Acoustic Guitar Buying Guide
Are you looking to take your guitar playing experience to the next level? The time may be right to take the plunge and make a significant investment in a premium acoustic guitar. Finding the perfect instrument may land anywhere in the range of $1000 to $5000. Research is key to finding the best value. Many decisions must be made, the shape, number of frets to the body, size, etc. A higher cost generally buys better features on an acoustic guitar, but not necessarily, as some are executed better than others. There are a standard range of elements in this range. This guide will explain some of the features of a fine guitar and which ones can be tested out in a store.
Part of what to look for when trying to find the best acoustic guitar is the tone and tactile feeling. This contributes significantly to its quality. A better instrument makes learning to play easier and more fun. There’s nothing comparable to relaxing and feeling comfortable with the instrument. A good playing experience eases the soul.
Over my experience as a builder and a player I’ve developed a list that I go through to check guitars for musicality and playability. This covers many aspects such as action, weight, wood hardware and more. If you’re wondering how to choose a good acoustic guitar, use this intermediate acoustic guitar buying guide and these 15 inspection points.
- The Top
The top is one of the most important parts of the best acoustic guitar. It acts as the vibrating membrane that projects the sound. There are two types of top: solid wood and laminate. The laminate is cheaper and is made from multiple layers of wood that are glued together in flat planes. The structural integrity provided by the grain in a solid piece is minimized. A solid top is made from a book matched set of wood that is glued next to each other. This creates a single plate with even grain. A solid top is a must.
There are a few caveats about the structure and variations on top woods. Common woods are spruce and cedar. High quality pieces have straight grain with the ends not veering off to the side. There are special variations called “figure”. This makes the wood appear to have a flamed or beeswing effect, among others. Another exotic alteration is a torrefied top. This is thermally aged and provides a vintage tone in theory. These are costly and may or may not provide any benefit.
To check for a laminate or solid top, look at the edge in the sound hole. The signature of a laminate is multiple layers stacked together. It’s possible to see a few of these layers in the edges of the sound hole. These are things to know before buying an acoustic guitar.
- Tone wood back and sides.
The wood used for the back and sides plays a significance in how the guitar looks and sounds. Different woods provide different tones. Most back and sides are hardwoods. Indian rosewood is a standard, it has a warm tone with even bass, mids, and highs. Many, many other woods can be used. This is where the cost can change significantly, one set of hardwood to use ranges between $100-$1000.
While in a store, Hold the acoustic guitar by the neck and try tapping the back in the middle and listen for the tone. This is the resonant frequency of the back. Observe the back braces and note how thick they are. An optimal acoustic guitar has a lightly braced back that can resonate.
- Check the Tuners.
Twist the pegs a couple of times to detune and tune the guitar. Feel how smooth they turn and how much they twist the string for the amount they turn. They should be smooth and turn easily. Assess how much turning the peg changes the tuning. These are important to see if it will be simple to tune.
- Detune and take the bridge pins out.
In my opinion, minimal effort required to pull the bridge pins out makes for the smoothest experience. When changing strings, it’s a pain to have to pry out the bridge pins or grab a screwdriver and risk breaking them. The bridge pins don’t need to be tight because the ball end of the string wedges itself underneath the top, holding the pin in place.
- Play every note on the fretboard with a strong pluck and a light pluck.
Notice how the sound changes and how the body reacts to the note. Each guitar is unique and will not amplify the sound evenly. Some guitars want to be played lightly and will have great tone with a light touch, while others can be dug into and will respond in kind to a hearty force. Gauging which type you like more and what the guitar you’re working with is will be important to figuring out if the guitar will work out well.
- Play every note on the fretboard with a light pluck and a strong pluck.
There should be no buzzing from playing the note. Buzzing occurs from building problems when the frets aren’t level and one rides higher than the other, impeding the fret and causing it to buzz. This can also be caused by not pressing down hard enough on the note, so make sure to press hard.
- Check the sustain of a few notes and pay attention to dead spots or “wolf” tones.
Some acoustic guitars sustain notes for longer based on the body size and shape, woods, bracing etc. Comparing this is important. Additionally, there are notes die out very quickly and leave a dull sound. This is caused by the note matching in frequency with one of the resonances from the top, back, or body. When these are present it can impede the aural experience.
- Gauge your interest in different neck shapes
Neck profiles come in three main shapes: C, D and V. The neck can be of thin, thick or medium thickness. A nice ergonomic feature is to have the neck taper near the body. This makes it easier to reach your hand around and access the upper frets. The profile and thickness you like will depend on how large your hands are. Once you get a sense for what profile you like or are used to it’s easier to research which guitar will work better.
