My friend Doug asked my advice on buying his first guitar. He's decided to take a shot at learning to play (right on Doug!). I felt like I wrote him a pretty good answer and because this is a question I've been asked before, time and again, decided to put my response online. Maybe someone else will get some good out of it sooner or later.
There was a time when a fellow had to buy a good brand name guitar to learn on because the off-brands were so poorly made that the instrument itself became an obstacle to the learning process but that's no longer true. The Samick Corporation (of Korea), for example, makes more guitars than any other company in the world and they use the same machines (and in some cases far better machines) used by brand-name American manufacturers. The Fender corporation is the only American manufacturer that uses their own name on imports. The Stratocaster (Strat for short) is the most popular electric guitar of all time. Among aficianados you'll hear references to Mexican Strats, Japanese Strats, Korean Strats or American Strats. Most serious players will grudgingly admit that there's no discernable difference between the imports and an American strat (but they usually suggest you replace the pickups on the Mexican instrument because there's some sort of subtle difference that nobody's been able to quantify so far). The same thing is true of acoustic instruments. Many of the imports are equal in quality to American made instruments.
A few of the instruments made by Samick are Epiphone (for Gibson), Oscar Schmidt (for Washburn), Sigma (for Martin) and their "house" brand name is "Abilene" On the nicer models the only difference between an Abilene and a Samick is the label. You can get very good prices on guitars from web sites like musiciansfriend.com or zzounds.com but I recommend against it. A guitar is like a car. You have to sit in it and drive it around a bit before you know how you feel about it. You have to hold a guitar in your hands and strum a chord on it before you can tell how you feel about it.
Here's what to look for in a good flat top, round hole, steel string, new or used guitar, regardless of the brand name.
Examine the body for splits, pits, or cracks. We found a split in the sidewall of a brand new Martin D-25 not long ago. It was invisible until we grabbed the body by both ends and applied a slight twisting pressure. That made the split "smile" at us right away. Turn the body up so you can look across the top of the guitar's bridge with your eye right on the edge. If you see a slight rise, or hump in the body, across the top, (viewing at right angles to the line formed by the bridge) or, if the bridge, (from the same vantage point) appears to cant forward slightly the instrument isn't worth your investment. I'll accept a very slight hump,and/or a very slight forward tilt in the bridge on a used guitar that's clearly been used a lot, if the action and intonation are still good (more on that later). A traditional acoustic has a large "heel" of wood at the base of the neck where it joins the body and that heel will taper towards the back of the guitar. Examine the back of the heel carefully. It should be flush with the body. If it looks like you could slip the point of your pocketknife between the heel and body, in other words, if there's a gap, you don't want this instrument. A proper repair would be far too costly.
This is the height of the strings above the neck. Before you can check it you have to make sure the truss rod doesn't need adjusting. First, ask the clerk to please tune the guitar with an electronic tuner for you. Next (reverse this if you're left-handed), place the headstock of the guitar in your right palm and your thumb on the upper side of the headstock. Your arm and thumb should be pointing straight down the neck with the back side of the tuning machines resting on your palm. Press down and grip with your thumb but don't lift yet. Grab the body of the guitar in your left hand, at the top of the body and on the same side as the pickguard. Lift the instrument carefully and point it at a light fixture as you "gunsight" along the neck. The strings become your reference line because they'll form a perfectly straight line. What you should be looking at very closely (move the guitar as needed to get the best light) is whether or not the face of the guitar neck also forms a perfectly straight line. For the moment, don't worry about whether or not the two lines (strings and neck) are parallel, just ascertain that the line formed by the neck is perfectly straight. If you detect any curvature tell the clerk that the truss rod needs adjusting. Ask him as politely as possible if he could adjust it, or have someone adjust it, and let you see the guitar again afterwards. He may do it by "eyeball" if he's good enough but a lot of very good luthiers (that's a person who builds or repairs instruments in the guitar and violin family) use a metal straightedge to make this adjustment.
