Join 3,418 readers in helping fund MetaFilter (Hide)


Tips for shopping for a mid-level acoustic guitar
June 10, 2014 2:23 PM   Subscribe

I have about $300-400 to spend on a new acoustic guitar that will be gifted to someone who is a classically-trained pianist but would be a beginner on this particular instrument, someone who wants to play music in the vein of Cat Stevens (i.e., pop-folk). There are simply so many options out there that I thought I would ask this site for advice.

I know nothing about guitars except what I have perused via search engines, but I am guessing that, given the music that will be played on this instrument, I assume I would look for a model that is steel-stringed. Is that correct? Do guitars come stringed with nylon, by default (do I need to get it restringed)?

Mainly, I want something that will last a long time and give good, warm sound appropriate for what will be played on it, without spending thousands of dollars. I do not want to buy a used guitar because I am in no position to evaluate its quality or condition without the strong likelihood of getting ripped off and leaving the recipient with a bad gift.

I'm assuming $300-400 is mid-range, or at least at the upper end of low-range. Are there brands that are better than others at that price range? Brands I have seen are Martin, Walden, Yamaha and Takamine. I can go up to $500 or a bit more, if there is a threshold where the sound difference and reliability bumps up considerably.

I will probably stay away from Guitar Center for reasons mentioned on this site at other times; are there preferred online vendors for guitars?

Sorry if these are dumb, obvious questions and thanks for any advice.
posted by Blazecock Pileon to Shopping (27 answers total) 5 users marked this as a favorite
 
I am guessing that, given the music that will be played on this instrument, I assume I would look for a model that is steel-stringed. Is that correct?
Not mandatory, but that's the way I'd go.

Do guitars come stringed with nylon, by default (do I need to get it restringed)?
No, they're built one way or the other, and you don't want to switch string material. I saw a guy turn a nylon-stringed guitar into a recurve bow by putting steel strings onto it.

Are there brands that are better than others at that price range? Brands I have seen are Martin, Walden, Yamaha and Takamine.
It'll vary widely by guitar, unfortunately. Martins are fantastic guitars, generally, and if you can find a new one in that price range that'd probably be a winner. But I don't know how many you'll find in that range. Of 2 friends of mine with Yamahas from that price range, one was kind of crap and the other is now a treasured old warhorse in its 20th year of service.

In your price range, you might take a look at Seagull guitars- I've been really impressed with their quality / price ratio.

I don't have any advice about buying online- avoiding Guitar Center's a good idea, but beyond that your best bet would probably be to go to a locally-owned guitar shop and just tell them your situation.
posted by COBRA! at 2:31 PM on June 10 [4 favorites]


I recommend getting a solid wood body guitar rather than laminate. My first guitar was a Simon & Patrick - Woodland Spruce ($419). A relatively inexpensive guitar with a nice rich sound.

Long & Mcquade Reviews
Ultimate Guitar Reviews

I suspect most guitars will come with steel strings, however if not, new strings can be purchased for about $10.
posted by axismundi at 2:32 PM on June 10 [2 favorites]


I don't know much about guitars, but steel strings sound like what we typically think of as "acoustic guitar" in the rock/folk/country world. Nylon strings sound like a classical player or Willie Nelson.
posted by drjimmy11 at 2:35 PM on June 10


I saw a lower end used Martin with some damage in that price range once, but you're likely to find their guitars start at about twice your price range.
posted by thelonius at 2:35 PM on June 10


Guitars are kind of like bicycles. They have to fit the player and generally need to be adjusted in one way or another after they come off the factory line. I'd recommend that you take the recipient out to a local guitar store that specializes in acoustics (and sets up its instruments before selling them) and have him or her hold a few. Even without knowing how to play the instrument, a good guitar will "feel" right.

