compared to guitars like the Gibson Les Paul or SG, which tend to have heavy mahogany bodies), and the edges of the body are rounded so they don't dig into you while you're playing. A double cutaway gives you access to the higher frets, and the bridge usually has a tremolo arm (also known as a 'whammy bar') which allows you to bend or wobble the notes that you play.

Traditionally, the Strat has three single-coil pickups - labelled bridge, middle and neck - that give the player a range of sounds to choose from (pickups set near the end of a string make a brighter, 'twangier' sound than those set near the middle of a string, which have a mellower sound - similar to the way plucking a guitar string near the bridge gives a different tone to plucking it in the middle). A few Strats and similar guitars have a double 'humbucker' pickup in the bridge position, which gives a 'thicker', more powerful sound.

Standard controls are a master volume knob, two tone knobs (one for each of the middle and neck pickups) and a 5-position switch to select the sound of the different pickups. On this switch, positions 1, 3 & 5 select the bridge, middle and neck pickups on their own, and positions 2 & 4 select combinations of bridge & middle pickups and middle & neck pickups.

The neck is made from maple, is bolted on to the body, and has 21 frets (more frets means you can reach higher notes). Sometimes Strats have a dark rosewood fingerboard, otherwise the frets are set directly into the light-coloured maple neck; this makes a subtle difference to the sound as well as the looks, as a plain maple neck gives a slightly brighter tone, whereas rosewood fingerboards tend to sustain the notes for a bit longer.

The Fender Telecaster® (or 'Tele'®)

Fender's other famous guitar design, still very popular with country players and rock guitarists seeking an edgier, twangier sound. Perhaps the most famous Tele player ever was Elvis Presley's guitarist James Burton, but many other famous players have Telecasters in their arsenal - with Bruce Springsteen, Muddy Waters, and U2's The Edge among them.

Fender Telecaster electric guitar

Like Strats, Fender Teles have a body made from alder or ash, but their larger size and squarer shape makes them noticably heavier (although not as heavy as a Gibson Les Paul). As with Strats, some models have the option of a rosewood fingerboard, otherwise the frets (again, 21 of them) are set directly into the maple neck, which again is bolted onto the guitar's body. A single cutaway helps you access the higher notes, and the bridge is normally fixed into position, with no tremolo arm (this type of bridge is sometimes called a 'hard tail').

Traditionally the Telecaster has two single-coil pickups, in the bridge and neck positions, with the bridge pickup set into a metal plate that forms part of the bridge itself - this helps give the sound the famous Telecaster 'twang'. Standard controls comprise a master volume knob, master tone knob (ie affecting both pickups at the same time, unlike the Strat), and a 3-position switch that lets you choose between the bridge pickup on its own, the bridge and neck pickups in combination, and the neck pickup on its own.

The Gibson / Epiphone Les Paul®

With a chunkier sound than the Stratocaster and Telecaster - thanks mainly to its 2 humbucker pickups - the Gibson Les Paul has been used by a diverse range of artists including Duane Allman, Lenny Kravitz, Slash from Guns 'n' Roses, Noel Gallagher, Bob Marley and Jimmy Page.

Gibson Les Paul electric guitar

The majority of the Les Paul's body is traditionally made from mahogany, which makes it feel a fair bit heavier than a Strat or Tele, but the gently curved (arched) front is overlaid with carved maple, which shows through if the guitar has a transparent finish, such as sunburst. The body has a distinctive rounded shape with a single cutaway.

The neck is also made from mahogany, and is glued on to the body rather than bolted - this allows for a slimmer neck-body joint which makes it easier to get your hand round to the higher frets, and also helps to sustain notes for longer. The rosewood - or ebony - fingerboard has 22 frets, and a binding strip around the edges.

As mentioned above, the secret of the Les Paul's sound is in its humbucker pickups. These basically consist two single coil pickups together inside the same casing, wired in a special way so they cancel out 'hum' or interference from other electrical equipment, such as stage lights. As well as removing unwanted noise, humbuckers also give a fatter, denser sound, particularly when distorted through an amplifier.

Each pickup has it's own volume and tone controls - 4 knobs in total - and a switch labelled Rhythm / Treble which switches between the different pickups (the Rhythm position selects the neck pickup on its own, Treble selects the bridge pickup on its own, and the middle position selects both pickups together).

The Gibson / Epiphone SG®

The Gibson SG shares many design features with the Les Paul (see above), but with a thinner body, and distinctive 'bat-wing' symmetrical, double-cutaway shape. SGs tend to be favoured by rock guitarists, including AC/DC's Angus Young, Black Sabbath's Tony Iommi, Pete Townshend and the Foo Fighters.

