The 5 Categories of Guitars
Which one should you consider for your first guitar?
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Ever so often, I have the privilege of helping a total beginner through the process of choosing their very first guitar.
In doing so, there are some high-level, foundational topics I always like to discuss first, before diving into specific guitar hardware and features.
One of those foundational topics is around budget, and just how much guitar you can get for a certain amount of money.
I’ve found that I tend to place any guitar into one of 5 general categories, and that’s what I’ll talk about today.
For simplicity, I’m only talking about new guitars in this article–not vintage or collectibles. That said, when it comes to cost, in my opinion you can group guitars into one of 5 major categories:
Let’s acknowledge first that there’s some overlap between these categories, and I’m going to make generalizations about price ranges and whatnot. Heck, even the name of each category is up for grabs.
You can call them what you like, but after all these years of talking about guitars, these are the categories I use when discussing this topic with beginners.
So now, let’s talk about each one in depth; what you get for your money and whether or not you should consider laying down a certain amount of cash (especially if you’re considering high-end or above).
Entry-level guitars usually have a price tag around $99 – $180, or even less if it isn’t a well-known brand (read that: cheap knockoff).
You’ll often find these guitars in those all-in-one guitar bundles that include a gig bag, strap, maybe an amp, as well as other accessories. Those extras usually bump the price of the whole package up to around $200+.
Entry-level guitars can be a good option for those who know they aren’t very serious or aren’t sure they’ll stick with it. For this crowd, it’s a low cost way to just try a new hobby.
However, just because you’re a total beginner doesn’t mean you should buy an entry-level guitar. I used to feel this was a good place for all beginners to start, but I’ve changed my opinion on that in recent years.
Entry-level guitars use low quality woods, low quality components, and the cheapest possible electronics (if present). That doesn’t necessarily mean they’re bad, but QC (quality control) on these guitars can be hit-or-miss, or non-existent.
As a result, these guitars can sometimes need a good amount of setup and adjustment right out of the box. If you’re not a DIY-er, this can mean an extra investment of $60 or more to have the guitar professionally set up.
These factors can often frustrate and confuse beginners, and possibly cause them to lose motivation and quit. This is why I often recommend that beginners and first-time guitar buyers actually look in the mid-range category instead, which we’ll discuss next.
Mid-range guitars are what I call “the sweet spot.” They’re what I recommend to most people buying their first guitar if they feel they’re serious about guitar but still have a somewhat limited budget. Even if you’ve got money to burn, I’d still recommend this category to you for your first guitar because it offers excellent value… if you buy wisely.
Mid-range guitars typically use good-quality (but not top quality) tonewoods and tend to have better quality finishes applied. Quality control in this category ranges from good-to-excellent, though these guitars may still need some basic adjustments right out of the box. Here, it’s worth it to spend $60+ to have the guitar professionally set up so it sounds and plays the best it can.
These guitars are the workhorses of the guitar world, and can give you a lifetime of service. So, it’s actually worth it to spend extra money later (if you’d like) on upgrades like aftermarket pickups, better hardware, or to have your frets professionally leveled.
In this price range, you still need to spend wisely, however. Don’t spend in the expensive end of this category for features that don’t really improve tone, playability, or overall quality. I’m referring to purely cosmetic features like decorative inlays, highly figured wood tops (which are usually just thin veneers anyway), or a flashy paint job.
High-end guitars are built using high-quality tonewoods, electronics, and components. Guitars in this category are generally crafted with the aim of producing the best tone and providing maximum playability and comfort. These are professional level instruments, but that doesn’t mean only the pros should own them.
Quality control for high end guitars is usually very good. As an example, even a minor cosmetic flaw (which has no ill effects on quality or tone) will cause a high-end guitar to be rejected, destroyed, or sold at a deep discount as a “factory second.”
Here you’ll see more durable, high-quality finishes and a few cosmetic upgrades like binding, lightly figured tops, abalone or mother-of-pearl inlays, and more. Hardware is usually top-notch and the quality of the electronics ranges from decent to excellent.
Though you are paying extra for some better aesthetics and other upgrades, there is very good value in this category if you’ve got more cash to spend. In the high-end category, manufacturers are still more focused on creating a top-quality guitar rather than adding visual bling.
Now we’re getting into the sexy stuff. However, sexy does not necessarily mean better, therefor this category is where the value-for-the-money starts to drop off.
