Does a Solid Top Make a Difference on Beginner Guitars?

Different type of solid wood for guitars

One of the most often-asked questions I hear from people looking to buy their first guitar is the confusion around solid-top guitars and laminate guitars. These questions include:

  • Is a solid-top guitar really that much better than laminate?
  • Is it worth the extra $$ to purchase a solid top?
  • Do I want solid back/sides too?

These are all excellent questions and ones that I suspect every guitarist has asked at one point or another. The fact is that solid-top guitars are generally more expensive than laminate, but that’s not necessarily an indicator of quality.

Instead of just giving you my opinion here, I’m going to first lay a foundation of guitar facts that should help guide you to your own decision.

Solid Wood vs. Laminate Wood

Fact #1: Quality Manufacturing Trumps Quality Materials

The Taylor solid wood guitar - palette wood that isTaylor Guitars, a premier guitar maker based in California, once did a test that I found incredibly interesting. They created a guitar from scratch in their state-of-the-art manufacturing facility. Everything about the production of the guitar was the same as every other guitar they build except for one thing: they used wood from a warehouse pallet.

The surprising result was a guitar that fooled many people into thinking it was made from much better wood.

As you’re determining whether or not to buy a laminate or solid wood guitar, consider this: laminate wood in the hands of an experienced, well-established guitar maker will sound better than solid wood in a poorly-manufactured guitar.

Fact #2: Not All Laminate Wood is Equal

Laminate wood is manufactured, not milled like traditional wood. What this means is that everything – from the manufacturing plant to the glue and especially to the type of hardwood base – affects the quality of the laminate wood.

It stands to reason that a laminate maple will sound better than laminate sapele wood, for the same reason that solid maple will sound better than solid sapele. The biggest sonic difference between a laminate and a solid is that laminates tend not to resonate sound as well.

Considering the type wood during your solid/laminate decision is important. Although few, there are times when a high-quality laminate wood might be a better option than a low-quality solid.

Fact #3: Laminate Wood Resist the Elements

It’s almost impossible to escape the fact that solid-wood guitars are more susceptible to changes in humidity than laminate-wood guitars. And the results are often devastating – terrible, terrible cracks.

Laminate wood is well-known to resist the elements much better than solid woods, which make it a great option for people that prefer to hang their guitar on the wall or play it around the campfire. Both of these environments can expose the guitar to extreme dryness or extreme humidity – both difficult for solid-wood guitars to withstand.

If you do go with solid-wood, and as you’ll read in my conclusion I suggest you do, then you’ll want to pay careful attention to the way in which you store your guitar, especially in humid or arid climates.

Fact #4: It’s the Top that Matters

When it comes to the acoustics of a guitar, the top of the guitar is often called “the soundboard” for a reason: this is where the majority of the sound resonation occurs in an acoustic guitar. Don’t get me wrong – every part of the guitar contributes to the overall sound, but none are as important as the top.

This is why you’ll see a lot of beginner guitars advertised as “solid-top”. What this means is that they have a solid-wood top even though the rest of the guitar is manufactured using laminate wood. This isn’t a bad thing.

You’re going to pay a heck of a lot more for an entirely solid-wood guitar than just a solid top…and truthfully you won’t be able to tell much of a difference in the long run. If you’re tight on budget but picky on sound, solid-top is the way to go.

Conclusion: Which to Buy

So as you’re searching around for a new guitar (and by the way, have you seen the GuitarAdventures guitar comparison chart?) I highly recommend you consider stretching your budget at least enough to get a solid-top acoustic guitar. You may not be able to hear a difference right now, but as long as it’s a well-built guitar, you’ll thank yourself a year or two down the road.

Why? Here are my 3 top reasons to do so:

  1. It will sound better acoustically (even if your ear can quite hear it yet)
  2. It will sound better with age (solid woods are known to sound better with age unlike laminates which stay the same)
  3. It’s a much better investment of your hard-earned money (and an easier re-sell if it comes to that)

Don’t fuss over the back and sides as much unless you have the budget to do so.

I hope that answers the question for you! If you have anything to add here, please do so in the comments below, otherwise I appreciate any “Likes” or a simple tweet to help promote this to others.

 

21 Responses to Does a Solid Top Make a Difference on Beginner Guitars?

  1. Sergio C. says:

    Hello Josh, just discovered your website, some nice stuff in here!

    Would you have an opinion on the Yamaha CG122MS? It should be somewhat of an upgrade over the C40 you reviewed before, having a solid spruce top. I am wondering whether you would have suggestions in that (tight) price range.

    Keep up the good work.

  2. PATRICK says:

    HI,WITH ALL DUE RESPECT I THINK THAT IT’S A MYTH THAT LAMINATES DO NOT IMPROVE SOMEWHAT WITH AGE.MY CHEAP YAMAHA CLASSICAL FROM THE SEVENTIES DID.I STILL OWN IT.

