Arnica's good pal and fellow spandex shorts wearing dude, Mooshy Von Moosherson, recently asked Arnica for some tips on how to buy an acoustic guitar. Mooshy wants to only spend between $300 and $400 dollars and he wants the most bang for his buck.
Since of the 25 guitars Arnica owns, half of them are acoustic, Arnica has some knowledge about what to look for.
Maybe you need a guitar. here is what Arnica told Mr. Mooshy...
Buying an acoustic comes down to three things. How much are you willing to spend, what do you want to do with the guitar and most importantly how does the guitar sound and feel to you?
Ideally, you want a guitar that has a solid top (the plank of wood on top with the hole and string saddle). Most solid top guitars are made by matching two pieces of wood and gluing them together. This is called book ending or book matching. Rarely is a guitar top made out of one solid piece of wood. A good way to find out if a guitar is a solid top is to look at the sound hole and try to see if you can spot wood grains. If the guitar is a plywood top, it will be obvious. If the guitar has a paint job, it will be impossible to spot. It is often best to ask the dealer.
At $300-$400, you are at the bottom of the solid top price range. You may have a hard time finding one, or you may have an all-right time finding one. It depends on the stores you go to. Go to as many as you can stand. Some small guitar makers will make a solid top and have it priced that low. Arnica's former main stage axe and favorite solid top guitar of his bunch is like that. It is a Blueridge and cost $280 ten years ago. No one has ever heard of Bluerdidge but they make cheap solid tops (tell the guitar guy at the store that Blueridges are sold through Kaman distribution). Most high end guitar makers reserve solid tops for their hi-end guitars that start at $800.
As far as brands go, Arnica breaks it down like this; at the top, there is Taylor and Martin—The best hands down, also the most expensive. Next there is everybody else's solid top guitars. Then comes everybody else's plywood guitars. Play an E chord on a Taylor. Put it down then play the same chord on any other guitar. You will hear the difference. The tone in the Taylor will just jump out of the guitar and appear to be louder. In general, solid tops tend to project the sound further. while plywood tops sound less loud and less crisp.
The bells and whistle added to guitars such as tuners and pickups can be good. Built in tuners are gimmicks, they are less reliable than most external ones you can pick up for $30. Built-in pickups are a great thing. To have one put in after-market will cost you over $100. The EQ and knobs are also gimmicks but can be very useful for some, especially performers who don't want to pack any extra gear. For you, it is unnecessary stuff, but the pickup is a good thing.
How the guitar sounds is most important. Solid tops will continue to sound better as they get older. Plywood tops sound as good as they are going to get. Arnica doesn't like pained guitars. The paint changes the tone and makes for a muddy sound. Your best bet is plain ugly wood colored ones—Boring but better. Keep in mind, strings make a big difference on how a guitar sounds. Arnica knows of guitar shops that change the strings on their expensive guitars every couple weeks and keep the old strings (out of the box) on the cheap guitars to help sell more expensive guitars. There is a type of string called "silk wound" where they actually wrap the string in silk before they add the exterior winding. This helps a lot with tone and longevity. Arnica put a set on Madame Sweetie's purple plywood guitar six years ago and those same strings are still on and still sound pretty good.
At $300-400 dollars, you should shop around. if you find a solid top without a pickup, get it. If it has a pick up, then you should absolutely get it. If you find a plywood guitar with every bell and whistle you could imagine installed, get it (if you want those bells and whistles) if you want no bells and whistles and just want a guitar, you should hold out for a good plywood guitar, without a pick up for $200-$300 and get good strings and change them every two months. Also, get medium gauge strings. heavy gauges hurt your fingers. Light gauge sound weak.
If you go to a pawn shop, only go there to find solid tops. never buy a plywood at a pawnshop. They can be overpriced and often worn out and warping which is often the reason they are being pawned in the first place. A solid top at a pawnshop was probably pawned by a musician with a drug problem. Bad for him, good for you.
Ok, class. Go outside and buy a guitar. Tell them Arnica sent you.