The acoustic guitar has been around for centuries and is one of the most beautiful instruments available on the market to date. They range from the crummy plywood copies that you see in a pawn shop to the high end masterpieces that cost upwards of $15 000 – $40 000. This leaves a guitarist between a rock and a hard place with a lot of questions.
What qualifies as a great acoustic? Do they have to cost that much money? What makes up an acoustic? All of these questions and more will be answered in this guide
In this edition:
In addition to answering the above questions, we’ll examine some great guitars that are affordable and offer amazing quality. Learn what to look for when shopping for a guitar and how you can get an instrument that fits your budget.
The Guitar That Started It All.
In the beginning.
We’ve all dreamt of that moment where we’ve finally saved up enough cash to get our dream acoustic. Whether you just want one on the side to enhance your playing skills, or you want to be known as the best acoustic guitarist the world has ever heard, you need to know what you want.
I remember the first time I saw an acoustic guitar that was priced at over $3000. My jaw dropped as I picked it up and began to play it. In my head, I just had to have this guitar. As I became more accomplished, I ran into more guitarists who paid upwards of $4000 for their axe’s.
This seemed so unreasonable to me. Why did these guitars cost so much? What made them better than that $3000 “Professional” electric guitar? How could a guy like me get a good acoustic that could give me professional results for less money?
All of these questions rolled through my brain. When I started to research acoustics a few years ago, I soon learned of the complex construction and craftsmanship that goes into a well made acoustic. Unlike many electrics, building an acoustic involves far more than cutting the wood and sanding it to shape.
Internally, there is a lot that the eye doesn’t see. Some of the finer attributes include bracing, wood choice, various joints, neck construction, and many other little touches that make a big impact on sound. All of these things take time to do, and a talented luthier to do them right.
The bottom line is that you get what you pay for. With lower end guitars, machines do all of the work. This makes for fast and easy production. They are reliable and somewhat precise, which usually gives people like you and I a half decent guitar to play.
However, if there’s a lemon to be produced, it is usually traced back to a faulty robot. This is why the higher end guitars are mainly made by hand.
The more human contact, the finer the instrument. When you add up the cost of materials and craftsmanship, it’s easy to see how the price skyrockets for some of these guitars. It’s not unlike a custom motorcycle. You’ll pay up to four times the cost but in the end you get something that fits you and is made from the finest parts.
The good news is that you can get great sounding acoustics for under $1000. You just need to do some research of your own and be patient when shopping. While many professional guitarists think that a professional acoustic starts at $5000, I firmly believe it starts at your finger tips.
Learn how to play well and you can make a $600 acoustic sound far more expensive. Keep this in mind and don’t get bogged down by the music industries version of cool. We’re going to run through the different components of an acoustic guitar and you’ll be left with a new outlook on what qualities to look for in an acoustic.
Types of acoustics.
As you may have noticed already by walking into your local music store, there are many different kinds of acoustics out there. Some can act like an electric guitar, while others have 12 strings. Each class of acoustic has it’s own purpose and produces a different tone.
The unfortunate thing about acoustics is that many guitarists buy them not knowing what they’re buying. Perhaps you’re style leads you to want to do plenty of on stage performances but the guy at the music store said you’d be fine with a regular acoustic without a pickup system. You’d just have to mic it.
However, you end up getting a lot of feedback as a result and spend more money in the long run because you ended up putting an additional pickup system. While the mic setup may have been the first choice for someone else, it didn’t fit your lifestyle.
This doesn’t have to be you! Lets take a closer look at what is available to us.
6 String Acoustic – This is the most popular acoustic sold on the market today. The prices range from the cheap to the extravagant. It uses six steel string to give it a more sharp attack to the notes.
12 String Acoustic - This acoustic consist of 12 strings, each one smaller than the acoustic strings. Essentially, each pair of strings has one tuned to the regular tuning and the other tuned to it’s octave. This produces a very nice chorus effect, giving the impression of two acoustic guitars playing at once. They aren’t good for starting off on as they tend to require a little more technique and finger strength to hold all of the strings down at once.
Classical Acoustic – The classical has been around for quite a while. It has three nylon strings and three steel. This makes playing it a breeze. The neck is considerably thicker than its 6 string steel counterpart but is great for a number of styles. Has a much mellower tone to it, which can be a plus or a set back depending on what you intend to use it for.
Acoustic/Electric – The acoustic electric is simply a six string acoustic with a pickup placed inside of it so you can amplify your acoustic. You can do this for classical or steel string. Some come with a pickup while others require you to buy them. Great for playing in public.
Believe it or not, your sound is only as good as your wood. Each wood has a very distinct sound that is individual to every acoustic guitar. Like a finger print, it cannot be recreated, even if another piece of wood is taken from the same source.
