Choosing the right acoustic guitar for you can be a daunting process, especially when many factors must be considered. Which company made the guitar? What kind of wood did they use? What tone are you looking for? What is the string action? Is it comfortable to play? These are all important questions, but one of the most difficult questions to answer is, how much should I spend on a guitar?
So, the question is: expensive vs. cheap guitars, are they worth it? Even though more professional musicians might decide to spend a lot of money on getting the “perfect” guitar, the difference in the quality of sound between an expensive acoustic guitar and a cheap one is not great enough to support the price difference. So if you are a beginner or even intermediate player I wouldn’t recommend buying an expensive acoustic guitar. Expensive acoustic guitars are not worth the exorbitant prices they usually have.
Since we are all at different stages in our musicianship, we have different needs in what we are looking for in a guitar to help push us forward in our journey. Some might actually have very specific needs in terms of the type of wood they want, the tone they are looking for, etc… At that stage, it is more likely you will decide to invest a little more on an acoustic guitar.
But what are the most noticeable differences between an expensive acoustic guitar and a cheap one? It is my job to show you all the pros and cons that expensive and cheap guitars have so you can make a decision on what to get. Let’s get to it!
Do Expensive Guitars Sound Better?
There is no way around this. The answer is yes, expensive guitars will most likely always be of better quality than cheaper guitars. The detail in which the guitars are made, the type of materials used and how well the adjustments are made is what increases the quality of a guitar, therefore the price.
There is a reason why Martin Guitars are the most popular acoustic guitar manufacturers. They have not only been around for over 180 years, but they are also the creators of the dreadnought style of acoustic guitar, one of the most popular shapes today. You can find on their website guitars that go from $499.00, such as the Martin LX1R, to $10,999.00 priced guitars such as the Martin SS-0041-15.
Granted, a $500 guitar is still a bit expensive and we will get into comparisons between cheap and expensive guitars later in this article, but the thing that must be understood is that the materials, the specs, and the detail in which both guitars were made, is what differentiates them in quality and of course, price.
The Martin SS-0041-15 is made of Guatemalan rosewood, which is a very nice wood and somewhat expensive. It is also equipped with Fishman Aura VT electronics and has a very detailed finish. On the other hand, the Martin LX1R is made of Sitka spruce, a wood that is far more common and much cheaper to manufacture. This guitar does not come with electronics, which is another difference that affects both quality and price. Finally, the finish is very standard, without many features.
It is all of these details that end up deciding how much the guitar is worth, and of course, the Martin SS will DEFINITELY sound better than the LX1R. The tone will be fuller and the overall volume will be louder, not to mention the aesthetic improvements the Martin SS-0041-15 will have.
The real question that must be asked is: Does the martin SS-0041-15’s quality worth $10,500.00 more than the Martin LX1R? Will it sound that much better?
The answer is no! Again, of course, there is a noticeable difference in quality. There has to be for them to charge what they do. But if you listen to both guitars and compare them, can you really say that the Martin LX1R sounds bad? Or not professional? In my opinion, there is not a $10,500 difference in sound quality between these two guitars. Check it out yourself:
Here are two videos showcasing both guitars, where you will see that even though there are noticeable differences in the sound quality, both sound really good and the price difference is too big for how good the Martin SS-0041-15 sounds.
Do Cheap Acoustic Guitars Really Sound Bad?
let us take apart a couple of common misconceptions about “cheap” guitars. First of all, the word “cheap” is very deceivable. There is a difference between something that costs less than something else vs. something that has very little value, was made poorly, or is downright worthless. This misconception might have you thinking that a “cheap” guitar means that it will always include low value, poor manufacture, and detail.
You can still find excellent affordable acoustic guitars that are fairly well crafted. To ease your searching I created the following post Top 20 Budget Acoustic Guitars Under $100, $150, $200, $300 For Beginners
The other misconception we must confront is that a cheap guitar is made cheaply. Of course, we must recognize that cheaper guitars will be made out of cheaper materials, however, there are many reasons why guitars can be cheaper.
