How to choose the perfect acoustic for you
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 rundown of some of the different considerations you’ll need to keep in mind when you’re looking.
Why do you need this guide?
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 the 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 is little wonder people plump for the same generic guitars from the same big brands. It doesn’t have to be like that though!
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.
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 tonewoods, ask yourself what music you want to play. There is a guitar in every conceivable shape and size, along with models which cater to 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.
1. 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.
It is worth looking at the types of woods used in the construction and the quality of the build. Sitting pretty in the midrange section is the Taylor Big Baby guitar. Taylor is 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?
2. 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 inbuilt 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.
3. 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 your 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.
4. 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. A good example of an affordable entry level nylon strung acoustic is the Redwood Castille Full Size Classical Guitar (pictured above).
At the more premium end of the market, take a look at the Taylor Academy 12E-N. The Taylor Academy offers up high-quality tonewoods 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 with the knowledge that they’re getting a guitar built by a company with a solid reputation need look no further.
We’ve shied away from delving too deep into tonewoods, construction techniques and hardware specifications with this acoustic guitar buying 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?
- Versatility: Dreadnought
- Singer/songwriters: Parlour
- Playing in a band: Jumbo
- Classical/Spanish: Nylon strung acoustics
View a complete range of acoustic guitars over at the Dawsons website.
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Need more info on acoustic guitar body types? Check out our handy article here.
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Jon has a passion for inspiring others to get involved in making music. After spending many years playing here, there and – pretty much – everywhere, he joined the Dawsons Music Web Team before progressing into his current role as Content Manager. Favourite things: My LTD MH-400NT, a decent brew, and Ron Swanson.