How to Choose An Acoustic Guitar that’s Right for You

Published Categorized as Buying Guides, Guitar selection

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How To Choose An Acoustic Guitar

If you are looking to get a new, or your first, acoustic guitar there are a number of factors to consider so that you get the right one.

This article will help you learn how to choose an acoustic guitar that is right for you.

There are number of different acoustic guitars you can get and they all vary in a number of ways including:

  • Cost
  • Shape
  • Tone-woods
  • Laminate vs Solidwood
  • Hardware materials
  • Cut away or no cut away
  • Electronics or no electronics

And what you go with will depend on a number of factors, including:

  • Purpose
  • Ability
  • Budget
  • Style of music/playing style
  • Desired Tone
  • Playability

Getting the Most Out of this Resource

As you go through this page write down what you think your preference will be for each different factor so that you can keep track of your thoughts.

You may have to compromise on one thing or another, depending on your budget, but if you write down the specs that you want you can more easily make a call on what you have to have and what you can compromise on.

Try filling out this checklist as you go so you can keep track of your preferences.

Purpose?
Budget - how much are you willing to spend?
Acoustic or Acoustic-Electric?
Guitar Shape/Style (Dreadnought, Concert, Auditorium, Parlor?)
Top wood?
Back and Sides Wood?
Laminate or Solid Wood?
Fretboard Wood?
Neck Width?
Bridge saddle, bridge pins & neck Material?
Cutaway or non-cutaway

Purpose


The first thing you need to think about is the purpose of the guitar you are buying.

Is this a guitar that will be used for recording? Or Just for sitting around the house to jam with every now and then? Will you be playing with other people and other instruments? Will you need to travel with the guitar?

What style of music are you most likely going to be playing? Do you know the kind of tone you are searching for?

This will go a long way to determining your budget, the shape of guitar you need, and the types of materials you will prefer the sound of and that will suit your playing style.

If you think you might be interested in learning bass guitar instead, check out the following:

Acoustic or Acoustic-Electric?

Will you be using the instrument playing with other musicians? Will you need amplification to achieve this? If so then you might need to go with an acoustic-electric.

You can mic up a straight acoustic or even get your own pickup to attach to it – but it’s much easier to get a guitar that is already set up to be plugged in.

If you are looking at going with an acoustic-electric make sure you hear what it sounds like both plugged in and unplugged before you make your decision.


Ability


Beginners

Ability in some ways goes hand in hand with budget. If you are just a beginner then you probably don’t want to spend big dollars on a guitar.

But you also don’t want something that’s going to be complete junk either. There’s no quicker way to put off a new guitarist than learning on an instrument that is hard to play and sounds terrible.

There are plenty of reasonably priced acoustics that will sound fine and be nice and easy to play.

Check out the page at the link below for a detailed discussion of what to look out for when choosing a beginner guitar and what you can do to a guitar to make it more playable.

More advanced Players

If you are a more advanced player and you haven’t yet upgraded to a higher quality guitar you are in for a treat.

Yes you are going to need to commit more money but this is an investment. If you have been playing for a while, you are going to really notice the differences in sound that come from a higher end guitar.

You probably don’t need me to tell you this though, you have probably tried a higher end guitar at some stage and know the advantages for yourself. But you may not know what to look for that will suit the sound and the playability that you are after.

Check out the rest of this page to find out the characteristics that will best suit your style of music and your style of playing.


Budget


acoustic guitar budget

Guitars can cost upwards of around $15,000! But those are far and away at the extreme end of price. You can also pick up some guitars for less than $100! So there is quite an extreme price range when it comes to acoustic guitars.

If you are looking for something that is going to sound awesome and be really nice to play there is no reason why you can’t get something brand new for between $1,000 and $2,000 and there are even some guitars under $1,000 that are really good.

Beginners, of course won’t need to spend anywhere near that much. Often as a beginner it is a good idea to go with a ‘package’ which typically comes with things like case, stand, strap, tuner, picks etc.

