Acoustic Guitar Buying Guide

Updated 16/11/16

How to choose the perfect acoustic for you

Acoustic Guitars

Choosing an acoustic guitar, or any guitar for that matter, is a hugely personal thing and if you want to truly fall in love with playing a guitar, you have to make sure it’s the right one for you. But with hundreds upon hundreds of different guitars vying for your attention, and so many tiny variables which can impact greatly on your playing experience, it’s little wonder people plump for the same generic guitars from the same big brands. It doesn’t have to be like that though!

We’ve prepared the following acoustic guitar buying guide to help outline a few of the things you need to consider. We’ll look at the make-up of the guitars themselves, the different variations and situations they’ll be most at home, along with a run down of some of the different considerations you’ll need to keep in mind when you’re looking.

Acoustic Guitars

Why Play An Acoustic?

For many players, acoustic guitars are the first port of call on their musical journey. There are many reasons for this; there’s no need for an amplifier (and thus extra expense), they can be picked up and played with the minimum of fuss, they are used on many of people’s favourite records by many of their favourite artists and, most importantly, they sound fantastic.

Furthermore, they are extremely versatile and can sound great in the hands of beginners and experts alike (for a great example of acoustic playing taken to the next level, check out the extraordinary Tommy Emmanuel). But what exactly constitutes an acoustic guitar, and how does it work?

Acoustic Guitar Anatomy

In its most basic form, an acoustic guitar consists of a hollow wooden body with a large circular hole, a wooden neck, and steel or nylon strings which run the length of the neck. When the player plucks or strums the strings, they vibrate. The hollow body picks up these vibrations and the sound waves reverberate around the body, amplifying the sound and giving it a special tonal character.

Different shaped guitar bodies can produce different sounds, and are therefore used in different circumstances. For example, Jumbo body acoustics produce more volume on account of the larger body size, whilst parlour guitars produce a more focused sound, perfect for folk or fingerstyle players. We look more closely at acoustic guitar body shapes in this blog, and the basic anatomy of an acoustic guitar is outlined in the image below.

GUITAR-LABELS23

As well as the guitar body’s shape, the tone is greatly impacted by the type of wood used in its construction. Some woods offer a richer tonality, while others give a higher end brightness. Similarly with the type of strings used; steel strings are arguably more common and can be used in a variety of situations, while nylon strings are usually favoured by classical or Spanish style players.

The common theme running throughout this, and any other buying guide, is that you need to have a rough idea of what exactly you’re trying to achieve with the guitar. Deciding between the different genres of music you hope to play and the way you want your guitar to sound will have the single biggest impact on what ends up being the right guitar for you.

So before you start looking at brands, body shapes or tone woods, ask yourself what music you want to play. There are guitar in every conceivable shape and size, along with models which cater for every budget, so don’t stress too much about that just yet. Let’s take a look at some of the fundamental options based on what you hope to achieve with the instrument.

Farida D8-X

For versatility

If you’re looking for something which can comfortably cover a lot of different styles of music, yet retains that balance of tone and playability, then a dreadnought body acoustic might be perfect for you. Dreadnoughts are the classic acoustic guitar shape, and are familiar to everyone. You’ll find more dreadnoughts, and variations of, than you will any other guitar and for good reason. The medium sized body is big enough to resonate the tone nicely, with a good blend of volume and clarity, yet not so big that it feels cumbersome to play.

The ranges of every acoustic brand are stuffed full of dreadnoughts, so you’ll be sure to find one that meets your ‘other’ criteria (cost, quality etc) without too much difficulty. For beginners, or perhaps electric players looking to dip their toes into the water, you can’t go far wrong with the Farida DX-8.

Farida is building a strong reputation for creating guitars which punch well above their weight in terms of build quality, tone and value for money, and the DX-8 is a no-nonsense workhorse which will offer the perfect platform for developing your chops with none of the ‘finger slicing’ string issues which blight other similarly priced guitars. Seriously, if you’ve ever tried to make a barre chord on a cheap and nasty no-brand acoustic then you’ll appreciate how off-putting that can be. No such issues with the DX-8, which encourages repeat play by simply being easy to play.

