While acoustic guitars generally follow the same form factor, the small differences in shape, materials and build result in big differences in terms of tone and playing feel. So if you are looking to buy a quality acoustic guitar, it is important to get a good grasp of these important details.
Here we take a closer look at the biggest factors that can make or break acoustic guitars, including different tonewoods, neck specifications, body shape, size, pickups, value for money and more. We hope that these considerations can help you make informed choices when shopping for an acoustic guitar.
Setting your budget helps you better manage your resources, and streamlines your acquisition process. By doing this, you narrow down your options to the ones that you can actually buy, allowing you to focus on and scrutinize fewer guitars, giving you a clearer picture of which one to buy. This process also helps in preventing overspending and impulse buying. Thankfully, there are great options in every price range
The sub $200 price range is considered as the starter tier, ideal for those who want to test the water before spending more money. Note that it's unreasonable to expect high quality acoustics in this tier, but there are some good options that cater especially for beginners, including kid-friendly 3/4 size and short scale acoustics.
Sub $500 Acoustic-Electric Parlor Guitar
$500 is the ceiling for most first-time and second-time buyers, and for this reason, this is the part of the market where manufacturers compete the most, resulting in more options to choose from. Here, your options expand to acoustics with solid tops from popular brands like Yamaha, Ibanez and Epiphone. Entry-level offerings from premium brands will also be within your buying range.
Generally speaking, build quality and materials get better as price improves, so if you want better something better, you'll want save up and extend your budget. As your budget approaches the $1000 to $1500 mark, your options open up to stage-ready acoustics with premium tonewood selection, including those from established brands like Martin and Taylor. This is where you'll find best value acoustics that provide premium level specs, playing feel and tone, albeit with less cosmetics than at higher prices.
Going above the $1500 mark gives you access to premium acoustics with high-end build and specs. This is where manufacturers go all out in terms of tonewoods and visual appointments. You can even have a luthier build you a boutique quality one-of-a-kind acoustic if you wish. Ironically, the downside of having more money to spend is that you have fewer guitars to choose from. And you'll also find that there are fewer reviews from actual users that can help you gauge the performance of these expensive instruments before buying.
In my experience, I find that it is always better to save up for something premium, even if it is falls outside my current budget. This helps me focus on a single instrument that's really good, and prevents me from buying multiple mediocre acoustics that in the end will not make me happy. And as someone who regularly plays, having an instrument that I saved up for helps motivate me to get my money's worth by playing more.
The type of woods used on acoustic guitars play a big role in shaping the resulting sound, and knowing which ones to go for is important when eyeing an acoustic guitar. This section features the more common wood types used in acoustics, along with their general impact to tone and their durability. Note that wood is a complex organic material, which means that it is not as consistent as man-made composite materials. So expect to see variations in terms of looks, rigidity and resonance from within the same wood type. Even wood from the exact same tree may have differences in characteristics. As such, the descriptions provided here are meant to be general guides on what to expect, not strict rules.
Top, Back and Sides
The acoustic guitar's body is usually divided into three main parts, the top, back and sides. The top, also called "soundboard", is regarded as the most important part, because it is where body resonates the most. This is the reason why light and vibrant wood are often used for tops, but there are some who prefer denser wood like mahogany for its warm voicing. Underneath the soundboard are bracings that support the top structurally, while still allowing it to resonate.
The back and sides form the shape of the body and serve as support for the top. They also impact the resulting tone, albeit not as dramatically as the top. Ideally, you'll want an acoustic with an all-solid wood body, meaning that the top, sides and back are solid - but this configuration is usually reserved for pricey acoustics. Thankfully, you can find some solid top acoustics in the mid price range.
All Solid Wood Acoustic-Electric Guitar
Laminated vs. Solid Wood
- Laminate wood is made from thin sheets of wood glued together., it has the appearance and even texture of regular wood, but with fewer of its other qualities. The glue which binds the pieces of laminate dampens vibrations, and this can diminish a guitar's projection, sustain and tone. On the flipside, laminate woods are cheaper and more resistant to temperature and humidity changes. This affordability and reliability has make it a great fit for budget and student-friendly guitars.
