Not all acoustic guitars are the same. There are a lot of differences and characteristics that set each and every guitar apart from the other. Some of these characteristics are really obvious, but some are more nuanced and require a bit more attention.
When you make a serious financial investment, such as buying a guitar, it’s important to make an educated buying decision.
The purpose of this guide is to give you a comprehensive overview of the things you should consider when buying an acoustic guitar or determining the quality of one. Here’s what we’ll be looking at.
- Identifying Your Budget & Goals
- The Parts of the Guitar
- The Main Things You Want to Look for When Buying an Acoustic Guitar
- Acoustic Guitar Body Styles
- Tonewoods & Other Woods that Effect the Sound of an Acoustic Guitar
- Acoustic Guitar Pickups & Electronics
- Specific Buying Tips for Beginners vs. Seasoned Players
- Where to Buy an Acoustic Guitar & the Actual Buying Process
When you’re looking to buy an acoustic guitar, it’s really easy to get lost in all the options. As we move forward, you want to consider these few questions:
- How much do I have available to spend?
- How much would I be willing to save?
- What will I be using my acoustic guitar for? (e.g. just for fun, live performances, recording, etc.)
- What’s my style of playing? (e.g. heavy strummer, light strummer, fingerpicker, bluesy, folksy, etc.)
Start running these questions through your head. As you begin to answer these questions, you’ll be able to narrow down your options. We’ll look more in depth into these things as we move along.
Before we jump into the nitty-gritty details of acoustic guitars, when looking at buying a guitar, there are a few general considerations you must make.
1.) Cracks, Dents, & Bridge Separation. This might seem fairly obvious, but you want to make sure there aren’t any parts of the guitar that are cracking or have serious wear on the finish. Usually, this is uncommon for new guitars, but since most guitars in stores are available to be played by any customer, sometimes these guitars can fall off their stands and get bumped and scratched up. However, if you find a guitar that you like with a few scratches on it, you can also use this to your advantage. If you don’t mind having a guitar with a little “character” to it, stores and sellers will often knock down the price if you bring these scratches to their attention.
While scratches or scuff marks won’t affect the overall sound of the guitar, cracks are no good. Sometimes cracks aren’t very noticeable, so be sure you look over the entire instrument. You also want to make sure that the bridge is sitting fully flush with the top of the guitar and is not lifting up or cracking.
2.) Straight neck. With one eye open, give a good look down the neck from the bottom of the guitar to make sure that the neck isn’t bent, crooked, or warped in any way.
3.) Fretboard. As you move your hand up and down the guitar neck, do any of the frets stick out and rub your hand in an uncomfortable way? Sometimes the frets will hang over the edge of the fretboard and poke your hand. If you end up getting a guitar where this is a major problem, a luthier (someone who works on or builds guitars) should be able to sand these down for a fair price.
4.) Action. “Action” most simply refers to the space between the strings and the fretboard. If the action is too high, sometimes it is hard to press the strings down to the fretboard. If the action is too low, sometimes the strings will “catch” on other frets and create a buzzing sound when you are playing.
The action can be changed by either shaving down the nut, if the action is too high, or by filling in the nut with an epoxy if the strings are too low. Any guitar repair person can do this for you at a minimal cost, so don’t let this deter you from buying a guitar you really like.
5.) Neck size. The width of the neck is measured at the nut of the guitar. The width of necks will vary between manufacturers. For acoustic guitars, a standard neck width is somewhere in the neighborhood of 1-11/16 inch, 1-3/4 inch, and 1-7/8 inch. Typically, fingerstyle and classical guitar players will want a wider guitar neck from 1-3/4 inch to 2 inches. If you have really stubby fingers, you might want to consider a wider neck.
6.) Does the guitar stay in tune? There is nothing more frustrating than a guitar that doesn’t stay in tune. When you are looking at a guitar, play it for awhile and take notice to how well it does or doesn’t stay in tune. If you buy a guitar with cheap tuners, you might choose to replace these at a later time.
Another thing to keep in mind is that guitars in stores will often have really old, and played out, strings on them, which will never stay in tune and usually move flat. If you are serious about buying a particular guitar, spend a few bucks and ask to have the strings changed so you can hear the tuning, and intonation, with fresh strings. This is the only real way to gauge both of these issues properly with a new guitar.
