Play it before you buy it
If you've stepped up your game on your instrument and you're ready to step up your game on what you're playing, finding the right guitar to meet your needs can be a bit daunting. Sales people at guitar stores are typically either incredibly too pushy, or so uppity they can't realize their 'how could you possibly think we'd stock a brand like that here' attitude is costing them sales.
No matter what your price range is, there's probably a guitar that exists in it that's right for you. Wether you want to spend as close to two figures as possible (unlikely, if you also need an amp) or you're ready to take out a 2nd mortgage on your house to get that pre-CBS strat; it's out there. You just have to find it.
1.) Use the internet as a price guide only
The internet is a huge marketplace of new and used instruments, from well known dealers to a guy down your street who didn't take to it and is about to move cross country. But use it as a price guide and only that.
Guitars are made out of wood, an organic substance. Each piece of wood is different, and will resonate differently. This doesn't mean you'll find a Strat that sounds just like a Les Paul, but it does mean that the exact same guitar, in the exact same color, made out of the exact same wood, will have very different characters to them. Meaning one could be a bit of a dud, and the other one just sings.
This is why you want to always play it before you buy it. What if you don't like the neck? What if it doesn't resonate as well as your last guitar? If you played it in the store, you can just go grab another one to check out. Yes, many sites like www.sweetwater.com and www.musiciansfriend.com have lenient return policies. But you have to deal with repackaging the guitar and getting it back to them, and that is a hassle.
So, the internet is a great place to find out whether $650 is a good price for a used Classic '70s Fender Stratocaster; but get one locally. Oh, and on the subject of used gear:
2.) Don't buy used gear
Buying a guitar is a lot like buying a car: they both immediately depreciate in value the second you walk out the door. So, yes, you can find some sweet deals on like-new gear, but at what cost?
Well, what if this guitar is one of those aforementioned duds? What if there's something not visibly wrong with it that you won't find out about until it's too late? The guy from Craigslist you got it from moved out west a long time ago, or maybe the 6-month coverage you paid for at a dealer expired last month. There's a chance, if you don't know what to look for, that you could miss the need for a major repair costing more than what the guitar is worth (a played out truss rod is pretty major surgery, for example).
New gear is typically covered by a manufacturer's warranty that is typically voided if you're not the original owner. If you *must* go with used, get it locally. Preferably from a dealer who can provide some sort of warrantee in the event something is wrong with it.
3.) Do your research
So we've established that it's a safer bet to buy new guitars locally, but what next? I love Led Zeppelin, dial me up a Gibson Les Paul Standard and a Marshall stack!
Not so fast. Jimmy Page preferred to play the Les Paul in live settings because the humbucking pickups were far quieter in the stadiums they would play. Some of the classic Zeppelin tones were played on a Fender Telecaster. Yeah, what they use in country music (I believe it was technically a Broadcaster, that can be the subject of another blog).
That classic solo on 'Stairway to Heaven'? Tele.
'Immigrant Song'? Tele.
Kashmir? A Danelectro U2.
Typically not guitars associated with hard rock.
'Another Brick in the Wall, Part 2', one of the standard bearers of David Gimlour's clean tone soloing, was played on a Les Paul; not his signature black Strat.
And he plugged directly into the mixing board on that take-- no amp.
There's tons of bloggers out there, and archives of guitar periodicals, that break down what players used what gear on what song. Occasionally they'll get the players themselves to go in depth about it in interviews. Figure out what tone it is that's inspiring you, and there is probably a guitar in your price range that will get you close to it.
You want that Gilmour tone? Can't afford a 1950s era custom-color Strat? The Fender Custom Shop created a replica of Gilmour's famous black Strat that's about $4k. Yeah, I know that's crazy expensive, but it's still about 1/10th the cost of an original custom-color Strat from the 50s. The American Standard (I believe it's called the American Professional series now) is about $1,500 brand new. Grab a black one and slap a black pickguard on it. Still too pricey? The Standard series, which are made in Mexico, are great guitars for about $500-600 brand new. They even did a factory special run (FSR) of black Strats with a black pickguard and maple fingerboard right around the time the Gilmour replica came out. The Squier vintage modified series are great guitars (alder bodies!), for about $300 brand new.
This obsession is known as Gear Acquisition Syndrome, or G.A.S. Some who become afflicted never recover. God speed.