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You are here: Home > Advice > Acoustic Guitar Advice Page > Acoustic Guitar Buying Guide

Acoustic Guitar Buying Guide

First and foremost, you should consider what your plans are for your new acoustic guitar. Then you should decide how much you can afford to spend on one. Are you an experienced player looking to move up to a higher-quality instrument? Perhaps you are a beginner who wants an inexpensive instrument to learn on. Most likely, the more you invest in an acoustic guitar, the higher the quality of the instrument will be. This doesn't mean that all inexpensive acoustic guitars are low quality. Thanks to modern manufacturing techniques, you now have a wide selection of highly playable, low-cost acoustic guitars to choose from. By knowing the most important elements that contribute to a playable, nice-sounding acoustic guitar, you can maximize what you get for your budget.

Construction

Before you purchase an acoustic guitar, it's important to have some knowledge of the instrument's parts and what goes into building one.
Acoustic Guitar: diagram of body parts

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Body

The body consists of a back, sides, and top. The types of construction and woods that go into the body have a major impact on the way the instrument sounds. Different body styles and sizes also impact a guitar's sound. The body of an acoustic guitar can also be looked at with regard to its upper and lower bouts and the waist.

Bridge

The bridge on an acoustic guitar anchors the strings to the body, and transfers vibration and energy from the strings to the guitar's top. Bridge pins keep the strings anchored to the bridge on most acoustic guitars. An integral part of the bridge is the saddle. Most often made of bone or plastic, the saddle spaces the strings at the bridge and helps transfer the strings' vibrations to the top.

Top

Perhaps the single most important element in the way an acoustic guitar will sound is its top. As the strings are strummed, the vibrations are transferred through the bridge to the top. As the top vibrates, so does the air within the body, amplifying the sound of the strings. Acoustic guitar tops are either solid or laminated, sometimes with "flamed" or "quilted" figuring in the wood.

A solid top typically has two single-ply pieces of wood. Most often a single chunk of wood will be butterfly-cut (split down the middle) and the two pieces matched up down the middle of the guitar (lengthwise). A laminate top is created with several thin plies of wood that are pressed together. Laminate tops tend to be less affected by changes in temperature and humidity, and generally an acoustic guitar with a laminate top will be more affordable than one with a solid top. A solid top might cost you a bit more but will offer greater resonance and projection.

Neck

The neck of the guitar is attached to the body at the neck joint. Most acoustic guitars use a set neck, meaning it is glued to the body. Few acoustic guitars use a bolt-on neck. The neck is an important part of an acoustic guitar's feel and playability. Neck components include the fretboard (or fingerboard), headstock, tuners, and an internal truss rod. The metal truss rod runs the length of the neck and is adjusted to eliminate the bow caused by string tension or environmental factors. The truss rod is typically adjusted with an Allen wrench either at the headstock or just inside the body at the base of the neck.

Fretboard or fingerboard » The fretboard is a long, thin piece of wood that is glued to the neck. Thin pieces of metal called frets are embedded in the wood. This divides the fretboard into half-step increments of the 12-tone scale so when the strings are held down at certain frets different notes are sounded. The most common woods used for acoustic guitar fretboards are rosewood and ebony. Sometimes the fretboard will not be an overlay but fashioned from the same piece of wood as the neck.

Machine Heads (Tuning keys)

Located on the headstock, the tuners adjust the tension of each string, thereby changing its pitch.
Common Acoustic Guitar Woods

Woods

When shopping for an acoustic guitar, you'll find that there are a number of different woods, as well as different species of the same wood, that are used in the various parts of the instrument. It's beneficial to understand the tonal qualities of these woods, and where they are often used in acoustic guitar construction.
Cedar » Cedar is a soft wood that emphasizes the sparkle of the upper registers, and tends to favor a lighter playing technique. For this reason, it is used mostly for classical or fingerstyle acoustic guitars, for the top as well as the back and sides.

Ebony

Known particularly for its use in pianos, ebony is an excellent wood for acoustic guitar fretboards. Ebony is very strong and has a slick feel to it, which is why it is the preferred fretboard material for many players.

Koa

Koa is a Hawaiian wood with a distinct golden color. Tonally, it resembles mahogany, with a focus on the middle range of the spectrum. Koa is typically found on more expensive acoustic guitars due to its scarcity, and is used for tops as well as backs and sides.

Mahogany

In acoustic guitars, mahogany is most often used for backs and sides. Occasionally mahogany is used as a top wood as well. When used for the back and sides of an acoustic guitar, mahogany adds snap and a general boost to the middle range of the spectrum while reducing the boominess sometimes found in dreadnoughts. As a top, mahogany tends to emphasize the high end. Mahogany is also used frequently for acoustic guitar necks and bridges.

Maple

Maple tends to generate a dry tone that emphasizes the upper end of the tonal spectrum. In acoustic guitars, maple is often used for the back and sides, allowing the top to generate its natural tone without added coloration from the rest of the body.

Ovangkol

Ovangkol is an African wood that is increasing in popularity among acoustic guitar makers. Used primarily for the back and sides of an acoustic guitar, ovangkol's tone resembles the warmth of rosewood with the sparkling midrange of mahogany or koa

Rosewood

Rosewood is typically used for the back and sides of an acoustic guitar, as well as the fretboard and bridge. Due to the diminishing supply--and subsequent higher cost--of Brazilian rosewood, Indian rosewood has mostly replaced it in the market. Though they have a slightly different appearance, tonally they are virtually identical. When used for the back and sides of the guitar, rosewood provides warm low end, enhanced mids, and added resonance.

