Elton has been playing, writing and teaching guitar both professionally and as a hobbyist for over 20 years. He also writes...a lot.
Playing an acoustic guitar is hard enough; why is buying one such a chore? Why is it so hard? There are new guitars, old guitars, expensive new guitars, cheap, even MORE expensive old ones, which is the best choice?
There are a lot of factors and questions that come into play when making that all important acoustic guitar purchase:
- "I'm just starting out, what should I buy?
- "How much should I spend on it?"
- "How much is too much?"
- "What am I going to use it for?"
- "How do you know the difference between a 'good' one and 'bad'?"
- , etc. are all questions that come into play. It can be daunting, especially with little to no experience with one at all.
For now, let's just take the easy route, shall we?
For the sake of time and cramping fingers, let's assume you're new to this (as a player that's "old hat" will likely know, what they're going for [hopefully]). Though, there will be some relevant information in here for the vet players too. So, if you've got the experience, don't completely check out. Now,...let's get the ball rolling...
Buy old or New?
Firstly, the author's credentials are these: He's been playing for over 20 years (yeah...he's that old [sobbing]). He's been around the guitar buying block a few times; guitar and non-guitar wise. He's played a little under a GAZILLION guitars during that time and can differentiate between a good sounding guitar...over a bad one.
He's also played guitars in a zillion (not as many as a "gazillion"), situations (studios, garages, stages, indoor and out). So, whether that adds credence to what he says is entirely up to you.
Right off the bat, the question of "old or new?" is "the question" from which all others lead. The best suggestion? Buy an old one. Here's a list of reasons now, so everyone can gather their arguments together for the row in the comment section.
- Older guitars sound better, as age causes tone woods to become more dense, hence conducting sound through them easier. (especially pre-1980s acoustics)
- Older guitars are cheaper than new guitars. (check out eBay, it's not a lie.)
- New guitars, in some cases, are made from inferior tone wood.
New guitars, as an idea, are always a great thing. They keep the market stocked with (in most cases) quality guitars that are getting better and better made with each passing year. There's nothing wrong with them...
If you've been playing guitar for a while.
As anyone that has, indeed, been playing guitar for an extended period of time can tell you, the ability to recognize a good instrument over bad is in the experience. The more you handle a guitar, and better yet, more than one guitar; the ability to sort out not only your preferences, but flaws in general become more clear.
That isn't to say that all new guitars are bad, just that if you're inexperienced in what to look for, the chances of getting a "bad" new guitar is higher, than with an older one.
A bad guitar
A "bad" guitar is usually a reference to structural aberrations, and anomalies due to poor manufacturing or handling. Poor gluing, fret wire overhang, high action, etc. are all elements that are factored into a guitar being called "bad". Rarely (other than buzzing caused by poor construction) does sound play into a guitar being "bad", as the sound or "tone" a guitar produces is subjective to the player.
For instance; some acoustic guitars produced cheaply during the great depression and a few decades afterward were considered "cheap" and poorly constructed at the time, yet their sound or "tone" became synonymous with the blues. So, now it's a highly sought after "tone" among acoustic blues enthusiasts.
The point being: If a guitar sounds good to a player, it's probably okay.
Old acoustic blues guitar sound
It's going to sound incredible, but, breaking it down to it's simplest and arguably insane form, regarding acoustic guitars; old is cheaper and better.
Good tonal woods (meaning dense wood that carry acoustic sound waves, via vibration through a guitar in a melodious fashion) used in the manufacture of guitars in general have been in steady decline since the mid-1960s.
This is due, in large part, to over harvesting and heavy deforestation. I'm not here to argue about the sanctity of forests and it's leafy greens. I'm simply stating facts. Trees, whose wood is highly valued for it's special tonal qualities, are going the way of the dodo bird.
Unfortunately, due to a lack of good tonal wood, newer guitars are often relegated to using substitute materials or slivers of tonal wood, piecemeal, to make guitars. When, once upon a time, a guitar might be made wholly from Brazilian Rosewood, now, might have a strip...about an inch wide running along it's back.
A lot of older guitars were made when those tone woods were abundant (and not being over harvested), hence they were constructed of better components. So, by default, having better tonal qualities than newer guitars. That isn't to say that all old guitars were made from great tonal wood, just...a whole lot more than are being made today.
Back then, even the cheaper guitars were made, at least partially out of pretty good...um...wood. Now, those old cheaper guitars are coming into their own, tone wise.
Here's A Guy Talking About Brazilian Rosewood
How does an old guitar SOUND better?
There is a lot of speculation about how or why older guitars sound better. Some say it's because the guitar's wood has been allowed to "breath" over a longer period of time. Others claim it's the finish that has been allowed to "set" longer. Regardless, time and again, players of all stripes have proclaimed and gushed over the warmth and smooth tones of older guitars and how they have it over new models. If that still doesn't sell you, the prices will.
So, what? New is "new" meaning better, No?
Well, no, it's not. See, even though those "cheap" guitars from way back when, were made with better material. In addition to being made with better wood, depending on the age, the wood's tonal qualities have gotten better. It all makes for a richer, fuller sound, in general.
Don't old guitars cost more?
It's true that certain vintage instruments go up in value as they age. Look up the price of a Stradivarius violin and you'll see what I mean.
There are a lot of really, REALLY nice vintage, older acoustics made from fantastic materials that sound amazing...and are cheaper than new guitars. Why are they so cheap?
Frankly, because they're older. New players especially want to be "the first" to own a particular guitar, as though an older, pre-owned instrument were some how rejected. This isn't the case at all, of course. People sell or give up things for a lot of reasons and not all of them being "because it was bad".
A good older guitar isn't a handicap or a sacrifice. It's an investment in quality. They're fantastic for beginners and older players alike. Being the owner of several vintage instruments, I can say that I can hear the difference. A lot are made from better stock (tone wood wise) and can be had for a lot less money than it's newer counterparts.
So, when choosing a guitar to buy, go with old. You'll be happy you did.
Irvin Watson from Mainland, Western Australia, Australia on November 14, 2016:
^^^Exactly. In my experience, once you crest the early 80's lower end guitars really took a dive in quality. Fortunately however, brands Recording King, and others are beginning to offer fantastic, solid wood instruments at affordable prices again.
Elton Edgar (author) from Pennsylvania on November 11, 2016:
Irving is absolutely correct. Venture outside the box a little, you'd be surprised at the high quality that budget instruments were made with back in the day. Superior materials were far easier to come by in the past and used much more frivolously on lower end models than today. The further you go back...with almost any brand and you'll find gems.
Irvin Watson from Mainland, Western Australia, Australia on November 10, 2016:
Vintage examples of older brands like Harmony, Hofner, Kay, etc. that ended up becoming "department store brands" were actually hand made with solid woods back in the early 1900s. So finding a vintage model and playing it may surprise you. I own a 40 year old Kay 00 that I absolutely love. and it gets better every day.
Brad on February 07, 2016:
I agree, but I've done many hours of research looking for a vintage acoustic guitar.. however other than Martin, Gibson who's name bring large figures and (Taylor and Guild who still require large sums for the most part) what are some other brands worth seeking due to a good price? I was thinking about Harmony acoustics but that Jimmy Page sovereign model brings money due to him using It years ago. And Idk if vintage harmony is even made in america. Whay are some American made vintage acoustic brands worth looking for at a reasonable price? I need help! Great article btw!