You need a decent acoustic guitar but, you don't want to spend four figures. I don't blame you for either of those priorities. When I started as an electric player, I wanted to spend my bigger money on my electrics and focus on a decent, but cheap acoustic guitars that fell under the $1000 price tag. The first time I set out to buy an acoustic, my thought was similar to what yours probably is now:
"Can I get a decent acoustic guitar for less than a grand?" I wanted to make sure I was getting the best acoustic guitar money could buy in that price range. So, I set out to do some research, to figure out exactly what my options were if I didn't want to settle for something "cheap" in a quality sense. What I found was amazingly refreshing:
This is the guitar I eventually settled on and bought for myself. To date, it's one of the most perfect purchases I've ever made, enough to convince me it's the absolute best Taylor guitar under $1000 and perhaps one of the best acoustic guitars, period. Whenever someone asks me what acoustics to go after, the Taylor 114ce is always one of my first recommendations (that and the Seagull S6, which I'll get to later), particularly because the disparity in quality between the high-end and mid-range models is not that significant.
Since the Taylor 114CE is a concert shape with a cutaway, its ideal home is with someone who is looking for an acoustic with a brighter tone, who is into playing lead acoustic guitar. Someone like me, who is more used to electrics, would also find the Taylor 114CE to be a good fit.
The playability, light weight, fretboard size and cutaway all make for an easier transition from electric to acoustic and vice versa. While they certainly play fast, the Taylor 114CE also sounds great as a strumming acoustic and can easily wear both hats. From a versatility perspective, they're the PRS guitars of the acoustic world, able to handle just about any style or playing type.
Features in the Taylor 114CE Acoustic Guitar
The Taylor 114CE is a near perfect balancing act between cost and quality, making it one of the more popular mid-range acoustic guitars on the market. Solid Spruce makes an appearance on the top of the guitar while laminate Rosewood is used for the back and sides. This is a fairly common tonewood arrangement for guitars in this price range.
You’ve got the Venetian cutaway and the grand auditorium body shape, which combines with the Spruce top for a low-end draw that also picks really clean and bright. The electronics play to the high end, though with an onboard EQ you can easily tone things down for a more rhythmic response.
Did I mention that all Taylors ship with a fresh set of Elixir strings?
Taylor 114CE Features and Highlights
- Tonewood: Spruce top, Sapele back and sides
- Solid Parts: Top
- Shape: Grand Auditorium with Cutaway
- Other Features: Expression System 2 Electronics, Elixir Strings, Gig Bag
Personally, I really like smaller acoustics even as a 5'11 normal-sized adult. Ed Sheeran does too:
Ed Sheeran digs the small Martin acoustics too. Flickr Commons Image via Kmeron
The smaller size makes this guitar perfect for travel, kids, students or simply those who like the feel and convenience of a smaller acoustic guitar.
This model doesn't have any electronics, so you're saving money there if that's not something you were worried about to begin with. If you like the guitar, the price and want to amplify it, a simple solution like the Seymour Duncan Woody pickup will do the job for under $40.
A look at the actual size of the little Martin. Image via Dawson's Music
I'd also highly recommend a guitar like this for people who have smaller fingers or are dealing with an injury that might be restricting their ability to stretch their fingers and improve dexterity. Because the neck is smaller as well, making the fretboard a breeze to play on. Structure alone could make it an ideal acoustic guitar for beginners with small hands, or at least put it in the running with the Baby Taylor (more on that one later).
Features and tone of the Little Martin acoustic guitar
The tone of the Little Martin does not make you think of a small guitar. It's actually quite warm, with an airy quality to it, almost like a mix between the larger Martin dreadnoughts and nylon string classical guitars.
The body of the guitar is a laminate Koa pattern while the neck is Birch, the back of which is a lighter color. Martin prices this guitar near $300 making it an amazing bargain for someone in the right situation who needs or wants the smaller body size. While it's not exclusively a kid's guitar, and can be used in a number of other capacities, those with children who are looking for a starter acoustic should take a serious look at the Little Martin. It's affordable, functional and won't ruin the experience like a lot of sub $300 guitars might.
In fact, this is one they're likely to always keep on hand, even as their age and skill level progress.
Since the Taylor Big Baby is such a popular acoustic guitar, it's a prime target for used and bargain shoppers as their are plenty of third party re-sellers offering them. You can catch one as low as $300 (it retails for over $400) by scanning the used options regularly.
