If you are in the market for a new acoustic guitar there are a few basics you need to know before beginning your search. Acoustic guitars are extremely popular instruments, however the term “acoustic guitar” is very general. There are many differences and characteristics among acoustic guitars that set them apart from each other. Some characteristics, such as style and features, are obvious while others are far more difficult to detect. Keep in mind that not all acoustic guitars are created equally.
When you begin the process of researching acoustic guitars to determine which type you want to purchase, it is important that you understand these differences to ensure that your serious financial investment is made worthwhile, and that you are happy with the instrument you get.
This guide has been created to give you a comprehensive overview of key points you should know and consider when determining the quality of acoustic guitars and in helping you when making a purchase.
Begin by Asking Yourself a Few Simple Questions
Because there are so many different options when it comes to acoustic guitars, it is easy to get overwhelmed and lost.
To begin, ask yourself three basic questions:
- What will I be using my acoustic guitar for? For example, will you be using it just for fun or do you plan on doing live performances and/or recording?
- What is my style of playing? Are you a heavy strummer, light strummer, fingerpicker, or folksy?
- What is my budget?
When you have the answers to these important questions, you will be able to narrow down the many available options and find the acoustic guitar that will work best for you.
Acoustic Guitar Body Styles
To start with, you should read into the different acoustic guitar body styles. There are a few different types of body styles for acoustic guitars, including:
- Classic – This type of body style typically offers a medium sound projection and more overall balance between hi, mid and low frequencies. Guitarists who fingerpick tend to prefer the classic body style because it offers a lot of clarity between the highs, mids and lows. The classic body style also makes an excellent strumming guitar. Keep in mind that with a classic body style, you will want to use light gauge strings. Medium gauge strings will create more tension on the neck, which this type of guitar was not designed for. If you really want to use medium gauge strings, some players have the truss rod adjusted to compensate for the increased tension, which you could do.
- Dreadnought – If you are looking for a much richer bass response, the dreadnought body style is the choice for you. This type of guitar offers a much bigger and boomier sound than the classic body style. Heavy strummers often opt for this type of body style. Because of their design, dreadnought guitars tend to sound the best with medium gauge strings, however you can still use light strings if you prefer those.
- Jumbo – This body style offers the bigger sound of the dreadnought, but has a similar shape to the classic style. Someone looking for a mix between the two will often chose the jumbo style. This style is popular with musicians who like wearing a guitar strap. This is because the jumbo can be uncomfortable to hold and play when you are sitting because it is so large. Similarly to dreadnoughts, jumbos use medium gauge strings, but can also take light strings.
Each style can include a cutaway, which allows the musician to access higher frets on the fretboard. Keep in mind that the style name and exact sizes of these body styles vary from manufacturer to manufacturer.
What You Need to Know About Wood
The body style of the guitar will affect the way your guitar sounds, but did you know that the type of wood the guitar is made out of can affect the sound even more? When a guitar is played, the sound is created by strumming the strings which causes them to vibrate the bridge up to the top of the guitar. Because different woods vibrate in different ways, it can influence how bright or dark the sound is.
Tonewoods, also known as topwoods, is the wood used for the top of the guitar. This wood piece acts as the instrument’s sound board. There are two different ways the top can be constructed:
- Solid Top – This type of top is constructed out of a solid piece of wood. Because it is solid, it will resonate better and offer more clarity and volume. Because of the quality, this type of top is used on more expensive instruments.
- Laminated Veneer Top – This type of top is constructed by gluing thin sheets of wood together. Because the top is not made of a solid piece of wood, it is not going to produce the best sound. This type of top is used on cheaper instruments.
Because the type of wood used to construct the guitar can influence the sound, it is important to select an instrument with the right topwood. Here is a list of some of the most popular tonewoods for acoustic guitars:
- Sitka Spruce – This type of wood comes from Alaska and Northwest Canada. It is known for its strength and toughness, which make it a very popularly option. It is both a very stiff and lightweight wood, which gives it a very high velocity of sound. This means that the speed that the wood transmits the received energy of the strings is very high. Sitka Spruce offers the player the ability to strum very hard and play very loud while still maintaining a clear and full tone. However, at softer volumes it can sound thinner.
- Engelmann Spruce – This type of wood comes from North America. It is lighter in both color and weight, and also tends to be less stiff. This gives it a lower velocity of sound. Engelmann loses its tonal clarity when it is played at louder volumes, however at softer volumes the tone is much richer and clearer.
