Welcome to the world of acoustic guitars. If you're a new musician looking to purchase your first six-string, read on to learn the essentials about the instrument. For more experienced artists, this buying guide may help you understand the acoustic guitar a bit better. In this guide, we'll discuss your musical needs, the anatomy of the acoustic guitar, the woods used in its construction and all the different body types available. Whether this is your first guitar or your second or third, when you're armed with this knowledge, the buying process will be fun, interesting and exciting.
The very first step in the buying process, before you even look at a guitar, should be to consider your musical needs. Here are a few examples of questions you should be asking yourself: Are you a beginning guitarist? Advanced? Expert? Your skill level may determine which model of acoustic guitar you buy. There are all kinds of basic guitars made for beginners that sound great without breaking the bank. On the other hand, many brands offer vintage reproduction and signature acoustic guitars that may be costly, but offer a sound you won't find anywhere else.
What is your playing goal? Are you in a band, or do you prefer to play solo? What is your preferred genre? Rock, jazz, blues? Traditional, modern? With choices ranging from classical and orchestra guitars to the versatile and extremely popular dreadnought, there's always a great fit no matter how and where you'll be strumming your new acoustic guitar.
Jotting down the answers to questions like these will help you with your research into which type of acoustic guitar will ultimately be best for you.
The first step to understanding an entire guitar is to make sense of all its major components and how they work together. Having a sound knowledge of the basics of each part will leave you that much more prepared to sort through all the options when you go shopping for your acoustic guitar.
On acoustic guitars, the neck extends from the headstock to the heel joint, which is where it attaches to the top of the body. When it comes to structure, the neck is a guide for the strings and provides support for the fretboard.
Most acoustic guitars have a neck that is glued directly to the body of the guitar - this is called a set neck. The other neck option for acoustics (though more common on electric guitars) is a bolt-on neck, which has a heel that provides additional support on the back of the neck where it meets the body of the guitar.
To help keep its shape, the neck is built around a metal rod called a truss rod. This ensures it won't bend or bow due to string tensions or during storage. The truss rod can be adjustable either at the headstock or just inside the body of the guitar at the base of the neck. Learning to adjust your truss rod will help you keep your guitar in tune during your marathon practice and stage session.
On the outer side of the guitar is the fretboard, or fingerboard, as it's alternatively called. Typically, it is a separate piece of wood that is glued directly on top of the neck. Fretboards are usually carved from rosewood or ebony. Known for its crisp, clear attack, ebony does not require a finish, which gives the fingerboard a fast playing quality preferred by guitarists that like bright top ends and well-defined low ends. Rosewood is the most common fretboard wood and brings a strong tone to your playing style. It's known to produce a rich, warm sound with soft highs and well-rounded lows.
Embedded in the fretboard wood at half-step increments along the 12-pitch chromatic scale, frets determine the correct finger positions for notes and chords. The majority of guitar fretboards feature inset dots or symbols on the off-numbered frets, starting with the third. There is also a rare, but growing, segment of fretless acoustic guitars on the market. These lack the metal frets, allowing expert guitarists more freedom on the fretboard - but they're definitely not for beginners.
The final part that makes up the neck is the headstock. It is located at the top of the neck and is fitted with tuning pegs or keys. These allow you to tune your guitar by adjusting the tension of each string to change its pitch. Where the headstock meets the neck, you'll find a grooved strip called the nut, which carries the strings to make sure they are properly guided onto the fretboard. The nut is commonly made of plastic, but can also be manufactured from bone, graphite and a variety of other materials.
The shape and size of your acoustic guitar's body will influence the sound the instrument produces. When choosing a guitar, your physical needs are almost as important as your musical needs. If you have a smaller build and a shorter arm span, a 3/4 size acoustic may be best for you. On the other hand, if you have a larger stature you may want to try a full-size jumbo or dreadnought acoustic guitar.