7.) Intonation. Intonation also refers to how well the guitar is in tune but in a different way. Sometimes a guitar will sound in tune when you play the notes between the 1st – 5th frets, but as you go up an octave and play around the 12th fret, the pitch for the same note is a little bit sharp or flat. You can test for the intonation by playing the harmonic on the sixth string, twelfth fret, then play the fretted note on the sixth string, twelfth fret. If these two notes are not the same, one is sharper or flatter than the other, then the intonation is out. Repeat this process on all six strings to determine if any of the strings are properly intonated or not.
There are a few different types of body styles for acoustic guitars: classic, dreadnought, and jumbo.
The name and exact sizes of these body styles will vary between manufacturers. For example, Taylor’s classic body style is usually referred to as a grand auditorium body style, while Martin’s classic body style is usually referred to as their 00 or 000 series.
Generally, a classic body style will give you a medium sound projection and a bit more overall balance between your hi, mid, and low frequencies. This body style is popular with guitarists who fingerpick because the guitar gives them a lot clarity between the highs, mids, and lows. However, the classic body style also makes an excellent strumming guitar too. For a classic body style, you usually want to use light gauge strings, because medium gauge strings create more tension on the neck than the guitar was designed to handle. However, some people will use mediums and have their truss rod (a metal rod that runs through the neck for support) adjusted to compensate for the extra tension.
Unlike the classic body style, a dreadnought body style will give you a much richer bass response. Dreadnought guitars usually have a “bigger” sound over the classic body style, and therefore, sound louder. Some refer to dreadnoughts as more “boomy.” If you’re a really heavy strummer, you might opt for a dreadnought guitar. Dreadnought guitars tend to sound best with medium gauge guitar strings, although you could use light strings if you wanted.
The jumbo body style will also have a big sound like the dreadnought except the shape of the guitar is very similar to that of the classic body style. A jumbo is basically a glorified classic body style in terms of size. People tend to opt for the jumbo when they want the shape of a classic body style but something close to the big sound of a dreadnought.
Jumbo guitars tend to be popular for performing artists where they wear the guitar with a strap. Sometimes the jumbo size can be uncomfortable while you’re sitting down to play since the body is so big in your lap. Like dreadnoughts, most jumbos take medium gauge strings, while you still have the option of using light strings.
All of these body styles might also include a cutaway which allows the guitar player to access higher frets on the fretboard. Most would say that the cutaway doesn’t affect the overall sound of the guitar.
While the body style of your guitar can affect the way your guitar sounds, the type of wood your guitar is made out of can even more so effect the sound. Sound is created when you strum the strings and the strings vibrate the bridge and then the top of the guitar. Different woods vibrate in different ways. That’s why some guitars will sound brighter or darker than other guitars.
The wood used for the top of a guitar is often referred to as the tonewood. It acts as the instrument’s sound board. Aside from the actual wood, there are two different types of top constructions.
The first is called a laminated veneer top that is constructed with thin sheets of wood glued together. This type of top is not going to produce the best sound, which is why guitars made with these types of tops are quite cheaper.
On the opposite end, there is the solid top which is constructed out of a solid piece of wood. This type of top is going to resonate better and have more clarity and volume than a laminated veneer top. As you might have guessed, for this increase in quality you are going to pay a bit more in price.
When it comes to the actual wood used for the top, some luthiers would say that selecting the right wood for the top is one of the most important variables in determining the overall tone of the guitar. Let’s take a look at some of the most popular tonewoods for guitars.
Sitka Spruce comes from Alaska and Northwest Canada. Because of its strength and toughness, it’s very popularly used as a top. It’s a very stiff and lightweight wood which makes it have a very high velocity of sound, meaning, the speed that the wood transmits the received energy is very high. Tonally, Sitka Spruce gives the guitar player the ability to strum very hard, thus being louder, while maintaining a very clear and full tone. At softer volumes, Sitka can tend to sound a bit thinner.
Engelmann Spruce comes from North America. In comparison to Sitka Spruce, Engelmann tends to be lighter in color and also in weight. It also tends to be less stiff, which gives it a lower velocity of sound. Because of this, Engelmann loses its clarity when played at louder volumes, but when played at softer volumes, the tone will be much richer and clearer than that of Sitka Spruce.
Western Red Cedar
Red Cedar comes from Western Canada and the Pacific Northwest of the United States. The color of red cedar can range from a very light brown to a dark reddish-brown. Red cedar is a softer wood that is not as strong as spruce. Typically, red cedar will break in quicker than spruce. Tonally, red cedar is characterized by warmer, darker tones and a good bass response, although sometimes it can be muddy. Some clarity can be lost at loud volumes.
