Author’s Note: If there was ever a perfect example of “Holy shit, I don’t have any free time this week,” this past week would be it. Between gigs, improv shows, and life I’ve had little time to come up with my weekly Agents of GUARD diatribe. As such, I’ve sat here for the past couple of hours thinking of what to write about. Write what you know, correct? While the following might not be the geekiest of articles I’ve ever written, hopefully you’ll find useful at some point.
How to Pick Out an Acoustic Guitar
So, you wanna buy a guitar, eh? Like for real? Do you just wanna dabble, or are going to learn for real real? Well perhaps you should decide on that before you continue reading this article. It’s relatively important. There are two main points you should consider when buying an acoustic guitar.
2. Type of Wood/Construction
Decide how much you want to spend on a guitar. This is why I asked if you were at least somewhat serious about learning how to play, or if you kinda just wanted to have a guitar lying around your place in case you got bored one night… so you could play it, of course.
In my opinon, you’re not going to find a halfway decent NEW guitar for less than $200. What do I mean by decent? I mean, one that won’t sound like absolute crap, is relatively easy to play, and won’t fall apart after 6 months. Even if you’re halfway serious about learning how to play, I’d consider spending the $200. Look at it this way, if a guitar sounds good and is easy to play, you’re going to a bit more incentive to keep practicing. If you have a guitar that won’t stay in tune, sounds like bantha poodoo, and requires herculean finger strength to play a single note, you’re more than likely going to quit playing, especially since the learning curve is somewhat steep.
Why does a decent guitar cost about $200? Well, that’s what the type of Wood/Construction section is about!
Type of Wood/Construction
First, take a look at this figure:
Yup, that’s my guitar, a Seagull S6-CW+. I’ve taken the time to label some of the parts of a guitar that are relevant to this article.
Type of Wood
The single most important factor that influences the way a guitar sounds is the type of wood that is used. And the single most important piece of wood in the guitar, with regards to producing sound, is the top. Now, there are a number of woods you’ll hear associated with guitar luthiery: cedar, spruce, mahogany, and rosewood are common. On the exotic end, you hear about woods like koa and uber rare whitebait kauri from New Zealand. Some guitars are made of synthetic materials, like the carbon fiber ones made by Rainsong. Each of these materials has specific characteristics that shape the kind of sound produced by a guitar. Most guitars you find on the market, though, have tops made of either spruce or cedar.
In general the harder the wood, the crisper/brighter the sound. The softer the wood, the rounder/warmer the sound. Spruce is a harder wood, and produces that brighter sound. Cedar is a softer wood, and will produce a warmer sound. Price points for both these woods are comparable.
Now, the sides, back, and neck of the guitar have significantly less influence on the guitar’s sound (a contentious point for some people) so you shouldn’t have to worry too much about this for your first guitar. Just to give you an idea of woods, though, the guitar pictured above has wild cherry back and sides, and a silver maple neck.
Now that you know about types of wood, you should learn about how they’re constructed. The wood in a guitar can either be solid or laminate. Solid, of course meaning that the part in question is made of a single layer of solid wood. Laminate parts are made of multiple thin layers of wood that are pressed and bound together by an adhesive. What you’re looking for, ideally, is solid wood construction. Why? Well because it vibrates much better than laminate, and the more freely a guitar can vibrate, the richer and more resonant will be. Laminate is a cheaper as a raw material for guitars, as it is more tolerant to abuse than solid tops. That’s the trade off, though… price for quality. Again, I’m primarily talking about the top of the guitar here. Having laminate back and sides isn’t going to negatively impact a guitar’s sound as much as a laminate top, and finding a guitar with all solid wood constuction is going to definitely move you into the next price tier.
There are a few popular body shapes for acoustic guitars. These include: dreadnought, jumbo, concert, and parlor guitars, with dreadnought being the most common. The dreadnought shape was created by C.F. Martin & Company, and is the shape you most often see in media. Jumbo guitars usually have a wider body, with a more pronounced hourglass shape, and produce sound at a greater volume than the dreadnoughts. Concert and parlor guitars are smaller than dreadnoughts and but don’t have quite as full or as loud a sound as their bigger cousins.
What size works for you? Depends on what sound you prefer. But, if you are a smaller person, you might want to check out the concert or parlors if only for comfort reasons while playing seated. As a rule of thumb, you want to be able to freely swing the forearm of your strumming hand, without having to overextend your shoulder to reach over the guitar.
These are usually made of rosewood or ebony. This really comes down to preference. Rosewood is a dark brown wood, with visible grain, while ebony is what it sounds like, a more solid black in color. You do want to check that the guitar can produce a clean note at every fret on the fingerboard. My first guitar, for example, couldn’t produce a clean note at the 12th fret, on any string.
Nut width refers to how wide the neck is at the nut of the guitar. The wider the neck the more spacing between the strings. This is an important point, as depending on the size of your hand, you may find it more or less difficult to play the guitar. I, for example, have rather large hands. It’s difficult for me to play guitars that have a narrow nut width, like Taylors. It’s part of the reason I went with a Seagull, as the wider nut makes it easier for me to jam my fat fingers into crowded chord positions.
Action refers to the space between the strings and the fretboard. If a guitar has high action, it means that the strings lie far away from the fretboard, and this can make it rather difficult for you to fret (pressing the string down to play a note). A guitar with low action has strings that sit closer to the fretboard, making it easier to play notes. Ideally, you want a guitar with an action low enough to make fretting easy, but high enough so that the strings don’t buzz against the frets when you play them. Usually, when first buying a guitar, you can have a luthier or guitar repair tech “setup” the guitar. They basically adjust the action by fiddling with what’s called a truss rod in the neck of the guitar… it’s a task best left to said technicians, as overworking the truss rod can really mess up the instrument.
Nut/Saddle/Bridge Pin Material
The material used to make these parts of the guitar can impact the sound of the guitar, mostly the saddle. The saddle is that little white strip in the figure that is set into the bridge. The saddle is what does most of the transfering of vibration from the string to the guitar top, so it’s an important part of the sound picture. Most low/mid price guitars have saddles made out of plastic, or a bone-like material called TUSQ. TUSQ is much preferred to plastic. Saddles made of bone or horn are preferred over both (yup…bone). The nut and bridge pins are usually also either TUSQ or plastic. Their influence on the sound is minimal, so switching out to bone or horn versions is mostly aesthetic. Needless to say, bone and horn parts are more expensive than their synthetic analogs.
Classical vs. Steel String
This depends on what you’re planning to play, or the sound you’re trying to get. Classical guitars have a different body shape from the ones outlined in the previous Body Shape section, and are usually smaller than dreadnoughts. Nuts widths are usually quite a bit wider, to allow for more room between the strings. The strings themselves are made of nylon, instead of steel. The tone that comes from classical guitars is usually more round and mellow than what you hear from a steel string. Neither is better than the other. Again, it’s a preference.
For your first guitar, I know it’s hard to drop that $200. While it may not seem worth it at the beginning, once you gain more experience with the guitar, and have a chance to play other people’s instruments, you’ll notice the difference. Hell, you may even trade up as soon as possible. Both these models have solid spruce tops, so they don’t sound bad at all, and hopefully they’ll give you some room to grow as a guitarist before you seek more guitaring power in a higher price range.