Purchasing an acoustic guitar, or any instrument for that matter, sends shivers down the spine of even the most weathered shopper. With so many genres of music and different skill levels, it can be a near impossible task to pinpoint the best.
Things get even worse when it’s for a loved one, or close friend. We don’t want to disappoint, but we don’t want to break the bank either. With the holiday season around the corner, we are even more fearful of buying the wrong gift. To further stir things up, there’s the all important price-tag factor to bear in mind.
So how do you go about sifting the good from the bad and settling on the best acoustic guitar? If we take a broad perspective, there is unfortunately no firm answer. However, understanding what you need, and want, is the best way to find the ultimate guitar that works for you. Ultimately, guitar shopping is a subjective endeavor and the experience is radically different from one person to the next.
Firstly, what is an acoustic guitar? A six-stringed fretted instrument that naturally amplifies the vibrations created when strings are strummed or picked. It is part of the chordophone family of musical instruments.
The hollow body of the guitar acts as a resonance chamber to effectively raise the volume to an audible level. In other words, the strings make the wood vibrate, which then creates the familiar sounds we are accustomed to. Unlike the electric guitar, it does not rely on pick-ups or any other external factor to amplify the sound. Hence, the acoustic element of the name.
Originally hand-crafted exclusively by specialized luthiers, acoustics are now mass produced by the leading instrument manufacturers and are, therefore, very affordable. Given their popularity, there also numerous types and shapes to choose from.
The instrument is prevalent among many singer-songwriters and styles of music ranging from country through to folk music. Apart from the piano, it is one of the most widely recognized sounds in the musical world. It also carries special connotations and a rich history, making it a favourite among young or budding musicians.
A Short History Lesson
The origins of the guitar are the subject of great debate. Some trace it back to the lute, popularized during the Middle Ages throughout Europe, and the lute-like Greek kithara. Others point to the Persian chartar. Moreover, some argue the influence of Arabic culture, notably music and the oud instrument, in the Iberian peninsula and the Moor-inspired Spanish guitarra.
It is agreed that the concept originates back to the very first stringed instruments such as harps and tanburs. Further back, researchers suggest the musical bow, a retooling of the hunting bow, may have been the original catalyst. In essence, the basic concept of the guitar is similar to many ancient creations. They all used some form of the basic principle whereby a wood body is used to significantly augment the sound of strings, which were often made of animal guts.
Regardless of the difficulty in pinpointing its exact origins, it is agreed that the modern iteration came into existence during the 19th century. Much is credited to Antonio Torres, a spanish craftsman, who was the first to build a guitar with six strings and within the proportions we are now accustomed to. His initial design was then refined and improved throughout the twentieth century to improve the tone and loudness, culminating in the modern instrument we know and love.
Though the modern acoustic guitar is fairly new in terms of the history of instruments, its place in contemporary music cannot be argued.
Wood, Wood, Wood
It would be remiss of us if we didn’t mention the importance of wood, and its impact on the quality of an acoustic. The wood is essentially the conduit through which the audible sound is created. This means it is the most important factor in determining the characteristics of that sound or tone, as it is often referred to. Think of it as the engine in a car; regardless of how flashy or seemingly expensive, the engine dictates the quality of the vehicle. A bad engine makes a bad car, and vice-versa. The same applies to acoustics.
There are numerous types of wood used, each with their own distinctive attributes that shape the sound in different ways. Some make the sound warmer, whilst others veer towards a brighter, clearer sound. There are also woods that offer a balanced compromise between both extremes.
As mentioned above, the subjective nature of choosing a guitar means that what defines a good tone changes drastically depending on who you ask. Choice of wood allows you to narrow down your options to fit the musical profile that most resonates with you and your musical sensibilities.
In general acoustic guitars will integrate some form of spruce into their build, most commonly on the top part of the instrument. Originally native to North America, spruce is now grown throughout the world in nursery for specific lumber purposes, namely guitar making. It is, therefore, widely available and relatively low priced compared to more exotic counterparts.
Due to the length of its wood fibers and surprisingly low weight, spruce offers stability, remarkable sustain and is very responsive to various glues and adhesives, making it a wood favoured by acoustic luthiers. It is perceived as the standard tone-wood for guitar making and very few models don’t incorporate some form of spruce. The sikta-spruce variety is particularly favoured.
Measures of Quality
Though subjectivity plays a crucial part, there are indeed a few indicators other than the wood that will help you filter the great from the down-right horrible. Remember these are factors to consider and not immovable rules that are set in stone. Use these points as a guideline instead to help narrow down your choices.
