Many factors affect the acoustic guitar’s sound quality. Among the most important are the tonewoods that are used to produce the soundboard (top), sides, and back. The sound quality is produced by 4 major things in general, assuming the player is skilled:
- The strings
- The tonewoods
- The craftsmanship
- and finish of the acoustic guitar
For this particular article, we will focus on the tonewoods. Whether you are a beginner looking to buy the best beginner acoustic guitar, or more experienced player, be sure to understand more about tonewoods before making the commitment.
The top or soundboard of the guitar is perhaps one of the most influential pieces. The top of the guitar is made of different kinds of woods, but a few are very popular:
Sitka Spruce is the most popular tonewood used for guitar tops because of its straight grain pattern, strength to weight ratio, and abundance. Sitka produces a well-balanced sound in the bass, mid-range and treble or high frequencies.
Engelmann Spruce is like Sitka Spruce, only it is less in supply and fewer soundboards can be produced from a single tree based on the tree’s girth. Englemann is the choice in some higher priced guitars, and has unique tone qualities that rival Sitka Spruce, yet not producing quite the same sound velocity and therefore a reduce output or sound projection.
Cedar is the most popular tonewood for acoustic classical guitar tops. Cedar is another straight, finely-grained wood and provides a more mellow, rich tone when compared with Sitka Spruce.
Mahogany is more widely used in the necks, sides and backs of many acoustic guitars because of it’s strength and sound qualities. It is not the most popular top or soundboard wood used but has been used in many acoustic guitar models.
Maple is the lowest in sound velocity, and is used for specific instances when a guitar with a more muted tone is desired. Although the top of the guitar is the most important pieceThe sides and back of the acoustic guitar are the next most important permanent part of the guitar that affect the overall tone quality and sound profile of the guitar, affecting 4 factors of the sound profile:
- High range (treble)
- Mid range
- Low range (bass)
- And overall projection
Two of the most popular tonewoods for the sides and back in higher quality guitars are:
Rosewood and Mahogany.
There are different species of both, but we will simply talk about how the general characteristics of the two affect and shape the tone of the acoustic guitar.
Rosewood (common types are East Indian and Brazilian), give the acoustic guitar a full sound with projection in all 3 ranges, and more so in the bass range than Mahogany and other tonewoods.
Mahogany projects more in the mid range and high range. When played next to an acoustic guitar made with Rosewood sides and back, a discerning ear can certainly notice the fuller, bass balanced sound from a Rosewood acoustic guitar.
Other woods that are also commonly used in making the back and sides of the acoustic guitar include:
African Sapele – giving a brighter tone similar to Mahogany
Nato (cheaper species of Mahogany)
Koa (Hawaiian exotic wood) giving a lush, richer sound similar to Hawaiian steel slide guitars
Maple – giving a brighter, higher end sound with lower projection qualities due to the reduced sound velocity of the wood.
Composite – man made materials that have been used in producing the sides and back of many guitars in attempt to produce guitars with less wood materials, being cheaper in manufacturing costs.
Without knowing it, a beginning guitarist can make a choice of instrument that may hinder his or her progress as a player. This is true of all guitars, whether electric or acoustic but in this article we’re going to focus on one particular aspect of the acoustic guitar and that is its body shape.
Most people typically divide guitars into two classes – acoustic and electric. “Acoustic” in this particular case simply means “not electric,” which can get a bit confusing when talking about classical guitars or “electric-acoustic” models.
It has become more a convention these days to think of guitars in three distinct types – classical guitars, acoustic guitars and electric guitars. There are, of course, exceptions, not to mention many different “sub-categories” within each type.
For our discussion, we want to think of “acoustic” as “metal string flat-top guitars that do not require amplification.” “Acoustic” is certainly a lot easier to say than all that! Acoustics differ from classical in one main aspect. The strings of a classical guitar are nylon while acoustics are metal.
But it’s also important to realize at this point that acoustics have many shapes. When someone says “acoustic guitar,” we may have a general picture in our head but we don’t always give that picture a distinct shape.
Most acoustic guitars are what are called “dreadnought” style.
