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In the market for a new acoustic guitar?
How do different materials affect the tone and feel of a guitar?
Here are 5 things you need to look out for when picking your next acoustic guitar.
The purchase of a new instrument should never be rushed into. When you’re looking for a new acoustic guitar, you need to take a few things into consideration.
Some of the biggest factors that affect both the sound and price of any given acoustic guitar are the types of wood used, the type of bracing used, and the construction of the other elements in the guitar like the bridge, tuners, pickup, etc.
With all that in mind, one of the harshest realities to understand about acoustic guitars is that, to a certain extent, you get what you pay for.
A $2000 acoustic guitar will feature a much higher level of craftsmanship than a $200 guitar. But that is not to say that the $200 guitar can’t be a great guitar with a little love and tweaking, or that you should only bother buying a $2000 guitar because anything else just will not sound “good enough”. Ultimately the best instrument for you is the one that you like playing the most, where everything feels just right.
With all that said, here are some important things to keep in mind next time you find yourself in the market for a new acoustic guitar.
What To Look For When Buying An Acoustic Guitar?
One of the biggest things that affect an acoustic guitar’s tone, regardless of the price range, is the wood used in the construction of the guitar. It’s also important that you check if the guitar is constructed of solid wood or if it uses wood laminates.
All solid wood guitars are usually higher quality instruments because of the extra workmanship that goes into shaping the guitar from a solid piece of wood instead of using various pieces of “scrap” wood that typically make up wood laminates.
For the most part, guitars in the sub $600 range are not made of all solid wood, but they almost all feature a solid top. This refers to the front part of the guitar body where the soundhole is and where the bridge is attached. This is what vibrates and helps create the guitar’s tone when you strum it.
If you see a guitar without a solid top, for any price point, run very far away from it, because it is probably not going to sound very good.
One final factor to understand about acoustic guitars is that guitars made from all solid wood (and not synthetic materials) will start to sound better with age, as long as you take care of them.
Much like a fine wine, the more the wood resonates from playing and allows itself to “breathe”, the more unique and detailed the tone becomes. This is largely why well-kept vintage acoustic guitars can cost almost as much as a brand new car.
2. Type Of Wood
Another important element to be aware of when looking at an acoustic guitar is the actual type of wood used in the construction of the guitar’s neck and body.
Most acoustic guitars feature a spruce top, which is known for its bright projection and snappy articulation, but Mahogany or other woods are also frequently used.
For guitar necks, back and sides, Mahogany, Maple, Sapele, or Walnut are all common in “affordable” acoustic guitars, while more expensive instruments might use rosewood or exotic types.
The material used to construct the fingerboard and bridge also plays a role in an acoustic guitar’s overall sound. Playability will also be affected by the materials chosen here, as will the weight and sturdiness of the instrument.
While there are not technically any “rules” as to what kind of wood you should use in an acoustic guitar, there is a general consensus that spruce is a no-brainer decision.
The top of an acoustic guitar is the most important part of the instrument (it is where the sound actually comes from), and having a wood that both sounds great and is reliable is of paramount importance.
Spruce topped guitars have been the norm on steel-string acoustic guitars for the better part of a century, with a rich, loud, and clear tone.
Traditionally, rosewood has been the wood of choice for fingerboards and bridges on acoustic guitars, and that remains common for more expensive guitars.
However, for instruments in the sub-600 price range, there has been a noticeable shift into alternative woods, due to scarcity of rosewood supply and rising costs.
Brazilian rosewood is regarded as the “creme de la creme” for acoustic guitars, but the supply has been depleted so much that it is now very hard to get without paying a premium. This means the supply available for guitars is extremely low and it is very expensive.
Indian rosewood, which is in a much larger supply (and is not regarded as having quite as good of a tone as Brazilian), has taken over as the “standard” rosewood on acoustic guitars. It is known for having a thicker and more midrange-focused sound.
Rosewood is used on the backs and sides of many acoustic guitars, but due to the very limited supply, these are generally only found on vintage instruments and very expensive current models. Rosewood is known for providing a clear low-end tone and a rich and sparkling high-end when used on the back and sides of an acoustic.
Mahogany is one of the most common woods used for acoustic guitars because it is easy to work with, durable, and provides a large amount of resonance. This makes it a no-brainer choice for the backs and sides of many guitars, but it is also used in tops for those looking for a “darker” sounding instrument.
Pau Ferro is becoming a new “standard” fingerboard for many affordable acoustics, as well as synthetic materials such as Richlite, as found on Martin guitars. Ebony is also a common wood used for both fingerboards and bridges.
3. Body Shape
Much like electric guitars, acoustic guitars are commonly constructed with a variety of different shapes and sizes that can have a significant impact on the tone of the guitar and the type of playing they are suited best for.
The most common body shapes for an acoustic guitar are Dreadnought, Auditorium, Jumbo, Parlor, and Grand Auditorium. There are lots of variations out there but the vast majority of acoustic guitars typically fall into one of these categories (or can at least be described as very similar to these).