    • BoydenZ says:

      Nice article. Thank you.

      I have a 30 year old steel string laminate guitar which became very light in weight, the top darkened considerably and tone improved to sound somewhat mature and mellow. Perhaps a solid wood would have aged better but I cannot agree that laminates sound the same with age. All wood get changes whether they are from one piece or made from several pieces.

      One part often overlooked by many reviewers and buyers is the firmness and density of the back. A firm and sturdy back will reflect the sound much better than a thin flimsy one that may just absorb some of the the vibration and mute the response. Tapping the back can give you some indication whether the wood at the back (regardless of solid or laminate) is sturdy enough to be a good sound reflector. There are some manufacturers that use high pressure composites and high pressure laminates for the back and sides effectively resulting in strong and projecting guitars.

  3. Kevan says:

    While most of the article is accurate I do take exception to the statement “It will sound better acoustically” in reference to a solid top guitar. One has to remember sound is subjective. We all hear things slightly different than each other. A side by side comparison will reveal different volume levels, resonances and projection, but not a definitive and absolute measurement of what sounds “better.” My only acoustic guitar is a Fender all laminate. I chose it for a variety of reasons and prefered it to many of the solids of equal value in the store where I bought it. I think a qualified player can make any guitar sound fantastic if played with passion. Rant over.

    • Josh Summers says:

      Thanks for the comment, Kevan! I really appreciate your insight.

      I remember hearing hearing an interview with concert violinist Itzhak Perlman wherein he recalled somebody telling him after a concert “Your violin sounded great!”. To which he replied: “Really? I didn’t know a violin could play itself.”

      So yes, I agree that qualified player can make any guitar (to a reasonable degree) sound fantastic. However, there’s a very good reason why all high quality guitars are made with solid wood and not laminate – everybody agrees that it makes for a better guitar. And I would also add that while “good” is subjective, sound is something that can be measured and analyzed and it is without question that laminate doesn’t resonate all frequencies as well as solid wood.

      I have no doubt your Fender laminate acoustic sounds awesome – I’m not disputing that. Within a certain price range, I believe that a laminate can out-perform a solid top if it is manufactured better. In general, however, I still hold that solid wood beats laminate in an apples-to-apples comparison. Thanks again for your comment!

      • Kevan says:

        Yes sound can be measured as a entity via sound waves etc. I was referring though to the “quality” of sound. And I don’t disagree that the more expensive guitars (with the exception of some with double sides and tops) will be all solid. The makers know what works and what doesn’t in a traditional sense. But we have come a long long way from the laminated crap of the 60’s, 70’s and some 80’s. I would refer you to this page: http://www.ebay.com/gds/Guitar-Myths-and-Legends-Part-2-/10000000004567648/g.html He does a better job explaining what I’m trying to say. Cheers.

      • PickerDad says:

        Hi Kevan,
        While you’re technically correct that there is no quantified measure of music quality, I think that most would consider what we have heard from top musicians playing top instruments as our personal definition of ‘quality music’. Maybe if laminates, HPL, or carbon fibre pushes out all solid wood guitars, we will eventually have a generation that regards artificial materials as the standard of quality, but we still judge violin quality by the Stradivarius standard, and mostly because of the improvement of tone over time.

        By the way, it was recently discovered that our brains are programmed to prefer the music we heard in our teens. Seems the brain development of musical taste happens in our teens. It’s just biology. For me that was the 60’s, and my taste runs to the Beatles, Stones, Beach Boys, etc., and I barely notice pop music from the 80’s on. (My kids tell me I wasn’t missing much in the 90’s.) But we also knew that 60’s pop was not quality music, it was mostly fun or a little opinionated. I would still think of classical or good jazz as the standard of quality instrumental music. That’s just me, based on my life experience. I look up to the standard of these giants of musicians playing on instruments made of natural wood instruments. But everyone is entitled to their own definition of ‘quality’. Yours is as valid as anyone’s. I’ve always loved the magic of music made from natural materials, that once grew organically and aged naturally. Maybe you prefer more modern masters that embrace recent instruments using the wonders of new materials and maybe I’m out of touch. I suspect that artificial-material instruments are not yet in the majority, but inevitably that view will come. Time will tell.

      • Naushad Jamil says:

        Josh put it well. And Kevan has strong points as well. We can measure sounds attributes (amplitude,frequency etc.) but measuring the quality (which is in the domain of neuroscience and part of consciousness) is a whole different matter. Theoretically that can also be measured but we aren’t quite there yet. Even if we are there – the quality is subjective. So even though you can measure it – it won’t be that useful.