Beyond that, going with a solid wood top is a good decision. Art and Lutherie, Seagull, Blueridge, and some Recording King guitars have solid tops. You can even find lower-end new Martins and Taylors in that price range. I swear by my Little Martin, which goes for around $300.
posted by The White Hat at 2:54 PM on June 10 [3 favorites]


I have played the same Yamaha steel-string acoustic dreadnought for over 20 years (oh fuck I'm old), and it has never needed any work done to it, and, I think, sounds great. The neck is perfectly straight, the tuners are still accurate, and it's held up to a good amount of wear. It wasn't their high or low end--somewhere in the middle--but it's been a great companion for a couple of decades. I'd recommend them without hesitation, though there are other great options, and I do agree with The White Hat that this is a purchase that really should involve the lucky recipient to ensure a good fit.

You might also want to leave some money aside for her to take the guitar to get set up by a technician. Guitars have "truss rods" in their necks that allow the neck to be straightened or curved, which addresses some intonation issues, and the height of the strings from the fretboard can be adjusted. When new players pick up the guitar, it can help to have low "action" on the strings so that their tender baby-like uncalloused fingers can press the steel strings down. A set up is probably $50-75 bucks depending on where the recipient is.
posted by Admiral Haddock at 3:02 PM on June 10 [1 favorite]


Incidentally, Seagull, Art & Lutherie, Simon & Patrick, Norman, and Lapatrie are all Godin brands, so are similar, but have different finish and price points.
posted by scruss at 3:04 PM on June 10 [2 favorites]


Yep. Seagull all the way. They are Canadian and have a sweet deal with a lumber supplier, and terrific guitars all around. Compared to almost every other brand in your price range, Seagull acoustics have a very, very thin coat of laminate on them which means they will be more prone to scratches, but arguably better sound than their competitors heavier laminate finishes.

I have the entourage model, which was $370 out the door from guitar center. The entourage models have a slightly narrowed neck width than most acoustics which will make it easier to learn on.

Regarding putting money aside for a set up, most guitars are sold "set up". As a learner there is nothing you need to worry about right now that someone needs to fix. Seriously, it will play great out the door. But yeah, down the road $60 to have someone sand down your saddle and check the truss Rod is always a good idea.

Argh hit post too soon. I've been playing guitar for 25+ years and was blown away at the price/quality/sound in Seagull.
posted by BlerpityBloop at 3:17 PM on June 10 [1 favorite]


Does this person play guitar at all yet?

If so, head to your local guitar shop (or even Guitar Center) and play every guitar within your budget. (Play some really expensive ones too, just because.)

Knowing about brands is good - but how the guitar feels and sounds to the owner is far more important than the name on the headstock.
posted by gnutron at 3:17 PM on June 10


If your gift recipient is on the small side (or has small hands), consider the Baby Taylor (scroll down for demo) or Little Martin (demo).
posted by Iris Gambol at 3:27 PM on June 10


Don't play, but have nothing but admiration for the musician these guitars are named for; I'm certain Ron Hynes wouldn't play or promote anything second class. Check out MacKenzie and Marr!
posted by kate4914 at 3:27 PM on June 10


Guitars are kind of like bicycles. They have to fit the player and generally need to be adjusted in one way or another after they come off the factory line. I'd recommend that you take the recipient out to a local guitar store that specializes in acoustics (and sets up its instruments before selling them) and have him or her hold a few. Even without knowing how to play the instrument, a good guitar will "feel" right.

^^^^^ This!

It should feel comfortable in his hand. HIS hand. You can buy a lot of guitar-related stuff online without playing it first, but the instrument itself should really be selected by the player after they've had the chance to handle it (and ideally, after handling several or more). We can tell you what wood or features to look for, what makes one better than another, but in the end it needs to fit him.
posted by mosk at 3:28 PM on June 10


You're in or near Seattle, aren't you? Go talk to the folks at Dusty Strings. They carry both Taylor and Seagull guitars in that range, which would be my relatively uninformed recommendation, and have knowledgeable staff who don't work on commission and do love acoustic music. (They carry a bunch of other manufacturers, too, for what it's worth.)
posted by hades at 3:28 PM on June 10


You are buying a guitar for me, five years ago. I'm a pianist by training, but no longer had access to a piano once I moved into a condo. I figured that a guitar would be a more portable option.