- Western Red Cedar – This type of wood comes from Western Canada and the Pacific Northwest of the United States. The color can range from a very light brown to a dark reddish-brown. Red cedar is a softer wood and is more likely to break than spruce. Red cedar is characterized as producing warmer, darker tones with a good bass response. Some clarity will be lost when it is played loudly.
- Redwood – This type of wood comes from North America and it shares many of the same tonal characteristics as Western Red Cedar. However, it tends to offer a darker sound.
- Mahogany – This type of wood is found in Central America and the Caribbean. Mahogany is a versatile wood that can be used as a top, back and sides of the guitar. It is a lighter wood that offers a very clear sound with defined trebles and mid-range. It is a very popular choice for country blues fingerpickers because its sound is considered “punchy” or “woody.”
- Koa – This type of wood is from Hawaii and is visually beautiful with an eye catching grain. Koa is similar to mahogany by offering very defined trebles and mid-range. It is a great option for rhythm, but it can sound thin. Koa sounds best when it is played at louder volumes, however it does not produce as much volume as spruce. Koa is a very popular option for Hawaiian ukuleles and guitars.
Backs and Sides
Though topwoods are very important, keep in mind that the topwoods is not the only factor that contributes to the sound a particular guitar will produce. The back and sides will also greatly affect the overall sound and tone of the guitar. Here is a list of some of the most popular back and side wood options:
- East Indian Rosewood – This type of wood has a very high velocity of sound and a broad range of overtones. It is typically characterized by its emphasis in low end with an overall darkness in the other ranges. However, there are also characteristics of strong mids and highs which offer the player a bold upper-register tone. Rosewood is also known to have a built in “reverb” quality to it.
- Brazilian Rosewood – This type of wood is comparable to Indian Rosewood, however it is more valuable. Brazilian Rosewood is considered endangered, making it rare and expensive today. Tonally, it offers many similar characteristics to Indian Rosewood, however it is considered finer.
- Mahogany and Koa – Both mahogany and Koa are used as a topwood and for backs and sides. Both have high velocities of sound, but lack in low-end frequencies and nice reverb-quality. Mahogany offers more definition in the treble and bass, while Koa tends to have a fuller mid-range.
- Maple and Walnut – Theses types of wood have a low sound velocity and higher level of internal damping. These elements make it tonally transparent. A guitar constructed of maple backs and sides will allow the tonal characteristics of the top to come through without coloring the sound. Likewise, Walnut is also transparent.
Some of the above woods are also used for neck construction as well, and can influence the sound the guitar produces. For example, a maple neck will add a bright, “poppy” tone to the overall sound while a mahogany neck can help push the overall sound of the guitar into the “woody” and warmer tone area.
What You Want to Look For When Testing Acoustic Guitars
When you are actually able to hold some acoustic guitar options in your hands and view them with your own eyes, there are a few key questions you should answer when inspecting your potential purchase:
- Are There Any Cracks, Dents and Bridge Separation? – When you are actually able to view your options, the first thing you want to do is make sure there are no parts of the guitar that are cracking or have serious wear. While these are uncommon problems with new guitars, sometimes a new guitar could have fallen off its stand or been scratched and bumped during transportation. If you do find a new guitar that you like, but it only has a few minor scratches, use it to your advantage. Ask for a discount off the sale price and view these marks as “character.” If you are looking at a used guitar, it is even more important that you check for serious flaws, like bridge separation. Scratches or scuff marks will not affect the actual sound of the guitar, but cracks will. Some cracks are small and hard to notice, so be sure you look over the entire instrument thoroughly.
- Does it Have a Straight Neck? – Hold the guitar and, with one eye open, look down the neck from the bottom of the guitar to make sure that the neck is not bent, crooked or warped. A flaw like this will certainly diminish the quality of sound.
- Does the Fretboard Stick Out? – Hold the guitar and, as you move your hand up and down the guitar neck, take notice of any frets that stick out and rub your hand in an uncomfortable way. On some guitars, the frets can hang over the edge of the fretboard and poke your hand, making playing uncomfortable. A luthier can fix this issue by sanding down the frets, so it is not a major problem.
