How to Choose an Acoustic Guitar
Choosing a new acoustic guitar is an exciting process! And although there are hundreds upon hundreds of great instruments out there asking for your attention, your decision doesn’t have to feel overwhelming at all. In fact, the best first step to take is easy – just decide how you really intend to use the instrument. Depending on whether you’re gigging out, at home recording, or looking for a fine collectible to accrue value over time, the way your guitar will be used can really help you narrow down what you’re looking for. As always, your Sweetwater Sales Engineer has years of experience helping customers find their perfect guitar. Call (800) 222-4700.
- The anatomy of an acoustic guitar
- Tonewoods: sonic signatures.
- Should I go acoustic or acoustic-electric?
- Acoustic guitar body styles explained.
- Why are some acoustic guitars more expensive?
- What to look for in an acoustic guitar.
The anatomy of an acoustic guitar
Tonewoods: sonic signatures
The right tonewoods for you depend largely on what kind of sounds you like and how you play your guitar. A fingerstyle player, for example, will want wood that responds to his or her delicate playing as opposed to a wood that requires more force – like using a pick – to fully resonate. Guitar craftsmen, or luthiers, believe that the wood chosen for the top is the single most important factor in determining what the instrument will ultimately sound like.
After the top, the back, sides, and neck are the next most important in overall tonality. Other woods, such as the bracing, binding, bridge, and fretboard can also serve to enhance or constrain the tonal effects of an acoustic guitar’s other woods – though they generally don’t define the sound of an instrument.
It’s important to keep in mind that wood species can be responsible only for certain aspects of the tone of any guitar. Equally important are design, skill of the maker, and the quality of each individual piece of wood used. However, tonewood selection can be a determining factor in the creation of a very special guitar or a guitar designed for a specific purpose.
Spruce is a standard material for tops, the most commonly used species being Sitka. Its high rigidity, combined with the lightweight characteristics of most softwoods, makes it a natural for high velocity of sound. Sitka spruce also has a powerful direct tone capable of retaining its clarity when played forcefully.
Cedar, particularly Western Red Cedar, is a popular top wood for its balanced warm sound. It’s particularly favored by fingerstyle players for its signature quick, rich response to the lighter playing style.
When used as a top, mahogany has a relatively low response rate (compared to other top woods), considerable density, and a low overtone content. Mahogany-topped guitars have a strong “punchy” tone that is well suited to country blues playing. When considered for back and sides, mahogany has relatively high velocity of sound, which contributes much overtone coloration.
Different species of maple, such as big leaf, sugar, and bearclaw, tend to be more acoustically transparent due to their lower response rate and high degree of internal damping. This allows the tonal characteristic of the top to be heard without the addition of significant tonal coloration.
Rosewood is known for its high response rate and broad range of overtones, and is also characterized by strength and complexity in the bottom end and an overall darkness of tone in the rest of the range. Strong mids and highs also contribute a richness of tone to the upper registers.
Should I go acoustic or acoustic-electric?
Choosing between an acoustic guitar and an acoustic-electric guitar is an important decision – and it really goes back to how you plan to use your instrument. The difference between the two is that an acoustic-electric guitar contains some kind of electronic “pick up” system, so you can plug into an amplifier or a PA system and hear your acoustic sound reproduced.
Even if you don’t play out live, there are many benefits to choosing an acoustic-electric guitar. For example, many musicians enjoy being able to plug their guitar directly into an audio interface to record their songs. That way, you can sketch down song ideas fast without having to worry about buying or setting up any microphones. You will also avoid potential “room noise” in your recordings.
Acoustic guitar body styles explained
This is actually a complex subject that could easily fill a book, as the various styles and sizes introduced by specific manufacturers have evolved over more than a century. However, the most significant change came in the 1920s, when guitars were designed to accept steel strings, rather than the traditional gut (or later nylon) strings.
Martin Guitars, a company with a long history of building these instruments, began giving numerical codes to the various size bodies. Smaller-bodied 12-fret guitars included the models 0, 1, and 2, while the 14-fret instruments included the 00 and 000 models. The 000 style is favored by players who want a brighter, cleaner sound, while still having a full-sized body. As an example, the Eric Clapton Signature model is a 000 size guitar.