If you can see any twist in the surface of the neck side-to-side, from end-to-end, hang it back up and move on. This can't be adjusted and is a $300 repair thus pointless unless the instrument is of extremely good quality or is a collectors item (and you want a guitar to learn on, not a dubious investment).
Once the truss rod is properly adjusted, and you've confirmed that yourself by gunsighting it again, reach into your pocket and pull out one each, American quarter dollar. Slip the quarter between the last fret (the one nearest the body) and the strings. If the quarter will fit between the last (widest) fret and the strings (on both sides) without touching both the fret and string (at least barely), hand the instrument back to the clerk as politely as possible and tell him that the action needs adjusting. On most acoustic guitars this means loosening the strings, removing the saddle (bone on antique or very high end instruments but plastic on most) and filing it off from the bottom by whatever amount is needed to lower the strings. It's possible for the action to be off a little on one side but not the other in which case the saddle would need to be filed more on one side than the other, however, once it's filed properly it will be perfectly flat on the bottom. This isn't a simple job like adjusting the truss rod and the average counter clerk probably won't be able to handle the job but he should readily agree to having it done within a couple of days if you're willing to come back and look at the guitar again. A replacement bridge saddle usually costs about a dollar. If the instrument has passed all tests save this one, examine how much of the saddle is standing above its groove in the bridge. If, in your estimation, the saddle can be filed off enough to fix the action and still leave a little headroom for future adjustments you might just use the high action as a bargaining point to get a discount and have him throw in a couple of extra saddles for the price you settle on. If you're careful, and meticulous in your work, you can adjust the saddle yourself. Having a couple of spares will give you the head room to mess up the first one while you get the hang of it.
To begin with use the original as a pattern and cut a replacement to match it. That way you won't alter the original beyond its ability to serve as a rude template. You'll have to loosen the strings completely but shouldn't need to remove them to get the saddle out each time. Tighten them back up to proper tuning each time you reinsert the saddle to check it.
The top of saddle, where it contacts the strings, is curved and you should ascertain that the curvature on the replacment matches the curvature on the existing saddle. It's OK if it's too long; it can be cut off as long as the curvature is the same. I've never seen more that one type of replacement saddle with a curved top but that doesn't imply that all guitars are made the same and an unusual brand, or hand made instrument, might require a different curvature, in which case get a bone, or synthetic bone blank in the proper thickness and you'll have to shape the top as well as filing the bottom.
Most acoustic electrics use a slender transducer that fits under the bridge saddle. Many new acoustic electrics come with high action because the only precut saddle on the assembly line is the one used for ordinary acoustics. Even if they have one that's precut the extra amount needed to allow for the transducer height on acoustic electrics the folks putting the saddles in at the factory are just as apt to grab the wrong one. You can usually spot this instantly by comparing the acoustic electric's saddle to that of an ordinary acoustic of the same brand; it'll stand up visibly higher on the acoustic electric. Some music shops act like they didn't hear you when you remind them that part of the price of a new guitar is the "set up" which is supposed to include all of the adjustments you're reading about here. You might have to be a little firm about it, but they'll usually grudgingly agree to make whatever adjustments are required in order to make the sale.
This has to do with whether or not the note created by fretting the instument is the note it's supposed to be. If the fret isn't in exactly the right place the note won't be accurate. Normally the fret placement, having been done by sophisticated machines, is exact but the nut or bridge might be very slightly out of place. The easy way to check intonation is to use an electronic tuner to get each string perfectly in tune, then press the string down just behind ("fret" it at) the 12th fret (this is the octave and usually marked by double dots in the inlay or in some similar manner) and check it again. The octave notes should show to be exactly the same notes as the open strings on the tuner. If the open string is off a little but close, the octave should be off by the same amount. The "quick and dirty" way to check intonation is to use a harmonic. If you touch, not depress, merely touch, a string precisely on top-dead-center of the 12th fret with a finger of your left hand and pluck the string with a finger (or the thumb) of your right hand and lift the finger that's touching the string at exactly the same moment you pluck the string (actually the finger is lifted away a millisecond after the string is plucked but so close in time as to appear simultaneous) the string will produce a ringing harmonic note which is its octave tone. Play with this until you can do it, it's really very easy to do. To check the intonation by ear, pluck a harmonic on the 12th fret of a string then instantly depress the string behind ("fret" it at) the 12th fret and pluck it again. Both the harmonic and fretted notes should be exactly the same pitch. If they're off by more than the tiniest amount you'll know it instantly if you have a reasonably good ear. If you don't have a good ear use a tuner to check it in the first place.
