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Buying a guitar: Acoustic Varieties

Prepared by Alan Humm

Classical guitars

We will start with classical guitars, not because most of my readers (in this case, you) will be looking for that, but because it holds historical pride of place. These are sometimes called 'nylon string' guitars, mostly because they have nylon strings, and the other types do not. Aficionados of classical guitar playing will object to the name, reserving it for lower value instruments, which may be classical in styling, but not quality.

Classical Guitar
Kremona Solea Classical Guitar.

Classical guitar is a style of playing as much as it is a type of guitar. It is usually used for classical playing (reading music and so forth, rather than chording and improvisation). That is 'usually,' though. Other players are sometimes drawn to its unique sound for specific musical applications.

The neck is wider, the scale is always long, and the fingerboard is flat (most modern steel-strings and electrics are curved across the width of the fingerboard). Also the nylon strings are easier on the fingers than a steel-string guitar. If you are interested in classical style playing, this is the instrument you want. If you are just looking for something that is easier on your fingers, I suggest that is the wrong reason. Learn on the steel-string and you will always be able to play a nylon string guitar. The other direction is much more difficult.


flamenco Guitar
Peter Tsiorba Flamenco Guitar.

A related category is the flamenco guitar which is braced slightly differently, is a little brighter, and has closer action, which means it can have some fret buzz. There are also traditional differences in the woods chosen (cedar top, cypress back and sides), but these are not written in stone. Some use pegs for tuning, rather than tuning keys. If you specifically want a flamenco guitar, you will probably have to special order it. The call, in the US, for nylon string guitars is generally low enough that dealers generally only have the classical variety in stock.

Other than that, the things you look for, and the questions you might ask are generally the same as for other acoustic guitars.

Steel-string guitars

What I said above about action is particularly important on a steel-string guitar. If you are an experienced player, you already know this, and you are ready for it. If not, your fingers have some sore days ahead, but it will be worth it. Nevertheless try to pick a guitar that will minimize your suffering as much as possible. As I alluded to earlier, there are a couple of standard neck lengths (scales) and some variation in width. These are a matter of comfort, to some extent. Longer scaled guitars have a little more life, but only a very little. Shorter scales are easier for some people to play. You just need to be aware of which ones are which (the sales person should be able to tell you), try both and see which you like. Do the same with neck width. Taylor guitars, for example, are slightly wider. Variations exist at the less expensive end as well. If your fingers are big, you will probably find the wider neck, and maybe the longer scale, more comfortable. Don't forget to check the other things I mentioned, like intonation, and quality of woods.

Dreadnought Guitar
Martin Dreadnought Guitar.

There are a variety of body styles. The main staple is the dreadnaught style which has a somewhat squarer shape. This was made famous by Martin, who developed the standard X bracing we saw on the last page. The style has been widely copied, and is by far the most popular single style on the market today.


Jumbo Guitar
Alvarez Jumbo Guitar.

The jumbo has more of a Barbie® shape: big hips, narrow waste. Presumably, it is louder, deriving from the larger lower bout (the part of the body where the bridge is located). However, not everyone agrees that it sounds quite as good as the dreadnaught. And they usually cost more.

Small-body Guitar
Seagull "Grand Acoustic" parlor size guitar.

Parlor size (small body) guitars are just what they say. That makes them lighter and, for some people, more comfortable. Presumably they are not as loud, but I have not noticed huge differences. If you are a smaller person, you will probably be more comfortable with one of these.


Dreadnaught cutaway
Washburn Dreadnaught Cutaway Model.

Finally any of these types (not necessarily these models) are probably available with cut-aways. Very little sound on acoustic guitars comes from the upper bout (the part above the hole). So cutting away some of that is unlikely to have much affect on the tone. That doesn't keep some people from claiming that they can hear the difference. They do generally cost more, and because your thumb can't get behind the fingerboard up there, it will only slightly improve your ability to play above the body joint.

1 Ironically, they are preferred by jazz players, who are arguably the most impoverished musicians out there.
archtop Guitar
The Loar Archtop cutaway guitar.
archtop bracing
Top by the late Jimmy Foster.

