What to Look for in an Acoustic Guitar

Why Buy a Used Guitar?

Sound

Like a fine wine, wood improves over time and will sound better. As it ages, wood settles and is much less likely to have issues with humidity.

Another factor is wood. Many materials such as Brazilian Rosewood are no longer available due to over deforestation in the Amazon. You can, however, find old guitars that are made from this tonewood that will sound superb.

Of course, there’s also a massive market for vintage guitars. If you want a Gibson Hummingbird (and why wouldn’t you) there’s no choice but to buy a second-hand one as they’re no longer in production. 

Tip: If you’re about to part ways with a lot of cash for a vintage guitar, make sure you double-check it’s origins. If it’s a Fender guitar, use our Fender serial number lookup app to verify it’s place and time of build.

Cost

Another obvious factor is cost.

Used guitars are generally a lot cheaper (okay, with the exception of many vintage guitars).

Very much like buying an expensive new car that depreciates the minute you take it off the salesroom forecourt, a brand spanking new Stratocaster will depreciate in value too.

Of course, give it a few years and it will be a vintage, but you’ll be waiting a good few years for that to happen.

When you buy used guitars you can often save up to 50% or more on the full price. Depending on how desperate the selling is to get rid of it, sometimes much more.

Craftsmanship

Older guitars have another advantage: many of them are handmade. We don’t need to be a Marxist to recognize the issues with mass production: convenience over quality, etc.

A handmade instrument made by a Luthier is far superior to anything made on a production line.

It might not be a brand you know, but you need to look beyond the brand decal and look at the guitar in front of you.

Video

Why Play An Acoustic?

For many musicians, learning guitar is the first step on their musical journey. Acoustic guitars are so popular for many reasons, but the biggest might be portability. With an acoustic, there’s no need for an amp. They can be picked up as and played with little effort aside from tuning the guitar. Most importantly though, they sound great and provide an iconic sonic pallet.

Beyond all that, they are incredibly functional and can sound terrific in the hands of beginners and experts alike. Yet exactly what makes up an acoustic guitar, and just how does it function?

What To Look For In An Acoustic Guitar?

Body Shape

Acoustic guitars come in many different shapes and sizes. The body shape of a guitar determines its sound and tonal qualities. Things to think about are tone vs. comfortability. Some acoustic guitars have a single cutaway style or even a double cutaway layout. This provides more access to the uppermost frets.

Electronics

Several guitars feature pickups and preamps for playing bigger venues where your acoustic needs to fill up the area. Some instruments have preamps placed in a hole cut into the side of the guitar, while others are installed inside of the soundhole. There are some systems that integrate preamps, pick-ups, EQ, and tuners.

Neck

When selecting a neck, the size of your hands is the biggest factor to consider. Normally the density and width of the neck is proportional to the size of the body along with the amount of frets on the neck. Usually, acoustic necks are designated as either 12-fret or 14-fret. This refers to the amount of frets accessible on the neck, not the total amount.

Intonation

Intonation determines whether the notes play in tune as you move up the neck or not. If the space between the frets is off, the guitar won’t be able to play in tune and is therefore practically useless.

Tonewood

The choice of wood affects the tone of an acoustic guitar. Different sorts of wood generate different tones. The majority of guitar makers think that the top of the guitar is the most important factor for establishing tonal quality. Spruce is the most common wood used for tops. The cost of an acoustic guitar raises substantially based on rarity the tonewoods, such as rosewood, but certain tonewoods being in low supply, guitar makers are starting to use alternative materials to make terrific instruments.

Tuning Machines

The type of tuning machine your guitar has is extremely important. This is what allows you to tune the strings and allow them to hold their pitch. enclosed machine heads withstand rust and airborne corrosives. Consequently, they don’t need as much maintenance need to be replaced as often as open tuning machines.

Bridge and Fingerboard

The materials used for bridge and fingerboard do have an impact on tone, however this is very little contrasted to the body of the guitar. In other words, the effect of bridge and fingerboard materials does not make or break a guitar’s tone.

Finish

Various kinds of surface finish can affect how the wood resonates, but there is not much you can do about this. This choice is made by the guitar manufacturer and they normally pick wisely.

About Me

Hi my name is Jacob I have been playing guitar since 2004. I have a huge passion for rock music and I extremely enjoy playing it. I created this website so I can help as many as possible on their guitar journey.

Do you need an acoustic guitar pickup?

Want to amplify your acoustic guitar? You’ll either need to stick a mic in front of it, or get one with a built-in pickup (an electro-acoustic). If you’re playing gigs or open-mic nights then getting one of the best acoustic guitars with a pickup will be very useful. Alternatively, you can buy yourself one of the best acoustic guitar pickups if you’ve already got a killer acoustic guitar. The quality of sound you get from the pickups tends to go up alongside cost.  