For more intermediate or advanced players, it is worth looking at the types of woods used in the construction and the quality of the build. Sitting pretty in the mid range section is the Taylor Big Baby guitar. Taylor are one of the traditional big names in acoustic guitars, along with Martin, and the Big Baby is a perfect example of a high quality guitar which will last a lifetime. While featuring the classic dreadnought shape, the Big Baby is actually slightly shrunken down to 15/16 scale, making it comfortable for longer playing sessions.

If you are an expert in all this already, and want the ‘guitar of a lifetime’, check out the obscenely attractive (and pricey!) Gibson Hummingbird. This guitar needs no introduction, having been seen around the necks of John Lennon, Elvis Presley and countless others over the years. For the money you get the best choice of woods, the finest attention to detail and glorious, spine-tingling tone. Nice to dream, eh?

Martin LX1E Little Martin

Martin LX1E Little Martin

For singer-songwriters

More often than not, singer-songwriters favour a more solo approach to writing and performing, and therefore need a guitar which won’t dominate the sound or compete with their voice. Consider Ed Sheeran as an example; Ed almost exclusively favours baby sized guitars when it comes to writing and recording, both for their versatility and for the ease with which they can be slung in a gig-bag and carted from venue to venue for open mic nights. Not that we imagine he does many open mic nights down the Dog and Duck any more, but you get the idea.

The baby-sized guitar phenomenon is reasonably new in the world of acoustic guitars, but both Taylor and Martin offer wonderful examples of these guitars which would be worth considering by any budding songwriter. There was, in fact, an Ed Sheeran signature model from Martin which is based on their brilliant LX1-E small body electro acoustic, but it’s the Farida M2-E we’d draw your attention to here.

The M2-E is a parlour shaped guitar, meaning it has a slightly smaller body, making it perfect for those long nights sat writing. It’s also an electro-acoustic, meaning it can be plugged in through an amplifier when you’re playing shows, while the in-built tuner is both accurate and unobtrusive. Quality and playability feature highly here, well above what you’d expect at the price range, and it comes with a fitted hard case so it can be transported around without any hassle.

Gibson 2016 J-200 Standard Electro Acoustic Guitar

For playing with a band

When you’re part of a band, you want your playing to stand out and for this you need to bring in the big guns. Jumbo bodied acoustics fit the bill in terms of volume, tone and playability, and will ensure you don’t get lost amongst the drums, bass and other instruments.

Famous users of jumbo bodied acoustics include Noel Gallagher, who wrote a tonne of Oasis’ best known tracks using a Gibson J200 jumbo. They are not subtle, and you can’t hide in the background with one of these, but if you band’s sound is based around an acoustic then you might want to consider a jumbo. And, if you can’t stretch to Gallagher-esque capital outlays, the Epiphone EJ200 will more than see you right.

Admira Almeria

For classical/Spanish

At the other end of the scale, away from the rock and blues guitars, sit nylon strung acoustics. These are a niche within the acoustic world, on account of the completely different requirements players of these styles have. The guitars are still acoustic, and still work in the same way, but their nylon strings and wider fingerboards allow for completely different playing techniques. Fingerstyle, where the player uses individual fingers on their strumming hand instead of a plectrum, enables much more intricate patterns to be played. To accommodate this, the strings are spaced slightly further apart and the nylon strings produce a tone which sustains (i.e. rings out) slightly less which means notes don’t blur into one another.

The nylon string guitar is regularly suggested as a ‘first guitar’. One of the main reasons for this is that they are readily available in a range of sizes: 1/2 size, 3/4 size, 4/4 or full size etc. For example, an eight year old will probably find it difficult to play a full size guitar, as the body and neck of the instrument will be bigger than they can comfortably handle. Conversely, an adult is unlikely to want a half size guitar.

Another reason that nylon string guitars are a good choice for beginners is that the strings are a little bit softer, and thus easier on the fingertips of a beginner.

The mistake a lot of people make is to assume the cheap 3/4 size ‘learner’ guitars seen in catalogues are a reflection of the nylon-strung acoustic’s place in the world. Not true. Take a look at the Admira Infante for proof of this; the Infante marries up high quality tone woods with exceptional construction to create a guitar which any serious classical or Spanish influenced younger players should consider. Players looking to explore the world of nylon strings and eventually upgrade to a full size guitar should look at the Infante’s cousin, the Admira Almeria, which features a wonderfully resonant body and is durable enough to guide you through the learning years when a larger bodied guitar is needed.

