Buying A Cheap Guitar
Acoustic Guitar choices
Have you, or somebody you know, given up on playing guitar? Sadly, the reason may have been that you were trying to play a guitar that was basically impossible to play. As a guitar teacher I see this all the time, and you may not realize how easy it is to play a well-set up instrument. Ideally, every guitar should be set up at the guitar store, but due to internet buying and tight margins this generally doesn't happen. If you are buying online and get a great deal, it's very likely that you will need to spend some more on a good set-up for the guitar.
My current favourite budget acoustic is the Yamaha FG700 - available for about £170 in the UK, I think it's unbeatable, and the small neck size and smallish body make it very easy to play.
I really love a good acoustic guitar, and I have owned literally dozens of them. Let's have a look at some of the options:
- Acoustic nylon-string or classical guitar
- Acoustic steel-string guitar
- Electro-acoustic guitar
- 12-string guitar
- 3/4 size acoustic, travel guitars
- Archtop acoustic
- Baritone acoustic
The good news is - there has probably never been a better time to buy a guitar. The quality of acoustics at all price levels has really improved lately, and generally they are fantastic value for money.
- First, the neck size has to be right. So, if you have smallish hands, or the guitar is for a child, you should consider getting a small-bodied acoustic or travel guitar. Personally I would recommend a Taylor Baby or Taylor Big Baby, or something from the Yamaha range like the FG-130.
- If you can afford it, Taylor GS Mini is a great option, and worth buying secondhand if possible.
- The action, or height of the strings from the fretboard should be comfortable. On cheaper guitars, it often isn't - and consequently people give up. Sometimes, a light gauge set of strings can help, but it won't work miracles.
- Resale value - one day you will want to upgrade without losing a lot of money in the process. So selecting a well-respected make is essential.These would include:
- Martin, Yamaha, Collings, Santa Cruz, Taylor, Guild.
Gibson also make great acoustics.
- Solid woods - many guitars are made from cheaper laminates rather than solid woods. Solid wood components are vital for good tone, and the tone of the guitar should continue to improve over a 20-year period, as the glues dry out and the wood matures. For this reason, it's worth spending a little more on a solid wood guitar. Ayers make pretty good guitars if you are on a limited budget.
- Buying secondhand is often a good way to save money, but be careful about neck warping or other issues if the guitar has been exposed to heat - radiators and car boots can ruin an instrument. A guitar that has been played for 20 years is generally going to sound great, hence the value attached to vintage guitars.
If you can find a 20-year old Martin that has been well looked after, it's going to sound better than most new guitars.
The sound of nylon string guitars can be fantastic, but they can be very limiting in some respects. The neck tends to be wide, and steel strings are much, much better for strumming song accompaniments. If you have large, strong hands, they could suit you well.
If you want to play classical guitar/Leonard Cohen/Spanish or flamenco styles, these are ideal, but for general acoustic duties, such as Beatles songs or anything with a strumming pattern, best avoided.
These are acoustics with built-in electronics so that you can amplify the guitar through an amp or PA system. Although they are very practical, I don't like the sound of most of them, due to the piezo system that usually results in a harsh treble - heavy tone. Even some very expensive electros suffer from this, a thin and nasal tone that you won't be able to do much about, except with corrective measures like the Fishman Aura system.
If you use a good soundhole pickup there is always flexibility in changing the amplification system. Fishman systems are very good.
12-string guitars are very limiting in some respects, as there is so much more string tension with the added strings, leading to a battle to actually play the guitar. They should be used in a lowered tuning, down a tone for example, to offset this problem.
Single-string lines or lead playing are a real problem on a 12-string. On the other hand, strumming chords can sound amazing, with such a full and rich sound.
Acoustic steel-string Guitars
Acoustic steel-string guitars are very widely used, because they are generally the best - sounding and easiest to play. Different body sizes from Parlour-size to Dreadnoughts are available. Perhaps the classic maker is Martin, and their description of size is 0, 00 or 000. This has been very influential with other makers.
During the 1930s and 1940s, archtop guitars were developed. You can identify them by the arched top and f-holes. At the top end of the market, the tops are carved from solid wood, and this is reflected in the price. Worth a try, as many of these guitars are real works of art, and so easy to play. Epiphone and Gibson archtops from the 1930s were generally great guitars, and if you can find an L-7 or a Epiphone Triumph you may well never look back. The construction of these guitars has a lot in common with violin making and traditional craftsmanship.
Ibanez make an electric archtop, the Pat Metheny model. There is also a more affordable PM-35 model which is a great guitar, and works well as an acoustic too. Generally Ibanez and Eastman archtops are very good investments and are really easy to play.
Although they are small, these guitars, typified by the Taylor Baby, can sound great and they are the most practical as you can take them on planes or on holiday trips. As they have a very short scale length, tuning can be more difficult.
It's really easy nowadays to find reviews of any guitar type, so do some research. Youtube is now the first port of call for this. Acoustic Guitar magazine also produces very reliable reviews, except they are not really ever critical.
My other hub on buying a guitar might help, though this one is more directed towards acoustic guitars.