Best Acoustic Guitar - 10 Key Factors – Size, Shape, Tonewoods and more…
So maybe you've been playing your 6-string for a while and you know you love the steel string acoustic guitar, and it's time to upgrade from you beginner model. Or maybe you're a beginner who wants to start with a top notch instrument and you want to know how to judge quality. Well, this is the guide for you.
What about the acoustic guitars with the nylon strings? Those are classical guitars and I'll discuss those on another page. If you're not sure of the difference, or which you might prefer, you might want to take a look at this.We're going to cover all of the elements that come together to craft the best acoustic guitars.
So, let's get on with it.
What Makes a Great Acoustic Guitar?
Most luthiers, the makers who craft guitars, would say that the type and quality of the top wood, or soundboard, is the defining element that determines the sound characteristic of an acoustic guitar.
But honestly, they'll tell you that there are a lot of elements that contribute to a great playing and great sounding instrument. You can't just slap a nice piece of wood on the front and call it a day.
The body wood makes a difference – and they're not exactly the same choices as the top wood as they have different functions. The shape and size of the guitar makes a big difference. Even the shape of the bracing inside contributes to the overall sound.
Then you have things like neck shape and construction, fretboard material, comfort rests and cutaways that determine how the guitar feels in your hands.
The best acoustic guitar is the one that has quality construction, sounds great for your type of playing and is enjoyable for you to play.
What about Acoustic Guitars that Plug in to an Amp?
Those are acoustic-electric guitars and I'm including those in this discussion because the important elements of the best acoustic-electric guitars are all the same as plain acoustics.
The very short version is that these are simply acoustic guitars with electronics added that pick up the vibrations of the strings, translate them to voltage signals and transmit them through a cable to an amp. There's often an equalizer on the guitar that allows you to adjust the tone on the fly.
Another one of these electronic components is called a pre-amp and what you need to know about this is that it requires a battery and that you should always keep an extra one in your case.
The big advantage to acoustic-electric guitars is that not only can you play louder with more freedom of movement, which is especially helpful onstage, but you can add effects pedals and get tone effects from the amp and modify your sound far more than if you were just playing a straight acoustic guitar. And if you're not plugged in, your acoustic sounds the same as ever.
Let's Talk about Wood – Tonewoods
When you pluck or strum, the string vibrates, transferring that vibration to the soundboard and into the resonance chamber (the big open part). The way the soundboard responds to those vibrations is what shapes the sound. If the wood is harder, or softer, more or less dense, flexible or not, all makes a difference.
Generally, the more flexible the wood, the richer the sound. That's why laminates get a bad rap. By their nature, they are less flexible. A laminate's biggest advantage is that it doesn't expand and contract so easily and is less susceptible to environmental changes like heat and humidity.
The best acoustic guitars have solid wood tops that offer a variety of sound characteristics. Here are a few of the most popular options:
Spruce – There are several varieties that get used.
Sitka Spruce – This is the most common wood used for solid tops today because it's an all-around crowd pleaser, suiting most genres and styles. It doesn't sacrifice clarity, but delivers a nice rich, resonant tone. This wood can handle everything from fanciful fingerpicking to aggressive strumming without compromise.
Adirondack Spruce – This spruce is amazingly resilient and makes it almost impossible to outplay it, even with the most aggressive players. It's especially rich in the mid-tones and more dynamic than Sitka Spruce. This is the material you want if you're looking for volume.
Engelmann Spruce – This European wood is similar to Sitka, but has a more pleasing mid-range. It leans toward a mellower, sophisticated sound but is still a good all-around choice for any style of playing.
Cedar – Cedar is less dense than spruce and can come in a color range of light to dark. The softness of this wood creates a tonal warmth. It's best suited to a lighter touch. Fingerpickers will be especially pleased as it's great at amplifying their lighter tones. Cedar tops probably make one of the best acoustic guitars for fingerstyle. Aggressive players will find cedar too limiting. Cedar is especially popular on classical and flamenco guitars.
Mahogany - Denser than spruce or cedar, mahogany is a little slower to respond than some woods. This isn't necessarily a bad thing as it delivers a bright, punchy tone you don't always find in acoustic guitars. The interesting things is that, over time, the more it's played, the richer the tone gets. It's an especially good top wood for those wanting to play blues and country.
Rosewood – This wood has a high capacity for projection. It's particularly strong in the bass tones but has an excellent attack in the treble range. A rosewood top is capable of an array of responses, creating a complex tonal structure. For this reason, it's a popular choice.