Dreadnought-shaped acoustics are by far the most common and “standardized” guitar shape. When you think of a “classic” steel-stringed acoustic guitar you are likely thinking of a dreadnought.
These acoustic guitars have been the workhorses for thousands of musicians ranging from seasoned pros to beginners purchasing their first instrument. Dreadnought guitars are known for their powerful projection and balanced sound that works well for almost any playing style.
Auditorium guitars are about as common as Dreadnoughts but they sound quite different. Auditorium shaped guitars typically feature a slightly thinner body, as well as a tighter waist on their body.
These guitars respond better to those with a lighter touch and are frequently chosen for players who prefer to play fingerstyle. Auditorium guitars provide similar playability to a Dreadnought with lighter gauge strings.
That does not mean you cannot strum them, though, and they make great guitars for those who wish to play a little bit of everything from big strums to leads to fingerstyle.
Jumbo acoustics, like the name suggests, are the biggest bodied acoustic guitars you’ll find. They respond and perform in a similar way to a Dreadnought, but you will find they have an even bigger projection and bass response compared to a Dreadnought or Auditorium.
Due to their larger size, they require more energy to activate the wood and projection out of them, which makes them “big strummer” guitars.
Initially, they were conceived for players who wanted the sound of a Dreadnought but simply needed to be able to produce more volume. Nowadays they are prized for their big sound and heightened bass-response, frequently used in Country and other bigger band genres where an acoustic guitar needs to cut through a dense mix.
The grand auditorium represents a fairly new development in acoustic guitar design. It was initially developed by Taylor guitars in the 1990s that is effectively a cross between a Dreadnought and an Auditorium.
Grand Auditorium guitars have close to the same dimensions as a Dreadnought guitar, but feature the tighter waist of Auditorium guitars. This gives you the balanced but significant bass response of a Dreadnought coupled with the ease of playability and balance across the higher frequencies that you would find on an Auditorium.
Grand Auditorium guitars are now being chosen almost as frequently as Dreadnoughts by players looking for an acoustic that does it all.
4. Cutaway Or No Cutaway?
Another important element of acoustic guitar shape design is whether or not the guitar features a cutaway.
While those looking for a more traditional look and sound may not want their acoustic to feature a cutaway, for the modern musician, you likely want easier access to the upper frets. For the most part, the presence of a cutaway in an acoustic will not significantly affect the sound of the guitar in any way.
Luckily, most guitar manufacturers produce the same models with or without cutaways, meaning you can make the decision for yourself. Typically, the guitars without a cutaway are slightly less expensive due to the extra workmanship required to build the guitar with a cutaway. So if you are looking to save a few dollars and do not need access to the upper frets, you don’t need to worry about this.
5. Accessories – Pickups, Saddles, Nut Materials
While the body shape and tonewoods used will have the most significant effect on the way an acoustic guitar sounds, most budget acoustic guitars feature some number of other features that can make them more playable or a better overall purchase for their price.
Some common “upgrades” to look for in any acoustic guitar, are things like a pickup (making the guitar an acoustic-electric), as well as how fully-featured the pickup is (onboard tuner or tone/EQ controls). You’ll also want to look for a compensated saddle (which improves the intonation of the guitar), nut material (plastic, bone, or synthetic bone material), and if the guitar comes with a hard case or a gig bag.
Due to their more fragile design, it’s largely recommended to keep acoustic guitars in a hard case. Most guitars in the sub 600 price range do not typically come with a case, so the cost of a solid hard case is also an important budget factor to keep in mind.
So, if your dream acoustic guitar costs $500 on its own, be prepared to actually spend closer to $700 to get the instrument with a case to keep it protected.
If you end up getting a guitar with a pickup, you should look at a specialized acoustic guitar amplifier over a traditional guitar amp. The Yamaha THR3IIA is one excellent choice, and it’s also portable, making it perfect for street performances. Check out our review of the Yamaha THR3IIA to learn more.
It can be a little overwhelming to see all of the different information about acoustic guitars, so I’ve tried to distill a few great tips to keep in mind based on the overall price range of the instrument so you can make sure that you are getting the most out of the money you are spending.
Regardless of budget, you want to ensure that you are both getting an instrument that is going to work for you and allow you to perform at your best.
Any Price Range
Wood Construction (type, quality, how many pieces)
Solid Top construction
All Solid wood Construction
All Solid Wood construction, with traditional or high-quality tonewoods
Quality tuning machines
Higher quality pickup/preamp
High Quality pickup/preamp, or an internal microphone system
Traditional Tonewoods (Mahogany, Rosewood, Spruce)
High-quality tuners with high ratios
Types of Wood used
AAA Spruce top
Quality tuning machines
Compensated saddle and bone saddle/nut construction
Made in the USA or other major guitar production location
Brand recognizability (not a "budget" brand of a larger manufacturer)