Questions and recommendations about acoustic guitars
August 16, 2007 7:23 AM   Subscribe

Questions about and recommendations for buying an acoustic guitar.

I've been learning to play guitar on a well-used Yamaha belonging to my dad for the past year now, and I think it's time to buy my own guitar. However I'm having trouble deciding what price range I want to stay in. My budget is around $600, but I'm willing to spend less or more if needed.

I'm not sure what model Yamaha it is, but in general I enjoy playing on it. Regular sized, steel strings. The neck feels a bit too wide for my smaller hands, but I haven't had any serious problems playing as is. I'm pretty sure this guitar was closer to the cheap end of the guitar price spectrum.

The biggest problem I'm having now is simply deciding what price bracket to investigate. I'm torn between buying a cheaper guitar now and then buying another better one next year, or spending the money now and playing a nicer instrument. As I'm a student, money is a bit of an issue, but this is something I've wanted for awhile now and my partner fully supports buying one (I don't tend to buy many things). If you bought a guitar, where on the price spectrum was it, and are you pleased? If you have both a cheap and expensive guitar (< $1000), do you think it's worth shelling out the money now for a nice or is my assumption wrong, and there's simply not enough of a difference within my price range, as the truly high quality are in the thousands?

As well, if you have any recommendation for an exact guitar model, feel free to suggest it. I have no idea about whether certain models are not available where I live (Ottawa, Canada) as I will obviously see and play it in person before buying, but there are quite a few guitar shops in the area so I'm not too worried.

I'm aware of the whole it's-a-personal-decision go-find-one-that-loves-you angle, no need to point it out.
posted by Meagan to Media & Arts (29 answers total) 10 users marked this as a favorite
Just got some details, the model is a FG 180 and retailed for $200 back in the 80s, so I was correct in my assumption.
posted by Meagan at 7:34 AM on August 16, 2007

Get a Seagull. I got one with case and electronics installed, for 500 bucks a few years ago. They're incredible.
posted by notsnot at 7:36 AM on August 16, 2007


Priorities here should be:

1. Sound & feel. Don't buy something sight-unseen, try it out in a store, and, if completely necessary buy that online.
2. Solid wood. It's possible, at that price point, an it makes a real difference in sound and longeitivity

Don't trust brand names. Martin, etc., will tack on a huge premium at that point.
posted by tmcw at 7:42 AM on August 16, 2007

From Quebec, La Petrie (?), Simon and Patrick make some fantastic guitars- Cedar or Spruce topped, lightly finished (i.e. no heavy laquer). Really well made- and they play like a guitar twice the price. I got mine here in N.Ireland for £260, so definately within your price range. Please, go and play one.
posted by Joe Rocket at 7:51 AM on August 16, 2007

buy used. can't stress this enough. if you have an active craigslist in your community, check it out, do some research on the ones for sale, arrange to meet some people in a neutral spot and play their guitars.

it is the best way to get a nicer guitar for a lot less money. when you buy a nice used instrument, its not like buying a used toaster oven. musical equipment, if nice and taken care of, should have a very long life. i personally play a Martin from the 1970s. it probably sounds better now than it did then. and its worth the same today as it was in the 90s when I bought it used.
posted by uaudio at 7:53 AM on August 16, 2007

1. Don't buy a guitar that's so nice you don't feel comfortable leaving it out on a stand.
2. Acoustic guitars sound different at home than they do in the store.
3. Ease of tuning and staying in tune is more important than tone (unless you're buying a guitar for studio recording).
4. Make sure you're comfortable with the action. It's difficult to alter on an acoustic.
5. Guitars from Asia are usually made according to the same specs as their American sisters. The differences are materials, and more importantly, quality control. If you're willing to try enough of them, you can get an Asian guitar that's much nicer than its pricepoint.
6. The major price shelves on acoustic guitars, IMO, are at 300 and 800. I'd probably see what's available at the 300 dollar range, where you can get a nice, playable guitar that won't upset you when you bang it up a little. Anything under 300 is a crapshoot. Upwards of 600 to 800, you'll get much better intonation and tone.
posted by Nahum Tate at 8:02 AM on August 16, 2007

I agree with uaudio. Get a decent used one. I bought a used Guild from a store whose proprietor did not think much of Guilds. Got it for $125, and I recently saw the new version of this model selling for $1800.

