GUITAR HUNTING: Finding Your Acoustic Soul Mate

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When my friend Robert first asked me to write an article on how to search for–and find–a really good acoustic guitar, it struck me that though I spend my days helping folks do just this, it’s much easier to do it than it is to write about it.  The challenge is certainly not in finding wonderful guitars from which to choose; the selection is as good as it’s ever been. It’s in matching the right player with the right instrument.  If you’re looking to buy your first guitar, or you’re coming back to the market after a long hiatus, I hope this article will help you make your way though all those boxes of wood and wire to find the guitar that’s perfect for you.When my friend Robert first asked me to write an article on how to search for–and find–a really good acoustic guitar, it struck me that though I spend my days helping folks do just this, it’s much easier to do it than it is to write about it.  The challenge is certainly not in finding wonderful guitars from which to choose; the selection is as good as it’s ever been. It’s in matching the right player with the right instrument.  If you’re looking to buy your first guitar, or you’re coming back to the market after a long hiatus, I hope this article will help you make your way though all those boxes of wood and wire to find the guitar that’s perfect for you.

I should begin by telling you a guitar-buying experience of my own.  Though I’ve played guitar for much of my life, there was a 10 year period during which I didn’t play at all.  I had a host of other priorities then, leaving me little time for playing guitar.  Several years later though, during an extended business trip, I wandered into a guitar shop and, somewhat on a whim, bought a new guitar. It had beautiful but simple appointments and a warm tone I found appealing.  I was so taken with the overall sound, look and feel of the guitar that I didn’t even notice the strings on it were pretty tired.  When I got home a week later and restrung my new guitar, something terrible happened.   Suddenly, my new guitar just didn’t sound right. The warmth I had heard at the shop was gone, and now the guitar sounded too bright and maybe even a bit brash.  I kept trying various string sets, attempting to warm up the tone, but I never felt the same way about that guitar again.  I ended up selling it within the year.  Obviously there was nothing wrong with this guitar.  It was well-made and fine sounding, just not right for me.

I’ve heard many players say that if they like a guitar when it’s got old strings, they’re sure to love it with fresh ones.  In general, I agree, but for this particular guitar, that assumption just didn’t ring true.  Had I heard the guitar with new strings the day I first played it, I’m confident I would have passed on it for something else–expensive lesson learned.

Choosing the right guitar is extremely personal and subjective.  Each instrument is unique, as is each player’s style of approaching the instrument. There’s no one right brand or style of guitar, regardless of what the advertisements want us to believe.  With so many choices available today in both new and used instruments, how do you go about finding your right guitar?

1) Take your time.  Once you’ve determined your budget, get out there and play as many instruments as possible.  Don’t feel pressured by yourself or anyone else to buy immediately.  Play your friends’ guitars, as well as several brands and styles at different shops, paying close attention to the various sizes, wood combinations and tonal differences.  It may take a while, but there’s a guitar out there that will satisfy your budget, your hands, your ears and your soul each time you sit down to play.

2)Suit yourself and no one else. Just because your favorite artist plays a certain guitar on stage or in his or her latest video does not mean it’s a good fit for you.  Depending on your physical size, you may want a larger guitar such as a dreadnought or jumbo.  If you have a more slight build, a small body such as a 00 or OM might suit you better.   There’s no rule as to what body shape or size you should buy; it’s all in what you feel comfortable playing and in the tone you’re trying to achieve.  Smaller guitars are generally more “balanced” in tone, with larger guitars having more apparent low end tone.  Just because your buddy sounds great behind a Rosewood guitar doesn’t mean it’s your fit. You might find you get better tone out of Mahogany or Maple or something else.

If you’re using your guitar for vocal accompaniment, you might notice that certain wood combinations provide a better platform for your voice than others.  Indian and Brazilian Rosewoods are rich, reverberant tonewoods with lots of ring and gorgeous overtones, with Brazilian offering even more brilliance and clarity than Indian. With the Rosewoods, notes run together beautifully as you play.  Mahogany has a woody, somewhat sweeter sound with fewer overtones than Rosewood. Maple has a drier, percussive tone and a quicker decay to its note, so it’s interesting to hear how the various woods support or surround your own voice.  If your voice is similar in timbre to your guitar’s voice, the two can end up competing–in a way–for space.

There are so many wonderful woods available for guitar backs and sides today.  They range from the commonly found Indian Rosewood, Mahogany, Koa and Maple, all the way to the more exotic woods such as Brazilian Rosewood, Cocobolo, Macassar Ebony, African Blackwood, Zircote, Madagascar Rosewood and Myrtlewood–to name a few.  Even with all these gorgeous woods for backs and sides, the most important part of a guitar, tonally, is the top plate or soundboard.  The top provides the majority of the guitar’s tone, with the back and sides adding shades of color. Vibration of the top up and down due to the movement of the strings creates sound waves that are transmitted via the bridge to the body, which essentially acts as a resonating chamber.  We would do well to remember, though, that the way an individual luthier works with the tonewoods has as much–if not more–effect on a guitar’s sound than the woods themselves.

Some guitars have tops that match their backs and sides (such as mahogany or koa guitars), but most guitars have either a Spruce or Cedar top.  Of the two, Spruce is the stiffer wood, having a great stiffness to weight ratio, and it usually has a brighter, crisper tone with lots of ring.  Cedar, which is softer than Spruce, is generally warmer and rounder in tone.  Cedar is usually more “open” sounding initially, whereas Spruce takes longer to open up and develop its tone fully.

