Buying a guitar can be intimidating as the process is often tedious and confusing for both beginners and guitar veterans alike. So many people get confused at the sheer amount of choices at different price ranges, the musician terminology, the marketing buzzwords, etc... that they end up listening to the salesperson. While there are some good, honest salespeople out there, many of them get paid by commission too; can you really trust them?
While it's certainly a difficult process, finding the best acoustic guitar for your need can also be fun and rewarding. Here are some tips to make things a little easier!
- First, decide on a budget for your acoustic guitar. Guitars can be bought for under $100 but can also cost over $5,000! Generally, there will be a difference in quality and sound when you pay more. This is because cheaper guitars are usually made of laminate wood (thin strips of wood glued together) while more pricey guitars are made out of solid wood.
Solid wood is desirable, especially for the top of the guitar, because its vibrations allow it to sound better over time. However, remember that there is a law of diminishing returns; while there may be a significant difference between a $100 guitar and a $1000 guitar, there may be less of a difference between one that is $2,000 and $3,000. Generally speaking, the sound quality of a guitar will improve with the amount of money you pay--to a point. Once that point is reached, the extra money you spend will go towards the "bling," fancy, decorative aspects of the guitar that often do not have any bearing on the sound.
- Based upon your budget, make a short list of acoustic guitar companies you want to try out. This does not need to be a comprehensive list (you can add more as you go along) but it helps in planning your purchase. In the budget range (under $500), I would recommend looking at Seagull guitars and Art&Lutherie guitars. These have a lot of bang for the buck. If you are willing to spend between $1,000 and $3,000, you will be able to pick up Taylor, Martin, or Gibson guitars. Above the $3,000 mark, you can look into boutique companies like Collings and Goodall or even commission a hand-built acoustic guitar (though they require a significant investment of time and money).
If you are on a tighter budget, do not be afraid to buy used guitars. If you do buy used, looked for a guitar with a solid wood top. Solid wood is preferable because they tend to vibrate better than laminate wood tops and will "open up" over time. That's musician's talk for saying that the guitar will sound better as you keep playing it. If the guitar has been well-taken care of, they will be cheaper and often sound very nice.
- Next, decide what sort of environments you plan on playing your acoustic guitar in (bar, church, campfire, home, etc...). This will allow you to pick a guitar that is best for your needs. For example, you probably would not want to use a $5,000 guitar for use in a bar where it may get easily damaged or stolen. However, such a guitar may be acceptable if you were to play it at home only.
- In a similar vein, decide if you will need electronics built into your guitar. These guitar have pickups that allow you to amplify your guitar through an amp or a PA system using 1/4 inch cables (usually). These "acoustic-electric guitars" will increase the cost of the guitar. If you are not sure, don't worry; it's possible to install pickups at a later time (in fact, many guitarists prefer many of the aftermarket products to the pre-installed offerings of most major guitar companies).
- Decide on the type of sound you want your guitar to have by going to a store (if possible) and playing as many guitars as you can. Knowing your sound preferences for guitars will be very helpful here. Your guitar's tone is primarily affected by the structure and design of the guitar, the company (which goes hand-in-hand with structure and design), and the woods used.
The bigger the size of the guitar, the more darker and fuller the sound your guitar will have. If you like fuller sounding guitars, look into dreadnought or jumbo guitars. If you prefer something with a little more balance, look into grand auditorium shapes.
Alternatively, you can also try different brands of guitars. The major guitar companies have their own signature sound. The instruments made by Martin are known for their full and deep voice while Taylor's guitars are known for being brighter and having more "sparkle" in the sound. Gibson acoustic guitars tend to lean toward the darker side as well but generally isn't as dark as the sound characteristics of Martin guitars.
Lastly, you can pick woods to suit your tastes. There are two main guitar wood parts: the top and the back/sides. The top is generally considered the more important in shaping your sound. Typical top woods include sitka spruce (bright, strong, and very ideal for strumming), englemann spruce (more mellow than sitka, often better for moderate strumming or fingerpicking), cedar (very warm and responsive but somewhat easier to damage, better for soft strumming or fingerpicking), and Adirondack spruce (considered very responsive to fingerpicking and strumming but also VERY expensive).
The sides and back further "flavor" the sound. Typical woods include Indian rosewood (dark and full sounding, fairly plain-looking), mahogany (a well-balanced sounding wood), and maple (very bright, but can be very beautiful visually). There are more "exotic" woods also available such as koa, walnut, cocobolo, and Brazillian rosewood but they often carry premium prices.
The price of the wood depends on its look. However, the look does not have any bearing on the sound (ie an ugly specimen may sound wonderful).
- Decide how showy your guitar will be. Some of the more expensive acoustic guitar models have more "bling" on them. Some of these features include wood or mother-of-pearl binding instead of plastic and inlays into the guitar neck. This depends on your taste and budget. Other guitars have dyed or sunburst finishes. As a rule of thumb, dyed wood tends to muffle the sound on lower end guitars. On the more expensive guitars, the dyes and finishes are done in such a way to preserve the guitar's sound and tone.
- You will want to figure out if you want a guitar with a cutaway or not. This is a portion of the guitar that have been "cutaway" so that you can have easier access to the higher frets. There is some debate on whether or not cutaways have affects on the overall sound of the guitar but most tend to believe that it does not. There are two types of cutaways: Venetian, which is more rounded in look, and Florentine, which has a more angled look.
- You will also want to determine the scale of the guitar you wish to purchase. The size of the neck may differ from company to company and even model to model. If you have smaller hands, a "short scale" guitar may be of interest. The frets on this type of guitar are closer together, making it easier to play complex chords.
- Decide if a pickguard is necessary. If you are a heavy strummer, they may be useful. If you primarily fingerpick, they may not be so much. If you want a pickguard but do not like the look, note that some companies offer clear pickguards.
- Decide if you need picks, strings, tuners, or cases with your guitar. If you are buying a guitar in a brick and mortar store, you can also negotiate with the salesperson (much like buying a car). See if you can get some of these things for free or at a discount.
Above all else, though, play many guitars and buy the one you like. Note that there are variations in the sounds of guitars, even if they are the same model of guitar. So play a lot!