FAQ: What Should I Look for When Buying an Acoustic Guitar?
And we’re back with another installment of the popular Guitar Adventures series, Questions Beginner Guitarists Ask! While last week I shared some interesting tips on how to buy an electric guitar, this week we’ll focus our attention on my personal favorite: the acoustic guitar.
Question: How can I choose a quality acoustic guitar?
This is a pertinent question since there is such a flood of cheap, low-quality guitars on the market today. This is especially true online but I’ve even been surprised by what I’ve seen at guitar stores as well.
What I’m going to share with you below will help you be a smart guitar buyer who knows how to determine the quality of the guitar without a salesperson trying to tell you what’s right.
What to Look For | Buying an Acoustic Guitar
Unlike electric guitars, where poor quality can often be masked with pedals and a good-sounding amplifier, the quality of an acoustic guitar can make or break your playing experience.
As I shared in an earlier article on the differences between solid top and laminate guitars, an experiment was once conducted by Taylor Guitars, a high-quality guitar manufacturer, wherein they used wood from a crate pallet to produce a guitar that sounded incredible. What they proved in this experiment was that just because you see an acoustic guitar has “Indian Rosewood” or a “solid top”, you should not automatically assume it sounds better than a high-quality guitar made of lesser woods.
So with that in mind, let’s look at a few tips to help you discern a good quality guitar while you’re shopping.
Tip #1: Focus First on the Body Style
Before you start comparing prices in the store (or checking out prices online), the one thing you need to determine is the style of guitar you want to purchase. Often this can only be done by playing the various styles, but it’s important none-the-less, especially if you plan to buy online.
While body style definitely contributes to the overall sound of the guitar, the reason this is so important has more to do with the comfortability of the guitar you choose. You want it to fit your body, your hand, your preference. There are slim guitars, half-size guitars, jumbo guitars, etc. The most popular is the dreadnaught guitar, but even this style has many variations.
When you sit down in the music store, set the guitar in your lap and ask yourself these questions:
- How does the body of the guitar feel between my chest and strumming arm? Too big or too small?
- Does my chord hand feel like it can comfortably fit around the neck?
- Does this particular style fit my preference?
Remember, there are no wrong answers here. Before you move to sound, first focus on comfort. In the end, I believe it will save you time.
Tip #2: Have Somebody Else Play the Guitar
Once you’ve determined the style of guitar you can go about picking the guitar that fits that style and you think sounds best.
There are two parts to understanding the sound of a guitar: 1) resonation and 2) projection. As a player, you can get the best feel for the resonation of the guitar – how does the wood vibrate against your body when you strum? Pick up and play enough guitars and you’ll be able to notice a difference.
What many people fail to do when shopping for a guitar, however, is to listen to the projection of a guitar. This is something you can’t do by yourself – you need to have somebody else playing the guitar (yet another reason to have a friend come with you shopping!)
Stand in front of the person playing the guitar you’re looking at and ask yourself these questions:
- When played loudly, is the sound projecting clearly?
- When played softly, does the sound still project strong?
- Do I like the balance of bass/treble (i.e. high vs low tones)?
Again, there really are no wrong answers here, it’s just good to hear the guitar from a different perspective.
Tip #2: Check Action and Intonation
While this isn’t something you can do while shopping online, it’s important while in a store to check out the action and intonation of a guitar. These are both things that can be adjusted – which is good news for those buying online – but when you’re in a store it’s even more important.
It’s for the simple reason that guitar stores are incentivized to properly set up a guitar for prospective buyers. If they can’t get the action and intonation correct, it’s likely the guitar manufacturing just isn’t the quality you’re going to want to invest in.
Here’s how to check the action: get eye-level with the 12th fret of the guitar and see how far the strings are from the fretboard. For those with a ruler you can do measurements. For those without a ruler, the general rule is that you shouldn’t be able to see a noticeable increase in distance between the 5th and 12th fret with the naked eye.
Here’s how to check the intonation: there are two quick ways to check intonation. The first is to just play a chord, like the D chord, and then play that same chord starting on the 14th fret (without a barre). If they sound exactly the same tone, you’re good. I prefer the harmonics method, though. Play an open string and compare it against the 12th-fret harmonic. They should be identical, and if they’re not the guitar either has not been properly set up or is not a quality guitar.
Tip #4: Things to Consider for Acoustic-Electrics
At this point, I want to turn our attention to acoustic-electric guitars which have gained in popularity over the past decade or so. It’s now actually quite difficult to find an acoustic guitar that doesn’t have electronics.
As you can imagine, though, not all electronics are created equal. When you’re looking at a guitar with electronics, you should ask yourself the following questions:
- Is the battery easily accessible? (i.e. can I change the battery without taking off all the guitar strings?)
- Does it come with an on-board tuner? (if it doesn’t, you’ll need to look at other guitar tuners)
These questions don’t touch on the actual quality of the electronics, but they’re still important to ask. My suggestion is to stick with electronics that are manufactured by well-known companies like Fishman.
Tip #5: The All-Important Final Exam
This final tip is the most important, especially since by this point in your guitar-buying you’ve probably become emotionally attached to the guitar you’re looking at.
The fact is that you never know how long an acoustic guitar has been in storage, on the floor or in the hands of other prospective buyers. It’s not a bad idea to do a thorough inspection of the guitar and look for the following:
- Splits or Cracks of any size: even hairline fractures can be indicative of a bigger problem with an acoustic guitar.
- Sinking or Rising Top Face: again, another indication that the guitar hasn’t been properly stored
- Proper Neck/Body Joint: at no point should there be any gap between the heel of the neck and guitar body. If so, this is an indication of a poor-quality joint connection.
Following these simple tips should allow you to purchase your next guitar with confidence, even if it’s your first guitar. A guitar is an investment, so don’t settle for something that doesn’t sound as good as you’d like or has a small split in the wood. You’ll regret it in the future.
In the end, stretching your budget might not be a bad idea in order to get the quality acoustic guitar that you want to invest in.