Buying a High End Acoustic Guitar: What are your Options?
Buying an acoustic guitar can be a quick and painless process, but for those looking to invest in a quality, high-end instrument, there’s quite a few options waiting for you. We’re going to go over those we feel are important to address before even visiting the guitar shop and even a few that could prove useful even after your guitar has already made it home.
Before jumping into the deep end, there’s a big, bold disclaimer that most are already aware of, but we’re going to make sure is etched in stone before we go any further. No matter how perfect a guitar is on paper, an instrument (for many) is an intimate object that can connect with the player, can be learned over time and a player has the ability to adjust to. If you’re 4 foot 6, but enjoy a super jumbo sized guitar, who are we to tell you you’re wrong if the guitar does everything you ask it to do? We’re going to cover a list of options you can expect to choose from when looking across the inventory of any high-end acoustic guitar shop, but in the end, no matter how proven or scientific our experience and information may be, no measuring or calculating will replace the adventure of sitting down and playing a guitar in person. With that out of the way, let’s get to it.
One of the first things we suggest looking for at in any acoustic is the proper size. As you cross brand to brand, the sizing stays fairly consistent, making it easy to first figure out what dimensions you’re after. Playability and comfort are the primary reasons size is of great importance when looking for your instrument. The most common of all acoustic guitar sizes is the dreadnought. As you play, the guitar should naturally find a resting place between your leg and strumming arm, while simultaneously giving you the room to move across all areas of the instrument.
We’ve highlighted the dreadnought as it’s a good place for just about anyone to start their search. The balance between volume and playability is a perfect match for most players and you’ll find this size available with just about every brand on the planet. Small or large frame, many find it to be a comfortable fit. As we stray away from the dreadnought, you’ll start to see small but significant changes in the size and styling of the body, but many brands offer a simple variation of the dreadnought.
If a dreadnought happens to feel too small or you’re wanting to get even more volume out of your acoustic, jumping up to a Jumbo or bigger is an option. The bass response and projection of the Jumbo size are notable, but surprisingly the bigger size isn’t always matched up with a larger-sized player. From what we’ve seen, Jumbo fans are after it’s volume and not so much its larger frame. For some of us, while the jumbo seems to fit comfortably in a still, sitting position, as soon as a player wraps around the neck and begin to play, they’ll suddenly be making a lot more contact with the guitar than they’re comfortable with. You could likely adjust to the size with some practice, but with so many incredible guitars offered in the dreadnought size, among others, there might not be a reason to give it much thought.
In the opposite direction, significantly smaller than the dreadnought, are the orchestra and fingerstyle models. The names of these sizes do vary between brands, but they’re not hard to spot. You may see comparable sizes called the Concert, Grand Concert, or even Classical guitars, but they all are very similar versions of a smaller, yet curvier dreadnought. As science and technology have worked their way into the guitar world, it has become harder and harder to distinguish between the sounds of an Orchestra and a Dreadnought, for example, but on average, the bigger the guitar, the more sound you’ll get. The smaller size does make it very popular for fingerstyle guitars, as there’s quite a bit more accessibility for the player, but generally you’ll sacrifice a slight lack of projection.
The next jump down in size is a big one, and really a size we’d only suggest for a youth player, or someone of very small stature. The mini and travel size guitars are designed to meet a size requirement only, and put their sound as second priority. If you’re a younger player, or travel in tight spaces and still need to bring a guitar along, these may work for you. A chart here shows one of our favorite brands, Lowden Guitars, and the differences in a few of their body styles. You can see the smaller Wee Lowden on the far right, which many consider a travel guitar, the F and S series which both are suitable for fingerstyle guitar players, and the popular O model, which is their Orchestra model, coming in just shy of the standard dreadnought size and shape. This is an example of where even a smaller, convenience-sized guitar can be made with quality materials and be suitable for professional use.
As touched on earlier, there’s no set size for a guitar to its player. Think of a guitar as a perfect pair of jeans. Two men of equal measurements can walk into a store, but if those men are George Strait and Little Wayne, there’s a slight chance they’ll walk out with two entirely different pairs of pants. The same goes for the acoustic guitar. In order to play the style, speed and “way” that you play, only you can determine which guitar provides you the best way to accomplish that. The way to do this, yes, is to visit the shop. If this is your first look into a better than average guitar, do not even consider buying without trying. Even within the same model of guitar, one can feel just a little bit better, so once you’ve figured out a range of size that would work for you, sit down and play till you find out what you’re comfortable with.
