A no-nonsense guide to buying an acoustic guitar, for the beginner or seasoned player.
Whether you are planning on purchasing your first acoustic guitar, or whether you are adding to your collection, it is always best to do a little refresher on the fine craft of guitar-making before making the commitment. Several years ago, I had a decent beginner guitar become “not so decent” as my skill and discernment improved. It's not that the guitar changed, but that my understanding of what makes a quality guitar improved, as well as my ear for a fine acoustic guitar sound. Before making your first purchase, read this overview to be sure to purchase the best beginner acoustic guitar for your money. If you are a more advanced player, this will also serve as a good resource to help you inspect your next major guitar purchase to be sure it is the best for your investment.
Understand Quality Materials- When I was a kid, my older brother's friend disobeyed his parents and he made a cake when they were not around. Only, instead of using a few cups of sugar, he mistook salt for sugar. I got to taste a bit of that old cake and believe me, it drew your mouth worse than a lemon. Needless to say, this same principle applies to guitar making. You can't make a quality guitar from the wrong or inferior ingredients.
Many guitar companies are using laminates (layered, glued woods), composites (plastics) and other conglomerate material to form the backs and sides of guitars, affecting the overall tone quality and long -term value. In order to get the most out of your guitar career, it is best to purchase the highest quality guitar you can afford. Inferior models will at some point prove disappointing, so it is best to do all of your homework to understand what makes a quality guitar.
The Body Materials (top, back and sides)
For the top of the guitar, or the soundboard, look for quality Sitka Spruce as the most common quality tonewood used for steel string guitar tops. A few other alternatives for the top are Engelmann Spruce, Cedar (which is the primary wood used for classical guitar tops), Mahogany, Maple, and Koa. All of these materials produce different tones and project better in different frequency ranges.
For the back and sides of the guitar, some cheaper materials have been used in recent years, such as composites, laminated woods (or fine plywood), pressed wood composites, and a few other plastic derivatives and natural materials. In order to make a good investment in a guitar that will keep it's value, and grow in quality with age, you should focus on guitars that use some of the following tonewoods for the back and sides:
- Indian or Brazilian Rosewood (full projecting sound in low, mid and high range)
- Mahogany (bright, punchy sound in the mid and high range – less bass projection)
- Maple (less overall projection, with more sound coming from the mid and upper range)
- Sapele (more mid and upper range tones similar in richness to Mahogany)
- Koa (very warm, lush sound used in Hawaiian guitars)
There are other less popular and more exotic woods, as well as alternate species of some of the woods listed above that are also quality, but the list mentioned above are the most commonly used solid tonewoods. For the longevity and value of the instrument, it is best to avoid laminates and composites that are used in mass produced acoustic guitars to retain an authentic acoustic guitar sound.
Finish: The guitar finish is a personal preference, but you should inspect it under various angles of light to find any flaws or blemishes. Overall, it is best to understand 3 basic finished and how they affect the sound of a guitar.
- High gloss or Glossy: These guitars will project the most sound with the brightest character.
- Satin: Just like house paint, acoustic guitar finishes come in satin. Satin finished create a more mellow sound than a high gloss finish will, and will take the edge off of the bright tones or high end in general.
- Dull or flat: Some guitars are finished with such a flat coat that it is difficult to tell whether it has been given a finish coat. The dull or flat coat will give the guitar the least projection and the warmest tone, having the least “edginess” or “crispness”.
Tuners: The tuners, tuning keys, or machine heads are also very important. Tuning keys that are low quality or are fairly loose when wound taut with string are not very reliable and can cause the guitar to lose tune often and easily. Good machine heads are necessary for a quality guitar and guitar sound.
Strings: Although strings have a significant affect on the sound and overall tone personality of the acoustic guitar, they are not very important in the purchase decision because they are easily replaceable and are not a permanent structure of the guitar.
Set or Action: When you buy a new guitar, the action has been set at the factory. The action refers to the height of the strings from the fretboard and the bow in the neck (controlled by tightening or loosening of the truss rod – which should be done by a technician unless you really know what you are doing). Usually, this can be adjusted to find the optimum setting for the best projection, lowest action for playability without being too low and causing what is called “fret buzz”. Strings that are set too high are difficult to play. Strings that are set too low are easy to chord and play, yet they can cause an unwanted sound or buzz on the fretboard. Most quality guitars have a truss-rod and a certified technician can alter the set or action to suit your ability and comfort preferences.
Overall craftsmanship and “gut feel”. Finally, when you have done all of your research to determine what makes a quality guitar, and what kind of sound you prefer, give the guitar one last critique. Look at the seams and bindings. Read other reviews from more advanced players instead of beginners (often beginners do not understand and can give a quality review based on excitement rather than a seasoned eye and ear). Feel the guitar in your hands if you can to see whether it feels flimsy or solid (unless you are buying online which is perfectly advisable, as long as thorough research is done and you are confident and comfortable with your decision). Finally, be at peace that you did your best. As long as you did all of your homework and are able to understand all of the qualities and “specs” of your acoustic guitar purchase, then you should find a good instrument for your money.
About the author: Aaron Schulman is a web publisher and guitar player, teacher and writer since 1990. because of a poor guitar purchase experience early in his career, he has developed a website devoted to honest acoustic guitar reviews at StrumViews.com. Be sure to read his reports to learn how to buy an acoustic guitar before making the investment.