Hawaiian Koa – Koa is a gorgeous wood from Hawaii. It has thick, rich tonal characteristics reminiscent of mahogany but with the crispness of rosewood in the treble. Koa is incredibly versatile, adapting its articulate sound to bolder, more aggressive players as well as those with a mellower tone. It can also be used for back and sides. Both aesthetically and tonally, a guitar made entirely of koa wood is a beautiful thing to behold.
The best acoustic guitars have excellent wood on the back and sides as well as the top. Here's a rundown of some of the most common body woods.
Indian Rosewood – One of the legendary woods for acoustic guitar, Indian Rosewood has a massive frequency range with top quality sound on both ends. It creates robust bass notes and spicy high notes with clarity that's unmatched. This rosewood takes well to any style of play, from fingerpicking to strumming.
Sapele – This West African wood is incredibly stable across the entire tonal range with a little extra sparkle in the top end. Sapele is incredibly versatile for both genre and playing style, as well as being sustainable, making it one of the more popular woods being used in acoustic guitars today.
Tropical Mahogany – Another legendary wood, tropical mahogany delivers rich, balanced tone with an explosive, complex mid-range. This wood's dense nature dramatically reduces any ringing overtones. It's great for anyone that wants a balanced sound, but it also performs particularly well for blues players.
Maple – Maple doesn't have a fast response and is very neutral in the way it reacts with whatever top wood it's paired with. It does create some plucky high end tones. Because of its inherent neutrality, it shortens the sustain and gives a punchy sense to the notes, making it excellent for stage instruments.
Ovangkol – This sustainable African wood is similar to Indian Rosewood, but with a richer mid-range and better treble response. Its warm tone works great for generalist players who want to sound awesome in any genre. Ovangkol is compatible with all body types.
I've shared the most popular of the woods used in acoustic guitar construction, but if you want to read a more extensive list, go here.
One More Note about Woods – Fretboards
I'm not going to debate the aesthetics of these fretboard woods, but I will discuss the functionality.
Ebony – The feature everyone likes about ebony is that it's buttery smooth. A dark wood, usually black, it has a tight grain that sands to a silky finish, making it very good for fast fingered players. Ebony has a nice snap and maintains a bright sound profile. Its one drawback is that it's prone to cracking if it's subjected to too many temperature and humidity changes. Using a good fretboard condition regularly and avoiding climactic extremes will take care of this excellent fretboard material for years to come.
Rosewood – Almost the opposite of ebony, if woods can have opposites, as it's both soft and it produces less snap, to the point that it will actually tone down a bright player a little bit. Rosewood is a brown, porous wood which creates its big friction point with some players and that's…friction. The slight texture of this wood creates a bit of resistance, thus making it harder to play fast. This is something you should be aware of before choosing a rosewood fretboard.
Maple – Much closer to ebony in character, maple is non-porous and without the climactic response issues. It has a similar bright tone and sands to a very smooth finish. This leaves speed up to the skill of the player. Its downside is that after years of playing, it shows grayish wear on the frequently used portion of the fretboard. But this is the question, do you like your leather jacket to look shiny and new, or do you prefer it to be scuffed up a little. To me, the wear showing is just a sign that you've spent a lot of playing time on this guitar. It's a relationship I don't mind showing off.
Shape and Size of your Acoustic Guitar
The shape and size of your best acoustic guitar will be a different choice for everyone. I'm going to run down the main size categories. Some manufacturers have slightly different names and specs, or maybe a model in-between that no one else makes. If you see one of those, you can consult the manufacturer's website. Also, you should know that powerhouse brand Martin Guitars came out with their own scale many years ago, using 0, 00, and 000. I've tried to correlate them here so it'll be less confusing. This list goes from smallest to largest.
A comfortable fit of human-to-guitar is essential to create the best playing experience.
Parlor or 3/4 size or Baby – This is the smallest steel string acoustic guitar you'll find. They generally have a balanced tone and can have as much sound quality as their full-size counterparts. The profile tends to have a sloped shoulder and narrow lower bout (bottom area). Their sound won't be as big as other guitars, but it can be quite rich on a good instrument. Even the best small body acoustic can come in under $500. This size makes a great travel guitar, and it's good for blues and fingerpicking. It's one of the best guitars for people with small hands, whether they be adults or older children.