Gibson SG electric guitar

Like the Les Paul, the mahogany neck is glued in to the mahogany body, although the body of the SG is thinner and hence lighter in weight. The rosewood (or ebony) fingerboard has 22 frets and no binding around the edges. The guitar usually has a fixed bridge, with no tremolo arm.

Again there are 2 humbucker pickups, each with its own volume and tone control, and 3-position switch labelled Rhythm / Treble which allows you to select the different pickups (the Rhythm position selects the neck pickup on its own, Treble selects the bridge pickup on its own, and the middle position selects both pickups together).

The Gibson / Epiphone ES-335®

An electric guitar with a hollow body, the ES-335 is the best known of several 'semi-acoustic' guitar models developed by Gibson and Epiphone during the late 1950s and early 1960s, all of which shared the same basic features. Famous '335 users include Buddy Guy, and Noel Gallagher from Oasis.

Gibson ES-335 electric guitar

The hollow body, which is shallow* like an solid-bodied electric guitar, is made from Maple; the arched top has f-shaped soundholes above and below the strings similar to a violin. The ES-335 is quite a lot louder than a solid-bodied electric guitar when it's not plugged in (although nowhere near as loud as an acoustic guitar), and because it resonates like an acoustic guitar, the sound has a more of a 'chiming' quality when plugged in.

Like Gibson's solid-bodied guitars, the ES-335 has a glued-in mahogany neck with a 22-fret rosewood fingerboard, 2 humbucker pickups each with its own volume and tone control, and a 3-position switch to select the different pickup combinations. The Epiphone "Dot" ES-335 shown in the picture above has a fixed Gibson-style bridge and tailpiece, some similar models are fitted with a Bigsby® tailpiece, with a thick, flat tremolo arm, allowing you to bend or wobble the notes.

*Deeper bodied semi-acoustics are also available, and are particularly popular among Jazz players.

More Unusual Shapes and Sizes

Since the birth of the electric guitar in the 1950's and 60's, guitar makers have experimented with more original body shapes (such as Gibson's 'Flying V' and 'Explorer', and Dean's 'ZX'). It's arguable whether these make any real difference to the guitars' sound, but they certainly look good on stage!

A couple of things to bear in mind if you're thinking of buying a guitar with a crazy body shape:

  • Finding a hard case the right size and shape can be difficult, unless the manufacturer makes one of their own (even getting a gig bag to fit some of the larger shapes can be a problem).
  • Some body shapes have no recess to stop them sliding off your knee, so they can only be played standing up!

Gibson Flying V electric guitar

These issues don't apply to every wacky-looking instrument out there, and many players who aren't really bothered whether they can sit down in their bedroom and play their new V-shaped guitar, as long as it looks right in front of those screaming fans... just don't say we didn't warn you!

Locking Tremolo Systems

The locking tremolo consists of a set of small screw-down clamps built into the nut, and a special tremolo bridge with fine-tuners. This system holds down the strings are held down at either end of their sounding length (the bit of the string that you actually play), they stay in tune much better when the tremolo arm (the 'whammy bar') is used, even when bending the pitch down a long way*.

B C Rich Warlock electric guitar with a locking tremolo system

If you want to play fast, accurate guitar solos, and use the whammy bar a lot without constantly having to tune up your guitar, then a locking tremolo could well be what you need. Here are a few things you should be aware of if you are considering buying a guitar fitted with a locking tremolo system:

  • For the locking tremolo to work as it should, it is crucial that it is set-up properly. Otherwise, the intonation (how well the guitar plays in tune as you move up the fretboard) and the action (height of the strings above the fretboard) will be wrong.
  • Setting up a guitar with a locking tremolo is quite a tricky job, and a guitar repairer will usually charge more to set one up than a guitar with an ordinary tremolo system (we do here at Sheehans).
  • Changing the strings is a lot harder than on a guitar with an ordinary tremolo system. If you snap a string during a gig, it'll take you longer to put a new one on (unless you have a spare guitar and a roadie to do it for you...). Some locking tremolo systems are trickier than others in this respect.
  • When putting on a complete new set of strings, you will need make sure you buy exactly the same gauge (thickness) of strings as the ones already on there, and change them carefully, one at a time. Otherwise you're likely to find that your guitar needs a set-up afterwards.

If you're thinking of taking up guitar for the first time, and you're looking for an instrument to learn on, we suggest that it's probably better to avoid guitars with a locking tremolo system - at least to begin with.

*Bending the pitch up a long way on any tremolo system is not recommended - it will eventually cause the strings to snap, and could damage your guitar.

