A Detailed Guide to Buying an Acoustic Guitar in 2020
If you have a rough idea of what kind of music you want to play, the next step is to find yourself a guitar.
Whether you are a professional guitar player, an amateur or you have decided to pick up a hobby and playing guitar seemed like the best choice to make, before you venture into the world of musical instruments, and more particularly the world of acoustic guitars, there is a bunch of things to think about and consider before making your purchase. There is a number of questions to be answered before you get to make the decision of which acoustic guitar you will best suit your needs.
Every professional guitarist wants an ax that plays easily, stays in tune, looks and sounds good, and is set-up correctly, right? And beginners suspect that learning to play is easier on a good set-up guitar, they are most definitely right.
A lot of professional musicians try to get their hands on a used instrument. It’s easier for them to come by a well-used instrument than it is for amateur players.
These Pros hang around music stores and other musicians and are also in touch with what’s available. They know what to look for and how to evaluate an instrument without having to do research and make comparisons. They buy and sell instruments among themselves. And because they already have what they need, they can afford to sit tight until something they like comes along at a good price.
For amateurs, it’s harder. You can wait forever before what you want appears in the classifieds. You may feel (correctly) insecure about your ability to spot anything wrong with an instrument. You probably won’t have the advantage of immediate sound and feel comparisons of hundreds of good guitars you’ve encountered in your life. If you make the rounds of thrift stores, flea markets, and garage sales, the prospects are even more dismal. Sometimes you can luck out, but not often. What you usually find is unplayable junk on which ignorant sellers have put too high a price because someone told them that old guitars are valuable.
Some people feel that fine modern factory guitars are made better than older ones were because the technology is better: quality control is more even; specs are standardized; the acoustic qualities of lacquers are tested scientifically; woods are hygrometer tested; factories are climate controlled, and everything comes out the way it’s supposed to. This is probably true of low-price and mid-price guitars.
1. Finding a Good Dealer
First thing you need is to find a good dealer, let me tell you this, keep away from stores that stock mostly cheap off-brand Asian imports and whose stock of major brands and high-quality guitars is small or nonexistent. These are usually bad signs. Mall stores tend to be not so great but it’s not fair to generalize. The big box, the mass-market chain has a life of its own, with its own advantages and disadvantages. Sometimes you can get a good deal there, particularly on your first or second acoustic guitar. All other things being equal, you’ll usually (though not always) get a better choice of merchandise and more knowledgeable service from a specialized guitar shop than from a band instrument dealer who also stocks a sideline of guitars. Try to get a feel for the atmosphere of the establishment. Do they just want to sell people a piece of goods and move them out the door, or do they seem to want to cultivate repeat business from a loyal clientele? Does the dealer get uptight when you ask questions, or are you learning more about guitars each time you visit? Assuming that you treat the instrument and the people with respect and show that you’re serious about learning and about making a purchasing decision, will they let you play their guitars? The best bet, of course, is to ask around. Local music teachers and professional musicians are often good sources. Finally, a dealer should be willing to tune the instrument and play it for you and to let you sit in a corner and try it out yourself.
2. Negotiating Setup
An honest dealer will not knowingly sell you a faulty instrument. But business ethics don’t compel them to be scrupulously certain that every instrument is set up absolutely perfectly. Most of the student-level instruments in guitar shops could be improved by about twenty minutes’ worth of attention to nut and saddle from a competent technician. Don’t be afraid to say something like “I like the sound of this guitar, but can it be made more comfortable to play?” Most dealers will either oblige or explain to you why they think that the guitar should be left the way it is. Some may explain that, given the selling price of the instrument, they will have to charge for the adjustment. On the face of it, accept this as reasonable.
3. Negotiating Approval, Warranty Terms, and Trade-In
Some dealers will allow you to return an instrument for credit after a few days if it turns out you don’t like it (and, of course, if you haven’t damaged it in any way). This is a very reasonable stance. If you’re not certain that you know what you’re doing and if you need some time to get used to the instrument or seek advice, a for-credit return is a good deal to look or ask for. When you purchase a new instrument, you’re usually protected by a manufacturer’s warranty. In the case of a used instrument, you are protected by whatever warranty you can negotiate with the dealer and obtain in writing. I’m strongly in favor of beginners starting off with a fairly inexpensive instrument and moving up later when they have a better idea of what they want. Some dealers offer accommodating trade-in policies after six months or a year. Find out about them while you’re still shopping around for your first guitar. In some cases they’re just a way for the dealer to make money; other dealers have more reasonable terms. If you move up to a pricey instrument, I’d suggest you seriously consider hanging onto your original instrument as a knock-around guitar, if your budget allows.
