When you’re shopping for a new guitar for yourself or someone else, it can be hard to know where to start. This guide will cover all of the basics, including acoustic guitar anatomy and how to choose the best guitar for your needs.
Anatomy of an Acoustic Guitar
An acoustic guitar is a complex instrument with a long list of structural elements, all of which play a role in the overall sound and playability. While you don’t need to learn all of them right away, there are a few key features that you should know to understand how to choose a guitar for beginners.
A guitar’s headstock sits at the top of the neck. It houses the tuning machines and exerts tension on the strings. A guitar’s headstock may be straight or tilted.
A guitar’s strings wrap around the geared tuning machines, also called tuning pegs. The string gets tighter or looser as you turn each peg, adjusting the pitch higher or lower.
The neck of a guitar holds the headstock, fretboard, and strings. A longer neck allows a guitar player to play a longer scale, while a wider neck has more space between the strings.
Frets are the marked spaces on the neck of a guitar that divide the strings into semi-tone (half-note) intervals. The fret wires that mark the frets may vary in shape and height. Many guitars feature inlaid fret markers to denote the 3rd, 5th, 7th, 9th, 12th, 15th, and 17th frets. Some guitars have double fret markers to denote the 12th fret, which is the octave.
A guitar’s body is primarily responsible for its sound, but it also affects its playability. The top half of the guitar is called the upper bout, and the bottom half is the lower bout. The point where the upper and lower bout join is called the waist.
Each part’s shape, size, and depth impact its overall tone, resonance, and how it fits against the body. Some guitars feature a cutout in the body where it meets the neck. This allows a player’s hand to slide further down the fretboard, reaching higher notes.
Some guitars feature a pickguard or scratchplate made of laminated plastic. A pickguard sits below the soundhole on the body of a guitar, protecting its finish against pick scratches.
Choosing the Best Acoustic Guitar for Beginners
Size and Shape
The size of a guitar is the first thing that impacts its overall playing quality and tone. A larger guitar with a deeper body will produce a deeper, richer tone than a small guitar with a shallow body. However, a large guitar may be difficult to play for some people, especially children. A big, bold sound is no good if it’s too uncomfortable to play.
Consider the neck size of the guitar as well. A guitar with a longer neck can play a longer scale, allowing you to play a broader range of music. However, a shorter neck with a cutout in the body can accomplish much the same thing without sacrificing portability. The best songs to learn on acoustic guitar for beginners tend to have a shorter scale anyway.
A wider neck has more space between each string, making it easy to play classical and fingerstyle guitar. The added room between strings makes it easier to finger multiple frets in different places. It’s also easier to get between the strings for fingerpicking.
If you don’t plan on doing a lot of fingerstyle or classical guitar, the wider neck may not be valuable to you. Smaller hands may also have difficulty reaching around and across the fretboard on a guitar with a wider neck, so children may prefer a narrower one.
A pickguard protects the face of your guitar from pick scratches. Even experienced guitar players can scratch the finish of their guitars if they play a little too enthusiastically. Young guitarists are especially prone to rogue pick scratches. A pickguard can extend the life of a guitar but isn’t necessary for players who only fingerpick or rarely use a pick.
A straight headstock doesn’t exert as much tension on the strings as a tilted one does. Guitars with straight headstocks are less expensive to make but may be more prone to warping over time. Most higher-end guitars have tilted headstocks that help balance the tension on the guitar’s neck, extending its life.
Tuning machines are key (pun intended) to the overall sound of your guitar, and they take a lot of wear and tear from daily use. They may become loose over time, particularly if they don’t feel snug to begin with. Choose a guitar with tuning machines that are snug so they won’t come loose but not so snug that they’re too hard to adjust evenly.
The gear ratio of a tuning machine tells you how many times you have to turn the key to wrap the string around the peg one time. A tuning machine with a higher gear ratio gives you more precise control over the guitar’s tuning.
Finally, the most important thing to consider is how the guitar sounds when you play it. This is essentially a matter of personal preference, and that’s how it should be. Hold the guitar in your hands, see how it feels, and listen to how it sounds when you play it. You don’t have to be an experienced guitar player to know when a guitar sounds right to you – you’ll hear it.
The key to finding the best acoustic guitar is to consider your needs and playing style. Striking a delicate balance between sound, playability, durability, and price can be tricky. But you’ll know you have the perfect guitar the minute you start playing.