Mark Mason

A beginner’s guide to buying a guitar

It needn’t cost a fortune

  • From Spectator Life
A Fender Stratocaster (iStock)

Thinking of adding another six strings to your bow? You wouldn’t be alone – lockdown inspired plenty of people to learn the guitar. The trend may have lessened as people return to the office, but it has still meant UK and European sales for the guitar maker Fender are £5 million higher than before Covid. The company say that almost half of its guitars are sold to people playing the instrument for the first time. Should you follow their example?

The short answer is ‘yes’. The same instinct that gets you holding a tennis racket in front of the mirror means that when you progress to the real thing, the one you want is a Fender Stratocaster. Buddy Holly played one, which was why Eric Clapton wanted one. And after Eric Clapton played one, every guitarist since has wanted one. It’s simultaneously the Model T Ford and Rolls Royce of electric guitars.

But an American-made Strat will cost you at least £1,500 and that’s silly money for a beginner. (Ironically for a company that was boosted by the pandemic, Fender’s US factory is in the Californian city of Corona.) The firm also makes Strats in Japan, though even they cost about £1,200. To get down to three figures, you need their Mexican-made range (£700 or so, and still perfectly good guitars). There’s also the option of a Squier, which are made by Fender but don’t bear their name. Good enough for George Harrison, though – you can read ‘Squier Stratocaster’ on the headstock (at the right-hand end of the instrument) below. One of those will cost you about £350.

Harrison is playing with the aforementioned Eric Clapton in that clip, and as it happens Clapton is using a Gibson Les Paul. That’s been the Strat’s main competitor throughout rock history – it has a ballsier sound but isn’t as contoured as the Strat, so doesn’t sit as well on your lap or against your body. But it’s still a thing of beauty, as Nigel Tufnell confirms in This is Spinal Tap.

If you don’t want to commit to Fender prices straightaway, most music shops will sell you a serviceable beginner’s guitar for not much more than £100. Or you could do the full Brian May and make your own instrument, the now-legendary ‘Red Special’. The 16-year-old May and his father took the wood for its body from a table, while its neck was cut from a discarded fireplace that was in such bad condition May had to fill its wormholes with matchsticks. The tremolo arm, meanwhile, is part of a bicycle saddlebag frame, covered with the plastic tip from a knitting needle. (The arm bends the note, as shown below, just after two minutes in.)

The good news whichever electric guitar you go for is that they’re actually easier to play than acoustics – the strings sit nearer the neck, so require less force to press them down. (Your fingertips will hurt for the first few days, but they’ll soon toughen up.) It’s this ease that allows you to play notes without even plucking the string – simply touching the string to the fretboard, or pulling your finger away, will create a sound. This is a huge part of rock guitar playing – though if you want to surprise an expert, point out to them that in AC/DC’s Thunderstruck, where you’d assume Angus Young is using such techniques, he actually plucks each and every note with his plectrum. Quite a feat – watch his right hand here.

There’s more good news when it comes to buying an amplifier (not that you need one to start learning). The amp everyone dreams of is a Marshall and these days the company make a 10-watt version for just £75. It has a headphone socket if you want to keep that Hendrix sound to yourself (coincidentally Marshall was Jimi’s middle name), but is more than loud enough to annoy the neighbours. Should you need convincing of Marshall’s ongoing appeal, Den Dennis and Vim Fuego of Bad News can convince you.

Yet another bonus for anyone learning guitar these days is that there are a billion YouTube videos teaching you everything from the basics to the trickiest million-notes-a-second stuff. Some of us had to learn in the pre-internet era, ruining stylus after stylus as we tried to copy our Stevie Ray Vaughan vinyl records. He was another Strat fan, by the way – he called his favourite one his ‘first wife’.

A final word of warning – don’t try to learn any Rolling Stones riffs. Keith Richards (one of the few rock gods to prefer Fender’s earlier guitar the Telecaster) uses an unusual tuning and the riffs simply won’t sound right if you play them on a standard guitar. In fact, look closely and you’ll see that on some songs Keef uses only five strings – the bottom one (i.e. the one nearest his chin) is missing. He’s literally one string short of a guitar.