How to Buy Your First Acoustic Guitar

choosing a guitar

Buying an acoustic guitar can be stressful because of the sheer number of factors and choices you have to consider. But it doesn’t have to be so anxiety-inducing! To make choosing an acoustic guitar easier, I put together this helpful buying guide of my top 16 tips for choosing an acoustic guitar.

Whether you’re transitioning from electric to acoustic, buying your first acoustic guitar as a beginner, or are an experienced player looking to pick up a new style of acoustic guitar, this post has some ideas that are sure to help you out and make the process easier.

I hope this buying guide helps you out and makes choosing your acoustic guitar a lot less overwhelming! Let’s jump right into the 16 best tips for buying an acoustic guitar.

1. Always Try Before You Buy

One of the biggest mistakes people make when choosing an acoustic guitar is not trying it out before purchasing it. Not only do you not know what your guitar sounds and feels like in real life if you don’t try it, but you’re also missing out on another important benefit.

By going to a store or shop in person, you can not only try a specific guitar you might be interested in, but a variety of other ones. When I walked out of Guitar Center with my first acoustic guitar, I didn’t go in thinking I wanted a Yamaha acoustic guitar. At the time, I didn’t even knowYamaha made acoustic guitars!

By going to the shop and trying a bunch of models, you get to see first hand what they sound like, and you might just be blown away by an instrument you otherwise wouldn’t have considered.

2. Get a Second Opinion

One of the most effective ways to ensure you’re choosing a quality guitar is to bring a very experienced guitarist with you and take the guitar for a test drive. This can be a guitar teacher, a friend of yours, or a band member. Heck, you could even pay a luthier or an experienced guitarist off craigslist to go with you. It’ll be worth it.

Simply bring an experienced guitarist with you to your buying location and ask them to play the guitar and give you their thoughts on it.

The reason this is so helpful is because if you’re not an experienced guitarist yourself, it can be hard to evaluate the quality of the instrument you’re considering. Someone who’s been playing for many years will have a lot of ideas about what to look for and consider when choosing an acoustic guitar, and help steer you in the right direction.

3. Get a Free Guitar Setup

Many guitarists don’t know that after choosing their acoustic guitar, it’s often wise to get it set up. But even fewer players know that you can usually get your new guitar set up for free, especially if you’re buying it at a shop.

Here’s a little secret to get a free setup thrown in with your new purchase… Simply ask the tech at the shop to make sure your new guitar is set up correctly before you purchase it, or as part of the purchase.

This will save you from the separate setup trip and cost later, and the tech likely won’t mind, especially if you’ve already committed to buying the guitar. Simply ask if the action and intonation look good.

If you’re wondering whether you even need a setup in the first place or how much they typically cost, check out my helpful post on guitar setups.

4. Consider whether you want to buy used or new

Whether you want to buy a used or new acoustic guitar is an important consideration. Each option has its respective pros and cons. You can often find used guitars for much cheaper than their newer counterparts, and even score good deals locally with options like Craigslist.

However, it can be harder to assess the quality of the instrument if it’s used. If you can’t play the guitar in person, you have to take the owner’s word and trust the guitar is in good condition. Even if you do get to play it, there may be things you miss or simply don’t notice within just a half or so of testing the guitar out.

If you go for a used guitar, it’s even more important to try before you buy, and to try and take an experienced player with you to get a second opinion.

5. Decide what tone wood you want

One of the biggest factors influencing an acoustic guitar’s tone is the wood that the guitar is made out of. Each type of tonewood has distinct and unique qualities that set it apart from the others.

If you don’t already know what kind of tonewood you prefer, it’s best to test guitars made out of a variety of different woods and find your preference. This is another reasons why it’s so important to try before you buy.

In general, these are the most important characteristics of the different types of guitar tonewoods:

  • Rosewood offers a clear bright sound. The tone of rosewood tends to be evenly balanced across all frequencies. Clarity is rosewood’s distinct feature.
  • Mahogany is famously used in Martin guitar classics like the D18. Mahogany is hard and dense, often providing a tone that warm, punchy, and woody. Mahogany’s distinct feature is a booming midrange. Mahogany is also unique in that its tone tends to change slightly as the wood ages.
  • Sapele is closely related to mahogany, but offers a stronger more a bit more top-end definition. Sapele is often reddish-amber colored with beautiful stripes and light/dark patches.
  • Maple is a bit rarer to see in acoustic guitar building (it’s featured more prominently in acoustic guitars). Maple is a very dense and hard wood, so it produces bright and loud tones with lots of definition.
  • Koa is a caramel-colored Hawaiian wood most often used in the building of ukuleles. It appears mostly in special-run or limited-edition guitars as it can be expensive. However certain guitar manufacturers, like Taylor, offers a number of Koa guitars in their lineup.
  • Walnut is another dense wood that’s beautiful in appearance. Tonally, it resides between rosewood and mahogany, offering both brightness and woody midrange qualities.
  • Spruce is one of the most versatile and popular tonewoods today. It offers a broad range of tones and is thought to sound good no matter your style of playing, making it a favorite throughout the years.
  • Cedar is most often used to make classical guitars, but more and more steel-stringed acoustics are making use of this wood. Cedar is warm ad rich, but can also be quiet, so it’s favored more by fingerpickers and fingerstyle players than flatpicking guitarists.