You are unlikely to find such a bargain, but go to a few music stores and play some used guitars, and keep an eye on craigslist and the classified ads wherever you are.

A good guitar will appreciate in value indefinitely, if taken care of.
posted by Danf at 8:04 AM on August 16, 2007

(posting response for guitar-head spouse)

Here are the points that I consider key in evaluating a good acoustic:

1) A solid top. While the sides and back are okay to be laminated, the top should be solid. A spruce top will sound slightly brighter than a top made of cedar, which will sound warmer and darker.

2) Feel of the neck. Everyone has their own preference so this is up to the buyer but a profile and feel that is comfortable is key

3) Body Size. Most everyone considers the dreadnought size to be the standard as it's the most commonly seen. That said, I'd also consider 000 and 00 sized bodies. They're a bit smaller so they're a bit more comfortable to play seated, but they're still large enough to project a powerful sound, and the body size is such that it produces a very natural sound with plenty of bass. In fact, Eric Clapton's favorite acoustic guitar is a 000-sized guitar.

4) Do you need or want on-board electronics? If so, you'll pay more (probably about $100- $150) for the same guitar with electronics. While adding them later on is possible, it's slightly more expensive so if you'll ever need or want them, it's cheaper to get them on the front end.

$500 is a good place to start budget-wise. You can get a fine guitar for that. That said, most of the better guitars in that price range are made overseas - in China most likely. Don't be put off by that - many Chinese guitars are very well built these days and especially in that price range. Names that I'd recommend (based on personal experience) in that price range are Seagull (made in Quebec), Breedlove, Blueridge, Alvarez and the Masterbilt line of the Epiphone acoustics. Honestly, I don't like any of the Martin offerings at the $500 price point - they all sound thin to me. Same goes with Taylor, although I think the only model they have around $500 is the Big Baby, and to me it feels cheap.

As with most everything, you can get more for your $$ if you buy gently used.

Like another one of the posters said, always play whatever you're going to buy. Even guitars of the same model will vary from guitar to guitar. If you've got a good guitar store (I don't find Guitar Center to be reliable enough from location to location to recommend it), I'd go there and get their thoughts. Try as many stores and brands as you can find and see what your ears tell you - they're the ultimate judge.

Lastly, I'd make sure I got a hard case and store it in there when not playing it - a good acoustic guitar is sensitive to rapid changes in temperature and humidity and the case helps minimize those.
posted by pineapple at 8:17 AM on August 16, 2007

I'm an amateur musician, but over the years I've bought or built 6 guitars, 8 trumpets, 1 piano and other miscellany.

I've discovered a few general things:

1. You get what you pay for (more or less)
2. Musical instruments are intensely personal

On the first front, I've played guitars that were in the range of pure crap, student, high-end student, and pro. I will dismiss the pure crap. Student instruments tend to have cruddy tuners, poorer quality materials, the intonation is probably off out of the gate and in general there is less attention to detail. To me, most sound just plain dead and don't feel especially good to play. High end student instruments tend to feel better, have better sound, better quality parts, etc., but probably need some attention in terms of set up. Pro instruments, I expect to have finest quality parts, a lot of attention to detail, and should be set up perfectly or close to it, out of the gate.

I bought an acoustic guitar several years ago and I used the same process I used for trumpets (I've played trumpet for 31 years -eep!). Establish your price range (you have). Go into the store with a lot of time on your hands and make sure you don't show up a half hour before closing. Let the salesperson know what you're doing and that it's going to take you a lot of time. You're going to want a practice room with a couple of guitar stands in it and a tuner and you're going to want to be left alone. Take three instruments in with you and play them all. Play the same thing on each. How does each fit in your hands? How does it sound? Does it have the brightness/darkness that you want? Do harmonics come out cleanly? How is the intonation? Pick the best of the three, return the other two and grab another two. Lather, rinse, repeat.

If you're not sure - thank the salesperson for their time and walk out. What I've found is that instruments tend to fall in love with me, if you know what I mean. When they do and I've purchased the instrument, I've never had buyer's remorse and have always been happy with the instrument. If that's not the case, I've always had buyer's remorse and grew to resent the instrument and ended up selling it later.

If you get something in the lower range, budget some money to have a luthier do a proper set up on it.

