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Technotes Online > Buying an Acoustic Guitar

Buying an Acoustic Guitar

Issue #25
May 31, 2005

From affordable to astronomical and everything in between, here's a few tips on how to choose the right acoustic guitar!

Okay, so you're ready to buy a new acoustic guitar. Many of you already know which specific instrument you're planning to purchase, but some of you might be buying your first acoustic, so I'll try to give you some guidelines and common sense advice in this column. Let's get started....

How much do you want to spend?
In 2005, you are getting far more value for your dollar than at any time in history when it comes to purchasing an acoustic guitar - or any guitar for that matter. Today, you can spend just a few hundred dollars and have a guitar that sounds good and plays well and will likely last many years. On the other end of the spectrum, high end acoustics tend to use the very best tone woods and are built to ultra-precise specifications by gifted craftsmen called luthiers. These guitars are truly built to last a lifetime!

If your acoustic will be used on a limited basis (perhaps just for adding an acoustic guitar overdub on a multitrack recording), you can probably make do with a less expensive model. However, if this will be your main guitar, you really should invest in a quality instrument. Acoustics from Martin, Taylor, Gibson, Guild and Takamine are all excellent choices.
So okay, exactly what constitutes "expensive" and "less expensive"? I mean, those terms change depending on who you're talking to, right? What's expensive to you or I might be a pittance to a rock star. So let's say expensive is anything over $1,000 street price. Yes, that's a rather arbitrary figure, and you can spend as much as you wish on an "expensive" limited edition acoustic guitar!

As for "less expensive," we're talking about excellent instruments from manufacturers like Martin, Taylor and Fender with street prices of $500 or less, but the really great values come in the $650-$950 range.

What determines a guitar's price? Is it the name on the headstock?
Well, yes and no. Naturally, if you're purchasing a guitar that will last you, well, forever, you can pretty much be certain that the outstanding brand names like Martin, Taylor, Gibson and Guild will all be solid investments. I've also personally been very impressed by the high end acoustics being produced by Takamine. In fact, I currently own just one acoustic guitar, and it's a Takamine dreadnought loosely based on a post-war Martin D-series. It just so happens that everything about this instrument is perfect for my personal needs, and I plan to keep it for the rest of my life (and longer if I can figure out exactly how to do that).

But back to our topic. Almost everything about an acoustic guitar's value can be linked to the premium tone woods used in their construction. Unlike electric guitars, there's really no other significant factor involved. There are no issues with pickups, vibrato tailpieces and so forth. It always comes down to the wood, because essentially, every acoustic is just a whole bunch of wood parts glued together, along with metal tuners, fret wire and a bone or ivoroid nut and saddle plus some additional cosmetics like pearl dots or abalone inlays.

A thorough discussion of tone woods could easily fill a book, but you can typically begin with the materials used in construction (including premium timbers such as Sitka spruce, maple, mahogany and rosewood). As an example, highly figured maple or Koa backs and sides will certainly command higher prices than relatively plainer woods. What's more, certain woods are now in short supply, like Brazilian rosewood, so an instrument built using this particular wood will command a premium price (that is, if it's even available). Incidentally, if you want to impress your guitar player friends, you might toss off this tidbit on your next night out: Brazilian rosewood is not actually a rose wood - it's in the Dalbergia family and it's much more commonly called jacaranda. Jacaranda trees are found in many areas and have even been planted in South Florida. The name rosewood comes from the smell of the cut wood, which has a fragrance much like roses. Hah! Let's see anyone top that bit of trivia!

Another important aspect in the price-to-performance ratio is whether the instrument is built by a skilled craftsman using hand-picked timbers. The best handmade guitars will take much longer to produce than those which are mass-produced in an assembly-line environment, as a truly gifted luthier will spend a great deal of time selecting every piece of wood used in construction, as each will play an important part in the complex tonal structure of the instrument.
Guitar pricing is also influenced by the quantity and quality of the ornamentation. As an example, one of Martin's current top-of-the-line models is the D-50 K2 Deluxe, which features solid, highly figured flamed Koa for the front, back and sides, with Herringbone Pearl rosette and Grained Ivoroid body binding, a solid mahogany neck with solid black ebony fingerboard and mother-of-pearl and abalone heart inlays. List price? $47,500 - but you know the saying: If you have to ask, you probably can't afford it.

Today, your "budget instruments" may rely on high quality wood laminates or even special man-made materials that have proven to be surprisingly good substitutes for more costly wood products. In fact, Ovation was a pioneer in the use of non-wood materials with the introduction of their Lyrachord (fiberglass) "bowl back" guitars in the 1970s. Even some of their top end instruments, like the Adamas, may have a "sandwich" top of carbon fibers and birch.

Most recently, some manufacturers have been looking to less expensive timbers that still produce excellent sound quality. These include bubinga, sapele, padauk, nato and wenge. If you're interested, set aside a few hours and browse the Web for information about these non-traditional woods. I find the topic fascinating, but that's just me...

What is the benefit of an acoustic-electric?
Essentially, the earliest acoustic-electrics were simply acoustic guitars that had a standard magnetic pickup installed either in the soundhole or at the neck joint (as in the Gibson J160E, which was popularized by the Beatles on many hit records). Though these instruments could now be amplified, feedback was a constant problem, as was the compromised sonics, as the pickups could not handle the complex high frequency overtones produced by an acoustic instrument. In the late 1960s, all that changed when Ovation designed the piezoelectric bridge pickup. Rather than depending upon simple microphonics to increase volume, piezos amplified the actual vibrations of the guitar top and body and hence produced a more natural "acoustic tone." Over the years, many advances were made to help deliver a convincing acoustic guitar sound at concert hall volumes, with each manufacturer producing their own specific variation on what is now commonly called the acoustic-electric (or "electro-acoustic") guitar.

Most recently, Line 6, a company that built its reputation on complex "modeling" technology, unveiled the Variax, which can reproduce remarkably accurate models of popular electric and acoustic guitars. Their newest innovation, the Variax Acoustic 700 is devoted to reproducing the most popular acoustic guitar sounds (for more, see the review in my previous Tech Notes Online column).

Given all that, the most important benefits of your modern electro-acoustic is the ability to play at concert hall levels and still retain the shimmering overtones of your instrument, but without the feedback usually associated with high volume levels. Another benefit might be the ability to plug your guitar directly into a mixing console, without the need for an expensive mic, not to mention a relatively noise-free environment to record in.

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 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 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 the 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 J45, the J160E (as used by the Beatles) and the "Super Jumbo J200," 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

The wrap-up!
No matter what your budget, Sweetwater has a full line of acoustic and acoustic-electric guitars in virtually every price level. You dollar buys you more today in terms of sound quality and playability than at any other time in history. With a huge inventory and sales people who truly understand the needs of today's musicians, one thing is certain: Sweetwater has your new guitar right here, ready to ship to your doorstep! What's more, you can rest easy knowing that your purchase is backed by the industry's best service and tech support team, as well as the company's "no hype, no hassles" return policy!

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