Without having learned any chords, I went to my local music shop and picked up every steel string acoustic. I bought a modestly-priced Walden O550 based on the feel of it in my hands. The shop also set it up, which was key to my early playing enjoyment.

I've since invested in a Taylor 110ce, but that first Walden guitar is what got me started.
posted by gox3r at 3:36 PM on June 10


in general, modern import guitars from China, Korea or Indonesia are extremely well built compared to 20 or more years ago. Canadian guitars such as the Godin lines are also very good. Blueridge and Recording King are two brands I would recommend you examine as well. But if you're near Seattle, as hades said, Dusty Strings is an excellent choice. They won't rip you off, and they will offer solid advice.
posted by blob at 4:17 PM on June 10


I bought a guitar for my husband, who is primarily a drummer but likes to have a guitar lying around so he can noodle on it. I am a former cellist, so while I don't have experience with guitars, I am VERY familiar with the care and feeding of temperamental wooden instruments.

First, you need to build in room for the accessories -- at least a case. Some will come with the kind of "hard case" that is really glorified cardboard covered with leatherette. If you buy a solid wood instrument, however, you will need to buy a much more substantial case that will give it much more protection from the effects of humidity and/or other changes in temperature and environment.

Laminated instruments can be much more than decent, particularly for beginning players who don't need to be bothered by the fussiness of serious instrument care. Sure, it's not that complicated, but at this point the recipient needs to just concentrate on having fun and getting acclimated. A laminate instrument will be easy to leave out (on a stand or hanging on a wall) and access when the mood strikes you.

I went to my highly respected local shop and wavered between an acoustic Ibanez and a Rogue electro-acoustic, eventually buying the latter. It's not a real prestige brand, but it's not crap by any means, and my husband has gotten a ton of use out of it. We have quite a bit of temp variation, and it stays in tune pretty well too.
posted by Madamina at 4:18 PM on June 10


I'm with gnutron. I've helped a few people buy guitars in this price range by taking them to a store with a million instruments, and putting stuff in their hands without telling them brand or price. But that doesn't work very well with gifting. Or perhaps it should be said that gifting doesn't work very well with guitars...
posted by Jack Karaoke at 4:36 PM on June 10


My dad is a serious guitar player and teacher, and got me an Oscar Schmidt under similar circumstances. Other, more knowledgeable players than me have been pleasantly surprised by it.
posted by tchemgrrl at 4:42 PM on June 10


I bought a Seagull about 8 years ago. It sounds very rich for its price point and was decently enough made, but I needed to have some adjustments made to the action. My local luthier did a great job on that.

To my ear it sounded as good as a Guild (that cost nearly twice as much).
posted by plinth at 5:00 PM on June 10 [1 favorite]


Another vote for Seagull. A tremendous value in the $300-500 range. I prefer Seagulls to Art & Lutherie, but pretty much any Godin guitar is a great value (and Godin's electric guitars are tremendous for the money, too).

The guitars are well built. They may need some set-up and maintenance, but they are long lasting and have great sound. The Seagull S6 is a fantastic starter.

Guitar Center isn't necessarily the devil, though it's always better to buy at a local shop if you can, where people may be more knowledgeable, less pushy, and more likely to set it up properly for you. But here's a good S6 they're selling that is well within your price range. Or, if you want a parlor sized that's a little tinnier, but a lot more portable and a lot easier to play, you could go with the Grand.
posted by Old Man McKay at 5:31 PM on June 10 [1 favorite]


I agree that you should check out any of the lower end Godin brands, especially Seagull. And it is important for the player to test-play it for personal preferences, as others have said.

I just wanted to chip in with another possibility. Last year I bought a used LAG Tramontane T100d for $150. It's a great guitar at that price point and even at retail the Tramontane would be a bargain, imo. I was very pleasantly surprised because while I had heard of LAG I had never played one. Links to a couple of YouTube playthroughs: a longer one in English, shorter, Israeli playing-but hey, demo includes some slide!
posted by CincyBlues at 5:33 PM on June 10


I was a beginner in this situation (buying a guitar w/ a $400 or so budget) a year ago, but had the benefit of a gf who is an accomplished musician and plays guitar, and a close friend who plays and collects guitars. I ended up going to three different stores, including Guitar Center, and trying a bunch of guitars. Here are a couple of observations that i learned in doing that which may inform your shopping.

