Guitar Buyer’s Guide
So it’s time to buy your acoustic guitar. Perhaps you are buying your first guitar for a student, son or daughter. Perhaps you are buying an upgrade from a beginner model guitar. Regardless of your current scenario, it is a good idea to take a little bit of research time to brush up on your options and know what you need to know before heading out and reading several guitar reviews.
While there is not an exact best acoustic guitar for beginners, there is a best fit for you or the player you are buying for, and it is best to have a target in mind, because there is an overwhelming amount of options and opinions on the Internet when it comes to buying a new or used acoustic guitar
To help you through the maze of your purchase journey, we have developed a step-by-step acoustic guitar buying guide to help make the decision making process more clear to you, and to help you have more confidence in your decision. A little time invested up front can sometimes guarantee a higher quality guitar (sometimes a doubling in quality) for the same budget range. You just have to know a few things about what you need in your next acoustic guitar.
The Budget Factor
This is usually the #1 “filter” for most people when buying a guitar. You have a budget and you must stay within it. However, please note, that even at higher price ranges, from $800 to $1500, there is a vast difference in quality between models and manufacturers, so a little education can go a long way. For example, I have played $400 – $500 guitars that are better crafted, have better playability, and are clearly a higher quality product than some $800 – $1200 guitars, so price can be very deceiving. Buying by name brand can also be deceiving. There are great, comparable acoustic guitars at just about any price range starting at about $200 – $250. However, there are definite quality and performance advantages as you increase in budget for your guitar purchase. Whether you are an intermediate player, or you are looking to purchase a student guitar for the first time, you will be able to find guitars of below, average, and above par quality in many budget ranges.
Once you know your budget, keep going. The budget is only the first step. You need to know more about what you would like to “require” from your guitar in terms of sound, projection, performance, size, feel, etc.
The Body Style
Will the student be playing only classical style?
If so, a classical style guitar with nylon or gut strings would be appropriate. Although a student can play jazz, blues and strum from a classical style guitar, it is not nearly as ideal for various styles as a steel, 6-string, flat top guitar.
Will the Student be playing various styles, including strumming and finger style?
If a student is going to play mixed genre, including classical, jazz, rhythm, etc., then he or she should not buy a classical guitar. Classical guitars are excellent for crisp, classical, fingerpicking (finger-style), flamenco, and other finger style playing, but a classical guitar has a crisp, short attack and short sustain so they are not ideal for rhythm, jazz, bluegrass, rock, and other contemporary playing styles as they do not sustain as well and are not the best for rhythm /strumming.
Will the student play mostly jazz and blues / rock?
A student who will focus mostly on jazz and blues will most likely need an archtop guitar, quite possibly an electric archtop guitar to accommodate these styles of playing.
What is the guitar made from?
Traditional quality guitars have been made from solid woods known to the luthier (guitar-maker) as tonewoods. With more recent demands on increasing production while maintaining profitability, many companies have substituted inferior composites and laminated woods in place of the backs and sides of some guitars. Composites and laminates are not necessarily bad, as some high end producers are using them in some lines, it’s just that to own a guitar that will produce the pure acoustic guitar sound that is typical and that will become refined with age requires quality tonewoods.
Look for the following woods as a standards in quality acoustic guitars:
Tops and soundboards:
The top of the guitar, where the sound hole is located is most commonly made from Sitka Spruce, Engelmann Spruce or Cedar.
Stika Spruce is the most commonly used quality guitar top tone wood because of its abundance, its tight grain pattern, and it’s high sound velocity giving it the greatest volume and balance of all top tonewoods. The tone qualities are well projected and well balanced. Sound velocity refers to how well and how evenly the sound waves travel through the wood.
Engelmann Spruce is similar to Sitka, but is less abundant and yields fewer tops per log. It’s sound velocity is a bit less than Sitka and therefore does not project quite as clearly.
Cedar is another straight, finely grained wood that offers less projection, and more of a rich, mellow lush sound dominant in the lower and mid frequency ranges. Cedar is the choice top for classical guitars.
Other honorable mentions for soundboard or top (face) tonewoods , though not as commonly used are, Mahogany, Koa, and Maple.
Because the top or soundboard of a guitar requires a lot of strength to weight ratio, choices for quality tops are limited to fine, straight, tightly grained woods that can be planed and thinned to very minimal thickness in order to provide the best sound velocity, thereby producing the most evenly projected tones. Additionally, the soundboard has to remain under tremendous strain from the tension in the steel strings. However, the sides and backs are not under quite the same rigor, and the variety of tonewoods has been quite varietal over the years of the guitar’s life.
Sides and backs:
The sides and the back of the guitar are equally as important as the top, as they create the sound box whereby the vibrations of the strings are transmitted through the guitar saddle, amplified by the top, and enhanced by the sound box (body of the guitar) and projected through the sound hole.