Even the low range guitars these days aren’t as bad as they used to be due to improved production methods – so beginners don’t have to get complete rubbish if they are on a tight budget. You can often find decent guitars in a package for a really good price.

You may have to go with laminated wood for a first guitar but some of these sound fine and won’t affect the playability of the guitar. Remember not to compromise on playability for a beginner guitar or you may end up hating playing guitar and that’s the last thing we want!

Check the link above for how to pick the best guitar for beginners.

Check out the links below to search for guitars by price range


Style of Music/Desired Tone


acoustic guitar's tonality

The style of music and the way you play will play a role in which acoustic guitar is right for you. Also the tone you are looking for will be unique to you.

Guitar Shape

The style of guitar you go with is the first thing to consider. If you like to finger pick and play more classical style or flamenco type music then the style (shape) of guitar you go for will be different than for someone who likes to play with a more aggressive strumming style.

Your desired tone will also help to determine the shape that you go with.

Let’s take a look at the following to see which is best suited to you.

To see details of the different shapes check out the page at the link below.

Choose the shape that will best suit the style of music you want to play, the way you like to play and which shape will most likely help to create the tone you want.

You’ll notice that there are different names for different shapes. Each guitar manufacturer tends to have different names for their shapes.

For example Taylor have:

  • Grand Concert
  • Grand Auditorium
  • Grand Symphony
  • Dreadnought; and
  • Grand Orchestra

as their main shapes.

Martin has:

  • 0
  • 00
  • 000 (OM)
  • 0000 (M)
  • Grand Performance
  • D (Dreadnought)
  • J (Jumbo)

As their main shapes.

I like to group these as

  • Very Small (parlor, 0, mini, 3/4, travel size)
  • Small (Concert, Grand Concert, 00)
  • Medium (Grand Auditorium, Grand Performance, 000)
  • Large (Dreadnought, Jumbo, Grand Symphony, Grand Orchestra, 0000)

The most common alternatives are – a Classical guitar (nylon string guitar), a Grand Concert/00, Grand Auditorium/Grand Performance/ooo or a Dreadnought. Which one you go with will most likely depend on the style of music you want to play.

But that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t also consider other shapes like jumbos, parlor, and minis.

Characteristics of smaller shapes

To give you an idea of what you might prefer here are some typical characteristics of smaller shapes when compared with the larger shapes. Each guitar will be different, and different tonewoods will make the sound different too, but these are typically the case.

  1. Usually have a shorter scale length. This means there is less tension on the strings which makes it easier physically and technically to play. This makes these guitars great for beginners or those with hand ailments.
  2. The sound is typically less volume but what this really means is that if you play them hard, then they have a relatively low volume ceiling. The top will start to distort if you strum them too hard. So these aren’t the best for those with a heavy touch or who wants to do a lot of loud strumming.
  3. They respond to a light touch. Though they have a low volume ceiling, they are essentially louder than a big bodied guitar when you play with a lighter touch. You don’t have to put much oomph into play the strings to get some decent volume as you would on larger bodied guitars. These guitars are therefore great for finger-style and for those who play with a lighter touch.
  4. The range of sound is usually not as wide as bigger bodied guitars. The sound is more mid range heavy and has a compressed kind of sound to it.
  5. Because of the smaller bodies, smaller bodied guitars are easier to hold for kids and smaller adults.

Characteristics of larger shapes

  1. Typically best for strumming and flat-picking
  2. Tend to need to put more oomph into your playing to get the desired sound – there is more top to vibrate
  3. Have a high volume ceiling – you can really play hard strumming and with a heavier touch and you can get good undistorted volume out of them. So they’re great for anyone who plays more aggressively or who needs their guitar to be loud.
  4. The range of sound is typically more dynamic bringing in more bass and treble than a smaller sized guitar.

