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4 Things You Must Know Before Shopping for an Acoustic Guitar

October 21, 2015


What do people first notice when they see a guitar they are interested in buying? The same thing people notice when they find anything they want to buy — how it looks! And, yes, there are many beautiful guitars out there. But, you don’t just have to buy with your eyes! We can help you buy with your ears and mind too!

We asked our guitar expert, Tim Keyes, what players need to know when shopping for that acoustic guitar. Use our helpful guide to decide what features are most important and you’ll find an instrument to love for decades.

Yes, fancy quilt maples and inlays can make your friends green with envy. But, what about how it sounds? The first consideration is the wood that comprises the body of the guitar.

Michael Kelly guitar expert Tim Keyes weighs in: “The type of wood used for the soundboard (top) definitely makes a difference in the tone of the guitar. Spruce is the wood that is used quite often as a top; It’s a very bright, bold, punchy type of sound.  By comparison, cedar, which is also used frequently, is a type of wood that has a warmer, mellower type of tone. Neither is better than the other, it’s just a personal preference in tone from one player to another. Another great option now available are tops made from exotic woods like flame maple or quilted maple. When used on acoustic guitar tops, these are brighter with more high-end tones.”

Now that you’ve decided which wood top is best for your desired tone, what about the rest of the body? The backs and sides have an effect on overall tone and volume as well. The wood for the sides and back of the guitar don’t need to match the top; in fact, most of the time they are different woods. Mahogany is often used for a guitar’s back and sides and it pairs well with spruce.

Now that you know about the type of wood, what about construction?

“For the players who buy on sound, a solid top on an acoustic is often a key feature to look for.  What that means is the top sound board is one solid piece of wood. Traditionally speaking, solid top acoustics resonate better which makes them louder. The tone of solid-top acoustics actually improves over time. Through the vibrations and the way the wood cures, it actually gets louder and resonates more as it is played through the years,” Tim says.

What about the player who really, really, loves that quilt maple look for the top of his acoustic guitar?  Does he or she sacrifice some tone for the desired look? Not necessarily, says Tim:  “There was an old perception in the industry that a laminate top didn’t sound as good as a solid top, but we at Michael Kelly have proven that wrong. If the veneer is properly laminated, sometimes that’s better than one piece. I’ve personally played some laminate guitars that I thought sounded better than a solid top, so it depends on the manufacturing process. At Michael Kelly we often use a blended wood selection with exotic woods that allows us to tune the body to the depth and projection that we are seeking.”

There are typically two types of wood used on fretboards for acoustic guitars: rosewood and ebony.  Rosewood is a high quality wood that has a long been the standard in guitar manufacturing producing a warm tone.

Some consumers might want to pay more for ebony for various reasons. Ebony is a very tightly grained wood, so experienced players may be able to feel the difference in the fretboard. Ebony is a little brighter in tone (though darker in appearance!) because it’s so dense.

Tim’s opinion on ebony vs. rosewood: “It’s more of an appearance difference. Certainly fretboard material does affect the tone a bit, but the fretboard is only a part of the entire guitar. I would say that the material for the body of the guitar has a larger impact on the tone than the fretboard by itself. The appearance of ebony, which is almost black, makes inlays jump off the fretboard because of the contrast with the background. Players who are considering an instrument with an ebony fretboard should try both and see if the difference in price is worth it.”

When is an acoustic not just an acoustic? When it has onboard electronics! Having electronic pickups installed gives the player the ability to plug in an acoustic guitar so that it can be played through an amplifier or a sound system. It can also be plugged into an interface for home recording.  This expands the variety of types of sounds that can be produced from the instrument with the addition of effects pedals.

Tim’s take? “Pickups are a nice feature that a lot of people may or may not think of when shopping for an acoustic guitar, particularly their first one, but it does add a lot of versatility to the instrument. We use Fishman brand on almost all of our guitars with the onboard preamps and they’re one of the top manufacturers. Even then, it’s still more affordable than trying to add it later, because you’ve got to pay for the labor for someone to install it and it’s not recommended as a DIY project. So one key tip, if you want a guitar with the option to amplify it, buy one with that capability already integrated into it.”

Now what?
Now that you are armed with the facts, get out there and play! Call the experts at Michael Kelly Guitars for more information about our acoustic models. Or, visit one of our showcase dealers to get your hands on one.

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