- Solid wood, as the name says, is a solid piece of wood that's carved from a single plank. When used on guitars, it results in improved projection and resonance that composite and laminate materials simply can't match. The catch is that solid wood is harder to come by, making it costly. And it is also more susceptible to wear, tear and weather changes. This is why you only see solid wood acoustics at higher price points. To make guitars more accessible, manufacturers sometimes go for the middle ground, utilizing solid wood for the top, and pairing it with laminate wood for the back and sides. As a general rule, if the specifications don't say the wood is solid, then it's laminate.
Spruce is the default top wood for many manufacturers, and it has been for many years now. It is loved by guitarists for its bright and punchy tone - producing the standard acoustic guitar sound that many are familiar with. It is lightweight yet stiff, giving it a good balance of resonance and durability. It is commonly paired with mahogany or rosewood for the back and sides, but it can also work well with other wood types. Note that as popular as it is for tops, there is little interest in using spruce for the back and sides. Spruce is used in many different guitar types, from small parlor guitars, to bigger dreadnoughts and even 12-string guitars.
Rosewood is a dense tonewood that is frequently used on fretboards. It is quite expensive so it is not as commonly used on acoustic guitar bodies, but you can find it on the back and sides of some premium models, usually paired with a solid spruce top. Rosewood has a warm voicing that's generally slightly brighter than mahogany. More importantly, it has complex overtones that result in livelier and more detailed tone. Whether these overtones are worth the extra cost, is up to you.
Mahogany is a dense and sturdy wood that is traditionally used for the back and sides. But it has since gone beyond its traditional role, and is now widely considered as a good top wood, thanks to its warm, mid-range focused tone. As a testament to mahogany's popularity - many of today's top rated acoustic guitars have all-mahogany bodies. Mahogany top is great for those who want a darker tone that better emphasizes the bass and mids.
Maple is a hard and rigid wood that's commonly associated with electric guitar necks and fingerboards. It's rigidity also makes it viable for the back and sides of acoustics, providing solid structural support that is especially needed by big bodied models. Because of its stiffness, it will not have the same resonance as other tonewoods, but it results in a bright tonality that appeals to many. More importantly, some maple wood come with nice looking grain patterns that ups the aesthetic appeal of an acoustic guitar. This is why some manufacturers opt for laminate maple, to make their affordable guitars look good.
Despite being soft and fragile, cedar is still the go-to top wood for classical guitars. It is loved for its warm yet percussive tone, which allows guitars to better emphasize plucking and picking. More importantly this tonewood sounds just as good on steel-string acoustics, as evidenced by the high ratings of cedar topped models. This is a specification to consider if you're into percussive right hand playing techniques. Just remember to take care not to scratch or bump this type of wood, although this is true with any acoustic guitar anyway. Note that this lightweight wood isn't normally found used for the back and sides.
Basswood is commonly associated with electric guitar bodies, but from time to time, you will also find it on acoustic guitars. While it is considered as a hardwood, basswood is actually lighter and softer, resulting in some of the highs being shaved off. This subtle darkening of the tone makes it a good alternative for the expected bright tone of acoustics, without straying too far from familiar territory.
Koa is a dense hardwood with similar characteristics to mahogany, but generally has more overtones in the mids and highs. This means that acoustics that have koa back and sides, tend to sound brighter than those with mahogany. Aside from tone, you can easily tell it apart from other wood with its exotic looking wood grains. Unfortunately, koa is a bit on the expensive side, and is not everyone's cup of tea - so you'll only find solid koa used on expensive guitars. Because of its nice looking grain, some manufacturers have made koa more accessible by utilizing laminate versions on some of their guitars.
Because of the rising price, and scarcity of mahogany, some manufacturers have switched over to using alternatives like sapele. Sapele looks and feels similar to mahogany, but it is harvested from fast growing and more sustainable trees, making it more cost-effective and renewable. Sapele is also easier to bend, carve and work with, giving luthiers and manufacturers more reasons to make the switch. This is the reason why many entry to mid-tier priced acoustics now feature sapele instead of mahogany - including big brands like Martin, Taylor and more. I've even seen it used on acoustics above the $1K mark. Tone wise, sapele has the same warm and mellow tone, but because its slightly denser, it has a bit more treble overtones.
- Nato / Nyatoh
Nato is another cost-effective mahogany alternative that comes from widely available trees in the South East Asia region. As such it is now the go-to back and sides wood in the entry to mid-tier price range of acoustics made by Asian manufacturers like Yamaha, Takamine and Ibanez. Nato has very similar characteristics and looks to regular mahogany, some even say that it is closer to mahogany than sapele. It has the same dark, mid-range focused tone as mahogany, with a bit of extra zing, but not as bright as sapele.
