Are you trying to choose the ultimate acoustic guitar to add to your collection?
You're in the right place!
In my latest YMI guide, you will learn the following:
- How Are Acoustic Guitars Constructed?
- Which Acoustic Guitars Are Best For Beginners?
- What Are The Top 5 Acoustic Guitar Brands?
And much more!
So, you’ve decided an acoustic guitar is for you? That’s awesome!
Whether it’s your first guitar, you’re switching from an electric guitar, or you’re just building up your collection you’re sure to enjoy the process of shopping for your new instrument.
This article is a basic guitar buying guide for anybody who isn't quite sure what they're looking for in their next axe.
Are All Acoustic Guitars The Same?
It may seem a silly question, but you’d be surprised at the number of people who believe a guitar is a guitar, is a guitar.
Yes, they are all guitars in the literal sense, but some are so much more.
Some are mass-produced with little, if any thought to the musicality and quality of the instrument, while some are lovingly handcrafted for the best possible sound and overall experience.
This isn’t to say that all mass-produced guitars are bad!
Quite the opposite in fact – the trick is knowing which brands have the best quality control at their factories. Likewise, just because a guitar isn’t made in the US, it doesn’t mean it won’t play well.
I’ve had Mexican Fenders, and I currently own a Korean made Ovation and a Chinese made Epiphone, both of which are absolute joys to play.
Quality is probably the most important variable, but the style is also pretty important, too. There are a number of different styles and body shapes of acoustic guitar available, each has its pros and cons, but personal preference usually the deciding factor.
Travel guitars are the smallest of all in the acoustic family. They typically have a full, or close to the full-scale neck, but have a minuscule body.
The beauty of this is that it allows guitarists to access the full fretboard of a standard instrument, without the bulk, making them perfect for backpacking, camping trips, or tour bus jamming.
These instruments aren’t likely to win any beauty contests, but their functionality has won the hearts of many.
The downside to travel guitars, though, is related to their size. Because they have such small bodies, their sound tends to be thin and quiet.
Most only consider travel guitars as backups or secondary instruments.
Parlor acoustic guitars have been around since the 1800s and were originally invented by C.F. Martin. Think of them as the OG travel guitar! They feature a small body size, but, unlike a contemporary traveler, a parlor instrument can certainly be used as a primary guitar.
Their smaller body makes them a great choice for smaller players who can’t physically handle a dreadnought. This does mean you’ll sacrifice volume, but that’s made up for by great character and playability on a quality parlor guitar.
Concert guitars are pretty much-enlarged parlor guitars.
This is a more modern invention, and it was made to improve the volume and fatten the tone of its smaller cousin, without giving up the unique properties that parlor players treasure.
The narrow-waisted design makes it exceptionally comfortable for a plater to hold against the body while seated, and this is one of the many reasons that this is one of the favorite guitars for fingerstyle guitar players.
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Auditorium and Grand Auditorium Guitars
Auditorium body style guitars are another C.F. Martin innovation and were designed to slot nicely in the middle between the large dreadnoughts and the small parlors.
The auditorium style acoustic guitar has an extremely pronounced hourglass shape, with a wide base and a narrow waist.
These guitars are sought mostly by players who need to move quickly between nuanced finger style playing and powerful strumming.
Dreadnoughts are what most people think of when you mention acoustic guitars.
This is larger than life design built for those seeking a big sound. There’s no guitar quite like it when it comes to powerful sounds in country, blues, and rock.
Dreadnought style acoustic guitars aren’t the most comfortable to hold, especially while seated due to their bulky waists, but the hefty lows and mids pumped out by these bad boys are worth standing up for.
Jumbo acoustic guitars are the largest that you’ll find. They were originally conceived by Gibson in the 1930s.
They feature a huge sound cavity capable of massive, room filling volume.
They do well across the entire spectrum of sound, but of course, their size is prohibitive to many smaller players.
Classical guitars are used in orchestral music, but are also popular with finger style guitarists looking for the Spanish flamenco style.
They use nylon strings rather than steel, which is why they’re also popular with beginners and younger players (easier on the fingers).
Most nylon string guitars are bundled into the classical category, even if they're being used for other styles.
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12 String Guitars
12 String acoustics, as you can probably guess from the name, have double the number of strings than a standard guitar. They’re strange-looking beasts but have been used in some of the world’s most iconic recordings.
Their sound is thick and almost jangly. The beauty is, they aren’t really any more difficult to play than a standard 6 string, either. Well, in terms of chords anyway! As far as playability goes, the strings are under much more tension, which makes fretting a little tougher and note-bending way more difficult. 12 Strings aren’t a typical choice for beginners, but advanced players can get some great tones.
