Once you’ve committed to playing and learning acoustic guitar, you’re likely to find that an inexpensive guitar ($100-350) is not really meeting your needs or inspiring you any longer. Great, it’s time to invest in a quality guitar. Below you’ll find some of the main points you need to consider.
It is possible to buy guitars from $100 or less up to $100 thousand or more. A good quality acoustic guitar will cost between 600 and several thousand dollars. More expensive isn’t necessarily better but quality does improve usually as cost increases.
Buying a used guitar is like buying a new car - as soon as you drive it off the lot, its value decreases. Therefore you can buy mint condition used guitars for substantially less than new ones. I have bought many guitars online on Ebay and reverb.com and have not had problems but I know a lot about guitars. The downside of buying used is that you often cannot try it first (online) and you don’t get a warranty which you do get if you buy new.
First, it is a good idea to decide what size and shape guitar you want. There are dreadnoughts and jumbos which are large guitars. They have a big, rich sound that many people like but they can feel a bit cumbersome and uncomfortable especially for smaller players. Many people develop shoulder issues with these guitars. Martin has size designations of: 0, 00, 000 and OM for smaller guitars. An 0 is also called a parlor guitar - it is very small and comfortable but sometimes these guitars can sound a little bit boxy or limited. 00, 000 and OM guitars are medium size and have a nice balanced tone. I like OM guitars the best. Play many guitars and find what is best for you.
All Solid Wood Construction
Once you move beyond beginner guitars you want to make sure you are getting a guitar with all solid wood construction. Less expensive guitars are made with laminated backs and side. This means that you use a type of plywood with attractive veneers of more expensive woods on the visible sides. Solid wood eliminates this and has better tone.
There are several woods used for the top (face/soundboard) of acoustic guitars. The most common is spruce. Spruce has a clear, bright sound. There are different varieties of spruce used the most common being Sitka spruce. The most expensive is Adirondack spruce. Cedar is another wood often used for the top. It is best for fingerpicking and less well regarded for strumming. Mohagany is another top wood. It is often quieter than spruce and has a warm woody tone. If I could only have one acoustic guitar it would have an adirondack spruce top. I have several so I have a nice mohagany topped guitar as well.
Back and Side Wood
There are many woods used for the back and sides of guitars. The most common 2 in use are Mahogany and Rosewood. Mohagany has a very clear sound and Rosewood has a rich deep sound. They are different and both excellent. There are too many other woods to mention and each have unique sound qualities.
This is an important consideration. Most guitars today have either a 1 and 3/4 inch width at the nut or 1 and 11/16. Even though that is only a 1/16” difference it is quite noticeable and the 1 3/4 width is preferred by most players today because it is wider and gives a little more room for fingerpicking. I have both and like both. There are wider nut widths as well but those are less common.
Necks have very different profile shapes. Some are slim and others have a feel almost like a fat baseball bat. Some are C shaped and some have a V shape. Play many and find out which you like best.
Scale length is the distance from the nut to the saddle. The two common scale lengths are 25.4 and 24.75. The longer of the two has more projection and the shorter can feel easier to play. This is not a major point but is worth noting.
Feel and Playability
This is really important. You may play some very expensive guitars that don’t feel good to you. And you could find cheap guitars that feel great. It’s important that you find a guitar that feels right, plays well, is comfortable for you and fits you like a glove. Take your time and play many so you get a sense of different guitars.
Play many guitars until you get a sense of the tone you like. This is like wine. There are many varieties - not necessarily better from each other just different.
If you talk to different players you’ll get lots of opinions about different brands of guitars. The big 3 American companies are Martin, Taylor and Gibson. They all offer guitars from very inexpensive up to many thousands of dollars. You will find lovers and haters of all three of these brands. Personally I like all three but Martin is my fave. There are many other brands that offer nice, high quality guitars. Shop around and find what you like.
If this all seems confusing, don’t worry. Play many guitars, you’ll find one that fits you.
Good Luck and always feel free to ask me questions when the time to buy is coming!
Andrew Bassuk teaches acoustic and electric guitar in Ventura, CA. For more info and lots of cool guitar related stuff please visit: Harmony Music Center.