“When it comes down to it, all you need is a really good acoustic guitar.” Those words got me in considerable trouble when I was working as a salesman at a now-defunct New England used musical gear chain back in the 1990s. My job was to sell as much gear as I could to make commission but I couldn’t get past this fundamental fact and it led to some controversy with the boss.
I still stand by this simple assertion. Electric guitars are cool, amplifiers are amazing, vintage effects are drool-worthy, and the new digital interfaces are out of this world, but all you really need is a good acoustic guitar.
Think about it: all the music you can make is in that simple wooden device. If you don’t believe me just listen to Jorma Kaukonen to realize you have the universe in a box.
The big question becomes, “What makes a good acoustic guitar?” This is obviously a very subjective topic but there are things to think about. Today’s modern manufacturing techniques are such that quality control has never been so good. It is very easy to buy a good quality, gig-worthy instrument for around $500, so what makes it good?
Perhaps the most important issues around quality focus on action and intonation – all the aspects of “hand-instrument interface”. The guitar must feel good, play cleanly all over the fret board, and be in tune. Mostly these are issues of set-up and that means this can be adjusted to the individual player. A competent luthier can do this for you easily. In fact, you can do it yourself, but you may want to practice on crappy guitars until you feel capable of not messing up.
Other issues around quality are body size and material. A small bodied guitar made with mahogany and spruce, such as a Martin 00-18, will sound very different than a large bodied guitar made from maple and spruce, such as a Gibson J-200. A lot of people use their personal playing preferences to guide them to a size of guitar. For example, a bluegrass player typically gravitates towards a dreadnought-sized guitar while a fingerstyle player might gravitate towards a smaller, more balanced instrument such as an OOO or OM style Martin. Want depth and 3 dimensional overtones? Look for a guitar with rosewood back and sides. Want punch and an immediate response? Try a guitar with mahogany back and sides. Maple typically is very clear can have an open, airy response. With all these varieties it is worth taking your time and trying many different guitars that fit your style and preference. Heck, with all these preferences it might be worth your while to get many guitars! (GAS anyone?)
Another consideration is whether or not you intend to play amplified. I am not a fan of amplification of acoustic guitars but I know it is a reality and a necessity for some players. Many under saddle pickup systems sound dry and “quacky” to me, not too pleasing to my ear. As a purist, I still like playing into a standing condenser microphone. But that is a real hassle. Amplification technology today is so advanced that there are many ways to amplify your guitar. Piezo transducers, internal microphone, and magnetic pickups all do admirable jobs of making your guitar louder. Couple these with modern acoustic amplifiers and you have a ready-made stage volume set-up. Many new guitars are sold with sophisticated internal transducers and preamp systems that can sound very natural. I think that Takamine is perhaps the most cutting-edge of these manufacturers and many of their guitars are specifically designed to sound their best when amplified to stage volumes. Digital technology has really made this more affordable and a viable option for many guitar players. My advice is to play the guitar at usable volume when testing, as its acoustic voice may not be anywhere the same as its amplified voice.
What about price? My general rule is spend as much as you can possibly afford to buy a really good acoustic guitar because it will always have more to offer you as you get more sophisticated in your playing. Really, if you can afford it, target one to two thousand dollars for a really good American made solid wood acoustic guitar. As a player with many years of experience, I really dig my Martin HD-28. It took a long time to afford it but I feel as if it is the world’s largest bowl of cereal and I am the spoon…. it’s just that deep.
Having said that, I also really like what many others have disparagingly called “crappy” guitars. Those old Kays, Harmonys, and Airlines? LOVE them! Most of the old ones are made of solid mahogany and spruce – really old wood at that. Lots of time these guitars need a lot of work to get them playable – neck resets, full fret jobs, brace work. But once set up correctly (read: not like they left the factory!) they can be killer guitars, full of punch and bark. Granted these have a lot of quirks and oddities that won’t make them a first choice, but their unique charms add up to a creative musical experience.
So remember: all you really need is a good acoustic guitar. Or two…. Or three…..