Rookie's Guide to Acoustic Guitars
Shopping for an acoustic guitar can be an overwhelming experience, especially for beginners. There are many factors and specifications to consider, because guitar makers use a wide range of woods, hardware, and design elements. We want to introduce a few major areas that you should look into before shopping for a guitar.
Before you think about brand names or body styles, consider what you are going to use the guitar for, and how much money you have to spend on one.
Skill Level - Amateur or Advanced
If you are a new player who is looking for an instrument to learn on, you may not want to spend too much on a high-end acoustic guitar just yet. At Musifai, there is a wide selection of good, low- to mid-range acoustic guitars to choose from.
But maybe you are an experienced player who is ready to upgrade to a better guitar. In that case, it is important to know the difference between tonewoods and how the soundboard effects resonance.
Acoustic-Electrics, an Option You May Want to Consider
Will you be playing with a band, or taking your guitar to public events such as open mic nights? If so, you may want to consider an acoustic-electric guitar.
Acoustic-electric guitars are equipped with a pickup and a built-in preamplifier which allows them to be plugged into an amplifier or sound system without distorting their rich, acoustic sound, and without limiting your mobility while you play. When not plugged in, they play and sound just like other acoustic guitars.
Body Styles - Comfort and Resonance
There are a lot of variations of the style of an acoustic guitar body. It is important to make sure that you choose a guitar that will produce the sound you want and fits your learning demand, but also one that is comfortable for you to play in different occasions.
The soundboard is the top portion of the body of the guitar. In general, the larger the soundboard, the deeper and louder the sound. Other styles combine a large soundboard with a narrow waist to make the guitar more comfortable.
Some general, popular acoustic guitar body shapes include:
1. Concert and Grand Concert
These guitars produce a bright sound with a punchy mid-range. The Concert guitars are generally about 13-1/2" at the lower bout and the Grand Concert guitars are slightly larger. The smaller size is comfortable, and makes these guitars very playable for smaller musicians.
2. Auditorium and Grand Auditorium
The auditorium style is a standard mid-sized acoustic guitar, with a lower bout that is generally the same width as a dreadnought, but with a smaller waist. Sometimes referred to as an "orchestra" body, these guitars balance volume, tone, and comfort, and have been popular among beginner players.
A common acoustic body style that makes use of a very large soundboard is the dreadnought. Dreadnoughts are distinctive for their square bouts, wide waists, and 14-fret necks. Dreadnoughts are very popular among country music performers due to their powerful, driving sound.
The big, boomy guitars are often considered the standard "cowboy" guitars. Up to 17" at the lower bout, these acoustic guitars project loudly and resonate deeply.
5. Travel and Mini-Acoustics
As the name suggests, smaller players, and musicians who travel frequently, and parents shopping for children, may also want to consider travel and mini-acoustic guitars.
Cutaway or Non-Cutaway Guitar?
When you’re trying to decide which guitar to get, always think of it functionally first, and then aesthetically. Try not to get too bogged down by the minutiae or theoretical notion of each little aspect of the guitar. Trust your feelings when you play and compare different guitar models. If you do, you’ll find the one that speaks to you.
If you're playing style calls for a lot of finger work high up the neck, a cutaway guitar gives your hand a few extra frets. That's great for reaching the really high notes. Or, if you need to pull off blazing guitar solos on your acoustic guitar, then get a guitar with a cutaway.
If you like to play first-position chords and never go past the fifth fret, musically speaking, there’s no real reason to buy a guitar with a cutaway. Some people like the symmetry or traditional look of a non-cutaway. Others love the contoured curve of a cutaway.
Tops - Solid vs. Laminate
The top of the guitar has the greatest impact on the tone quality of the instrument. The sound generated by the guitar's strings is transmitted by the bridge to the top where it is amplified. The wood used for the top strongly influences the tonal characteristics of the guitar. The sound generated by the guitar's strings is transmitted by the bridge to the top where it is amplified. That is why, as mentioned above, the larger the soundboard, the larger the sound.