At 15/16ths of a full-sized Taylor dreadnought, it's bigger than the Little Martin or Baby Taylor. This is really functional for both youth and adult players, making it one of the best acoustic guitars to learn on.
Who is this acoustic guitar ideal for?
It's perfect for someone who doesn't like the full size of the dreadnought body shape, and also wants to avoid the much smaller-form acoustics. As with the Little Martin, I'd recommend it for those with smaller hands and anyone who might feel a little overwhelmed by the full-sized dreadnought body. The Big Baby is an ideal middle ground.
Moreover, it has a lot of the same features as the more expensive, larger Taylors, including a solid Spruce top, Mahogany sides and Elixir strings.
This is a great acoustic guitar for kids and students, who perhaps are a little more advanced or committed to their pursuit of the instrument. It's not the type of guitar that you'll use as a beginner and then discard when you move on. It's a legit Taylor acoustic that should last you way beyond the early years of playing.
With an included gig bag it also makes a decent traveler acoustic guitar.
Features and tone of the Big Baby Taylor acoustic guitar
The tone of the Big Baby Taylor is really similar to the Taylor 114CE and actually sounds more like a concert than a dreadnought shape. If you're looking for something small that sounds good on both the lead and rhythm end of acoustic playing, the Big Baby handles both sides really well. Though it looks like a simple strumming guitar, the finger picking response is incredibly crisp and dynamic, with plenty of grit and chime on nearly every fret. Don't assume you'll need to pair this acoustic with something else for different styles.
It sounds true to Taylor's form and reputation, and isn't a noticeable drop in tonal quality from the mid-range Taylor models.
One disadvantage of this guitar is that it doesn't come with any kind of onboard preamp, thus a performer would need to mic the guitar's soundhole or purchase a separate acoustic pickup. If you like the size and convenience, you'll save enough money with the Big Baby to afford a soundhole preamp from Fishman or Seymour Duncan.
This is a clear winner in the beginner acoustic guitar department with plenty of remaining value for more advanced skill levels as well.
Whenever someone asks, "What is a good beginner guitar for adults?" I almost always refer them to the Seagull S6. After winning a handful of awards the S6 Original has been Seagull's most popular and best-selling acoustic guitar for a number of years, which makes sense as the instrument is an astoundingly good bargain. The retail cost is surprisingly low, usually pricing under $450, while used options can go as low as $300.
The sheer volume of Robert Godin's (Seagull's founder) guitar production allows the Seagull to retail much lower than what other guitars with comparable specs would cost. Some of these more premium specs include a select solid Cedar top and Cherry back/sides both of which look absolutely amazing.
A closer look at the Seagull S6 Original guitar and preamp. Image via Seagull
The QIT version of the S6 Original acoustic guitar comes with Seagull's own Quantum IT electronics which is a sharp-looking preamp with a built-in tuner.
You can actually get the Seagull either with the preamp or without.
There's roughly a $100 difference in cost between the two, where the GIT version is the more expensive. You'll want to take this into consideration since Seagull gives you the option to choose. For those who don't want/need a preamp, having the option to go without one makes this purchase even more attractive.
Features and tone of the Seagull S6 Acoustic Guitar
Cedar tonewood tends to create a slightly brighter and more resonant sound, ideal for finger picking, lead and fast playing. Since the body is a thicker dreadnought design, this tonal lean balances out nicely with the warmth and fullness you get naturally from a larger acoustic guitar. The combination of the Cedar, Cherry and dreadnought shape makes for a distinctly original and appealing tone.
The QIT preamp is somewhat limited compared to others, with a basic two-band EQ and volume knob. It's nothing fancy but, it gets the job done and could always be paired with a third-party preamp or DI box. As far as guitars that outperform their price range, the Seagull S6 is one of the top models in that regard. It's easy to see why the S6 is consistently one of the top-selling acoustics in the country.
As a side note:
If you're looking for a Seagull acoustic electric cutaway, the Artistic Mosaic guitars are beautiful upgrades, if you're willing to spend a bit more.
