Here's some advice, from a music store owner, for guitar buyers:
1. Ignore the name on the headstock. I can't tell you how many times a week I get asked "Do you have any Fenders?" or Gibson or whatever brand. A majority of the time, after further investigation, I will find out that the person asking the question wants one because their hero plays one and that more often than not, the person has never played one of the aforementioned brands but is stuck on that brand as a result of marketing alone. When in comes to quality for the money, it has never been a better time to be a guitar buyer. There are more well made guitars at better prices than ever before. I've sold and played many $200.00 guitars that were of better quality than many of the $3,000.00 guitars I've sold. Ignore the name on the headstock.....mostly. I'd still recommend sticking with a "name" brand, but just because it says Fender or Martin or Gibson or does not mean its a good guitar.
2. Buy from a quality independant dealer, not the big box stores. Sorry folks, but GC and Musicians Friend doesn't really give a shit. When you buy your guitar there it most likely has never been touched by a technician and checked out for playability and function. It's simply pulled out of a box and put on the sales floor or shipped to you. A quality independant dealer will do an inspection of the guitar and properly set it up before it ever reaches their sales floor. For the most part price isn't an issue either as most indy dealers will match the big box stores price.
3. If you've found a particular model of guitar that you like, ask to play several different ones of that model. This is particularly true of acoustics. No matter how hard manufacturers try for consistency in a particular model, no two trees are alike and the woods will respond differently.
4. Ask about extras with the sale. My shop, for instance, gives free string changes for a year (you have to buy the strings from us) and free neck adjustments for life with the purchase of a guitar from us. In our shop part of the string change process is that we clean and polish the guitar, tighten any loose hardware and inspect it for operation, and check and adjust the neck, bridge, nut, and action if needed. We offer the free string changes not just to increase sales, but because we actuall CARE about whether your guitar is still performing as it should and the free string changes allow us to get our hands on your guitar to make sure all is right. We want you to be successful with music and having a properly functioning guitar is crucial to that.
5. It isn't all about the dollar amount. If it is all about the dollar amount for you, then I feel sorry for you. This refers, in some part, to number 2 above. Granted, there are some bad apples in the barrel, so all the following applies to QUALITY indy dealers. Chances are the indy dealer will match the big box price, but even if he just comes close, consider the other, unseen benefits. The indy dealer is more likely to be able to recommend good teachers. The indy dealer is more likely to have good product knowledge and take the time to find the right product to suit your individual needs. The indy dealer is more likely to remember you when you come back in a month later with a problem. More importantly, they'll actually CARE when you come back with a problem. The indy dealer is the one who donates to your kids little league fund raiser. The indy dealer is the one who volunteers in your community to make it a better place to live.
GC, MF, and internet store lovers feel free to flame away.