Many of my students have expressed the need for quality advice on how to choose an acoustic guitar, so we decided to put together this Ultimate Acoustic Guitar Buying Guide that hopefully will serve to put the best guitars possible in your happy hands. If you’ve got an hour or so, settle in and watch the whole video. If not, you can catch the highlights underneath. If you have comments or questions, please leave them at the bottom of this page, but also please know that I cannot give advice on specific models that you may be looking at. My best advice is here on this page, beyond that you’ll have to use your common sense.
One more thing, before we dive in. If you like what you learn here, you can help out by spreading the word! Share this page with all your guitar-playing buddies to help them make better choices on their next acoustic guitar! There are share buttons at the top of this post. Ok, let’s get started!
The Ultimate Acoustic Guitar Buying Guide
This lesson is a combination of all the different comments I’ve received from teaching online, and it seems that there is a real need for this topic. A lot of my students could have used this guide long before they even started their guitar lessons. This lesson won’t go into things like what type of wood is used for each guitar, but is going to discuss the practical aspects for buying a guitar.
First thing I’d like to end is the notion that you should start on an acoustic guitar. That’s not true. It’s your choice. Electric or acoustic, it doesn’t really matter – the finger movements are the same. For portability, there’s no difference between the electric or acoustic guitar. Nowadays, you can get a little battery-powered amp that clips right onto your belt so you can travel easily with an electric. You can also buy 3/4 size guitars, which are also more portable than full sized ones. So portability is not an issue. You’re probably picking the acoustic guitar because it has a sound that you love, and you can do things like play around a campfire with it. However, don’t restrict yourself to just an acoustic, because you can do things like that also with an electric guitar and a battery powered amp.
Department Store vs Music Store
Should you buy your guitar at a department store? NO. What most people need to understand about buying a guitar at a department store is that the price and quality may be deceiving. The problem with those guitars is sometimes they are lower in quality than what you would buy at a music store. Usually those instruments are built specifically for department stores, so right there the quality is a little less. However, quality aside (because mechanics can fix any issue with a guitar), the biggest issue is department stores don’t always store and handle their guitars properly. This causes problems like the wood shifting, which can make an instrument difficult to play and stay in tune.
Go to a music store for your guitar. The people there know how to properly handle and store guitars, plus they are knowledgeable about the instruments and can help you out.
Listen to the Guitars
Music stores don’t want to sell you something that you’re unhappy about. Plus, they all know how to play a little bit as well. Get them, or a friend, to play the different guitars for you. Sit back and listen to the guitar. Stand close to the guitar, and then walk away from it a little bit. Listen to the sound. Listen to the guitar in different rooms, because the guitar will sound different at home than in the store.
Don’t buy based on color! Don’t buy on shape or looks, either. Buy by the sound and the feel of the guitar.
Feel of the Guitar
Once you’ve found a guitar that you like the sound of, you need to sit with it and think about things like your body size. If you’re a small person, you don’t want a big guitar. Watch your hand size as well. Do not buy a guitar with a blocky neck if you have a tiny hand. My advice is sit down with the guitar, and put your hand around the neck. Ask yourself, “Can I reach all the strings easily with my fingers? Can I picture myself playing this instrument, and having my hand wrapped around it in different ways?”
Don’t be shy to pick up the guitar and sit with it. The people at the music stores don’t mind; you just have to be polite, and careful with their instruments.
If there’s one thing I’d like to convey in this acoustic guitar buying guide, it is to find a guitar that makes you want to play. This is what a guitar is all about. The guitar does not have to be expensive to achieve that. More expensive doesn’t necessarily mean better. It’s a personal thing. Work within your budget and find a sound and feel that you like.
Don’t grind: shop first. This way if you find a guitar that you like the sound of in one store, but another store has the same guitar for a cheaper price, you are aware of that. Go to the store manager and say that you found the same guitar at a different store, but you prefer the sound of this one: can they match the price or come close? Be nice about it. More than likely, they’ll either match or throw in some picks or another set of strings or something. So don’t grind about a price right away. If you find a guitar you like, go check out a few more first. You never know what’s out there till you check.
Action is the height of the string to the fret board, or in other words, how much movement/distance the string has before it connects to the fretboard. A guitar with a lower action means it’s easier to play, but it can also cause fret buzz. You want every note you play to be clear and beautiful.
If you’re buying a cheaper guitar, you might want to ask the sales person to play chords in both the lower and the higher register of the guitar. The action makes a difference the further up the neck you go.
A mechanic can change the action if the guitar is adjustable or not too far out, so it’s not a make or break thing.