Intonation is the guitar’s capacity to play the same note in tune at multiple points along the neck. If the notes are out of tune, the intonation is deemed bad. Conversely, if they ring true the intonation is good. This is important because playing in tune is the most basic prerequisite of music.
On acoustics, the intonation is determined by the manufacturer and cannot be altered afterwards (in some case it can, but with extreme difficulty and cost). It is, therefore, highly important to make sure your purchase has good intonation. A guitar that plays in tune is the first step towards finding the best guitar.
Similar to intonation, action links to the playability of a guitar. It is the space that exists between the fretboard on the neck the strings themselves. When playing the guitar, the player must use their fingers to press down on the strings to lock in certain notes and chords. If the action is too high, then this becomes an arduous process that leads to fatigue, and in extreme cases long-term damage such as carpal tunnel syndrome.
A good guitar will, therefore, have a low action. However, not so low as to allow the strings to create unwanted interaction with the frets. This can create a bothersome buzzing sound when the two come into contact with one another.
The only way to truly measure the action is to have a play on a guitar. Visual representations or retailer pictures don’t often do it justice.
Hardware and Components
These are made up of the various elements other than the guitar body, neck and head-stock. Think machine heads, or tuning pegs, in particular. These are the most important factor in keeping your guitar in tune other than intonation. Making sure they keep the strings in tune for prolonged periods of time is crucial and is a sign of quality mechanisms. Low-end models tends to go out of tune rapidly, becoming a stressful experience for the player.
Other points to consider are the quality of the bridge, a fundamental component that ensures the strings are fixed in place above the fretboard. Little details such as the presence of strap holders or quality of the nut are important considerations as well.
Certain models also offer an inbuilt preamps and pickups which will allow you to plug the guitar into an amplifier or mixer for recording purposes. Buying these components separately and installing them yourself can be costly. If you feel that these are options you will need, it’s recommended that you simply buy an electro acoustic guitar from the outset.
A good guitar is also recognizable by the manufacturer or craftsman’s focus on how comfortable the guitar is to play, but also to simply hold. Comfort has a direct impact on playability and is, therefore, a sure sign of how good a guitar is.
Action, or the space between the strings and the neck, plays a big part. The perfect action makes playing an enjoyable, nearly effortless, experience. While having too much space, simply strains the fingers and puts off even the most ardent enthusiast.
The shape and feel is also important. A well-made instrument just feels good to handle and sits nicely on your lap if seated, and hangs comfortably across your front, if you are using a strap. It is somewhat like ergonomics, but for a guitar. Time spent fine-tuning the tiny details is immediately noticeable and will make you want to play more often, and better for that matter.
Different body shapes offer varied uses and fit better with certain styles. Regardless, a good guitar simply feels good, no matter its size or shape.
As with most things, the cost is often a valuable indicator of a product’s quality. The same applies here. The more you are willing to spend, the better the guitar. If you have a couple of grand spare, fork out for a limited run artist edition Fender and you won’t be disappointed. Opt for the cheapest model, and you will invariably be dissatisfied. Sadly, we are not all endowed with abundant financial means, but there are a number of great options for the thrifty among us, as covered below.
It is also worth considering what accessories the guitar come paired with. A gig bag or hard case are always appreciated and are generally offered at a lower price than if bought separately. Same goes for tuners, ‘learn to play’ books, and cables, if the model is an electro acoustic.
Best Budget Model – Jasmine S35
We aren’t all blessed with a bottomless wallet and, as a consequence, cost is a real consideration. Many first time buyers are tempted by higher models because of their reputation and the guarantee of a quality product. However, with a little savvy, it is entirely possible to pick up a more than adequate instrument on a budget.
Keep in mind that you get what you pay for, therefore, manage your expectations accordingly and don’t expect the sound of a $20,000 acoustic. Do not expect the best guitar out there and understand that guitar building is an expensive process. Manufacturers have had to cut corners to offer such a low price.
Having scoured the models available, we settled on the Jasmine S35. In line with many models in this price range, the S35 has a spruce top, a versatile tone wood that creates a strong, dynamic response, and a meaty range of frequencies. The side and back are made of nato, a more readily available alternative to mahogany and reliable substitute. The bridge and fretboard are rosewood, another standard, go-to wood. It sports the classic dreadnought shape.