One of them is mass production. Naturally, mass production will mean two things, a decrease in cost but also in quality. By making the process exact for every guitar, using the same mass amount of hybrid woods and using various methods to reduce expenses, guitars will not have the same amount of detail a boutique guitar shop would give to their products. Ultimately, this proves to be an issue because any problems a guitar will have when mass-produced, will not have the same attention, which will naturally make it of lower quality.
However, does this mean that these cheap guitars are made cheaply? Not exactly. There is still a degree of mastery required to handle all of the assembly processes needed to make guitars. Also, companies such as Fender or Gibson can afford to make cheaper, mass-made guitars but can’t afford to make “cheap” guitars. Why? Because their reputation is directly related to the quality of all their products, including the most inexpensive ones.
Of course, there is still the risk of in a batch of let’s say 100 guitars, that 30 of them are below expected quality. How do we make sure we don’t accidentally or unknowingly purchase one of these bad quality guitars? By comparing what a good and bad acoustic guitar entails and their differences.
The Differences Between A Good And A Bad Acoustic Guitar
After doing the proper research, I have found that these three main differences have to be acknowledged before you decide on how much are you willing to spend to get a top-quality guitar or a functional one.
Intonation is by far the most important aspect you have to be on the lookout when it comes to acoustic guitars. In an electric guitar, it is a much more solvable issue since intonation can be properly adjusted. On the other hand, an acoustic guitar’s intonation solely relies on whether the guitar was well made or not. This is something that is very difficult to be changed afterward since acoustic guitars don’t have the set up an electric guitar would have. Therefore it is very important for you to make sure the intonation on your desired acoustic guitar is good.
In order to check the intonation, you need to play any open string and make sure it is in tune, use an electric tuner for this process. Afterward, you have to play the natural harmonic on the twelfth fret and make sure the intonation does not vary. Slightly placing your finger right above the metal part of the fret, without applying pressure, will create the natural harmonic.
If it were to slightly vary, that is ok and it is something that can be fixed, but it is much more recommended to just make sure it doesn’t.
String action is also a very important factor. Having proper string action ensures that your guitar will have the smoothest playability possible. Mind you, not all hands are made the same and your action needs may change, for which the easiest way to make sure you feel comfortable, is by just playing the guitar all over the neck.
You will also be on the lookout for any rattle or noticeable change of tone and sustain as you go higher up the fretboard. If any of these things begin to occur, you are better off with another guitar. Sting action is also a very hard thing to change due to the nature of how an acoustic guitar is constructed. Therefore, it is crucial that you pay special attention to making sure the guitar feels comfortable to you in any part of the fretboard.
Once you are past all of the functional aspects that need to be checked on your desired acoustic guitar, the tone of the guitar becomes the deciding factor. I must restate that every acoustic guitar will definitely sound different. There is no way around that, there are many factors that will affect every single guitar differently. The age of the wood, the temperature on which it was built, the temperature of where it is stored, etc. All of these factors will affect the way the wood develops and will change the tone and resonance of a guitar.
Now, the first thing to look out for is actually very simple. Pick up the desired guitar, play an open chord (G and E are the best options) and ask yourself, does this sound well? Trust your ears and your instinct on this one. Usually, better-made guitars will have a fuller sound, with a more low end but with a clear definition of all the notes. The sustain on the guitar will also increase and the overall volume without any sort of amplification will be louder. On a cheaper guitar, the sustain will decrease and the tone is usually thinner and a bit more “twangy”. The low end will not be as present and volume might decrease as well.
Now, this might be something specific for more experienced players, but it also can be taken into consideration what kind of style is the one you are looking to play more. Just because a guitar is thinner or has more mid-range rather than the low and high end, does not necessarily mean the guitar will not fit a particular style (such as rhythmic country or funky-styled music). If you are looking for an acoustic guitar to fill in most or all the space of your songs, then a fuller one is the best choice. This works particularly well for singer-songwriters.
If you already have or about to buy an acoustic guitar and not sure how you should learn and what. I suggest you check out some Youtube channels. To make your life easier I summarized the top channels in the following list 13 Top YouTube Channels To Learn Guitar For Beginners And Advanced
The Elements Of An Acoustic Guitar That Most Impact It’s Sound
Acoustic Guitar Top
Wood is definitely the most important element that changes the tone and resonance of a guitar. It is particularly important in the construction of the top of the guitar, usually referred to as the “soundboard”. Cheaper guitars will normally use what is called a laminate wood, which is made from thin pieces of wood pressed and glued together. This is a cheaper process, but it does affect the tone considerably.
