moho5

So often, when I see people trying out guitars, I hear them say things like, “this one doesn’t play as good as the other one,” and, “the set-up is better on this one,” etc. I am bothered by comments like these because I fear that people are too often choosing a guitar based on how well it plays.

How well a guitar plays when you try it at the store is totally irrelevant.

As long as a guitar is free of structural damage and manufacturers’ defects, every aspect of its set-up can be adjusted to your exact specifications after you buy it. Better to choose a guitar based on design elements that cannot be changed. What follows is a list of factors (not set-up related) to consider when choosing a guitar.

- Stand up and wear it.

How does the guitar feel when you use a strap and play standing up? Does it hang in a position that will be comfortable to play? The size and shape of the guitar, as well as the wood it is made out of will make some guitars heavier than others, or will make them hang more to the left or right. For example, with 6-string, electric guitars, the Les Paul is usually pretty heavy. And, in the case of the SG, its shape, and the position of its strap button tend to make it unbalanced and neck-heavy. You will want a guitar that you can handle wearing for an extended period of time, one that feels comfortable against your body, and one that allows your fretting hand/arm the space it needs to move up and down the fretboard.

- Scale length.

The two most common scale lengths are 25 ½” (most Fender electrics) and 24 ¾” (Gibson and Epiphone). Generally speaking, if you have two guitars that are exactly the same in every way, but one has a long scale length and the other has a short scale length, the strings on the guitar with the short scale length will have a looser feel. This can be desirable for players who intend to incorporate lots of big note bends into their soloing.

Scale length also has an impact on tone. A longer scale will have a slightly twangier, more focused attack. PRS guitars have a 25″ scale length, which tries to get the best of both worlds – the comfy, loose feel of a Gibson, with the focused attack of a Fender. PRS also offers a model called the 245 which has a 24 ½” scale, and is the shortest full-scale electric I am aware of.

Another factor impacted by scale length is fret spacing. A guitar with a longer scale length will have more space between frets. For a person with small hands, more distance between frets could mean that forming some chord shapes, and making some reaches will be more difficult.

-  Neck profile.

The neck profile refers to the shape of the back of the neck. Most guitars have some variation on the C or D shape. Some necks are thinner, some are fatter. Find a neck that feels comfortable to you (the thinnest neck possible is not right for everybody, so be sure to try a few different ones). Some guitars, like the Eric Clapton signature models have a V or Soft V shape, which may feel odd at first, but can be very comfortable to play.

Also pay attention to the neck heel. This is the portion of the back of the neck where the neck joins the body. When playing above the 12th fret, does the neck heel/body joint feel comfortable and allow you the space necessary to solo in the upper register?

- Control configuration.

Are the controls for volume, tone, and pick-up selection oriented in a way that will be convenient and easy for you to use? Because different players hold the guitar differently, and strum and pick differently, the same control configuration is not right for everybody. You will want to be able to quickly and smoothly access your knobs and switches, without accidentally bumping them with your strumming.

- Fingerboard radius.

Most guitars have a fingerboard radius ranging from about 10″ (most Strats and Teles), to 12″ (Gibson and Epiphone), to as flat as 16″ on some Ibanez or other “shred” style electrics. Some fingerboards feature a compound radius, which gradually flattens out slightly as you go from the nut to the body joint. For players who need to play blistering fast, shred licks, a flatter radius may be preferable. Some vintage and vintage re-issue models have a very tight fingerboard radius (the ’52 re-issue Telecaster has a 7.25″ radius), which can make “low action” and big note bends difficult to achieve.

- Headstock design.

Headstocks come in three common orientations – six-in-a-row, six-in-a-row reverse, and three-on-a-side (with a few exceptions, like Music Man, which have a 4 on one side, 2 on the other orientation). The headstock design impacts feel and tone in ways similar to scale length. With a 6-in-a-row headstock, the #1, or high e string is the longest, and therefore has the tightest feel and most focused attack. Compare that to the 6-in-a-row reverse, where the #6, or low E is tight and focused, and the #1 loose and bendable.

Headstock design also impacts how straight the string is as it goes from the nut to the tuner. Ideally, for increased tuning stability, the string should be as straight as possible, as in the case of Fender and Music Man.

It is important to find a guitar that is best suited for your body, your playing style, and the type of music you hope to make with it. Some guitars, by the nature of their design, will be better for you than others. Obviously you will want to play any guitar before you buy it, but please don’t let a poor set-up turn you away from a guitar that may be perfectly designed for you. Likewise, don’t let a sweet set-up seduce you into buying a guitar that might turn out to be a poor fit for you later on.

This is one technician’s perspective.

What are your thoughts?