Parlor guitars are smaller bodied guitars. The neck is narrower, and not as thick. The parlor guitars can be really nice and sound great. A lot of women are more comfortable with this guitar because of its smaller size.
Parts of an Acoustic Guitar
At the top of your neck you have a string nut. This bar keeps your strings evenly spaced along the neck. It also maintains the tension on your guitar, and this is where the vibrations start.
The wires that go across the neck of the guitar are called the frets. Be careful with a cheaper guitar – if you run your hand along the edge of the neck you should not find sharp frets. Sometimes manufacturers cut the wires a little too long, or the wood shrinks over time. This happens with international guitars sometimes. Wood has its own personality, and can shrink sometimes, causing the frets to be sharp along the edges.
At the base of the guitar you have the saddle, which is usually a white bone-like material. The role of the saddle is it works with the string nut to keep the strings evenly spaced.
At the top of the guitar are your tuning pegs, also known as machine heads. The tuning pegs are what your strings are wrapped around, and this is how you tune your guitar.
The bridge pins are on the body of the guitar, and they hold the ball end of the string. They hold the strings in place on the body end of the guitar, while the tuning pegs hold the other end of the string.
The hole in the middle of the body is called the sound hole.
If the guitar has a design that goes down the neck, this is called inlay. It’s strictly ornamental, and should not be considered when looking for a guitar. Always go by the sound, not the looks.
Always go with a mechanic that comes recommended – either by a music store or by someone you know. If they’re going to be tweaking your guitar, you want them to be reliable.
Every guitar should be looked over by a mechanic before you start to play it. Also, if you notice your guitar is not sounding the same after you purchased it, it may mean the guitar has settled a bit and you just need to take it in for a little check up.
String tension can affect your guitar neck. More tension can cause the neck to bow more. A good guitar will have a tension adjustment on the neck. There’s a rod that goes down inside the neck, and it compensates for the huge tension on the strings. You don’t want your neck to have too much of a curve because your strings vibrate more to the center.
Buying a Used Guitar
Don’t fix up the finish if you buy an old guitar. You’re better off to leave the finish that it still has on. Sometimes when you take the old finish off the guitar, you can ruin it. Plus you can take away from its vintage value, if it has any.
An advantage to getting an old guitar is that once it gets cleaned up by a mechanic (if it needs anything tweaked at all), you shouldn’t have any more problems with it as it’s already settled.
For the guitars that have pickups built into them, the pickup can have the controls either built into the top of the guitar, or around the sound hole. Some don’t have any controls, but they have a jack out where you connect your guitar to an amp and control it from there. It depends on what you want to use your guitar for.
Guitars that have pickups can be played unplugged as well. However, they will usually sound really good when they’re plugged in.
It’s cheaper to buy a guitar with the pickup already in it than to buy a guitar and have a pickup put in. If you buy a pickup separately, you need to pay for a technician to put the pickup in, which usually tends to be more expensive.
Buy a case for your guitar!!! If you don’t have a case, it’s like buying a brand new car and replacing your new tires with worn out tires. Even a gig bag is better than no protection at all. A gig bag is a nylon bag with padding.
Include a case in your budget. You are spending money on a guitar – protect it! If you’re moving your guitar around at all (even from the store to your house), you need to have a case!
A lot of stores won’t warranty your guitar if you won’t buy a case for it.
Steel String vs Nylon String
Nylon string guitars will sound different from steel string guitars. The tension on a nylon string guitar is less than with steel strings. Guitars are built for one or the other: you don’t want to put steel strings on a guitar that was built for nylon ones! It will wreck the guitar. You also don’t want put nylon strings on a guitar built for steel strings because it won’t sound good or project very well.
The downfall to a nylon string guitar is that the necks are usually wider, so bar chords may be more difficult. Nylon strings are easier to press down because there’s less tension on the neck. They are also less painful on your fingers when you’re a beginner, as you’ll build your calluses slowly as opposed to right away. They are also softer sounding, and really good for people want to just strum.
If you have a weak hand or you’ve never played before, ask your technician if he can lower the action as low as possible, and put on really thin strings (10-guage). This is usually more beneficial for children.
So to recap: Do not buy by color, do not buy by brand, and do not buy by looks. Buy by sound, the feel of the neck, and how it feels when you’re sitting with the guitar. Buy a guitar that suits your body stature. You want to be able to sit comfortably with it. You want to love playing it!
I hope my Ultimate Acoustic Guitar Buying Guide helps you make a good, educated decision when you go buy your guitar. Once you’ve got a guitar, I’d recommend checking out our free three day trial of the Riff Ninja Academy. Or, signup for my new series of beginner lessons. So go, buy a guitar, then come back to the website to learn how to play! And remember, have fun!
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