Having said that, different models of guitars do offer a variety of different elements designed to give additional comfort to the player. Beveled arm rests are a great example of an effort to make the playing experience as satisfying as possible. A tiny area, cut away from the guitar, can help a guitar fit snugly where you want it to sit and give it an edge over another model. Materials are another big player when it comes to comfort, and not just for appearance and tone. Some find one model too top heavy, and another too bottom heavy. Making sure you have both the proper size and weight may prove more valuable over time than you first think. The finish of a guitar can even effect a players comfort. The ease of which your bare hand travels across the sound board could make or break that "perfect" rating for a player with high standards. A perfectly set-up guitar can sound like a dream, but if your palms are sticking to the glossy finish of a beautiful soundboard, you may quickly put that guitar back on the wall. Take time with each of your choices, and without listening to the guitar, do your best to feel the guitar and make sure it responds physically in a way that makes it comfortable enough to enjoy.
This section is guaranteed to ruffle some feathers, and for that reason we’re inclined to remind you that we are mixing what we’ve learned with what we’ve heard with what we believe. We happen to almost always side with the masses when it comes to tone woods, but there’s always a few that have their wrenches at the ready.
It’s not much of a mystery why 99% of the guitars we see in our lifetime are made of wood. The guitar may have been first designed over a solid body, or with thick construction, but starting in the mid 1800’s, guitars starting being made with woods that would effect their tone. Thinner samples were used, and over an increasingly larger surface area. Nearly two centuries later, we now have a long list of choices, attached to a long list of attributes. There’s a few you’ll likely have heard about before if you’ve even just started your search for your first acoustic, but there’s also a handful of -- what would be a good word to use -- “exotic” woods to choose from as well.
Of course, the wood types will strongly depend on your budget, but even for those with heavy pockets, it can be hard to find an ideal pairing. If you ask a group of players which top wood they prefer, you’ll undoubtedly hear Spruce make its way into the conversation (and likely dominate it). There are many variations of Spruce, and over time, Spruce has proven to be one of the most functional and durable top woods for guitars. Of all top wood choices, most Spruce variations are some of the most stiff, making it the choice of guitar makers from all ends of the spectrum with its resulting high sound velocity.
Another top contender for your top wood is Cedar. Though nowhere near as widely used as Spruce, it shares functionality and some tonal qualities. Most often you’ll hear a bit more mids and lows from a Cedar top than you would from, say, an Adirondack Spruce top. The clarity, however, is shared between the two, with just a little added warmth from the Cedar option.
While the list continues for top wood choices, the availability quickly dwindles and you’ll notice an increase in price as the rarity of your wood climbs. Spruce and Cedar may have a firm grasp of the top wood market, but if you find an exotic version of a guitar that sounds just as good as the standard option (or better!) and you feel it’s worth the extra, by all means, consider it part of your investment. Many are lucky to have always been a sucker for tradition and haven’t steered away from the common Adirondack top, but others find themselves picking up their jaws when a beautiful Sinker Redwood top crosses their path.
While it’s easy to predict the majority of top woods you’ll find in a high end acoustic shop, that’s not the case with the back and sides. There are a few choices that many consider time-honored, and a couple more that one really should expect to see, but guessing all the back wood a boutique shop has been able to acquire is quite the task. If you’d like to start somewhere near the top and work your way down, find yourself a guitar with a Spruce top and a Rosewood back and sides. This combination should give you a great idea of what a balanced guitar can sound like, but again, no two guitars are identical so let your ears decide. Most variations of Spruce will do and either Indian Rosewood or the infamous Brazilian Rosewood will give you a great combination of tone woods.
Above is an example from one of our favorites, Paul Reed Smith. While they are primarily an electric outfit, they have bought a quality acoustic line to the market as well. Their SE line of acoustic guitars offer all of the above as choices for your custom build, all of which have their unique sound qualities. While we hate to sound like a broken record and risk failing to provide you with the exact list of what you need for your guitar hunt, this is definitely another situation of finding what sounds good to you. The number of backwoods is overwhelming, truly, and there’s always a point at which you need to remind yourself to check the sound of a guitar without being caught up in it’s beauty. If you’re lucky enough to find a a model of guitar that fits you perfectly, has a top you’re looking for and finishes with a highly figured back and sides, well then, my friend, you’ve done it.
So that’s it for tone woods, right? Almost! There’s a few more pieces of hardware that effect not just the tone, but more-so the playability of the guitar. The headstock, neck and fingerboard are all elements that may seem less important than things we’ve already discussed, but depending on the player, that may not be the case. Some do believe the fingerboard and neck material are mostly aesthetic and can be made of just about anything, while others (including a few here at our shop) believe there’s a clear, audible difference between a quality neck and fretboard and a ‘run of the mill’ setup.