The S35’s overall sound can be described as bold and to the point with few subtleties, meaning it responds accurately to the player’s fingers. The neck is slim-sized for extra playability and comfort. Cosmetically, the S35 is surprisingly attractive for the low price-tag and is well put together. As such, it is durable and can withstand being knocked without long-lasting damage.
Among its competitors, the Jasmine S35 really stands out for the reasonable quality of the craftsmanship and the sound. Other models, simply feel cheap and are generally horrible to play. The S35 on the contrary feels good. It will inspire you to pick it up to hone your skills over and over again.
Though a little more expensive, the Fender FA 100 is worth mentioning as well. For the price you get the trusted Fender name as well as a gig bag and strap. With a dreadnought shape, spruce top and basswood side/back, the FA 100 has an easy to navigate rosewood fret and bridge. The sound is precise and has a reliable bite to it. The lifetime warranty is also a nice touch.
Performance wise, the FA 100 is really suited to beginners given the good build and comfortable feel it offers. The action is fairly low so untrained fingers won’t have too much trouble learning basic chords.
Overall the FA 100 is a decent guitar, though the low end can sometimes be a little too vigorous, but this is to be expected with the characteristic loudness associated with dreadnought bodies. The Fender logo on the head-stock also makes this feel like a better guitar than its price suggests.
Best Affordable Guitar – Epiphone Hummingbird Pro
In terms of a mid-range, affordable model, we were taken by the Epiphone Hummingbird Pro. The vintage look is an immediate eye-catcher. Other cosmetic touches such as the beautiful fretboard, and stunning art on the pickguard, really do give this guitar a unique look.
Made with a spruce top, mahogany back and sides, and rosewood fretboard, the Hummingbird Pro’s tone-wood choice makes for a packed tone with a great deal of warmth. However, it remains subtle with a well-defined mix of all frequencies. It also offers good sustain so chords ring out well.
Apart from the quality of the sound, one of the most attractive characteristics is, however, the slim neck. Designed with playability in mind, beginners to adept guitarists alike will have a field day with this gem. The action is also comfortably low.
For many this guitar is versatile enough to carry you beyond the first steps of learning to play, all the way to wowing audiences on stage. You can’t argue with the quality associated with the Epiphone/Gibson brand and the rich history of the hummingbird body shape.
The model also includes an in-built a pre-amp and under-saddle pickup, allowing you to plug into an amp or play at larger venues where amplification is a must. The electronics are responsive and highly controllable thanks to an array of controls on the preamp.
The price isn’t that excessive either, yet the Hummingbird Pro offers way more than alternatives that are cheaper, and matches the performance of competitors priced higher.
If you have a little more cash to spend, the Washburn R314KK is worth a look at as well. Similar to the Hummingbird in terms of the classic style adopted by the manufacturer, the R314KK has as truly vintage feel. The details on the headstock and neck give it a truly unique quality. Fortunately, this is limited to cosmetics only and does not affect the sound of the guitar. In terms of acoustics, it adheres to the demands of the modern guitarist yet retains the age-old charm of the heyday of acoustic guitars.
The sound is distinct, with a slight lean towards the low end, perfect for playing blues. The R314KK is also very playable due to the compact parlour body shape. It does this without sacrificing loudness, a feat by the manufacturers given its size.
The R314KK has a spruce top, the uncommon, but great sounding, trembesi wood on the back and sides. The mahogany neck coupled with an ebony fretboard accentuate sustain and durability.
The model includes a hard case. A great bargain given that solid cases are expensive.
At a similar price to the Washburn, is the Ibanez AEW40ZW. If you are looking for something a little different with electro acoustic capabilities, this may be a good fit. The use of exotic woods such as the distinctive zebra-wood top differ from the norm to surprising effect. The tone is clear and dynamic, yet retains a decent scoop of low frequencies to create a rather balanced overall sound.
The preamp/pickup combo translates the sound well to an amplifier and the controls are responsive. This means you can shape the sound to the size and type of venue, or genre of music, depending on your needs.
Comfortable to play and very easy on the fingers due to Ibanez’s expert craftsmanship and low action, the AEW40ZW is definitely worth your consideration in this price range.
Another more expensive model is the Tanglewood Sundance Performance Pro X70. Tanglewood are known for the value of their creations, which tend to display great performance at reasonable prices. The X70 fares no differently and offers attributes usually associated with more expensive alternatives.
Crafted with mahogany on the back and sides, with a spruce top, and a very unusual and exotic African mahogany making us the neck. This mix of tone-wood is rather uncommon giving the guitar a certain allure from the outset.