Of the variations of Spruce, some of the more commonly used types (in order of stiffness from lesser to greater) are Engelmann, Sitka, European/German/Alpine and Adirondack.  If your attack on the strings is pretty aggressive, an Engelmann Spruce top is probably not your best choice.  It’s a fabulous wood for fingerstyle and light strumming or picking, but it has less headroom, and if driven too hard, it tops out–or shuts down–and can sound muddy.  Sitka Spruce is an exceptionally versatile top wood, and most people sound good playing a Sitka top because it responds pretty well to a light or aggressive touch.  Because of its versatility, Sitka is used in more guitars than any other type of Spruce.  Sitka can be driven pretty hard before it tops out.  European, German and Alpine Spruce all generally have a strong mid-range and brighter trebles than Sitka, and each has subtle nuances that cause folks to choose one type over another.  Adirondack, the stiffest of the tonewoods, can be pushed harder than the other tops, but it can be equally good for the fingerstyle player due to its bell-like tonality in the trebles.  All this said, sometimes a particular top will surprise you, acting almost the opposite from what you’d expect tonally.  It’s always fun to be surprised by an instrument.

You can spend all day dreaming up various wood combinations, but until you actually play a guitar, you won’t really know if it’s the right combination for you.  Each guitar has a unique voice; if you play five guitars of the same model and wood combination by the same maker, you’ll almost certainly hear differences–if subtle–between the guitars. One will probably stand out as the clear winner to your ear, so remember, never judge a guitar purely by its specs.  Play it and then decide.

Once you have determined the size and wood combination you prefer in a guitar, there are a few more details you might want to consider.  For some players, the size of the neck at the nut, the neck profile and/or the scale length of the guitar are as important as the tone of their instrument.  If the guitar doesn’t feel right in your hands, you’re not going to play it as much as if it really fits you. A guitar’s nut width can either leave your hand feeling cramped, or it can keep you from making those certain chords the way you really want.  For some players 1/16″ of an inch is hardly discernable; to others, it’s the great divide.  Pay attention to the profile of the neck from front to back.  You’ll want to get this right, because a guitar that feels good for 20 minutes in a shop may feel totally different after a gig or a 2 hour writing session.

Thanks to advances in building technique and technology, a good guitar is more affordable than ever.  If your resources are seriously limited, an all-laminate guitar might just fit the bill.  Laminate construction has come a long way in recent years, and a good sounding, relatively lightweight, all-laminate guitar can be found for around $200-300.  For a bit more money, you’ll be able to buy a solid-topped or solid top/solid back guitar. We’ve already determined the soundboard is most important to the overall tone of a guitar, so it’s best to buy a solid-topped guitar if you can.  Expect to pay around $300 and up for a good solid-topped instrument. If it’s a tricked out performance guitar with a cutaway and a pickup system, a solid-topped guitar with laminate back/sides can run as much as $1000 or more.  The starting point for an all solid wood guitar is around $600 (after discount). At this price, the trim might be spare, but you should have a really nice sounding guitar.  If you your budget allows for $1000-1500, you’ll find a great number of perfectly serviceable and fine sounding instruments from which to choose.  In the $1500-3000 range, you start to enter the world of small-shop and hand-made guitars. Beyond this range, if you go for that custom guitar of exotic woods or with extremely fancy trim, well….the sky’s the limit!

You’ve decided what to buy, so where should you buy? The advent of the web has made it possible to buy just about anything online, giving us all the option of buying locally or across the country–or world.  You can purchase a guitar online from a guitar shop, an individual or via eBay.  Buying online can be a rewarding experience, but it can also be a nightmare if things go wrong.   I would advise against buying a guitar online if you don’t have the option of sending it back.  After an appropriate, and pre-determined, approval time, you should be able to return an instrument if it’s not right for you–not to mention if it’s not as it was described. You’ll be responsible for shipping and handling costs, but at least you won’t be stuck with the wrong guitar.  Seriously, if you’re thinking of buying something online and the seller won’t allow for the possibility of a return, say thanks and just keep looking.  Get all the details worked out in advance and you’ll stand a much better chance of being happy with your purchase.

Even with the option of buying online, many players still prefer buying locally.   Price wise, the playing field is pretty level these days, with prices at the local shops not too terribly far off from those online.  If you’re new to the whole guitar buying experience, it may be better to establish a relationship with a reputable shop and learn as much as you can.  A good shop should encourage you to play many guitars within various price ranges, and they should let you take your time in deciding.  When you’ve made your selection, the local shop should make sure the guitar is set up properly for your playing style.  Many shops include this in the purchase price of the instrument, so remember this service when you’re negotiating your best price.  The local shop should be there to take care of you after the sale, whether with advice about set up, repairs, pickups and installation, or whatever help you need with your new guitar.  Even if you’re an experienced guitar buyer, the local shop can have a lot to offer in selection and service.

Basically, the choice is yours to buy where you wish, and there are advantages to both.

Remember, each guitar has a unique personality, so take your time in choosing and you’re sure to find the one that will speak to you every time you pick it up to play or write.  Here’s to the search…..enjoy!

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