While the added cutaway gives the 300CE some tonal versatility, the lean of this guitar is distinctly rhythm, with an EQ that pushes a lot of bass and a lengthy resonating sustain. A lot of these warm lows come from the mahogany back and sides, which is known to produce a smooth, appealing bass EQ. Though it's not solid, the Maple top (a common laminate ingredient) balances the mahogany with a tighter and more precise response. So without any amplification, you get your chime from the Maple and your low-end "thud" from the Mahogany.
If you do want to plug it in, the inclusion of a Fishman preamp with a three-band EQ gives the 300CE's owner a lot of options, making it one of Fender's highest-value and most versatile beginner acoustic guitars. The 300CE is perfect for beginners, students or those who just want to get their feet wet with the guitar.
Even at sub-$300 retail, the T-Bucket 300CE still manages to give you the Fishman electronics, a beautiful Spalted Maple top and the standard scalloped X-bracing.
A look at the Fishman preamp included on the Fender T-Bucket 300CE. Image via Fender
The result is an acoustic guitar that looks and feels like a professional instrument, giving you a genuine experience in the lower end of the price pool.
Features and tone of the Fender 300CE Acoustic Guitar
One disappointing stat is the absence of any solid wood. Top, back and sides are all laminate. This costs you some tonal quality but, the nice sustain and response of the Maple/Mahogany combo makes up for some of it. Either way, it's not enough of an issue to be off-putting to the beginner or younger player.
The preamp gives you a basic three-band EQ, volume control and a tuner, which allows you to dial in a brighter lead tone if you have the luxury of plugging into an amp. I absolutely love this model as a starter guitar for its stat line and generous helping of aesthetic appeal.
The Baby Taylor acoustic electric guitar is 3/4 the size of a full Taylor dreadnought, making it much smaller than the Big Baby Taylor and one of the most popular guitars for kids and beginners. Its scope and market is similar to that of the Little Martin.
Everything that makes the little Martin so functional can also be said about the BT2. However, Taylor does offer some additional perks with their small-sized guitar that Martin leaves out. First the BT2 does come with a preamp that allows you to plug the guitar in.
It's a simple pickup system with a tone knob, volume knob and tuner, which captures the resonance of the guitar nicely when plugged in. There can often be a major discrepancy in the tone between an amplified acoustic guitar and an unplugged acoustic guitar, though it wasn't the case here.
In either scenario, the BT2 sounded excellent.
A look at the expression system that comes with the Baby Taylor. Via Taylor
Additionally, the BT2 acoustic guitar actually has a solid Mahogany top, where the Little Martin has no solid wood at all. As with all other Taylor acoustic guitars, the BT2 ships with Elixir strings. So, there are a lot of perks offered by Taylor that we don't see with Martin, even as the BT2 slips down near the $300 price point. It's just a fantastic value that's going to give a child or beginner an acoustic guitar that feels like a serious instrument and not just a temporary toy.
Again, folks with difficulty stretching, hand injuries or small fingers should consider the Baby Taylor, not only as a great starter guitar but, a solid instrument in general worth owning in any situation.
Tone of the BT2 Baby Taylor Acoustic Guitar
Like other Taylor acoustic guitars, you're going to get a bright response that I think sounds best in a finger picking context. The tone control on the preamp functions essentially like the tone knob on an electric guitar, giving you basic shaping options. However, it's usually most complimentary when kept at the halfway point. I wasn't crazy about the response I got at either extreme, whether on the high or low end.
While it does sound predictably smaller, the overall tone is quite good and doesn't come off as cheap or second hand. It can hang with the larger models and feels like a serious instrument. You can't ask for much more out of a $300 acoustic guitar.
Takamines are cheap, good quality acoustic guitars that go easy on the "cheap." They usually cost less than what you'll see the midrange Taylor and Martin acoustics going for, though they still bring some of our most sought-after features and quality indicators to the table. The GN93CE retails under $600 and used options can go even lower. You can checkout some of those used prices to try and snag a steep discount.
A solid Spruce top, thin neck and a stacked TK-40D preamp system is perfect for players who don't have an external amp but still need to plugin (perhaps to a PA system or mixer) and have a lot of control over their tone.
Nearly everything you could pack into an acoustic preamp is here, so I'd recommend this guitar specifically to those who plan to plug in to some form of acoustic amplification. Those who don't might want to look elsewhere, since a large aspect of this guitar's appeal is the TK-40D system. The GN93CE Nex (where Nex refers to the body shape) is essentially a scaled-down jumbo body shape that feels a lot like the concerts with an added cutaway.
