Shopping For Acoustic Guitars
Buying an acoustic guitar can be challenging. Many acoustic guitars are similar in appearance and sound. Why do some cost hundreds of dollars, while others cost thousands? In this article I’ll take a look at the different types of acoustic guitars available, what you should get for your money, and what you should look out for when buying.
Types of Acoustics
There are basically two types of acoustic guitars: steel string and nylon string. Steel string guitars have numerous variations (twelve string models, cutaways, built-in electronics, archtops, flat tops, carbon/graphite bodies, etc.), while nylon strings guitars usually have little variation in their basic design. Let’s start by looking at nylon string guitars.
Nylon String Guitars
While nylon string guitar shows up occasionally on pop recordings, they are used mainly in classical, latin, and flamenco style music. They are typically played fingerstyle — using your fingers (or fingernails) instead of a pick. To accommodate this style of playing, they feature wider necks than typical steel string guitars. The nylon strings give these guitars a quieter, more mellow tone than steel string guitars. These guitars are capable of creating very beautiful, quiet music or flashy flamenco flurries. If your interest lies in classical, latin, or flamenco. You will want to check out nylon string guitars.
Steel String Guitars
Steel string guitars became popular in the early 20th century. The use of steel strings gave the guitars a brighter, louder tone with more sustain. They require no electricity to produce sound and are light weight making them very portable instruments. Any since they are polyphonic (capable of easily producing up to 6 six notes simultaneously over a two octave range - chords) they make a great accompaniment instruments for singers. The golden age of acoustic guitar building is considered the 1930s through the 1940s. Most guitars today are the same basic design as those early models although they come in infinite variations. Here are some common types:
Six String Guitars
There many body sizes and shapes available. Usually, the larger the body size, the louder the instrument. There are two basic types: archtop and flat top. Archtops have an arched top and usually f-holes instead of a single round sound hole. Thus the name archtop. They were popular with jazz artist and often had very large bodies to try to compete with big band horn sections. Later pickups were added and they became considered “electric” guitars as they were mainly used plugged in to get a dark, warm tone popular with many jazz players.
Flat tops are by far the most common acoustic guitar. They have a flat top. These guitars are heard in nearly every type of popular music. If you want to play any type of popular music (pop, rock, country, folk, bluegrass, and all of their variations) then a flat top acoustic is the easiest choice.
New Technology And Design Variations
In 1966 Charlie Kaman introduced the roundback guitar featuring a bowl-shaped composite back. It was called the Ovation. In the late 1970s body cutaways, like those on electric guitars allowing access to higher frets, started getting popular. Recent years have introduced sound ports that face the player or offset sound holes on the body.
Twelve Strings Guitars
The twelve string guitar uses six pairs of guitars strings, tuned in octaves and unison to give the player a fuller sound. These guitars can be very effective on certain songs or styles of music but are of limited use for soloing.
Acoustics With Built-in Pickups Or Electronics
In the later half of the 20th century manufacturers started including built-in preamps, equalizers, and pickups in some of their models. These guitars give players the option of being able to amplify their guitars and play with an amplified live band without the problems (feedback) associated with miking an acoustic. These are sometimes referred to as “Acoustic/Electric Guitars” but I think the term is confusing and misleading. I prefer to simply call them “Acoustics.” The added electronics do not make them any less acoustic or change their function. They are designed to amplify the “acoustic” sound of the guitar not to sound like an electric guitar. So it is fine to simply call them “acoustic guitars.”
What You Can Expect For Your Money
Before you head out shopping, it’s a good idea to know what you can expect for your money. Don’t automatically assume that an inexpensive guitar won’t sound as good as an expensive one. Often the difference in cost is due largely to cosmetic features, grades of wood, and type of finish used on the guitar. It is possible to get a good sounding guitar for a reasonable price, but it takes patience. Of course, if you have the money, you can get yourself a premium instrument with beautiful tone. One that is is a joy to play, a beauty to behold, and will last you a lifetime.
These instruments are considered “economy” or “beginner” models. Sacrifices will be made in the quality of the hardware, woods, and the construction of the instrument (no fret bindings, cheaper finishes, lower grade woods, laminated tops.) Tone will often be lacking due to the materials used. But if you are patient you can find a good sounding instrument in this range.
$500 to $1000
This is the midrange for guitars. You can get a good quality guitar for this price. It won’t be a “deluxe” or “signature” model, but it will do the job quite nicely. In this price range you will get better woods and finishes. Tones will improve and you will see many acoustic that include electronics (pickups, pre-amps, etc.)
Once you break a thousand dollars, you looking at some excellent guitars with abundant features. Gold hardware, Ebony fretboards, fretboard binding, intricate fretboard inlays, high gloss finishes, “signature” models, the choicest woods, and other pleasures await you here. These luxuries don’t necessarily mean a guitar will sound better, but they certainly help. A guitar in this price range should last you a lifetime.
How To Shop
Okay, you’ve done your homework. Now comes the final part — shopping.
If you are buying your first guitar I highly recommend going to an actual musical instrument store. You should avoid department stores like Walmart or Best Buy. Their instruments are usually lower quality instruments geared for impulse buyers. If you don’t live near a musical instrument store, there are many online instrument store that are the next best option. Prices in the online world are all basically the same so don’t worry too much about who has the best deal. You should be more concerned with customer service. Make sure the store has a good return policy because you won’t get to play the instrument before you buy it. And you should to be able to return a guitar you don’t like without a lot of expense or hassle. Some online stores like sweetwater.com offer multiple photos of the actual guitar you are going to buy, and they do full inspection and setup of the instruments before shipping (except most inexpensive models.) Still, if possible it is better to try out as many guitars as possible before you buy one.
The next important thing to do is set a budget. Then try to find the best guitar for your budget. Although you might want to be a little flexible. If spending $50 more will get you a much better guitar, do it.
The best way to shop for guitars is to get to a music store and try some out. Don’t even think about money at first, just try out as many different guitars as you can. Is the neck thick or thin. Which do you like? Are you planning on playing fingerstyle? If so, you may want a wider neck. Don’t limit yourself to guitars in your price range, either. Play the “top of the line” models to get a feel for what a good guitar feels, plays, and sounds like. If you are new to guitars, ask a lot of questions. Also, if you are just starting out, have the salesman play several guitars for you so you can hear how different ones sound. A good guitar store will have helpful salespeople who can answer your questions and help you get the best guitar for your budget.
Use Your Eyes Too
It’s very important that a guitar sounds good. But it should be well made also. The good news is most manufacturers have vastly improved their manufacturing process and most brand name guitars are very well made now. But there are still things to look out for are: rough fret edges and twisted necks. Looking at the neck from the side, a very slight bow is normal and necessary to keep the strings from buzzing on the frets, but it shouldn’t be extreme. Looking straight up the neck from the bottom of the body, the neck should not twist to the right or left or have any bumps or dips. If you are serious about a guitar, finger every fret position on each string to make sure there are no dead notes or buzzes. Play an open G chord and listen to the tone of the guitar. Is it full or boxy sounding?
If you really like the way a guitar looks, feels, and sounds, you’re probably looking at the right guitar for you. Happy hunting.