Acoustic guitars are arguably the ultimate songwriting partners of all time.
Quite literally, entire galaxies of classic and current songs began with a few tentative strums on an acoustic. The acoustic guitar can also be a beacon of cultural change—from its use by the socially active folk artists of the 1940s and beyond, to hippie troubadours in the ’60s, to the MTV Unplugged era of the ’90s, and in the hands of Billie Eilish and her brother Finneas crafting popular masterworks in his bedroom studio…..
Of course, acoustic-guitar sales skyrocketed during the global pandemic, as more and more people looked for something creative to do while sheltered at home. Small wonder, as acoustics are easy to transport, they’re chameleons that serve all musical styles, and they produce that sound—an expansive glow of sparkling tones that can bring emotion to a tender ballad or drive the fury of a punk-rock anthem.
So, let’s look for the perfect co-conspirator for your creativity.
It’s exciting to peruse online gear retailers, check out some actual music shops, and seek counsel from friends and social influencers, but before all of that, it helps to decide exactly how you plan to use your acoustic guitar. If you’re going to play for enjoyment all by yourself, or write songs on your own or with a collaborator, or perform in small cafes or busk around, you can do all of that and more with a conventional acoustic guitar. However, if your dream is to play onstage with a band, perform solo in large venues, or experiment with amplifiers and guitar effects, an acoustic-electric guitar with an onboard pickup and/or preamp system might be what you need. There are scores of excellent instruments in each category—and at prices from inexpensive to out-of-this-world, so you’ll have a ton of choices.
Identifying the Parts
The design of a traditional acoustic guitar is both complex (it’s a true art to craft an instrument that sounds good, looks smashing, and plays great) and simple (there aren’t many parts). Let’s start from the top (you can also find excellent diagrams online).
Headstock. This fine piece of wood at the tippy-top of the guitar holds the tuning machines or tuning keys, which you use to tune each string of the guitar.
Nut. At the bottom of the headstock and at the top of the neck is a piece of material (typically bone, plastic, or composite) that sets the spacing between each string and also keeps the strings at a proper height from the fretboard.
Neck. The neck holds the nut, fretboard, and frets. It’s where you put your hand, and its shape and width often determine whether it’s comfortable for you to form chords and play riffs or not.
Fretboard. Also called a fingerboard, this is where your nimble fingers depress the strings to sound notes. The frets—those thin, raised metal bars—are set into the wood of the fretboard, and can be wide or thin, or high or low. The fretboard typically includes dots or other graphics inlaid into the wood to show you where you are on the neck—third fret, fifth fret, seventh fret, and so on. These are known as fret markers. You may also see small dots placed on the side of the neck that match the fret markers, and these are called position markers.
Body. Acoustic guitar bodies can be different shapes and sizes (there’s more info on this topic coming soon), but most all bodies include a top (or soundboard), back, sides, and a soundhole. Some bodies are shaped like the number eight, and some have cutaways that make it easier for your fingers to reach the higher frets.
Saddle. At the other end of the neck from the nut, the saddle maintains the strings at a desired height and transfers the vibration of the strings to the bridge and soundboard.
Bridge. The saddle is attached to the top of the bridge, which supports the strings and provides a resonant surface atop the soundboard. On many steel-string instruments, Bridge Pins fasten the strings to the bridge.
Onboard Preamp/Pickup System. Acoustic-electric models include an integrated pickup that can be plugged into an amplifier using a conventional guitar cable, or a pickup with its own preamp system that can include volume and tone controls, an anti-feedback filter, and even an electronic tuner.
Go Big or Go Small
Comfort is key. Holding a beast across your lap while struggling to finger chords and melodies is not going to inspire creativity or fun. Fortunately, acoustic guitars come in several shapes and sizes, so there’s certain to be a model that fits your body and feels great.
The most common shape for acoustic guitars is the Dreadnought. The dreadnought’s body is deep and wide, so while it suits most players just fine, it’s not for everyone. Some examples of dreadnought-style guitars are the Gibson J-45 (used by players such as Bob Dylan, James Taylor, and Aimee Mann), Martin D-18 (Elvis Presley, Paul Simon, Kurt Cobain), and Epiphone J-160E (John Lennon, George Harrison, Elvis Costello).
