On a fairly regular basis I run into this scenario with my students at Jan Smith Studios. They’ve been playing a while, improving, and having a great time playing guitar, but they still own that first guitar.
It’s not a bad guitar but it’s time to step it up and buy something real. Something beautiful that will put a little extra magic in their hands. Now comes the big question-“how do I do that”? This inspired me to make a trip to my favorite guitar shop, Maple Street Guitars, in Atlanta and have a conversation with Lindsay Petsch who works the store with his dad George Petsch.
Maple Street has been around Atlanta for over 30 years selling guitars and giving legendary service. I send everyone there. I knew they would be a great resource for this blog because besides being really nice folks, they are exceptionally smart about guitars and people. That explains how a mom and pop store is still in the guitar business 30 years later. Folks, it’s a tough business out there with the big box stores taking a huge chunk out of the industry, so before we get into the meat of this blog, let me say you need to support businesses like this. Without them you will be buying widgets instead of guitars, and great service will simply go away. The conversation we had centered on the do’s and don’ts of buying a better acoustic guitar. ( Although I must confess the conversations strayed into many areas-future blog material!) Everyone who plays guitar eventually runs into this situation, and with a little information you should feel confident you can do this and get the most for your money.
So what do you get for your money when you buy that more expensive guitar?
Of course this can get really technical but let’s focus on the main points. It boils down to materials and care taken in construction. Probably the first biggest improvement when you spend more money is a solid top and sides. This means the guitar top is a solid piece and the sides are as well. Less expensive guitars may use a laminate (less expensive material) which is thin layers of wood stacked on top of each other. Laminates don’t vibrate as well and therefore produce a less beautiful sound. There are several combinations possible. For example, the top and sides could be laminate, or the top may be solid while the sides are laminate.
The wood that the guitar is made of, typically spruce or cedar, needs to be aged and cured, and the conditions under which this is done becomes very important. Spruce tops generally offer a brighter dynamic quality and cedar tops tend to sound darker and warmer. The more selective the choice of wood, and the more care taken aging and curing the wood means a better guitar and will cost more money.
The construction of the guitar is driven by the quest for a balanced, beautiful, dynamic sound. One example of this is the bracing inside the guitar holding it together. Less expensive guitars are put together like widgets. They will have the same bracing and little or no modifications for each individual guitar. Higher quality guitars will have individualized modifications made to allow the top of the guitar to vibrate and create it’s best sound. The trick is to let the guitar vibrate but still hold together. There are many modifications to bracing and each builder may use their own techniques, but the standard is some version of what is called X bracing used on the top of the guitar, and Ladder bracing used on the back of the guitar.
Higher quality guitars, to one degree or another, customize the elements of the guitar to create more balanced frequencies from lows to highs. They are able to play louder and softer without getting muddy or breaking up. They are generally more attractive to look at as well but don’t let that fool you. Some stream lined guitars are made that way so more time and money can be spent on the sound of the guitar. You may well get more for you money from a fine guitar that has less ornamentation.
So with that information in your back pocket let’s get on to some do’s and don’ts of buying your next amazing guitar. For this, I relied heavily on the input from Lindsay and George at Maple Street Guitars. After all, they have bought and sold thousands of great guitars through the years.
1. Do Buy American. If you are looking for a quality instrument, American guitars are still better than imports. There is much more care taken in the constructing of an American made guitar, from the parts used to the bracing inside holding the guitar together. Bracing is an art that cannot be over valued. As guitars move up in price they typically move to more refined and expensive bracing. American guitars have a long history of doing these things better and with more care. They have also refined their guitar building techniques to a higher level.
2. Don’t Get Lost in all the Technical Data Available Online. Reading technical data on the building of guitars can be helpful, but it also can get you caught up in details that confuse the issue. The most important thing is how the guitar sounds and feels in your hands. Remember it’s the combination of parts and the care taken in construction that makes a guitar a quality instrument. Each one is different even if it is the same model as the one next to it.
3. Do Put Your Hands on the Instrument. Try out many guitars in your price range regardless of brand and model. You’ve been playing a while and your ears will hear more than you think. Your hands will feel the difference. Playing each guitar will further tune your ears and hands. Don’t let preconceptions stop you from doing this. Thoughts like “I heard Martins sound like” or “I only like Cedar Tops” may keep you from finding that piece of magic you are looking for. Stores like Maple Street encourage you to do this and have better listening situations than big box stores. How anyone in a huge store with countless people playing instruments and p.a. systems blaring can judge an acoustic guitar is beyond me.
4. Don’t Grab a Guitar and Start by Playing Songs and Your Favorite Licks. This is not a great way to begin judging the quality of a guitar. Lindsay, who has been buying and selling guitars for 15 plus years, advises you start by playing a few open string chords like G, A, and D7. You want to get an immediate impression or snapshot of the guitar. Open string chords are what acoustic guitars do best. Once you have narrowed your choices down to a few guitars, then take the next step and start moving up and down the neck or playing your favorite tunes, so you can start to feel how the guitar plays for you.
5. Do Check the Warranty of that Magical Instrument You Want to Take Home. The larger companies like Martin and Taylor may offer lifetime warranties on their new guitars which is a great asset if you are buying new. Know what the warranty covers and whether the shop you are buying it from will help if you have a problem with the instrument.
6. Don’t Depend on the Manufacturer Set Up of the Guitar. At Maple Street Guitars (and all stores for that matter) most guitars that come in need a set up. This means it may not play well or sound as large as it should. Small shops that buy guitars consider each instrument an investment. They own that guitar-it is their personal possession that they in turn will sell to you. Setting it up not only makes that guitar better for you but it gives them a chance to vet the instrument and spot issues before the guitar winds up in a customers hands. Big Box stores are not likely to invest the money and time it takes to get this right.
7. Do Consider Smaller Builders. Companies like Collings, Lowden, Santa Cruz, or Goodall may not build as many guitars or have the name recognition that Martin and Taylor have, but they focus heavily on the quality of their instruments. You may be hesitant to consider a guitar you haven’t heard of before, but this would be a big mistake.
8. Don’t Buy on Price Alone. You might find the same model guitar for 15 percent less at a big box store. But is it really 15 percent less when you don’t know how the guitar has been cared for or hasn’t been given a post manufacturer set up? What happens if there is a problem with the instrument? Will the store help you out or instead tell you to work it out with the manufacturer? This leads to a secondary issue. Avoid buying your guitar online. If you decide to take this risk, make sure you have a chance to vet the guitar and send it back, and make sure the online store selling it to you has been in business a while and will be there after the purchase.
9. Do Trust Your Gut. Lots of people have opinions about buying guitars. It’s like listening to golfers give out tips on putting….Don’t get caught up in everyone’s preconceived notions about Martins vs. Taylors or Cedar vs. Spruce tops. Go to a guitar store where the relationship is as important as the guitar so you can trust their guidance. Once you have found that piece of magic take it home and be happy. After all that practice, you’ve earned it.
10. Don’t Skimp on the Case or Forget the Maintenance Kit. If you’ve spent good money on the guitar, buy the best case you can afford. I’ve learned from experience that a better case is worth the money. It protects the guitar more effectively and lasts longer. Make sure you get a maintenance kit for your guitar too. It should include polish, cleaner, cloth, and throw in a humidifier for the dry winter months.
Armed with this information you should be able to buy the perfect guitar for you. Buying a guitar should be a fantastic moment so find the right guitar and buy it from the right seller at the right price. Tell them Peter sent you…..