by Molly Cort
Great acoustic guitars have character and, if you’re lucky, the guitar you buy will become a cherished heirloom. But finding this heirloom may take patience, perseverance, and plenty of shopping around. It’s important to look for a guitar that is just the right match for you, but even then it’s still difficult. Here’s how to buy an acoustic guitar properly to ensure you get the best guitar for you.
I asked several seasoned guitar players and teachers what a beginner should look for when buying a guitar. The two most common responses were actually questions: “How much are you willing to spend?” and “What kind of sound are you looking for?” In terms of cost, a serious student looking to buy their first guitar, or someone looking to upgrade from an inexpensive starter model, can find a pretty reasonable acoustic guitar in the $300 to $700 price range.
You may have a specific idea about the look and sound that you want to create, based on the style you play. Or you may want to imitate the particular sound of a musician you admire. Remember, a guitar that’s great for bottleneck blues will be different from one recommended to emulate Pete Townshend.
When shopping for my own acoustic guitar, I found the choices in all price ranges a bit overwhelming.
I was faced with racks of acoustic guitars in different styles, shapes, and prices. So, at an early stage, I found it helpful to talk to a knowledgeable guitar player friend, and I even took that friend along with me for objective feedback while I tried out different guitars in several music stores.
How to Buy an Acoustic Guitar:
My friend advised me to consider some basic elements of an acoustic guitar’s construction as I shopped around:
- Size, shape, balance, and weight—all of these dimensions will affect how comfortable you feel sitting, and standing, with your guitar.
- Fret sizes, neck dimension, and curve of the fingerboard—guitarists with small hands should pay special attention to these dimensions.
- Bracing—look through the sound hole to see how well the body of the guitar is strengthened with wooden ribs, or braces.
- Type of wood—the wood used to create the soundboard especially affects overall tone: spruce is said to be more harmonic, while cedar has a bright tone.
- Sound quality—a subjective criterion: listen for a guitar that has a tone, timbre, and resonance that sounds good to you.
I also consulted an excellent source book for any guitarist: The Acoustic Guitar Guide by Larry Sandberg. Sandberg’s advice on the last item of my list is, “The sound quality should match how you want to play the instrument.”
In other words, “dreadnought” style acoustics are good for strumming with articulated bass runs, while smaller “jumbo” guitars are good for flat picking and fingerpicking styles. Then again, you may want to consider a “cutaway” style in order to play single string solos higher up on the neck.
When it comes to price, Sandberg mentions there is generally a poor resale value on beginner and intermediate guitars (under $1,000), so if you plan to upgrade (a professional model can cost around $3,000) you may want to consider investing in a higher end instrument that will hold its value.
Also, stick with a well-known brand name guitar (such as Martin, Ovation, Gibson, Yamaha, or Taylor) if you are considering selling or trading.
Consider how a vendor treats you when you are shopping for a guitar. Because you must take time to research the guitar that’s right for you, you should visit several stores, and seek and receive relevant help. A good dealer will help guide you toward guitars that suit your ability, playing style, and other needs, and will let you take your time to play guitars and consider your options.
It’s important to hear the sound of an acoustic guitar with and without amplification (another option to consider is an acoustic-electric, which often come with onboard piezo pickups) and to have someone else play it for you so you can hear it from a different perspective.
Also consider the integrity of the guitar manufacturer. If you order a guitar and it arrives damaged or flawed, what is the return policy? Be sure to get a receipt and a written warranty from the dealer or manufacturer. Record your serial number and keep all the purchase receipts in a safe place.
Once you’ve selected your guitar, invest in a good quality case for storing it. This will safeguard it from damage and protect your guitar from accidental hits or falls. A gig bag is fine for solid body guitars, but a hollow body acoustic can be damaged easily. Humidity fluctuation can also affect your guitar, and a good hard shell case will keep this effect to a minimum.
Aesthetically, the guitar should appeal to you, but this isn’t necessarily the most important factor in choosing a guitar. Good sound quality combined with excellent craftsmanship will continue to increase the value of your guitar over the years.