Shape and Size
Shape and size directly impact the weight, look and playing comfort of acoustic guitars. It also influences the resulting tone and volume. Generally speaking, bigger guitars are expected to have more volume and low end, at the cost of being bulkier, heavier and less comfortable to play. Smaller guitars are lighter and easier to play, but they have less volume and low-end, which gives them a mid-focused voicing.
Dreadnought & OM (with Cutaway) Comparison
The Dreadnought is widely considered as the standard shape and size of acoustic guitars. It has a big body that gives it good projection and low end, without overwhelming the highs. It is considered as a great all-around guitar, great for strumming while also working well for plucking and other styles. There are variations of these shape that falls within the same size, but with slightly different tone and playing feel - including Slope-Shoulder Dreadnought, which has a flatter shape, and Grand Orchestra, which has a slimmer waist. These minor differences reduce some of the dreadnought's boominess, while retaining its familiar voicing.
Jumbo guitars are step up in terms of physical size, with wider and deeper bodies that give them more bass and projection. They are meant to be played loud, and as such are designed to handle more aggressive strumming and playing styles. These guitars will also appeal to guitarists with playing styles that require deep bass.
There are plenty of options for those who want something smaller, including mid-sized acoustics like Concert and Orchestra (OM) models. These have bodies that are smaller and thinner than dreadnoughts, making them easier to play, at the cost of having less sound projection and bass. The good side of being less boomy is that the mids are heard more clearly, making them sound more articulate and balanced.
You can go even smaller with Parlor guitars, which are inspired by old acoustics. They are lighter and take up less space, and have a gritty mid-focused tone that work great for blues and similar styles. There are also plenty of small body acoustics that are meant to cater to younger musicians, including 3/4 size models, "Juniors", "Baby's", Minis and the like. These usually have shorter scale length, which means less string tension, making them easier on the hands. But don't expect them to be loud and sound full when played without an amp.
Neck Setup and Playability
The way the neck is setup impacts playability tremendously, which in turn can make or break your playing experience. For this reason, you ought to carefully consider neck specifications and setup, especially if you are a beginner. Be warned, I've seen many students quit their guitar journey altogether because they got a bad playing instrument. The information provided below will help you better understand neck setup and playability, so you can narrow down your consideration to guitars that are comfortable to play.
Nut and Saddle
The nut and the saddle is important because it is the point where vibration is first transferred from the strings to the neck and body. While our fretting and picking hand can impede vibration flow, it doesn't diminish the importance of good string to guitar body connection. In addition to being points of contact, they also have to be sturdy enough to hold the strings in correct horizontal and vertical alignment - making them very important in getting playability and intonation right.
Unfortunately, most affordable acoustic guitars come with low quality plastic nut and saddle. These are often the first parts to be upgraded, especially by experienced guitarists. So keep an eye out for these specifications, best if you get ones that come with bone material by default. Yamaha experimented on different saddle materials and came up with interesting results that further establish the benefits of using bone material.
Note that there are nuts and saddles that utilize synthetic materials (TUSQ, NuBone Etc) that mimic bone. Because they are synthetic, they have more consistent hardness compared to bone, making it better at stabilizing string position and tuning. But having been made from a different material, they transfer vibrations differently. As to which one sounds and sustains better, there isn't a consensus.
As the name implies, nut width describes the width of the nut, and this correlates directly to how wide the guitar's fingerboard will be, as well as string spacing. Nut widths of acoustic guitars can vary depending on the model and manufacturer, they usually range from 1.6785" to 1.875". While the size difference maybe subtle, the difference in playing feel is substantial. Having owned many acoustics and classical guitars through the years, I've experienced many different nut widths. Currently, I own a parlor guitar with a narrow 1.6875" nut width, and an OM with a wider 1.75" nut width, and I definitely perceive the difference in playing feel. I usually go for the narrower one if I want a more relaxed playing feel be it for practice or on stage, but I also like the extra room that I get from the wider nut - it allows me to easily apply techniques like slide, hammer-on, bends, vibrato and more - without accidentally hitting the other strings. By and large, younger students and those with small hands will find it easier to play guitars with narrow nut width. Those with bigger hands, and those who prefer wider string spacing (like those who are used to Classical guitars), will appreciate the space provided by guitars with wider nut widths.