Conclusion

We’ve shied away from delving too deep into tone woods, construction techniques and hardware specifications with this guide. For most players, particularly those starting out, the question we posed at the top will ring true: how do I achieve a specific sound. Hopefully this guide has put you on the right track to making a decision.

As with any guitar purchase though, it is vitally important that you physically try a guitar before you commit to buying it. Every Dawsons store has a wide range of acoustics in and our product specialists can answer any questions you may have along the way.

View a complete range of acoustic guitars over at the Dawsons website.

Comments

  1. mave mcmahon says:

    i have a horrible feeling that what i’m looking for doesn’t exist!! i need an electro acoustic, SHALLOW BODIED, steel string guitar with a MELLOW sound. a full size or dreadnaught is no use to me as they are too deep and wide. i have an ibanez narrow bodied guitar which is beautiful and i love, but the sound is bright, and i need something more mellow for some of my gentler songs.

    help !!!! please …….. any recommendations ? thanks

    • Hi Mave,

      Thanks for your enquiry. Hmmm… Well, if you’re looking for a slim bodied guitar that will sound mellow (I’m gathering you mean ‘full’ and warm-sounding -i.e. not thin and bright) when un-amplified, you might struggle. If a guitar body is small, it will produce less bass frequencies. However, there are options if you want to play plugged in. The Yamaha APX guitars are a good option, offering a quality, slim and small guitar with a great sounding on-board pre-amp.

      But, if you want to play acoustically, the smaller it is, the more you’re likely to have to compromise some of that mellow, low tone.

      Joe

  2. Hi,

    Could you recommend a budget acoustic <£175 with a really low action akin to an electric guitar, if such a beast exists?

    Cheers,
    John

    • Hi John,

      Thanks for your question. Acoustic guitars, by their nature, don’t tend to have playing actions that are as low as electric guitars. However, that doesn’t mean to say that easy-to-play, comfortable acoustic guitars don’t exist.

      In this regard, you could do far worse than the Farida D8 X-OP. Aside from having the snappiest name in the world (!), this little beauty has a nice slim, comfortable neck, with a playing action that is as low as any I’ve seen on an acoustic. A spruce top and mahogany back and sides are finished with a satin, open-pore lacquer which ensures a sweet, balanced tone. They sound unbelievably good for the cash, and they’re yours for £139.99, sir. 😉

      Hope this helps!

      Joe

  3. Hi

    Our 9 year old son wants to learn to play the acoustic guitar. We have found a suitable tutor, just need a guitar recommending please. Budget is £100 max. Would you recommend nylon or metal strings for him?

    Thanks
    Sam

    • Hi Sam,

      Thanks for your question. Though you often hear people recommending nylon strings for beginners, there are plus points for each type. Nylon strings can be easier on the learner’s fingertips. However, nylon strings are usually found on classical style guitars, which tend to have wide necks and strings that are quite a distance from the fingerboard. This can make fretting quite a challenge for small hands.

      Steel string guitars have the thin, ‘wire’ style upper strings, which can be a bit tougher on finger tips initially. But, as long as you practice regularly, fingertips toughen up surprisingly quickly. The advantage of a steel-string guitar is that the neck is slimmer, and the strings are closer to the fingerboard. So, despite the slightly higher tension in the strings, they can be easier to play once fingertips have ‘toughened up’ a bit. In addition, steel string guitars are used far more in popular music than classical guitars. Most steel-string guitars within your budget are ‘dreadnought’ body size- these aren’t huge, but it would be worth checking to see whether your son would be comfortable with a guitar of this size.

      I guess it boils down to whether you think your son would practice through those initially stages, and overcome the extra discomfort of steel strings (and whether he would be able manage a dreadnought). Ideally, it’s worth heading to a store to let him try a few to see.

      I hope this helps,

      Joe

  4. Hi
    I am currently playing a 3/4 size nylon string guitar, and am looking into getting a steel string. What do you recommend for small hands?
    Thanks,
    Jenni