Let’s face it, there comes a time when snarling air-guitar solos in front of the bedroom mirror (or while driving to work) just don’t cut it anymore. And though you’ve perfected your guitar-hero grimaces and stage acrobatics—and no one plays a meaner steering wheel—wouldn’t it be a heck of a lot more fun to play the real thing?

If you’re nodding your head vigorously and salivating at the thought of owning your own electric guitar, but feel overwhelmed or frustrated from your last visit to the guitar shop, relax. Although electric guitars are more complex than you might expect, you don’t need a PhD to figure them out—all you need is this quick course.

If you’ve done some shopping at local stores already, you may be wondering whether the various brands, features, switches, knobs, and hardware really make that much difference when all you want to do is kick out the jams. The answer is yes and no.

In the end, it’s your ability and passion that make you a great guitarist. However, if you read up on your favorite players, you’ll find that most of them are pretty particular about their gear. And while you don’t need to worry about all the equipment issues your heroes deal with when you’re just starting out, there are some important things to ponder as you shop.

Breaking It Down

Four things are crucial when you’re looking for your first electric. First off, your guitar should appeal to you visually. This isn’t necessarily the most important factor, but it’s not trivial, either. Looking at your new ax should throw gasoline on your blazing desire to blast out heroic riffs. Who wants to look dorky when they’re playing the coolest instrument on earth?

Of course, when it comes to looks, one player’s dream ax may be another’s geeky nightmare. So we’ll leave that determination up to you and instead focus on the nuts and bolts of guitar buying.

Pickups

The second thing to consider when buying an electric is pickups, the elliptical- or

rectangular-shaped units on the guitar’s body underneath the strings. Pickups are like little microphones that sense sound vibrations from the guitar’s strings and send an electrical interpretation of those vibrations to the guitar’s volume and tone controls (the round knobs, usually found below the bridge, that adjust the loudness and bass/treble balance of each pickup), and then through a cable to your effects processor(s) and/or amplifier.

Electric guitars typically come with one, two, or three pickups and, naturally, more pickups mean more sound options. Your guitar will likely have a pickup next to the bridge (the piece of metal hardware that anchors strings to the guitar body). The second pickup is usually located a few inches away, near the end of the guitar’s neck. If there’s a third pickup, it’ll be somewhere between the other two.

Though your pickups are only inches apart, their unique locations make a huge difference in your tone. That’s why it’s often best to start with a multipickup instrument so you can use the guitar’s pickup-selector switch to choose between different sound combinations and get tones that work with different songs and styles.