But it was cheap...

or...Buying a guitar from an Internet SuperStore

Is price the determining factor in buying a guitar? Is buying a guitar sight unseen the preferred method in the 21st century? Is comparison-shopping in a store a thing of the past?  Tough questions -- read on...

The psychology of guitar buying is very interesting, and I've developed some very strong opinions based on observations over a number of years. You want an example? Here it is folks -- exactly what I have been talking about. This post is verbatim from the alt.guitar newsgroup. The names have been changed to protect the guilty/innocent:

Subject: Buying a Guitar without Testing it

From: Chris < ="mailto:chris.xxx@free.xx">

Date: 5/7/00 10:00 AM W. Europe Daylight Time

Message-id: <MPG.xxxxxxxx@news.xxxxxx>


I intend to buy a Fender American Deluxe Stratocaster. Is it reasonable to order and buy it without testing this particular guitar (I tested the same guitar belonging to a friend)?

Thank you for your help


First, a great post. No profanity, no wild claims, no questions of "Who is better -- Dimebag Darrell or Jimmy Page?"

The big assumption, however, is that the friend's guitar is going to be the same as the one that comes in the UPS truck.

What was really interesting were some of the replies. Several posters said, "make sure they have a return policy" and "Store X gets great guitars." This thread was really timely because my friend Ken sent me a note this week on nearly the same subject.

Ken has two music stores in Middle Tennessee. He handles a number of great lines, and has been my Fender source since we went to the New Orleans NAMM show in 1985. Ken's email described the process he was going through to pick out an Epiphone Les Paul for one of his better customers. He had the opportunity to try a number of the same models. His bottom line question to me was, "I tried three different cherry sunburst finished Les Paul Standards. Why did one of them sound so much better than the other two?" There, my friends, is the rub -- why indeed. They looked alike but really sounded different.

If three guitars of the same model sound and play differently, wouldn't it be risky to order one sight unseen? This is kind of where I come in. I bought my first Les Paul, a 1977 Les Paul '55 , out of a catalog, sight unseen. The year was 1977. I was in high school, and desperately wanted a Les Paul. Because I was into KISS and loved that entire "We use Gibsons because we want the best" rap from them, I knew that I would have to get one to achieve the status I wanted. Oh by the way -- the high school Talent Show was coming up, and I couldn't possibly be expected to play my Aria Telecaster copy in front of the competing bands.

Collecting the price of admission for the Les Paul was a typical Horatio Alger kind of story -- mow yards, save birthday money, and beg parents. I even devised a scheme selling mistletoe door to door during the holidays. I focused so much on the capitalism aspect that I kind of lost focus on what kind of guitar I really wanted.

When the cookie jar grew full of change and dollar bills, my thoughts turned to what kind of Les Paul I would buy. Should it be a Standard? A Deluxe? No…the cheapest one I could get -- a Les Paul '55! I suppose it never occurred to me that I should work a little longer and buy a Standard. I convinced my parents that I had decided on the Les Paul '55. This was not a historic reissue, but it really wasn't a bad guitar. I do remember my Dad, a kind of non-guitar/no-nonsense guy asking me if I was sure. I was sure that this is what I wanted -- a Les Paul. I gave him the money, he got a cashier's check, and sent the whole thing off to Music Emporium, the mail-order side of Venemann Music in the Washington D.C. area. I had been a regular in their Venemann Music store in Falls Church when we lived in Virginia. The sales staff there was nice enough, but I was too intimidated to ask them questions. In retrospect, I am not sure if I knew enough to ask. It is true -- you don't know what you don't know.

Well, I got the guitar in a few weeks and immediately went to work convincing myself how much I liked it. In retrospect, the '55 was a good guitar, but a Standard ala Ace Frehley would have been a better choice. I recall that I really didn't understand the concept or the goodness of humbuckers. However, I did find out one night that P-90s are pretty good for picking up radio signals!

How could I get lulled into this pit? It is easy. Just ask the president of Gibson. Why do Epiphones carry the Les Paul name? To appeal to the same instinct that drove me to buy that Les Paul '55. When the money is tight and you are looking for that special instrument to (1) play and (2) look cool, there is that desperation that sets in and controls you!

What is the bottom line?

First, I've always believed that the big mail order places that also had retail stores "culled" the good guitars to hang up in the store and sent the second-tier ones out in the brown truck. Does the top look a little less flamey than the one you expected? Too bad -- its prettier stablemate is hanging in the store.

Second, what makes a Gibson Les Paul and Epiphone Les Paul so different is the materials, quality control, and workmanship. Yes folks -- my Les Paul Classic sounds and plays better than any Epiphone I've ever picked up. That is truth as I see it.

Third, what makes guitar playing and building so interesting -- and frustrating -- is the subtle differences in guitars that look exactly the same. The pickups may be just a little hotter, or the wood in the body just a little denser. It is difficult to explain these subtleties to a guy that doesn't know what a humbucker is, so the guitar companies turn to icons to peddle their wares -- if it looks the same, it is the same, right?


If you are going to spend more than $300-400 on a guitar, go to a store that has a number of instruments and play them until you find the one that really "speaks to you" and buy it. I'm not into mysticism, but there is that "mojo factor" when you find a great guitar and you really can't articulate why you like it other than "man…it plays great!" The guy that wrote the post above has probably already ordered his guitar from somebody and he's in the process of convincing himself of what a great deal he got.

Remember -- the bitterness of poor quality remains long after the elation of low price wears off.

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