The back is an attractive arrangement of Rosewood and Maple with an aesthetic Maple binding and purfling.
TK-40D Preamp Details
Here's a full list of features in the TK-40D system:
- Three-Band EQ
- Mid Contour Switch
- Notch Filter
- EQ Bypass
This shot from Sweetwater’s demo video showcases the unit pretty clearly:
A shot of the TK-40D preamp from Takamine. Image via Sweetwater
Tone of the Takamine GN93CE Acoustic Guitar
By itself, the guitar has a nice low tone while also giving off plenty of distinct responses to picking dynamics. It’s evidently a strong lead acoustic, with brightly-defined notes and a southern bluegrass feel.
Brad Davis’s Sweetwater demo of this acoustic guitar shows you the sound both from straight into a microphone and through the pickup. Personally, I liked the acoustic, non-pickup tone a lot better. But, the guitar sounds great and is an incredible value since it usually goes for under $600.
If you go to the DR500’s homepage on Epiphone’s website, the most attractive selling point is readily noticeable:
The DR-500MCE features all solid wood construction. Image via Epiphone
Not only is the DR-500MCE a cheap solid top acoustic guitar, but Epiphone throws in solid back and sides as well. I wouldn’t say that solid wood is the only thing that matters. But to have the top, back and sides of your guitar completely laminate-free, in this price range, is huge. It makes me wonder why more acoustic guitars aren’t able to pull this off.
Moreover, the price of this acoustic guitar is lower than most of the ones we've listed. You can checkout both retail and used pricing, some of which fall under the $500 mark.
How Epiphone is able to sell this guitar so cheap is beyond me.
Between the solid Spruce, Mahogany and the ESonic2 preamp system, you've got a complete acoustic guitar that can last you well past the beginner years and is not at all what I would consider a "budget" instrument, outside of its price tag. It's a great strumming acoustic, though handles well on the lead end and higher register as well. The combination of the dreadnought body shape with a deep cutaway means it's designed to cater to both playing styles.
It's possibly one of the best acoustic guitar deals I've ever seen in the $500 - $600 price range. The preamp itself is worth some expansion.
Epiphone DR500MCE Acoustic Guitar Preamp
The ESonic2 is an impressive in-house Epiphone job. Though the unit itself was actually manufactured by a company called Shadow Electronics, based in Germany.
A shot of the ESonic and ESonic2 preamps that ships with the Epiphone DR500MCE acoustic guitar. Image via Epiphone
Independent of the guitar, the preamp comes with a five-year unlimited warranty, which I believe is fulfilled by Epiphone directly and not the original manufacturer. The system also comes with two pickups, which the ESonic2 allows you to control individually via the nanomag and nanoflex control knobs.
- Blend Slider
The slider is your “mixer” between the two pickups. Leave it dead center to use both or cut it to one side or the other to limit your signal to one pickup. If you want to get the full share of details, Epiphone’s own Bryan Aspey explain it all in this video.
I’ll take you through the highlights.
Two Quarter-Inch Inputs
It’s a bit curious to me why these two pickups would be routed into two different outputs. To use both of them at once, you’ll need to rig some kind of a switch that allows you to funnel two signals into one amplifier or DI box. The controls on the preamp allow you to blend between the two pickups, or activate one entirely and mute the other.
Of the two, the most traditional is the Nano-Flex pickup located underneath the bridge of the guitar.
The multiple layers of sensor material in the NanoFlex will pickup both the vibrations from the strings and from the body of the acoustic guitar. This makes it a little different than your traditional piezo pickup, incorporating active amplification stemming directly from the pickup.
Diagram of the sensor and amplification strip in the NanoFlex pickup. Image via Epiphone
From the picture we can see that the sensor is followed by active amplification which occurs before the signal gets to any cables. Additionally the pickup is shielded, giving you added protection from noise issues and feedback.
The second pickup is located right at the end of the fingerboard, pictured here:
It’s a little difficult to see. That black strip with scripting on it is what you’re looking for. This pickup is uniquely designed to capture a wide range of frequencies and to be especially friendly to harmonics.
Other Features and Summary
Epiphone gets some more name brand goodies in the mix with Grover tuners and D’ Addario strings. The fingerboard and bridge are made of Rosewood along with a mahogany neck. Epiphone adds a limited lifetime warranty, on top of the 5-year warranty for the electronics directly from Shadow.
