Best Budget Acoustic Guitar Under 200 Bucks - Top 7 Things You Need to Know
So you need to get an acoustic guitar, but you're on a budget. You don't want to get a cheap guitar, and by that I mean cheaply made, but you want to get the best guitar for the money. You want the best value acoustic guitar you can find.
Don't worry. I'm going to walk you through the things you need to know to choose the best budget acoustic guitar under 200 bucks.
Let's start with how lucky you are. There are a lot of great affordable instruments out there, from long-time reputable brands, like Fender, Yamaha and Washburn, to name a few. These manufacturers have a reputation to uphold and they're not going to sell you junk models just because you're not spending oodles of money today. They know that if they do right by you on the lower end of the guitar-buying spectrum, you'll give them good consideration when it comes time to upgrade. You get the best out of this because it means a lot of guitar-making smarts go into making their great entry-level guitars.
The Big Questions
So let's start with the big, important questions.
1) Steel string acoustic, or classical guitar?
For this discussion we're only talking about steel string acoustics. This is the kind of guitar you want if you want to play blues, rock, country, or pretty much any pop genre of music.
Classical guitars, the ones with nylon strings, are for playing classical and flamenco, or Spanish, guitar. I have a discussion about that here
Don't worry, I'll be creating a page for purchasing great budget-minded classical guitars soon.
2) Why are you buying this guitar?
Are you a new player looking to get started on the guitar?
Great. And you're probably thinking that you don't want to spend much, in case it doesn't work out. That's certainly valid. No one wants to invest a lot of money in something they're not sure about. There are a couple thing to consider with this strategy, though.
First, if you don't end up liking it, or having time for it, or it doesn't work out for any reason, you have a guitar that doesn't have a high resale value. Maybe you'll give it to a friend, or donate it, but selling it on Craig's List isn't going to net you a lot of return on your investment.
The second pitfall is the one I'm hoping to help you avoid. There are companies out there that make very cheap beginner instruments that aren't worth squat for anyone to play. They make playing miserable because they don't stay in tune, or are hard to play or they sound muddy and awful. Trying to learn to play on a bad guitar sets you up for failure. But that's why you're here, you don't want to make that mistake. Stick with me and you'll have all the information you need to make a wise choice for buying the best inexpensive acoustic guitar that's right for you.
By the way, I have a bunch of information for beginning guitar players on this page.
Or are you looking to buy a guitar for your kids to learn on?
The same rules apply for your kids as apply for you. There's no way to discourage a new player faster than giving them a bad guitar.
However, I do have a page filled with information about buying guitars for kids, from size charts to nurturing their motivation.
Or are you an experienced guitar player who wants to expand your repertoire?
Well, then you already know some of the things we're going to talk about. But if you've been playing an electric guitar from the beginning you might have a few gaps in your knowledge about acoustic guitars. I presume that's why you're reading this. Welcome.
Now that we know you're in the right place, let's dig in.
Solid Wood Top vs Laminate Top
A solid wood top is made from a single piece of wood, while a laminate is made from three thin sheets of wood laminated (glued) together.
The standard answer is that a solid wood top is always better. You get better, crisper sound from solid wood, while a laminate top can sound a bit dull.
However, in this price range it's good to remain open-minded. I'm not knocking a solid wood top, but it's not like a luthier is hand selecting the finest piece of spruce for your beginner guitar. A less scrupulous company will use low quality wood just so they can say 'solid top'. But we're going to avoid those. However, let's look at some of the advantages of laminate tops.
First, they're durable. Certain top woods, even good ones, are softer and can dent easily. This is less likely to happen with a laminate top.
Second, they're not as susceptible to temperature and humidity changes. With a solid wood guitar, if it gets really dry (below 40% humidity) where you live, especially in winter, you may have to install a humidifier and store it in a hard case to keep the wood in good condition. Alternately, leaving it in a hot car in the afternoon is really rough on a solid wood guitar, too. It's not that you can do these things with impunity to a laminate guitar, but it will tolerate these extremes better, should they happen.
If you need a guitar that can take a bit of a beating, you might want to consider getting a laminate. This would be true if you're looking at this acoustic purchase as a travel guitar, too.
Staying open to a laminate guitar will also give you more choices in this price range. If you see the perfect guitar, from a quality brand, but it happens to be a laminate top, don't rule it out.
If none of those things apply to you, get the solid wood top (probably spruce), from a good company, for the best sounding acoustic guitar in this price range. I have a rundown of the different top woods and their characteristics, if you want to read more.
Package Deal vs Guitar Only
In this price range, you'll see a lot of package deals for acoustic guitars. They're designed to provide a beginning player with everything they need to get started. You don't have the dilemma of spending your budget on the guitar and then, guess what, you need all of these other things that add onto the tab.
The package usually includes a case, strap, extra strings, picks, tuner, sometimes a capo, etc. They might make it sound like all that stuff is included for 'free'. Of course, it's not.
If you have a $200 package deal, depending on how many extras they include, you're getting maybe a $150 guitar + accessories. You are not getting a $200 guitar and a bunch of free stuff.
Why does this matter?
