Use the following checklist when buying a new or secondhand acoustic guitar.
- Is the neck straight?
- Does the neck have signs of warping or twisting?
- Is the bridge lifting from the body?
- Are there any cracks in the body, especially the soundboard?
- Do any of the frets look particularly worn compared to others?
- Is there any sign of damage to the headstock or neck? e.g. evidence of a repair
- Is the action at a comfortable height?
- Are the tuners smooth to operate?
Acoustic Guitar Buying Guide
There’s a lot to consider when buying an acoustic guitar, even more so if this is your first guitar.
- Should you buy a nylon or steel string?
- How much should you spend?
- Should you buy new or second-hand?
- Should you play the guitar first?
- Where should you buy from?
- What body style should you choose?
- Which brands can you trust?
- What potential problems should you be on the lookout for?
- What’s going to best match your voice if a singer/songwriter?
If you are wondering what to look for in an acoustic guitar, the following guide is for you. We’ll answer the questions listed above, along with providing some additional information you should be on the lookout for to ensure you get yourself a good deal.
Should you buy nylon or steel string?
When first learning, many beginners will start on a nylon string guitar before moving on to a steel-string guitar.
This makes sense as nylon is easier on the fingers (steel strings can be uncomfortable if playing for long periods when first starting out). This is especially the case for kids.
But, you may want to consider the style of music you are going to play first.
Nylon string guitars, while perfectly fine to learn any style of music on, are mostly associated with classical and flamenco music or a hybrid of both.
If you prefer the sound of a steel string and are prepared to put up with a small amount of discomfort, I’d recommend starting on a steel-string guitar. If you are buying for a child, the softer nylon strings can be an advantage.
Other types of acoustic guitars
There are other types of acoustic guitars, including archtops (predominantly used for jazz) and resonators, which are mostly associated with delta blues and slide, along with more obscure options including baritone and 7 and 8 string models.
In most cases, you are best off with either a nylon or flat-top steel-string acoustic, at least initially. The same goes for 12 string guitars. These are best investigated when you have some playing time under your belt and an idea of the direction you want to take your music. For one, tuning will be more difficult and the strings are more expensive.
How much should you spend on your first acoustic guitar?
As much as you can afford up to $500 — $600
A lot of people will tell you to spend very little on your first guitar. And, you can see their point. After all, if this is your first guitar you have no way of knowing if it’s something you are going to persevere with.
Add, to this fact, there are plenty of inexpensive guitars flooding the market thanks to mass production coming out of Asia thanks to CNC technology.
Mass-produced instruments represent somewhat of a double-edged sword. While there are now plenty of cheap guitars on the market that aren’t worth your hard-earned dollar, thanks to modern manufacturing there is also a large number of well-made acoustic guitars at a more affordable price range.
You get what you pay for
All things considered, I recommend spending as much as you can up to approximately $500 — $600. A cheap guitar will slow your progress and be difficult to play due to problems that plague mass-produced, inexpensive guitars which lack the quality control of their more expensive counterparts.
Things like jagged fret ends, tone destroying thick laminate tops, and inexpensive hardware e.g. cheap tuners that don’t keep your guitar in tune. This kind of thing can result in a once enthusiastic new guitarist becoming discouraged and eventually giving up.
Spending more than a minimal amount will also help you remain committed, due to your investment. The guitar will also have a lot more potential to inspire you to play.
If you really want to give the acoustic guitar a chance, bypass the cheaper options. If buying new there are many decent instruments in this price range, from brands including Yamaha, Washburn, Epiphone, and Tanglewood to name just a few.
Should you buy second-hand or brand-new?
New, unless you have someone with experience that can assist you.
If you know what you are doing, I’d recommend looking into the second-hand market. Over the years I have seen some great deals online on eBay and Reverb. In fact, at one point I used to buy second-hand guitars, give them a setup, new strings, clean them up and resell them. But if you don’t have a lot of experience with guitars or don’t have someone with experience that can come with you, it’s safer to go with a new guitar.
A new guitar will generally come with a warranty, and after-sales support from the retailer you purchased from.
Avoid Acoustic/Electric Guitars when first starting out
If sticking to our recommended price range and you prefer to buy new, I’d recommend against buying an electric/acoustic guitar.
You will pay an additional sum for the electronics which is of no benefit to you if you don’t have an amplifier. If you need an amplifier, that’s another cost that will prevent you from spending as much as you can on the guitar itself.
