Are you looking for an acoustic guitar for yourself or as a gift? Maybe you read my article How to choose a guitar as a gift. If you’re an experienced guitarist you probably don’t need my help but if you are just starting or don’t play yourself and want to buy a guitar as a gift, I’m going to give you some advice to help choose an instrument.
What to look for?
Solid top. The least expensive acoustic guitars probably have a laminated wood top. That’s sort of like plywood. A laminated top is less important if the guitar has a pickup and is going to be played amplified (i.e., an acoustic-electric model). But laminated tops are stiff and don’t vibrate as well as a solid wood top. The acoustic sound will be weak and thin with a laminated top, so get a solid top guitar.
Be careful because many low priced guitars are labeled to have a “Select Spruce Top” – that does NOT indicate a solid spruce top. Don’t be fooled.
The top wood should be a spruce or cedar. Mahogany or Koa are acceptable but most other woods such as Maple won’t provide much volume unless you have an acoustic-electric model which is amplified.
The wood for the back and sides is less important than the top. It also is less important whether or not the sides and back are solid wood or laminated. Although the wood for the back and sides can affect the tone, for a beginner guitar anything is acceptable.
Neck angle. Both good sound and good action require the angle that the neck joins to the body to be accurately set. This used to be quite hit or miss in low end guitars. It is a difficult procedure that that require much practice for a luthier to get this consistently correct. But computer aided manufacturing and better quality control has improved and it is now expected that most guitars, even those in the $300 price range, will have the neck angle set correctly.
You can do an approximate check for a good neck angle by sighting down the fingerboard and estimating if the neck is straight and if a straight edge laid along the frets would intersect with the top of the bridge 1. It will be easier to see this if you have a straight edge (or maybe the spine of a magazine or brochure at the guitar store) and slide down the frets.
If the neck angle is to far forward – meaning the straight edge intersects below the top of the bridge, you will never get the action set satisfactorily. An angle that is too far back is also bad – a straight edge passes above the top of the saddle.
Another check for neck angle on most guitars is to measure the height of the strings above the body at the bridge. That height should be about a half inch.
Don’t listen to any salesperson who tells you they can fix the angle by adjusting the truss rod. The truss rod runs through the neck and adjusts the relief of the neck – how much the neck is bowed. Although this is sometimes referred to as an adjustable neck, it has nothing to do with the angle of the neck.
Action. The action should be checked near the nut (the end closest to the tuners) and at the 12th fret. Press down on the low string on the 3rd fret (that’s on the low side of the 3rd fret, between the 2nd and 3rd). Press lightly just so the string is touching the 3rd fret and look at the gap between the 1st fret and the bottom of the string. There should be a very small gap. The string should not be touching the 1st fret (implies the nut is too low which could cause string buzzing). There should not be a large gap either. Just enough to see some light.
The action for the low E string at the 12th fret should be about 3/32nds of an inch to 7/64ths of inch. It should be slightly less than this for the high E string. Here’s a couple of quick tools to help you measure the string height. Everyone has credit cards. Credit cards (and gift cards, library cards, drivers licenses, membership cards and so on) are all about 1/32nd of an inch thick. Slip a stack of 3 cards between the 12th fret and the low string. It should slip easily, perhaps with a gap. If the strings have to be stretched to get the cards under, the action is too low. Now add a fourth card to the stack. You should have to stretch the strings to get this between the 12th fret and the bottom of the low string. If there is a gap, the strings are too high.
A less sensitive alternative if you live on a cash basis is to use two pennies. Two cents when stacked are just under 8/32nds of an inch thick (1/4 inch). You should have to stretch the string to fit two pennies between the 12th fret and the low string – but just barely. If there is a gap, then the action is too high.
Fret edges. Low cost guitars generally aren’t assembled with the care of an expensive guitar. One item that might be overlooked are fret edges. Run your hand or fingers down the sides of the neck along the fingerboard. Jagged or rough frets can irritate a players hands. If everything else about the guitar is good, see if the frets can be smoothed as part of the setup.
Setup. Many of the smaller, independent local guitar stores I’ve dealt with have a repair department with a trained luthier (or at least a guitar tech) who can make basic adjustments to your new guitar. Few of the larger chain stores have on-site luthiers. I’ve come to expect a free setup with a guitar purchase. However, it might be worth $50 or more to you to have a decent setup done. Here’s what you can expect for a setup:
- If the neck angle is good but the action at the nut or saddle is too high, the nut and saddle can be filed and sanded to provide a better height. If the action is too low, you can have a new nut and or saddle made.
- The truss rod doesn’t affect neck angle but is important. There should be some slight relief in the neck. This means the neck isn’t absolutely flat but bows slightly at the center. This help prevent string buzzing. Adjusting the truss rod should be part of a setup.
- Guitars that have been on display at a store and played by potential buyers can have dirty strings which don’t sound good. New stings should be put on the guitar and the guitar tuned to pitch. The tuners should be checked during this to insure they don’t slip.
- Smoothing or leveling the frets is probably outside the scope of a standard setup but may also be worthwhile so ask about this, particularly if you found rough edges on the frets.
References. I’ve been playing for 50 years and can’t tell you when or where I originally learned the above information. But I can give you links to websites which have good information if you want more information than I’ve given you here.
One of my favorite sites, which I’ve referred to in previous posts, is Frank Ford’s Frets.com. Frank is a luthier who share’s the knowledge he has gained over the years. He illustrates his explanations with nice pictures and his advice and explanations are good. The following pages may be useful to you: Definitions of bridge, saddle and scale length. A comparison of guitar sizes from some of the major guitar makers. About nut action and neck angle. An explanation of the truss rod.
Fret Not Guitar Repair in Virginia has a nice explanation of what is included with their guitar setup. Different stores may include slightly different services and prices but this represents a common and reasonable expectation for a setup.
In the Action section, you wrote:
“The string should not be touching the 2nd fret.”
But you meant to write that it should touch the 1st fret. If you are holding the string down between the 2nd and 3rd fret, it has to touch the 2nd fret.
Thank you for spotting an obvious error. It’s amazing no one has noticed before now. I apologize and hope no one relied only on my description.
I’ve corrected the text and removed the mislabeled image. Frank Ford’s “Frets.com” description for nut action is correct. I had referenced this at the end of the article but clearly wasn’t thinking about what I was writing when I made that error.