First you should select a few stores to visit to shop for the guitar. The vast majority of music stores are reputable and sell at reasonable prices but there are certainly some very shady music stores as well. The best way to find out which stores are good is to ask someone who buys a lot of musical equipment. Someone playing in a band is probably a very good source of information and much better than your neighbour who has only bought one guitar. Stores located downtown tend to be a bit cheaper than those in suburban areas. If the store has a music school this can be a good sign. A store that views its customers as potential music school customers has an extra interest in selling them instruments that they will be happy with. A sign that a store is less reputable is if they have 60% off sale signs that are permanently displayed. Another bad sign is if they primarily sell brands that you can not find any information about on the internet, ie. generic brands instead of name brands. The maintenance level of the instruments that are on sale is a good indication of the store's quality. I recently visited a store and tried several guitars all of which were so far out of tune that it was obvious they had taken them out of the box without even bothering to tune them once before putting them on display. I knew right away that this was not a store I wanted to do any business with. Most music stores have periods of low customer traffic in which the salesmen are not busy. If they can not make the effort during this time to keep the instruments in tune then chances are that there are other problems with how instruments are being stored and maintained.
It always is preferable to do a bit of research on guitars available in your price range before you enter the store especially if you do not know how to play the guitar. Some sales personnel are very knowledgeable, helpful and honest and can be a great resource but just as frequently they are not. Even in a reputable store there is often a big difference between various salesmen and how much they are willing to help you as opposed to trying to sell you the most expensive instrument they can. It is always best to visit the store at a time when it is not very busy. On a Saturday afternoon with the store full of Metallica wannabees wailing away it is pretty hard to assess the quality of any instrument. When the store is quiet you can compare the sound of several instruments and also ask the advice of several salesmen. Do not be pressured into buying anything right away. Write down the brand name and prices and check for information and reviews on the internet. Check several stores for the same instrument to compare prices and the instrument itself. If you are buying a guitar made out of solid wood there may be a big difference in the sound of two instruments of the same brand and model as every piece of wood has its own character. Despite what the salesman may tell you, sales prices are not that significant in guitar stores often only $10-$30 cheaper than the regular price that they will sell the instrument. A salesman may say it is 40% off but this is usually referring to the manufacturer's suggested retail price which is higher than what the guitar is usually sold for. It is better to take the time to make the right decision than be pressured into buying because a sale is ending today. In my experience the average price level of the store itself is more significant than sales pricing. Certain stores tend to always be cheaper than other ones and often significantly so.
What are the main qualities you should be looking at when deciding which guitar to purchase? The most important things are sound, playability and how it fits your body. If you do not yet know how to play ask the salesman to play several instruments so you can compare the sound quality. Do not be afraid to try the guitar even if you do not know how to play. Try to press down the strings and compare how easy or difficult this is on various guitars. Sit with the instrument to see if you are comfortable with it. There is no sense in a buying an instrument that sounds great but is too big for you to sit comfortably with. Just like when purchasing a car, it is not a good idea to choose a guitar based on how it looks. Obviously if it looks poorly constructed you should not buy it but there are many guitars that look very nice but yet do not sound very nice. A final very important thing to watch for is whether a guitar is set up properly when you buy it. Stores often buy guitars in bulk and let them sit in storage for up to 6 months. Guitars are susceptible to humidity and temperature change and the neck will move slightly. This can be adjusted but many stores, even otherwise good stores, do not bother to do this and many purchasers do not know how to check the guitar's set up. When a guitar that is not set up properly is played, there will be a buzzing sound when certain frets are played caused by the string touching the other unplayed frets and vibrating against them. Play every fret of each string and listen to whether the guitar is buzzing at any of the frets. If there is any buzzing ask them to adjust the setup before you purchase the guitar. Every guitar should be setup properly before it is sold.
An Example From a Recent Shopping Trip
Recently I decided to purchase a small guitar amplifier that could run on batteries. First I visited a local used guitar store that had a used portable amp for $250 and the same amp new for $350. I tried the used amp and liked it but decided to visit the store I usually buy from and price the same amp there. At this store they had the same amp new for $220, even cheaper than the used one at the other store. Not only that they had a wide selection of similar amps from other manufacturers and after trying them all out, the $220 amp was not my first choice. In the end I bought an amp that I liked better for $160.
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