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What do you look for when going for a guitar? I own an acoustic and am looking for a better one.

What should I be looking for? Wood quality, brand, strings, etc.?

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I would usually recommend beginners go for acoustics. Electrics are harder to maintain. That said, I've taught a complete beginner on electric (received as a gift). The best way to get a guitar is to go to a store and play as many as possible. Get some expert advice and buy whichever sounds and feels best. Used guitars are also not a bad idea. My first guitar horrible! Overly high action, hurt like crazy, but it was a good experience. Now I can play anything! –  Jimi Oke Jan 14 '11 at 0:36
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"Good" is a difficult term to answer. What kind of music will you play on the guitar? What do you want in a guitar? –  neilfein Jan 14 '11 at 0:43
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@Jimi Oke said "Electrics are harder to maintain." I'm not sure I'd agree. An electric can take a beating that would shatter an acoustic. Once an electric is adjusted, there's not much reason for it to change, which is much the same as an acoustic. Also, acoustics are more sensitive to their environment, with dry air, overly moist air and/or high temperatures causing havoc with the wood and causing the sound to change. So, I think they're equivalent work to maintain, it just takes more money to purchase an equivalent quality electric because you still have cables and an amp to invest in. –  Anonymous Jan 14 '11 at 18:07
    
Thing is, if a person wants to play like Jimi, no acoustic will satisfy her, and if a person wants play delicate acoustic to accompany a voice like Joni Mitchell, few electrics are up to that task and they're expensive, and Joni went MIDI and electric way late. They're distinct instruments and not too comparable. –  VarLogRant Sep 7 '11 at 20:32

12 Answers 12

When buying an acoustic, strings do not really matter, you can change them. What DOES matter is the setup it comes with. The guitar should play well, have good intonation and have no fret buzzing. Tonewood wise, spruce is very nice and produces a great sound and is common in most middle end acoustics. Of course there are more expensive woods that can go up to maple and rosewood, causing differences in tone.

One of the most common types of acoustic bodies are called 'Dreadnoughts' and produce a very full, loud sound. I can recommend the Yamaha F-310. Gives a great sound, is affordable, and as it gets older it becomes better. With bronzed steel strings, it sounds amazing.

In answer to your first question, I would recommend getting to grips with the guitar by playing an acoustic first, then moving on to the electric.

Hope this helps.

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Of course it is important to know what you want to play with your acoustic, but for a beginner I would recommend a dreadnought bodies spruce guitar. A good all-rounder. –  Ali Maxwell Jan 14 '11 at 0:44

Solid-body electric guitars are by far easier to play than acoustic guitars. While they do require more equipment (amp, cables, etc), solid-body electric guitars have thinner bodies (so you don't have to look over the top of the guitar) and usually the action (space between fretboard and string) is lower, making it easier to play.

I don't know how much you want to spend, but if you're a beginner, a 'good' guitar is the one you see hanging on the wall at the store that you must have; it looks great, and feels even better in your hands. If those things aren't the case, there's no way you're going to want to play it 4+ hours a day...

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Action on an acoustic can be nice and light and easy to play and sound good. I have a '68 D-35 I set up when I was doing guitar work many years ago, and it is awesome. –  Anonymous Jan 14 '11 at 5:35
    
very true, but those are expensive guitars right? Cheap electrics are often better setup than cheap acoustics, if not, at least the can be easier to change (bridge adjustments, etc) –  bluevoodoo1 Jan 14 '11 at 12:32
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Cheap acoustics often have adjustable height bridges, so getting a good action isn't real hard. The issue really is the owner not wanting to spend the money for a good setup after buying a cheap guitar. The price of the setup doesn't change just because the guitar cost less, though it is probably needed more. –  Anonymous Jan 14 '11 at 17:59
    
Also, nylon strung acoustics are very easy to play. –  slim Nov 11 '11 at 13:40

What should I be looking for?

Don't look, listen and touch. Too many poor guitar purchases are made when you shop with your eyes and not ears and your hands. Here is my general advice for buying a guitar, stands for acoustic or electric:

  • Set your budget before you leave the house. This is going to help you filter out stuff at the store. Play stuff that uses your budget, but doesn't break it. This will help you filter out the plethora of choice by taking the high and the low end stuff out of your line of sight. I firmly believe we live in a Golden Age where at just about any budget can find more than a few guitars to choose between.
  • Play everything you can in your budget. Even you don't think you'll like it, pick it up and spend a few minutes with it. You can't possibly know the vast amount you don't know, so experience everything you can while you have the time.
  • Bring a friend and have them tell you how you sound on different models. They'll hear the sound from the audience's perspective and you may find the point of view valuable.
  • Buy the bones, don't buy accessories. You don't need pickups in an acoustic. That kind of stuff can be retrofitted later for not too much money. Especially with acoustics, you want to buy the best sounding and playing guitar you can find and dropping the need for electronics can help you afford a higher end model sometimes.
  • Don't forget a case. Guitars belong in cases. That's where they're safest. So include it in your budget.

