What To Look For In An Acoustic Guitar

🔑  Key Points:

  • 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 for beginners — buying guide

There’s a lot to consider when buying an acoustic guitar, even more so if this is your first guitar.

For example:

  • Should you buy a nylon or steel string?
  • How much should you spend?
  • Should you buy new or second hand?
  • 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?

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.

First, let’s discuss what type of acoustic guitar you should buy.

Should you buy nylon or steel string?

It depends. 

Classical or steel string guitarWhen 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 gentler on the fingertips (steel strings can be uncomfortable if playing for long periods when first starting out) and allows you to focus on learning the instrument without hindrance. This is especially the case for kids as their fingers are even more tender.

But, you may want to consider the style of music you are going to play first before making a decision. 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.

Steel string guitars are louder and more versatile, suiting a wider range of styles including rock, country, folk and bluegrass to name just a few.

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 out on a steel string guitar. If you are buying for a child, the softer nylon strings can be an advantage.

 What size guitar should you buy for kids? I’ve written a complete guide here, taking into account age and hand span. Be sure to check out it out as I’m confident it will help you make a more informed decision. 

Other types of acoustic guitars

There are other types of acoustic guitars, including arch tops (predominantly used for jazz) and resonators, which are mostly associated with delta blues and slide playing, along with more obscure options including baritone and 7 and 8 string models.

Unless you particularly want to focus on either of these styles, you are best sticking with either a nylon or flat top steel string acoustic, 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 themselves 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 you are new to the acoustic guitar you really 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 processes there is also a large number of well-made acoustic guitars in this more affordable price range.

Why people give up guitar

The fact is, a lot of people who start learning guitar just as quickly give up. There’s a bunch of reasons for this e.g. the person doesn’t have enough time, it’s harder than they expected etc. but in my experience most people give up because they aren’t sufficiently committed or feel they are not making progress.

While a lot of the reason for this comes back to having unrealistic expectations in the first place or not having enough time some of the blame can be leveled at the guitar the person is using.

A good worker shouldn’t need to blame their tools….maybe

While it’s true that a new guitarist doesn’t need to go out and buy a top line acoustic guitar. Experienced guitarists will agree that when it comes to tone and playability, not all guitars are created equal.

Some people get the wrong idea about this e.g. they might see one of their favorite guitarists playing a complete lemon and still manage to make it sound good.

The video below of Zakk Wylde playing a ‘hello kitty’ guitar is a good example.

But, consider for a second, that’s Zakk Wylde, he was Ozzy Osbourne’s guitarist and could make anything sound good. I doubt he would have managed to get much out of a cheap guitar like that when he was first learning…and who knows, maybe if he tried he may never have mastered the guitar and gone on to become an accountant…perhaps not, but you get the point.

The fact is, some guitars are simply a joy to play while others are far more difficult to extract a decent sound from. If anything, the more playable guitar is going to benefit a beginner more than an experienced guitarist who is more capable of making any guitar sound good.

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, uneven necks, 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.

The other reason many people stop playing is their level of commitment. The guitar is a challenging instrument. It’s a rewarding instrument to learn for sure, but learning guitar will test most people’s patience.

I’m teaching my son guitar at the moment, and I am always telling him, be thankful there is a barrier to entry, if it was easy anyone could and would be doing it and nobody would put any value on being able to play.

Spending more than a minimal amount will 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 a number of 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 what second-hand options are available. 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, a thorough clean and resell them, sometimes for double what I originally paid. But I’ve been around guitars for thirty + years and being left-handed, buying online is sometimes a necessity as music stores don’t typically carry a huge range of left-handed instruments.

If you don’t have a lot of experience with guitars, or don’t have someone who can come with you and provide a second opinion, 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 e.g. and you can always go back to the store if there is a problem or need some advice.

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 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 sound terribly inspiring e.g. most of the time it will be an undersaddle pickup that sounds thin, abrasive and highlights every error you make including excessive string noise (the sound of your hands sliding around on the fretboard).

Dreadnought acoustic guitar

What body style should you consider?

Dreadnought, unless you have a specific style of music in mind.

What style of music are you mostly interested in playing? Blues, Rock, Country, Folk etc.

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 even parlor acoustic guitars. 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 is capable of. If considering a smaller body, the tone will be more focused but the guitar will lack volume and bass response, which, if just starting out 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 (not something I’d recommend starting with), 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.

But the majority of new guitarists won’t know this just yet and instead need to focus on learning basic chords and scales before taking their guitar playing in a new direction.

If you are unsure and prefer to find something more versatile choose a Dreadnought. These are the most common size and shape of acoustic guitar purchased due to the versatility they offer.

Where to buy?

Guitar CenterLocal music store or large chain musical retailer

As mentioned previously, I have purchased a lot of second hand guitars online but I would recommend against this if you are new to the guitar. In almost all cases, 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 at home from a comfort perspective. Different guitars use different scale lengths, neck profiles and widths, body styles and are built from different tonewoods. If inexperienced you don’t know what you don’t know and will be best served trying 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 with regard to specific acoustic guitars and may have a 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 with the exception of a few picks and a guitar strap spend your entire budget on the guitar itself.

Acoustic guitar brands — Who to trust?

Yamaha FG Junior

Yamaha but it depends on your budget.

In the $250 — $600 range you will find some respectable brands e.g. Washburn, Tanglewood, Epiphone but it is difficult to go past Yamaha.