Redwood comes from North America. It shares many of the same tonal characteristics as Western Red Cedar but can lean towards a bit more darker sound. Some say that redwood is a bit comparable to spruce in that it has a bit more of a crisp, bolder and punchier tone than cedar.
Mahogany can be found in Central America and the Caribbean. While Mahogany is used as a top, it can also be used for the back and sides of guitars too, which will give you an all mahogany guitar. It’s lighter than rosewood, Koa, or maple, but gives a very clear sound with defined trebles and mid-range. The sound can almost be described as “woody” and “punchy,” which makes it a popular choice for many country blues fingerpickers.
Koa comes from Hawaii, and it has an extraordinarily beautiful grain to the wood. Koa is a bit similar to mahogany in that it has very defined trebles and mid-range, which makes it great for rhythm, although it might sound thin sounding to some ears. Koa sounds best when played at louder volumes, although it doesn’t produce as much volume as spruce. Koa is especially popular with Hawaiian ukuleles and guitars.
Backs and Sides
The topwoods aren’t the only factors that contribute to the sound of a guitar. The backs and sides also greatly affect the overall sound and tone of the guitar.
Indian Rosewood has a very high velocity of sound with a broad range of overtones. It’s mostly characterized by its emphasis in low end with an overall darkness in the other ranges. At the same time, there are also characteristics of strong mids and highs which provide a bold upper-register tone. Rosewood is said to have a built in “reverb” quality to it because of the delay of onset with certain harmonics.
Brazilian Rosewood is very comparable to Indian Rosewood but much more valuable and sought after between the two. Originally, a lot of guitars made before WWII were made with Brazilian Rosewood, but since then the species of wood has become endangered, and thus, very rare and very expensive. Tonally, it shares many similar characteristics to Indian Rosewood, except that many would say that it takes Indian Rosewood to a whole other level.
Mahogany & Koa
As mentioned above, mahogany and Koa are not only a topwood but also used for backs and sides. They have high velocities of sound like rosewoods, but generally, lack in low-end frequencies and the reverb-quality that rosewoods so naturally possess. Between mahogany and Koa, the latter generally has a fuller mid-range, while mahogany is more defined in the treble and bass.
Maple & Walnut
Maple has a low sound velocity and higher level of internal damping which makes it very tonally transparent. This means that maple backs and sides allow the tonal characteristics of the top to come through without coloring the sound. Walnut is also pretty transparent.
Some of the woods mentioned above are used for necks as well. For example, a maple neck will generally add a bright, “poppy” tone to the overall sound. Mahogany is used also for necks. This can also help push the overall sound of the guitar into a more “woody” and warmer tone. Rosewood is also a popular choice for necks, which can help fatten the midrange.
If you’ll be plugging your guitar into a sound system or PA, you’ll want to think about the electronics that allow you guitar to be amplified. Sometimes it’s most cost effective to buy a guitar with electronics already installed. However, some people want to select a specific type of pickup for their guitar than the one the guitar manufacturer installs, so they will buy the guitar without any electronics installed, buy the pickup, and then install it themselves or have a guitar shop do it for them. There are a few different types of pickups.
Electromagnetic Soundhole Pickups
This is the most basic type of guitar pickup, and as the name implies, this pickup fits into the soundhole of your guitar. People like to use these types of pickups because they can usually be had for pretty cheap, they are easy to install, and they don’t require any permanent installation or modification to your guitar.
The pickup senses the movement of the strings through a magnetic field, which is then transmitted into sound that can be amplified out of your guitar. Out of all the pickups, these can be the most resistant to feedback, which makes them great if you are going to be playing in loud, live settings.
Some people complain that these pickups don’t do a good job of picking up the nuances of your sound. Some also complain that the pickup looks ugly because it mounts in the soundhole of the guitar and usually requires you to run a wire out from the soundhole across the top of your guitar unless you install the wire and drill a hole into the body of the guitar.
Microphones tend to give you the most accurate representation of the actual sound of your guitar over any other pickup. They directly capture the sound of the instrument and convert it into an electrical signal which can then be amplified. The downside is feedback can be a huge issue if you are onstage or in a setting that has a lot of stage noise.
One solution to combat feedback is to place the microphone inside the guitar closer to the sound source (the strings). However, in doing this, you end up isolating the microphone to pickup a smaller region of the sound source.
Contact (Soundboard and Under-saddle) Pickups
Contact pickups are placed directly on the guitar, which then detect and convert vibrations of the instrument into electrical signals, which can be amplified as sound. Some might refer to contact pickups as piezo pickups. Generally, there are two different locations contact pickups can be placed on the guitar: on the soundboard or under the saddle.