Concert or 0 Martin – Slightly larger than the parlor guitar, this size delivers a little more bang for your buck. It generally has a bright, attentive sound and is still excellent for fingerpicking. Not as accommodating for those with small hands, but still more comfortable than a dreadnought for some. This is a great guitar is a not-quite-so-small package.
Grand Concert (GC) or 00 Martin – This is the smallest of the full-size guitars. It's a good all-around guitar with a narrow waist that makes it very comfortable to hold while seated – whether you're playing on your couch or sitting on a stool on stage singing your best songs. The design was inspired by classical guitars, so its sound excels in the mid-range. Being on the small side, it's still good for fingerpickers, as well as light strummers.
Orchestra Model (OM) or Grand Auditorium (GA) or 000 – This mid-size guitar does it all. It's no slouch anywhere along the tonal range but it really shines in the middle, producing rich, complex tones. It projects more than the smaller guitars, but has less bass than the bigger ones. At every turn, this is a solid choice. It plays equally well for fingerpickers and strummers and is great for recording.
Dreadnought – The most common guitar shape you'll find, this bad boy loves the low tonal ranges but never lets the sound get muddy. This big bodied guitar is a favorite of strummers and flat-pickers and loves to be played aggressively. It can handle it all. Don't think it only excels in the low end. The dreadnought has clarity across the board, making it very versatile and it gets used across a lot of genres because of this. It's also a great choice for vocalists.
Round Shoulder Dreadnought – Same characteristics as the dreadnought, but with a more comfortable, accommodating shape.
Jumbo – Both in size and sound quality, the Jumbo lives up to its name. If you want to fill a room with sound without ever plugging in, this is the guitar for you. It can handle anything you want to throw at it and do it with a solid, booming sound across its full tonal range, though it still favors the bass with a boomy low end. This guitar jams at a party.
One Last Note about Size
12-fret vs 14-fret Necks
This refers to where the neck meets the body of the guitar. So, rather obviously, on a 12-fret guitar, the neck meets the body at the 12th fret, and on a 14-fret guitar, the neck meets the body at the 14th fret.
As far as how this affects the sound and feel, it depends on the manufacturer. The distance from the bridge to the sound hole makes a difference. Some manufacturers deal with this by moving the sound hole and bridge further down the guitar, and some lengthen the body. There are other solutions as well. So I can't tell you exactly what result you'll get sound-wise, though 12-fret guitars do generally lean warmer, and 14-fret lean brighter.
The biggest difference is fit. The 12-fret creates a shorter neck, which gives it an easier reach. Some players might feel this is too small, for others it'll be just right. The 14-fret certainly leaves more room for a capo, if that's one of your favorite accessories.
The biggest issue is for players who like to play higher on the neck. On a 12-fret, that's two more frets that are within the body of the guitar, thus making them harder to reach. If you like the idea of a 12-fret, but also like playing high on the neck, then getting a model with a cutaway is absolutely necessary. If you don't play high on the neck, it's much less of a concern and you should get whichever is more comfortable.
By necessity, most acoustic guitars have set necks, where the neck is glued into the body of the guitar. Bolt-on neck joints, like you find in some more affordable electric guitars, are rare in acoustics.
There are three neck shapes, U, V and C, and each one's function generally correlates to the style and body-type of the guitar you've chosen. Unless you're having a guitar handmade and customized, you won't have a choice here.
A cutaway is a scoop-shaped area on the body of the guitar near the neck that allows a player's hand to access the higher frets. The shape and size of a guitar's resonance chamber affects its sound.
By introducing a cutaway, the sound of the guitar is changed slightly. It causes the guitar to have less bass response and a bit more treble. If your playing style includes the higher frets on a regular basis, this is a fair trade-off. However, if you never access the higher frets, a cutaway is unnecessary.
For this one, we return to the idea of comfort. Washburn Guitars pioneered the Comfort Series acoustic guitar with a wide beveled edge just where your arm reaches over the guitar, making it easier on the player to feel, well…comfortable. Other manufacturers, like Taylor, have followed suit with their own armrests, though none have taken it as far. This is a great feature if you're wanting a guitar that's just a little bigger than your optimal reach, or you just generally want a little extra comfort.
Anything that makes it easier to spend a lot of time with your guitar is a good thing.
I hope this guide has given you some good information that will help you select a great acoustic guitar. Let me know in the comments what your final decision turned out to be.
Remember, the best acoustic guitar is the one that's right for you