You can probably guess what a Jumbo guitar shape is all about. It’s big. Perhaps the most famous example is the Gibson SJ-200, which was used by Jimmy Page, Peter Townshend, Emmylou Harris, Neil Young, and Orianthi. Auditorium and Grand Auditorium shapes are similar to a dreadnought, but with slimmer waists. Concert and Grand Concert guitars are somewhat smaller versions of the auditorium shapes.
One of the cooler shapes that has been showing up more and more lately is the Parlor. This small, very portable, and easy to manage shape was originally developed for intimate “parlor performances” in the 19th century—and was famously used by blues legend Robert Johnson—but the tiny titan has been embraced by modern players such as John Mayer, Mark Orton, and Gretchen Menn.
Mini Acoustics can mean anything small, but the term usually refers to a 3/4-size guitar. Ed Sheeran has been a long-time advocate of “baby guitars” with the diminutive Martin LX1.
Obviously, the shape and size of a guitar—as well as the woods used to construct the instrument—have a lot to do with its sound. But, for now, it’s likely more important to select a guitar that really feels wonderful in your hands. The best-sounding guitar in the universe isn’t going to be worth much if it’s too uncomfortable to play, which causes you to stash the thing under your bed and leave that marvelous tone unheard.
Choose Nylon or Steel Strings
Guitar strings contribute two “need-to-know” elements to new guitar buyers: The materials a string is made from will produce different tones, and those materials will also determine how your fingers feel after playing the guitar for a while. There are two main varieties of strings—steel and nylon.
Nylon strings are used by classical guitarists, as well as some jazz and Latin players. Country legend Willie Nelson also has nylon strings on Trigger—his famous Martin N-20 classical acoustic. Typically, nylon strings produce a sweet, mellow sound. They are also soft to the touch, which makes them a terrific “comfort choice” for those just learning to play the acoustic guitar.
That said, it’s likely that most of the rock and pop songs you dig were written and/or performed on an acoustic equipped with steel strings—which produce loud, jangly, and articulate sounds. Steel strings can also be initially harsh to the touch. The truth is that before your digits develop calluses from playing, it’s probably going to hurt a bit to drop your fingers onto steel strings. But the relative hardness or softness of the strings really shouldn’t be a significant factor in your choice of an acoustic guitar. Go for the sound you want to make.
The Wood Factor
The woods used to construct an acoustic guitar are called “tonewoods,” and for good reason—the characteristics of different planks (weight, density, rigidity, etc.) create a huge chunk of the guitar’s sound. Generally, different woods are used for the soundboard (or top) of an acoustic guitar, the back and sides, and the fretboard. You’ll see these woods detailed in the specifications for the guitars you are considering.
To many acoustic guitar makers, the choice of wood for the soundboard is the most critical factor in how a guitar sounds. The soundboard determines the overall responsiveness of the instrument, the tonal quality and strength of each note, how long notes and chords sustain, and so on. Popular tonewoods for soundboards include spruce, mahogany, walnut, koa, and cedar.
Some guitars are constructed from solid woods, and others are crafted using laminated woods. Solid wood can be quite expensive, which is why many guitar makers use laminated woods (layers of wood pressed together) for soundboards. Or they might use a solid wood for the top and laminated wood for the rest of the body.
Ultimately, you should look for a guitar that sounds pretty marvelous to you. Whether that guitar is made of spruce or maple is insignificant. The big win is that you can’t stop playing it.
Other Things to Consider
Outside of finding an acoustic guitar that inspires you with its sound—and that feels good in your hands—you may also want to ensure that it’s well built. This is a relatively simple and easy task.
Make sure that it plays in tune. You don’t want funky tuning to tarnish your epic songs. Fishman makes a number of headstock tuners—such as the FT-2 and FT-20 Digital Chromatic tuners—that will check if a guitar’s tuning is accurate and sweet. Have someone help you if you’re new to chromatic tuners, or just want another guitarist’s feedback on tuning integrity.
Avoid “string skyscrapers.” You may hear guitarists talking about a guitar’s “action.” This is basically the height of the strings above the fretboard. You don’t want the strings to be too high, because that will make it difficult—and frustrating—to play. On the other hand, if the strings are too low, you may hear “fret buzzing” or certain notes on the neck may sound muted. Look for a guitar with an action that feels comfortable when you strum chords and play melodies.