Characteristics of medium shapes

Medium shaped guitars are the all-rounders of the guitar world. Where bigger bodied guitars are typically better for larger volume and for strumming and flat-picking, and small bodied guitars are better for fingerstyle and respond to a lighter touch, the medium sized guitars are good for decent volume, decent response and are equally good for finger-style, flat-picking and strumming.

Which shape do you think is best for you? Write it down on your checklist.

Materials (Tone-woods and Hardware)

The shape of the guitar will certainly influence the tone but the materials will also have a big impact on the tone, particularly the top (soundboard).

Parts of the acoustic guitar diagram jpeg

As you can see in the diagram above there are quite a few different parts to a guitar and each part can be made of a different material.

Knowing how the woods used in the building of your guitar affect the tone will help to decide which guitar to go with. Also the hardware (such as bridge saddle, bridge pins and nut) will influence the sound you create.

A large majority of tops are made from Spruce but if, for example if you like a strong mid-range and warm sounding guitar, then finding a Mahogany top guitar might be a good idea for you.

There are plenty of options and combinations that you can go with and this is entirely up to you.

Check out the posts below to get a better idea of how the materials used influence the sound of the guitar.

Strings

Of course, the strings you choose will also influence your tone and it’s often the case if the tone of the guitar you get isn’t quite to your liking then experimenting with strings can help you to tweak your sound so you can get it just to your liking.

Laminate vs Solidwood

Laminate is cheaper and solidwood will produce a nicer tone. That’s about all there is to it. Well, not quite but essentially.

If you are on a tighter budget and have to go with a guitar that has laminate wood in it, then try to at least find something that has a solid wood top (soundboard). The top is the most important tonewood for the guitar. So if you have to have laminate, have it on the back and sides.

There is one advantage of laminate over solidwood. It’s less likely to be affected by environmental conditions such as changes in humidity and temperature. So it’s more stable and less likely to dry out or warp if not taken care of.

The tonal qualities of solid wood outweighs this in my opinion but if you are someone who lives in a highly humid environment and you have little or no control over the temperature and humidity where your guitar lives – or you are simply a casual guitarist who doesn’t want to have to put any effort into looking after your instrument – or maybe you need a guitar that you leave at your holiday house – then laminate is worth considering.


Playability


Cutaway vs Non-Cutaway

cutaway or no cutaway

This is mostly down to personal preference whether you like to have better access to the higher strings – or simply if you prefer the look.

If you play a lot of leads then a cutaway might be a good idea.

Then there’s the question of sound. Does the cutaway affect the sound of the acoustic.

I would argue yes. Typically a non-cutaway will have a fuller more mid-rangy sound and a cutaway will have a brighter slightly tinnier edge to it. Check out the video below where two exact guitars (except one has a cutaway and one doesn’t) are compared and decide for yourself.

Everyone has different tastes so this is completely a personal preference.

Neck Size/Shape

Necks come in different shapes and sizes.

Some are wider to house a wider fretboard – and some narrower. And the curved part of the acoustic guitar neck (the neck’s profile) can differ too.

Find what feels the most comfortable for you and your playing style.

For example, wider necks/fretboards are generally preferred by fingerstyle players. The extra spacing between the strings makes it easier to play finger style.

Someone with smaller hands may prefer a narrower neck or simply a flatter curve on the back of the neck. Some people just prefer the feel of a flatter curve and others like to have more of a curve there.

Standard steel string acoustic guitar neck widths are usually

  • 1 11/16th inches (1.69 inches, 43mm) on dreadnought shaped guitars
  • 1 3/4 inches (1.75 inches, 44mm) on Grand Auditorium and Concert shapes
  • Some steel stringed acoustics can have up to 1 7/8 inch (47mm) wide necks
  • 12 String acoustics naturally have wider necks to house the extra strings

Classical guitars tend to have much wider neck widths – usually around 2 inches (52mm).

There is also the consideration of the wood used for the neck in terms of sound. This will have some effect on sound but I wouldn’t worry about it too much as the soundboard and body will make the most difference sound wise.

Fretboard

What the fretboard is made of (and how it is cared for) can definitely have an effect on playability.