- I'm glad I took a hands on approach; if there is a way to do that with your friend/giftee (maybe a hand written gift certificate?), I think it will be worth your while.

- The local guitar shop I ended up buying my guitar from offered to teach me to change the strings later and to adjust the action once I had some experience with the guitar. That ended up being a differentiator for me.

- Acoustic guitars come in different sizes. I'm a medium sized male and picked the default size - a dreadnought - but if your friend is petite, she may be more comfortable with a smaller size (but the selection is apparently smaller). Likewise, small hands may work better for certain necks and actions.

- Echoing someone else's comment about the case, I ended up going over-budget to buy a nice ABS type case for the guitar; I also bought some things like a tuner, a metronome, and some spare strings. All in, this probably added about $100 to the purchase price.

- In my area (a metro), there was a pretty robust market of used guitars. I know you said you weren't interested in a used guitar - I'm typing this for the benefit of other readers. I wasn't comfortable buying used, either, but in hindsight can see that there were some screaming deals to be had on Craigslist. The problem is, as you stated in your question, you either need to already be knowledgable, or have someone along who is.

- Even though I couldn't play, just handling the guitars gave me a feel for the difference between a $300 guitar, a $500 guitar, and a $1000 guitar; handling the high end guitars gave me some confidence that at the $400 price point, I would do just fine.

- One thing about Guitar Center that I liked: they will let you handle anything. I had a chance to strum a $10,000 pre-WWII Martin (which was actually kind of terrifying). At the local high end guitar shop, the sales dude was heavily "curating" my experience, bringing me guitars to try, which was kind of a buzz kill.

- Based on my research plus my visits to shops, the two makes/models I spent the most time looking at were Seagull (S6) and Blueridge (BR-40). One factor for me: I wanted to take my guitar out of the house and into rough environments like camping trips. The Seagulls are made with cedar, which is a softer wood, and I ended up choosing a Blueridge because I felt it would be a little more durable.

Good luck with the purchase!
posted by BlueTongueLizard at 5:37 PM on June 10


Guitars are kind of like bicycles. They have to fit the player and generally need to be adjusted in one way or another after they come off the factory line. I'd recommend that you take the recipient out to a local guitar store that specializes in acoustics (and sets up its instruments before selling them) and have him or her hold a few. Even without knowing how to play the instrument, a good guitar will "feel" right.

I'd also add that it's likely that no matter how many guitars you try out now, it is likely that they will want something different once they have some more experience.

To further the bicycle metaphor, right now you'd be taking them to try out a general purpose bicycle but they don't know how to ride a bike. So you're going to make sure they get something that feels good, looks good, and fits them. Once they've been riding for a little while, they might find that they want a road bike or that they like a wider seat, or more gears. There are preference that they don't have and won't know that they have until they start playing. My first acoustic was a dreadnought size and, even though it was fine when I tried it out, I found that I needed something slimmer so I sold that (for a bit more than I paid for it, used) for a used concert sized guitar. Then I decided that I wanted to have a cut-away body to make it easier to reach some of the higher notes of the music I was starting to play so I sold that (and broke even) and bought a used Yamaha APX which I love.

If I were you, I'd buy used using the brands that you see mentioned in this thread as a guide. Ideally, you'd buy from a serious player who is sell because their SO told them that they have too many guitars. That is the more sure-fire way I can think of (but certainly not the only way) to make sure that you get an instrument in good condition that has been setup well.

Then I'd let them know, when you give it to them, that you kind of expect that they'll replace this guitar somewhere down the line after they've gotten some experience.
posted by VTX at 5:39 PM on June 10 [1 favorite]


I assume I would look for a model that is steel-stringed. Is that correct?

Yup.

Do guitars come stringed with nylon, by default

"Nylon-stringed" guitars are also known as classical guitars. They are built somewhat differently than steel-string acoustic guitars, which is what people are usually referring to when they say "acoustic guitar."