I can't stress enough, this is a fantastic value.
The DRS1 is the traditionalist's most ideal design, with a dreadnought body shape and no cutaway. It has a classic Martin vibe that looks and feels nearly identical to the more expensive models. But unlike those models, the DSR1 can be had in the neighborhood of $700, perhaps cheaper if you look at the used options. Since the entire body is solid wood, like the Epiphone acoustic guitar we just covered, it's a rhythm workhorse, perfect for the strummers and songwriters among us.
With the included Fishman preamp it's also a great fit for those who want an acoustic guitar that can function well, both in a plugged and unplugged environment. Let's dig into a few of the highlight features.
Solid Sapele Tonewood
All three pieces, front, sides and back, are made of solid Sapele.
Sapele is a protected wood that’s harvested in Africa and less common among acoustic guitar manufacturers. In terms of tone it’s comparable to mahogany with some added treble boost.
The DSR1 list price on the Martin website. Image via Martin
Since the DRS1 is a thicker dreadnought shape, that EQ balances out with a warm and soft strumming response, good sustain and enough treble to give the higher register notes some life of their own. Taylor uses the same wood in their 300 series and some of their mini (baby) Taylors. The fact that all three parts are solid wood in the DRS1 break a common pricing convention, once again.
It’s the most attractive aspect of this guitar.
The second most attractive aspect is the inclusion of a Fishman Sonitone electronics system. It starts with a preamp that mounts near the opening of the soundhole and is then wired to the output on the side of the acoustic guitar body.
Per the following diagram:
If you buy the Sonitone by itself, you can actually install it into any acoustic guitar. Anytime you can get Fishman in the description of the acoustic guitar you’re buying, it’s good news.
Other Features of the Martin DRS1 Acoustic Guitar
The bracing system is a non-scalloped X-brace made of Sitka Spruce, fairly standard for dreadnought acoustic guitars. A structural engineering term, X-brace means that the inside of the acoustic guitar uses two pieces of intersecting wood to transfer tension outward, keeping the bridge supported.
The Sapele is finished in a satin, translucent cherry with black accents (pickguard, bridge and dark stain fretboard).
This Ibanez acoustic electric guitar, more specifically dubbed the PF28ECE, hovers around $300 and in many cases can dip into the $200 range if you're willing to go used or refurbished. Since it couples such a low price with a decent stat line, I love this model for beginners who don't want to spend a lot on an acoustic. Further, it's a starter guitar that can last you well past the beginner stages of your playing.
While it lacks any solid wood, the tone is surprisingly smooth and warm, which is captured nicely by the Fishman preamp, an addition that, by itself, brings a tremendous amount of value to the table.
This is a wonderful get-to-know-the-instrument acoustic guitar that doesn't dampen the playing experience because of bottom-feeder quality. It's not going to be the same caliber as the 114CE or DSR1 but, for those who don't want to spend $700-$800, it's not going to ruin an aspiring guitarist's initial experience with the instrument.
The PF28ECE's Fishman Sonitone pickup system is just like the one in the Martin Road Series. You don’t commonly see good electronics (often none of all) in a $300 guitar, so getting the Fishman in this model is a huge plus. You get a three-band EQ and feedback control in the Sonitone along with a balanced XLR jack that can send your signal straight into a PA system.
It almost feels like a Martin small body acoustic guitar with the narrow waist and slim profile, perhaps making it workable for smaller players or adults who don't want a full dreadnought. The X1AE design is essentially the concert body shape without a cutaway. I'd consider it a stylistic hybrid, equal parts finger-picking/lead-friendly with a lot to offer the rhythm player as well.
The tone profile is distinctly Martin, leaning a little to the warm and low-end side because of the solid Spruce top and high-pressure sides. The price point is usually under $600, making this a more affordable alternative for those who might have been thinking of pulling the trigger on the other Martins in this list (or similarly priced models) but wanted to go just a little cheaper.
Also note that it comes with a limited lifetime warranty from Martin, making it a worthy consideration for nervous buyers.
If you buy, don't forget to register your warranty with Martin.
Features and tone of the Martin X1AE Acoustic Guitar
The Martin X1AE has a familiar Martin tone with a lot of low-end and bass, prompted by the solid Sitka Spruce top. It sounds thick and full but, also resonates clearly on the higher frets and strings. As is often the case with Martin dreadnoughts, strumming and fingerpicking are the most pleasing and complimentary ways to accentuate the guitar's tone.
