Buying an acoustic guitar can be a daunting prospect. There are just so many options out there to choose from, and it is hard to know what is necessary and what is optional. So, what should you look for when buying an acoustic guitar?
When buying an acoustic guitar, you should consider the type of string, the price, the material, the size, the brand, and the sound. Other factors include the shape of the body, the electronics, and the type of pickups. You should also know what style of music you want to play before buying.
There are a lot of things to consider when buying an acoustic guitar. In this article, we’ll be going through these considerations one by one to teach you what really matters in an acoustic guitar and what is an optional extra.
Should You Buy An Acoustic Guitar Online or In-Store?
Before we get started, let’s take a look at whether you should buy a guitar online. In our opinion, it is always better to go to the store. That is because trying out a guitar is the best way to know if it is the right one for you (Related: warped guitar neck examples).
Not only will you get a feel for the tone and playability, but you will also be able to tell which size is the most comfortable fit for your body. We would never buy a guitar without playing it first.
Types Of Guitar Strings
This is a big one, so it is important to get it out of the way. Chances are you will want a steel-stringed acoustic, but there are plenty of good reasons to want a nylon-stringed, or classical, guitar.
The truth is you should probably go with your gut. If the sound of a steel string sets your heart on fire, then it is probably the right choice. Many, however, prefer the warm tones of nylon strings. Here are some of the main differences:
This is the kind of guitar you hear on 99% of all popular songs with an acoustic guitar. Their bright, twangy sound makes them the only good option for genres like folk, pop, country, and slow rock.
It is worth noting that the sharp steel strings can hurt your fingers if you are a beginner or child. Unless you want to play classical or flamenco music, chances are you will be looking to buy a steel-stringed acoustic.
As you may have gathered from the previous section, nylon-stringed guitars are the only choice for classical and flamenco players.
However, with a wider neck and much softer strings, nylon-stringed guitars can also be perfect for beginners and children. In fact, you will only be able to find a ¼ size guitar in nylon, so if you are looking for a guitar to give to a small child, nylon-stringed is your only man.
Acoustic Guitar Price
How much you will need to spend on a guitar will depend largely on your experience level (Also consider is fret leveling worth it?). There is no point breaking the bank when buying your first guitar because you might not stick with it. It also doesn’t make much sense to buy a cheap guitar if you have been playing for years since, at that point, you are likely to continue playing the guitar for many years to come.
Here is a brief guide to the price you should expect to pay depending on your experience:
If this is your first ever guitar, you probably want to spend somewhere between $200-$500. We would recommend not going for the higher end of that range unless you have plenty of money to spare.
This is because many people, while passionate, find that they do not have the patience to learn the guitar, and it ends up gathering dust in a closet somewhere. That said, many people recommend that you never spend less than $300 on a guitar.
There are guitars out there for much less than $200, but they are almost always a bad idea. It will make you more likely to give up the guitar before you even get going if the guitar won’t stay in tune.
Super cheap guitars are hard to tune and lose their tuning very quickly (Question: How hard is it to learn guitar compared to piano?). That can be very aggravating for a beginner. Plus, they don’t sound good. It can be very discouraging if you learn quickly and play well, but your guitar still sounds terrible.
Once you have been playing for 6 months, chances are you will stick with the guitar forever. That is because you will have gotten past that difficult stage where you are memorizing chords and getting blisters on your fingers and will have moved onto the fun stage when you are learning your favorite songs, jamming with friends, or even writing your own tunes. At this stage, it is a good idea to buy a better guitar.
Now that you know you are sticking with the guitar, it is time to invest in one that you will love forever. For a good acoustic that you can use for gigs and recording, you will want to spend at least $500, but it might be a good idea to go as high as $1,000.
Most people don’t have loads of money lying around for acoustic guitars, but this is a great investment if you are serious about playing. Plus, you might even be able to make some of that money back through gigs.
If you are a professional guitarist, you probably don’t need us to tell you this, but we will do it anyway. A real top-of-the-line professional acoustic will cost you at least $1,500. Unless you will be making a living by playing guitar, buying one this expensive is guaranteed to be a waste of money. These high-end masterpieces are only for professionals who have made their way up through the ranks.
Any major dude will tell you that it’s more important to splash out on a good acoustic than it is to splash out on a good electric. That’s because the tone of an acoustic comes from the guitar’s build quality and not from the various amps and effects that you run it through.
Acoustics are designed to sound great without anything being done to them, but that is not so important if you will get an electric amp with its own tonal characteristics.
Acoustic Guitar Material
It might not be something you would think of straight away, but what material your guitar is made from will end up having a huge effect on the final tone. A bit of research will reveal that there are quite a few materials to choose from, although usually which one you get will be determined more by budget than by preference.
In this section, we’ll go through some of the main contenders to determine the pros and cons of each.
Laminated and Solid Wood
If you don’t have much to spend on your acoustic guitar, you will likely be getting one made of laminated wood since this is the cheapest option available.
The difference between a laminated and solid wood guitar is the same as the difference between a sheet of plywood and an oak tree. One is manufactured by gluing thin sheets of wood together, while the other is in the same form it was when the tree was cut down.