This is due to the wood’s unique characteristics. Perhaps there are knots in the wood, or a slightly different grain pattern. Maybe there are some other subtle differences but in the end, it all affects how the wood resonates. Resonate is a fancy word for vibration, which is what wood does when you attach strings to it.
How freely the wood resonates will affect your volume (how loud you are) and your tone as a result of that. This explains why that plywood (laminate) guitar sitting in the pawnshop or music store doesn’t sound that great: The wood is too stiff to vibrate freely.
That’s why you may frequently hear the saying “Solid top”. While that may sound great in a sales pitch, the reason it’s actually important is that it’s real wood, not plywood. This transforms your tone to give you a much nicer sounding guitar.
Before the wood actually gets to your guitar, it undergoes quite a few steps. First off, most tone woods are either industrially logged. This is common for many production model guitars. Still sounds great in most cases, but there are some imperfections.
Higher end guitars have their wood hand selected. It is usually cut by hand and the select chunks are chosen for quality and then shipped back to home base for further processing.
Most manufactures of decent acoustic guitars season their woods for a period of time. This removes excess moisture and hardens the fats, oils, murr (gum), and other sticky googy things that are naturally found in wood. This seasoning protects the wood from warping and prepares it structurally for the building stage.
From that point, a piece of wood is then book matched. This is the process where one single cut of wood is sliced into two pieces. This forms two identical pieces of wood, which can then be used for the front or back of the guitar. That explains why you have that line running down the back of your guitar (it’s usually white). That line just covers up the seam.
Now, onto the woods. Here are some of the neatest and powerful woods out there:
Spruce – Spruce is an extremely strong wood, which is important for building a guitar. It offers some very nice crisp highs and a much more powerful volume. Great wood choice. Used on the majority of guitars.
Cedar – Slightly more mellow than Spruce and has a very warm feel to it. It has a beautiful glow and is aesthetically pleasing.
Maple - A great all round wood that offers a good balance of highs, mids and lows. This is something that many guitarists desire for an all round good projection and clean sound. However, because of this equal balance, it can also sound quite flat for the acoustic world so it’s often used on electrics. It is highly desired for it’s beautiful grain and lusture.
Koa – Known for it’s high range, Koa is known for it’s solid tone. It doesn’t have a good bass response but makes up for it in the high end of the dynamic sound spectrum.
Mahogany – Great projection and nice treble. The flatpickers dream when combined with the dreadnaught body type because it offers such a great response and tone.
Brazilian Rosewood – This wood is probably the most wanted piece of wood for guitars in the world. It’s becoming increasingly rare as it’s becoming extinct, therefore jacking up the price tremendously. It offers a huge bass response with nice treble and mids. Unfortunately, most only come on limited edition guitars that are at the top end of the price spectrum.
Indian Rosewood – The more popular alternative to Brazilian Rosewood and is far more accessible. Has virtually the same tonal characteristics, just not as powerful. It’s used on most professional guitars.
Cocobolo – My personal favorite! In my humble opinion, it takes many characteristics from the above woods and combines them to form a truly unique sound. It produces a great bass, awesome volume and phenomenal overtones. This wood will most likely be on my next acoustic. I suggest you do the same.
…Keep in mind that there are many, many more species of tone woods available to you. There are also some great subtypes of the above woods. For example, Taylor guitars use Sitka Spruce on many of their models and limited edition guitars. It’s in the family of spruce, but offers something different.
In the end, the above comments are extremely subjective. While I have played many of the woods mentioned above, my ear likes things that your ear may not. The only way to find out is to hunt them down and try them for yourself. Many companies use the above woods listed, so it shouldn’t be extremely difficult.
The pickup was the core ingredient that made the electric guitar possible. Now manufactures have transformed the acoustic world by introducing pickups that allows that beautiful acoustic sound to be amplified.
Every year we are left in awe with the new technology being developed and think, “How could they out do this?” Yet they constantly rise the bar higher. The top systems that have been introduced over the last three to four years are here to stay.
While the models may be refined again and again, I think we’re just getting started down a new path to acoustic amplification.
We’re going to take a snapshot at some of the most popular pickups released by various manufacturers over the last few years. Lets get started.
The Expression System (Made by Taylor Guitars) - This is one of the most innovative pickups systems on the market today. Far too often the sound of your beautiful acoustic is altered when put through amplification and Taylor set out to put an end to that.
It uses a system of sensors strategically located in the neck, and two in different areas within the body. These sensors are known as “Dynamic String Sensorsâ„¢”. They measure string vibrations throughout the body and convert them to an electric signal which is then transferred to the preamp. In short, it uses a contact pickup system.