I want something that will last a long time

This will depend a lot on how the owner takes care of the guitar, and a certain amount of luck (I think every guitar player has a story or two about a cheapo guitar that just wouldn't die), and can't really necessarily be predicted by brand or cost. An acoustic is basically a hollow box made out of very thin sheets of wood, so it's more sensitive to temperature and humidity changes than an electric.

I'm assuming $300-400 is mid-range, or at least at the upper end of low-range.

I'd say upper end of low-range, but no reason you can't find a perfectly acceptable guitar in that range.

Are there brands that are better than others at that price range?

No, not so much, IMO. As blob points out above, various Asian manufacturers are turning out stuff of much higher quality than even a few years ago. And actually, many of the factories produce instruments for more than one brand. I strongly suspect that a lot of what separates different musical gear at different price points is both the materials and the parameters of quality control, with cheaper stuff having a much wider range of "acceptable", which is how one $400 guitar plays and sounds like a dream and the next $400 guitar on the rack isn't even useful as a mini-golf putter.

So it might actually be even more useful for you to buy from a local shop if you're on a tight budget, as they can steer you to specific guitars that are good, and not just rely on the brand name.

Brands I have seen are Martin, Walden, Yamaha and Takamine.

Martin is really essentially a higher-end brand - I really doubt there'll be much if anything in your price range, although the "Baby Martin" mentioned above might be cool if your intended recipient has smaller hands.

Walden, I've no idea.

Yamaha and Takamine are both solid, I'd give the edge to Yamaha, as there's very little Yamaha musical anything I've ever encountered that hasn't been well-made and durable.

The love for Seagull (and other Godin brands) in this thread echoes a lot of what I've heard many other places online and IRL.

Ibanez and Alvarez are another couple of brands generally worth checking out.

if there is a threshold where the sound difference and reliability bumps up considerably.

Almost regardless of brand, that threshold is more like $700 - $800, IMO. So if you find something great for $500, go for it.

are there preferred online vendors for guitars?

Given that acoustics are somewhat more fragile than electrics, and less simple to either tweak or repair, and given that you're trying to get the most bang for your buck, I'd go for a local store before buying an acoustic online.
posted by soundguy99 at 9:53 PM on June 10


All the advice here seems good so far: look for a solid wood top, a hard wood will sound richer (and in my opinion better) than a teak or maple guitar. At this sort of price range I'd also recommend an Asian manufacturer, though the Canadian ones mentioned so far sound interesting too. For a beginner, the biggest issue with playing acoustic guitar is developing the finger strength to hold down the strings. In order to mitigate this as much as possible, you’ll want a guitar with a low, or easy action, and a thin neck profile. However, as others have said, there isn’t a formula as such for finding a guitar that feels comfortable in your hand, so get your friend to try a few out.

Also, a word of warning: at this price point no two guitars are the same. I once went into my local guitar shop, found an acoustic that played beautifully for around $500, so I went online and bought the same make and model for around $400. The guitar I got wasn’t nearly as good as the one I’d tried, and I’ve ended up spending the difference a couple of times over to try and sort it out, and it still doesn’t play as well or sound as good. Seriously, swallow the slight increase in cost, and go try one then buy one from a bricks and mortar guitar shop. It’ll be worth it.
posted by Ned G at 6:18 AM on June 11


My wife recently gave me a Seagull for my birthday to replace my lower end Takamine. She ended up purchasing the upper end Artistic series model (it was all they had at the local music shop...which had me pleasantly surprised), I can tell you that the Seagull guitars are fantastic. The have a full bodied sound and feel solid.

But for learning from scratch, I would not rule out the Takamine. It is a workhorse and even with the Seagull, I still play it daily.
posted by Benway at 11:32 AM on June 11


I took a trip to Dusty Strings today to look at Seagulls and it was no-pressure, no-upsell, as described. Thanks for the advice, all.
posted by Blazecock Pileon at 4:40 PM on June 11 [1 favorite]


« Older The PreCor 5.31 is balanced wi...   |  My mother wants to give me her... Newer »

You are not logged in, either login or create an account to post comments