How to buy an acoustic guitar

– Version 1.4 by Dale Cotton, © 2010, all rights reserved.

If there's one question experienced guitarists get asked more than any other, it's what guitar to buy? The answer depends entirely on your budget, your build, your hand strength, the type of music you want to play, what's available at local stores, and so on. So there's no one right answer. Instead, you have to shop and here's how:

1. Expert help needed. If you don't have a solid background in acoustic guitar, you really need to take an experienced guitarist with you to when you shop. And this excludes buying on-line. This expert can be your teacher, so long as he's not affiliated with the guitar store that he wants you to buy from (whether because he teaches there or because he gets a kick-back from that store).

2. Used is good. In fact, a used guitar is likely to be a better choice than a new one, especially in the lower price ranges. Many a guitar looks perfectly fine when new but over time develops problems – such as a warped neck, a crack, or an internal buzz – due to the use of green wood or some non-visible construction flaw.

More benefits to used. As well as flushing out slow-developing structural problems, the older a wood instrument is and especially the more it's been played, the better the tone becomes. Age and the vibrations from playing drive moisture from the (non-plywood) woods of the sound box and harden the glue. Further: nicks, dents, scratches, etc. – unlike cracks – have no structural impact. They just lower the price, while saving you from wanting to obsessively baby your instrument out of worry over causing that first blemish. Just as with tattered jeans, many a pro musician actually prefers the yellowed finish and battle-scarred look of an older instrument.

3. Warranty. If buying a new guitar, make sure you have at least a one-year warranty from a shop that you know will actually go the distance to honour it and not find some technicality with which to side-step it. I say one year, because this covers the full cycle of the seasons. Significantly varying levels of humidity, in particular, will flush out the weakness of any guitar. If your guitar will stay in a humidity-controlled home (35% to 70% relative humidity), you might be able to get by with a six month warranty, although some problems can take longer than that to become readily noticeable.

4. Budget for a guitar set-up. This is non-optional. Very few guitars come from the factory properly adjusted for optimal playing. Instead, they are deliberately adjusted so the string height is on the high side, both at the nut and at the saddle which prop up the strings (see illustration above). This insures there are no buzzes no matter how hard a customer may play. It also ensures that only The Incredible Hulk will be able to actually use that instrument. And don't skimp on the set-up cost: a really experienced technician is needed to get this right. Hopefully, your expert will know the best place to go for this, which may well not be the shop you buy from.

5. Playability. Beyond just getting the string height correct at both ends, the neck must have a very precise but subtle concavity along its length. The neck also needs to be the correct width so the string separation is suitable to your finger thickness. It also needs to be a suitable length (scale) to take into account your finger reach, if you happen to have particularly small hands.

Shopping for a child. There are now child-sized acoustic guitars in production. Don't settle for an adult's instrument unless you want to virtually guarantee your child's failure to learn good technique. The single most important factor for a child's guitar is a short scale length (length from beginning to end of the strings) combined with a narrow neck width. A smaller body size is helpful if the child has a problem simply getting his/her arm over the guitar body; it also makes it easier for the child to carry the guitar. Due to its small, narrow neck and small body size, an electric guitar plus a small amp is actually ideal for children, even if the intention is to learn acoustic repertoire. As a bonus, the child can play it with headphones instead of speaker, making life easier on both parent and siblings. ;)

Left-handedness. Speaking of buying for a child, a common question is whether to buy a left-handed guitar for a left-handed child. The enlightened/politically-correct advice is either to do so or to let the child decide which is more comfortable. I myself am left-handed (seriously left-handed: my hair even parts on the left). Yet I play a right-handed guitar and have done so for more than forty years. This is an advantage, not a handicap. Fretting chords and fingering notes are far more complex tasks than anything the strumming/picking hand is called upon to do. The fact that I can use my preferred hand for the more difficult tasks is an asset I'd hate to have thrown away. The fact that when shopping for a guitar, I can buy any instrument in the shop, instead of being limited to the two or three left-hand oddballs in the corner, is another crucial asset I'd hate to have thrown away.

All the above come before sound/tone considerations:

6. Solid vs. plywood. In general, for good tone prefer a guitar with a solid wood top over a plywood top, and prefer a guitar with solid wood back and sides over plywood. This is another reason to prefer used, since these are expensive options. Plywood isn't just the lower-priced spread; it taints each note with a jarring, non-musical edge. Solid wood seduces you into wanting to practice just another few minutes. Plywood whispers: "wouldn't it be nice to put the guitar away and go outside or turn on the TV?" But solid wood, even if properly aged, requires more attention to humidity than does plywood. (And no wood guitar, plywood or not, will survive being left in direct sun or baking in a parked car on a sunny day or being tossed about by airline baggage handlers.)

