Buying your first guitar can be the best thing you ever do for yourself, so how do you go about choosing the best acoustic guitar for your tastes? This goes for any guitar really, but the first is important. Even if it sits in a corner most of the time, the fact that it’s there increases the odds you’ll pick it up and make it useful eventually, but an instrument that feels, sounds, and looks great is not going to sit anywhere unhandled for very long. It will become a friendly and familiar weight in your hands, one that in time they may feel empty without.
Before reading on, think about what you want from your guitar as far as sound, playability, long term value and durability. The best acoustic guitar for you will be a different combination of these factors than for the next person.
Here is a “Guitar Acquisition 101”, if you will, all of the important things to consider before investing in your next best friend.
Parts of a Flat Top Acoustic Guitar
Study the diagram above for just a moment. Now that you’ve got an image in your mind and names for all of the parts, let’s talk about how these things work.
A guitar gets it’s umph from what’s called “Helmholtz resonance”. This is the phenomenon by which air in a cavity recycles itself. The mechanics are really simple, like blowing over the lip of a bottle; the air you push in increases the pressure in the cavity (in this case the bottle), the pressurized air leaves the cavity through its opening, then, the bottle feeling empty after pushing your breath out, the air is sucked back in again and the process is repeated.
So surprisingly, the strings themselves only catalyze the sounds a guitar makes, they don’t make them. The strings shake the sound board of the guitar, the sound board sends the vibrations into the body of the instrument to reverberate and come back out through the sound hole. The body of the instrument is what produces the sound, and the most important part of the instrument.
This brings us to tone woods. Tone woods are woods that are used specifically for the tonal qualities they possess when made into instruments. They impart their own little nuances to the sound waves that bounce off of them. The really cool thing about tone woods is that they age and mature like fine wine and good shrubbery. What this means is that if you buy a good guitar today and take care of it, you will have a great guitar in 5-10 years. In 20 it will be amazing. Spruce is particularly well known for how its sound mellows and thickens with age.
If you really want to choose the best acoustic guitar for your own tastes, then selecting the right tone wood is very important. Here is a list of the superior tone woods and their respective qualities by parts of the guitar they are used for:
Sound Board (Top)
- Sitka Spruce: Sitka spruce is the standard top for flat top acoustic guitars. It has a high stiffness to mass ratio, so it shakes pretty hard. It produces a rich full bodied fundamental tone that it retains very well, even if you play it with a heavy hand.
- Red Spruce: Stiffer than any other tone wood used for tops, Red Spruce produces a very strong fundamental tone. But it also has an added complexity of overtones that Sitka Spruce is lacking. Its sound is louder, more dynamic, and clearer than that of any other tone wood used for sound boards.
- Mahogany: Mahogany is rarely used for tops. When it is, it produces strong direct tone but not the robust and complex tone of the spruces.
Back and Sides of the Body
- Rosewood: Rosewood lends a huge amount to the tonal quality of an instrument. Of the two types you will see, Indian and Brazilian Rosewood, Brazilian is probably the superior; however, both woods are very similar. They impart a heavy complex tone in the lower range and maintain a heavy, almost dark, quality through the rest of the range. Guitars made with rosewood also reverberate more dynamically than those with made with other woods, with an almost metallic ring. Brazilian picks up the twinkly sound in the top and bottom, Indian beefs up the mid-range.
- Mahogany: When mahogany is used for backs and sides it possess a much higher velocity of sound than it does on the top and adds a great deal of tonal color. Compared to rosewood’s sharp metallic sound mahogany’s could be called earthy or woody.
- Rosewood: Indian and Brazilian Rosewood have a similar effect when used as necks of guitars; Brazilian brightening the top and bottom and Indian taking the Buddha’s middle road.
- Ebony: Traditionally used for the necks of instruments in the violin family and some guitars, ebony has a dampening effect on the reverberations in the body of the guitar. This is fine in big guitars made of good wood, but could be a bad thing in smaller, less resonant, instruments.
- Mahogany: Again we find mahogany imparting an earthy “wooden” sort of tone to the instrument’s sound.
That list is only of the finest woods, many other woods like maple are also used in guitar making. These are the finest woods for guitar bodies. If you’re on a limited budget, a spruce top guitar from a good company is more than enough. Regardless of the wood, solid tops are best. Remember, unless you have an unlimited budget, finding the best acoustic guitar for you will likely require some form of compromise.
There are also a lot of guitar manufacturers that are working with synthetic materials these days in an attempt to emulate the rich sounds produced by tone woods. Some of the results have been very promising, and many fine synthetic instruments like those made by Ovation are widely used today.
Synthetics offer one very distinctive advantage over wood: durability. You can drop them, get them wet, and subject them to violent temperature changes, all unspeakable cruelties to commit against a wooden instrument, and they will maintain their playability. The one notable downside, however, is that synthetics do not age like wood. And that really is kind of sad.
So you know about wood and plastic, enough already. Let’s go to the store. Now, with what you know, ask yourself what you want from your guitar in terms of sound, playability, long term value and durability once again.
Most of the acoustic guitars you’ve seen, and most of the guitars hanging in the store, are of the dreadnought body type. This is the perfect all-around guitar style; it has reasonable volume, comfortable design, and is fairly durable. But this is not the only style of guitar you have to choose from.
For instance, if you are a beginner, very small, or don’t want to spend much money you can buy a “parlor” guitar, basically a very small guitar. Martin makes an excellent parlor style guitar with a really innovative body design called “the Backpacker”. Guitars like this are great for travelers, children, or anyone with a smallish frame. Takamine has a line of guitars called the OM Series which are smaller, and yet still retain the classic shape of a guitar. They sound great too!
There are also guitars with arched sound boards, “arch top” guitars. Commonly associated with blues and jazz these guitars have a totally different tonal quality than their flat topped cousins.
If you like rhythm guitar and aren’t trying to lay down too many hot licks you might want to consider a 12 string guitar. The double stringing allows you to weave a much richer harmonic tapestry, even if it does dampen your climb to lead guitar stardom.
But chances are you’ll end up with a dreadnought, so here’s what to check for in the shop:
- Intonation – This is at the very top of the list for a reason. You need to make sure that a guitar is in tune with itself all the way down the fretboard, or it will be useless to you as your skills progress and you want to play with other people. You also need to check along the fretboard for dead or very faint notes and rings. If you’re just beginning you may need someone you trust to help you with this.
- Sound – Easy enough; how does this instrument sound to you? Can you see yourself spending hours hanging out with the sounds it makes?
- Feel – How does this guitar feel in your hands?
I have purchased guitars based only on the way playing them felt to me and I love every one of them. Choosing the best acoustic guitar isn’t always just stats and figures! Is the neck too wide for your hand? Is the body too bulky for you to reach around comfortably? Is it too small? Will you need a cutaway to reach the upper octaves? If a guitar doesn’t feel good when you hold it you aren’t going to want to play it very much.
All that’s left to consider now is the price of the guitar, and that will depend on the quality of the materials, the dependability of the name (like Martin, Gibson, Taylor or Takamine), and how much you are going to ask of the instrument.
What’s the Best Acoustic Guitar For You?
If you don’t plan to spend a lot of time playing or are just beginning, it might be best to start with something at the lower end of the price range so you have some time and experience to help you figure out and better understand what sorts of things you would want from a more expensive guitar. Many of the more respected companies produce basic models for beginners and students that are very playable, produce delicious tone, and will age very well if treated properly
Don’t pick and choose, pick and grin!