Shopping for a guitar starts with establishing a budget. Then, it is a basic process of elimination, where you attempt to meet all your requirements within that budget. The globalization of various industries along with outsourced manufacturing have created a situation where there has never been as much choice and variety among entry level guitars. It is easy to become overwhelmed. Quality varies greatly among the more affordable products, so utilizing a methodology can increase the chances that you get the best instrument for you, one that you enjoy playing, at a price you can afford. Guitar players tend to form very close bonds with their instruments. It is an intimate instrument to play. You hold it close, it travels with you, you build memories with it. It can become an extension of your soul. This is an important decision that should be made for the right reasons. You pick a guitar for you, that suits the way you play, that fits with your sound; not for a particular look, brand, or the artist you wish to be like. Here is what I think is a good process of elimination, starting from the most important considerations:
1) Playability and feel
How does the guitar feel when you hold it, both sitting and with a strap? A guitar should be comfortable. If it is too heavy, or feels uncomfortable, you won’t want to play it. How does the neck feel? Can you form and change chords and play notes quickly? Does it suit the size of your hands? Do the frets feel comfortable if you slide your hand while holding the neck? Also get a sense of the action (how high are the strings?). A high action will start to hurt. The action on a guitar can be adjusted, but if the factory setup is high to begin with, there may not be much for a guitar tech to work with. Some acoustics have a cutaway to ease the access to the higher registers on the fingerboard, but cutaways have a slight influence on sound and do impact the aesthetics.
2) Sound and materials
Do you like how it sounds while you play it? Do you like how it sounds when someone else plays it? While the construction has a lot to do with the sound, the materials tend to be the biggest factor. Affordable guitars tend to be made with laminates rather than solid wood. Try to get a guitar with as much solid wood in it as possible. If you can’t afford a solid wood guitar, perhaps a solid top with laminate back and sides. Different combinations of woods affect the sound considerably, changing the balance of bass, mid-range and highs. Also, be open to look at used guitars. If it has a pickup, also plug it in to get a sense of its amplified sound.
3) Build Quality
Look over the guitar carefully and critically. Study the craftsmanship. Look at where the neck joins the body. Look at where the nut and the bridge are glued. Look at how the frets are installed. Is the inlay work precise? Look for overspray, uneven finish, glue runs, gaps, or parts that don’t fit properly.
4) Cosmetics and Aesthetics
Are you after a more traditional look, or do you like interesting finishes with flamed tops, or cross-sawn woods? Do you like a guitar that is minimalist and unadorned? Do you like inlay work? Does the look of the guitar express who you are?
You will know it when you find the right guitar for yourself. Give it a good home, and most importantly, have fun playing it.