Acoustic guitar tops are made of either solid wood, or laminate. A solid top is usually made of two, single-ply pieces of wood with their grains matched down the middle of the guitar top. A laminate top is made of several layers of wood - usually a more high-grade one on top, and several generic ones beneath - pressed together.
Laminate does not vibrate as well as solid wood does, so it does not produce as rich a sound or as great a volume. It is, however, an excellent option for beginners, to save money on a first acoustic guitar.
Action: The distance between the frets and the strings of an acoustic guitar
Attack: The initial sound a note makes when struck, between silence and when the note reaches maximum volume
Binding: Strips of wood, plastic, or other material used both to strengthen and enhance the look of an acoustic guitar's body, neck, and/or headstock
Bolt-on neck: A guitar neck that is attached to the body with bolts
Bookmatching: The process of matching two pieces of wood for an acoustic guitar's back or top is called bookmatching. Normally, a single piece of wood is butterfly-cut down the middle, and the two pieces are joined down the center of the instrument.
Bout: The curved areas above and below the narrow waist of an acoustic guitar are known as bouts. The curves above the waist are called the upper bout and those below are called the lower bout.
Bracing: This internal wooden support structure inside an acoustic guitar gives the instrument integrity. Well-designed top bracing maximizes the ability of the top to vibrate.
Bridge: On most acoustic guitars, the bridge is a piece of wood placed below the soundhole. It is used to anchor the strings and transfer their vibrations to the soundboard.
Bridge pins: Bridge pins fit into the holes on the bridge, where the strings go in, to anchor them in place. Most often made of plastic; some are made of ebony.
Capo: A capo is a device used to raise the overall pitch of an acoustic guitar. A capo attaches to the neck at a chosen fret and barres all of the strings. It allows guitarists to play songs in different keys without changing chord structures.
Cutaway: A guitar body style with a contoured upper bout that allows the player to reach the upper frets of the guitar more easily
Dreadnought: This is a large-body acoustic guitar originally designed by the Martin guitar company in the early 20th century, named after the large dreadnought battleships of the day.
Figuring: The pattern of a piece of wood's natural grain.
Fingerboard (aka Fretboard): The playing surface of a guitar neck is called a fingerboard, or fretboard. Typically a thin piece of wood that is glued onto the neck, it has thin metal strips called frets placed at intervals that divide the neck into half-step increments.
Finish: The final coating applied to acoustic guitar woods is called the finish. Flame and quilt are two examples of figuring.
Flame: A characteristic of a wood's appearance that appears to shimmer and move as light strikes it from different angles - see figuring
Frets: Thin metal strips placed at intervals on the fretboard to divide it into half-step increments
Intonation: Intonation is the relationship of tones on different parts of the fretboard. The note of each string on the 12th fret should match the note of the 12th fret harmonic on the same string. If not, the guitar's intonation should be adjusted.
Laminated: As opposed to a solid piece of wood used in acoustic guitar-making, a laminated surface is created by gluing several thin plies of wood together.
Luthier: A woodworker who specializes in making stringed instruments
Marbling: Often used to describe the natural patterns and color variations of ebony
Moustache bridge: A bridge whose shape is reminiscent of a handlebar moustache
Neck joint: The point where an acoustic guitar's neck joins the body
Nut: Located at the top of the fretboard, the nut serves to evenly space the strings as they approach the tuners and transfer vibrations to the neck of the guitar.
Pickup: An electronic device that senses the vibrations of the strings and converts it to an electrical signal for amplification
Quilted: A visual characteristic of certain tone woods that give it a wavy or folded appearance
Scale length: The total length of the vibrating portion of a string
Soundboard (aka top): The piece of wood on the front of an acoustic guitar that is largely responsible for an acoustic guitar's tone and projection
Soundhole: The hole in an acoustic guitar's top that aids in projecting the instrument's sound
Waist: The narrowest portion of an acoustic guitar's body