Visually stunning, with a subtle darkened sunburst, the guitar feels durable and solid, as if it was made decades ago. This vintage appeal is a large part of the attraction of the X70 and the sound follows suit.
It is clear and distinct with each string having its own distinctive quality that separates it from the others. The frequencies tend to favour mids and highs that naturally reverberate very well, though this isn’t to say that the low-end is compromised, but rather a little subdued.
Other features include the orchestra body shape, which is very comfortable to handle. The inbuilt preamp and pickup offer a great electro acoustic solution if you are ready to take to the stage. The amplified sound is a fitting accompaniment to the acoustically generated sound of the guitar, and the controls allow a lot of freedom in terms of finding the right tone.
This model is geared towards the more experienced guitarist who wants a quality instrument that will stand the test of time without having to take out a loan.
Ultimate High-End Acoustic
Do you have no budget and an infinite amount of cash? Here we are talking about the best acoustic guitar money can buy. The creme de la creme of guitars.
Presenting the Taylor 612CE, one of the best guitars that money can buy. The Taylor name is synonymous with quality and has a track record of offering some of the best sounding instruments out there.
The 612CE uses maple as the centrepiece of its construction. Maple is often associated with a high-end tone that rings loud and strong yet may waver in terms of providing warm overtones. With this model, Taylor has reversed that long held belief and used maple’s natural tendency for unmatched resonance thanks to an innovative bracing system that allows the wood to shine.
The sound is characterful and reminiscent of maple, but with a twist given that it is rounded, smoothed and full of subtle overtones. Each note rings out splendidly and chords sound rich and complex.
The maple back, body and neck are matched with the commonly seen sitka-spruce top to ensure a stable build and tone. The ebony fretboard and bridge are top of the range. Ebony is regarded as the prime material for ease of play and responsiveness.
In other words, the construction is near flawless and simply looking at the guitar you feel that it oozes quality and expert craftsmanship. It’s all about the attention to detail. For example, the use of protein based glues in order to maximize the quality of the tone, or the high-quality finish of the darkened maple on the back and sides.
All round, the 612CE is a unique guitar and you get the added benefit of the trustworthy Taylor name. Furthermore, Taylor’s focus on an ecology-conscious use of tone-wood is appreciated and raises its quality even more.
Above, we mentioned the Epiphone Hummingbird Pro and we would be wrong not to mention its elder brother and inspiration, the Gibson Hummingbird Vintage, when it comes to high-end models.
Perhaps one of the most revered acoustics in recent musical history, the Hummingbird was the acoustic of choice for legends such as John Lennon and Jimmy Page. With reason given Gibson’s unique sound. The Hummingbird originates from Gibson’s team of acoustic luthiers, a world-renowned team focused on crafting the best available.
The Hummingbird has a clear and defined sound. Every chord or note reverberates in a unique way to create a harmonious whole that is both loud and balanced. Frequency wise, the Hummingbird offers a finely tuned equilibrium where each one stands out without outshining the others.
The guitar has a spruce top, back and body made of mahogany, and a rosewood neck. As with most high-end guitars, the components are the best quality available with the saddle and nut made of bone, less commonly seen in contemporary models.
Overall, a great instrument, plus it is priced significantly lower than the Taylor 612 CE. With this model, you can rest assured that you get value for your money and truly beautiful, and historic, acoustic.
For Beginners – Yamaha FG800
Everyone has to start somewhere, but this doesn’t necessarily mean you have to break the bank to find a decent starting model. To put it bluntly, a beginner won’t be able to tell the difference between a signature model and a mass-produced knock off.
This doesn’t mean you should opt for the lowest priced option. Instead, work on a balance between affordability and ease of use. We all know that the first few months of learning an instrument are arduous, so make the task easier by choosing an instrument conducive to aiding the novice players out there.
We recommended staying well away from buying the cheapest option or going for a beginner pack at your local hypermarket. These tend to be badly made and fall apart rather quickly, not mentioning the terrible quality of the sound or limited playability.
Our pick is the Yamaha FG 800. With over 50 years experience making the FG series, Yamaha is a highly recognized name. The Japanese manufacturer is well known for producing some of the best pianos and guitars out there.
Yamaha craft wonderful high-end models, but they have struck a nice balance between affordability and quality that others find hard to match. This means you don’t have to fork out an exorbitant amount of money to get a great guitar that is very forgiving to novices.
The guitar in question is a beautiful light wood colour due to the use of spruce wood on the front plate. It is also available in maple, mahogany or rosewood, though these options come at a price. The fingerboard and bridge are made of rosewood, a reliable staple found on many decent guitars. The back and sides are nato, a plentiful tone-wood that favors warmer, deeper tones.