- Is the Action Too High or Too Low? – The “action,” or space between the strings and the fretboard, can sometimes be too high which can make it hard to press the strings down to the fretboard, or too low, which can cause the strings to “catch” on other frets and create a buzzing sound when you are playing. Press the strings down onto the fretboard to see if either of these issues occur. Like the fretboard, the action can be changed by either shaving down the nut to fix the issue caused when it is too high, or by filling in the nut with an epoxy to fix the issue caused when it is too low. Any guitar repair person can do this for minimal cost, so an issue like this should not deter you from buying a guitar you really like.
- What is the Neck Size? – The width of the neck will vary between manufacturers and is measured at the nut of the guitar. A standard neck width for acoustic guitars is 1-11/16 inch, 1-3/4 inch, or 1-7/8 inch. If you are a fingerstyle or classical guitar player, you will likely want a wider guitar neck from 1-3/4 inch to 2 inches.
- Does the Guitar Stay in Tune? – While you should expect to tune your guitar each time you play it, it should be able to stay in tune while you are using it. When you are looking at a guitar, be sure to take some time and play it for a while. You will not only get a feel for the instrument itself, but you will be able to notice how well it does or does not stay in tune. Keep in mind that even if you buy a guitar with cheap tuners, you can replace them at a later time. When playing the guitar in the store, also keep in mind that the strings may be old and worn out, and not likely to stay in tune. If you are really serious about a particular guitar, pay to have the strings changed so you can tune it and really get an idea for how it plays.
- Does it Have Good Intonation? – Intonation can be gauged by playing the harmonic on the sixth string, twelfth fret, then playing the fretted note on the sixth string, twelfth fret. If these two notes are not the same, such as one being sharper or flatter, then the intonation is off. Repeat this process on all six strings to determine if they are all properly intonated.
When you have honed in on a particular instrument, be sure to spend some quality time with it. Use your eyes and hands to thoroughly inspect it and ensure that there is nothing major wrong with it, such as a crack or it refusing to stay in tune. If you only discover a few minor, but fixable, problems, it is likely safe to invest in it with the knowledge that you will have to spend a little extra to fix them. If you find major problems, however, seriously consider moving on to a better instrument.
If you plan on plugging your guitar into a sound system or PA, it is important to evaluate the electronics that are installed, or not installed, in the guitar.
If you know you want to amplify the guitar’s sound through a system, it might be best to buy a guitar with electronics already installed to save yourself both time and money. However, if you are looking for a specific type of pickup, you may want to install it after purchase.
There are several different types of pickups to know:
- Electromagnetic Soundhole Pickups – This is the most basic type of guitar pickup and is plugged in through the guitar’s soundhole at the bottom of the body. This type of soundhole is small, inexpensive and easy to It also does not require any permanent installation or modification to the guitar. The pickup works by sensing the movement of the strings through a magnetic field, then transmitting it into sound that can be amplified. If you are planning on playing in loud settings, this type of pickup might be the best option for you because it tends to produce the least feedback. However, some think that these pickups fail to pick up on the nuances of the sound.
- Microphone Pickup – If you are looking for the most accurate representation of the sound your guitar makes, a microphone pickup is the best option. It directly captures the sound and converts it into an electrical signal that is then amplified. However, feedback can be an issue. Some players combat this issue by placing the microphone inside the guitar. However, this can isolate the microphone to a smaller region of sound.
- Contact (Soundboard and Under-saddle) Pickups – These two types of pickups are placed directly on the guitar. There, they detect vibrations of the instrument and convert them into electrical signals that can be amplified. Typically, contact pickups are placed on the soundboard or under the saddle.
- Soundboard pickups look like a small disc, about the size of a quarter. You will typically place two or three soundboard pickups on the top of the guitar to capture the sound. You also have the option of placing them inside the guitar or on the outside of the guitar.
- Under-saddle pickups look like a little bar of wire and are made of a piezo material. They are placed underneath the saddle of the guitar, the piece of plastic or bone that the strings lay on top of when connecting to the bridge of the guitar. These pickups are one of the most popular transducers used by performing artists because they are almost completely resistant to feedback, much like soundhole pickups, and also offer a much clearer and accurate sound, especially when next to a microphone. However, they are considered the most difficult pickups to install.
- Dual Source (Blender) Pickup – You also have the option to blend an internal microphone with an under-saddle pickup. This is known as a “blender” system. It allows you to control how much of the microphone and the under-saddle pickup is being outputted. Guitar players who use this system will typically set the internal microphone high enough to portray the nuances of the guitar, while using the other pickup to account for most of the sound. This blend will combat feedback while allowing you to use an internal microphone. These systems are pricey, but if you want the best acoustic guitar tone they may be worth it.