Finally, electric acoustic! These guitars can really take the form of any of the above acoustic guitar styles I’ve already described, the key difference is that they come pre-rigged with electronics, including pickups and preamps, for plugging right into an amp.
They’re ideal for everything from open mic nights to stadium concerts!
One of the very first electric acoustics was made by Ovation; what’s cool about ovation is that they don’t use a full wooden body, only the soundboard.
The body is made up of a composite bowl, making it hardy and resistant to feedback. Although, many electric acoustics look just like their un-amplified cousins.
There are, of course, other styles, and there are also many variations of the body styles we've already discussed.
For example, simply adding a cutaway to any of the above guitars will change the way it plays and sounds, but won't remove it from the category it sits within.
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Which Acoustic Guitars Are Best For Beginners?
Another way to pose this question is “why are some acoustic guitars better suited to beginners?”
Beginners especially should be aware of a few factors when making their decision.
Guitars can cost anywhere from $20 to $200k!
How much you want to spend is entirely up to you. If you’re the type of person who goes at a new hobby with dogged determination and sticks to it like glue, go ahead and spend a bit more – get the best guitar you can reasonably afford.
By selecting a better guitar, you’ll have an instrument that grows with you – as your skills develop, you’ll open up more of the guitar’s character.
Plus, in the event that you don’t stick with it, your investment will have retained more of its original price, and in some cases, you may be able to sell it on for almost as much, if not the same as you bought it for.
On the other hand, if you want to start playing, but you’re not sure you’ll stick with it, or, you’re just working with a lower budget, there’s no shame in buying a cheaper guitar.
I always say the guitar you have is better than the one you don’t!
A cautionary message, though!
Those who buy the cheapest guitars are usually the best acquainted with their tuners, as low-end guitars often struggle to keep pitch. On top of that don’t expect heirloom quality here!
Think about your size in relation to the guitar you want.
Especially if you’re purchasing from the internet – if you’ve never held a guitar before, you might be in for a shock upon receipt of the instrument. This is pretty important, especially if you’re buying for your kids.
The list of styles up above is pretty indicative of the order of size, although I didn’t mention reduced scale guitars! So, to clarify, the typical order of size from smallest to largest:
- ½ Scale
- ¾ Scale
- 7/8 Scale
- Travel Guitar (has the smallest body, but usually has a full-scale neck)
- Parlor Guitar
- Concert Guitar/Classical Guitar
- Auditorium Guitar
- Dreadnought Guitar
- Jumbo Guitar
For most adults, I’d really recommend a concert or auditorium sized guitar if it’s your first instrument.
They have a lot to offer in terms of tone and character and bring with them a manageable playing experience for a novice guitarist.
Some the scaled-down options will work well for a beginner, too – particularly in the ¾ and 7/8 sizes, with guitars in this class available from big boys like Taylor and Martin.
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Which Acoustic Guitars Are Best For Intermediate And Advanced Guitarists?
If you’re past the beginner stage, and you’re looking to trade up or treat yourself, a better guitar is actually going to help you improve your skills.
More expensive guitars make use of tonewoods and generally have a solid top.
A solid wood top is a gold standard when it comes to a quality sound, as this captures the majority of the vibration and has the biggest impact on the overall tone.
The most expensive guitars usually have solid back and sides, too – this is a ‘nice to have’, but not really essential as these components don’t have too much influence in the overall sound profile.
Choice of wood plus craftsmanship are the key differentiators when it comes to separating beginner guitars from those intended for more advanced players.
Cheap guitars use laminate tops, which are essentially pieces of wood glued together.
Intermediate guitars will usually have a solid top, but perhaps laminate back and sides, although some do have solid construction throughout.
Finally, top-end guitars, as I pointed out earlier, are usually handcrafted by master luthiers, and built entirely from solid wood sheets.
There are a few tonewoods that are commonly found on commercially available guitars, and they include:
Spruce is undoubtedly the most common of the solid tonewoods in use today. It’s a fast-growing tree, which makes it a sustainable choice for manufacturers.
Spruce tops have an attractive, light color, and hit a nice middle ground when it comes to tone. Not too bright, but not too dark.
Spruce is usually the lowest price point when it comes to solid tonewoods.
Cedar is another popular choice for acoustic guitar tops. It’s a little darker in color than spruce, and because the structure of the wood is less dense, it’s quieter and doesn’t ring out as long.