Do you guys have any suggestions?

Yup: play everything you can! Be "that guy" at the music store who's asking every guitar to be taken down for a quick spin. Especially if you're new to guitar, you don't really know what you like the sound of or what feels good in your hands. The only way you can remedy that shortcoming is to get experienced and the only way to get experienced is...well, you know the answer to that now. :)

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Great suggestions. I think it's also worthwhile to play a few guitars above your budget as well, just so you get a feel for what a higher priced guitar sounds like. I think it helps in identifying "the one" that is still in your price range. –  Anonymous Jan 14 '11 at 3:42
    
+1 "Don't look, listen and touch." Definitely. Also, don't be afraid to test less-famous brands. Consider a used guitar in good shape over a new one. Spend at least 10% of your budget on a case. –  Anonymous Jan 14 '11 at 5:32
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Never bought a case yet. I keep meaning to, but the money goes on more fun stuff. Never broken a guitar in 24 years playing, so would say that if you are careful, you could use that 10% to get a better guitar... –  Dr Mayhem Mar 2 '11 at 16:07
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Just throw 'em in the back of the car on top of the rest of the kit:-) I know it's wrong. One day I'll get some proper cases. I have scrounged 2 soft bags for my two main guitars, but I don't have anything big enough for acoustic guitars –  Dr Mayhem Mar 2 '11 at 19:28
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Like Dr Mayhem, a soft gig bag suffices for me. –  slim Nov 11 '11 at 13:34

A good guitar is one that sounds and feels great to you. Don't get too hung up on brands that you've read about or seen your favorite guitarists play. Pick up and play as many as you can before choosing one -- You'll eventually find that "right" one that you can't live without.

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+1 That is an important point. Just because the headstock has a famous brandname on it is no guarantee the guitar will sound good. We HOPE it will but buying one sight-unseen is a good way to get a piece of crap, at least until you are into esoteric custom brands. –  Anonymous Jan 14 '11 at 18:03

The thing to keep in mind is that a guitar is, first and foremost, a machine -- specifically a machine that transmits string vibration into air vibration. Like any machine, you want it to do its job and be easy to use, and everything else -- including its tone -- is secondary. With that in mind, these should be your priorities, especially among inexpensive guitars:

  1. Does the guitar stay in tune? If not, put it back. Do not proceed to Priority #2. A guitar that doesn't stay in tune is failing its most basic job, and you won't enjoy playing it. I find that until you get to really expensive instruments, guitars with enclosed tuning machines are more likely to stay in tune than guitars with open tuners.
  2. When the open strings are in tune, are the fretted notes also in tune? I've played guitars where the frets were misplaced, or perhaps the neck was poorly set, and so it was actually physically impossible to play in tune. No good.
  3. Is the guitar easy to play? Obviously this is extremely important, but it's Priority #3 because a guitar can often be made easier to play once it's professionally set-up. If you're serious about a specific guitar, feel free to ask the store to set-up the guitar before committing to purchasing it, but don't do this unless a successful set-up means you'll probably buy it.
  4. Tone. You have to like the sound, sure, but it's Priority #4 because even the best tone the world won't make up for a hard-to-play, out-of-tune instrument.
  5. Looks.
  6. Anything else.

I'd recommend going acoustic before electric, for several reasons:

  1. You can take an acoustic anywhere. Camping, house party, to the park, etc. You don't have to haul an amp around. Believe me, that's a big plus.
  2. If you have X dollars to spend, you can spend all X on an acoustic, but you have to split X into two parts to buy both an electric and an amp, so you get less instrument for your money.
  3. My teacher made me practice on an acoustic to build up my hand strength. It worked. Electrics feel unbelievably easy to my hands now.
  4. It's easy to hide bad habits behind distortion and effects. An acoustic encourages the development of good mechanics.
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I agree with "taking an acoustic anywhere" as being of big importance. But keep in mind you can get a good, cheap travel electric with a portable amp to achieve that :) –  Anonymous Jan 14 '11 at 4:13
    
I gravitate towards acoustic because it's so convenient to pick up and play. Any room in the house, no need to power up the amp, plug in. You're playing within 3 seconds of getting the urge. –  slim Nov 11 '11 at 13:42

I'm new to StackExchange so I'm not sure whether this should be a comment or an answer...