Meanwhile, for those who wanted an acoustic with a richer bass response, Martin began building the so-called “dreadnought” models, which (trivia fans take note) were named after a famous British battleship. Many of Martin’s most popular designs have been the D-sized instruments, from the relatively plain D-18 to the top-of-the-line D-45, with its ornate inlays.
Not to be outdone, Gibson introduced their jumbo “flat-tops” – guitars like the J-45, the J-160E (as used by the Beatles), and the “Super Jumbo J-200,” the company’s “King of the Flat-Top Guitars.”
From there, various manufacturers used these basic shapes and sizes as jumping-off points for other designs that included both sharp and rounded cutaways on the treble bout, as well as the unusual (but effective) Ovation guitars with their Lyrachord bowl-back designs.
Why are some acoustic guitars more expensive than others?
The value of an acoustic guitar depends on a long list of factors. Generally though, where and how an acoustic guitar is made makes the biggest impact on its price. If a guitar is handcrafted in America as opposed to being built overseas, you’re likely to pay more for the instrument.
Wood selection plays a tremendous role in the cost of a guitar. Some manufacturers put aside “choice” pieces of wood as they receive shipments and then utilize these pieces to craft limited-edition instruments. The rarity of a particular wood, the amount of figuring or detail in its grain, and even the style of finish affect price.
Many lower-priced guitars use laminated wood, or a series of layers, to comprise the top instead of one solid piece. Laminate wood doesn’t tend to vibrate as wholly or retain the same sound characteristics as a solid top, though many players prize laminate for its reliability in changing climates and temperature environments, and also find that it produces a fine tone onstage.
Having said all of this about the wide range of acoustic guitar pricing, it’s also certainly worth noting that you don’t have to pay a fortune to find a great-sounding, highly playable acoustic guitar. In fact, you can even find many limited edition, collectible guitars at prices similar to standard models.
What to look for in an acoustic guitar
Acoustic guitars come in a variety of sizes and shapes, from small travel size to classic to jumbo to dreadnought. The body style of an acoustic guitar determines its sound projection and tonal emphasis. Things to consider are tonal quality vs. playing comfort. Some acoustic guitar bodies come in a single cutaway design or even a double cutaway design. This gives easier access to the upper frets.
Many acoustic guitars come with pickups and preamplifiers built in for playing larger venues where your acoustic sound needs to fill the room. Some instruments have preamps mounted in a hole cut in the side of the instrument, while others mount inside the soundhole. There are systems that combine preamplifier, microphone, piezo pickups, EQ, and tuners.
When it comes to choosing a neck, the size of your hand is key. Generally the thickness and width of the neck is based on the size of the body of the instrument as well as how many frets the neck has. Usually, acoustic necks are listed as 12-fret or 14-fret. This refers to the number of frets clear of the body, not how many overall.
Intonation determines whether or not the notes play in tune as you move up the neck. If the distance between the frets (usually above the 12th fret) is off, the guitar will be incapable of playing in tune and therefore useless as a recording or performance instrument.
The choice of wood determines the sound of an acoustic guitar. Different types of wood produce different tones, but most guitar makers believe that the top is the most important for determining tonal quality. Spruce is the standard material for tops with Sitka spruce being the most common. The cost of an acoustic guitar increases dramatically based on the rarity of the tonewoods, such as rosewood, but due to decreasing supplies of certain tonewoods, guitar makers are successfully finding alternative materials to make great sounding instruments.
The type of tuning machine your guitar has is very important. This is what allows you to fine tune and hold pitch. Enclosed machine heads resist rust and airborne corrosives, and therefore don’t require as much maintenance or replacement as open tuning machines.
Bridge and Fingerboard
The materials used for bridge and fingerboard do have an effect on sound, but this is minimal compared to the body of the guitar. Put simply, the effects of bridge and fingerboard materials cannot make or break a guitar’s sound.
Different types of finish can affect the way the wood vibrates, but there is nothing you can do about this. These decisions are make by the guitar maker and they usually choose wisely.