I settled for a Seagull S6, which was in my price range and felt pretty good, but it had a brightness to it that nothing in its range came close to, and I could get harmonics to really ring out of it.
posted by plinth at 8:24 AM on August 16, 2007

As a guitar teacher, been asked this question a thousand times. I find that I'm always recommending Seagulls... just because they're the best value. Play well, sound good, well built. Guitars are such a personal thing, but when pressed I always say Seagull.
posted by eightball at 8:38 AM on August 16, 2007

Get a Seagull. I got one with case and electronics installed, for 500 bucks a few years ago.

Seconded. I bought one after reading a similar AskMe thread and I've been very happy with it. Great sounding guitar and feels nice playing it. It's nice enough to not limit me and not so nice (or expensive) that it's wasted on a hack such as myself.

That said, guitars are like boots, the brand name doesn't mean squat if it doesn't fit you.
posted by bondcliff at 8:43 AM on August 16, 2007

The guitar you described sounds like a Yamaha FG series from the seventies or eighties. I've owned several other acoustics but none of them match the feel and brilliance of my Taiwanese-made FG-335.* Sure, I would love to have a Martin, Taylor, or Guild if I could afford one of their high-end models, but I've been devotedly playing for 10+ years and if anything happened to my Yamaha, I would definitely seek a replacement. Oh and they're inexpensive too (I wouldn't say "cheap" ever in reference to these acoustics). Elliott Smith played an FG-180 for most of his peforming and recording career. Good luck and let us know what you end up buying.

*Before you buy anything, definitely check out what other players have to say about it on Harmony Central's review site.
posted by inoculatedcities at 8:47 AM on August 16, 2007

When I bought my acoustic guitar, I was just learning to play. I bought an Art & Lutherie guitar, which is a Canadian brand. While it was on the cheap end (maybe $300), I've been incredibly happy with it and I think it sounds equal to expensive guitars. The wood is cheaper for companies in Canada, so the price is somewhat lower than it would be if it were an American brand.
posted by Camel of Space at 8:49 AM on August 16, 2007

Make sure the strings are very close to the fretboard. The closer they are, the easier the guitar will be to play.

There are some good suggestions here, too.
posted by wsg at 9:02 AM on August 16, 2007

Previous posters have offered excellent suggestions for how to shop, so I won't cover that ground again. Instead, I will strongly recommend Guild as an excellent guitar to shop for (particularly used). When I was upgrading from My First Guitar (an Ovation - not a great guitar, but a great call by my parents, as it absorbed the endless abuse I subjected it to in high school & college) I surveyed all the working musicians I knew, checked out what my guitar heroes played, and fooled around with various brands and models in guitar shops. I very quickly settled on Guilds as having the sound that I wanted (and most of my heroes played Guilds), I then determined the D25 was going to suit my needs, and began trolling eBay for one (this was before Craigslist made it to Boston). I ended up buying mine off of eBay - violating the Prime Directive that you need to play a guitar before you buy it, but I felt comfortable that any Guild of the right model and vintage was going to give me the sound I wanted (and it did). IMHO, Guilds provide the best quality for relatively short money - they're well built, they sound great from the low bass to the high treble with well balanced sound all along the spectrum, and you can find a quality Guild in just about any price range. (I think I bought mine for $400.) My next guitar will almost certainly be another Guild. You will find plenty of people who favor other models, but you can't find a Guild player who doesn't swear by his/her guitar!
posted by Banky_Edwards at 9:10 AM on August 16, 2007

I'll second Art & Lutherie, made in Quebec, iirc. I was given an A&L Wild Cherry cutaway several years ago by a friend and its got a great sound and feel. In Canada, they can be had quite inexpensively.

My model has the older electronics, so battery changes are a bit of a hassle, but I just change the battery whenever I change strings, and I've never had a problem with a battery dying on stage or anything.