Watching "It Might Get Loud" really changed how I view instruments - there's a segment where Jack White builds a guitar from garbage, basically, and it sounds great.

I think what's important here is WHY do you want to upgrade? Have you learned how to do everything you can with your current guitar? What will upgrading get you? I know I've gotten sucked into "ohhh pretty guitar" moments, urges to try something new, but will that really be beneficial, musically? Do you really need that "better" tone, especially if it costs $500, $1000, more?

Even a $100 acoustic can make music that sounds good (subjectively), so before you go for an upgrade I'd take a good hard look at your reasons - maybe you just need to explore a new style of playing.

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Your answer is OK since this is a fairly subjective question. For a technical questions, comments are better for opinion-like responses. –  Anonymous Jan 14 '11 at 5:38
    
It depends on what he has. The wrong guitar can hold you back a lot. I spent years with an acoustic that did me no favours -- a high action, so barre chords were painful, poor intonation, and a tone that didn't reward my efforts. When I eventually bought a reasonable guitar, I think my playing improved more in the next 6 months, than in the previous 10 years. –  slim Nov 11 '11 at 13:47

By taking somebody that plays for a few years with you to a music shop.

To know, which guitar is good, and which is bad, you need to have an experience playing both of those types: only this way you can differ one from another. There are too many factors that are too hard to notice, if you don't know what exactly to look for. Many of them are feeling-based and hardly measurable.

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What you want depends on what you want.

Which is, of course, duh.

A good sign of high quality is solid wood. Or, rather, a useful if not complete sign of low quality is the use of laminates, which are like plywood. If you see a complete dog of an acoustic guitar, chances are it is laminate. But that's not the end of the story. Solid wood guitars are more sensitive to humidity than laminate, which means that you have to worry more about your instrument if you go solid. A common half-measure is to go with solid top and laminate back and sides. You can tell if the top is solid by looking at the inside of the soundhole. If the grain continues through the hole, it's solid. If it looks like a stack of pancakes, it's laminate.

Another indicator of lesser quality is a bolt-on neck. Bolt-on necks are easier to do, so it is a general low-quality indicator. But, over time, the tension of the strings pulls the neck up, against the glue, and you have to reset the neck to get proper action, and that can get expensive for dove-tail neck joints. Taylor uses a bolt-on technology (it's also glued - the bolt is mostly there to keep the pressure and position as the glue cures.

My first acoustic was a bad dog of a guitar, and it had a zero fret. Zero frets are frets where the nut should be, and the strings always lie on it, which makes the process of cutting a nut less precise than it is on normal guitars. But Maccaferri guitars, which are de regeuer for gypsy jazz, come with zero frets.

Another indicator of lower quality is mass. A guitar is a speaker system driven by the movement of the strings, and the more mass, the less the vibration of the strings is turned into sound. In general, you want the braces, the top, the sides, the bridge, everything to be as light as possible but no lighter. Folks who want their dreadnoughts brought up to bluegrass fighting shape have their braces shaved and remove the "popsicle brace" (a brace across the top of the guitar body between the soundhole and the neck), to cut down on the tone-damping mass. But guitar makers started putting them in for a reason, and that reason is that the lighter and more delicate an instrument is, the more that casual and non-careful playing might damage it, or even the humidity mentioned earlier. The assumption of higher-end luthiers is that if you're paying $5000 or more for a flatpicking hot-rod, you know what you want and know what you're doing, and the assumption of guitar companies (and the great Martin is the originator of the popsicle brace) is that they need to keep repairs and returns down, so overbuild 'em some.

So, that's four indicators of low quality I've hit that are used by fine guitar makers and show up in great or at least perfectly good guitars. So, what are some actual indicators?

It stays in tune. The harmonics at the 5th, 7th and 12th fret are strong and loud. If the action is adjustable to be right and there are no dead spots on the neck. And if it sounds good. I replaced my Ibanez acoustic (with a Wizard neck and 6-on-top headstock) with a heavier and more traditionally-headstocked Fender A/E, and when playing something more lead, the Ibanez always cut through.

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The advice I'd offer is pretty simple. A quality instrument will feel great in your hands and sound great unplugged.

The first matter takes some getting used to as a new player. Guitars have many small variations that affect how they feel, so as a new player it's best to grab a lot of guitars and find ones that feel good--then figure out why. Here's some tips:

  • Pay attention to the neck in your hand, your picking/strumming hand doesn't have much say in the matter (unless you decide you need a contoured edge, or a smaller body).

  • Necks come in all different dimensions. The nut-width, bridge-width, profile shape and depth, and scale length all have some variations. Don't worry about the specifics until you find a guitar that feels good--then try to learn all the details so you know what to compare against.

