Buying a guitar: Acoustic Varieties
Prepared by Alan Humm
We will start with classical guitars, not because most of my readers (in
this case, you) will be looking for that, but because it holds
historical pride of place. These are sometimes called 'nylon string'
guitars, mostly because they have nylon strings, and the other types do
not. Aficionados of classical guitar playing will object to the name,
reserving it for lower value instruments, which may be classical in
styling, but not quality.
Kremona Solea Classical Guitar.
Classical guitar is a style of playing as much as it is a type of
guitar. It is usually used for classical playing (reading music and so
forth, rather than chording and improvisation). That is 'usually,'
though. Other players are sometimes drawn to its unique sound for
specific musical applications.
The neck is wider, the scale is always long, and the fingerboard is flat
(most modern steel-strings and electrics are curved across the width of
the fingerboard). Also the nylon strings are easier on the fingers than
a steel-string guitar. If you are interested in classical style playing,
this is the instrument you want. If you are just looking for something
that is easier on your fingers, I suggest that is the wrong reason.
Learn on the steel-string and you will always be able to play a nylon
string guitar. The other direction is much more difficult.
Peter Tsiorba Flamenco Guitar.
A related category is the flamenco guitar which is braced slightly
differently, is a little brighter, and has closer action, which means it
can have some fret buzz. There are also traditional differences in the
woods chosen (cedar top, cypress back and sides), but these are not
written in stone. Some use pegs for tuning, rather than tuning keys. If
you specifically want a flamenco guitar, you will probably have to
special order it. The call, in the US, for nylon string guitars is
generally low enough that dealers generally only have the classical
variety in stock.
Other than that, the things you look for, and the questions you might
ask are generally the same as for other acoustic guitars.
What I said above about action is particularly important on a
steel-string guitar. If you are an experienced player, you already know
this, and you are ready for it. If not, your fingers have some sore days
ahead, but it will be worth it. Nevertheless try to pick a guitar that
will minimize your suffering as much as possible. As I alluded to
earlier, there are a couple of standard neck lengths (scales) and some
variation in width. These are a matter of comfort, to some extent.
Longer scaled guitars have a little more life, but only a very little.
Shorter scales are easier for some people to play. You just need to be
aware of which ones are which (the sales person should be able to tell
you), try both and see which you like. Do the same with neck width.
Taylor guitars, for example, are slightly wider. Variations exist at the
less expensive end as well. If your fingers are big, you will probably
find the wider neck, and maybe the longer scale, more comfortable. Don't
forget to check the other things I mentioned, like intonation, and
quality of woods.
Martin Dreadnought Guitar.
There are a variety of body styles. The main staple is the dreadnaught
style which has a somewhat squarer shape. This was made famous by
Martin, who developed the standard X bracing we saw on the last page.
The style has been widely copied, and is by far the most popular single
style on the market today.
Alvarez Jumbo Guitar.
The jumbo has more of a Barbie® shape: big hips, narrow waste.
Presumably, it is louder, deriving from the larger lower bout (the part
of the body where the bridge is located). However, not everyone agrees
that it sounds quite as good as the dreadnaught. And they usually cost
Seagull "Grand Acoustic" parlor size guitar.
Parlor size (small body) guitars are just what they say. That makes them
lighter and, for some people, more comfortable. Presumably they are not
as loud, but I have not noticed huge differences. If you are a smaller
person, you will probably be more comfortable with one of these.
Washburn Dreadnaught Cutaway Model.
Finally any of these types (not necessarily these models) are probably
available with cut-aways. Very little sound on acoustic guitars comes
from the upper bout (the part above the hole). So cutting away some of
that is unlikely to have much affect on the tone. That doesn't keep some
people from claiming that they can hear the difference. They do
generally cost more, and because your thumb can't get behind the
fingerboard up there, it will only slightly improve your ability to play
above the body joint.
Ironically, they are preferred by jazz players, who are arguably the
most impoverished musicians out there.
The Loar Archtop cutaway guitar.
Top by the late Jimmy Foster.