In terms of durability, laminated tops are composed of different layers that go through a gluing process that will enhance their resilience. Therefore, a laminated top will have a better chance of not being too affected by external factors such as climate and humidity. That is one of the biggest pluses in laminated tops.
A solid top means the top of the guitar is all made of one piece, which gives it continuity to the wood, which in turn will give the sound better sustain and resonance, two very important factors in acoustic guitar sounds. As for the tone, the important thing to mention is that because solid tops are made of one piece of wood, it enables the wood to continue aging, giving it’s tone a richer sound as time goes by. This will also improve their resonance.
As for durability, this is where the downside can occur. Because it is one piece of wood, it is more susceptible to elements such as temperature and humidity, affecting the wood much more than on a laminated top. Therefore I’d recommend that if you get a solid top acoustic guitar, that you make a commitment to keep a very strict routine of care for your guitar to ensure untampered aging.
Fretboard Wood Type
The wood used for the fretboard as well as the thicknesses of it is important factors that affect sound and playability. Usually, thicker fretboard will mean darker tones and longer space between frets can enhance sustain, without it being too much that it affects playability. I would recommend you asking about this particular element to your trusted guitar salesman.
This is pertinent to acoustic-electric guitars and it is the factor that affects the sound the least. Nevertheless, it is still an important thing to consider if your intention is to do “unplugged” performances. The best electronics will only enhance the already created tone in the acoustic guitar, so make sure to plug in your guitar and see how much the tone is affected vs. just playing it on its own.
Is An Expensive Acoustic Guitar Really Worth It?
It is one of the most complicated questions to answer because, as I mentioned before, every guitar player is at their own level and has their own necessities. Here’s an important thing to answer, is it a necessity? Or is it a luxury? Of course, if you have the money to spend and want to, even if it is a luxury, by all means, go for it. However on the other hand, if you are not really sure if it is a necessity, it probably isn’t.
In my opinion, the level of musicianship you have is crucial in deciding whether to buy an expensive guitar or not. If you are a beginner or even an intermediate guitarist, it is probably best for you to find a guitar on the lower price range (obviously without buying something you are not happy with). My reasoning behind this is, there are so many details regarding technique, knowledge of the fretboard, knowledge of harmony and natural development of creativity that can only come to you with practice and patience. Buying an expensive guitar is a commitment that states you are certain you will spend the time (and by that I mean years, if not a lifetime) developing your musicianship. If you are that certain, then again, by all means, go for it. If it is something you are still waiting to see how it develops, a cheaper guitar is better.
On the other hand, if you are intermediate to even expert guitar player, then maybe getting that guitar you crave so much can spark once again that inner fire that pushes you forward in your journey to mastering guitar. Also, at this point, you are probably able to differentiate if it is a necessity (maybe you are looking to expand your arsenal of sounds and tones) or a luxury.
The last thing I must mention for which I will use the following video as a reference is that even though there will be a difference in quality from a cheap to an expensive guitar, the difference will most likely not be equivalent to the price difference.
Check out this video and it will all be shown and explained.
After looking at all the pros and cons of expensive and cheap guitars I can say that of course, an expensive guitar has much more of a chance of having a better sound, more suited to your needs. It is more likely for you to find a more expensive guitar with a fuller, sweeter sound, with more resonance and made of wood that will not only last more but will potentially improve over the years. It is also less likely that you will find a cheap guitar that can live up to the standards of a more expensive one. However, I am a firm believer that price differences between acoustic guitars are not necessarily an indicator of which guitar is better for you. Ultimately the most important thing is you find a guitar that naturally feels good and that instinctively creates a warm feeling for you. A guitar can be a big investment; I would recommend you make sure it’s one you are willing to do. So my suggestion to you is, go to your most trusted guitar store with an open mind and with open ears and spend some time playing all the guitars you can find your hands on. I assure you, the right guitar will be there, waiting for you.
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