Check out the post below to see more about the best materials for fretboards.

Action

The action (how high the strings are off the fretboard) of your guitar is also important for playability. If the action is too high then fretting can be difficult and if it is too low then fret buzz becomes a problem.

When buying a guitar I wouldn’t let action be the deal breaker though. This is something that either you can adjust yourself, if you know what you’re doing – or you can have it adjusted by a guitar tech.

If everything else about the guitar is how you want it then don’t say no just because of the action because this can be modified.

Over to You

Hopefully you now have a lot more knowledge to help you make your guitar buying decision.

Remember that everyone’s taste is different and we all have different styles so the right guitar for you is an individual thing.

And keep in mind that you are probably going to have to compromise on something. You may be able to modify that something after you get the guitar – like experimenting with different strings, different saddles/nuts and modifying things like the guitar’s action.

It’s also likely that the lower the budget you have, the more you will have to compromise so you’ll need to decide what the must-haves are and what the just nice-to-haves are for you.

If you find that you just can’t compromise and you have are willing to invest a decent amount then you could even look into having a guitar custom built.

The checklist from earlier is shown again below:

Purpose?
Budget - how much are you willing to spend?
Acoustic or Acoustic-Electric?
Guitar Shape/Style (Dreadnought, Concert, Auditorium, Parlor?)
Top wood?
Back and Sides Wood?
Laminate or Solid Wood?
Fretboard Wood?
Neck Width?
Bridge saddle, bridge pins & neck Material?
Cutaway or non-cutaway

Thanks for Reading

Thanks for reading and if you have anything to add, anything you disagree with on this page or anything you think I’ve missed out please leave a comment below. I aim to make the resources on this website as high quality and comprehensive as possible so don’t be shy sharing your opinion.

Any other questions or comments very welcome too.

Here’s a guide to the sizes of common acoustic guitar, in case you find it helpful.

By Nate Pallesen

Nate is just your average (above average) guitar player. He's no Joe Satriani, Jimi Hendrix or Jimmy Page - wait this site is about acoustic guitars (sorry) He's no Django Reinhardt, Chet Atkins, or Michael Hedges, wait? who!? He's no Robert Johnson, Eric Clapton or Ben Harper - more familiar? Anyway you get the point :-)

6 comments

  1. Hey Nate
    I hate you!

    Your site is so cool!

    Your info is the best and beginner guitarists are for sure to be well armed with your information.

    I enjoyed the reading and learned a lot here. Thank you for having me.
    Larry

    1. Hey Larry

      Thanks for visiting again. Glad you like the site – but wish you didn’t hate me! 🙂

      Seriously though, thanks for stopping by and I hope this site can be helpful for beginners and more advanced guitarists alike – I didn’t know a lot of this stuff for years and just randomly bought guitars that I thought looked cool or I could get a good deal on. Wish I’d learned some of this stuff earlier.

  2. Wow! I have learned so much from this page! I’m so glad I stumbled onto it. I know exactly where I’ll go to figure out exactly what kind of guitar to get when I’m ready to buy one.

    This is also very well written and I enjoyed reading it!

    1. Hey Adrian – thanks for the comments. Much appreciated. Good to know it’s helpful – I reckon the difference a well suited guitar can make to your playing in terms of progression and enjoyment, is pretty significant. Let me know if you have any questions before you buy. I’d be happy to answer whatever I can.

  3. Excellent piece. Am looking to buy an acoustic guitar for my 16 year old step daughter. She is 5ft tall with small hands. Her fathers full size guitar feels too large for her. Should I get a three quarter size?

    1. Hey Roy.

      There are plenty of full size acoustic guitars that would work for such an individual – not all full sized acoustic guitars are massive dreadnoughts! A parlor or concert sized acoustic guitar would be just the ticket. It is much better to buy a full sized acoustic now that they can grown into rather than buy something that might well become obsolete in the near future.

      Thanks for stopping by,

      Nate.

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