This last one is in a different category, not least because it is becoming something of a rare bird. F-hole guitars are not so uncommon in the electric guitar world, but when they are designed to be played acoustically they are manufactured in fewer numbers, which in turn affects their price. When these are done correctly, they are among the most expensive guitars out there.1 Nevertheless, you will see big names in pop playing these things. One distinguishing feature is that the top wood does not need to hold the bridge (which just sits on the top). This allows the top to vibrate more freely. The wood quality issue is the same as with other acoustics, bug there are a handful of factors. These are actually called archtop guitars because, well, the top is arched. In truly high quality instruments, they are, like their obvious cousins in the viol family, carved out of a significantly sized chunk of wood. Not only is the wood expensive, but that carving has to be done just right, and only some of it can be done by machine (even then, the process is not cheap). Sometimes the bracing bars are also carved in, but they can also be glued. It is much cheaper just to take a standard top, soak it, and press it into the proper shape, then you glue on braces to keep it that way. This strains the wood, but it can still sound nice. Cheaper still, you use plywood, or junk wood (not spruce, not quarter sawn, etc.) just as with its center-hole siblings. Of course, as we get cheaper, we may actually begin to be able to afford these things. The other thing you want to look for is how the pickup is mounted (if there is one). Technically, it should be floating above the body, rather than cut into it, although if there is only one up by the neck, as in the picture, that is not so important (not much sound comes from there, you may remember). But many models cut in a second pickup down by the bridge. That does affect the sound, although if your primary use for it is as an electric, it will give you more sound options when you are plugged in. You decide what is important.

This covers the majority of steel-string types, but I assure the list goes on as long as you want it to.

Finally, keep in mind that well over half the steel-strings on the market now come with built in electronics. Ironically, but randomly, of the guitars pictured above, only the last two do. This does not quite turn them into electric guitars (many of the acoustic properties are still present) but it does add some convenience. You should be aware that in most cases plugging in your guitar will make it possible to get real loud, but the sweet tone quality you paid all that money for will be lost. If this is all you ever plan to do with it, opt for medium quality wood, and look for the higher quality electronics.

Resonator guitars

2 If you happen to have one of these lying around, and you just want to get out of the attic where it is just collecting dust, feel free to send it my way ☺.
resonator guitar
Gretch Round-neck Resonator Guitar.

Resonator guitars are kind of a niche market. Originally designed to be able to compete volume-wise with big band instruments, they managed survive the invention of the electric guitar (which addressed that issue more effectively) because of thier unique tonality. Although they can be played as regular guitars, they have become quite popular with blues slide players. They definitely do not all sound the same. If this interests you, you should visit Resonatin' - a little sound demo and hear the difference between several types. Personally, I prefer the original National three-cone sound.2 You are free to disagree.

Much of what I have said about comparing guitars applies here, although you can safely ignore everything I said about construction materials. Resonator bodies are (or have been) made variously out of metal, wood, and even fiber-glass. I suspect that this affects the tone, but what is 'better' is clearly a matter of taste. Most of the tone, however, comes from the metal plates (resonators). The earliest models (National from the 1930s) had three of these, later ones had only one. Wikipedia has a nice discussion of history if you are interested.


square-neck resonator guitar
Guild Square-neck Resonator Guitar.

There are a couple of important variations that you need to be aware of. Necks can be either rounded in back, like most guitars you have seen, or square. The rounded version obviously makes it easier to play as a normal guitar, but, if all you do is play lap style, you probably don't care. The square neck adds some strength and its challenge to standard playability is not important to lap players, who play with the strings far enough off the neck (with a slide) that fingering is not an option. They are still made both ways, of course. Make sure you know what you are ordering.

With the round neck fingerable variety, partly because they are often used for slide, the fingerboard might be flat, or they might have the slight curve generally found on steel-string guitars. The former is preferred for full-chord slide unless you have a special concave slide; the latter makes it easier to do single-string slide, and most players prefer it for straight playing. These are questions you need to ask, particularly since you may not be able to do in-store comparison, except in the largest stores. Ordering on-line is usually the way you have to go.

If you have to go for a vintage instrument, be very careful if you are not actually seeing the instrument before buying. In the days before truss-rods (and to some extent, even after), the angle of the neck could easily degrade over time, not only making the instrument harder to play, but reducing both note accuracy and volume. You may have to have the neck seriously repaired or replaced.


© 2013 Alan Humm