The reason why the ES produces such a natural tone is due to it’s multifaceted approach to the electronic placement. There isn’t just one specific area around the sound hole being covered by a mic, rather, the entire body and neck.
Now you can shape your sound via three discrete knobs. The truth of the matter is that you may not want to use them because the guitar sounds so good on it’s own.
I haven’t seen another pickup system quite like this, nor do I anticipate to see one to match it for quite a while. Go check them out for yourself and hear the difference.
Piezo System – This is an under the saddle pickup that consist of a strip of piezo electric crystals that line up below the strings. These pick up the vibrations and transfer them into an electric signal. They are generally used by manufacturers in student level instruments but some companies have taken them to a new level.
Fishman and L.R. Baggs are examples of companies that have used piezo technology to produce decent sound quality.
The number one complaint associated with these pickups is that they sound extremely bright and have a verily weak output volume. It’s a great choice for anyone who wants to keep things simple and relatively cheap. You’ll have to spend some time working on your tone but you can compensate by using a few different pedals and making use of a sound board.
Aura System (Made by Martin) - I really like the ingenuity of this pickup system. Martin combined the best of two worlds to create something known as the “Aura system”. In reality, it’s just a form of a blender that uses an actual mic and the piezo element to produce a more natural sound.
I use Martin as the example here because they did a great job. However, there are feedback problems with these pickup systems that can jeopardize your gig if you’re not paying close attention.
The condenser mic in and of itself is nice but doesn’t add a tonne of color until you mix in the saddle pickup. While that’s my personal opinion, many other guitarists seem to agree with me.
Magnetic Soundhole Pickups – These pickups are modeled after the electric guitar. They look like electric pickups and function in the same way. The good news with these pickups is that feedback is rarely a problem.
The bad news is that they look awkward and you’ll have a cord hanging from the side of your guitar unless you get a jack put onto the end of your guitar. That’s kind of a bummer because it costs more money to put in a jack. However, if you’re looking for something cheap and affordable, this may be a great option for you.
Every acoustic model has it’s own body type. Some are smaller in stature, some are larger, and some fall in between. They all have different size curves and details. While they may have these curves and shapes in the same places, the size of the guitar combined with these curves produces a very unique tone known only to that individual instrument.
When playing various guitars, it is relatively easy to hear how an acoustic guitar’s physical dimensions project, contour and balance the tone it produces. Through the generations there have been a few model shapes that have stuck around.
While different companies make slight adjustments on the various models, they still resemble the classic shapes to some degree. Here are the four most common shapes available on the market today and a description of the sound they produce.
Dreadnaught – Made famous by Martin guitars, the dreadnaught earned it’s name from the great British battle ships of World War I. Very nice all around tone with pronounced bass response and great treble tone. This model is slightly chunky but many prefer it over any other due to it’s pallet of tones.
Jumbo – If you thought that the dreadnaught was big, it doesn’t have anything on the jumbo. Introduced by Gibson, the jumbo has been first choice for many of the artists in Nashville. It’s considerably louder and has a very deep tone. Treble can get lost on a six string due to being over powered by the bass. However, when you slap on 12 strings, you get a wider range of frequencies, making for a very well balanced guitar. That’s why you’ll see many jumbos serving as 12 strings.
Concert - The smallest shape. Great for the stage as you can control feedback issues and have a tighter handle on your fretboard. Every time your body gets smaller, you loose certain frequencies. In this case, the guitar sounds on the higher end of the spectrum because the bass tones don’t come out that well.
Auditorium – The bass is slightly less pronounced on this guitar. You also lose some volume. The bass aside, the only real difference that separates this shape from the dreadnaught is size. This guitar is far more cozy and controllable.
Buying an Acoustic
Correct me if I’m wrong, but my guess is that 95% of us don’t have the funds to run out and buy a $3000 acoustic right about now. A reasonable goal would probably lie around $600 for a decent acoustic guitar that you can have fun with.
When you’re shopping for an acoustic guitar, there are a few things you should be keeping in mind.
Make sure that the guitar has a straight neck. This is important for sound quality and comfort. You can judge this by brining the neck to eye level and looking for any obvious bows. This takes a relatively trained eye, so you might want to bring along someone with experience to assist you. If the neck needs to be straightened, the shop should do it for you free of charge or for a small fee.
Insure that the guitar has good action. Action is the string height above the fretboard. If it’s too low it buzzes but if it’s too high you’ll have a very hard time playing the guitar.
Insure it has a solid top. This will give you a much nicer tone as discussed previously. Spruce is the most common but go for what you like the best.
If your guitar has electronics, test them out. Make sure you like the amplified sound before you buy the guitar.
…With those simple tips in mind, you should be armed with enough knowledge to hunt down a great acoustic guitar to suit you. Enjoy and happy hunting!