The soundboard of the guitar simply refers to the top of the guitar. The top of the guitar vibrates and produces sound when you strum, which makes it a good place to put a contact pickup. Soundboard pickups look like little discs no bigger than a quarter, and usually, you will put two or three on the soundboard to capture the sound of the instrument. For a less permanent installation, you can actually place the contact pickups on the outside of the top of your guitar. For a more permanent installation, you can place these pickups on inside of your guitar underneath the top.
Under-saddle pickups look like a little bar of wire, which are made out of a piezo material, and as the name implies, they are placed underneath the saddle of your guitar. The saddle is the piece of plastic (or bone) that the strings lay over top of connecting to the bridge of your guitar. Under-saddle pickups might be the most popular transducers used by performing artists. They are almost immune to feedback like soundhole pickups, but offer a much more clearer and accurate sound of the actual instrument next to that of a microphone. Compared to other pickups, under-saddle pickups are probably the most difficult to install since you might have to drill a hole for the wire and widen or deepen the saddle slot.
Dual Source (Blender) Pickup
Some electronics systems will blend an internal microphone with an under-saddle pickup. A “blender” system like this allows you to control how much of the microphone is being outputted and how much the under-saddle pickup is being outputted. Guitar players using this system will often set the internal microphone to be only high enough to portray the nuances of the guitar in the overall sound that a microphone captures while using the other pickup to account for most of the sound. This allows you to combat feedback while still being able to use an internal microphone.
These systems can be pretty pricey, but many people will tell you they are completely worth it if you are serious about getting the best acoustic guitar tone. Some popular choices for blender systems are the Fishman Ellipse Matrix Blend ($219.95) and the Fishman Rare Earth Blend Soundhole Pickup ($299.99). A lot of people though will get a separate onboard or external preamp from the microphone and pickup.
Now that you know about the types of pickups, it’s important to try a few or several to see how well they work with your guitar. Some pickups may bleed off the high-end, others may have a more pronounced mid-range, still others may really bring out the bass.
As a rule of thumb, a more expensive pickup doesn’t necessarily transfer to “better.” Sometimes they’re just more expensive. So trying out, listening to, and reading reviews on several pickups before you buy a guitar is ultra-important.
In general, what you want to look for in terms of sound is how well the pickups reproduce the natural sound of your guitar; that is, the pickup should have a fairly flat EQ response, or have sliders or knobs that will allow you to dial in a flat EQ response. The best way to determine the EQ response is to plug directly into a PA system and not an acoustic amp that will add its own texturing. Going direct should give you a very close approximation of the natural sound. If you can’t dial in a decent tone, then chances are, you won’t want to get that pickup.
As you can see, there is not necessarily a “right” choice for wood, body style, pickups, neck size, action, and tuners, but rather, the choice of your guitar will largely depend on what type of sound and playability you are hoping to achieve, and ultimately, what type of guitar you can afford. Truth be told, you can spend as much as $10,000 and way more for a guitar. The sky is the limit.
That’s why it’s so important to set a budget. What can you afford? Or rather, what are you willing to save for?
Factors that effect the price of a guitar include the type of wood, quality of wood, level of craftsmanship, choice of electronics, the amount of detailed work (e.g. pearl inlays), selection of tuning machines, etc. It’s fairly safe to say that with guitars you get what you pay for, although there are exceptions.
If you’re just a beginner…
You don’t need to shell out thousands of dollars for your first guitar. However, as a beginner, you might wonder, “What if I don’t like guitar as much as I anticipated, and I ended up spending all this money?”
First, I would recommend you to try to find a friend’s guitar you can borrow as you’re first learning. Chances are you know somebody that you work with, a neighbor, or a friend that has a guitar sitting around. This way you can try out learning guitar without the risk of the investment.
However, at the same time, it’s good to see buying an acoustic guitar as an investment. If you make a good investment, you are more likely to get a good return on that investment at a later time. In my experience, it’s best to plan to budget at least $250-$600 for a very basic, entry level guitar, and then another $100 for a basic strap, case tuner, picks, and a capo.
The one thing I’ve noticed that people always forget to buy is a good, proper case. Many people just use the box, or cheap plastic case that the guitar came in. But, if you are investing this much money, it’s probably a good idea to protect that investment both inside and outside of the house. If you are planning on using the guitar mostly at home, and occasionally travelling with it in your car, then buying a decent “hardshell” case is probably worth it. This will protect it from being stepped on, the cat or young child jumping on it, or being damaged in transport. For those of us who are planning to walk and/or bike a lot with our guitar then check out a good over the shoulder backpack/guitar case. This allows us to have our hands free, and rested for the gig, if we are dragging our guitar around with us all the time.