Sketch of the standard bracing model for Martin acoustics. Image via Martin
It's a great feature list for an acoustic guitar under $600. Bracing is the standard non-scalloped X-Brace as picture here on the Martin website:
Other Features of the Martin X1AE Acoustic Guitar
The Spruce top and Sonitone preamp account for a lot of the cost and are the highlight reel features. Other perks include a high performance neck taper, pickguard and mortise and tenon neck joint.
As I was able to pinpoint where acoustic guitars held their value, I was shocked to see that quite a few maintained those value markers while retailing for well under my established price limit. In fact, many of the guitars I found seemed to be as good as their more expensive counterparts and always seemed to hail from the top ten acoustic guitar brands (Epiphone, Taylor, Martin and so forth). Solid wood construction, great electronics and a beautiful natural tone were all there.
In other words, I didn't have to settle for a garbage acoustic. This article is designed to make sure you don't either, simply by sharing what I learned walking the same path you're about to walk.
Here's how we'll do it:
- Curate information
- Find value points in acoustic guitar specs
- Determine the acoustic guitar features you want to spend money on
I'll recommend and provide a deep level of information on acoustic guitars that I have personal experience with and have recommend to fellow guitar players, teachers and students, after my own research over the past few years. As a preface to our reviews of each acoustic guitar model, we’ll look at the following factors that need to be understood as it relates to acoustic guitar quality and features:
- Difference between acoustic and acoustic-electric
- Nylon string or steel string?
- Skill level considerations and budget
- Different body shapes
- Different tonewoods
- Solid or laminate?
We’ll cover all six of these issues before getting into our recommendations. If you’re familiar with these aspects, you can feel free to skip ahead or refer to the above list of acoustics. Otherwise, we’ll begin with the basics.
Difference between acoustic and acoustic-electric guitars
You’ll usually see two primary categories when looking at buying an acoustic guitar:
This can be confusing if you don’t know what the “dash electric” is in reference to.
Acoustic and acoustic-electric. What's the difference and which one should I buy? Image via Amazon
All that “acoustic-electric” means is that it’s an acoustic guitar with the ability to plug into an amplifier.
Thus an acoustic-electric guitar is still a hollow-body acoustic but, with a small preamp installed.
Usually this preamp is run off a 9V battery and comes with a basic three-band EQ and volume knob, like the following Fishman pickup:
A shot of the Fishman Black Stack acoustic pickup.
In many cases these preamps will have a tuner built in, like the Fishman model pictured above.
Whatever preamp comes with the acoustic-electric guitar will allow you to plug into an acoustic amp or mixer, and usually gives you volume control along with a three-band EQ.
The preamp will be connected to a quarter-inch jack, which you can plug a guitar cable into, just like you would an electric guitar.
This is a must if you want to plug straight into a mixer or PA system.
Does this mean that I must have an amp to play an acoustic-electric guitar?
No, not at all.
Again, an acoustic-electric guitar is just an acoustic guitar with the added electronic guts.
If you choose to use them with an acoustic amp, great.
Otherwise, you can play it unplugged just like you would a regular acoustic guitar.
What’s the difference in price?
In many cases you’ll have acoustic guitar models that have versions available with and without the preamp built in.
This usually means a 15 to 25% price increase for the acoustic-electric model.
For example, the Seagull S6 original has the following versions:
The QI version is the one that comes with electronics built-in and costs around $100 more than the S6 without any preamp.
As a general rule you can assume you’re paying roughly $100 extra for an acoustic guitar with a preamp.
You’ll want to jot this down and keep it in mind when you’re deciding what features you want to pay for.
Make a note of price points like this, so you know where your money is going. (View Larger Image)
When deciding whether or not you need the preamp, it’s simply a matter of anticipating how you want to use your new acoustic guitar.
Do you have aspirations to plug it in and perform?
Perhaps it’s just for playing unplugged around the house and you have no need for an amplifier of any kind.
This is a decision you’ll want to make before you start shopping around.
Nylon string or steel string acoustics?
Classical acoustic guitar with nylon strings. Flickr Commons Image via StuRap
The first thing to understand here is that most guitars, both acoustic and electric, have steel strings.