Classical guitars are direct descendants of the first six-string guitars that began to appear at the very end of the 1700’s. Besides having nylon strings, they are usually slightly smaller than typical acoustic guitars, particularly the dreadnought style. Classical guitars usually have a wider fingerboard and slightly shorter necks. The fretboard joins the body at the twelfth fret instead at the fourteenth, as most acoustics do.
You can see that, compared to the classical guitar shape, the dreadnought is bigger and boxier. Its “hips” are not as defined, the body is more rectangular than rounded. It’s like someone was trying to carve out a classical guitar body but didn’t have the confidence to make it come out as curvy so he played it safe.
The dreadnought body is also usually a bit deeper. This is very important because this added depth, combined with the general boxiness of the dreadnought can make it difficult for a beginner to hold comfortably. Particularly when you take into account that the beginner is often going to try to tip the fretboard of the guitar upward in order to peek at his or her fingers!
For smaller people and for people with shorter arms, and for many women, a dreadnought style guitar is simply uncomfortable to hold. It digs into their arms when they reach around to strum and they can’t always get good position with their fretting hand to cleanly finger the notes they want to play.
But if you go into a music store, chances are very likely that more than half (and probably up to ninety percent) of the guitars they have to offer are going to be dreadnoughts. Obviously, you might think that you have to settle for one. Don’t. If you find holding a guitar uncomfortable, regardless of what type of guitar it is, first ask a friend or a salesperson if you’re holding it correctly. Don’t by shy about this. After all, if you’re going to buy a guitar you want it to be a good fit for you.
If you’re still having problems with the dreadnought, ask to check out a classical. Even if you don’t have any intention of buying one! The object here is to examine the fit, to see whether or not the size and shape of the classical makes it easier for you to hold and strum the guitar. Chances are likely (again, if you’re female or have small arms) that you will find the classical shape more to your liking.
And, fortunately, they do make acoustic guitars in similar sizes and shapes. Depending on the manufacturer, these can be called “folk” or “auditorium” or “parlor” style guitars.
When at the music store, check around to see if they have other types of acoustic guitars besides dreadnoughts for you to try out. Nowadays more stores are trying to keep a number of “non-dreadnought” style guitars in hand to accommodate players who either want a different sound or need a guitar that is a better physical match for them in terms of size and shape.
This may seem like more work than you’re interested in doing, especially since you’re first starting out on guitar. But you wouldn’t believe how many people start playing and then stop because of frustration in getting clean and clear notes. And in more cases than one will probably admit, the culprit is not the novice guitarist, but rather the guitar that he or she is trying to learn on. Someone may inherit a guitar or be given a guitar and of course you want to learn on it. The last thing you want to hear is that your guitar is keeping you from learning. That may mean investing in a new guitar and then what if you don’t like playing?
This is why it’s important to try out different sized and shaped guitars as soon as you discover you’ve an interest in playing. It doesn’t mean that you have to go right out and buy a different guitar, but it does help you discover that, yes you can play a C chord on a guitar that fits your shape.
Even if you’ve decided to buy a guitar through the Internet, go to your local shop to try out different styles of guitars so that you are aware of which ones fit you best. When you’re buying a guitar off the Internet, be sure you know what style and size it is. The research you’ve done by going to shops will help minimize the chances of you getting a guitar that doesn’t fit you. Above all, know what the return policies are wherever you purchase a guitar, online or no.
So you’re eager to learn, ready to play and willing to spend hours with your new instrument once you’ve found the right one. But, if you don’t know what to look for (and listen for), finding the right one might not be as easy as you think…
If like me, you’ve had some bad experiences with sales reps, you’ll know that they do not always have your best interest at heart. Many are commission driven and willing to sell you anything and everything at the highest price, especially when they realize you’re a first time buyer.
Of course it’s not that way with all music store sales reps and many (or most) may be genuinely interested in helping you get the best instrument based on your experience level and budget.
