How to Buy an Acoustic Guitar: A Guide for the First-Time Buyer
You've got the bug—you’ve decided to buy an acoustic guitar—and nothing will stop you, not even the haunted, hungry look in your children’s eyes. So you empty your bank account, raid your kids’ college fund and head down to a local house of ill repute: a music store. You’re gonna get that acoustic, practicality and your wife’s entreaties be damned.
You navigate your way through the racks of gear and gaggle of fools trying to play the solo to “Stairway to Heaven” to find the acoustic guitar room in the far reaches of the building.
As you close the glass doors, you take a deep breath and survey the room. Hundreds of acoustics of all sizes, shapes and colors hang, meat-like, from the walls and ceiling. You really want to take one of those lovelies home today, right now, but a sudden thought stays your trembling hands: I don’t have a clue what I’m looking for.
My task here is to give you that clue—to ensure that prior to entering the unfriendly confines of a big, gleaming music store you’ll have a pretty good idea of what you’d like in an acoustic guitar.
The Buck Stops Where?
Unless your dying aunt has willed you the vintage six-string that’s been gathering dust and accruing value in her attic all these years, your first question must be: How much do I want to spend? While there are respectable guitars to be had in any price range, the fact is that you do get what you pay for. And if a wily salesman convinces you that he’s got “just what you’re looking for, and it’s only a tad more expensive,” you need to be able to make an informed decision.
If you’re a beginner or just want something to bang around on in your bedroom or at the beach, you’ll still probably want to spend at least $300 for a guitar. Anything less will almost certainly get you something that not only will be very difficult to play but will sound lousy, besides. Say you’ve got a spending ceiling of around $700. Guitars at this price range should have a solid spruce stop. Raise that to $1,200 and you’re talking about a solid- wood instrument. The word “laminate” should not appear in descriptions of guitars that cost close to or above four figures.
Guitars in the range of $1,200 and $2,500 must get you nothing less than a pro-level instrument that you will love and never outgrow. Anything above that, and you’re in highly specialized and hand-crafted territory—a danger zone because if you buy a lemon for this kind of money nothing will ever blunt that sour feeling in your stomach.
If you are particularly budget conscious, here are a couple of friendly suggestions. Don’t put your cash into expensive accessories—say, handtooled leather straps, or even more practical items like a high-end tuner. Instead, put all that money into the best guitar you can get. Remember that nobody in his right mind pays list price these days; discounts of ten to thirty (and often forty) percent are standard. Large music stores are no different from cut-rate clothing establishments and audio shops—they’ll use any holiday or other excuse to have a “Blowout Sales Event of the Century” that in truth won’t offer you much of a real savings.
Choosing Your Weapon
There is no such thing as right or wrong when it comes to choosing a guitar. Bigger does not always mean better, and the popularity of a particular guitar does not necessarily mean that it’s for you. Acoustics come in all shapes and sizes, and (this should be your mantra) what someone else finds appealing may not be right for you.
The traditional workhorse of acoustic guitars is the dreadnought, of which the Martin D-28 is the standard bearer. Powerful, versatile and extremely coollooking, this model has graced countless recordings and is the classic rock acoustic guitar. The D-28’s success over the years has spawned countless imitations, good and bad. Pick one out, give it a few good strums and then go on to something with a different look, feel and sound—a small guitar, like a Grand Concert size Taylor, a jumbo Gibson or an Ovation Adamas. Even if you can’t afford any of these instruments, playing them will give you at least an idea of the kind of guitar you’re most comfortable with.
Set Up, Man
Obviously, whatever guitar you ultimately choose must be comfortable to play. If the action is too high—the strings are too far from the fretboard— your fingers will pay a price, and it may be an indication that the neck is bowed. Look for low, even action up and down the fretboard, with the strings slightly higher at the 12th fret. Check for fret buzz by playing chords and single notes at different spots on the neck. Some pro players like their action higher for a clearer, punchier sound, but if you are a beginner or an electric player buying your first acoustic, you will probably find light strings and a low action to be more suited to your needs.