That is the “default” for almost all acoustic guitars on the market.
The only time you’ll see nylon strings is in the context of a classical or Spanish guitar. Nylon strings are used in those styles for their softer tone and unique playing feel.
It’s fairly uncommon for them to cross into other genres.
Thus, most of you will want to focus on steel-string acoustics or simply non-classical acoustic guitars.
Those who are interested in classical guitar specifically will want to put a nylon string acoustic at the top of their priority list.
Skill Level Considerations and Budget
What you spend should have some relation to your skill level and how much you want to be involved with the acoustic guitar.
However, I’ve found that in most situations, people plan to spend much less than what they should, even if they’re just beginners that are testing the waters. The problem with buying low-priced acoustic guitars is that the quality is so poor, you don’t get a genuine experience with the instrument.
In other words, spending $100 on an acoustic guitar could ruin your desire to play, regardless of your commitment levels.
This is how I advise prospective buyers to break down pricing:
- Completely Avoid: $50 - $200
- The Beginner’s Price Range: $400 - $700
- The Middle: $800 - $1200
- Pro Level: $1500 and up
I know this might seem high to a lot of folks and I’m not trying to say that there are no guitars worth owning under $200.
However, I’ve found that dipping too far beneath the $400 threshold means you take massive hits in terms of value, even if you’re not paying much.
Because paying a low price isn’t our only goal.
It’s an aspect of it but, not the entire picture.
Not by a long shot.
We want to pay less and save money by avoiding features we don’t need. But, we want to pay for the features we do need and make sure that we’re not cheapening out in those areas.
Acoustic Guitar Body Shapes
The acoustic guitar shape you choose is largely a matter of preference, though there are some practical implications to consider.
First, let’s look at the shapes.
While there are a multitude of variants, you’ll generally be looking at one of the following two:
- Concert (Grand Auditorium)
The Dreadnought design is the most common.
The design is friendly to lower EQs and is more often used as a strumming acoustic, making it a common choice for singers and songwriters.
Taylor’s website allows you to filter only the dreadnought body shape. Image via Taylor Guitars
They’re a bit larger than the concert shape with a thicker waist above and below the soundhole.
The 320 from Taylor gives us a good look:
A look at the Taylor 320 with the dreadnought body shape. Image via Taylor Guitars
Since the tone leans low and the body shape is bigger, it’s less common to see dreadnoughts come with a cutaway.
The models that do have one will have a slightly brighter tone since a cutaway reduces the body’s overall size.
Within each brand the concert will usually measure the same width as the dreadnought shape while the waist of the former is much smaller.
This means the circumference of the guitar is shorter which significantly brightens the tone of the guitar, making it more ideal for fingerpicking and lead acoustic guitar work.
Thus cutaways, like in the Taylor 114CE (the acoustic guitar I ended up buying), are far more common in concert models.
Bob Taylor is originally responsible for the grand auditorium design which he began selling in 1994.
It's a slight variant on the concert shape, though essentially the same thing.
Since then, the grand auditorium body design has been Taylor’s most popular shape and has become a formidable alternative to the more traditional dreadnought concept.
For those more interested in picking and less so in strumming, the concert and grand auditorium shapes should be an area of focus for you.
Note whether or not you’re looking at an acoustic guitar in the context of rhythm or lead and jot down the corresponding body shapes:
While there are other variations, concert and dreadnought are two of the most common body shapes.
If you want to explore other body shapes, here are a few resources:
- Musicians Friend Acoustic Buying Guide
- Premier Guitar Acoustic Size Matters
- Austin Bazaar Music Acoustic Guitar Buying Guide
Typical variations include the parlor, jumbo and mini or “traveler” designs, though none of them are as common as the tone we've covered.
Understanding Acoustic Guitar Tonewoods
Guitar tonewood isn’t an exact science.
Because even wood that’s cut from the same type of tree can vary in quality.
That’s why more expensive guitars will sometimes say things like, “choice” or "select" in front of the tonewood listing. This means that the grain, weight and density has been carefully considered and selected for that guitar.
In our situation, we’re looking at mid-tier acoustic guitars, which means we’ll look at tonewoods in a more general context.