4. Price Point and Step-Up Features
The acoustic guitar is a fairly simple and conservative instrument, so manufacturers can’t really get into the degree of technological competition that causes the rapid turnover of product lines and specifications that you find in, for instance, the camera market. Even so, you’ll find that there are changes in the product line from year to year as each maker strives to come up with competitive new features at each price point. In my opinion, many of the step-up features offered on low-range and mid-range guitars are fairly meaningless when considered by themselves. There are differences in tuning hardware but you can live with whatever you’ve got. The sound differences between mahogany, rosewood, and maple are less pronounced and consistent in laminates than they are in solid woods, though certainly each of these woods appears more or less pleasing to your eye. Fine points of bracing only make a real difference when the rest of the instrument is well-enough made overall to respond to them. You’re better off trying to develop a sense of what makes a given instrument sound and feel best to you when you hold it in your lap and play it, rather than trying to sort out catalog descriptions and feature sets. The marketing techniques described here are used mostly to sell mass-market, imported laminate guitars. In the case of fine instruments, there is more of an assumption that sales are going to be made to expert buyers, and the differences between instruments more truly reflect genuine differences in quality and construction.
5. Checking Out The Guitar//Features
Here’s a list of things to check out or ask about when you’re making a purchase.
• Are the woods laminate or solid? Ask! Industry standards in labeling and describing the merchandise in catalogs and on the sales floor are far too lax when it comes to woods.
• Are there any cracks or other obvious faults?
• As you sight down the neck from the fingerboard toward the bridge, does the neck seem to conform to the standards discussed in the earlier sections of this book on neck angle and fingerboard relief? It takes an expert to tell if it’s perfect or not, but you should be able to see at least whether something appears to be grossly wrong.
• Do the tuners work smoothly and sensitively?
• Is anything obviously loose? Does it rattle when you shake it?
Is the guitar comfortable to play? Pay attention to how it feels under both the fretting and picking hands. Analyze your feelings in term of the following:
• How far and how hard it is to depress the strings.
• The distance between strings.
• The contour of the neck.
• Do the strings seem too light or too heavy? You will have to learn from experience to judge the feel of a guitar itself independent of the string gauge. Ask the dealer what the string gauge is.
• Does the guitar sound clean? Are there mechanical buzzes or rattles that might come from something loose? Do the strings buzz against the frets when you play only fairly loud? (You can expect a certain amount of buzz if you really what the guitar.)
• Does the guitar sound good?
Next, think about the following distinctions. The way you are going to learn to recognize these things is by comparing different guitars.
• Is it loud enough? Don’t expect an inexpensive guitar to produce the volume of a better guitar. Just ask whether it seems loud enough to satisfy you. It probably does.
• Is it soft enough? This is a hard test. A fine guitar gives a sense of fullness and presence even at a low volume. Expect an inexpensive guitar not to be as satisfying when you play it softly. But if it sounds too weak to give you pleasure, reject it.
• Is the tone balanced? Try to detect whether the loudness of the low notes comes at the expense of the highs. This is a lot to ask of you because it implies that you have a cultivated ear and enough playing technique to produce emphasis on either the high or low strings at will. Do the best you can. Try to hear whether the high strings have the same fullness that the low strings have. Play some chords and see whether the note on the second string can be heard as clearly as the others, or whether it gets lost. (On a nylon-strung guitar, by the way, a weak third rather than a second string is a more accurate giveaway of poor balance.)
• Is the tone pure? Listen for rawness or abrasiveness, particularly on the high strings. The comparison will teach you to hear the difference between a ringing sound and an abrasive one.