  • Also consider fret size, fretboard material, and neck finish. They're smaller matters, but some people really prefer the feel of either standard or jumbo frets. Maple can feel harder under your fingers than rosewood or other non-sealed woods. The finish on the back of the neck can make the neck feel "sticky" or "smooth and fast"

Once you find guitars that feel good to you then it's time to play them unplugged (both acoustic and electric).

  • Pay attention to their sustain--how long they continue to play a note once you've plucked the string. Quality guitars will ring out longer than cheaper ones.

  • Play all strings, up and down the neck. Try to tell if all the notes play well and sound good. Some guitars have "dead frets" meaning their neck has some defects (usually fixable), and some guitars resonate very well at some frequencies (notes) and poorly at others.

From there you can usually address most issues--albeit at a cost.

  • Paying for a setup on a guitar by a reputable technician is almost always a good idea. Better yet, buy from a shop that will do a setup on anything they sell.

  • If a guitar won't stay in tune replacement tuners, saddles, or bridges might be the solution.

  • If you don't like it plugged in you can look into swapping pickups

After all that comes the looks. Right at the end.

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As you shop for a guitar, consider the scale length. Shorter scale lengths require less string tension to achieve standard pitch, allowing the notes to bend more easily. Many Gibson guitars use about a 24.75" scale length; many Fender guitars uses about a 25.5" scale length. Your choice may be influenced by the trade space of musical styles (bluesy bends) versus acoustic volume (with higher tension).

I have electrics in each scale length. My single acoustic is a long scale, and I sometimes wish that it had a short scale for better bending.

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If you live in a bad quality rented apartment with uncooperative neighbours, or you think some member of your family may not like, it may be better to avoid unnecessary pressure by learning on something that can be played with headphones.

There are "silent acoustic" guitars available on the market and solid body electric guitar with headphone-only amp should also be quiet.

Sounds reasonably paranoid but I have been forced to stop playing guitar long time ago because of the "noise" issues, so check your situation.

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"Silent Acoustic" guitar = electric guitar ? I had this issue too, so I just used an electric and didn't plug it in. :-) –  user2808054 Apr 25 at 15:47
    
No, "Silent Acoustic" is NOT an electric. I've had my Yamaha Silent since '07 and LOVE it. They use acoustic strings, string tension and action. They have builtin acoustic voicing as well. –  kervin Dec 1 at 13:59

Lots of answers here, but some bits I would look for which may have been missed :

  • An 'Appropriate' Action. That's the distance between the frets and the strings. Too high = difficult to play and likely to go out of tune as you bend the string down a bit to fret it. Too low = easy to play but in some areas on the neck the strings will buzz against the next fret up the neck, or might even catch on a fret and mute themselves. Different people like the action different heights to suit their playing style - eg slide guitarist tend to like it quite high. Work out what's best for you perhaps by trying a few guitars. It changes the whole feel of a guitar ! I like it quite low, personally - up to a couple of millimetres around the octave fret.

  • Intonation : Try playing a chord shape like E, D or A, then try one octave up the neck (so same shape, using octave fret as the open neck). If the guitar plays in tune still, the intonation is ok - if not, it means the strings are going out of tune compared to each other as you move up the neck. I appreciate this might be tricky on an acoustic so playing up the neck as high as you comfortably can will work.

If you're considering buying a secondhand guitar ....

  • If Acoustic, check the 'bulbousneess' of the body between the bridge and the base of the guitar (the area of the body with normally nothing on it, if you were to follow the strings past the bridge). If this is bulbous and looks like it should be flat, consider walking away. This happens because the strings pull the body of the guitar out of shape, and is nearly impossible to fix. It wouldn't matter, but normally the bulbous effect means the bridge has moved and that affects intonation and Action (normally making it way too high).

  • Bend in the neck: The strings can pull the neck into a "bow" shape meaning the action becomes high and the intonation is messed up. An easy way to check this is on the G string (or D - one near the middle) fret it on the first fret, and again on the highest fret, so that the string rests on a fret at each end of the neck. Now look at the distance from the middle of the string - ie halway between your fingers- to the middle-est fret (ie the action at that point). Effectively you're using the string as a straight edge to compare the bend in the neck. If it's more than a couple of millimetres action, it may be that the neck is bending, resulting in a slow painful demise of the guitar. Some guitars have a truss rod in the neck (if acoustic, sometimes a sign of a better quality guitar - if electric, it's essential) to counteract this, and this can be adjusted but it's something that you might want an expert to do rather than try yourself. If it's a new guitar and the neck is bent, put it back ! No excuse for the manufacturers to turn thigns like that out.

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