The following types are the most common:
#1: Characteristics of Cedar Tonewood
|Used in:||Body (top, sides and back)|
|Harvested in:||United States and Mexico|
|Weight:||Light & Less Dense|
#2: Characteristics of Mahogany Tonewood
|Used in:||Neck & Body|
|Harvested in:||Africa & Central America|
|Weight:||Dense & Medium to Heavy|
|Tone:||Warm & Soft|
#3: Characteristics of Koa Tonewood
|Harvested in:||Hawaiian Islands|
#4: Characteristics of Maple Tonewood
|Used in:||Body and Neck|
|Harvested in:||Northern United States & Canada|
|Weight:||Dense & Heavy|
|Tone:||Bright and High|
#5: Characteristics of Rosewood Tonewood
|Used in:||Back, Sides & Neck|
|Harvested in:||South American & Asia|
|Weight:||Dense & Heavy|
|Tone:||Bright and Heavy|
#6: Characteristics of Spruce Tonewood
|Harvested in:||United States and Canada|
|Tone:||Low and Tight|
In most cases, these tonewoods are considered to be in the middle to upper-tier of quality categories, depending somewhat on the aforementioned variables.
If there’s a particular response you’re looking for, in terms of tone, you can refer to this section then simply limit your search to guitars with the tonewood that promotes it.
It's a matter of both preference and quality.
Once you establish a type of tonewood, you need to understand the distinction between solid wood and laminate.
Best Acoustic Guitar Tonewood: Solid or laminate?
Simply put, the more solid pieces of wood in an acoustic guitar, the better.
"Why? What’s wrong with laminate?"
Laminate is a cost-cutting technique that means you have a high-quality layer of wood (a thin layer) covering up multiple layers of cheaper wood.
In other words, it’s the luthier’s equivalent of plywood.
The less of it you have in your acoustic guitar, the better.
You should also note that if a manufacturer doesn’t specify solid or laminate wood, you’re almost certainly dealing with laminate.
In a lot of acoustic guitars, manufacturers will limit their inclusion of solid wood to only certain parts of the guitar, usually the top.
Thus, you can have a guitar that will be made of a solid top and laminate back and sides. When you really hit the jackpot is when you have an acoustic guitar where the top, sides and back are all solid wood, like the Takamine pictured below:
Again, the higher the percentage of solid wood, the better value acoustic you’re getting.
Laminate parts should not automatically disqualify a potential purchase but, this distinction is a major quality indicator.
Keep an eye on it.
The more solid wood you have, the happier you’ll be. (View Larger Image)
Summary of Quality Indicators in the Best Acoustic Guitars
Before we get started with our best acoustic guitar picks, let’s do a quick summary of the quality indicators we’ve discussed so far.
- Preamp: Needed for the ability to plug in (acoustic-electric) and usually accounts for $100 of the guitar’s retail cost.
- Nylon Strings or Steel Strings: Nylon strings are unique to classical guitars while steel strings are more commonly used for regular acoustics and electrics.
- Prices: Avoid the dirt cheap $50 – $200 acoustic guitars.
- Body Shapes: Dreadnought and concert are the two most common. Dreadnought is ideal for rhythm and strumming while concert is geared for lead and picking.
- Tonewood: Impacts the guitar’s sound and resonance, with implications for both the quality of the acoustic guitar and the user’s tonal preference
- Solid or Laminate: Solid wood pieces are more desirable and are significant quality indicators. The more solid wood parts the better.
Other Acoustic Guitar Reviews and Guides
- Taylor 114ce Review: Bobby's full review of his own acoustic guitar.
- Seagull S6 Review: Bobby's full review of the Seagull S6 acoustic guitar, which is a solid rhythm acoustic and ideal for those who want a more strum-friendly design.
- Acoustic Guitar Effects Pedals: Our popular roundup of pedals that we recommend for the acoustic guitar including, delay, modulation and compression.
- Pedals, Preamps and DI Boxes for the Acoustic Guitar: A second acoustic effects post that expands to include rack processors, preamps and DI boxes as well as pedals.
- Setting up Acoustic Guitar Distortion: Product recommendation and how-to guide for adding distortion or overdrive to an acoustic guitar without feedback.
- Best Acoustic Guitar for Small Hands: Our two favorite acoustic guitars for beginners and players with smaller hands, one from Martin and another from Taylor.
- MusicSkanner's Acoustic Guitar Guide: A similar acoustic guitar roundup featuring some of the best available for affordable prices.