• Does the guitar sustain? Listen for how long its sounds linger in the air, and in your ear after you’ve strummed or plucked it. Try playing one high note, say the first string tenth fret, and listen to how long it lasts. (However, if you’re a beginner with weak fingers, you may not yet have enough strength to hold down the strings long enough for the notes to die naturally. Do the best you can.)
• Does the guitar sing? Sustain is the most important component of the singing quality, but (once you’ve made sure the guitar is accurately in tune) also listen for the total sense of fullness and strength in individual notes and for how well the different notes within a chord seem to fit together. Listen also for a clean, ringing quality that hangs in your ear like a pleasant aftertaste. The guitar’s voice should have a sense of presence; it should sound as if it’s right next to you, not as if you’re hearing it through a closed door.
• Is the guitar clear? Try strumming just the three bass strings with different chords. Do you hear three clean notes or a muddy glob of sound?
Guitars differ in various ways
Never forget that guitars of the same model are not always identical in sound and quality. Dreadnought sound differs from jumbo guitar sound in typical ways; the Martin sound differs from the Santa Cruz, Gibson, and Taylor sounds in typical ways; rosewood sound differs from maple sound in typical ways. But not all rosewood Martin dreadnoughts or maple Gibson J-200s, even of the same period, even with successive serial numbers, sound exactly the same either. Everything boils down to the individual instrument. Fine guitars have more distinct personalities than inexpensive, mass-produced models; but these too have their differences. Even among fine models from fine manufacturers, you have to watch out for the occasional dog. Dogs aren’t that common, though, so, for the most part, you’ll be listening for fine points of balance and tone quality between individual instruments—differences in the realms of taste and suitability. Among lower end, mass-produced instruments there’s greater sameness, but even so, it pays to be on the lookout for differences here as well. At this level, don’t look so much for fine points as for gross differences: Is this guitar dead or alive? Is it comfortable to fret the strings or not? Do the high strings sound full or tinny?
Suiting your body: Size and Shape do make a difference
Most people just assume that the popular dreadnought shape is the one to get since bigger is supposed to be better. Many winds up being happy with their dreadnoughts but others find that the dreadnought shape is just too large for them to be comfortable with. You may find that a big guitar isn’t comfortable if you’re a small person overall or have short arms—although some small people seem to be able to make themselves comfortable with guitars anyway. Even the larger jumbos, some of which may have even broader lower bouts than a dreadnought, may be more comfortable because the waist is deeper so that the instrument sits lower in the lap. Less broad and less deep jumbos may be more comfortable still. Although the even smaller sizes are less popular these days and are harder to find, there’s a lot to be said for them. Not only are they comfy for smaller people, but they’re often just more downright congenial for just about every size of the person. They’re much friendlier to hold and often give you a much more satisfying sense of listening to yourself; the big guitars seem to project their sound more outward to the audience than to the ears of the player. There’s much to be said for the friendliness of small guitars, especially if you’re playing mostly for yourself.
Cutaways? Do you need a cutaway? Probably not. Most acoustic guitarists find they can get all of the music they need and want out of the first fourteen frets. Twelve, in fact. Cutaways are special devices for specialized lead guitarists whose styles demand them. You should probably keep away from them unless you know you’re going to need one, or unless the guitar you’re in love with just happens to have a cutaway anyway. A cutaway may take away more than it gives you. Building a cutaway is a big job that can easily bring an instrument into a new price bracket. Especially for beginners, the extra money may be better spent on a better-made, better-sounding, better-playing instrument instead.
Most forms of guitar ornamentation have functional origins. Bindings seal the edges of the top joints. Headstock inlays are used to proclaim the maker’s identity. Fingerboard inlays provide visual clues to help the fingers navigate up and down the frets. Though there are plenty of simple guitars—and beautiful ones at that—there are few absolutely plain ones without even a visually satisfying binding or rosette. But ornamentation can be very pleasing to those who enjoy it and admire the skills of fine woodworking and inlay carving. In particular, the craft of cutting and engraving mother-of-pearl and abalone has its own set of aesthetic conventions going back hundreds of years. If you have all the money in the world, you can even commission custom carving and inlay work. Some luthiers love to do ornamental work on their instruments, others do aftermarket work, and most of the high-quality factories have custom shops offering various ornamentation options. If you’re on a limited budget, though, it makes much more sense to make sound and playing features your first priority and forget about the fancy stuff
General Playing and Casual Styles
For all-around playing, self-accompanying country music, and other contemporary styles, most players do well with an auditorium- or jumbo-sized guitar or with a well-balanced dreadnought. The jumbos are particularly good for strumming chords; dreadnoughts are good for strumming chords with articulated bass notes and bass runs; auditorium or smaller sizes are good for fingerpicking.