I’ve seen it before where people will get a cheap guitar for $100, and then become very discouraged from playing it because there guitar can hardly hold tune, the frets stick out and poke you, the action is super high, and it just sounds bad. Remember, you want something that inspires you when you play it. I recognize that sometimes budgets are very tight, but if that is the case, then wait a month, or a few, to save for an instrument that will serve you well. Plus, the feeling of investing money into a guitar gives you a greater sense of ownership for learning how to play guitar.
If you’ve been playing for awhile…
Perhaps, you’ve been playing guitar for awhile, and you are finally at a place where you’ve saved up at least $500 to $1000+ and want to upgrade your guitar. You know you’ll continue to play for years to come, and for all you know, you are a serious player whether that just be for enjoyment or performing.
When you get into these upper price ranges, you start to have some more options with wood, electronics, and tuners. The best thing you can do is to take another friend that plays guitar into your local music store and play every guitar in there and listen. Try to detect the differences and the nuances in the sound of different guitars. After playing a couple guitars, you should start picking up on the differences, and start to be able to articulate those differences.
The thing with these guitars in the upper price ranges is that it’ll be rare you will find one that just sounds like crap. You might prefer the sound of one over or another, but that’s why it comes down to preferences and identifying what you like to hear and identifying your needs.
For example, if you’re a fingerpicker, you might opt for a smaller classic body style shape with a cedar top and rosewood or mahogany back and sides. If you’re heavy strummer, you might want a dreadnought with a spruce top that can handle those loud volumes. If you tend to do a little bit of both, you might opt for a classic body style with a spruce top and rosewood back and sides. It all depends.
Ideally, you want to be able to try out and play your guitar before buying it. Check out any local music stores in your area. Sometimes local music stores (especially if you are in a small town) don’t have the ability to stock the nicer guitars, so you might also want to consider taking a look at popular stores like Guitar Center or Sam Ash Music.
If you are a beginner, it might feel intimidating to walk in a music store to try some guitars. Sometimes there are people in there cranked up really loud showing off their “skills.” Don’t worry about them or anyone else. This a serious purchase and it’s about YOU the buyer playing and listening to the guitar in your hands. If it’s too loud and you can’t hear yourself, ask a sales representative to show you a quieter room.
Again, it’s important that you can hear yourself so you can make an educated buying decision. If the whole process of selecting a guitar from a store still intimidates you, consider bringing someone along you know who plays guitar too.
If you aren’t in an area close to a music store, or don’t have the ability to shop at one, you might consider buying an acoustic guitar online. However, if you are going to go this route, you want to be very well researched and read as many reviews as possible, since you don’t have the luxury of listening to the guitar yourself.
Many popular online music stores like Musician’s Friend, zZounds, or Guitar Center have product review areas which allow you to read reviews by owners of whatever particular acoustic guitar you are looking to buy. You might also search for different guitar forums where you can ask other guitar players, based on your needs, what guitar would be the best to buy.
Conclusion & Credits
There are so many different characteristics and nuances that set one guitar apart from the other. If you can identify your budget, and your goals for playing, then you are off to a great start to selecting an acoustic guitar. At the end of the day, you have to let your ears be your guide. What sounds good to you? When we’re talking about tonal differences, it can be so subjective to the listener. If you don’t trust your own ears in selecting the right guitar, then bring someone along that you do trust.
And if we’re being completely honest, at the end of the day, a guitar only sounds as good as the one playing it. So don’t get too caught up or even overwhelmed in the buying process. Keep playing and practice a lot. Even a not so great guitar can sound great when it’s played by a good player.
Special thanks to Brendan Delumpa from Guitar Gear, Matt Warnock from The Modern Guitarist, and Curt Moye from Rock House Method for their additional contributions to The Ultimate Acoustic Guitar Buying Guide. Brendan writes some of the best reviews on guitars, amps, and effects pedals that I’ve seen on the internet, Matt has some of the most interesting artist interviews and in-depth reviews I’ve seen, and Curt is the editorial director at Rock House Method, one of the most excellent guitar learning methods on the internet. Make sure you check out their blogs.
Question for Our Readers
What would you add to this guide? What things do you consider and look for when buying an acoustic guitar?