If you are a beginner guitarist who is looking to buy a new acoustic guitar, here is an acoustic guitar buying guide to help you understand what to check. You can also read my recommendation of good guitars at Good guitars for beginners.
Acoustic guitar buying guide 1 : Acoustic guitar or electro-acoustic guitar?
If you are stuck trying to decide between an acoustic and electro acoustic guitar, I recommend the acoustic guitar. In the beginner stage, there is no need for an electro acoustic guitar since you won’t be recording or performing live. You will be focusing your time on learning the basics. Moreover, for a decent electro acoustic guitar, you will need to pay more since you will be paying extra for the pickup. Low cost electro acoustic guitars sound bad when plugged in which defeats the whole purpose.
Besides, acoustic gutiars sound better and more natural with a good mic as compared to plugging in directly. So you can always buy a good mic later on if you need to.
Electro acoustic guitars have an advantage for recording in noisy rooms though. You need a silent room in order to record with a mic. Otherwise the mic will catch all the other unwanted noise too. Whereas with an electro acoustic guitar, the sound goes to the recording instrument or computer directly through wires and so there is no unwanted noise recorded. You can also set up a mic and record with your electro acoustic guitar. Just remember to pay a significantly more amount of money if you decide to buy an electro acoustic guitar. Cheap ones are not worth it.
Acoustic guitar buying guide 2 : Check the action
This is a very important part of this acoustic guitar buying guide. You should always check the action of the acoustic guitar when buying a new one. Action means the distance of the string from the fretboard. If the action is too high (strings too far away from the fretboard), it will be difficult to press down the strings and your fingers will hurt. And if the action is too low (strings too close to the fretboard), the guitar will make unwanted buzzing sound.
To check the action, press down on the top string (the fattest string) on the first fret (point A in image above) with one hand. At the same time, press down that string on the fret where the neck joins with the body (point B in image above) with your other hand. Now check the distance of the string from the fret wires between the two points (point C in the image above). There should be a slight gap just enough for a small coin to fit in between the string and the fret wires.
If the strings are touching the fret wires, the action is too low. Or if there is a considerable gap between the string and the fretboard, the action is too high.
If the action is either too low or too high, ask the store owner to adjust it. Most often a slight adjustment is all that is needed. If the adjustment cannot be done, look for another guitar.
Acoustic guitar buying guide 3 : The Woods affect the sound
The sound of the guitar is significantly affected by the woods its made up of. Especially the wood used for the top of the body of the guitar. There are different woods used for the body of a guitar like spruce, cedar, mahogany, maple and rosewood. The standard wood used in a lot of guitars is spruce espcially the sitka spruce. You will usually find a lot of guitars that uses spruce for it’s top and some other wood like mahogany for it’s back and sides. All of these woods have different tone properties.
Different guitar woods :
- Spruce is a rigid but lightweight wood. It has a powerful direct tone capable of retaining clarity when played forcefully.
- Cedar has a balanced warm sound. It is preferred by fingerstyle players because of it’s quick and rich response to lighter playing styles.
- Mahogany has a low response rate. It gives a strong punchy tone which suits well for country blues style playing.
- Maple tend to be more acoustically transparent. They have a low response rate and high internal damping.
- Rosewoods have high response rates. They have strong mids and highs and an overall dark tone in the lows.
Cheaper guitars often use nato (plywood).
One more thing you should know about guitar tonewoods is that sometimes the manufacturers will use laminate woods to build a guitar. A laminate means glueing together several pieces of woods. So, for example some guitars will have laminated spruce top and some will have solid spruce top. The laminated woods are cheaper but have lower quality sound reproduction than the solid woods.
So you may first try guitars with different woods and decide which ones you like.
Acoustic guitar buying guide 4 : Acoustic guitar strings
Guitar strings break from time to time. So you should perhaps buy one or two extra packs of guitar strings just in case.
That said, the strings have a major impact on the sound and playability of a guitar. There are different string sizes also called string gauges. You will find strings categorized in gauges of extra light, custom light, light, medium and heavy.
Lighter strings are easier on the hands and have a more trebly sound. But they can break quickly. They will also make unwanted buzzing sound if your guitar’s action is very low. On the other hand, heavier strings are harder on the hands and have a little more bassier sound. But thery are more durable and have louder sound.
Different string gauges :
- Extral light .010 .014 .023 .030 .039 .047
- Custom light .011 .015 .023 .032 .042 .052
- Light .012 .016 .025 .032 .042 .054
- Medium .013 .017 .026 .035 .045 .056
- Heavy .014 .018 .027 .039 .049 .059
The material of the string also affects the sound produced. You will find strings made of either bronze, phosphor bronze, brass or silk & steel. All of these materials will sound different.
Different string materials :
- Bronze string sounds clear and bright but will get destroyed quickly.
- Phospor bronze has a warmer sound and extends the life of bronze strings.
- Brass strings have bright, metallic kind of sound.
- Silk and steel strings have a soft and mellow sound.
Some extra helpers
Here are some extra items that you will need in your guitar playing and learning. Though they are not exactly acoustic guitars, they are benficial to have. So I have added them to this acoustic guitar buying guide post. Have a look.
In the early stages, it is going to take some time for you to learn how to tune by ear. And an untuned guitar is unplayable and sounds terrible. A tuner will save you hours of time and frustration trying to tune the guitar. Instead you can utilize those time to learn to play the guitar. There are lots of good analog tuners in the market. You can also find lots of free and paid tuner apps online or for mobile phones.
You can also use mamamusicians’s free online tuner.
A metronome is an instrument that counts the beats for you. Music playing wihtout timing and rythim is terrible. Playing with a metronome helps to develop the rythm and timing of your playing. Just like tuners, you can also find free and paid metronome apps online or for the mobile phones. Or you can buy analog metronomes.
You can also use our free online metronome app.
A capo is an instrument that helps to change the pitch of the open strings of a guitar.
Many chords cannot be played in the open position. But you can just change the pitch of the open strings by clipping the capo on any fret. This allows you to play any chord progressions in the open position according to which fret you put the capo on.
You will also see lots of youtube or other tutorials that use a capo. So you can play along with those tutorials if you have a capo.
So, those were some fundamental things you should keep in mind when buying a guitar. Take a copy of it when going to a store and check the guitars yourself or ask the store assistant or salesman about those. That will help you a good guitar that will be fun to play. And save you from possible headaches that you could get by buying a bad guitar. I hope this acoustic guitar buying guide helps you in buying a good guitar that you can enjoy for a long time in the future.
You can also read my beginner guitar recommendation post on Good guitars for beginners.