End Blocks

As the sides of the guitar are made from two different pieces of wood (the end result being that it’s much more solid than if it were made from a single piece), these must be joined. Just putting them together and gluing them to the front and back of the guitar is not good enough, the whole thing would fall apart.

There is always an end block at the back of the guitar. You don’t even have to look for it. Again, this should be made of a dense wood. Where some manufacturers will attempt to save money is to not use one at the front. They figure that since the neck joins there, it should hold the whole thing together. Think again.

By holding the guitar with the neck pointing to the ground, you should be able to see whether or not an end block exists at the front. If you’re still not sure, loosen the string and place your hand into the soundhole and feel around, delicately. A good guitar is precision made so you don’t want break anything. Also, make sure your hands are clean so as not to leave any residue in the sound chamber.

If the salesperson tells you not to do that, then give them back the guitar and go somewhere else. You’re about to spend several hundred dollars on an instrument that will last you decades. You’re allowed to know what you’re buying and to not get taken for a ride.

Flat Frets

The second thing you want to check is whatever the

The second thing you want to check is whatever the frets are leveled across the neck. Of course, this isn’t an easy task because these things are done with a special tool (fret rocker). But, there are few things that you can do without any special tools. 

You want to look for frets that are sticking way too much out of the fretboard or frets with a flat surface. Frets that stick out of the fretboard indicate a poorly constructed instrument. Frets with a flat surface can indicate two things. First, extensive usage is common on used instruments. Second, the manufacturer forgot to crown(round up) the frets after leveling them, which is highly irregular. 

Another test you can perform is string buzzing or string choking. You can check for string buzzing by going across all the fingerboard positions and playing each and every position on every string and listening carefully for a buzz. As for string choking, it is a similar test to string buzzing. But instead of just picking the string you need also to bend it. If the string chocks, you will hear that it silenced right after you bend it.

As with the sharp edges, I would advise moving to another guitar as fixing those things can be costly and discouraging from playing. It just sucks to play guitar with these issues, believe me, I have been there.

Basic Care and Maintenance

A guitar is an investment in a sense. It doesn’t go down in value like a car does the minute you leave the dealer. If you keep a guitar in good shape, it will retain its value and it will just get better with age. The key to this is taking good care of your guitar, so remember these important tips:

KEEP IT CLEAN

Hands are oily and acidic. They corrode strings, build up gunk on a guitar neck, and damage finishes. It’s a good idea to wipe down the strings and fretboard after each playing session using a lint free or micro fiber cloth. This will get the most life out of the strings and keep dirt from building up under the strings and on the frets which can affect intonation.

A few scratches or scuffs in the body won’t really do anything to the playability of the guitar, but it is good to keep unwanted dirt and moisture from getting into the wood to avoid cracking or unsightly bubbles in the laquer.

AVOID EXTREME ENVIRONMENTS

Subjecting a guitar to extreme changes in temperature or humidity can be detrimental. Leaving a guitar in a hot car or in the shed overnight in sub-freezing temperatures will cause damage over time. Carrying it without a case in the London rain or letting it sit on a porch for days on end in Arizona are not good practices.

Wood expands and contracts, it swells with moisture and it dries out. Big fluctuations will cause issues with every aspect of the guitar, particularly with the neck, body, and bridge. Neglected and abused guitars will get cracks in the body, have their bridge come unglued, have the truss rod in the neck seize up with rust, end up with warped tops, and a host of other problems.

When you are not playing the guitar, the best thing to do is to keep it in the case in the relatively stable atmosphere of a home or office.

TAKE IT IN FOR REGULAR CHECK-UPS

If you really like your guitar and you want it to play well for a long time to come, it will need a setup from time to time. The regularity of these shop visits will depend on your climate and the playing conditions your guitar is subject to.

For example, I live in a region that experiences all four seasons with hot, humid summers and cold, dry winters. I also play in excess of 20 hours per week. My guitars need a little adjustment at least once per year, but the ones I play the most may need to be tweaked every few months with a neck and/or intonation adjustment. The typically novice player may only need this done once every couple of years.

Where to buy?

A local music store or large chain musical retailer

I’d recommend developing a relationship with a local music store, as it will be useful in the future when you want advice (e.g. who is a good local guitar teacher?) or recommendations on your next guitar.

Even more importantly you will be able to get a feel for the guitar before you take it home.