Active Electronics

More popular on bass guitars, but also fitted to some modern electric guitars as well. Guitars described as being 'active' or having 'active electronics' have a small pre-amp built into the instrument, usually powered by a 9V battery, which boosts the signal going from the guitar, through the lead, to the input of the amplifier.

Reasons for having active electronics:

  • Cleaner signal - because the guitar's output is louder, any background noise (eg electrical interference in the lead, or the amplifier's input) will be quieter by comparison. You won't have to turn up the gain control on your amp as far, so you should get less background 'hiss' while playing, particularly noticable if you play with a clean sound through a compressor effect.
  • More 'Zing' to the sound - when a quieter signal passes through a guitar lead, some of the higher frequencies are lost due to the internal resistance of the wire. Because active signals are louder, they lose less of their high frequencies, and you get a brighter sound.
  • If you're playing through a valve amplifier, a louder signal will drive the input stage of your amp a bit harder, which should give you better sustain and allow you to get more distortion without having to crank the gain up all the way.

Reasons against having active electronics:

  • Price - guitars and basses with active electronics tend to cost more than ones without.
  • Batteries - need to be changed regularly, and can run out without warning in the middle of a gig!
  • If you use more than one guitar, and one of them is active and one is passive (ie doesn't have active electronics) then you'll need to adjust the input levels on your effects pedals / amplifier when you change them over.
  • Most guitars are made without active electronics, because most guitarists don't need them

About Guitar Necks

The shape and size of a guitar's neck, along with the gauge (thickness) of strings you are using, are the major factors that determine how comfortable it is to play. Whether a guitar neck feels right for you depends to some extent on the shape of your hands, but also on personal preference - and this is an area where measurements and descriptions are no substitute for actually trying the guitar out for yourself.

In fact, manufacturers' websites and magazine reviews sometimes quote so many technical details, that it's easy to get confused or side-tracked, and lose sight of actually finding a guitar that feels and sounds right for you! However, for the technically-minded, here is a quick run-down of what those facts and figures mean:

  • Scale length - this is the 'sounding length' of the guitar string, ie the length of the the string between the nut and the bridge*. A shorter scale length will feel 'looser' with the same gauge strings, and the frets will be slightly closer together. This is sometimes important for players with a smaller hand-span, and for more advanced players who have become used to playing with a certain scale length, but most players will be able to adapt to the range of scale lengths.

    *Actually measured as twice the distance from the nut to the 12th fret, since the string lengths vary at the bridge end to allow for intonation differences.
  • Nut width - the width of the fingerboard (and hence the width of the neck) at the nut. A wider neck allows for more spacing between the strings - if you have chunky fingers, you may prefer a wider neck, but if you use the 'thumb-over' technique (holding down the bass string by curling your thumb over the top) or have a small hand-span, you will probably find a narrower neck is better suited to your needs.
  • Neck profile / neck shape - most modern guitars have a 'C' shaped neck that is relatively thin, and curved all the way round for comfortable playing. Some guitars with a binding strip around the fingerboard, and re-issues of vintage guitar models, have 'U' shaped necks with flat sides - these are usually wider front-to-back than a 'C' shape neck, and have a more 'chunky' feel to them. 'V' shaped necks are designed to fit into the groove between your thumb and forefinger, but if your hand changes position (eg from playing an open chord to playing a barre chord) the neck feels very different.

Diagram showing cross-sections of C, V and U shaped guitar necks

  • Fingerboard radius - a measure of how curved the guitar's fingerboard is. Most modern electric guitars have a large fingerboard radius (say around 16"), meaning the fingerboard is only slightly curved. Some older guitars, and modern re-issues of older models, have a narrow fingerboard radius (say around 10"), meaning there is quite a steep curve to the fingerboard - this sometimes feels more comfortable to the player, but can cause problems with notes cutting out higher up the neck when playing string bends. A few manufacturers now use 'compound radius' fretboards where the curve is steep around the nut and gets shallower towards the body of the guitar, which supposedly offers the best of both worlds.

Diagram to explain fingerboard radius

Other Features

Here are some of the other gadgets you may find on electric guitars and basses:

  • Coil tap - a switch that makes a humbucker pickup work like a single coil pickup, and gives you a greater range of sounds.
  • Phase switch - a switch that alters the electric circuit inside the guitar so that one of the pickups is wired the other way round, this makes a subtle difference to the sound of the guitar.
  • Pickup balance control - sometimes found on bass guitars with two pickups, this allows you to control the amount of sound coming from each pickup, while keeping the volume constant (most two-pickup guitars and basses let you do this with a volume control for each pickup, which are a bit trickier to use, or a 3-position selector switch which doesn't give you as many options)
 
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Brands we stock include...

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