Buying an Acoustic Guitar

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Prepare Yourself With The Basics

Peter Kun Frary, Professor of Music, UH Leeward

Buying a new instrument is a critical step for the novice guitarist. A basic knowledge of the instrument and an assessment of your musical goals will help you make a wise purchase, a purchase you can enjoy for years, perhaps even a lifetime. Walking into a shop without a basic understanding of the instrument and your goals is a formula for disappointment.

Takamine ETN10C Dreadnought Acoustic-Electric Steel-String with Cedar Top and Cutaway

What is an Acoustic Guitar?

All guitars produce sound through the mechanical vibration of strings. Acoustic guitars transmit the vibration of the string to the soundboard via the saddle and bridge. The combined resonance of the strings, saddle, bridge and soundboard are, in turn, "amplified" in the soundbox or body of the guitar. The design and quality of the strings, saddle, bridge and soundboard have a major impact on the sound. One weak link in the transmission chain--a cheap plastic saddle, worn out strings, etc.--degrades the sound considerably. In contrast, the vibrating strings of an electric guitar are read directly by a pickup and transmitted to a sound system for amplification.

Parts of the Guitar

 

Nylon Strings or Steel?

There are two basic types of acoustic guitars, the classic or nylon-string guitar and the steel-string guitar. Both types are excellent general purpose instruments, suitable for many styles, but each has its own distinct feel and sound. The choice of one or the other is purely personal. Pop musicians tend to use steel-strings guitars more often than classics. However, many guitarists play both types of instruments depending on their mood and style of music. Eric Clapton, mainly a steel-string player, used a classic guitar in "Tears From Heaven." The Eagles, mostly an electric guitar band, used Takamine CP132SC classics on the live acoustic version of "Hotel California." Ozzie Kotani and Keola Breamer do much of their slack key work on nylon-string classics.

The Entertainer • LCC Guitars, Peter Kun Frary, director • Mixed ensemble of steel and nylon strings guitars. Steel-strings on left channel and nylon on the right and bass.

 

Classic Guitar • Hirade H5RNylon strings and cedar top.

 

CAUTION: DO NOT PUT STEEL-STRINGS ON A CLASSIC GUITAR. The high tension of steel-strings will severely damage the bridge and soundboard.

Here are the primary differences between nylon and steel-string guitars:

Strings. The classic guitar's nylon strings produce a round, mellow sound (the preferred sound for classical, Latin and many popular and folk styles). In contrast, steel-strings produce a bright, metallic sound (the staple of Country and Western and Hawaiian music).

String tension. The classic guitar has a string tension of 75-90 pounds whereas the steel-string has a string tension of 150-200 pounds. Thus, the strings of a classic guitar are much easier to fret than a steel-string acoustic.

Fingerboard. The fingerboard of a classic is 50 mm at the nut whereas the steel-string is 40 mm. The wide fingerboard of the classic is designed for intricate finger picking. In contrast, the narrow fingerboard of a steel-string acoustic, 40 mm at the nut, is optimized for playing with a pick.

String length. The longer string length from saddle to nut of the classic (650 mm vs. 644 mm for steel-string acoustics) enhances the bass response and sustain.

Upper fingerboard access. The neck joins the body at the 12th fret on classics and at the 14th fret on most steel-strings. Short necks yield a sweeter timbre but are more difficult to play above the 12th fret.

Body size. The classic body style is smaller and thus easier to hold than most acoustic designs. Guitarists around 6 feet in height will find the dreadnought and jumbo comfortable to hold. Most people 5'4" and under will find the dreadnought and jumbo uncomfortable to hold. Smaller guitarists should consider the classic, NEX or Artist body styles (see below).

Body Styles

The first thing you notice about a guitar is its shape. Acoustic steel-string guitars come in a variety of shapes whereas the classic comes in one basic shape and size (that why it's called the classic). In order of size, beginning with the largest, there are five common steel-string acoustic designs: jumbo, dreadnought, NEX, Artist and folk. The Artist and folk, the smallest steel-string designs, and are about the same size as the classic.

NEX Body • Takamine TNV460SCMore slender waist than a dreadnought

Besides appearance, what's the difference between the various body styles? Small bodies tend to favor midrange and treble and are easier to hold (especially when sitting down). For example, the increased midrange and treble response of the NEX and Artist styles cut through the sonic soup of a band better than a dreadnought or a jumbo and, because of the smaller body, feedback less through sound systems. In addition, lead guitarists often favor smaller body guitars because of their balanced sound. In contrast, large bodies have more bass response. Thus, large guitar bodies, especially the dreadnought, are favored by bold strummers for their boom 'n twang. Slack key artists like the extended bass response of the dreadnought and jumbo for "slacked" tunings.

Jumbo Body • Takamine EG523SCAs big as it gets!

The cutaway on the upper bout allows easy upper fret access but reduces volume and bass response by 10% to 20%.

©Copyright 1998-2012 by Peter Kun Frary • All rights reserved


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