Even if you have barely played guitar in any capacity some guitars will feel more comfortable. You will be best served to try a few guitars in your price range to see what sounds and feels the best in your hands.

Where to get the best deal

If you prefer to shop around, you can always test the guitar in your local music store and then go looking for the best deal you can find online.

In many cases, the larger retailer e.g. Guitar Center, Musicians Friend will be able to offer the best price due to their bulk buying power. The disadvantage here is the staff may not be as informed and may have broader, rather than specialized knowledge.

You are far better served by doing your research online and shortlisting the guitars you may be interested in. Don’t let the staff convince you to spend more or buy unwanted accessories. For the most part except for a few picks and a guitar strap spend your entire budget on the guitar itself.

Accessories You Need

If you have foregone the online world then you will be guitar in hand and ready to head to the checkout counter. On the way, you may see a few extras by the “impulse buy” section and the sales associate starts to get a little pushy with this part of the transaction. “Which brand of strings would you like?” “Would you like picks? A tuner? Metronome? String winding and cutting tool?” “Would you like a hardshell case? Gig bag?” “How about one of our designer straps?”

Just when you thought you were out of the woods, you are lost all over again. You have the guitar! What more could you possibly need?!

CASE:

You will need to buy a case with your guitar at the store on the same day. You many not need to spring for a hardshell case, but it’s recommended you save up the extra cash to buy one. There are softer cases that have a good amount of rigidity to them that are more affordable.

Your guitar needs to be protected, so this is important. Even if you get a cheap or free gig bag, it’s better than nothing. At most stores, you can negotiate the price and you will often get a significant discount on a good case when you buy a guitar.

TUNER:

You’ll want one of these. If you can’t tune your guitar, you will sound terrible forever so this is a must. You don’t need a tuner with a ton of bells and whistles. There are even tuners in the shape and size of a guitar pick that shine a laser on the strings to tell you whether or not the string is in tune. Cool! Useless.

You need a simple, chromatic tuner. In other words, a tuner that can tell the difference between a G and a G#. This will ensure accuracy when tuning since the tuner is calibrated to “hear” all of the notes, not just a select few.

The good news here is that you DON’T need to buy it at the music store! There are many free apps for your smart phone that are free (like Guitar Tuna) or dirt cheap that work just as well. When you are on stage it’s a different story, but as a beginner you can settle for the app.

METRONOME:

As a long time instructor who has also been performing for many years and spent many hours in the studio, I have come to realize the importance of practicing with a metronome as early and as often as you can. These will help you develop your rhythm and make you a better musician faster than not using one at all. Many metronomes come built into electronic guitar tuners and they are also available as apps for your phone or tablet for free.

STRINGS:

The schedule for changing strings really depends on how much the guitar is played, but for the beginner, it’s recommended to change strings about once per month. I recommend having a set on hand, or buying some singles for the highest two or three strings in case you break one. If you don’t know how to change a string, your instructor can do it for you or your repairman at a local shop. I suggest you learn to do this on your own to save time and money.

For our purposes here, we won’t do a rundown of all the different guitar string manufacturers out there. The industry standard is D’addario at almost every repair shop, and they are very affordable. Ernie Ball, Martin, Dean Markley, and GHS are also trusted brands. Elixirs (coated strings – good for acidic fingers)are about three times the price of normal strings, but will last much longer. I don’t recommend beginners spend nearly $20 on these strings because it really sucks if you break one. Stick to the $5 – $10 strings and a thing gauge to help you fingers with the pain when you learn.

PICKS:

They are good to have, so make sure you walk out with some. If you are a beginner just make sure to get some that are thin, .38 to .46mm thickness.

CAPO:

It is worth buying one of these at the start. You wont need it straight away but if you are following the justinguitar beginner course (Excellent free course) then you will find that you need this when you start to learn a few beginner songs. We reviewed the 3 best capos here so have a look if you want a recommendation.

How much should you spend on your first acoustic guitar?

As much as you can afford up to $500 — $600

A lot of people will tell you to spend very little on your first guitar. And, you can see their point. After all, if this is your first guitar you have no way of knowing if it’s something you are going to persevere with.

Add, to this fact, there are plenty of inexpensive guitars flooding the market thanks to mass production coming out of Asia thanks to CNC technology.

Mass-produced instruments represent somewhat of a double-edged sword. While there are now plenty of cheap guitars on the market that aren’t worth your hard-earned dollar, thanks to modern manufacturing there is also a large number of well-made acoustic guitars at a more affordable price range.

You get what you pay for

All things considered, I recommend spending as much as you can up to approximately $500 — $600. A cheap guitar will slow your progress and be difficult to play due to problems that plague mass-produced, inexpensive guitars which lack the quality control of their more expensive counterparts.