I also own an old 60's era Yamaha and an old Strat, but the A&L gets the most play, by far.
posted by jjb at 9:16 AM on August 16, 2007

I haven't played one personally, but I think Zager guitars are intriguing. Could be a lot of hype, but they seem like they might be a bargain.
posted by SampleSize at 9:33 AM on August 16, 2007

It has already been said a few times but I will chime in for Seagull. A roommate of mine had one and it is still the best sounding acoustic, to my ears, that I've ever played.. I've been looking for just the right one myself ever since.
posted by mbatch at 9:44 AM on August 16, 2007

In your price range, I would check out models from both Seagull and Simon & Patrick. I personally prefer Simon & Patrick (very clean sound and good playability), but your tastes may differ.
posted by dbolll at 9:54 AM on August 16, 2007

I've been playing guitar for about 20 years and I love my Seagull S6. Mine is very old, and I understand that they have changed the bracing design, but I still recommend it. Of course, every now and then I get to play an old '50s Martin 000-18, and I am reminded that the Seagull is not perfect, but it's about as good as it gets for under $1000.
posted by The World Famous at 11:16 AM on August 16, 2007

I have a Seagull. I got it without electronics--much cheaper starting cost--and then bought a sound-hole pickup for < $40, and it sounds better through the systems than my friend's acoustic/electric>
Solid-top cedar. It's great.
posted by rhoticity at 11:34 AM on August 16, 2007

You can probably get a Taylor 214 (no electronics) for $600-700. I love it. Much easier to play than most of the other acoustics I tried at the time, and it sounds heavenly.
posted by ludwig_van at 11:51 AM on August 16, 2007

I also really enjoyed my Seagull S6, and second the recommendation to try Simon and Patrick as well.

I now play one of the lower end Martins and while in one sense it was worth the extra money, I do feel a bit like a phoney with it, which is another factor to consider when you're deciding how much money to spend - you don't want to be intimidated by your instrument or end up feeling like you have to prove something.
posted by teleskiving at 11:53 AM on August 16, 2007

I have a Martin D-28 - specifically, an HD-28V. I have trouble imagining that a guitar could be much nicer sounding or more pleasant to play.

If you're already in the $600 range, you might want to just go ahead and ratchet yourself up to $1K and find yourself a used Martin or Taylor that in theory could be the last guitar you ever need to buy. You've been playing for a year already so it's not likely to just sit there gathering dust.

If you want to buy a brand new guitar, I would echo the chorus and recommend a Seagull, making you the third person I've recommended this to this month. Folks I've known who've bought a Seagull are universally delighted with it. But probably not as delighted as I am with my Martin.
posted by ikkyu2 at 11:57 AM on August 16, 2007

Go to Steve's (on Rideau St.,) and check out the Tanglewood guitars. The TW-15 in particular plays like a Taylor costing twice the price.
posted by deshead at 12:53 PM on August 16, 2007

Do you have a friend that is an experienced guitar player? Take them shopping with you. They will be able to notice things that you might not if you've only been playing for a year, but that will be important as you grow as a player (how is the action higher up on the neck, does it fret out anywhere, etc)

Also, you can have them play it and listen to how the guitar sounds (different than when your playing it)
posted by jpdoane at 1:37 PM on August 16, 2007

Well I made a decision and bought my first guitar!

I went in (Steve's, naturally) and tried a few different makes of a few highly recommended brands: Seagull, Guild, a few others. But then I tried the Art & Lutherie models (of which there seemed to be a substantial portion, 25-30 on the floor, which makes sense), and oh my god did I fall in love. It took playing a few, but a beautiful red spruce topped model fit like nothing else. It sounds beautiful, looks absolutely spectacular, and is only slightly smaller than the Yamaha and thus fits wonderfully. In fact, my barres are more crisp with less effort.

Best of all was the price, I was able to pick up extra goodies with the money I didn't spend on the guitar, as I didn't get the plugin. I reasoned that I'm not sure if I'll want to play acoustic or electric a few years down, but I know I'll be playing acoustic until then, and most likely not in any concert situation.

I'm in love. I know it's the best choice for me. It's a wonderful feeling! I just can't wait to play it all the time. Thanks for everyone's comments, I enjoyed demoing all the guitars and finding out what I liked or didn't in each. For sure, there will be more guitars in my future!
posted by Meagan at 3:41 PM on August 16, 2007

Oh, if anyone's seen the availability of Art & Lutherie models, or knows the prices in the states, give a shout. I'm wondering if they're rare or expensive in the US.
posted by Meagan at 3:43 PM on August 16, 2007

Art & Lutherie is a closely related brand to Seagull as they are both the brainchild of Robert Godin, and they are very nice (and very Canadian, which is a bonus). The ones I have played have had a little more open feel than Seagulls and have been very playable. Great choice.
posted by The World Famous at 6:03 PM on August 16, 2007

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