You may have heard players discuss how good or bad the “intonation” is on a particular guitar. This refers to how well a guitar is in tune up and down the neck. The easiest way to check this is to play an open D chord and then play the same D chord at the 14th fret. If the guitar sounds out of tune up there you know it’s got a problem.
Although tuning and other problems like fret buzz can often be alleviated with simple neck adjustments, they sometimes require more involved bridge work. The odds are that this is something you don’t want to get into when buying a brand new guitar. On the other hand, if you’ve really fallen in love with a particular instrument that needs a little work, have the dealer take care of the necessary repairs and then try the guitar again before finalizing your purchase.
How does one confidently access something as subjective as sound After all, a guitar whose deep bass knocks me out may strike you as being too boomy. Every guitar style—every individual guitar, really—is unique, and there are no universal guidelines for what constitutes a “good”- or “bad”- sounding guitar. Again, you are the final arbiter—it’s your money, and your ears are the only judge and jury that matter.
The best way to really hear how a guitar sounds is to have someone else strum it as you listen from a distance of a few feet. A guitar heard from this vantage point will sound completely different than it does when you play it.
The type, quality and combination of woods used in the construction of a guitar all help determine its tone. Entry-level models are typically made of laminated wood, which does not mature as it gets older; what you hear is what you get. Intermediate guitars, on the other hand, generally feature solid wood tops combined with laminated back and sides. And the best instruments are made of solid wood, which produce a richer and more resonant sound.
Guitar tops are most commonly made of spruce or cedar, while standard woods for the back and sides are rosewood, mahogany and maple. Synthetic materials are also used effectively by companies like Ovation and Rainsong.
Spruce - The most common choice for an acoustic guitar top. It has a very good strength-to-weight ratio that makes it possible for the top to be relatively thin yet still be strong and very resonant. Spruce tops can take whatever you dish out and will remain responsive even when played very hard. Spruce is perfect for strumming and flatpicking styles.
Cedar - You will recognize a cedar top because it has a darker color than spruce and has a slight reddish hue. Cedar responds nicely to a light attack, and is an excellent choice for fingerpicking and lowered tension tunings. Because it is softer and not as strong as spruce, cedar can be overdriven if played too hard, causing the sound to compress and lose some integrity.
Rosewood - This darkcolored wood imparts a deep warmth and complex richness to the tone of a guitar. Brazilian rosewood is the holy grail of tone woods and is much prized by luthiers and players alike. The scarcity of Brazilian, however, makes it very expensive. Indian rosewood has similar timbre qualities but is not as striking visually.
Mahogany - This is an excellent wood that falls in the middle of the tonal spectrum, imparting a bright and warm sound with sweet highs.
Maple - A maple body will produce a bright, dry tone with a very clear, well-defined high end. Quilted or tiger maple can be quite dramatic visually.
Synthetics – Although synthetic guitars will never totally replace the wooden variety, they have been around for decades and are quite popular. Ovation uses a fiberglass composite for the body and sides of its rounded body guitars, combined with a solid wood top, while Rainsong produces instruments made mostly of graphite. In general, synthetic guitars are less susceptible than wood to climatic changes and offer distinctive tonal characteristics. On the other hand, they tend not to improve with age.
Most acoustic guitars feature clear, natural finishes. Sunbursts and other colors have their unique appeal, but be aware that a heavier finish may hinder the sound. Look for a translucent finish through which you can see the wood grain.
Mother-pearl-inlays, herringbone trim, gold-plated tuners and other decorative options certainly can add to the beauty of a guitar, but they do not necessarily make it a better instrument. On the other hand, if having your name inlaid on the fretboard makes you think you sound better, it might be worth looking into.
Footnote: Some of the best-sounding acoustic guitars I’ve ever played were also the ugliest.
There are advantages to buying at a large national chain or regional music store. On the one hand, they usually carry a large selection of guitars and are well stocked. On the other hand, they are less likely to carry unusual or so-called “boutique”—extremely high-end—instruments.
Specialty acoustic guitar shops offer very specific advantages, such as knowledgeable sales staffers who are more likely to spend a lot of time with you, as well as a wide selection of guitars with everything from drool-worthy boutique items to tried.