CHOOSING AN ACOUSTIC GUITAR
From the powerful ‘spr-wiang’ of Tom Petty’s 12-string in Free Falling to the delicate finger-picking of Paul McCartney’s Blackbird and the beautiful classical guitar of Andrés Segovia, the acoustic guitar in all its incarnations is an absolute staple in music. There’s something special about playing an acoustic guitar. Even when you’re on stage in front of thousands (I have to admit, I’m not speaking from experience here!), when it’s just you and a guitar – no amp stacks, no noisy drummer – it gives such a special feeling to the player and to those listening.
So you’ve decided you want to buy your first acoustic guitar or perhaps you’re adding to an already existing collection, but where do you even begin in a minefield of models, sizes, shapes, brands, woods and colours? Well, hopefully once you’ve read this article, you will have a little more idea about what you should be looking for…
THE ORDER OF THREE
The first thing to take into consideration with your acoustic guitar is how it’s constructed. Basically speaking, there are three types of build style (and therefore quality) of acoustic guitar: laminated (the musician’s term for plywood), solid top (usually with laminated back and sides) and all wood or all solid.
You will find that most acoustic guitars priced under £125 slot into the ‘laminated’ category, meaning that they have been built for durability and strength rather than musical tone. However, the good news is that the build quality of cheaper acoustic guitars is considerably higher than it was 15-20 years ago, with modern computer-programmed machines completely eradicating the ‘human error’ factor.
At this price point, there’s little point seeking out different wood types, as whatever wood it is will be made up of thin layers glued together, giving a stiff body that offers very little flexibility and minimum ‘breathe’ as the strings are played. That said, if you are just entering the world of acoustic guitars, these budget instruments are a fantastic place to start.
SOLID ON TOP
The step up from this level sees guitars built with a solid top, but laminated back and sides. These types of acoustic guitar usually fit within the price range from £150 to around £500. Because the top face of the guitar is made from a solid piece of wood, albeit a thin one, it is much more flexible and resonates more as you pluck and strum the strings. For this reason they tend to give a more ‘musical’ tone.
You will find that around 95% of solid-top guitar tops are made of spruce of some kind. Thanks to the relative softness of spruce wood (think Christmas trees), a spruce top will make the notes appear more defined but with a degree of smoothness that you simply don’t get from a laminated top guitar. This is all thanks to the flexibility of the spruce, resonating in tune with the soundwaves from the strings.
Most solid-top (and all-solid) guitars have back and sides made from tonewood, although you’ll also see many solid-top guitars being offered with laminated mahogany or rosewood back and sides. At this level of guitar construction, the choice of wood actually does make a difference to how the guitar sounds. Mahogany generally gives the guitar sound a good projection with a well-defined mid-range tone, whereas rosewood should give your guitar a slightly warmer, bassier sound, with a subtly increased depth of tone.
In other words, guitars with rosewood back and sides don’t sound as ‘tight’ as those with mahogany back and sides, although which one you prefer will depend on your own individual taste.
TOTALLY SO SOLID CREW
Finally you get to the pinnacle of guitar construction and that is an all-solid acoustic guitar. At this level, your guitar’s top, back and sides are all made from completely solid pieces of wood, and generally speaking this will give it a better tone, more sustain and usually a fuller overall sound. Obviously, these guitars tend to be the most expensive, and prices can even rise to around the £3,000 mark!
At this level, the choice of wood is absolutely crucial as it can have a marked effect on the overall tone. Obviously at this price I’d recommend listening to a guitar before making a purchase, but all the same, here is a breakdown of what sort of character you can expect from each type of wood…
Tops: The majority of all-solid guitars will have tops constructed of spruce, giving you the flexibility and warm tone I mentioned earlier. You will find some all-solid guitars with cedar tops, and this gives the guitar a warmer quality, also giving a bit less ‘cut’ to the overall sound.
Back & sides: All-solid guitars usually have back and sides made from mahogany, rosewood or maple. Rosewood tends to give the warmest, fullest tone; mahogany gives a tighter, punchier sound with good volume and projection; and maple offers a crisper, brighter tone, with less of the bass response or warmth of rosewood or mahogany.
Rarer or interestingly patterned woods can often be found on special limited editions or on guitars made by small independent companies. More unusual woods to look out for include koa, walnut, Tasmanian blackwood, sapelle and redwood, all of which exhibit defined timbres, allowing you to select which sound suits you best. Nowadays there are many possible combinations of woods available, so, as I’ve already mentioned, it is best to get out there and have a listen for yourself!
So we’ve covered material, but that isn’t the end of the story, as acoustic guitars also offer many body shapes and sizes. They generally rise in size from parlour, concert, folk, grand concert and orchestral to grand auditorium, dreadnought, jumbo and super jumbo. Naturally, the smaller models are more popular for playing at home as they’re easier to sit and hold, and they offer a more intimate tone compared to the larger jumbo models.
Try out a few sizes before you buy… you may have your heart set on a Gibson Super Jumbo but find that after a few minutes of strumming you’ve cricked your neck and got cramp up your arm!
One final thing: the kind of strings you choose can make a huge difference to your acoustic sound, so take advice from our guitar team on whether to go nylon, steel, wound or mixed… and enjoy!
TOP 5 ACOUSTIC TRACKS
Absolute Music's Guitar Department Manager Terry Haselden picks out his top tracks featuring acoustic guitar...
2. HEARTSONG (Gordon Giltrap) – One of the UK’s first instrumental acoustic hits, back in 1977, using a Vintage steel-strung acoustic.
3. IRISH GIRL (Adrian Legg) – Beautiful example of 12-string acoustic playing. In my opinion, Adrian is the UK’s finest acoustic player.
4. STREETS OF LONDON (Ralph McTell) – A lovely track… and Ralph went to the same school as me, but I’m not biased at all!
5. BAMBOLEO (Gypsy Kings) – Brilliant energy and wonderful fun.
If you're just starting out, we do have Epiphone acoustics from just £89, but spend a little more (in this case £139) and you get a quality tribute to GIbson's classic Advanced Jumbo acoustic with a solid spruce top.
Aslo available in black, electro-acoustic, left-handed and 12-string models, this is a fantastic starter guitar if you are on a sub-£200 budget. You'll do well to find another guitar for this sort of money with such a beautiful tone. Many of our less-serious guitar-playing staff own this one. Highly recommended!
A beautiful example of Gibson's square-shouldered dreadnought acoustic with solid spruce top and solid mahogany back and sides.
This stunning super jumbo electro-acoustic has us weak at the knees with its gorgeous fingerboard design, abalone soundhole rosette, gold Grover tuners and ebony fingerboard. LUSH!!!!!!
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