Gem Shopping – How to Buy a Great Guitar for Under $300

Posted: October 1, 2011 by phanson in Tips & Tricks

Every guitar pictured here sells for under $300!

It’s a fact you don’t have to spend much to get a good guitar these days. You can find great inexpensive instruments made in China, Mexico, India and other exotic places. Fender, Ibanez, Epiphone, most companies have low cost lines that are really good! 

Think about it. All those amazing Van Halen records were recorded with Eddie’s cheap strat copies. Paul McCartney’s “Yesterday” was played on a low cost Epiphone. Billy Joe Armstrong used a Peavey strat copy, Brain May and his dad built his guitar out of the fireplace mantle…

If you buy an authentic Gibson Les Paul or an American Strat I don’t think you’ll necessarily get a better guitar, but you’ll sure spend a ton more dough for that name on the headstock. I will admit that most of the time the more expensive guitars are set up better and may have better hardware, but if you take the time to weed through the low cost guitars, I bet you’ll find a gem.

It took my daughter and I testing about fifteen $100 – $150 guitars before we discovered the gem that we bought for her. Before she took that guitar off to college with her it was one of the best guitars in my house. By the way, I have a lot of guitars in my house.

The Test

If you are a total beginner this is not for you, but maybe you have a friend who plays who can help out. Here are my guidelines for guitar shopping.

First, a big store is an advantage because you’ll have many guitars to compare. When you compare many guitars, you WILL find gems. Set aside 3 hours at least. Pick guitars that you like, but don’t choose by color or exact model, that will eliminate too many. If you want to change the pickups, hardware, or even paint it later, you’ll have so much money left over you’ll be able to afford that stuff. Good tuners, pickups and bridges are important and not hard to change. Just don’t assume they’re bad and change ‘em off the bat. The inexpensive hardware might be fine.

If you don’t have a guitar salesman you trust, find one. Introduce yourself and explain what you want to do. Tell him that if you find a good guitar you will buy it. This person is important, he will help you in your gem search. Find out if he works for a commission or not. If he’s not commissioned, you should consider tipping him afterwards, he’ll deserve it. And don’t grind him on the price, if you follow these guidelines you will get a good deal.

Some sales guys are knowledgeable, some are not. I don’t like a salesman who has too many opinions or is a know it all, he’ll be hard to deal with. Find a person who’s easy going and will help in this process and let you do the work. The sales guy should be happy that you are a serious buyer and that you will do all the work. 

Bring a tuner that you’re familiar with to the store. If the salesman sees you brought your own tuner it will reinforce to him that you are serious. You won’t need an amp for the first part of the test. If possible, try to find a quiet place in the store. At a GC (Guitar Center) they used to have a separate room called the “loud lounge”, or maybe they’ll let you use the “acoustic room”. If there is no quiet room just try to find a spot that’s not too noisy.Take a batch of low cost guitars that you like, and as many as your sales guy lets you, into that quiet area.  Spend a half an hour or whatever it takes, to stretch out the strings, and tune each guitar. If this is a GC, for most guitars, the strings will need stretching. 

A Few Words About Tremolos: If you are trying out guitars with tremolos, they can be a can of worms. If the guitar is a strat type, my guess is the springs will have stretched since the guitar left the factory. Those springs will need to be tightened. In this case you’ll have to take the back plate off the guitar and tighten the springs. You should get help from your salesman on this, or maybe they have a tech in the store who can help too. Low cost guitars usually need some setting up, mainly, lowering the action and tightening the tremolo springs, sometimes a slight truss rod tweak too. This will be work. You can’t tell if a guitar’s a gem if it’s not set up right, and setting up guitars is time consuming. 

Back to tremolos, the tremolo will affect the string action. As the springs stretch, the rear of the tremolo is pulled up, making the string action high. You’ll need a small phillips screwdriver to take the back plate off and a big Phillips to tighten the springs. If it’s a strat type guitar with a standard tremolo, I like to set the springs tight so they pull the bridge all the way back to the body. This will keep the tremolo from “floating”, in other words, you’ll not be able to pull up on the tremolo to raise the pitch.  If you want the tremolo to be floating that’s okay, but the guitar will be harder to keep in tune.

If it’s a “Floyd” type tremolo that clamps the strings at the nut and bridge, they’re designed to float, no problem. Just make sure the bottom of the trem is parallel with the guitar body, and the trem is not being pulled forward or pulled back. You’ll also want to check if the tremolo returns to the same tuning if you pull up, or push down. The tremolo won’t return properly if the two knife edges, that the tremolo pivots on, are worn down. But this is usually not a problem with a new guitar.

Main Test 1: Many low cost guitars will fail these first two main tests. You are searching for guitars that go “perfectly in tune” and have a “straight neck”. Here you don’t need an amp. Test 1: make sure the neck is straight. Sight down from the headstock toward the pickups on each guitar’s neck. I’ll stand up, and then stand the guitar vertical, balancing it on the end-pin. Then I compare the neck straightness to the straightness of the low E and the high E strings on each side of the neck. If each side looks different this is not good, eliminate the guitar. If there are obvious bends in the neck, eliminate it.