In the majority of cases (in the sub $600 price range) the pickup will not be inspiring e.g. most of the time it will be an under-saddle pickup that sounds thin and highlights every error you make including excessive string noise (the sound of your hands sliding around on the fretboard).
What body style should you consider?
Dreadnought, unless you have a specific style of music in mind.
What style of music are you most interested in playing? Blues, Rock, Country, Folk?
You may have noticed acoustic guitars come in a variety of shapes and sizes. From the larger jumbo and dreadnought to the smaller concert and parlor guitar.
Some guitars also have cutaways (a section removed from the upper boat near where the neck joins the body).
So what body shape should you be considering and what difference does it really make?
I’ve written an article on acoustic guitar body styles and sizes here, but for the most part the larger the guitar body the more volume and bass response it’s capable of.
If considering a smaller body, the tone will be more focused but the guitar will lack volume, which, might be something you want to consider.
You should also consider the style of music you want to play e.g. if you intend to play fingerstyle guitar, a smaller body guitar will be more comfortable to play and will respond better to the lighter touch of the fingers as opposed to a pick.
If you are unsure and prefer to play it safe choose a dreadnought. These are the most common due to their versatility.
Where to buy?
A local music store or large chain musical retailer
I’d recommend developing a relationship with a local music store, as it will be useful in the future when you want advice (e.g. who is a good local guitar teacher?) or recommendations on your next guitar.
Even more importantly you will be able to get a feel for the guitar before you take it home.
Even if you have barely played guitar in any capacity some guitars will feel more comfortable. You will be best served to try a few guitars in your price range to see what sounds and feels the best in your hands.
Where to get the best deal
If you prefer to shop around, you can always test the guitar in your local music store and then go looking for the best deal you can find online.
In many cases, the larger retailer e.g. Guitar Center, Musicians Friend will be able to offer the best price due to their bulk buying power. The disadvantage here is the staff may not be as informed and may have broader, rather than specialized knowledge.
You are far better doing your research online and shortlisting the guitars you may be interested in. Don’t let the staff convince you to spend more or buy unwanted accessories. For the most part except for a few picks and a guitar strap spend your entire budget on the guitar itself.
Acoustic guitar brands — Who to trust?
Yamaha but it depends on your budget.
In the $400 — $600 range, you will find some respectable brands e.g. Washburn, Tanglewood, Epiphone but it’s difficult to go past Yamaha.
Yamaha acoustic guitars
After owning one myself and purchasing guitars for my kids and recommending for others, I’ve found Yamaha to be a brand that consistently provides value, punching well above their weight.
For kids, the Yamaha FG Junior range is going to be very hard to beat for the price and even make great travel guitars for adults.
The Yamaha FG JR2 is a half-size guitar with a solid spruce top and mahogany sides and rosewood fretboard. My son owns one and it’s just a great-sounding kids guitar, highly recommended.
Martin Acoustic Guitars
Martin is, arguably the most iconic name in the acoustic guitar world, and with good reason. They have been around since 1833 and established guitarists such as John Mayer, Eric Clapton and even current stars such as Ed Sheeran choose Martin acoustic guitars.
For the most part, Martin is a premium guitar brand, meaning they are well beyond the price range of most beginners. However, Martin offers a less expensive line of small body guitars including the LX1E (the guitar used by Ed Sheeran) that have been well-received.
The LX1E features a solid Sitka spruce top and Mahogany high-pressure laminate (HPL) sides, satin finish, and padded bag. The Martin LX1E offers great value but being a shorter scale length you will want to play one before buying.
Taylor Acoustic Guitars
Taylor is another of those iconic acoustic guitar brands that would normally be out of the price range of most beginners. But the Taylor GS mini, is a superb-sounding guitar offering extremely good value for money.
Featuring a solid Spruce or Mahogany top, layered Sapele body and neck, combined with Ebony fretboard the Taylor GS mini comes highly recommended. As per the Martin LX1e, this is a shorter scale length guitar than standard, which depending on preference may be more comfortable to play for some.
The Taylor big baby is another affordable guitar, that sounds and plays great.
While you can’t go wrong with Yamaha, Martin, or Taylor, for the most part, base your decision on how comfortable the guitar is to play and how it sounds. Guitars are mostly organic products, even two identical guitars of the same brand can sound slightly different.