Some quality tonewoods for the sides and back of the acoustic guitar include:
Mahogany (eastern and western and other species) is typical of a strong mid range and high range, and lacking a little in the bass end of the Eq. spectrum.
Brazilian and Indian Rosewood is perhaps one of the most balanced in all 3 ranges, bass, mid, and high (treble), and gives a very solid projection.
Sapele (African), is similar to Mahogany and produces tones that are more dominant in the mid and high ranges
Maple is a little more dull than many of the previous woods, and is dominant in the high range and secondary in the mid range.
Koa Wood has been used in Hawaii for Tropical Steel Guitar sounds that are warm, deep, and rich, but it is also used for standard and exotic 6 string acoustic guitar-making.
Overall review for a quality acoustic guitar inspection:
After understanding the woods that are used in quality guitars, give the guitar a complete review for several factors:
- Check to make sure the tuning pegs (machine heads or tuning keys) are quality and not cheap.
- Check all of the bindings and glue joints closely for good clean seams.
- Check the finish of he guitar at different angles, letting the light reflect to reveal craftsmanship
- Do not worry about the strings as they are replaceable, but should be new on a new purchase
- Research reviews of the guitars you are interested in, and compare it with comparable models in the same and alternate price ranges.
- Determine whether you want a well projecting guitar, a moderately projecting guitar, or a more muted, mellow guitar. High Gloss finished will project the most, while satin finish will be moderate, and flat or dull finishes will prove to be the most warm and muted.
- Make sure the guitar strings and neck are set for a decent “action”, meaning the strings are close enough to the fretboard to make it very playable, without sacrificing sound projection or causing strings to buzz on the fretboard.
- Try no to fall in love with a particular brand, but go for overall quality and the sound profile you are seeking for your budget range.
After going thoroughly through this general checklist, continue to research the kind and quality of acoustic guitar you desire. If possible, play as many different makes and models while comparing the different finished, qualities, and tonewoods with your ear. If your ear is not seasoned enough, it would be best to take a trusted, accomplished guitar player with you to help you in the discernment process.
When buying a new or even a used acoustic guitar, there are so many options to consider. With all of the manufacturers, styles, tonewoods
- what kind of woods should I look for
- what acoustic body size and style should I get
- how does the finish affect the tone quality
- what price range can I afford
- how can I guarantee that I get the best entry level acoustic guitar for my money
- and much more
In the next section, we will be sharing specifically on some popular body styles. Though these body styles vary a bit by manufacturer, these are some of the most common body styles, how they affect the sound of the acoustic guitar, and how they might fit players of differing sizes. We will not be focusing on the scale length of the fretboard, but will keep this article focusing on the acoustic body design (the sound box) for simplicity. There are so many articles online that it can be confusing for the buyer when looking to find the right acoustic body size and style. This list will begin with the smallest, and move toward the largest and common models available. Though there is no “best acoustic guitar for a beginner”, there is perhaps a best fitting acoustic guitar to ensure the fewest barriers to the success of the student.
The smallest guitars:
Traveler and Mini Guitars: “Traveler” acoustic guitars and “mini” acoustic guitars are not in the same category, though they are both the smallest credible guitars available in the common acoustic guitar market.
The Traveler Guitar: (Example: Traveler Acoustic/Electric Guitar)
The traveler is a small acoustic guitar, often times with a full scale neck and fretboard, but with a significantly reduced body size when compared to the average acoustic guitar body size. The traveler size often has a different shape or design than a typical acoustic guitar as well. In addition, some travel guitars are now being manufactured with necks that fold and the hell or neck joint.
The Mini-Acoustic Guitar:(Example: Yamaha FG JR1 3/4 Size Acoustic Guitar with Gig Bag)
A mini acoustic guitar, on the other hand, is actually a smaller version of a particular common style of acoustic guitar, having the typical figure 8 shape with a top bout, bottom bout, and a waist. Often, the mini acoustic guitar will come with a smaller scale version of the fretboard as well.
The Parlor Acoustic Guitar: (Example: Fender CP-100 Parlor Small-Body Acoustic Guitar)
The parlor size, acoustic guitar was initially played in small parlors and live venues where there was not a lot of room, and major projection was not needed. Parlor guitars were used in small ensembles where their sound would not be drowned by the other instruments.
The Tenor Acoustic Guitar: (Example: Blueridge BR-40T Contemporary Series Tenor Acoustic Guitar)
The tenor acoustic guitar is a step up from the parlor size and with many manufacturers, begins to resemble a more common Dreadnought shape, though it is much smaller. The tenor size guitar can come with full size fret boards or scaled to size, depending on the manufacturer. If you understand different voicing parts, such as soprano, alto, tenor, baritone, bass, etc. you will understand that the tenor acoustic guitar will project in the middle and upper registers of the Eq spectrum dominantly. If you are looking to get a booming bass sound from your acoustic guitar, a tenor guitar is certainly not the right model. However, a parlor size or tenor size acoustic guitar would be a great starter guitar for someone who is younger and smaller to be able to learn on a comparable fretboard scale, and transition smoothly as he or she became older and his or her hands, arms and fingers became larger and longer.