7. Balance. For unamplified flat picking or strumming, balance is not an issue. Mainly listen that the bass is as deep and powerful as you want. But for finger-style playing look for balance in loudness across all six strings. The majority of acoustic guitar players do flat-picking or strumming and prefer a guitar with as much bass and mid response as possible. For finger picking you need at least as much loudness in the high notes as in the middle and low notes, since that's where your melody line will most often be. You can test this by using a really heavy, inflexible flat pick to strike each string one at a time with roughly the same force. In general a narrow waist to the guitar (see illustration above) will tend to have more balance, although there are other factors, such as the internal soundboard bracing configuration, that can override this.

8. Loudness. Look for total loudness over quietness. You can always play a guitar softly, but a muted guitar puts a cap on how loudly you can play, which will become increasingly frustrating over time. Loudness is a combination of the size of the guitar body – bigger tends to be louder – vs. thinness of sound box wood – thinner is louder. (I'm assuming purely acoustic playing, here. If you mainly play amplified, then acoustic volume is either irrelevant or even a hindrance.)

Which woods? When buying a relatively inexpensive guitar, ignore all considerations of which tone woods have been used. If you like the sound, that's all that matters. One of the big questions in the acoustic guitar world is mahogany vs. rosewood for the back and sides of the sound box. Inexpensive guitars almost always have plywood back and sides; whether the plywood is rosewood or mahogany is pretty much a moot point.

If buying an all-solid guitar, mahogany and its cousin sapele are less expensive than rosewood due to their greater availability, not because they produce an inherently inferior tone. Both mahogany and sapele have something of a thinner, but also a less edgy, tone. It's also easier for the builder to get loudness out of the trebles from mahogany or sapele. Rosewood ideally has a fuller but edgier, cutting sound that helps separate each note ... which may or may not be what you want. Maple, walnut, koa, and other hardwoods each have different acoustic properties that are harder for the builder to transform into the sort of sound we expect an acoustic guitar to have. But the best guitar makers can do wonders with any wood.

9. Tone quality. Finally, you get to listen to the actual sound quality of the guitar.;) It's hard for a non-veteran player to determine sound quality because it takes good technical skills to draw out the sound of an instrument. You can simply trust your expert's choice, or you can listen to your expert play several instruments in sequence. The problem with this second approach is that guitars sound different from the audience side than from the player's side, and on the player's side is where you'll be. So if listening to an expert, prefer to stand behind him or her. If playing yourself, I suggest again using a heavy flat pick to forcefully play individual notes as well as strummed chords, when judging sound quality. Play a single note or chord, then let it ring, then repeat.

However, at this point you run into a serious problem. Every guitar responds differently to changes in room humidity and temperature. So when you visit a shop one guitar may be at its best and the next one may be at its worst. Even though the shop will try to maintain a controlled environment, the outside door is continually being opened as customers come and go. Even more important is that each guitar will sound almost completely different depending on which set of strings is on it and how old those strings are. The guitar you become infatuated with at the shop may well be the guitar that happens to like that day's humidity, plus happen to have the ideal set of strings on it at the ideal age. Buy it, then take it home, and all that will change drastically in short order.

Again your expert can help you sort out these factors, but also: visiting the same shop over a period of a few weeks can help. The guitar you especially liked on one visit, when it had brand new strings, may well sound very different a week or two later, after those strings have been played with acid-sweat hands for a few dozen hours.

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10. I understand all that but... It's all too complicated, I don't have an expert to turn to, I live hours from the nearest guitar store, plus I have a physical condition that makes it difficult for me to travel. Please help!

So after all the above you want a recommendation as to what guitar to buy on-line, like the proverbial pig in a poke? Sigh. All right: if I had to recommend a guitar that would be most likely to be satisfactory, sight unseen it would be a used Larrivée with a spruce top at whatever price point you can afford. Larrivée only makes solid wood guitars; their emphasis is on good balance over heavy bass and mids; their construction standards are top-notch; and they consistently low-ball their prices. Prefer an L or D model unless you're shopping for a child or otherwise need a very small instrument, then opt for the P model (parlor). Arguably prefer rosewood if you can afford the extra dollars, if not prefer sapele or mahogany.

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