This last one is in a different category, not least because it is
becoming something of a rare bird. F-hole guitars are not so uncommon in
the electric guitar world, but when they are designed to be played
acoustically they are manufactured in fewer numbers, which in turn
affects their price. When these are done correctly, they are among the
most expensive guitars out there.1 Nevertheless, you will see big names
in pop playing these things. One distinguishing feature is that the top
wood does not need to hold the bridge (which just sits on the top). This
allows the top to vibrate more freely. The wood quality issue is the
same as with other acoustics, bug there are a handful of factors. These
are actually called archtop guitars because, well, the top is arched. In
truly high quality instruments, they are, like their obvious cousins in
the viol family, carved out of a significantly sized chunk of wood. Not
only is the wood expensive, but that carving has to be done just right,
and only some of it can be done by machine (even then, the process is
not cheap). Sometimes the bracing bars are also carved in, but they can
also be glued. It is much cheaper just to take a standard top, soak it,
and press it into the proper shape, then you glue on braces to keep it
that way. This strains the wood, but it can still sound nice. Cheaper
still, you use plywood, or junk wood (not spruce, not quarter sawn,
etc.) just as with its center-hole siblings. Of course, as we get
cheaper, we may actually begin to be able to afford these things. The
other thing you want to look for is how the pickup is mounted (if there
is one). Technically, it should be floating above the body, rather than
cut into it, although if there is only one up by the neck, as in the
picture, that is not so important (not much sound comes from there, you
may remember). But many models cut in a second pickup down by the
bridge. That does affect the sound, although if your primary use for it
is as an electric, it will give you more sound options when you are
plugged in. You decide what is important.
This covers the majority of steel-string types, but I assure the list
goes on as long as you want it to.
Finally, keep in mind that well over half the steel-strings on the
market now come with built in electronics. Ironically, but randomly, of
the guitars pictured above, only the last two do. This does not quite
turn them into electric guitars (many of the acoustic properties are
still present) but it does add some convenience. You should be aware
that in most cases plugging in your guitar will make it possible to get
real loud, but the sweet tone quality you paid all that money for will
be lost. If this is all you ever plan to do with it, opt for medium
quality wood, and look for the higher quality electronics.
If you happen to have one of these lying around, and you just want to
get out of the attic where it is just collecting dust, feel free to send
it my way ☺.
Gretch Round-neck Resonator Guitar.
Resonator guitars are kind of a niche market. Originally designed to be
able to compete volume-wise with big band instruments, they managed
survive the invention of the electric guitar (which addressed that issue
more effectively) because of thier unique tonality. Although they can be
played as regular guitars, they have become quite popular with blues
slide players. They definitely do not all sound the same. If this
interests you, you should visit Resonatin' - a little
sound demo and hear the difference between several types.
Personally, I prefer the original National three-cone sound.2
You are free to disagree.
Much of what I have said about comparing guitars applies here, although
you can safely ignore everything I said about construction materials.
Resonator bodies are (or have been) made variously out of metal, wood,
and even fiber-glass. I suspect that this affects the tone, but what is
'better' is clearly a matter of taste. Most of the tone, however, comes
from the metal plates (resonators). The earliest models (National from
the 1930s) had three of these, later ones had only one. Wikipedia has a
nice discussion of history if you are interested.
Guild Square-neck Resonator Guitar.
There are a couple of important variations that you need to be
aware of. Necks can be either rounded in back, like most guitars you
have seen, or square. The rounded version obviously makes it easier to
play as a normal guitar, but, if all you do is play lap style, you
probably don't care. The square neck adds some strength and its
challenge to standard playability is not important to lap players, who
play with the strings far enough off the neck (with a slide) that
fingering is not an option. They are still made both ways, of course.
Make sure you know what you are ordering.
With the round neck fingerable variety, partly because they are often
used for slide, the fingerboard might be flat, or they might have the
slight curve generally found on steel-string guitars. The former is
preferred for full-chord slide unless you have a special concave slide;
the latter makes it easier to do single-string slide, and most players
prefer it for straight playing. These are questions you need to ask,
particularly since you may not be able to do in-store comparison, except
in the largest stores. Ordering on-line is usually the way you have to
If you have to go for a vintage instrument, be very careful if you are
not actually seeing the instrument before buying. In the days before
truss-rods (and to some extent, even after), the angle of the neck could
easily degrade over time, not only making the instrument harder to play,
but reducing both note accuracy and volume. You may have to have the
neck seriously repaired or replaced.