Buyers Guide – Good Quality Acoustic Guitars

I want to buy my first decent acoustic guitar. What would you recommend?

These days with Far East production methods getting better and better, you can buy a quality instrument far more cheaply than ever before. However, two rules of thumb still apply – 1) You get what you pay for and 2) Buy the best quality instrument you can afford as it will pay off in the long run.
When searching for an acoustic guitar, ask yourself the following questions:

  • What am I going to use it for? For instance playing in church or just at home?
  • Am I going to be strumming, finger picking or both?
  • Do I need a loud unplugged sound or not?

When choosing a steel string acoustic guitar, the price differentiation often pays for the woods used and the construction method. Cheaper instruments often use laminated woods (small veneers of woods glued together) whereas more expensive ones tend to use solid woods (a single piece). If you can afford to, go for a solid wood instrument as the sound will be much better.

Sometimes intermediate priced guitars have a solid wood top (where the sound hole is) and laminated back and sides.

Good cheap instruments these days can start as low as £150. If you are using something regularly at church it is best to spend at least £400 and if you are looking for a serious guitar that you can cherish you can get a fabulous instrument for about £800 upwards.

If you are playing live you will need to budget for a pick-up system rather than trying to mic the guitar. The two best known types of systems are the under saddle (or under bridge) ‘piezo’ system or the sound hole pickup. There are loads of Piezo systems out there that produce really good sounds but need a battery operated pre-amp to get the best results. If you are buying a guitar with a pick-up system its probably got this lot included already. The sound hole systems have come a long way in the last 15 years. I use the most basic of the Fishman Rare Earth sound hole pickups in my own guitar and I love it.
If you are shopping at the cheaper end beware of very cheap guitars including pick-ups as the money will have gone into the pick-up system rather than the construction of the guitar. Also beware of cheaper acoustic guitars painted in your favourite colour as the paint can often hide low grade wood construction. In fact its often said that the less finish you have on a guitar, the more the tone of the natural wood shines through.

Woods – Assuming that you are going to buy a sold wood guitar, the type of woods in the top, back and sides can vastly affect the tone the instrument produces and certain woods are more suitable for certain playing styles. If you are a flat picking guitarist (strumming) then perhaps start with an instrument that has a spruce top and rosewood back and sides. Spruce is very light yellow in colour and rosewood is brown with dark veins running through the length of the wood. Spruce tends to give a brighter sound and rosewood adds depths and volume. Classic examples of this are the Martin and Gibson ‘Dreadnought’ designs. If you want a brighter sound still try a maple bodied guitar. This wood works particularly well in the large jumbo style acoustic such as a Gibson J200 or one of the Guild models. These tend to work well if you want to project a large even sound but is not so great for finger picking.

Many fingerpickers prefer a cedar top, which has a reddish colour and adds much more ‘middle’ to the sound. Mahogany back and sides works well for this too. This is sometimes said to produce a more ‘folky’ or European sound. If you are into this style try a Lowden or Avalon.

Many guitar models mix and match some of these wood combinations to great effect so its really worth trying as many different models as you can before you buy. You will also find that tone can vary even for identical models so its worth going to a guitar shop with lots of choice to pick the one you want.
There are loads of other wood combinations too such as ebony, koa and ovangkol that all give different sounds. My general advice though is to spend the money on the quality of woods rather than the prettiness or decoration of the instrument.