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I recently came into an acoustic guitar, unknown make. It is very ordinary, and it sounds bad even to an amateur like me. Besides changing the strings, what can I possibly do to improve it? I considered changing the bridge, but there isn't any buzzing, so that should be fine, yes?

Also, I'm trying to use this guitar to play Indian classical music. So ideally I would like strings that can take a good deal of bending. I know that putting nylon strings might snap the neck, so I'm trying silk and steel strings. Is this a good idea? And is there anything else I can do to make it more suited for this purpose?

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If the originals are steel, putting nylon strings should be ok. Putting steel strings on a nylon string guitar can be dangerous, not the other way around (you may need to readjust the truss rod though). –  cyco130 Jun 12 at 9:09
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Can you define what you mean by sounding "bad"? Out of tune? Thin? Dull? –  slim Jun 12 at 9:15
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Use the strings that the isntrument where made for. –  Neil Meyer Jun 12 at 13:26
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2 Answers 2

I'm afraid it's probably bad news.

Hallmarks of a bad acoustic guitar include:

  • thick, heavy neck
  • poor intonation
  • wood with poor acoustic qualities
  • rattles and buzzes

Here I'm talking about the very cheapest guitars on the market - sold at market stalls, supermarkets and toyshops. From your statement "it sounds bad even to an amateur like me", it seems likely that's what you have.

Of these, few can be remedied -- if you could make a very cheap guitar sound great, there would be no point in more expensive guitars!

The thickness of the neck isn't really something you can fix.

Intonation issues can sometimes be fixed by adjusting the bridge - but it's likely that your bridge is fixed, so this would be difficult. If there is a problem with the positioning of the frets, it's not practical to fix.

The wood that makes up the body affects the tone of the guitar. Good guitar woods resonate and colour the sound in pleasant ways. Cheap acoustic guitars use plywood, which absorbs vibration. You can't practically replace this wood - it would be cheaper to just buy another guitar.

Rattles and buzzes can sometimes be fixed by re-glueing internal bracing and frets, bridge, nut etc. However you say you are not experiencing buzzing.

You can safely put nylon strings on a guitar designed for steel strings, because the tension of nylon is much lower. However it is unlikely to sound good. Guitars designed for steel strings, are designed to sound best with steel strings. (Tautological, I know, but the question was asked).

You should not put steel strings on a guitar designed for nylon -- the tension will damage the instrument (and maybe you).

Instruments designed for steel strings can usually be identified by the presence of a truss rod in the neck. You can tell there's a truss rod if you can find its adjustment screw - either tucked under the sound hole, or under a panel in the head.

The best way to make a bad instrument sound good, is to play it really well! If you can't afford a better instrument, by all means use this this one until you can afford better.

However, if you're learning, do bear in mind that a bad instrument can hold you back badly. I spent years struggling with barre chords simply because I had a badly made guitar with ridiculously high action.

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Actually, cheap guitars can sound great. There is a point in expensive guitars: cork-sniffing snobbery. (It's not the only point: well-made instruments carefully made from good materials obviously have merit. But the element is undeniably there, especially past a certain dollar figure.) The snob factor would remain even if there was never a measurable difference in sound, playability or durability. –  Kaz Jun 12 at 17:15
    
@Kaz I think it depends on where you place "cheap" and "expensive". I was thinking of a £30 boxwood guitar vs a £250 Cort. Not a £250 Yamaha vs a £2000 Martin. Updating the answer accordingly. –  slim Jun 13 at 8:54
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It's possibly worth changing the nut and bridge saddle. Often they're made of slightly soft plastic that can sap energy from the strings. Decent bone, graphite, Tusq or whatever would prob improve things.

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