Most casual players who are going to play a variety of songs and styles around the house wind up walking out of the music store with a dreadnought. But if versatility is your goal, consider the advantages of smaller guitars for comfort, a more balanced sound, and overall congeniality. Guitars in the auditorium-size range are fairly easy to come by in a number of styles and price brackets.
For punchy bluegrass playing, fiddle tunes, and old-time string-band music, a strong-sounding dreadnought is what most players prefer. You’ll have to make your own decision whether you prefer a more balanced instrument or one that really booms in the bass, depending on how you play; in any case, cutting power is what you’re looking for.
Different guitars for different music genres
• You can play blues on anything, even a dreadnought, but the most authentic sounds come from instruments with strong, thick-sounding trebles. This usually means a smaller-bodied guitar made perhaps of mahogany rather than rosewood.
• Many exponents of complex picking styles such as ragtime, new-age, new acoustic, and contemporary Celtic music prefer a clean, brilliant, well-separated sound most likely to come from a guitar of about auditorium size or smaller, with a somewhat wide fingerboard to help separate the strings so the picking hand has room to do its best.
• For acoustic jazz and post-bluegrass new acoustic music, most players prefer extremely well-balanced dreadnought or jumbo guitars, perhaps with a cutaway for playing single-string solos high up the neck.
Suit your budget
Here are a few suggestions about what to look for in each price range. Remember that street prices are often considerably lower than list prices.
• Under $300, with time, patience, and the right local resources, you might get a decent used guitar at this price. Most of the new instruments available in this price range are not very good so if this is all you have to spend, by all means, get a used one if you can. Sometimes you’ll find a music store that makes a point of stocking adequate used guitars for people to buy as their first instrument. At this price, go for playability first and settle for the best sound you can find among the playable instruments.
• $300 to $450, there’s a pretty big difference between instruments at the bottom and top of this range. While playability is iffy on cheaper guitars, you can expect reasonable playability in this range and can begin to find solid wood tops. Start your search in this price range by looking at brand names like Epiphone, Fender, Ibanez, Larrivée, Sigma, Washburn, and Yamaha; then go on to see what other instruments in the local market seem comparable.
• $450 to $750, at this point you’re still in the realm of laminate bodies but should expect solid tops and respectable playability. You can also expect to get an instrument that will satisfy you for a while, perhaps one good enough to hang onto as a knock around guitar even after you get good enough to buy a much better instrument and be spoiled by it.
• $750 to $1000, there are still some top-of-the-line laminate guitars in this price range, especially those from companies like Takamine and Washburn, with good electronics built in. But if you can afford to go shopping in this bracket, you’re generally better off with a solid wood guitar. You can get a good guitar in this range, especially as you approach the top, and with patience and good ears, you may be able to find one that sounds better than one that goes for more. But remember that this kind of money can get you a terrific used guitar as well.
• Over $2,000, you should be able to get a first-rate guitar in this range. You can also get wonderful used guitars, including fine vintage instruments, for this kind of money. Remember, though, that in the vintage market you’re paying for perceived rarity and other qualities unrelated to the soundness and sound quality of the instrument, so you have to know your stuff. There are a lot of new guitars around that are better than many vintage instruments.
Any guitar has a will of its own. Depending on its size, shape, wood, and bracing pattern, your guitar may be more or less well suited to express your own will. A mismatch will lead to a frustrating battle of wills—a battle that your guitar will win since it’s more intransigent than you are.
And the more you play different guitars, the more you’ll discover that they have personalities all their own. Some have an all-around competence: they do what they’re told, but they have no fire or spiritual brilliance that makes them unique. Great guitars have character. Like great historical and artistic figures, they may have flaws as well as brilliance. You learn to live with, and within, the instrument’s weak and strong points.