How to Buy an Acoustic Guitar: A Guide for the First-Time Buyer
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.