“Test driving” a guitar at the store?

We start August with a discussion on how much one can accurately test play or audition a guitar at the store before buying it.


Many times we hear advice such as “play a few side by side” or “sit down and play it for an hour” and “buy the one you like best”.

The irony is, there isn’t very much to the term “test play” or “test drive” on a guitar at the store or guitar shop. Sure, we can always evaluate the workmanship, craftsmanship, nice finishing and many attributes. But it is highly unlikely we can truly test out the guitar for its tone and playability.

Here’s a list of many factors that are stopping you from really listening to a guitar’s tonal characteristics. 

  1. The guitar has dead strings.

This is a very common problem. Some guitars have been on display for some time and naturally the strings are dead. I have seen some strings that appear to be health hazards!

2. The guitar hasn’t been setup properly  or to your liking.

Some guitars come with higher than normal action that is meant to be adjusted to the player’s liking. If you play a guitar with factory setup, you may find it too high or too low. This will affect your decision about the guitar.

3. The guitar is strung with your non-preferred strings.

Say you like to play light gauge but many dreadnoughts come stock strung with mediums. Quite sure you will give a skewed evaluation on playability.

Also, say if you prefer non-coated strings but test play a Taylor (stock Elixirs). Not an ideal situation. The same is true if the situation is reversed.

4. There are not many other guitars for you to test side-by-side. 

If you walk into a store with few guitars on display or instock. You may run into this problem because there aren’t other guitars for you to compare with. A Martin entry-level may sound decent on its own. But comparing it with other brands or higher spec Martins will give you an idea of what an entry-level Martin sounds like.

5. The environment is different or unsuited. 

The store may be too crowded or noisy. Your hands may be too cold from the store’s A/C or too sweaty because it’s too warm. You don’t have your favourite strap so that you can play standing up. All too many reasons that will affect your evaluation.

6. You don’t have your preferred amp or pedals.

If the store doesn’t have your preferred amp, you may not be able to test a guitar in the situation or setup (amps and effects) that you’d like to use it for.


Here’s some ways to overcome the problems listed above. But please remember to be nice to the shop staff. 

  1. Bring along your own guitar for comparison. 

This is especially helpful if you need to A/B between your own guitar and the potential buy. If you fancy yours more, then it may mean there’s no need for a new purchase.

2. Bring your own preferred effects or even amp (if portable). 

Bringing along your pedals take out the guess work on how the guitar will sound when you play it at home. As for bringing along your own amp, do so only if it is reasonably lightweight and portable. You don’t want to look like an idiot lugging a 30kg amp to the shop.

3. Request politely for the shop to change to a set of new strings. 

Ask very politely to replace the dead or rusty strings that are deterring you to listen properly to the guitar. Offer to bear the cost of new strings if you’re serious about purchasing. Although most shops will not entertain such requests, it is worth a try because any guitar, no matter what price or pedigree, will sound dead with dead strings.


PS: While the lists are not exhaustive, they will give an idea of how best to do your guitar shopping in future.

*photos from guitaradventures.com


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