It is important to note that your choice is not simply between an entirely solid or an entirely laminated guitar.
Sometimes, you can find an entry-level guitar that has a ‘solid top.’ That means that the soundboard, which is the front of the guitar with the soundhole in it, is made from a sheet of solid wood, while the rest of the guitar is made from laminated. If you can find a guitar for under $300 with a solid top, that is a great find!
Which type you get really does make quite a difference to the tone. A solid wood guitar, or even one with a solid top, will have a powerful, booming tone that you just don’t get from laminate.
However, because the solid wood models are usually costly, you should not try to buy one for your first guitar. As mentioned above, there is no point spending thousands of dollars on a guitar that is going to gather dust. Plus, laminates can still sound great if they are well-built.
As trees grow, they develop different densities and imperfections along the way. That is why different species of wood sound so different. With deforestation running rampant and threatening to cause species extinction and acceleration of the climate crisis, the trade of certain rare woods has been regulated, driving up the price.
What are the best woods for building an acoustic with an unbeatable tone? Here are three great choices:
Brazillian rosewood is perhaps the most sought-after of all tonewoods. Thanks in part to its luxurious appearance and angelic sound, Brazillian rosewood has become rarer and rarer both in guitars and in the wild.
East Indian rosewood is now more commonly used, despite being slightly less attractive tonally. Both kinds of wood give a dark and complex tone that is hard to beat. Both Jimmy Page and Neil Young played the same model of rosewood acoustic.
Maple guitars sound bright and loud, with a short decay. That makes them perfect for live performance since they can cut through the mix and create a space for themselves. They also have quite a tight dynamic range, meaning that they never get too loud or too quiet.
Some would argue that the downside of maple guitars is that they sound a bit ‘dead’ due to the short decay. Still, this is a pretty high-end tonewood that sounds great in the right situations.
You might think this would be the most expensive and luxurious wood around, but it is actually considered a cheaper alternative to Brazillian rosewood. That is not to say that this is not an extremely high-end tonewood.
Even laminated mahogany guitars will cost you several hundred, never mind the solid wood! Unlike maple, mahogany is known for its warm, resonant tone. Mahogany is often used in the neck of acoustics for its stability and warmth.
Acoustic Guitar Size
This might not seem hugely important. You might think you will eventually get used to it no matter what the size, but it really will make a huge difference to how comfortable you are while you are playing, and that can make a huge difference to your performance.
While there are some guidelines, which we will discuss now, the best way to find a guitar that is the right size for you is to pick up a few different sizes and see how they feel in your hand. This is one of many reasons it is better to buy a guitar in a shop than online.
The time when size really matters is when you are buying for a child. While most adults will be fine with a full-sized guitar, most kids will need a specific size to play comfortably.
For very young kids of about 4-6 years old, a ¼ size guitar is best. These are only available in nylon string. You really wouldn’t want to buy a steel-stringed guitar for a kid that age anyway, since the strings would be too hard on their little fingers.
For a kid of about 5-8, a ½ size guitar is ideal. However, if they are 8, it might be a good idea to go for the next size up since they will quickly grow out of the ½ size. Next up is a ¾ size guitar, which is perfect for kids of 8-11.
From 12 onwards, you should be able to get them a full-size guitar with no problems. Remember, each kid is different. Take them to the shop and get them to try out different sizes to find out which is the most comfortable.
For adults under 4 feet 7 inches (1.4 meters), a ¾ size guitar is recommended. For adults between 4 feet 7 inches (1.4 meters) and 5 feet (1.5 meters), a ⅞ size guitar is also available. For anyone bigger than that, a full-size guitar should be just fine.
Remember to try out a couple of different sizes in the store if you are not sure. The best indication of whether a guitar is the right size for you is whether or not it feels like the right size. It’s all about comfort.
Acoustic Guitar Brand
Whether you are buying your first guitar or you are a professional looking for a guitar for life, the brand is an essential thing to consider. For the professional looking for a high-end guitar, it is tough to go wrong with Taylor or Martin. Both make incredible sounding guitars but at quite a high price point. If you are an absolute beginner, brands like Yamaha and Fender have some great starter guitars.
For those of you who have graduated from your beginner guitar but are not yet at the stage where you want to spend thousands on a Taylor, Epiphone and Takamine are a great choice.
Their intermediate guitars sound stunning and will be more than good enough for the vast majority of players. Of course, it is important to remember that each of these brands makes a bunch of different models, so make sure to shop around before committing.
Acoustic Guitar Sound
This is a bit obvious, but it has to be mentioned since it is the single most important thing to consider when buying any instrument. Even if a guitar costs a lot of money and is built by a reputable brand, you should not buy it unless it sounds good to your ears. This is the vessel through which you will be expressing yourself.
Don’t buy a guitar because someone else told you it was good. Buy it because the sound of the guitar speaks to you. If you don’t like how you sound, you will not have the confidence to put in those killer performances.
One good test is to have someone else play the guitar in the shop. That way, you can walk around a bit and get a feel for how the guitar sounds from various distances. The way an acoustic guitar resonates will sound very different when played in your hands than when played even a few feet away.