The body of an acoustic guitar is made up of three main parts. The top (which is called the soundboard and is supported by internal bracing), the sides and the back. The narrowest part of the guitar body is known as the waist. The outward-curved sections on either side of it are called bouts, with the smaller upper bout toward the neck and the larger lower bout on the opposite end of the waist.
The strings are mounted to the guitar's body at the bridge, below the sound hole. Each one is anchored by a post called a bridge pin. The thin strip that spaces out the strings on the bridge is called the saddle. This can be made of plastic or, in some cases, bone. The bridge has the important role of transferring the strings' vibrations to the guitar top, which results in musical notes being played.
A new acoustic guitar usually comes with steel strings. These are an ideal choice for rock, pop, country and sometimes even metal musicians. Known for their bright, loud tone, steel strings are the most closely associated with a modern acoustic guitar sound.
Nylon strings bring a warmer, softer tone to your playing style. Generally used to play classical, flamenco and folk music, these strings are easier on the fingers due to their softer material and lower tension. Because nylon strings tend to stretch more than steel strings, they will need to be tuned more often, especially when first installed.
Different woods produce different tones, so it's wise to educate yourself on what types are available. Here are some basic descriptions of the most common tonewoods used in the construction of acoustic guitars:
Cedar - Commonly used as a top material for classical and flamenco guitars. Cedar is a soft wood that produces a bright tone.
Cocabolo - Fast and responsive, this tropical Mexican hardwood is used for sides and backs and produces a bright, even sound.
Ebony - A strong, durable wood with a smooth feel, used most often in fretboards.
Koa - Hawaiian wood with a unique golden color, used for all parts of an acoustic guitar body. It is often found on more expensive guitars because of its scarcity. Produces a warm, tropical sound.
Mahogany - Characterized by its high-end tones, mahogany is a dense wood that offers a slower, mellower response. It is a common sight in all parts of an acoustic guitar and is a favorite among country and blues musicians.
Maple - Typically used on the sides and back of an acoustic guitar, this wood produces a dry sound that really emphasizes the higher end of the scale. It is a great choice for live performances in a group setting as it rings through the other instruments with a lower level of feedback compared to other tonewoods.
Ovangkol - Offering a warm character that highlights mid-tones, Ovangkol is an African wood similar to rosewood. Commonly used for the back and sides, it produces a sound that is rich and warm.
Rosewood - One of the most popular and traditional woods used in the construction of acoustic guitar, rosewood offers cutting attack with plenty of projection. It is known for its rich, complex overtones that remain clear even during the most bass-heavy solos.
Sapele - Used mainly for sides and backs, Sapele is a highly sustainable African wood. It is tonally similar to mahogany but delivers stronger treble.
Spruce - There are many different varieties of spruce, including European, Adirondack, Sitka and Engelmann. Mainly used for the top of the acoustic guitar, spruce is lightweight, strong and renowned for its strong resonance and clarity.
Walnut - Similar in density to koa, walnut is an alternative to mahogany in bodies and emphasizes midrange tones.
Just as there are many different types of wood used in the production of acoustic guitars, there are also many shapes and sizes available to suit your personal playing style. When choosing your guitar, make sure to take comfort into consideration. Will you be sitting or standing? Are you playing a familiar venue or are you headed somewhere you've never played? How will your physical size impact how you play? Asking yourself a few of these questions will help determine which type of acoustic guitar is best for you.
While measurements of acoustic guitars will vary from one luthier to the next, below is a list (with brief explanations) of some of the most popular acoustic body types.
Concert and grand concert guitars- Dating back to the 1850s, concert guitars are generally smaller in size with a bright, mid-range sound. Ideal for smaller musicians, these guitars are very playable and typically measure 13.5" at the lower bout. Grand concert acoustic guitars are slightly larger, generally measuring 14- 14.25" at the lower bout. Because they are a bit bigger, they have a slightly stronger sound than the regular-sized concert guitars.
Dreadnought- One of the most common types of acoustic guitars, the dreadnought uses a very large soundboard and it's known for its squared bouts, wide waist and 14-fret neck. With their loud, driving sound, dreadnoughts are popular among bluegrass and country musicians.