The dreadnought shape coupled with Yamaha’s scalloped bracing build create a rich, deep sound that finds an equal balance between high, mid and low frequencies. The resonance is also surprisingly good, reminiscent of mid-range alternatives.
In terms of playability, the FG 800 is comfortable to handle and the action reasonably low so the fingers glide nicely along the neck. It is not too big, nor too small as it comes in the standardized 25 inch size. Beginners will, therefore, find it easy to learn and manoeuvre through chords, a very important factor in encouraging repeat playing.
For the price, it matches the quality of models priced at a couple of hundred dollars more. In other words, it packs quality and versatility for a very reasonable price-tag.
An honorable mention also goes to the Epiphone Pro-1, notably for those who are restricted by budget. A near one hundred dollars cheaper than the Yamaha FG 800, the Pro-1 one is durable and reliable, exactly the qualities required by a beginner.
The spruce top, mahogany back and sides, and rosewood bridge and fingerboard are also very similar to the FG 800. You will find it easy to play from the moment you get it out of the box due to the action being nice and low. Hitting notes won’t take so much pressure, allowing time for your finger and hand muscles to acclimatize to the efforts required to play the guitar.
The small scale size means novice fingers can find their way around the fretboard comfortably. The Epiphone name, a subsidiary of the world-famous Gibson, is widely regarded as leading brand so you can be sure of a quality product. They even throw in a humidifier and free online lessons.
If you are looking for a beginner’s guitar with a classic feel (without the common cut away), then we recommend the Cordoba Protege C1. The Spanish manufacturer Cordoba is known for its classical guitars and with the Protege C1, they don’t veer too far from the characteristic that have cemented their renown. They have struck a balance that offers a decent sound and affordability with an overarching air of authenticity.
This model has a spruce top, mahogany back and sides, as well as a fretboard and bridge made of rosewood. The selection of tonewoods create a balanced and clear tone that is really rather surprising for the low price. The notes and chords sound distinct from one another yet meld together to create a fluid whole. We can’t stress enough how good this one sounds for the price. Many other manufacturers would easily add a couple of hundreds of dollars on for a guitar with similar quality tone.
The guitar also feels well made. The components are solid and compliment the style of the guitar well. The construction is also very good and you get the sense that it won’t fall apart. It can definitely handle any unexpected bumps that could be thrown its way.
It isn’t obviously a professional model, but is more than enough to hone your craft and a reliable tool to practice. In addition, its playability means you can rely on the Protege C1 for a few years before you may feel the need to upgrade to something better. It also ships with a padded gig bag.
It is also possible to find very good models from your local music shop that aren’t made by big manufacturers. Local luthiers, who are either starting out or only produce a limited number of products, often sell locally. These models tend to offer great quality at a reasonable price given the need for luthiers to produce quality guitars to further their own businesses. These are generally not advertised online and require a little bit of investigating to hunt them down. It is, however, well worth the effort.
Personally, I was able to find a limited edition guitar with an unusual concave body cut with astounding tone and build. The attention to detail and use of locally available tone-wood only added to its quality. If I had opted for a similar one produced by a brand name, I would have paid up to four times as much, if not more. The luthier was local and was only in his third year of making guitars. He was still trying to establish his name, hence the much reduced price.
You are not only supporting local businesses, but also nabbing yourself a very good deal, by buying in this manner. The only downside is that this requires a little work. In addition, the unversed or novice player may find the whole process rather overwhelming, and may not be able to judge the quality of a guitar enough to make an informed decision.
Don’t Throw Caution to the Wind
If you are picking up an acoustic for someone else, resist the temptation to surprise them and make sure to involve them in the buying process. Nothing beats having it in your hands, noodling around and then coming to a well-rounded conclusion as to the guitar’s merits.
Ultimately, the person playing is the most capable of determining if this or that guitar is the best for them. Take your child or loved one down to your local shop and try out a few models that pique their fancy before spending your hard-earned cash. This is even more important if they are a well-versed guitarist. These tend to be the most fussy and are very particular about what they deem to be the best acoustic guitar.
Regardless of what guitar you settle on, remember to have it professionally set-up at your local music shop. This is particularly necessary if you have ordered it via an online retailer. Guitars tend to take a bit of a bashing during transit. A tune-up can fix any resulting issues and also improve the sound, meaning a budget guitar can in fact end up sounding similar to one in the price range above.