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.?
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:
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. :)
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.
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:
I'd recommend going acoustic before electric, for several reasons:
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.
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...
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
What you should be looking for is a guitar that you will enjoy playing for a long time because it sounds good, feels good and will continue to do so as it ages. If you don't like the way a guitar sounds, you won't enjoy playing it. If you don't like the way it feels, you won't play it (no matter how good it sounds).
What sounds and feels good to you personally may be very different than what sounds and feels good to me. Factors to consider within your budget are tone woods, body shape and size, and overall quality of the workmanship and components. To a large extent, more money gets you better quality but for most of us, money is a limiting factor in terms of our selections.
A solid top guitar will almost always sound better than a laminate top guitar. The back and sides will influence the sound to a lesser extent. The top is also known as the "soundboard" and it is what actually produces the sound on an acoustic guitar. The strings only serve to vibrate the "soundboard" or top. The string vibrations are transferred to the top through the saddle and bridge. A solid top will vibrate more than a laminate top which consist of multiple layers of wood glued together.
Different woods for the top will produce different sounds. Spruce is one of the most common woods for acoustic guitar tops. Maple will produce a brighter sound than spruce (all else being equal) and mahogany will producer a deeper or darker or boomier (depending on how you want to describe it) sound than spruce. And Cedar produces what most describe as a very warm (but less articulate) tone. Play guitars with different tonewoods to see what sounds good to you.
To me, body shape is an important factor in determining playing comfort. While a dreadnought shape will produce a fuller, deeper sound in general, I find the boxier shape of the dread less comfortable to hold while playing - whether sitting or standing. I personally find the concert body style with a narrower waist much more comfortable to hold.
Body thickness will also play a part in playing comfort. A person of smaller stature may find it more difficult to reach around a thicker bodied guitar (although the body thickness will influence the volume of the guitar when played acoustically).
Another factor in playing comfort will be the neck profile. Different guitars will have different widths and thicknesses of necks. There are C shaped necks (most common) D shaped necks (chunkier) V shaped necks and variations of the above. The size of your hands will play a part in what type neck profile will be most comfortable for you. A wider neck will allow for a wider space between strings but if you have small hands you may find the stretch uncomfortable.
It is important to check the neck angle of your guitar to be sure it is properly set or you will not be able to adjust the action to optimal playable level. I recommend having a guitar tech or luthier check the neck angle if you are not sure how to do this yourself. Taylor guitars all have bolt on necks and are set precisely at the factory. The advantage of the bolt on necks is the neck angle can be altered or adjusted if needed by unbolting the neck and placing the proper shims in place before bolting it back on.
Set up refers to adjusting the action, the neck relief, truss rod, saddle height etc. Some guitars will be set up well when you buy them. If not, budget $75 or so for a proper set up by a qualified guitar tech.
You asked about brands. Some of the more trusted brands with fairly consistent quality control that offer affordable acoustics would be Martin, Taylor and Gibson not in any particular order. In particular Martin and Taylor offer a lower end more affordable series with solid tops but laminate back and sides. From my experience, these seem to have consistent quality out of the factory, even if the factory is overseas. You will almost never find a Martin, Taylor or Gibson in a pawn shop or used music store because they sell as soon as they hit the display stand.
To me, the way a guitar looks is less important than the way it feels and sounds, but if you can get one that is comfortable to play, sounds good to your ears, and looks good too - all the better. Good luck.
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.