The acoustic guitar is an underrated instrument these days. With all the gear out there designed for electric guitars, the possibilities for sound are literally infinite; with an acoustic, there’s not much to hide behind—but that can be a good thing. And while the people who were mad when Dylan went electric in ‘65 are clearly on the wrong side of history, there was, in fact, a kernel of truth in their enduring belief that the acoustic guitar is awesome and that its legacy should be preserved.
The depth of sound, the dynamic range, and the amount of general control a skilled guitarist can find in an acoustic guitar is astonishing. And like the way a myriad of pedals can totally change the sound of an electric guitar, the sound of an acoustic is determined by a number of factors in its build, including type of wood, size of body, whether it has an electric option, and the kind of fretboard. Acoustic guitars also vary greatly depending on what kind of music you want to play—the kind you’ll need will be different for rock, fingerpicked folk, classical, jazz, et cetera.
First, the kind of wood your guitar is made of will make a huge difference; frequently seen types include maple, cedar, spruce (probably the most common), and mahogany. Different types of wood have different densities, which means—you guessed it—different possibilities for vibration and resonation. Less expensive guitars may have laminated finishes or cheaper wood, which can be preferable to some for aesthetic or cost purposes; solid wood, however, is going to have a more resonant, pure sound. So, next time you’re trying to impress your homies at Guitar Center with a fresh Radiohead lick, pay attention to the wood. Also, just trust your eyes and ears: Do you want a glossy finish or a more rustic look? Do you want a thinner sound, or a broader one? Spend a lot of time messing around on different guitars—you’ll quickly get a sense of the kinds of sound they can produce.
A second consideration is whether you’re going for a pure acoustic guitar or an acoustic-electric, meaning it can be plugged in and amplified. Some acoustic-electrics have built-in tuners or adjustment knobs, making it easier to quickly change your sound. Keep in mind, an acoustic-electric guitar means that they’ve cut the wood to install a small, electric box, which will affect the look and the resonance. This choice should really just stem from your needs. Are you like me, a lone dog hacking out acoustic covers of Smashing Pumpkins and Bruce Springsteen songs to an empty apartment? Then you may not need to (read: definitely don’t want to) amplify that shit. But if you’re in a band or are trying to jam some acoustic Van Morrison songs at the local coffee shop, you might want to plug in.
Guitars range in size from parlor/baby guitars up to jumbo, and ultimately you just want to get something that a) sounds good, and b) fits your body and hand size. This is especially true regarding the fretboard—don’t get something that’s clearly too wide or too small for your hands, or else you’ll struggle to nail that B-flat chord (and thus probably won’t get laid). Each brand has its own system, and it’s up to you to research them so you can know the terrain, narrow down your preferences, and pick something that’s perfect for you. That way, next time someone tells you they’re playing a J-45, you can ask whether it’s a Gibson or an Epiphone instead of just saying, “Hell yeah.”
Yamaha FG 800
This solid-spruce-topped guitar has a rosewood fingerboard and a nato wood body. Due to its warm sound and solid construction, it’s considered one of the greatest entry-level dreadnoughts ever. But entry-level doesn’t mean limiting—you’ll be able to learn scales and chords on this baby, but you can also delve into intermediate territory and play songs by Nirvana or Dave Matthews Band. (Don’t hate, some of Dave’s tabs are pretty hard!)
Taylor GS Mini
This mostly mahogany Taylor gives a pretty serious bang for your buck. Yes, it’s a smaller guitar, but it produces a great, clear sound and is perfect for axemen on the go. While the “Mini” indicates a more petite size, it’s in no way a pejorative… unless you think you’re bigger and better than GS Mini players like Jack Johnson, Harry Styles, Father John Misty, and Mac DeMarco.
This is a cool ass guitar. It says, “I like rock n’ roll, but I’m also a cowboy.” It’s made of more unusual guitar woods, like basswood and walnut, and is insanely economical, no matter what level player you are. Buyer beware: If you pick this up, there’s a 100% chance you’ll wind up in duel at high noon.
Epiphone Hummingbird Pro
With an appealing spruce-mahogany wood duo and a faded cherry sunburst top, the iconic Hummingbird model looks and sounds absolutely badass. This one might seem corny to some people, but I think it’s one of the most beautiful guitars out there. Epiphone’s version is a take on the Gibson Hummingbird, an OG killer guitar that’s been strummed by Taylor Swift, Thom Yorke, Ryan Adams, Keith Richards, and many more.
Again based on a Gibson mainstay, the J-45 is a clone of one of the most beloved guitars out there. It’s an acoustic-electric, and its daddy has been played by everyone from Bob Dylan and Woody Guthrie to Jeff Tweedy and Lucinda Williams (i.e. rockers rocking about how much America rocks).
The one’s a bit more expensive; but with a solid spruce top, rosewood sides, and a black ebony fingerboard, this guitar’s not only handsome as hell, but has a truly powerful sound. In fact, the “D” stands for “dreadnought,” which indicates that it’s a larger guitar with a deeper sound. Your favorite high-skilled guitar hero probably plays this one (assuming your heroes are pros like Johnny Marr, James Hetfield, and Neil Young).
At the end of the day, acoustic guitars are like knives—even shitty ones will get the job done, so try a bunch out and get one that you think looks cool and feels good. An incredible guitarist can make a cheap guitar sing, while a mediocre player can bring shame to the finest Taylor. Really, just find something you like and play what you want to play (as long as you don’t do it at a party, lest your axe be *justly* destroyed).
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