Frets are not weapons. Sometimes, frets can be improperly set into the neck and the fret ends will extend beyond the edges of the fretboard. Those edges may also be sharp—especially if the guitar maker didn’t round off the fret ends and polish them. (To be fair, if a guitar is shipped through a few different temperature zones, humidity and hot or cold air can cause the frets to misbehave. It’s not their fault.) You don’t want “ouch” to be a part of your song lyrics as your hands slide up and down the neck, so make sure the frets are as smooth as a cashmere sweater.
It’s okay to be picky. Spend time really looking over the guitar. If you find anything that seems less-than-awesome, question the salesperson (if you’re in a music store), call customer service (if you purchased the guitar from an online retailer), and/or hand the instrument to a few trusted guitar-playing friends to get their evaluations. We know a couple of guitarists who even slip a small mirror into the soundhole to see if the woodwork inside the guitar is top rate (no wood chips, rough edges, etc.). That may be going a bit too far, but the point is that you should never be reluctant to call out something that’s not to your standards or comfort level.
Although musicians have performed onstage with acoustic guitars since male troubadours and female trobairitz played for kings, queens, and commoners during the Middle Ages, the modern concert scene made amplification an essential element of the acoustic guitarist’s arsenal. But plugging an acoustic guitar into an amp or P.A. system is fraught with danger, because you want the fabulous sound quality of your acoustic to be as accurately reproduced as possible.
To this end, many guitar manufacturers install pickups and onboard preamps in some of their models that help maintain the beauty of an acoustic’s tone when amplified. Fishman is a world leader in onboard preamps, so you’ll find our systems included with many acoustic-electric models.
Sonitone. The Fishman Sonitone Onboard Preamp System features a Fishman Sonicore pickup and a soundhole-mounted preamp with rotary controls for volume and tone. Find it on the Epiphone J-45.
Presys. Small preamp system with bass, middle, treble, and brilliance controls; a built-in chromatic tuner; a feedback-fighting notch control; and a phase switch that pumps up bass response at low volumes and helps suppress feedback at high volumes. Find it on the Breedlove Discovery S Concert Edgeburst CE.
Flex. Small, ergonomic preamp with knobs. Features include volume and tone controls, a blend function, and an onboard tuner. Find it on the Cort Gold-O6 and selected Alhambra guitars.
Rare Earth (Single-Coil, Humbucking, and Mic Blend). These revoiced models of our classic soundhole pickup include neodymium magnets, active electronics, and a Volume Control or Blend Control thumbwheel. The Mic Blend option includes a microphone for blending miked and pickup tones. Find it on the Ibanez JGM10.
Fender CD-1. A Fender exclusive, the CD-1 system includes a Fishman undersaddle pickup, a preamp matched specifically to the model of guitar, and an onboard tuner. Find it on the Fender Paramount Series and other selected models.
No Acoustic Guitar Left Behind
Let’s say you purchased a traditional acoustic guitar without electronics, but now you want to join a band and you need a pickup system. No problem. Fishman makes many pickups and preamps that can be installed in any guitar. However, you will need a good service technician to install the preamps and pickups into your guitar. Be sure to double-check with the tech or retailer that the preamp you want will fit into your specific guitar model before you buy it.
If you’re concerned about the price of labor or having a tech cut into the wood to mount a preamp system, Fishman offers “temporary” pickups that require no modification to the guitar. You can simply pop on the pickup when you have a gig and remove it when you’re writing songs at home and don’t need amplification. Removable Fishman pickups include the Blackstack Passive Soundhole Pickup, Rare Earth Mic Blend Active Soundhole Pickup, Rare Earth Single Coil and Humbucking Soundhole Pickups, Neo-D Magnetic Soundhole Pickup, available in Single Coil, Humbucking and Feedback Buster models.
Go For It!
Admittedly, there are a fair amount of ingredients to consider when buying an acoustic guitar. But don’t get overwhelmed by all the data on shapes, sizes, woods, and preamp systems. As with buying an electric guitar, a ukulele, or a trombone, there are no wrong answers. No fear. No judgment. Simply look for an acoustic that feels good and makes you happy, and you’ve nailed it. Now, go out there, find the best acoustic for you, and start making some glorious music!