Old strings lose the ability to hold their intonation so a guitar that merely needs new strings can appear to have bad intonation. If there's any doubt, tell the clerk that the intonation measures (or sounds) bad but you can't tell if it's the strings or the guitar. If you like the look and feel of the instrument, you might offer him two or three dollars towards the cost of having new strings put on it with the proviso that, if you take it, he'll discount that amount.
The average counter clerk knows bits and pieces of this but only in a small store where the clerk has to wear many hats and is very often the store owner as well, is it likely that the clerk will know more than you do after reading and absorbing the information I've given you here.
A nice trick for a beginner:
You can make the learning process a great deal easier by using electric nines while you're learning. Whether the label identifies them as Light or Extra Light isn't important. The first string is .009 and the sixth string is .042. The main difference is that these strings will produce slightly less volume than acoustic strings and that's a blessing for those who may hear you practicing. The action and intonation may be off very slightly with these strings but don't bother adjusting it since you don't plan to stay with this gauge of string anyway. It won't be enough to affect the open chords you'll be learning and your fingers won't have to work so hard. After you've progressed to a point where you can actually play a song or two without your fingers hurting you may wish to switch to acoustic tens. (the first string is.010 and the 6th string is .047). Most counter clerks adamantly recommend twelves. I don't know why, they're heavy, hard to play, and they're hard on the guitar too. Yes, they're louder and if you're a heavy handed player you won't break them as often but if you learn how to play properly you won't break strings anyway. After almost 40 years of hard playing I've broken less than two dozen strings.
Another good point for a beginner:
Don't, do not
, learn with a fat, heavy pick and avoid large three cornered picks. A larger pick makes it difficult to play smooth rhythms. Look for a Fender or Martin pick that look like this:
Pick up the one marked "L" if it's a Martin or "Thin" if it's a Fender. Get the feel of it. Then you can scrounge pics that have the same shape and feel out of the three-for-a-quarter fishbowl if the store has one. It doesn't matter who makes them, you want a light gauge pick in a standard teardrop shape and if the picks are sold by-the-numbers tell the guy you want something between .45 and .55. Buy half a dozen. You aren't likely to break them or wear them out but the darn things are easy to lose and you'll be dropping them constantly until you get the hang of it. If you get to a point where you're getting pretty good at playing you can go to a slightly heavier pick, just for more volume (if you truly feel you need it), after you start using regular acoustic strings.
Best tip of all:
Get a lint free cloth, I actually use a piece torn from an old T-shirt that isn't exactly lint free but it's close enough for me, six to eight inches square and a heavy duty zip-lock freezer bag. The next time you're grocery shopping (if you don't already have a bottle) grab a bottle of Old English lemon oil (not furniture polish, lemon oil), or another brand if it suits you, and dampen your rag with lemon oil. Wipe the strings down before you put the guitar away and if you don't mind the feel of the lemon oil on your skin (some folks find it uncomfortable), before you play. It's good for the wood and it removes or neutralizes the body salts which shorten the life of your strings. Keep the rag in the bag until you need it. Lemon oil is far less expensive than any variety of string lubricant but just as effective. I keep what used to be an eyedropper bottle in my guitar case, with lemon oil in it, to refresh my rag every so often. Lemon oil reacts with some plastics so if you put some in a small plastic bottle, drop it into a glass or ceramic container and stash it on a shelf in the laundry room or utility closet for a couple of weeks before you put in in your guitar case just so you'll know the bottle's going to hold up.