Many finger style and classical guitars are made from cedar, though, because what it lacks in sustain and volume, it makes up in warmth and tone.
Mahogany is frequently used to build electric guitars and is also sometimes featured as a tonewood top for acoustic guitars (although it’s more commonly used just for the back and sides).
Mahogany has a beautiful dark finish and is very heavy. Because of its high density, mahogany is great for big volume with a refined tone.
Maple is prized as a tonewood for its wonderful, bright tone, huge projection, and its ability to let nuanced styles shine through.
Like mahogany, it’s a very dense wood, and quite heavy. Maple tops aren’t too common on acoustic guitars, but you’ll sure know it when you see one!
The wood can be beautifully figured, and that leads to some spectacular tiger stripe finishes!
There are lots of other woods in use, but because of environmental regulation, many of the more exotic options are disappearing from use. Woods like Koa, and Rosewood are getting quite hard to find!
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What Are The Top 5 Acoustic Guitar Brands?
When it comes to acoustic guitars, there are a few standout brands that are always going to come up in conversation.
This isn’t to say that these are the only brands worth looking at, but I’m narrowing the selection down to these 5 manufacturers because they offer acoustic guitars for players of every skill level, from beginners to experienced players and professionals.
C.F. Martin Guitars
C.F. Martin and Co are undoubtedly the premier manufacturer of acoustic guitars for sale today.
They have been building quality guitars since the 1830s, and their Nazareth, PA factory has lovingly crafted the instruments that shaped the sound of generation after generation.
While they don't really cater to the entry-level market per se, their mid-range guitars aren't out of reach even for those on a modest budget, and with high profile players like Ed Sheeran using their cheapest guitars in recordings and on stage, you know the quality is all there.
I'd happily recommend their LX1 'Little Martin' to anybody from beginners to pros.
It’s an accessibly priced guitar designed to last a lifetime (or two!)
Taylor brand guitars are something of a young pretender when it comes to acoustic guitars, especially when compared with the storied history of Martin.
So why is it that the two are almost always mentioned in the same breath?
It’s most likely that Taylor’s commitment to quality matched that of Martin from the get-go, and like Martin, they’ve never built guitars to a price, only to a standard.
While many Taylor guitars are up in the thousands of dollars, I know people who own the Taylor Academy 10 and swear it plays and sounds just as good as their premium models.
No top guitar brands list is complete without Fender! While they’re mostly famous for their electric guitars, Fender does have a reputation for making a nice acoustic guitar, too.
They do everything from outright beginner models through to instruments for recording professionals.
Fender’s new California series is an exciting range of guitars for those who are looking to stand out.
I really like the Fender Malibu Player Series for their tone, and mostly for the awesome Strat-style headstock!
If you think of Epiphone only as Gibson’s poorer cousin, you couldn’t be more wrong. Some of the biggest names in rock are on the Epiphone roster and for good reason.
They’ve been making quality instruments for almost 150 years, and while many of their lower-end guitars have had production outsourced to overseas, their quality control on those foreign-made models is top drawer.
For looks alone, I’d recommend the Epiphone Hummingbird Pro, it also helps that it’s fully constructed from solid wood, sounds amazing, and plays like a dream!
Takamine is the only foreign brand in this list, but as with the foreign-made Epiphones, don’t let that put you off.
Takamine Co. Ltd is based in Japan, and as with almost any Japanese made product, the quality and craftsmanship, even on lower-priced models, is absolutely phenomenal.
Takamine are famous for their steel-string and classical acoustic guitars, and they make excellent electric acoustic instruments, too.
Speaking of excellent electric acoustic guitars, if you’re looking for a great classical guitar that can be plugged straight into an amp, the Takamine GC5CE-NAT is my top pick.
While I’m on the topic of high-quality Japanese guitars, if all of the above are out of your price range, I’d go for a Yamaha every time.
Specifically the Yamaha FG800. It’s one of the few guitars at its price point with a proper solid top, and all fixtures and fittings are well made and properly built.
My Closing Thoughts On Choosing The Best Acoustic Guitar
Buying a new guitar is one of the best feelings there is. In fact, I’d do it every week if my wife would let me (and I had the space!).
The internet has made finding new acoustic guitars super simple, but that shouldn’t replace the experience of going to the store to see how they feel and sound.
Even if you plan to buy online (which I recommend because there are some stellar deals!) go to a real store to see what fits you best.
I wish you luck in your quest! If you’ve got any questions or want further recommendations, don’t hesitate to leave a comment below.