Buying a New Acoustic Guitar

When buying a new acoustic guitar, there are lots of things to consider when selecting the right guitar for you. Do you need electronics on the guitar? Do you want a high-quality guitar from a known manufacturer that holds its value over time? Are you more interested in how the guitar looks than how it sounds? Are you a beginner or have you been playing for a while? The good news is the methods of manufacturing guitars have improved greatly over the years, and the quality of inexpensive guitars have benefited from these improvements.

What is the best acoustic guitar brand?

Guitar Brand quality is a very subjective question, and I think most people realize there is no ONE guitar manufacturer that everyone should buy from. That being said there are a few brands that are readily available and good quality that you should look at, or at least consider. I’ve created two lists one for more serious players that want a guitar that may not be flashy but typically are well built and made with quality components. And the list other for inexpensive guitars that have some interesting designs and are suitable for people starting out, for children, or people that don’t want to spend much money. Please know that these are my preferences and these are not the only brands available.

Good brand choices for quality components and workmanship in acoustic guitars

  • Eastman
  • Gibson
  • Martin
  • Taylor
  • Takamine
  • Yamaha

Good brand choices for mid-range guitars

  • Alverez
  • Epiphone
  • Ibanez
  • Fender
  • Guild
  • Washburn

Good brand choices for inexpensive guitars

  • Daisy
  • Dean
  • Jasmine
  • Mitchell
  • Rogue

What shape guitar should I get?

Determine what size and shape of the guitar you like. You can look at pictures to see what you want, but the best thing to do is go to your local guitar store and hold a few of them like you are going to play them. You want to get a style that feels comfortable. Parlor guitars are smaller and less intrusive and have become popular of late. Jumbo and Dreadnought shapes are larger but have fuller sound in general and are excellent choices when you will be playing with other instruments in a non-amplified venue. Find more details on types and shapes of acoustic guitars here.

What wood should I choose?

Two things to think about when looking at woods.

  1. What sound profile do you prefer?
    • Maple – Brighter Clear sound
    • Rosewood – Deep bass notes, sparkling high notes, less in the mid-range
    • Koa – Has the warmth of Mahogany and Sapele with the sparkle of Rosewood
    • Sapele, Walnut, Mahogany – Good mid-range, not as strong on the low and high notes
  2. Do you like the look, i.e. the stain color and the grain pattern? Below are some common looks, satin finishes tend to mute the patterns whereas a high gloss finish really makes the wood pattern pop.
    • Flamed Maple – beautiful to look at, almost looks like tiger stripes
    • Quilted Maple – also very figured but is a tight quilted pattern
    • Zebra Wood – Contrasted light and dark bands of color
    • Koa – Lighter in color with many interesting patterns
    • Walnut – Darker wood with many interesting patterns
    • Rosewood/Cobolo – Not as dark as walnut but still a darker wood with striped patterns
    • Mahogany/Sapele – Lighter wood with striped patterns

What should I look for in the guitar neck?

The neck is probably the most critical component to look at when buying a new guitar. Think about the size of the neck if your hands are smaller you’ll prefer a more narrow width, those with larger hands typically like a little chunkier neck. Binding is also something to consider, bound necks (a thin strip of material usually wood or some form of plastic) tend to be a little smoother to the touch than unbound necks the binding will usually cover any sharp edge from the frets. In addition to the width of the guitar neck, the fingerboard surface typically has a radius (a slightly curved surface). The exception to this is classical and flamenco guitars which come with a flat surface. It is important to know this if you need a capo for your guitar. Check here for our capo post.

Common technical points to review when looking at a new guitar neck:

  • Is it straight? Look along both edges of the neck to make sure its straight.
  • Look down the middle of the neck checking to see how severe the bow in the neck is, If any.
  • Look for bulges or humps around the 12-14 fret where the body meets the neck. If this has happened to the neck, it likely hasn’t been humidified properly. This can be fixed, but it will cost over $100 to repair. For new guitars, I would move on if you encounter this
  • Run your handle along the edge checking for sharp edges on the frets. A quality instrument will feel fairly smooth.

What should I look for in Frets?