Yamaha acoustic guitars

I’m not endorsed by Yamaha and offer this opinion completely unbiased but after owning one myself and purchasing guitars for my kids and recommending guitars for others, I have found Yamaha to be a brand that can be trusted to provide good value for money. From a tone and playability perspective, Yamaha punch well above their weight.

For kids, the Yamaha FG Junior range are 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 (this doesn’t mean they are half the size of a standard acoustic) with 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 are, arguably the most iconic name in the acoustic guitar world, and with good reason. They have been around since 1833 and many 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, offer a less expensive line of small body guitars including the LX1E (the guitar used by Ed Sheeran) that have been well-received by the public.

The LX1E features a solid Sitka spruce top and Mahogany high pressure laminate (HPL) sides, satin finish and padded bag. Coming in at under $500, 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, coming in at just under $500 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, coming in at under $500 that sounds and plays great.

Other Brands

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 good it sounds. Guitars are mostly organic products, even two identical guitars of the same brand can sound slightly different.

Use your ears and hands to decide and don’t get too caught up on brands for your first guitar. Over time, you may come to appreciate specific brands and the tonal nuances that come with them but it can take some time to develop your musical tastes.

If you are really unsure, I’ve listed some brands you may want to keep an eye out for:

  • Yamaha
  • Martin
  • Taylor
  • Epiphone
  • Tanglewood
  • Gretsch
  • Breedlove
  • Seagull

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 nylon or 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 and should be avoided. 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 a slight relief meaning the string is not touching any of the frets toward the middle of the neck, but the space between the string and fret should only be minimal.
  • Does the neck have signs of warping or twisting?
    Hold the guitar out directly in front of you and look for any warping or twisting of the neck. The neck should have some relief e.g. bow inward slightly, which is normal but any signs of warping or twisting will indicate problems.
  • Is the bridge lifting from the body?
    The bridge of the guitar is a very important component, allowing the transfer of energy from the strings to the soundboard of the guitar. As a result, the integrity of the bridge is very important. If you notice the bridge lifting or not sitting perfectly against the top of the guitar it will only get worse over time (requiring repair) and will already be affecting the tone of the guitar.
  • 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 and requires the use of metal adjustment pins. Metal of any sort on a guitar can affect the tone of the guitar negatively, reducing 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).They tend to sound boxy and won’t resonate as well as solid timber. This isn’t always the case when looking at more expensive options e.g. Taylor and Martin both include laminate top guitars within their range that utilize a proprietary bracing system and sound amazing. But, on the cheaper end you are best advised to avoid laminate tops.
  • Does the guitar have a truss rod?
    If unaware, a truss rod is an adjustable metal tensioning bar located inside the neck. It is used to make adjustments to increase or decrease neck relief and to maintain the integrity of the neck under tension by the strings. A good deal of nylon string guitars do not require a truss rod due to the lower amounts of tension placed on the neck from nylon strings as opposed to steel. If the guitar has steel strings it requires a truss rod.
  • 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 have a small 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). Provided it is not excessive it’s often not something to be worried about. Also, be on the lookout for other signs of structural damage e.g cracks in the body or separation between the body and sides. Small dents are fine but anything more should be inspected. You can tap your fingers around the crack and listen for vibrations from loose bracing that will affect the structural integrity of the guitar.
  • Are the fretboard wires consistent?
    If buying a second hand, I’d recommend inspecting 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 I notice any evidence of a crack to the headstock, I’ll almost immediately walk away. Even if repaired by a professional, the headstock will be vulnerable and is best avoided.
  • Check the action
    In most cases an excessively high or low action won’t be a showstopper as both can be adjusted for. But if you aren’t happy with the action ask the salesperson if they can fix this as part of the initial price. String action is not something you should have to worry about when first starting and would rather focus on learning how to play.
  • 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 and are best avoided. If unsure, raise the matter with the salesperson and ask them if they consider the tuners reliable.

Some Useful Tips for Buying Acoustic Guitars

Lastly, below is a list of useful tips that I would consider when buying a new acoustic guitar. Some of these may be obvious, some less so, unless experienced.

  • 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. Enough said.
  • Avoid acoustic/electric guitars unless you can spend around the $500 — $600 mark and already own an amplifier.
  • Pick a price range and keep within it. Far too many people come out of music stores spending way more than they expected. Do your research, know what’s out there and have a set budget based on your research.
  • Play a bunch of guitars and get a feel for what you like. Make a note of the neck profile, scale length and tonewoods the guitar is made from.
  • Invest all of your budget into the guitar and not accessories. You don’t need a pickup (thus requiring an amp) when learning how to play guitar and you don’t need a slide, capo (not right away) or an expensive 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. When I purchased my Tanglewood Dreadnought, many years ago now I was planning on buying a new Takamine. The Tanglewood, was a far better sounding instrument, played well, and was half the price of the Takamine.
  • Ask for the stores best price. Some guitars are marked up by as much as 50% and guitar stores need to turn over stock regularly. Try to haggle, you may be very surprised at the price you can buy the guitar for.

How to choose a guitar for beginners — Summary

I hope the information above is useful for those looking to buy a new or second-hand acoustic guitar, whether you are a beginner or have some experience. Keep in mind, you will get what you pay for, and the incremental differences between a $150.00 guitar and a $300.00 guitar are often far more than you might expect.

Above all else, choose a guitar that feels comfortable in your hands and sounds good to you. At the end of the day, you should be looking for an acoustic guitar that inspires you to keep improving and feels comfortable to play.

Got a question or want to share an experience when buying guitars yourself? Why not leave a comment below and join the discussion.

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