Auditorium and grand auditorium- Sometimes referred to as an "orchestra" body, auditorium guitars are a standard mid-sized acoustic. With a lower bout the same size as found on a dreadnought, the auditorium is smaller at the waist and produces a balanced tone that is warm and voluminous. The grand auditorium's lower bout is generally 16" but the waist is narrower, resulting in an eye-catching hourglass shape. These models are louder and offer a more balanced tone than smaller body styles.
Jumbo- Measuring over a foot and a half at the lower bout, these very large acoustic guitars are favorites among country and western artists. Jumbo guitars project loudly and offer a big, booming sound that deeply resonates. Travel and mini-acoustics- Perfect for artists who travel frequently, parents shopping for children and musicians who have smaller statures, travel and mini acoustic guitars are designed for convenience. Mini guitars are mirrored after the look of a standard acoustic guitar but measure at about a 3/4 scale with 18 to 20 frets. Travel and mini acoustics offer the same tonal quality as standard sized guitars- but come in a smaller, more compact package.
Cutaways- A feature of other body styles rather than a style in and of itself, the cutaway is a "scoop" taken from the upper bout of an acoustic guitar that allows players easy access to the highest frets, which extend over the body. If you are making the switch from electric to acoustic or if you play solo or lead guitar, you may want to consider a body with a cutaway. Neck width and length- If you have small hands or a short arm span, an acoustic guitar with a smaller diameter neck will work best for you. A smaller neck will not affect the sound of the guitar, but will make it much more comfortable to play.
The top of the guitar has a huge impact on the tone it will produce. The sound created by picking or strumming the strings is sent via the bridge to the top where it is amplified. As noted above with respect to tonewoods, the wood used in the construction of the guitar top has a strong influence how the instrument will sound.
Acoustic guitar tops are made of a single wood (referred to as a solid top) or a combination of many woods (which is called a laminate). A solid top is commonly made of two single-ply wood pieces placed side-by-side, with the grain matched down the middle of the guitar top. A laminate top is made of several layers of wood. These tops usually have a full-grain wood on top with many layers of pressed wood underneath. Laminate doesn’t vibrate as well as solid wood, so the tone it produces is not as rich or as loud. However, it is more affordable, making it a great choice for beginners or those looking to save a bit of money on their guitar purchase.
If you've been doing your research, you've more than likely come across an instrument that varies from the typical design of the acoustic guitar by having twice as many strings. 12-string acoustic guitars are commonly used by guitarists who play blues, jazz and folk music. Their 12 strings are paired up in six courses, each with two strings that are tuned to produce a trilling, chorus effect. Typically, the strings in the bass course are tuned an octave apart while all the treble strings are tuned the same. Played by guitar greats like Stevie Ray Vaughan, Paul Simon and Richie Sambora, the 12-string guitar is an unconventional choice for musicians looking to step away from the traditional sound of the acoustic guitar.
As their name suggests, acoustic-electric guitars are a combination of two different types of guitar: acoustic and electric. They are equipped with pickups and a preamp that allows them to be plugged into an amplifier or sound system. This way, they maintain their rich acoustic sound while letting you play louder. An acoustic-electric guitar is a great choice for stage performances in larger venues, because once it's plugged in, you can project its sound to the far corners of the space. When unplugged, they sound just like any other acoustic guitar. As they continue to gain popularity amongst all genres, more and more manufacturers are offering their own acoustic-electric hybrid guitar models.
Now that you're armed with plenty of buying information, it's up to you to make the decision of which acoustic guitar will help you become the musician you want to be. Look for an acoustic guitar that feels comfortable and sounds amazing. You want your instrument to respond to the way you play, to enhance and develop your sound. By being prepared with the knowledge to set expectations and put your needs first, you're well on your way to choosing the perfect 6-string. Happy shopping!
Here is a list of commonly-used terms in reference to acoustic guitars. Refer back to this helpful glossary when you come across a word that you're not familiar with.
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