Whatever the case may be, it’s good to be in the know-how on some basic fundamentals of guitar construction. When buying a guitar, these pointers will help you know what to look for and what to avoid:
Check the Action – Action refers to the amount of pressure you need to apply to the strings to have them resonate clearly. Guitars with higher action usually create painful problems for new players. Specifically ask for a guitar with low action then play and strum a few chords to determine if its right for you.
Check the neck for bends. Hold the guitar horizontally in front of you, with the neck pointing away from your face and observe the line of the neck. Is it aligned parallel to the strings or does it have a slight bend in one area? We’re looking for a straight neck.
Look for fret buzz. Ever played a note and have the string vibrate against the frets? This is called fret buzz and is something we want to avoid. Play notes on different frets on all six string and look and listen for fret buzz. On cheaper guitars you might encounter fret buzz on some higher frets (especially on the bass strings) and while it’s not the end of the world, we’re looking for an instrument with little to no fret buzz.
If you’re buying a guitar, observe the quality of the tuners. The tuners and machine heads will determine how long your guitar will stay in tune once you start practicing regularly. Manufacturers sometimes cut costs, by investing in less than ideal tuners for new models. Specifically ask about the quality of the tuners.
Look for cracks and creaks in the body. Inspect the front and back of the guitar body and look for cracks, scratches or anything undesirable.
If your guitar-to-be has a pickup, insist on listening to it plugged and unplugged. Judge the quality of the pickup (s) by plugging the guitar into an amp and playing a bit. Take as much time as you need and play open chords, barre chords, scales, riffs and whatever else you can. Make sure you like the sound of your guitar.
Warranty. Ensure you get a cover-it-all warranty for at least a couple of months or a year or two. It’s usually worth paying $10 or $20 for an extended warranty.
When buying a guitar always get Discount! Never, and I mean never pay the retail price. Music stores operate on the basis of discount and haggling and if you’re not initially presented a better price than the one advertised, you should ask for one and will likely get a couple of bucks of. ‘What’s your best price?’
The following nine lower priced beginner acoustic guitars all offer great value for their respective price tags.
Seagull S6 – These Canadian-made instruments are terrific guitars – very highly regarded, both for their beautiful sound, and their excellent value. The S6 features a solid cedar top, and mahogany back and sides. Although the price may be slightly above what some might be willing to pay for a first guitar, it should be considered an investment.
Yamaha FG700S – Perhaps not in the same league as the Seagull, the FG700S is still a solid beginner acoustic guitar, and for the price (significantly cheaper than the S6), it’s a good value. Guitar features a solid sitka spruce top, with nato back and sides.
Takamine G-340 – This beginner model Takamine guitar features a laminated spruce top. Although it clearly isn’t on par with some of the higher end Takamine guitars, the general consensus is the G-340 offers a pretty good bang for the buck.
Fender CD-140S – This lower cost Fender acoustic boasts a solid spruce top, with laminated mahogany back and sides. Cheaper Fender products tend to be occasionally guilty of lackluster workmanship, but, considering the solid spruce top, this beginner acoustic guitar could be attractive to newbies.
Epiphone DR-100 – The DR-100 features a spruce top, with mahogany back and sides. This guitar can usually be found at a rather cheap price, which makes it attractive to beginners. Most consider this a strictly beginner instrument, however, so it may not be long before you’ll want to trade up.
Fender DG-8S – This is a low-priced acoustic guitar is bundled in a beginner’s package by Fender. The top of the guitar is solid Sitka spruce, with mahogany back and sides. Not a guitar you’ll keep around forever, but should serve the beginner guitarist well.
Ibanez AC30NT – The Ibanez AC30NT is another well-constructed instrument with solid Engelmann spruce top, and mahogany back and sides. This combination creates a warm, bottom-end tone with bright highs.
Taylor Baby Taylor – This is a 3/4 size dreadnought guitar, making it a good choice for younger guitarists with smaller hands. Taylor has a reputation for being one of America’s greatest guitar makers, and although they’ve cut a few corners here to meet a low-price point, this is still a solid instrument.
Martin LX1 – One of the most highly esteemed guitar makers has provided this 3/4 size guitar, designed for guitarists with small hands and small pocketbooks. The LXI features a solid sapele top, back and sides.