Nut Width and Scale Length
Scale length describes the length by which the strings are stretched on a guitar, it is the distance between the nut and the saddle. But since saddles can be adjusted per string, luthiers and manufacturers have simplified the method of getting scale length by doubling the distance from the nut to the center of the 12th fret.
The most common scale length for acoustic guitars are 24.75" and 25.5", but this is not a strict rule - many small bodied acoustics like parlor guitars have shorter scale lengths. Physics dictate that longer scale length means higher string tension, while shorter scale length results in some string slack. This makes short scale acoustics easier on the hands and ideal for beginners. Long scale lengths with their higher string tension require a bit more effort to play, but all things being equal, will sound fuller and sustain better.
Action / String Height
Generally, the closer strings are to the fingerboard, the easier they are to fret, hence why many prefer low action setup. The downside to this is the possibility of fret buzz, which happens when strings hit the fretwires as they vibrate, due to string height being too low. Manufacturers design and setup their acoustics to have low enough action without causing fretbuzz, but there can be inconsistencies.
Unfortunately, most guitar makers don't provide the details of their string action setup, so you'll have to try the guitar yourself to figure it out. This is where looking at multiple reviews, as opposed to just one review can help - because by looking at multiple reviews you can have a good picture of how consistently good or bad a guitar's action is, based on the experiences of multiple sources. Note that there are some who prefer higher action, because it works better with certain styles like heavy strumming, slide playing and more.
Built-in Pickups and Electronics
There are now many stage-ready acoustic-electric guitars in the market, and most of them come with built-in active electronics. They come with the entire pickup system installed, including an under-saddle piezo pickup, an active preamp, and a battery compartment. All you need is to insert a 9V battery into the compartment and your guitar is ready for stage use. Many of these preamps come with nifty features like volume, tone and EQ, while others have some nice extras like anti-feedback (phase shift) and a tuner. These can plug to a PA Mixing Console and be amplified conveniently. Since it is hard to manually install these pickup systems, it is better to get ones that come with them built-in if you're planning on using the guitar on stage in the near future. Some premium acoustic-electric guitars come with more complex pickup systems, some of which blend a soundhole mounted mic with a piezo pickup, resulting in a more natural, "miked" acoustic sound even when plugged in.
Note that there are others that utilize battery-less passive pickups, these are preferred by those who don't want big preamps and electronics ruining the structure of the acoustic guitar. This pickup type is usually paired with an acoustic preamp, before going to the PA system. Some manufacturers opt for magnetic pickups, which is usually reserved for electric guitars. These pickups add coloration to the sound, so it is not ideal for those who prefer natural / transparent acoustic tones. But they have their uses, with gritty tones that work well in blues and rock styles.
Most acoustic-electric guitars come with strap buttons built-in, but if you go the no pickup route, you ought to check if it comes with a strap button. Drilling strap buttons into the body of an acoustic guitar is not something that regular users may be able to do, let alone beginners. Note that for acoustic guitars with no strap button on the neck side, you can utilize special straps and strap adapters that attach to the headstock, you can see more of those in our guide to guitar straps.
There's no denying the impact of good cosmetics when it comes to buying decisions. There have been many instances where students tell me that they bought their first guitar primarily because they liked its color. A good looking guitar can inspire you to extend your playtime and practice, and it can also boost your confidence as you play. And these are good enough reasons to go for guitars that have the color and look that you like. Just make sure not to buy a guitar solely for its looks - I have seen many who have regretted these impulse based decisions.
Acoustic Guitar Case
If you want your acoustic guitar to last long, you'll need to give it proper storage. Manufacturers of premium guitars agree with this statement - they often bundle their expensive instruments with good quality cases.
Note that being bundled with a hard case may vary depending on the brand and retailer, so you'll want to check closely. Since hard cases are expensive, some manufacturers bundle their acoustics with cheaper padded gig bags. While these may not offer the same level of protection, they are still a welcome plus to any guitar package.
See which hard cases and gig bags we recommend.
About the Author
I've written about and researched music gear for many years, while also serving as a music director at my local church, in addition to teaching guitar, bass and mentoring young musicians.
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