6. What guitar does your hero play?

When choosing an acoustic guitar, it can be helpful to take a look at your role models and what style of guitar they often play. This can give you an idea of the guitar’s sound and the type of music that it’s used to play.

For example, one reason I bought a Martin D18 was because I loved Norman Blake’s flatpicking, and it’s one of his favorite instruments. I know that Tony Rice, another favorite player of mine, seems to prefer a D28.

Knowing what guitar your heros play can help you choose your instrument more confidently.

7. Get clear on what kind of music you want to play

Depending on their tonewood, body style, and other factors, certain guitars are suited more to certain types of music. Thus, knowing what kind of music you want to use your guitar for can help you choose your instrument more effectively.

Are you mostly interested in fingerstyle playing? A cedar guitar or Nylon strung guitar may be what you prefer. If you prefer bluegrass flatpicking, you may instead opt for a mahogany dreadnought like a Martin D18.

Look at what popular players in the genre are playing to help decide what kind of guitar best suits your musical tastes and preferences.

8. Do you want a budget guitar, or a lifetime investment?

When choosing an acoustic guitar, it can be helpful to narrow down your budget and determine your price range early on in the process. You should try and decide as soon as possible whether you’re buying a budget acoustic guitar, or whether you want to buy a premier acoustic that’s a lifetime investment.

If you’re just starting out, it may be better to go with a more budget-friendly instrument. Don’t be fooled – you can get instruments of incredible quality at killer prices nowadays. I even wrote a whole post on my 10 budget friendly guitar for $500 or less.

If you’ve been playing a while and finally want to upgrade to a premier quality acoustic, like a Martin, Taylor, Gibson, etc., that’s awesome too! Knowing what you want going in will make your acoustic guitar buying process that much easier and straightforward.

9. Decide which body style you want

Just as there are a range of acoustic guitar tone woods to choose from, there are also a range of different acoustic guitar body styles. And again, each one has its distinct characteristics and will affect the sound and tone of your guitar in slightly different ways.

Rather than type up a whole book on the different body styles, I figured I’d share this quick but awesome video that Sound Pure Studios made. In it, they walk you through all the popular acoustic guitar body styles, as well as the tone woods of each instrument. You really get a feel for how those factors can influence the sound and personality of the guitar.

Here’s Sound Pure Studios’ quick breakdown of the fundamental acoustic guitar body styles:

10. Acoustic, or acoustic-electric?

Another decision you’ll have to make when choosing your acoustic guitar is whether you want to buy an acoustic, or acoustic-electric model. There are a few things to consider when making this decision.

Acoustic-electric guitars are a little bit more versatile. You have the option to enjoy your guitar unplugged, and not even buy an amp if it doesn’t interest you. But if you know you’re going to be playing live or with a band you do have the option to plug into an amplifier, which is nice.

However, some players don’t like the sound of acoustic-electric guitars, and prefer to mic up their plain old acoustic guitar. In this method, you simply place a microphone near the sound hole of your instrument instead of plugging directly into an amp.

Either way, the important thing to note is that with either style you’ll be able to play live. If you really want to play through an amplifier though, it’s probably a bit less hassle and more versatile to pick up an acoustic-electric model.

11. Twelve String Guitars Vs Six String Guitars

So you walked into the guitar shop, and now you’ve got your eye on that twelve string, huh? It’s understandable. Twelve string guitars are beautiful and can produce lovely sounds, especially for melodic chord progressions. Twelve strings guitar are great if you’re mostly playing chords, and not doing too much heavy strumming on your guitar.

If you plan to do a lot of heavy strumming, fingerpicking, and flatpicking, it’s better to go with a six string guitar. Six string guitars are simply more versatile, used more often, and better choices for beginners. I’d recommend not buying a twelve string acoustic guitar until you already have a six string one and have gotten pretty skilled on the instrument.

You really need a specific reason to want a twelve string to justify getting one over a six string.

12. Steel String Acoustics vs Nylon String Acoustics

Deciding whether you want a steel string or nylon string guitar will usually come back to the question of what kind of music you want to play. If you prefer classical, fingerstyle guitar, or flamenco music, then a nylon acoustic may be a better choice. Even some country-western and folk guitarists use nylon guitars, such as Willie Nelson.

Some players also argue that nylon stringed guitars are easier to learn on for beginners who are new to the instrument. These are because the strings are a little bit softer, and easier on un-callused fingers.

If on the other hand you know you’re going to be doing lots of heavy strumming, flatpicking, acoustic blues, or bluegrass style playing, a steel string acoustic would be the better choice for you. Steel string guitars are typically used in those styles of music. Again, do your research on what your favorite players use and what styles of acoustic guitar are popular in your favorite musical genres.

