How To Buy A Cheap Beginning Guitar

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• Recommended Music Stores and Shops in Portland Oregon: Where musicians in the know buy their instruments, get them repaired, and have them customized

How to Buy a Cheap Guitar For A Beginner

In this article, I’m going to address some of the typical problems that “cheap” guitars have.

What does “setup” mean?

When a guitar has a “setup” already done, it means that the action and “settings” on the guitar are optimized to help you play the instrument. Not all shops do this, especially for their “super cheap” guitars (more below).

Make sure the guitar you’re looking at has been “setup.” Ask your salesperson: “hey, has this guitar had a setup yet?” If not, do not buy it.

What does “cheap” mean?

The word “cheap guitar” is relative.

If you’re saying, “I’ve decided the amount I want to spend for a guitar, yet I don’t know anything about guitars or the industry,” you may be choosing the wrong thing. It is very difficult to make concrete decisions about things you’re really unfamiliar with. Sometimes it can be better to do research and learn how the market is, and then adjust to that. Hopefully this article will help you do that.

I have custom books made by wealthy people – former customers of the custom shop I used to work at – of their entire guitar collections, which are worth millions of dollars. I’ve sold $70,000 vintage collector’s guitars. This post isn’t a “gear snob” post for people like me. This is for beginners who are just looking to buy an inexpensive guitar.

Price points for used guitars (do not buy a new guitar that’s “cheap.”):

Less than $100 (do not buy new): It is fairly likely that you will be be buying an instrument that is permanently damaged beyond reasonable repair.

Between $100 and $250 (do not buy new): There is a chance that the instrument that you are buying may not be permanently damaged beyond repair. With careful inspection using the tips below, proceed with caution.

Between $250 and $500 (do not buy new): With careful inspection using the tips below, proceed with caution. You can also be fairly confident that in this price range, the guitars are “set up.” 

$500 to $1000 (do not buy new): You’re going to have a good time. Make sure you use the tips below, however.

$1000 (do not buy new): Now you’re like me.

$2000: Only people with “real money” buy guitars this expensive. That excludes pretty much all musicians. I’ve never paid this much for a guitar, and I never will. I consider it unnecessary. 

Regardless of the price point of your guitar, you’ll need to check it for a few things.

What to look for in any guitar you buy

1 – Avoid High Action – but not so low that it buzzes. This is the most important issue for all guitars, but especially cheap ones.

This is how luthiers check the action on a guitar.
This is how luthiers check the action on a guitar.
this photo is courtesy of – a fantastic guitar and lutherie site

High Action can be assessed relatively easily, visually. Play the guitar – if you like an electric guitar but it seems a bit hard to play, ask the store to adjust the action. If it’s an acoustic guitar, you’ll have to pay to have the action lowered. Don’t be overly picky in the store about action before purchasing; skill still matters. If the luthier tells you “it can’t get any lower without buzzing,” then believe them, and take a few lessons so you learn about how to avoid buzz.

2 – Don’t Buy at Guitar Center

A deal from Guitar Center is not a deal, it is a waste of time and money. If you’re buying a NEW guitar, you just spent $300 on something that would have cost $100 otherwise.

If you don’t play in bands,  being in a music store may seem intimidating; but you won’t learn how to interact in a music store by going to Guitar Center. Go to the local shop first. Even if you don’t buy anything. You’ll save thousands in the long run.

3 – Great shops often have no sign

Unmarked recording studios and shops are a hallmark of music industry tradition. Nondescript, small shops are generally the higher quality, better reputation places for guitar purchase and repair.

4 – Great shops employ musicians, not “sales pros”

The best shops are the quieter, local shops. The quiet, local, cool shops attract quiet, cool people who know their stuff. They are there to build a good reputation. 

5 – Salespeople on commission are more aggressive. Great shops are where you get left alone.

Don’t interpret a salesperson bothering you as “customer service.” They want to spend your money.

6 – Ask Your Guitar Teacher To Go With You

I offer this service for free to my students; owners of music shops love when I bring in customers who buy things. It’s symbiotic, there would be no reason for me to charge students in helping them buy guitars. Contact me to make an appointment. Good teachers generally accompany their students to guitar shops, because a teacher would rather spend an hour helping a student, instead of helping that student deal with a low quality instrument for years.

7 – Avoid A Heavy Guitar

only hulk can haz a tele.
only hulk can haz a tele.

This is a picture of an oak Telecaster. By the way – if you’re starting out, don’t buy a Telecaster.

Again, if you like it buy it, but try to avoid the Les Pauls and heavier guitars at first.


 8 – If You’re Not Deliberately Seeking Obstruction, Don’t Buy A Telecaster


Telecasters are cranky, tough guitars. Muddy Waters, Jimmy Page, James Burton, Jack White, and Curtis Mayfield play(ed) Telecasters, and Keith Richards both plays Telecasters and uses them to hit people with who come onstage with the Stones (no, really). I had a Tele for 15 years, and I bought it because I wanted to play the most difficult guitar on earth to level up my skills and tone.

Almost anything else that you pick, will be easier to play than a Telecaster. Please do not buy one if you are a beginner.

Recommended Music Stores & Repair Shops In Portland

There are a lot of great shops, here are the shops run by my good friends (they also happen to be the best). 🙂

Trade Up Music

oodles of great, cheap, mostly used gear, with some new – guitars, amps, basses, synthesizers, pedals, ukuleles, PA systems, drum parts, drum kits, melodicas, harmonicas… friendly service, right next door to Stumptown Coffee. >>website

Trade Up Music 4701 SE Division St., Portland, OR 97206  *503-236-8800* 11:00 am – 7:00 pm daily Google Map
Trade Up Music 1834 NE Alberta St., Portland, OR 97211 *503-335-8800* 11:00 am – 7:00 pm daily Google Map

12th Fret Custom Guitar Shop

nationally renowned lutherie and repairs of stringed instruments of all sorts, serving the general public and prominent artists since 1979… friendly service, wonderful people who really go the extra mile. >>website

12th Fret Custom Guitar Shop 2402 SE Belmont St., Portland, OR 97214 *503-231-1912* 11:00 am – 6:00 pm Tue-Fri and 12:00 pm – 5:00 pm Saturday Google Map

East Side Guitar Repair

Guitar repair, amplifier repair, custom instruments >>website

East Side Guitar Repair 3341 SE Hawthorne Blvd., Portland, OR 97214  *503-232-0838* 11:00 am – 6:00 pm daily Google Map

Portland Custom Shop and Sour Sound

Amplifier repair, synthesizer repair and synth restoration; PA system repair, Pro Audio repair facility   >>Custom Shop Website  ::   >>Sour Sound Website

Portland Custom Shop + Sour Sound 1115 SE Morrison St. Portland, OR 97214 *503.227.9260* 11:00 am – 7:00 pm Mon-Fri and 12:00 pm – 5:00 pm Sat-Sun Google Map