The mid-sized guitars:
Though there is no real small, medium and large demarcations for grading the sizes of acoustic guitars, we have provided these lines to make it clear that there are general distinctions for ease of organization and research when looking to buy an acoustic guitar. Additionally, the smaller guitars listed above are far less commonly seen on popular music videos or performances, so it is important to bring these acoustic guitar models to the forefront.
Many manufacturers differ by model “names” but many have followed C.F. Martin’s lead with standards. These lists do not follow Martin’s standard so as not to favor or promote any singular brand, but by studying the Martin model names and “O” ratings, as well as more common body size and style names, one can easily rank and compare models of different manufacturers to be able to compare apples with apples. Basically, with Martin’s scale, the more “O’s” the larger the guitar in profile and depth (usually).
The concert and grand concert acoustic guitar models. The concert and grand concert acoustic guitar models are larger than the tenor, mini and traveler, but smaller than the Orchestra, Dreadnought and Jumbo Models, falling near the middle of the road. The concert and grand concert models tend to give a wider Eq range than smaller models. As you will see and learn if you compare sizes, the larger the guitar body size and the difference in the bout sizes creates a wider Eq tonal and overtone spectrum that adds to the overall projection and beauty of the guitar sound. The term “grand” typically means an increase in profile size or depth size, yet it typically carries the same profile shape.
The Orchestra and Grand Orchestra models: (Example: Jasmine S34C NEX Acoustic Guitar)
These models, as well as the concert series, tend to have a more narrow waist than the next size up, the Dreadnought, and can be considered easier to hold and play by some individuals over the Dreadnought and larger sizes. The Orchestra and Grand Orchestra acoustic model sizes are going to be larger than the concert series, giving even more low, mid, and treble spread in their sound, yet being less than the larger models, and still a bit balanced toward the mid range. Again, “Grand” means larger than “non-Grand”.
The Dreadnought Acoustic Guitar: (Example: Rogue RA-090 Dreadnought Acoustic Guitar Natural)
The Dreadnought acoustic guitar is perhaps the picture that most people get in their mind when someone says “acoustic guitar”. It has perhaps the most balance of all 3 general Eq ranges when it comes to the sound profile of acoustic guitars. Though tonewoods actually have a major part to add to the spectrum, all else being equal, the Dreadnought body style has been the most popular standard for acoustic guitars for decades. Starting in the 1930s, Martin Guitar Company began producing this model, and it has become the most commonly produced and played acoustic guitar model available. Though some smaller-framed individuals as well as children and students may find it a bit unwieldy at first, learning to play on a Dreadnought will perhaps make the acoustic guitar player suited for picking up other guitars and playing on the fly because of it’s popularity and availability. Some dreadnought models come with more squared upper bouts or “shoulders” as they might be called, or more rounded upper bouts. The upper bouts that are more squared are the most popularly produced models today.
The Jumbo Acoustic Guitar: (Example: Alvarez Artist Series AJ80 Jumbo Guitar)
The Jumbo is a very large bodied acoustic guitar, and is sometimes the same body style that is used in the acoustic bass production by the same company. The Jumbo guitar features more curvature difference between the upper and lower bouts with more of a waist than the Dreadnought guitars, so they appear to be more resembling a figure 8 than the Dreadnought. The jumbo guitar can project a lot more sound in the bass range, and depending on the tonewood, can even sound a bit lop-sided in the bass end when compared to smaller models, yet it is the size and bouts that gives the jumbo acoustic guitar its booming, “bass filled” resonance.
The Grand Jumbo:
If a child are smaller-framed individual though it was challenging to hold and strum a Dreadnought or Jumbo, the Grand Jumbo might feel more like a large suitcase or luggage trunk than a guitar. The Grand jumbo is perhaps one of the largest acoustic guitar body sizes made and by far carries the “boom” of acoustic guitar sounds. The Grand Jumbo model is not nearly as common as the other models listed, but it is worth mentioning as it’s body width and depth is unparalleled, as is the deep, resonant sound that tilts heavily toward the bass end of the spectrum (when comparing acoustic guitar sounds) It is by no means a bass guitar, as the octaves reached by a bass guitar are attributed to the much larger string diameters. The Grand Jumbo guitar still falls in the keys and octave range of the previously mentioned models, with the largest bass sound of them all.
About the author: Aaron Schulman has been a musician since his first trumpet in 5th grade, and has been an avid acoustic guitar player, songwriter, and teacher since 1990. Before purchasing your first guitar, visit his acoustic guitar reviews site and study to get the best acoustic guitar for your money. You can also read more there to equip yourself more thoroughly on “how to buy an acoustic guitar”
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The method teaches both single note melodies and basic chords.
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