I started off learning on a cheap guitar, but later I got a mid range guitar. I noticed some differences in the sound quality between cheap and expensive guitars so I thought I’d analyze how cheap guitars sound, and whether they sound bad. Here’s what I found.
Generally, cheap guitars don’t sound bad. However, there are noticeable differences in the sound quality between a cheap guitar and a mid range or expensive guitar. Additionally, different brands of cheap guitars differ in their sound quality, owing to differences in manufacturing.
The differences in sound between a cheap guitar and a more expensive guitar are noticeable, but generally only when played side by side with an expensive guitar. Or, to someone with a well trained ear.
So, below I will explain the sound differences between a cheap guitar, a midrange guitar, and an expensive guitar. As well as, whether a cheap guitar is harder to play, and whether it’s a good idea to get a cheap guitar.
Sound Quality: Cheap Guitars vs Expensive Guitars Analyzed
There are noticeable sound quality differences between a cheap, midrange, and expensive guitar. Here’s a table that shows a summary of the major differences:
|Price of guitar||Major difference|
|Cheap – $150 to $350||Tinny sound, highest notes and lowest notes aren’t as clear|
|Mid range – $350 to $1000||Very little tinny sound if any, high and low notes a lot clearer but not perfect|
|Expensive – $1000 or more||No sound issues – virtually perfect sound|
Cheap guitars tend to have a tinny sound. Rather than having the smooth clear sound of a midrange or expensive guitar a cheap guitar generally has a ‘twang’ to it when you play it.
As you may know each instrument has a range. This is how many octaves an instrument can play. For example, the piano has 88 keys. Whereas, a guitar has 49.
On a guitar the lowest possible note it can play is the open E string. The highest note is when you hold the 21st fret, of the thinnest string. At around the 1st, 2nd, and 3rd, fret the sound a cheap guitar makes can sound tinny, where it has a metallic like quality to it, which some people call a ‘twang’.
At the extreme ends range of notes a guitar can play, a cheap guitar isn’t as clear. And it sounds like the guitar is struggling to play the notes.
The best way I can describe it is, the difference between a single cheap Bluetooth speaker, and a complete surround sound system. The sounds that both play are the same, but the volume of each of the different sounds such as the bass, and treble isn’t balanced, and the bass isn’t as bassy.
Adam Jones, is perhaps one of the most well respected guitarists due to his innovation, incredibly technical skill, and unique and creative riffs.
He is the lead guitarist for the extremely well known band – Tool. Here’s quoted in a video interview talking about the difference between cheap guitars and expensive guitars.
“It’s control, it’s control of the highs, and the lows, and the mids, and the whole sound of the guitar. The sustain – how long you can hold a note… some people say, well it’s the guitarist that’s good, that’s not true [expletive deleted], it’s the guitar.”Adam Jones – Lead guitarist for the band Tool
Here Adam Jones explains that how good people think a guitarist is, is very much related to the sound quality of what they’re playing. Which is directly caused by the quality of the guitar.
I also found this to be true. I remember when I was first getting into guitar I played a few songs for a friend on a cheap second hand guitar that I got for my first guitar. A week or so later we were hanging out again but another one of our friends brought over a guitar that was a bit higher quality.
My friend remarked to me later that he thought I was actually good at guitar now, implying that what he heard when I played on my cheap guitar didn’t sound that great, and made me sound worse than I was.
When it makes sense to get a cheap guitar
With all of that in mind, it still makes sense to get a cheap guitar in certain cases.
- If you’re a beginner/just getting into learning guitar
- If you’re not sure if you’re going to stick with guitar
- If you want a spare guitar that you can be more careless with
1. If you’re just getting into learning guitar
A beginner to guitar, won’t particularly notice the difference in sound quality between a cheap guitar and an intermediate guitar.
As, most new people won’t have a frame of reference to compare it to. Over time, you’ll be able to hear the difference and you’ll be motivated to get a better sounding guitar if you really love to play guitar.
2. If you’re not sure if you’re going to stick with guitar
If you’re getting into guitar and not really sure if you’re going to keep playing, then getting a cheap guitar is the best option.
That way if you decide you’re not that into it, or find that you don’t really play guitar that much, you didn’t waste an extra few hundred or in some cases thousands of dollars.
3. If you want a secondary guitar that you can be more careless with
An expensive guitar needs to be looked after, but it’s very fun to take a guitar to the beach and the outdoors.
Generally, in that sort of setting, everyone’s having fun, and relaxing. And so, it ends up that you’ll be more careless with a guitar. And leave it out in the sun, bang it against something, or get it slightly wet.
With a cheap guitar you can relax, and not really worry about it. But, still have a guitar with you that you play whenever the moment takes you. You can also leave it out of its case without worrying that it will damage your guitar.
A common question regarding storing your guitar is whether you need to keep a guitar in its case, and how long is too long to leave a guitar out of its case. I summarized what guitar manufacturers recommend in this article about whether you can keep a guitar out of its case.
Is It Harder To Play a Cheap Guitar?
I’ve played both cheap and expensive guitars, and figured I’d explain whether playing one is harder than the other. Here’s what I found.
Overall, is it harder to play a cheap guitar. It’s more difficult to create a good tone on a cheaper guitar owing to the fact that they have a tinier sound, and the extreme ends of the musical range of a cheap guitar aren’t as clear or loud. But, the physical playing, generally, is quite similar.
I remember being quite frustrated trying to play really high notes on a guitar. I would press my fingers on the frets like I would on the rest of the guitar but no matter how I played it, the note didn’t ring clear, and produce a nice tone.
Though, it’s true of musical instruments that the very high notes and very low notes don’t ring as clearly as the middle of the range.
But, on a cheap guitar it’s very noticeable. If you play a cheap guitar and then play a midrange or expensive guitar you can definitely notice a difference.
Watch out for a high action
The action is the space between the strings and the fretboard. The closer the strings are to the fretboard the easier it is to play. In particular cheap guitars and especially second hand guitars the distance can be much more.
This makes it harder to hold the notes using your fretting hand as you need to press harder. And you’re more susceptible to getting a buzz sound from the strings. This happens when the string isn’t pressed hard enough.
Because you have to press harder, it’s more physically demanding, which makes it more tiresome to practice and play. You can get a good idea of what a good action is by taking some time to walk around a music store and notice how far the strings are from the fretboard.
Also, here’s a photo that shows a guitar with a standard action, and a guitar with high action so you can see the difference.
Are Cheap Guitars Worth it?
Since I’ve owned a few guitars, and played more guitars than I can count, I’ve noticed the major differences between cheap and expensive guitars. And I thought I’d share whether a cheap guitar is worth it.
As a general rule, cheap guitars are worth it. But, a cheap guitar is only worth it for a beginner, and/or someone who hasn’t yet decided they enjoy guitar. A cheap guitar is also good as a secondary guitar that a person can be more relaxed and careless with.
The main reason is the difference in sound quality between a cheap guitar and a midrange or an expensive guitar. A midrange or expensive guitar has a much better tone, and makes your playing sound much better.
Midrange and expensive guitars also have higher quality finishings. Abalone shell inlays are often added around different parts of the guitar such as the edges of the front of the guitar, and give it a really nice look.