        The point we can take from here is a laminate guitar can produce a sound quality that a bunch of people can like more than they like the quality coming from a solid top guitar. ‘a bunch of people’ is key here.

  4. Suenell Dillon says:

    Thanks so much for the info on solid vs laminate.
    Just beginning the guitar search again after my new one was destroyed in a car wreck a month after I purchased it.
    Am seriously thinking of getting a whole solid one. Did not really know much anything.
    Now I shall listen harder to the sound.

    • Josh Summers says:

      Sorry to hear that your guitar was messed up in a car wreck!

      Definitely listen hard to the solid tops, but in the end just buy what feels and sounds best in your hands. Enjoy!

  5. Abe says:

    I am interested in Martins 2015 DRSGT but it is made of sapele wood side and back and Solid Sitka spruce top; what do you think?

    • Josh Summers says:

      I think you’ll like it! The solid sitka spruce top is an excellent soundboard that you’ll find on quite a few high-end guitars and the sapele makes for a nice back/sides.

    • PickerDad says:

      I suspect most experts would choose the more exotic woods, but that many of us can’t hear that little difference, and can’t afford to indulge someone else’s taste. The important thing is that you feel confident and empowered playing it. If so, buy it.

  6. HAL says:

    I am the original owner of a Jasmine by Takamine D-70 guitar I bought in 1997. I keep it in a hard case. I think that it looks and sounds great. It has a spruce laminate top.

    I can buy a used Takamine GC523SC acoustic/electric with a solid spruce top and hard case.

    Do you think that I will notice a difference between the two of them?

  7. […] You may not be able to hear it at first, but the difference between solid and laminate guitar top is huge. […]

  8. PickerDad says:

    I have been playing and buying guitars since the 60s,but now I’ve retired and seriously getting back into playing and performing. I find myself owning a vintage luthier-made guitar worth many thousands. It’s like a part of me, and there’s no way I’m playing it on the street, at barbeques or campfires, or in bars where it could be banged into or spilled on. A bluesman of my acquaintance (a Martin devotee like all acoustic blues men I’ve met) directed me to the Martin X series, his street guitar. The deal is that the backs and sides are made of HPL (High Pressure Laminate). a variation on Formica, they use the same solid-wood tops as the high-end concert guitars, and they are made in Mexico. Martin has always been highly mechanized, so they have been able to get the same quality and consistency from the Mexican plant as they get from the US.

    So now you can get Martin name-brand guitars that look and sound remarkably like their solid-wood name-sakes for only $5-800 (3-4 months of modest credit-card payments or paying gigs). And they’re pretty much impervious to damage, except for the tops. Martin also makes all-HPL versions, but the sound is just noticeably poorer, even to untrained ears. Turns out the sound quality is 90% due to the top.

    Now almost every manufacturer makes low-cost variants using, not HPL,but laminated tone-woods. It’s three 1/3-thick layers of the same wood as the tops, glued up and pressed together much like everyday ply-wood. It has the same characteristics as the solid wood, but significantly stiffer. It turns out that stiffer backs and sides actually helps the solid top work better. Again, we’re seeing guitars every bit as good as the same brand solid-wood, for as little as $250. Well …, as good a sound as we mortals can hear. So until you are a star recording artist, your secret is pretty safe, and even the very top pros will use the laminate models to get a unique sound. At a few hundred bucks each, I can see collecting 6-7 different styles of guitar: nylon, a bright sound, a mellow sound, one good for slide, a 12-string, a tenor, or a baritone, rather than one hand-made showpiece that most folks really don’t appreciate.

    So what’s wrong with laminates? Nothing, for us mere mortals

  9. gary brown says:

    thanks for the great article and the comments. been playin’ awhile. nearing 70. picked up a pawn shop special ($90) of the martin 00-18 offshoot sigma cgs-3. very nice. late ’80’s. korea. not a solid top. very well made. great sound. just passin’ it along. cheers……

  10. […] In terms of construction, Cordoba is well-known for their quality. The fact that they use a solid cedarf top for the C5, which is a standard for the classical guitar industry, means that the acoustic sound from the guitar body will be cleaner and more pleasing than the laminate wood used on many other beginner classical guitars. (click to read more on laminate vs solid wood guitar tops) […]

  11. Biscuitbum says:

    As other people have said, it depends on the quality of of the solid top wood used. There are very cheap brands that offer solid wood tops, but they won’t be made of the choicest timbers, although that wouldn’t preclude the odd example having better wood. Overall manufacturing quality would presumably preclude these instruments from sounding good though.

    My GS mini has rosewood HPL back and sides, and I suppose the question of which laminate wood is best is for another forum.

  12. […] a flame maple top with maple back and sides. While these primary pieces are laminate wood (which isn’t as good as having solid wood), the big difference with the HB35 is the use of a solid maple block in the center used to […]

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