What is the best acoustic guitar for me? We get asked that question day in and day out. If you ask one hundred people who makes the best guitar, or what are the best strings to use, or ask which tone wood sounds better, then you will get one hundred different answers. Here though, we like to fully consider what it is the buyer is looking for, and what kind of music they are ultimately looking to play, so let's talk about what makes a great acoustic guitar.
First off, you have to look at the factors. There is price, woods, features, electronics, pickups, body style and shape, color, just to name a few. Then there is human factor where we get hung up on brands, heritage, and dare I say guitar player ego, bias and opinion.
When looking at the price of an guitar you have to look at what will get you the most bang for your buck. Cheap guitars have gotten really good over the years. Any acoustic guitar over $100-$200 is almost always going to be a pretty decent guitar to get started on and in some cases a guitar on closeout that is $79 might not be too bad either. Give it a little attention, a good set-up, and at the end of the day you can have a really great guitar. Guitars in the under $200 range tend to be beginner guitars. Again we do on occasion have guitars on closeout for $179 or so that are great guitars that used to be $250-$350 which are solid mid-level guitars you can keep for a lifetime. You really have to compare dollars to features and quality. Keep in mind if you start with $100 budget and jump to $200 then you have essentially doubled the budget for materials, shipping, labor, etc to build the acoustic guitar. Each hundred you add after that brings diminishing returns, meaning you get less of a jump in quality each time you add more budget.
When looking at wood the first thing people ask is if it is a "Solid Top Acoustic Guitar"? For years now that has been the number one buzzword for quality when it comes to a guitar. As a solid top is rumored to have a more pure tone, and as the wood sets, and bends according to your playing techniques, overtime it will start to sound better, with deeper lows, and a warmer high end. Not so fast however! Then there are laminate top guitars, which have tops made from alternating layers of their respective tonewoods, be they spruce, cedar, rosewood, or maple. When Laminate top guitars first came onto the scene, they were praised for their super even tone, and their ability to resist humidity change, meaning a touring guitarist could travel from Alabama to Arizona and the sound of the guitar would never change.
While most people agree that solid top guitars do sound fuller than a laminate, we have seen some laminates that will blow away even mid-priced solid top acoustic guitars. We have seen solid top guitars where there was so much bracing inside to keep the top from warping or cracking that it completely kills the tone, and laminates where the overseas factory that produced them knew what they were doing and put so much talent into their work that the guitars come out sounding just beautifully. Beware of deceptive buzzwords like solid top on a guitar that normally sells for less than $150-$200. That’s about where a solid top worth anything begins to come into play.
Then there's tone wood, we could write a book on that alone but here are the basics. The top is a softer wood because it has to vibrate. Think of a guitar like drum. The top is the drum head, the sides and back are the shell. Most guitar tops are spruce and there are varieties of wood and grades. Engleman sprice, Sitka spruce tops, etc can make a difference. Spruce is probably found on 70% or more of all acoustic guitars made which gives a nice bright tone with a smooth upper midrange, a jangly lower midrange, and a warm low end. Other notable woods are cedar which gives a warm rich tone great from strumming. Other woods would be Koa, flamed maple, and mahogany. Mahogany and Koa are a couple of the few woods that are found on both the back and sides as well as the top. The most common back and sides woods are rosewood (brighter) and mahogany (warmer).