- Check the action
The action of a guitar changes the soul of how the guitar wants to play. The distance from the strings to the fretboard affects the style and tone. There are two places to check the height of the strings, at the 1st fret and the 12th fret. This is a matter of preference for what is liked best.
Notice how much difficulty it takes to fret while moving up the fretboard. The right action is one that feels comfortable.
- Measure the stiffness of the top and back.
Measure the stiffness of the top and back by pressing down with 3lb of force. Take a food scale and press into it until you see it read 3lb. This is how much pressure to apply to the top of the guitar. It’s ok to use more until a noticeable change is seen, but 3lbs is the force of a strong pluck so it is realistic to what the guitar experiences. Notice how much resistance the top gives to being pushed on and how far down it moves. This gauges how stiff the top and back are. In an optimal world these are very loose. A top that is less stiff will be pushed down further than one that is stiffer. The stiffness of the top determines how well the low frequencies perform. A less stiff top will push more air out and vibrate more effectively. This test can be an important part of choosing an acoustic guitar if you are sensitive enough to feel the change in how much the top moves.
The top of the guitar in this regard is like a bridge across a cavern. Consider two types of bridges, a rope bridge and a steel bridge. If the steel bridge is jumped on it won’t flex or vibrate in the low frequencies in a visible way. In contrast, jumping on a rope bridge will cause it to move quite a bit. The rope bridge is of lower stiffness than the steel bridge. When the rope bridge moves it pushes up air. Now to translate this to the guitar, imagine a plate shaped rope bridge, this is like a top. The less stiff top will visibly vibrate and push out more air than a stiff top.
- Consider the mass
Check the mass of the guitar. This is a matter of personal preference and what you’re willing to accommodate. In relation to how well the guitar is made, mass in different places matters, but altogether creates a difficult situation that is hard to separate. Different parts of the guitar have different optimal masses so holding the guitar by itself won’t tell you enough. A lighter top is the most important part. In general, a lighter guitar is more likely to have a lighter top. The type of wood used for the back and sides affects the mass a large amount, making the top’s mass hard to judge.
- Examine the finish
There are many different finishes and materials used for finish. Decide whether a matte satin or glossy finish is desired. Shine a bright light on the surface of the guitar and move it around looking at the finish of the guitar in the light. It’s possible to see the thin edge over the wood. The light should reflect evenly across the surface. This is a check to make sure the finish is even. It’s important to have it thin for a light top. Look at how the light plays on the top and notice where the light bends and isn’t even.
The next are a few checks on the quality of the craftsmanship or machining. Look at the neck joint—an ideal neck joint is tight with little gap on either side.
Try sliding a piece of paper underneath the bridge. This is only a cosmetic problem; it’s okay for there to be a gap, but it doesn’t look good and can be avoided.
- Check the intonation
Most guitars include a compensated saddle. Whether this provides the right amount of compensation in the right places is arguable. The slant in the saddle is used to change the scale length on each string. This adjusts the note played slightly from the 12th fret upwards. It moves the note a little flat by shortening the scale length at the higher strings. To check the intonation, play the note at the first fret and check the note at the 12th fret. Ideally the will both be in tune. Use a standard tuner or, for more accuracy, use a strobe tuner. Often the 12th fret will be sharp, which is intonation error. Having good intonation is important to the quality of a good guitar. Good intonation makes playing the upper frets sound better.
- Examine the pickup
The type of pickup the guitar has is important. Great pickups provide excellent tonal reproduction. There are two main types: under saddle and contact pads. The contact pads will replicate the tone and be louder as it picks up the vibrations from the top which is moving more than under the saddle. The use of a preamp with the pickup will allow for more tone control and options.
Consider these 15 qualities when deciding how to select an acoustic guitar. Knowing what to look for in an acoustic guitar can be tricky, but with practice it becomes easier. The methods used to investigate a guitar can be applied to any, whether they are under 5000 or 500. Some of these can be tried out in a store while others require research. Remember, the feeling of the instrument is an important factor. Whether or not it has good specifications or metrics doesn’t mean anything if it isn’t fun to play.
This guide went over the parts of an excellent acoustic guitar, while staying out of the more theoretical aspects of lutherie. When looking for the best acoustic guitar around $1500, this inspection can go a long way. It is challenging and rewarding to find an acoustic guitar under $3000 or an acoustic guitar under $5000.
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