The point is knowing the quality of the guitar you're getting. If you're looking for the best inexpensive acoustic guitar for this price, your money should all be going toward the guitar. Doing this will probably get you a solid wood top (if desired) and might leave room for an acoustic-electric option, so you really need to consider your budget.
Can you afford to stretch a bit and spend $200 on the guitar and buy the accessory pack separately? Or, do you have a hard ceiling of $200 for the whole deal? This is entirely up to you.
An accessory pack sold separately will run between $32 (with stand, no case) to $85 (with stand and hard case), depending on the type of case and quantity of stuff you get.
If you have a hard $200 limit, by all means, get the starter pack. It's not a bad deal and it makes sure you have everything you need, so there's no delay or disappointment when it arrives. Just remember that the fancier the accessory kit, the lower the actual value of the guitar.
Size and Shape
I have a chart and discussion of size and shape for acoustic guitars that should give you what you need. If you're a person of smaller stature, or with small hands you might consider a ¾ size guitar, or a parlor guitar. There are also some slim body acoustics that might suit you.
Otherwise, you'll be seeing a lot of dreadnought body and grand concert styles.
A cutaway is a nice feature. It's the scoop-shaped cutout on the body, just under the fretboard.
It allows for easier access to the higher numbered frets, the ones that are over the body of the guitar. You may not need it right off, if you're just learning, but if it's available on a guitar you like, why not get it?
Tuning Keys, Bridges, Saddles and Nuts
This is one of the places where the difference between a cheap guitar and a good inexpensive guitar become more obvious.
To start with, if the tuning keys are poor quality, as they often are on a really cheap guitar, your instrument won't stay in tune for more than a few minutes. Playing out of tune, or having to stop and retune constantly, will seriously dampen your enthusiasm to pick up the guitar and play.
This is one of the worst things you can do for your motivation. If you groan every time you think about practicing because you know you're going to have to put up with this problem, you've already lost most of the battle. This isn't a challenge that makes you grow and build character by working through it. It's the reason a lot of people quit.
It doesn't matter how cheap you got that guitar package - if the guitar is unplayable, it's a waste of money.
Ideally, you'd want the bridge to be made out of wood, preferably rosewood or ebony. These are hard, dense woods which do a great job of transferring the vibrations of the strings to the top wood, or soundboard, of the guitar. The thing you don't want is a plastic bridge. Not only is it a poor vibration conductor, but they're prone to breaking.
For the nut and saddle, the preferred material is bone. Plastic has that vibration deadening problem and it just doesn't help the sound of your guitar. Again, it's also not as durable. The good thing is that the nut and saddle are fairly easy to replace. This is one of the quickest ways to upgrade your guitar without breaking the bank. Though if you're new to this, I highly recommend having the guitar guru at your local guitar shop do it.
Setting It Up
When you first get your guitar, it may not be completely ready to play right out of the box. There are adjustments that might need to be made. Some are easy, some require a semblance of tool-worthy skill, and some should absolutely be done by an experienced tech or luthier.
A simple adjustment to the truss rod in the neck, managed with a basic hex wrench (usually provided), isn't too intimidating for a new player. And polishing the frets and fretboard on your new baby is part of the fun. But when you start thinking about sanding down your bridge or, if necessary, adjusting nut height, which requires a special set of tools, you might want to consider taking it to a guitar tech.
This is like taking your car in for a tune-up. It needs to be done occasionally to keep your guitar in its best shape. Also, an experienced tech can spot small issues before they become real problems.
If you decide to tackle it yourself, take a look at the article below, and check out some YouTube videos. Even though I can do a lot of the adjustments myself, I still take my guitars to a pro to make sure I'm getting the best out of them.
For a full rundown of the set-up procedure, if you're interested, I'm going to send you over to this article in Guitar Player magazine.
When to Upgrade
So you've found the best budget acoustic guitar for you, but you know it's not going to last forever. If you enjoy playing and keep with it, you're going to want something that enhances your growing skills and lives up to the level at which you're playing.
There are a couple of different ways this could go.
You learn the basics and decide you want to go in a different direction, like to a classical guitar, or an electric. That's fine. Make the change whenever feels right to you. At this point, though, I'd recommend moving into an intermediate or advanced guitar in whatever direction you choose, if your budget allows. You're ready for it.
Or, you love the steel string acoustic and want to keep moving forward, but you know that you could be getting more from your guitar. Something with both a solid wood top and body, in a wood of your choosing, that resonates brilliantly for your style of play. Upgraded components that hold tuning and enhance the tone. Everything just a bit, or a lot, better than your budget model, because you're going to be playing it for a long time.
I can't tell you when the urge to upgrade will happen. Though the more you play, the faster you advance and you'll probably be looking to upgrade after about a year – depending on your level of patience. If you're taking a slower approach to learning, or your budget is somewhat restrictive, a while longer then. There's no requirement to upgrade. It's more of a natural desire once you reach a certain level.
All that really matters is that you enjoy playing. If you play your budget guitar for years and years and are having fun with it, more power to you. My advice always ends with the same formula, and it holds true here, upgrade or not – do what's right for you.