The neck should be real straight with just a slight gradual bow in the center. In other words the neck should be pretty straight but a hair lower around the 12th fret, just a hair. Bend every string at every fret, sometimes you’ll get a low fret and it will buzz, you may only hear the buzz when bending. Don’t be afraid to eliminate a guitar. If the neck is almost straight and you think the truss rod needs a slight adjustment, have your sales guy help out. Most of these babies survived a long boat ride in a container. That’s why the truss rod is there.

If the string action is too high on a guitar eliminate it, unless you really like the guitar. In that case have the store guy help you lower the action. If it’s a Fender, you’ll need a special, small allen wrench to lower each individual string. As I wrote before, the action could be high because the tremolo is being pulled forward. When you lower the action to a playable height, and the guitar buzzes, eliminate it.

Take out the guitars that don’t pass your test and go and get another batch and continue testing. When you find a few guitars you like, keep ‘em together. This will be work, don’t be afraid to take a few days. Like I said before if you follow these guidelines, your sales guy deserves a tip for dealing with you, and future business!

Main Test 2:  You’ve taken the time and stretched the strings and are satisfied that the neck is straight. Now check the tuning. Try lots of chords in different places on the neck, when the guitar’s in tune, chords should sound in tune all over the neck. I once bought a Gibson Explorer in about 1978, no matter how the bridge was adjusted the guitar would not go in tune, it drove me crazy. I owned it for a couple of agonizing months, I’ll never forget it, I was young and the guitar was a big expense for me, it shook my confidence. I’m still not sure what the problem was, maybe the frets were put in wrong.

This lesson taught me a simple fact. Some guitars just will not tune up well. Even an expensive Gibson. Be afraid, be very afraid! You want a guitar that “rings in tune”, all over the neck. In my opinion, this is the most important point in a guitar! If it doesn’t tune up well, you don’t want it!!  Put your ear to the guitar body, no amp, play and listen to the tone of the wood. Compare guitars that ring in tune! If you are not convinced it tunes up well, do not buy the guitar! 

If the guitar sounds good you’ll be able to tell by putting your ear to it. A guitar needs to vibrate well. This is not necessarily the construction but, I believe, the luck of the wood combinations and other variables. Every piece of wood is different, and since saws and other equipment used to build guitars are computer controlled these days, it’s really the combination of the woods and how all the guitar parts fit together that makes a gem.

Main Test 3: Make sure the guitar feels good, but remember, a lot of what makes a guitar feel good is that you are used to it. And you can usually get used to any guitar by playing it. I do think though, thin necks are better for most people because reaching is easier.

Main Test 4: Last, plug the final standing guitars into an amp you’re familiar with. Make sure all the guitar knobs and pickup switches do what they’re supposed to. Make sure there are no major fret buzzes again. Make sure the knobs are not in the way of your picking, but it’s not too hard to move knobs or get used to them. A good final test is to try comparing the low cost guitar to a $1000 guitar. My guess is, if your gem passed your non-amp tests it will sound as good or better when compared to the expensive guitar.

If your gem sells for only $150, it probably has low cost pickups, tuners, pots, other hardware etc. but don’t assume they’re bad. It’s amazing to me how good, cheap guitars are these days. You’ve crossed the final hurdles, the neck is straight and it tunes up well. You could always put in a different pickup or two, or change the bridge, now you’ll have a one-of-a-kind customized gem. But wait a while before you start changing stuff, you might really like the current hardware once you get used to it.

Also if you want to put a synth pickup on the guitar, make sure there’s enough room between the bridge pickup and the bridge.

If you follow these guidelines you will “shop till you drop”, but you most likely will find a gem and not spend much dough!! Give your gem regular maintenance, the wood in a new guitar is probably still drying out. Especially keep an eye on the neck, you may have to tighten the truss rod if you put heavier strings on the guitar too.

By the way you can use this same process if you are buying a $1000 guitar. I guess some people have extra money they need to get rid of.


  1. Dear Paul
    I can only reinforce this artical !!!
    I have 15 Guitars and not one costed me more than about 700 dollars.
    I have a Peavey “Wolfgang Van Halen”and a 7 string Peavey “Predator” which has
    the most beautiful fretboard I ever saw!!Highly playable ,Hmmm!!
    I also love my workhorse “Mexico Strat “which I bought back in the late 90′s i think
    I know many Musicians who snicker and laugh about my Instruments,but
    I prefer to rely on my ear and not only on a name!!!!
    I Just recieved a Fender Acoustic”CD-60″ and it only costed 185 dollars!!!!
    but it is a fine sounding instrument and is at the timebeing my favourite !!!
    Rock on Paul!!!
    I’m your biggest Fan!! ;-) )

  2. miki says:

    100% truth love this text due to for my 20 + years with guitars i have played couple of 1000$ that were sounding terrible + they have some problems with finish etc and some 100$ that were amazingly good, so price do not necessarily means good guitar-not at all. this is great and perfectly written, i just wish that this truth is more often widespread across net or in magazines what ever, this is one of things that can make guitar playing community steady growing.

  3. alclark0 says:

    Wonderful advice on guitar selection! Musicians can be such snobs about brands, it is important to take a step back and remember to evaluate the real quality of the equipment. Especially with as delicate a variable as an instrument!

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