For the necks, expect to have a choice between Maple and Mahogany in a good deal of acoustics. While the styling has quite a few variations, both woods have proven over time to be the go-to options for neck material. This is not only a place to get more resonance or bite from your sound, but also a place to add or reduce weight, depending on which wood choice you choose. Another source of debate, many believe
the preference of neck material comes from a pre-determined predilection and has little to nothing to do with how the guitar sounds. This may very well be the case, but we're confident a trip to the showroom will lead you believing otherwise.
On the flip side (literally) you’ll find the fretboard, and even though slim and seemingly insignificant to the tone of the guitar, we’d encourage all to make the comparison for themselves. We’re not sure if it’s the wood itself or the way the guitar is played, but there’s a clear difference between a Rosewood and a Maple fretboard. Which is better? Well, that we can’t tell you, but we’re sure they sound quite different. Among common options for fingerboards are Indian Rosewood, Maple and Ebony. We rarely see guitars steer too far from these common options.
Now this is a sensitive subject for many and during our research we found out one of our favorite online guitar personalities is behind us on this one. Choosing a guitar based on the accessories is not a practice that we condone. We’re sure there are situation where this rule can be broken, but we’ve yet to choose a guitar based on its tuners, its pick guard, or even whether or not it’s got electrics built in. Sure, it’s wise to let a shop like ours know upon you’re arrival that you’d prefer to have an acoustic/electric, close back tuners and really don’t want to leave without a black alligator skin strap, but we’d encourage everyone to keep those options all as what they are: possible options. When we sit down in front of the amazing wall we have here at HBG, it’s hard to imagine not trying any of the guitars that don’t have built in pickups or don’t have an arm bevel. To us, that’s the same as being ready to buy at a Lamborghini shop, but then telling the dealership you only want to see those with chrome rims. You’ve just taken your chance of finding that perfect ride and thrown it out the window. Sure, you might find what you’re looking for, but why not put the perfect rims on the perfect car? When you’re investing in something as personal as a high end guitar from a custom shop, first find the guitar that fits you, feels good to you, sounds good to you, and then question what optional or included accessories it has with it. It’s incredibly easy to add electrics, tuners or just about anything to a guitar that you can’t live without.
making it your own
Like we’ve just talked about with accessories, once you’ve found a guitar that checks off all the important boxes, then and only then should you start to modify it. You may need to put on a set of strings that you know will brighten up the sound of your Lowden, or you may want the action adjusted after having owned a previous Bourgeois, but having to change out several component of a guitar just to get it to sound right and make it feel comfortable in your arms may mean you were looking in the wrong place to begin with. What we all should first enjoy, is finding that perfect guitar.
One of those such guitars for us, is this Lowden F50. This guitar is a dream, it simply is. There’s little to nothing we would do to modify this guitar from its condition out of the case. Several of us typically are drawn to the Adirondack Rosewood combination, but a few minutes with this guitar teaches us never to assume we know anything about anything. This guitar is one of the reasons we encourage all to take all this information with a grain of salt, because the guitars on our wall, and other shops around the country just like ours, are here not by chance. They were each either selected for us or built for us. This guitar somehow sounds like magic, and there’s a chance there’s a bit of wizardry involved, not simply because of the perfect, balance sound, but because of the natural artwork on the back side. This phenomenon is made with a master grade Cedar on top, which looks and smells fantastic in person. The Mahogany rosette around the sound hole… this guitar may have tapped into our childhood memories, but the front of this F50 is perfection. So, take what already seems perfect, and add a Master Grade Macassar Ebony back and sides, and the game is over.
Take some of the things we’ve told you about, and the list of things you already knew and keep that all in your pocket when you sit down to invest in a high end acoustic guitar. You can learn to play on an Amazon flash sale guitar, or visit your local warehouse music store and in just a few minutes have a complete starter package loaded in the back of your SUV, but if you’re ready to invest in an instrument of quality, be patient and take your time. The first glance at the showroom wall at Heartbreaker for many will be overwhelming, but over time, while you’ll still consider so many of these instruments beautiful, you’ll find yourself knowing which guitars would ever stand a chance of going home with you and you’ll see you’re no longer intimidated by the large inventory. Somewhere on the wall of boutique guitars is a guitar that likely fits you like a dream. From the size and comfort, to the accessories and aesthetics, put in the time of sitting down with your narrowed down list and find what’s perfect for you.
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