Whether you already have an “electric” background or are approaching the instrument for the first time, the acoustic guitar can seem mysterious to the uninitiated. It’s hard to know what you’re after before you know what’s out there. I’ve compiled some considerations revolving around what I believe to be the three most significant variables in acoustic guitars: size, tone, and feel. Hopefully, it will help you hone in on that perfect combination of wood, bone, and wire.
Size: Acoustics vary greatly in size and shape. Generally speaking, the smallest are referred to as Parlor/Single 0, followed by 00/Grand Concert, OOO/OM, OOOO/Grand Auditorium/Small Jumbo, Jumbo/Grand Symphony, and finally the Dreadnought (some jumbos exceed dreadnoughts in surface area, but their tight-waisted design reins in the bass response and some of the overall volume. Dreadnoughts are typically thought of as the loudest.)
It’s not like trying on shoes, though. Do not let your stature inherently limit you in your search. There are plenty of small folks who play big guitars and big folks who play small ones. Trust your instincts and go for the sound that most appeals to you. You will learn to accommodate. Don’t believe me? Google “kids playing guitars” and watch some tiny human beings shred.
Body size is more a question of the tonal aesthetic you’re after and the context that you’ll be using it in. For instance, if you play in a traditional string band with a banjo and you all share one mic on stage, then you have a definite need for acoustic volume. Perhaps an Adirondack topped dreadnought. No bass player? Try rosewood back and sides for added bass response. An upright and another guitar player who already has a rosewood dread? Try a slope-shouldered long-scale dread with mahogany back and sides. The added definition and mids will help you cut through the mix.
Say you’re the singer-songwriting/bandleader type. Some of your tunes are rocking “strummers”, while others are tender fingerstyle ballads. An orchestra model would be perfect. Big enough for strumming, but focused and forward enough to really balance out well when finger-picked.
A classical player transitioning to steel string? Try a OO size with a 1 13/16th nut. It will be comparable to a typical nylon string in size and feel.
A celtic fingerstylist who plays with a bodhran and a concertina? A jumbo will give you the needed volume and the tight waist will give you the balance and note definition.
What about an electric shredder looking for a lower-tech ax? Try an “L-OO” shape with a C neck and a short scale. You’ll be in country blues/acoustic rock heaven.
Tonewoods: Next to the body size, tonewoods are the biggest contributor in the sound of a guitar. Folks spend a lot of time discussing back and side woods, but it is the top that is responsible for the majority of the vibration. That said, there are only a handful of options (mostly spruces) for guitar tops, so it makes sense that people focus more on the exotic species that are procured for back and sides.
As far as spruces go, the default for many years has been Sitka. It is consistently grained with a strong fundamental and a nice natural compression when playing chords. Engelmann Spruce is softer and quieter with a rich overtone spectrum. Adirondack “Red Spruce” is the loudest and most forceful with big, bold overtones. European Spruces tend to fall somewhere in between Adirondack and Engelmann, combining sensitivity with strength.
In addition to Spruces, Redwood, Cedar, and Mahogany are often used as top woods. Cedar and Redwood are soft and sweet with more of a classical/nylon responsiveness than Spruce. They are not very loud, however, and don’t like being played hard. Mahogany is almost always used as a top-wood on all mahogany (“hog-top”) guitars. The overall effect is an earthy, punchy mid-range tone that can be wonderful for banjo-style frailing and ragtime.
Of course, please take these generalizations with a grain of salt. Every right-hand is different and so is every piece of wood. It’s much better and easier to find the right fit through live comparison than it is through research. I would advise playing your favorite pieces in what you would consider your style on myriad guitars before making a decision. You might be surprised at what works best.
Although not as fundamental (pun intended) as the top wood, back and side woods impart sustain, reflect overtones, and emphasize different frequency registers. The most classic comparison is between rosewood and mahogany. Rosewood has a more “scooped”/“highs and lows” kind of sound that is lush and forgiving with a full overtone spectrum. It has a natural reverb to it. Mahogany is more woody and midrange. Historically, mahogany has always been more affordable, as well, so it’s hard to determine how much the characterization of it being a “humble, working man’s wood” is influenced by the cost differential, but I have observed that most folks who are exposed to the dichotomy for the first time find rosewood to be “prettier”. That said. I have also noted that many advanced players gravitate towards Mahogany for its clarity, dryness, and balance. In one of my favorite, counter-intuitive reflections on the tonewood, Julian Lage described his signature model mahogany OM as being “lovingly neutral”.
Given their long history and accessibility, Mahogany and Rosewood can also be placed on two sides of a spectrum used to evaluate other, more exotic tonewoods. On one side, we have the lush, rosewood-like woods. On the other, the dryer, more mahogany-like woods. Of course, this a deeply flawed system of analysis, but it will serve to at least began to understand the nuances contained with the vast array of rare and not-so-rare tone woods employed as back and side woods for acoustic guitars.
If you’re into mahogany and have exhausted the vast array of species therein on your quest for the perfect back and side wood, try Koa for more crispness, or Maple or Cherry for even more clarity and fundamental.
Looking for rosewood-like majesty and figuring but intimidated by the huge price-tag of Brazilian? Cocobolo, Ebony, Blackwood, or Ziricote may prove the right choice for reasons as diverse as the tone-hunters who routinely scan google for insights into the mysterious world of musical hardwoods.
Feel: Finding a guitar with the right “feel” is very important and extremely subjective. Hand and finger size are certainly a consideration, but it goes beyond that. Neck profile, scale length, string spacing, and nut width are often a reflection of one’s playing style.
Neck profiles range from a hulking C, to a slim D, to a deep V, with many more in between. Nut widths extend from 1 5/8ths to a full 2 inches with string spacing at the bridge adjusted accordingly. Scale lengths often coincide with the size of a guitar (smaller=shorter/bigger=longer), but not always.
Typically, fingerstyle guys want more room for their right hand, while rhythm guys prefer the strings closer together on the fretboard for easy chordal phrasing. It’s always a compromise. Classically trained players can use a V neck to their advantage, pivoting off the spine with their thumbs, while rock guys need an full C to fill their palm while they dig into power chords. If you do a lot of barre chords, slimmer is often better. Primarily electric players often prefer slimmer, more “modern” profiles, too. All that said, I’ve often noted that folks simply end up favoring neck profiles similar to the instrument that they developed most of their skills on. Everyone’s got a different definition of comfortable.
In conclusion, there is no quintessential acoustic guitar. Whereas most laymen wouldn’t be able to tell one violin or saxophone from another, they’ve almost certainly uttered the phrase “cool guitar” at some point in their lives. The difference in body size between a dreadnought and a vintage parlor is enormous, but is more likely the dreadnought owner who would find the parlor “tough to play”.
What all guitars do have in common is that they are portable, melodic or chordal, and easily re-tuned. It’s not hard to see why they are the most popular instrument in the world.
Midwood Guitar Studio is honored to carry a wide selection of some of the finest-built acoustic guitars in the world. Don't hesitate to call us with any questions when choosing your next acoustic guitar, as we have an expert staff here who will help guide you to making the right decision for YOU!