Things like jagged fret ends, tone destroying thick laminate tops, and inexpensive hardware e.g. cheap tuners that don’t keep your guitar in tune. This kind of thing can result in a once enthusiastic new guitarist becoming discouraged and eventually giving up.

Spending more than a minimal amount will also help you remain committed, due to your investment.  The guitar will also have a lot more potential to inspire you to play.

If you really want to give the acoustic guitar a chance, bypass the cheaper options. If buying new there are many decent instruments in this price range, from brands including Yamaha, Washburn, Epiphone, and Tanglewood to name just a few.

Which acoustic guitar body shapeshould I go for?

The shape of an acoustic guitar’s body affects the sound, and how comfortable it is for you to play. If you’re of smaller stature, then you might find something with a smaller body easier to play, though of course, there are no set rules for this – it’s all subjective.

The body shape also affects tone and volume. If you think of the top of an acoustic guitar working a little like a speaker cone, then a bigger top can move more, thus making it louder when played hard. A guitar with a smaller top has less surface area to move, so it won’t project as much – even if you hit it with the same attack, you’ll reach its maximum headroom quicker. That’s not to say that bigger is always better – if you play with a lighter touch, then you’ll probably find that you get more response out of a smaller bodied acoustic; it will react better to your playing. 

Bigger-bodied guitars like the dreadnought and jumbos usually have a stronger bass response than smaller ones, as well as a tight top end. This leaves room for vocals to sit nicely in a mix. Smaller-bodied guitars like the concert are usually a little brighter and mid-focussed and grand concerts, which are the same shape but a little bigger, can provide a really nice balance. 

How to Find the Right Acoustic Guitar for You

Now that you have a sense for some good options for beginners, let’s talk about what’s right for you. Here are some things to consider when you’re buying your first acoustic guitar.

Decide on Acoustic vs. Acoustic-Electric

Are you confused about the difference between the two? You’re not alone. • Purely acoustic guitars do not have electronics. When you pluck or strum a string, its vibration resonates through the guitar and produces sound through the sound hole. If you want to amplify an acoustic guitar, you’ll need to put a mic in front of it. • Acoustic-electric guitars leverage both natural resonance and electronics. The hollow body will allow you to play your guitar anywhere, any place with a great natural sound. If you want it to be a bit louder, you can plug it in. Typically an acoustic-electric guitar will also have a built-in tuner and equalizer. This is not only wildly convenient but also gives you ultimate control over your sound. • Ask Yourself: Do you plan to play with other people or in a live setting? Do you want to have the option to experiment with your tone by adjusting the EQ, using pedals, or adding amp effects? If so, we’d recommend an acoustic-electric. It offers the best of both worlds (amplified and non-amplified). If you are planning to only play by yourself for fun in quiet settings (or don’t mind putting a mic in front of your guitar on a rare occasion), you can stick with a classic acoustic. It will typically be less expensive. Additionally, you might prefer the pure sound and lighter weight of a guitar body that is uninterrupted by built-in electronics.

Weigh the Costs & Benefits of Solid Wood vs. Laminate

Solid wood is exactly what it sounds like: one solid piece of wood vs. multiple layers. An acoustic instrument with a solid top resonates more because it’s uninterrupted by lamination or adhesives—it vibrates with organic consistency. This is typically a higher-end feature. Solid top acoustic guitars will cost more than acoustics constructed with a laminate top. • Laminate refers to thin layers of wood that are pressed together to form a section of the guitar. While laminate doesn’t have the same quality as solid wood, it can still produce an excellent sound. Laminate construction is used widely in the guitar industry to produce great-sounding instruments at a lower price point. • Ask Yourself: Do you have a specific tone in mind? Do you plan to have this instrument for a long time and potentially hand it down? For a rich, optimal tone and a higher durability, splurge for solid wood. If you’re just starting out and need to keep costs down, go for a highly-reviewed laminate option.

Budget: How Much Does an Acoustic Guitar Cost?

Acoustic guitars range in cost depending on a number of factors. You can get a good acoustic guitar for a few hundred dollars. We wouldn’t recommend buying an acoustic for less than $200. If you’re on a budget but are looking for a dependable and beautiful instrument, our CD-60 Dreadnought is $199.99 (more on this guitar in the next section). At the next tier up, you’re looking at spending between $400-800 on an acoustic, depending on a variety of factors. Pros may venture into higher price ranges ($1,000+). Within higher price ranges, you’ll typically see more solid wood (vs. laminate; more on this later), greater resonance, and increased playability.

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