Sapele

Sapele is another African wood that is being used more often in acoustic guitar-making. Also known as African mahogany, sapele is often used for the back and sides of an acoustic guitar. Like mahogany, it adds to the midrange and overall projection of the top wood.

Spruce

Spruce is the most common wood used for acoustic guitar tops. While there are a number of species of spruce (Engelmann, Sitka, and German, for example), usually only more expensive acoustic guitars will denote the type used. Spruce is a lightweight yet strong wood that is easy to work with for luthiers. Tonally, spruce is resonant and provides good sustain and clarity.

Walnut

Walnut is frequently used as an alternative to mahogany in acoustic guitar bodies. Its tonal properties are comparable to mahogany with a focus on the midrange, and it enhances projection of the top wood's tone.

Body Style Characteristics

Attempting to apply strict definitions to acoustic guitar body styles can be difficult since many styles are manufacturer-specific. The most important thing to remember is that you should find a style that is both comfortable for you to play and produces the tone you desire.

A good rule of thumb to follow is the larger the soundboard, the more low-end tone and volume the guitar will generate. The traditional dreadnought body style provides a large soundboard, while narrow-waisted styles such as the martin ooo or Taylor grand concert will give more mid range tone whitch is better for finger picking and the jumbo(Gibson J200) combine a larger soundboard with increased volume.

Body Shapes

Most guitars can be categorised as one of 4 basic shapes.

Dreadnought

This is the classic acoustic guitar shape developed in the 1920's by the Martin Guitar company, and even today, probably 75% of acoustic guitars are derived from this design. Square in shape, the large body gives plenty of volume and projection, but the wide 'waist' tends to make dreadnought guitars feel relatively bulky when rested on the knee, and some smaller players (particularly women) find them uncomfortable to play.

Grand Auditorium

Rapidly becoming the best selling guitar shape. The larger body is good for depth of tone, the narrow waist makes it very comfortable. This shape gives great balance between bass and treble, making it a good choice for an Electro Acoustic, and adapts well to Fingerstyle as well as Strumming styles. The Grand Auditorium is very versatile, and is often the perfect shape for a player who wants one guitar to fulfill all their requirements.

Grand Concert (Small bodied / Folk size/000 size)

As well as having a small body size, these guitars are often fairly shallow in depth. They are often still surprisingly loud, but unless they are in the higher price range, usually do not have such a warm tone as their larger cousins. Preferred by some smaller players, who find them more comfortable, the tone of small bodied guitars - often described as "tight", "springy", "lively" or "bright" - also makes them a popular choice for ragtime and fingerstyle blues players.

Jumbo

The largest of the standard shapes, with a big, deep open sound favoured by many for country styles. Made famous by Gibson, whose model J200 was used in the 50's and 60's by some of the greats, including Elvis Presley and the Everly Brothers

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Most manufacturers make acoustic guitars to accommodate smaller players, as well as travel or backpacker guitars that are more convenient to transport.

Another important body feature is the cutaway. An acoustic guitar with a cutaway in the upper bout allows the player to easily reach above the 12th fret of the instrument. If you plan to do a lot of lead playing on your acoustic or are used to playing an electric guitar, you may prefer an acoustic with a cutaway.

The 12-String Acoustic Guitar

A 12-string acoustic guitar offers its own unique sound. Though 12 strings may seem intimidating, in reality a 12-string guitar is played exactly like a 6-string. On a 12-string, each open string (E, A, D, G, B, E) has a second string right next to it. On the four top strings (E, A, D, G), the second strings are tuned to the same note but one octave higher, while on the bottom two strings (B, E), the second strings are identical in pitch. This creates not only a doubling effect of every note and chord you play, but an increase in the higher tones thanks to the one-octave-higher bottom strings.

Acoustic-Electric Guitars

Players who anticipate playing live with their acoustic guitars and want the freedom to move about while they play may want to consider an acoustic-electric guitar. Acoustic-electrics use a pickup system that allows you to simply plug into an amplifier or mixing board rather than having to stand stationary behind a microphone.

Photo Electro acoustic

Traditionally, acoustic guitars were amplified by placing a microphone near the soundhole or by a standard magnetic pickup that spanned the soundhole. While the former method worked well enough, it limited the performer's range of movement. The latter method created problems with feedback and didn't always convey an accurate reproduction of an acoustic's natural sound. In the 1960s Ovation Guitars, at the behest of Glen Campbell, created an acoustic guitar pickup system that solved both problems--the piezo pickup.
A piezo pickup is a crystalline structure that senses changes in compression and emits an electrical signal accordingly. When placed under the saddle, the piezo detects the vibrations from the strings. Since the electrical signal the piezo creates is not very strong, a preamp is necessary. Today, most acoustic-electric guitars employ a setup just like that first Ovation. The preamp is typically located on the side of the guitar that faces up when playing, and often includes volume and tone controls. Some preamps even offer built-in tuners.
Other amplification methods are used as well, such as magnetic soundhole pickups, condenser microphones, and ribbon transducers. While these are gaining in popularity, piezos are still the most common amplification systems used in acoustic-electric guitars.

Playability, comfort, and tone

The final things to consider before purchasing an acoustic guitar are personal decisions. Be sure that the guitar you select is one you're comfortable with, whether you're sitting or standing while playing. Find a guitar that responds best to the way you play. And most of all, buy an acoustic guitar that sounds best to your ears. Whether it's a £2,000 Martin or a £200 Cort, you're going to get a lot more enjoyment from an acoustic guitar that produces the sound you want.