Once upon a time, the entry-level acoustic guitar was a rite of passage for all beginners. The action was almost always too high. Good tone? Forget it. But times have changed. And we have three excellent dreadnought-shape acoustics from Epiphone, Fender and Yamaha right here to prove it.
Each of these acoustic guitars for beginners offers a playing experience that belies their modest price point. And we’re not sharing trade secrets here; this isn’t the riddle of the Sphynx. The DR-100 is Epiphone’s best-selling acoustic. Fender’s CD-60S is another top-seller. While the Yamaha FG800 is nigh-on ubiquitous in school music departments. These are popular guitars, and for good reason.
Is there one beginner’s dreadnought to rule them all? Quite possibly. Let’s take a look and see how they compare.
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Specs at a glance
Big voice, small price from crowd-pleasing square-shouldered dreadnought
Price: $199 | Key Features: Select spruce laminate top, laminate mahogany back and sides, slim-taper C-profile mahogany neck, 25.5” scale, 20 medium-jumbo frets, rosewood fretboard, rosewood bridge, premium die-cast 14:1 ratio tuners, gloss finish (Ebony, Natural, Vintage Sunburst), hardshell case or EpiLite gig-bag sold separately
The Big F puts a solid-wood spruce top on this budget stunner
Price: $199 | Key Features: Solid spruce top, mahogany laminate back and sides, mahogany Fender 'Easy-to-Play' neck with rolled fretboard edges, 25.3” scale, 20 frets, walnut fretboard, walnut bridge, chrome die-cast tuners, gloss finish (Black, Natural)
A hardy perennial, a faithful workhorse, and a well-finished acoustic
Price: $139 | Key Features: Solid spruce top, nato back and sides, nato C-profile neck, 25.56” scale, 20 frets, rosewood fingerboard, rosewood bridge, die-cast chrome tuners, matt finish
Features and build
This should be a fair fight, with each guitar sporting a full-size, square shouldered dreadnought body shape. There are no electronics to concern us with; it’s all about tone and feel, the fundamentals of guitar playing.
In an ideal world we would be looking for solid woods as opposed to laminate, but there are pros and cons; laminate is cheaper, and you could argue that, depending on how well it is engineered, it could be more durable. Either way, it keeps prices on the right side of respectable and we’re more than okay with each guitar here using laminate on the back and sides.
Learn to play!
We have the Yamaha FG800 with its laminated nato, or so-called eastern mahogany, while both the Epiphone and Fender go for laminated mahogany to set off solid spruce tops. The DR-100 might only have a laminated spruce top but, tonally, it is fishing in the same stream, following the acoustic design principle that says a bright, resonant spruce soundboard is best complemented by the fuller and warmer mahogany tone.
Here, Fender’s CD-60S really impresses. It has the solid spruce on top, plus the mahogany, and a few player-friendly features that are nice to see at this price, such as the rolled fretboard edges to make it feel that bit more accommodating, while Fender’s Easy-To-Play neck profile is not going to be too much of a stretch for most players.
That said, there’s not much difference in terms of comfort between the CD-60S and the DR-100’s slim-taper C-profile neck; both are shaped with beginners and small hands in mind, while the FG800 has a nice, full C-profile neck that fills the palm nicely. We like that all have understated finishes. After all, these are entry-level acoustic guitars; it’s much more important to focus on the fundamentals, feel and tone.
Yamaha’s FG series has been in production since 1966 and has been carefully evolved over 200 different models. The FG800M that we have just feels classy. It looks classy, too, with the matt finish nice and understated, and the neck the most ‘grown-up’ profile of the three. The fret-work is unimpeachable, the action and set-up from the synthetic urea nut and compensated saddle is impressive, while the bound fingerboard applies the coup de grâce.
Yamaha updated the FG800 in 2016, introducing a new scalloped bracing pattern that promised a classically balanced dreadnought tone, with the all-important low to mid-range boom given a bit more juice.
That idea is brought to bear on the CD-60S and DR-100 also, with the former featuring quarter-sawn scalloped X-bracing on its spruce top and the latter going for a wide-X pattern. There’s nothing particularly groundbreaking about this. Variations of the X pattern have been the industry standard ever since C.F. Martin pioneered it in 1843. The thinking behind scalloping the bracing patterns is that by reducing the amount of bulk wood on the soundboard the resonance is enhanced.
Playability and tone
You could say that the DR-100’s medium-jumbo frets and slim-taper neck make for a contemporary feel, but really that’s undercooking the praise. On an entry-level acoustic, on which most players will be beginners, this is a showstopping feat of guitar design which is a huge reason why the modest Epiphone is one of the most popular acoustics ever.
Not only that, but its tone is bang on the money for a dreadnought. The brightness from the spruce lightens the load but there’s a nice authoritative low-midrange that will cater well to all styles, whether you are a strummer, hybrid-picker or budding fingerstyle whizz. That’s the beauty of the dreadnought; it plays the percentages.
Tone-wise, the CD-60S will do likewise. Upgrading the CD (Classic Design) series to include a solid-wood top version such as this was a masterstroke from Fender’s ever-inventive R&D brain trust. Again, we’ve got classic dreadnought tone – and, it should be said, a well set-up instrument with perfect intonation – but with a little more top-end sparkle that really works well in bringing your fingerstyle playing to life.
This is a mass production model but we love the care and attention that it has been given, the feel of the walnut fingerboard, and a neck that does as advertised – it is easy to play. The Yamaha FG800 is a mass production model also, but has even more of a premium feel to it.
You could pay more and get a high-gloss finish version but we love the satin-smooth feel of the neck. It will keep you playing comfortably for hours, and the tone? Well, there’s a real depth to the boom here, a width to the FG800’s tonal spectrum that makes it a truly authoritative acoustic. In terms of shooting for that archetypal dreadnought tone, as pioneered by Martin, this gets closest, and might have you pausing to check out the logo on the headstock.
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You could make a case for any of these three acoustics. In terms of price, value, and what they deliver in terms of tone and playability, any one would make an ideal acoustic for anyone just beginning their journey as a guitarist.
As ever, there are trade-offs between price and quality. The Yamaha FG800 is the most expensive of the bunch, and yet excellent value at that. We’d be inclined to declare in favor of the FG800, on grounds of its classiness.
It would certainly make an excellent investment for a young player who has been playing for a few months, is totally obsessed and serious about their instrument, and who is maybe looking for a more quality option to take their playing to the next level.
The FG800’s tone is comparable to some more big-ticket acoustics for sure. This, allied to a superlative finish, would make it a no-brainer.
But in the light of super-value options such as the DR-100, or indeed the CD-60S, we’d perhaps whittle it down to a choice between the Big F’s CD-60S or the DR-100. With its solid top, the Fender probably has the edge with regards tone, with maybe a little more volume and depth.
But then the DR-100 is a great-sounding acoustic in its own right. With a price tag that is unbeatable in this class and a super-fun neck that’s made for beginners and anyone who might be agnostic with regards the merits of the acoustic guitar, on balance, we’d go for the DR-100. Though if you were to stick the names into a hat and pick out the winner by chance, you couldn’t go wrong.