Evaluating Acoustic Pickups
When determining which pickup to choose, be sure to test a few to see which works best with your guitar. Because some pickups focus on the high-end and others produce a more pronounced mid-range or bass, it is important to test them to find the right one for you. You will want to look for how well the pickups reproduce the natural sound of your guitar. A good pickup will have a fairly flat EQ response, or at least have sliders or knobs that allow you to dial in a flat EQ response. The most effective way to test this is to plug directly into a PA system, not an acoustic amp. If you are unable to dial a decent tone, do not get that particular pickup. Keep in mind that just because a pickup is expensive does not mean that it is better. Instead of focusing on price, read reviews and test out different pickups before purchasing.
Buying Tips for Beginners
Keep in mind that there is no real “right” choice when it comes to body style, wood, neck size, actions, tuners and pickups. It is really a choice revolving around the type of sound you want and the way you plan on playing the guitar. The type of guitar you can afford will also be a major factor. It is crucial that you start by setting a budget. You can also consider establishing a savings plan if you want something you cannot afford right now. There are many factors that will affect the price of a guitar, including:
- Type of wood and quality of wood used in the construction
- Level of craftsmanship
- Choice of electronics
- Amount of detailed work, such as pearl inlays
- Selection of tuning machines
- And much more
When it comes to guitars, you definitely tend to get what you pay for.
If you are a beginner, do not stress thinking you need to spend thousands of dollars on your very first guitar. Instead, try borrowing a friend’s guitar as you learn to play rather than spending a lot of money to start with and not ending up with a guitar you like. Buying an acoustic guitar is definitely an investment, so really know your stuff by doing your research before purchasing. When you are ready to buy your first guitar, budget between $250 and $600. This range will get you a basic, entry level guitar. You will also want to add at least an extra $100 for a strap, strings, case, tuner, capo and picks. While it will cost a little more, be sure to invest in a good case. It will protect your investment long-term, especially if you plan on using it outside the home.
When you are ready for a longer term investment and are ready to spend more money, you can look in the upper price ranges. It is not likely you will find a bad guitar when you spend more money. However, there are many differences among acoustic guitars, so it is important that you know exactly what you want before spending the money. Identify your needs. If you are a finger picker, consider a smaller classic body style shape with a cedar top and rosewood or mahogany back and sides. If you are a heavy strummer, consider a dreadnought with a spruce top to better produce loud volumes. If you want to do a mix of both, consider a classic body style with a spruce top and rosewood back and sides. The possibilities are endless and really depend on what you want personally.
The Purchasing Process
While there are many online options, it is best to try out a guitar before you purchase it. Start by looking at local music stores. Here you can take time to browse and try out many different types of acoustic guitars. You can also ask the experts who work at the store questions.
While locally owned shops are great, they might not carry a wide selection. You should also check out popular chains like Guitar Center to see a wide range of options. As a beginner, you may feel intimidated walking into a music store. You will likely find people who really know what they are doing and who show off their skills. Do not worry about them. Focus on yourself and the guitars you want to look at and test. Because this is such a big investment, be sure you can hear yourself play and get a thorough testing of the instrument. If you have to, come back at a different time or ask to use a quieter area of the store. You can also bring a friend along who plays guitar too so you have some backup when making your decision.
If you do not have a music store nearby, you can consider buying an acoustic guitar online. However, when purchasing online it is even more imperative that you do your research. Read as many reviews as you can. Reviews will help answer many of the questions you may have about a particular instrument. You should also check out different online guitar forums. Here you can ask questions and get answers or recommendations from others.
Because there are so many different characteristics and nuances when it comes to acoustic guitars, it is imperative that you start by establishing your budget and your goals for playing. Once these key elements have been decided, start doing your research. Read reviews, chat on forums and, if you are able to, go to music stores and try out a wide range of options in your price range. Ultimately what really matters is what you want and what you think sounds good. Tonal differences are subjective to the listener. If you are afraid to solely trust your own ears when selecting the right guitar, bring a trusted friend along to help.
Keep in mind that playing guitar is fun. Do not get too overwhelmed or caught up in the research and buying process. Practice and play as much as you can. Keep in mind that a great player can make a not so great guitar sound good.