What I call “premium” is essentially a high-end guitar that is far more expensive due to extra features that don’t necessarily add to the functional quality, durability, tone, or playability of the guitar.
Though I’ve chosen a top-end of $8000 for this category, it’s a somewhat arbitrary number and definitely not a fixed ceiling. Guitars in the premium category can go well above $8000 depending on their features, brand/luthier prestige, etc. Case in point: the Martin I’ve linked below comes in just south of $12,000.
Premium guitars usually include some combination of exotic, rare, or highly figured tonewoods, elaborate fretboard inlays, intricate binding, and other non-standard features. Even the shape of the guitar might be something unique or unusual.
You’re paying hundreds or thousands of dollars extra for a highly unique and visually stunning guitar that few others have. This is also a category where the name brand of the guitar alone can add significantly to the cost.
This is also where you’ll often find “signature model” guitars. A signature model is a guitar designed for and played by a specific artist which is made available to consumers.
Unfortunately, higher-income beginners sometimes buy in this category for the wrong reasons. They’ve got the extra cash to spend, and think that the high price tag and gorgeous features mean they’re “buying the best.” The fact is, they could get a mid-range or high-end guitar that sounds and functions just as well (or better), for a lot less cash.
There’s absolutely nothing wrong with buying a premium guitar if you can afford it–even if you’re a beginner. What’s important is that you understand that the extra money is buying you a prettier guitar or a more unique guitar, but not a better guitar.
The term “custom” can mean a few different things, so for this article I’m referring to a fully custom guitar by a builder who’s willing to do anything (or just about anything). If you can dream it, he or she will build it, if you’ve got the dough and are willing to wait.
Speaking of that, let’s talk a bit about cost and wait times, as both can be quite high in the custom category.
I’ve started this category at $2000, but you’d be extremely lucky to find a reputable builder with a base price this low for a fully custom build. Even if you did, by the time you’re done choosing the woods and specs for your custom axe, expect the price to have jumped to anywhere from $2400 to $10,000… or much higher if you want something really crazy (google “Rick Nielsen’s guitars” or “Prince’s guitars” for some ideas).
Now, about those wait times.
If you’re extremely lucky, your custom guitar might be in your hands as soon as a year after you submit your spec. sheet and make your deposit. However, many of the smaller/boutique builders are in high demand and have wait times of 2-4 years, or longer.
If you go this route, don’t change your mind about your chosen specs after the building has begun. If you do, expect to be waiting a very, very long time for your custom axe.
Believe me, even just a year is a long time to sit and contemplate your custom axe, and you will probably change your mind about a few of the specs during that time. Each change can mean additional cost and additional time.
I’m going to get some heat for this, but I would say the value for the money here is low. I’m not saying custom guitars aren’t top-quality. I’m saying that custom guitars are much like premium guitars in that you’re not really paying for increased quality, playability, or tone. You’re paying for aesthetics–to get exactly the guitar you want; a guitar that nobody else on the planet has.
You could commission a custom builder to simply build you a no-frills workhorse guitar–made with great quality tonewoods, top-notch components, and no extra bling. However, you’d pay MUCH more for it than if you’d bought a similarly configured production guitar (a guitar made by a major manufacturer) from the “high end” category.
Ormsby Guitars Custom Multiscale SX 7-String
Jackson Custom Shop Kaiju Guitar
Sure, these category names and price ranges are debatable, but I think this generally covers it. As I said at the beginning, these 5 categories are the ones I use in my everyday lingo when educating beginners looking to buy their first guitar.
Though I don’t recommend it, I’m not opposed to beginners buying high-end, premium, or even custom guitars. I think you should buy a guitar that inspires you to play and that you can comfortably afford without developing buyer’s remorse later (been there).
If you’re short on cash, this guide will hopefully help you decide whether you need an entry-level or midrange guitar (I recommend the latter, if you can swing it).
If you’ve got a bit more cash and want a high-quality guitar with some extra features and even a bit of eye-candy, then look in the high-end category. This is the category I usually buy within.
Lastly, if money’s no object and you feel strongly you need an ultra-expensive guitar that few others (or no others) have, then you can buy in the premium or custom categories. However, I hope that this article will have helped you do so for the right reasons.
More expensive does not always mean “better.”
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