Acoustic Guitars

Tuesday, 13 May 2008

Guitars come in a variety of wood types, all offering different sounds and price tags. If you're thinking of taking guitar lessons, here are some tips for buying your first acoustic.

The Basics

  • You can pay anywhere from a couple hundred to several thousands of dollars for a guitar. Things like the type of wood, quality of finish and the parts affect the cost.

  • There are many different guitar brands, all with their own reputation for quality and sound. Handmade guitars are usually more superior to machine-made.

  • The sides, backs, and tops of guitars are traditionally made from wood. Solid wood construction (one-piece for the top, one piece for the back) provides a better sound. You can usually find guitars with a solid front, but the back may be in two pieces on lower-end models.

  • The type of wood used for the top (front) affects the sound, as well as the price:

    • Spruce produces a very balanced, cool tone.

    • Classical guitars often have cedar tops.

    • Maple has a higher sound (more treble), which is popular for “twangy” country music.

    • Mahogany also produces sounds on the higher end, and because it’s a heavier wood it holds a note longer.

    • Rosewood, which can be pricy, offers the whole range – high to low (bass) and everything in between. Woods like mahogany, walnut and koa are all less expensive alternatives to the rosewood.

    • Laminate tops aren’t solid wood and tend to deaden the sound. You can tell it’s laminate by looking at the edge of the sound hole. If it’s solid wood, you see grain. If it’s laminate you see layers with laminate or veneer on the top.

  • The backs and sides don’t play as much of a role as the top when it comes to tone quality, but it is important.

  • The neck should be straight. Remember to examine it from all directions. If it’s not straight, the strings may buzz. If the neck bends after you buy it, don’t fret. It can be fixed.

  • The bridge, which helps anchor the strings, should be firmly attached. Keep an eye out for any spaces between the bridge itself and the guitar.

  • For smaller players, consider a smaller guitar in ¼, ½, or ¾ size.

  • No matter the official size, guitar bodies come in many different shapes and sizes. The larger the shape, the fuller and louder the sound and the more depth of tone.

  • Always play the guitar before you buy it. If you don’t know how to play yet, bring a friend who does so you can hear the difference in tone. Don’t be afraid to try a few models out of your budget, just to compare the sound.

Other Considerations

  • Most starter guitars will come with a basic set of steel strings. Once you get better at playing, you’ll want to invest in a better set of strings to enhance sound quality and bring out a better overall tone.

  • Most guitars have steel strings. Classical or flamenco guitars typically use nylon strings.

  • Buying a well-cared-for used guitar can save you some money. However, as with many stringed instruments, some guitars improve with age, so not all used guitars will be cheaper.

  • If buying used, check for cracks in the body, make sure the seams aren’t separating, and ensure that all other hardware parts are attached firmly.


We invited award-winning musician Colin James to test out four acoustic guitars ranging from entry price to high-end:

  • Fender (laminated top): $260
  • Yamaha (solid spruce top): $640
  • Guild (Mahogany): $1200
  • Martin (Spruce top; rosewood sides): $2600

Blind Sound Test

We also invited some expert guitar makers to help us with a blind sound test:

  • The Fender sounded a little fuzzy especially on the high notes.

  • The Yamaha’s sound was flat, without much personality.

  • With the Guild you could definitely hear much more clarity and a richer tone than the first two guitars.

  • The Martin was colourful with much more depth and richness to the sound than the others. Colin James also preferred playing this one too.


While the Martin won for sound and playability, the price tag was unrealistic for a beginner. Until you’re a serious enough player to make a big investment, a less expensive Fender will get you by.

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