What makes an expensive guitar better than a cheap guitar? How much do I need to spend to get a good guitar? How do I find the perfect acoustic guitar? Here’s my light on the subject.
Some of us as kids sat in front of the television, jaw dropped, watching our favorite musician play the guitar of our dreams. The way it sounded out of the studio, live on stage, in the hands of a legend – “It will be mine. Oh yes, it will be mine.” When musicians first see a brand new, state of the art guitar, they’re not much different than fish chasing a spoon. It’s shiny, it’s new and we’ve gotta have it! Around the world, in the bedrooms of many adults and children alike, sit guitars that are merely beautiful covers on an awful book; Guitars that were bought for their beauty and not for their personalities. Buying that nice guitar too quickly can land you with gear you regret investing in. I’ve got a few key areas to address when looking for that new acoustic.
If the price of the guitar is no issue, well, the more power to ya. For most of us, an instrument from a shop, like the one we’re looking at today, is not an impulse item. It’s a very personal decision of how much to invest into an instrument and there’s a number of factors to consider. If your guitar is going to one day be used to record an album next to Eric Clapton or go on tour as the opening act for Jeff Beck, your price point will likely be different than that of a college student looking to expand his abilities beyond power chords. For me, a guitar is an investment. Sure, there are exceptions, but for a high end guitar with a purpose, I like to spend as much as I possibly can. Musical instruments are one of the best examples of “you get what you pay for” and the acoustic guitar rarely breaks that general rule.
Once you’re sure of your budget, it’s time to figure out the style of guitar you’re after. At the moment, the “style” I’m referring to is the style of music you’ll be playing and how it fits you size-wise. Many people walk through the front door of the shop and when given the multiple choice question of their style of playing, they are quick to choose “D: All of the above.” The logic may seem to make sense -- You want a guitar that you can play a little Union Station with on Tuesday and on Friday record an acoustic cover of Smells Like Teen Spirit. That customer would truly be after a versatile guitar. An example of such a guitar is the Taylor 314ce. This guitar is currently sitting just under the $2000 mark and is a steal for what it can do. Traditional Sitka Spruce makes up the top of this guitar and it features the most popular Grand Auditorium body style, a Venetian cutaway for easy access to those hard to reach frets and on-board electronics. This guitar can easily transition from bluegrass to blues without a hitch. From the tone wood to the middle-of-the-line size, this guitar defines versatility. Within the very same series from Taylor Guitars, however, is an example of how subtle changes can make a guitar fit a specific style of playing with just a few, small revisions. This Taylor 322ce 12 Fret is smaller than its sibling, built on the Grand Concert body style.
The shorter scale length and re-positioned bridge make this guitar ideal for finger style playing, but just a piece of advice: While the professionals at a guitar shop may have decades of knowledge between them, not one of them knows how any guitar will feel to you. Treat each guitar as a blank slate and see which features match your style. Others may say when spending $1000+ on a guitar it should fit every need like a glove, but I say hog wash. The price is not a guarantee that it will match you in any way what-so-ever. The price has little to nothing to do with the style of guitar and more to do with the process and materials it took to make the instrument. It should also be noted that what may be a finger style guitar to one man because of its small size could just as easily be too big or too small for the next player. Even if you’re a towering 5 foot 2 inches, you may be comfortable shouldering a jumbo-bodied guitar. Don’t worry about the salesman. Make sure the guitar fits you and your playing style.
And what about features? This topic I can NOT stress enough. Watching people shop for guitars based on included features like tuners, strings, pickups, pick guard, bridge material or any other item that’s incredibly easy to swap out or upgrade, absolutely drives me crazy. If you’ve found yourself in Heartbreaker Guitars and whisper to yourself “Well, I really love the sound of this one and it fits between my arms like a newborn baby, but this other one is a hundred dollars cheaper and has gold tuners,” well then I think you’d be better off at an art gallery. I’m not going to deny that some guitars are heavy on the style side of the scale and sacrifice quality in doing so, and there’s a large group of people looking for unique and rare guitars. To me, however, first and foremost a guitar needs to sound how you want it to sound, be comfortable enough for you to play it the way you want to play it and then if there’s a choice of features, fantastic! But please, please do not shop by a guitars interchangeable accessories. If you’re in the market for a collectors item, well then most of this blog is not for you in the first place.
It may seem like the hard work is done at this point, but unfortunately, we’ve covered only the easy steps in finding that perfect guitar. Let’s say you’ve decided on a Lowden guitar. You find that the Lowden F-50 is absolutely perfect, within your budget, fits yours grip just perfectly, looks great and sounds like a dream. Your salesman says to you “Ok, which one would you like to try first?” Let me stop here for a moment.
This is a point in the guitar buying process where there’s likely to be some disagreement. Everyone can likely agree that every person has their own taste and preference when it comes to the sound of a guitar, and sure, there’s a point when a guitar can sound bad, unbalanced or in need of an adjustment. But what we’re about to talk about is tone woods, and it’s a topic that’s very personal to each player. Some consider this step the choosing of the “color” of your guitar. The difference between a Master Grade Cedar top from Lowden and one of their Alpine Spruce tops is night and day. The question you need to ask yourself at this point in buying a top shelf guitar is “Am I making a sacrifice of sound preference to get the look I want?” Here’s a look at what’s in store for you once you narrow it down to the brand and model of guitar. Finding that perfect combination of top, back and sides may prove essential to your personal preference of tone, volume and sustain, but the choice might very well be purely aesthetic with every variation being different, but none sounding better than the next. Also, when you’re comparing models, ask yourself who the guitar should sound good to – the player or the audience? If this guitar is for your home studio and will spend 90% of it’s life with you as it’s audience, then test the guitars yourself. But , if you are like me, you want the best for the listener. I always ask my salesman to play the models for me so I can see how they look and sound from an audience’s point of view. Again, that’s just my personal preference. In this video below, Brendan and Mike show you the incredible variations you can find within a single model of guitar, in this case the Lowden F50.
For me, the rest is non-essential. A shop like Heartbreaker Guitars in Las Vegas, Nevada takes their craft seriously and has a great relationship not only with their customers and staff, but with their brands as well. Buying a high end guitar from the Walmart of musical instruments may be an okay adventure for some, but finding your guitar through the one-on-one experience of a family-owned business like Heartbreaker Guitars is an experience that’s guaranteed to leave you now only with a great instrument that fits your needs perfectly, but also with a lot more knowledge than when you first arrived. Find the guitar that's right for you. Don't hesitate to contact Brendan, any member of his team or even myself.
Heartbreaker Guitars Contributor