Use your ears and don’t get too caught up on brands for your first guitar. But if you are really unsure, I’ve listed some brands you can trust in terms of quality:
What to look out for in a second-hand acoustic guitar
If you do happen to know a thing or two about guitars or have someone assisting you, as mentioned, buying second-hand can be a good option and allow you to get more bang for your buck.
But, the risk is higher of buying a guitar with problems. The list below are some common issues to look out for if buying second-hand, and more than a couple of these apply to new guitars as well.
Is the neck Straight?
This is especially important if buying a classical guitar as many classical guitars do not have adjustable truss rods. If the neck is out of shape, it is going to stay that way.
A common method to test neck straightness is to play a note at the first fret and while holding the note also fret a much higher note e.g. at the 18th (or higher) fret. The string you are fretting will serve as a guide or straight edge and can be sighted along to test the straightness of the neck. The neck should have slight relief meaning the string is not touching any of the frets toward the middle of the neck.
Does the neck have signs of warping or twisting?
Hold the guitar out directly in front of you and look for any signs of warping or twisting of the neck.
The neck should have some relief e.g. bow inward slightly, but any signs of warping or twisting will indicate problems.
Is the bridge lifting from the body?
The integrity of the bridge of the guitar is important, allowing the transfer of energy from the strings to the soundboard. If you notice the bridge lifting or not sitting perfectly against the top of the guitar it’s going get worse over time.
Avoid Adjustable Bridges or bridges that have been screwed in place
Some cheaper acoustic guitars feature an adjustable bridge. An adjustable bridge allows the saddle height to be raised or lowered. Metal, of any sort on a guitar, can reduce its ability to resonate to its full potential. Never sacrifice tone for expedience.
Avoid laminate tops
A lot of cheap acoustic guitars feature thick laminate tops. While there are some advantages to laminate e.g. they handle humidity well and can also look amazing (only the very thin top layer of the laminate needs to have a nice grain pattern). In a lot of cases, they sound boxy and won’t resonate as well as solid timber.
Is the top of the guitar level, are there any cracks?
Acoustic guitars, if well made should last for a lifetime. However, tension from the strings can sometimes cause the top of the guitar to show a bulge, usually closer to the bridge.
New guitars should not have this. Some second-hand guitars may have a slight belly as they age (as do most people 🙂 But, provided it’s not excessive it’s usually not something to be concerned about.
Be on the lookout for other danger signs e.g separation between the body and sides. You can also tap your fingers around the crack and listen for vibrations from loose bracing.
Are the fretboard wires consistent?
Check the frets. Fret wires can wear over time and become uneven, making the guitar more prone to fret buzz and likely needing repair.
Is there any damage to the headstock?
If you notice any evidence of a crack to the headstock, in almost all cases, walk away. Even if repaired by a professional, the headstock will be vulnerable.
Check the tuners
Are the tuners smooth to operate or feel like they are slipping or under too much tension? If there is an issue here it may affect tuning stability.
Some Useful Tips for Buying Acoustic Guitars
Below is a list of useful tips that I’d consider when buying a new acoustic guitar. Some of these may be obvious, some less so.
- Take a friend and have them play the guitar while you listen. It’s amazing what you can hear when not focusing on playing.
- Read reviews.
- Avoid acoustic/electric guitars unless you can spend around the $500 — $600 mark and already own an amp.
- Pick a price range and stick to it. Too many people come out of music stores spending way more than they thought they were going to. Do your research, know what’s out there.
- Play as many guitars as you can and get a feel for what you like. Make a mental note of the neck profile, scale length, and woods the guitar is made from.
- Invest all of your budget into the guitar and not accessories. You don’t need a pickup when learning to play guitar and you don’t need a slide, capo (not right away), or decorative leather guitar strap. Put your entire budget into the guitar. You’ll be glad you did.
- Don’t get too hung up on brand names. But don’t buy an unknown, untested brand either.
- Ask for the store’s best price. Some guitars are marked up by as much as 50% and guitar stores need to turn over stock regularly. Give it a shot, without being annoying, you may be very surprised at the price you can buy the guitar for.
Keep in mind, you will get what you pay for, and the incremental differences between a $150.00 guitar and a $400.00 guitar are often way more than you might expect. Skip the bargain bin, you’ll be glad you did, but above all else look for an acoustic guitar that inspires you to keep improving, at the end of the day it really doesn’t need to get more complicated than that.