13. Let’s Talk Shop – Where to Buy Your Guitar

Deciding where to buy your acoustic guitar is an important factor. National chains like Guitar Center offer a large selection. This is nice because it allows you to play multiple guitars, and basically gives you a bunch of different options to test drive. However, you’re unlikely to find very high end or high price guitars, if that’s something you’re looking for.

For higher end guitars, you may opt to go to a specialty acoustic shop. These shops not only have more high ticket guitars (and also some more budget friendly used options), but typically have extremely knowledgeable workers and guitar techs as well.

You can also buy online. This way, you might be able to score a better deal. But the riskiest factor about buying online is that you aren’t able to try the guitar beforehand. So buy online at your own risk. That said, many companies do have flexible return policies.

14. Solid Wood vs Laminate Tops

We gave a broad overview earlier about the different types of tone wood, but there is an additional factor of solid wood vs laminate acoustics. It’s important to understand the difference here when it comes to buying your acoustic guitar.

The “top” of the guitar is the slab of wood in which the sound hole is located, and it has a big impact on the overall tone of your acoustic guitar. The top wood is either made of solid wood, or laminate.

A solid top, as the name implies, typically features two solid single-ply pieces of wood, while a laminate top is has a “top-layer” of higher quality wood, but then usually several more generic layers of wood beneath that top layer.

The main thing you need to know is that laminate doesn’t offer as much volume or sustain as solid wood. It’s usually the cheaper option however, so is a fine choice for a beginner guitar. But if you’re looking to spend more for some richer tone, a solid top guitar is usually a higher quality choice.

15. Consider Mini or Travel Acoustics

Travel guitars pack the tone and playability of upscale instruments into a much smaller and convenient size. They’re ideal for any type of travel, but particularly good for air travel, camping, hiking, backpacking, and even car travel and road trips.

Travel guitars take up way less space, whether that space is in your trunk, your pack, or a plane’s overhead compartment bin.

Martin actually makes a great steel string travel guitar. Or if you want a smaller guitar that still has a more traditional shape, the Little Martin fits the bill. There are many affordable yet high-quality travel guitars available on Amazon as well.

Travel guitars are often a little bit lighter on your wallet too, and can be scored for some great prices. Which brings me to my next tip.

16. Score an Awesome Price

Now that you hopefully have a better idea of what kind of acoustic guitar you’d like to buy, it’s a good idea to search around for good prices. Get a feel for the typical prince range of the guitar or guitars that you’re interested in, so you know what to expect to pay before you pull the trigger on your new instrument.

Searching around online is a good practice to research up on the average price of the guitars you’re interested in. But when it comes time to buy, it’s always best to try and do so in person, so you can try the guitar out yourself, bring an experienced friend, and take advantage of the other helpful tips in this article.

You can also always play the guitar in store, and then try and find the best deal on a new model of that same guitar online.

As a final note, it never hurts to ask the staff in your music store if there are any sales or promotions going on. Similarly, if you’re shopping around on craigslist, you could try to negotiate a lower price point on that guitar you have your eye on.

The Next Step

Now you have the 16 best tips for choosing an acoustic guitar to buy. I’m confident you’ll score the instrument of your dreams.

If you want a bit more help deciding though, I wrote a helpful post on my top 10 favorite budget acoustic guitars. The guitars in that article range from $150 to $500, so there’s plenty of options for the beginner or intermediate acoustic guitar player.

If you’re wondering what to learn on that new guitar of yours, here’s an article where I discuss whether you should learn flatpicking or fingerpicking / fingerstyle guitar first.

Thanks for reading, and as always, happy picking!

Ready to Get Better at Guitar, Faster?

Whenever you’re ready to take your guitar playing to the next level, check out a few of my favorite resources below:

The Best Acoustic Guitar Strings – A unique polymer coating makes these guitar strings last for months or even years at a time, making for an exceptional value. They provide the perfect mix of boom, range, twang, and brightness that acoustic music is known for. — CLICK HERE TO LEARN MORE

The Best Acoustic Guitar – Beloved by everyone from Paul Simon to Gordon Lightfoot, the Martin D-18 is one of Martin’s most legendary guitars ever… It’s an excellent, premier quality acoustic guitar for bluegrass, country, folk, rock and more. This is also what I play myself — CLICK HERE TO LEARN MORE

Chords, Tabs & Video Lessons for 100 Epic Songs – This free guide that I created for fellow guitarists gives you chords, tabs, and video lessons for the 100 best songs to learn on guitar… I spent many hours putting this guide together to help you get better at guitar, faster. — CLICK HERE TO GET IT FREE

Fingerpicking vs Flatpicking Guitar – Learn which picking style is right for YOU by exploring examples, history, and popular players of each style. Discover essential techniques and pros and cons of each approach. — CLICK HERE TO GET IT FREE

Corbin Buff

Corbin has played guitar for over a decade, and started writing about it on Acoustic World in an effort to help others. He lives and writes in western Montana.

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