For new guitars this shouldn’t be much of an issue on the better brands, check for loose frets or frets that are seated higher than the other frets. Also, some guitars have wider frets (jumbo) than others. The jumbo frets combined with a good radius make it easier to bend notes. And through the years I’ve developed a preference for the wider fret. Depending on the type of guitar you are looking at, for more expensive guitars its reasonable to expect that when you run your hand down the side of the neck, you should not feel any sharp edges. You’ll find the cheaper the guitar, the more ‘rough’ the edge feels. So when looking at two guitars that are pretty close, this is one of the things you can look at as a differentiator.

How to check the Intonation

For most newer guitars they are pretty accurate, but it is still good to check as your mileage will vary depending on what category of guitar you are looking at. Most guitars today have a compensated saddle that keeps the guitar accurate all the way up the neck. If you test this and you find it is not correct, you can ask the store if they can adjust the neck, if after they adjust the neck you still see it is a little off, I wouldn’t buy a guitar.

Checking the Intonation

  • Check the intonation of the guitar by playing the harmonics on the 12th fret and then playing the note on the 12th fret. The notes should sound the same one octave apart. If you want to be really accurate use an electric tuner to verify.
  • If you’re not new to playing guitar play some of the chords in the 7th-10th area, it should still sound good and ring. It will likely be a little less than the open chords but the better the guitar, the less discrepancy between the open or barre chords.

Tuning Gears for Acoustic Guitars

When looking at tuning gears for acoustic guitars, there are several types:

  • Sealed
  • Open Gear
  • Slotted

Most Gears have been sealed the last 20 years, however, ‘vintage’ or ‘throw-back’ style is currently in fashion, so many manufacturers are offering the open gear machine heads on guitars coming out now. I haven’t noticed much difference in performance of the two styles, but sealed units are protected from dirt and other external elements. However, with the open gears, you see everything and can tell if there is an issue with the tuner because it is accessible and easy to see. The brands I like to see on a guitar are Gover, Gotoh, and Schaller. That being said, Martin and Taylor also have their own brands and they seem to work fine too. The key thing to look for is a tuner that allows you to fine-tune the string, the higher the gear ratio, the better. A ratio of 16:1 is a good starting point.

Slotted tuners are usually open gear, and they are on a slotted head of a classical or flamenco guitar.

Electronics for Acoustic Guitars

If you have no desire to amplify your acoustic guitar, you can skip this section as it won’t apply. Electronics are becoming standard in more and more guitars. I feel Tayor is a manufacturer that has done much to improve the availability of electronics in a guitar straight from the manufacturer. In the past, you had to go find a pickup and equalizer system and have a luthier install it. Nowadays if you know you will need amplification you should make sure the guitars you look at already have a pickup installed from the factory unless you have a specific system that you want to have installed not available from the manufacturer.

Basic Pickups that usually come from the factory:

  • Bridge Pickups – Thin piece metal under the bridge that picks up the tone.
  • Soundboard Pickups – device attached to the soundboard that picks up the tone from the soundboard
  • Soundhole Pickups – a mic positioned in the soundhole opening that picks up the tone as it escapes the guitar
  • Passive vs. Active – passive pickups don’t require a battery and tend to not have as much control, Active pickups have a battery and allow you to sculpt the sound

In addition to the style of pickup, you may want to look at the equalizer on the active pickups. It used to be a clunky plastic rectangle on the upper bout of the guitar where you could adjust. Now there are many choices, Taylor and now Martin has streamlined controls that are a very low profile and don’t take away from the beauty of the guitar and don’t impact the tone of the guitar. Also, some of the factories are putting controls just inside the sound hole, not visible to others but easily accessible by the player. Again these units minimize any effect on the tone of the guitar. In addition to allowing you to adjust treble and bass, these controllers often come with a tuner as well which is a handy added feature.

Additional Tips for buying a new Acoustic Guitar:

  1. If you are in a retail store and there seems to be too much noise from the next generation of budding Jimmy Page or Eddie Van Halen, request a practice room so that you can test out the guitar in peace.
  2. If your new to playing guitar and have a friend that plays, take them with you they will be more than happy to share their knowledge with you, and who can refuse an afternoon of playing guitar?
  3. Sometimes it’s good to listen to others play the guitar to hear all the subtleties of the guitar.
  4. If you don’t have a friend that plays see if the guitar shop has a tech person on site. They can be really helpful in inspecting the guitar.

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