Essentially, this will give you a feel for how the guitar will sound to the audience when you perform, and you will know how it sounds when you are playing it.
Acoustic Guitar Electronics
Most acoustics these days are electro-acoustics. That means that they have some sort of ‘pickup,’ which means you can plug them into a PA or interface to amplify or record them.
It is pretty tricky to play live shows without an electro-acoustic since you will have to set up a microphone on stage for the guitar and then try to stay in the same place for the duration of the show. With a pickup, you can dance around the stage to your heart’s content.
Most electro-acoustics also have a built-in tuner. It is a good idea to test the tuner on a guitar before buying it, as some of them can be quite temperamental.
Fishman is a very well-trusted brand when it comes to acoustic guitar electronics. Anything with Fishman gadgets will run fine. Another thing you need to consider when it comes to in-built electronics is the type of pickup you need, but we will go into more detail on that later on.
It is worth noting that it is better to spend lots of money on a great guitar than to spend it on a guitar with a bunch of cool electronics. You can always buy a good tuner pedal at a later date if you don’t like the built-in tuner, but you cannot replace the guitar’s tone.
The actual build quality of an acoustic guitar is the fundamental basis on which the rest of your tone is built. Everything else should be considered an optional extra.
Acoustic Guitar Body Style
You might not think it makes much difference, but it is important to consider the size and shape of the body before you commit to an acoustic guitar. There are more options for body shapes out there than you might realize. In this section, we’ll go through a few of the most popular options.
While we don’t have space here to look in detail at all the different options, these are the most common and most important to know:
This is the most popular acoustic body shape out there. Pioneered by Martin, this design is so popular largely because it is so versatile. With some of these shapes, you are, to an extent, locked into certain styles of playing, not so with the dreadnought.
Provided it is a well-made guitar, a dreadnought shape will sound great playing basically any style out there. Dreadnoughts have a cut-away at the body to allow you to reach the higher frets, which we think is essential.
Another very popular choice, jumbo-style guitars, are loved for their volume more than anything else. Jumbos sound just incredible when you strum them very hard. They are designed to be powerhouses, and they do it very well.
Pioneered by Gibson in the 1930s, these guitars are perfect for someone playing in a big band where being heard is problematic. The punchy low-end and booming tone will make you stand out in the mix.
These smaller and cheaper guitars have been around since the late 1800s. These days, they are beloved by musicians on the road for their lightweight and compact design. With modern engineering, it is possible to make even these little guys sound full and vibrant.
However, you will never get the same volume and projection on a parlor as you will on the likes of a jumbo. On the plus side, the delicate sound of a parlor makes them great for studio recording.
Acoustic Guitar Pickups
Chances are you will be getting an electro-acoustic since these are the norm these days. However, the decision does not stop there. Different electro-acoustics will come with different types of pickup, which is the bit that ‘picks up’ the sound from the guitar and transfers it to the amplifier, interface, or PA.
Here are some of the main types of electro-acoustic pickup and some pros and cons of each type:
Magnetic (Soundhole) Pickup
This is the same type of pickup you would find on an electric guitar, and to be honest, it sounds like it!
Acoustics with a magnetic pickup come through the amp, sounding more like an electric guitar than any other type of pickup. That is because the pickup does not catch the resonance of the body of the guitar, but only the strings. Still, there are plenty of ways to make them sound more natural, and magnetic pickups remain a prevalent choice.
These types of pickup use piezoelectric crystals to detect the pressure created by the vibration of the strings. Again, they don’t pick up the resonance of the body of the guitar, so these can also sound a bit artificial and thin.
However, they have a clear and transparent tone and are very resistant to feedback, which can be a big plus when performing live. Every note through a piezo pickup is pronounced and defined.
Acoustic guitars always sound better when miked than they do through a pickup like a piezo or magnetic and acoustic guitars sound better with age.. That is because microphones pick up the way the wood vibrates and resonates, giving you a more natural picture of what the guitar actually sounds like.
However, one big drawback is that internal microphones are more susceptible to feedback than any of the other options, which can become very irritating when you are trying to set up for a live show.
Acoustic Guitar Aesthetics
Okay, this is by far the least important of all the considerations laid out in this article, but it is definitely still worth mentioning. If you are spending a good amount of money on a guitar, you want it to look appealing. There are loads of different styles and colors to choose from.
Try to get something that looks good to you, but don’t make it a major consideration. The guitar is a musical instrument, so it is more important than it sounds good than looks good.
Summary On Buying An Acoustic Guitar
There are a surprisingly large number of things to consider when buying a new acoustic guitar (Also consider Acoustic vs Semi-acoustic guitars) (Also consider Acoustic vs Semi-acoustic guitars). Which genre of music you plan on playing will have a pretty big effect on which guitar you should buy. Only get a nylon string, for example, if you plan on playing classical or flamenco.
You should make sure you are spending your money on a good guitar rather than one that has lots of fancy electronics or aesthetic appeal. Only you can decide which guitar is right for you. Always play the guitar before you commit to buying it.