Monday, January 05, 2009

What Guitar to Buy. An Answer to The Question

We have a guest writer today. A wise man once said,
Its not always about knowing the answer, its about knowing where to get it.

When it comes to a lot of topics, I know squat, but sometimes I know who to ask, which is just as good. Frequently when someone finds out that I am a musician they will eventually ask me the one question, known simply as the question, that non-musicians will always end up asking musicians because everyone wants to pick up chicks.
I want to buy a guitar. What kind should I get (that would land me the most tail)?

The part in parenthesis is rarely stated but clearly implied by the request.
Notice from the beginning I said I was a musician and not a guitarist or settings-fiddling-equipment slut as they tend to be known in "the biz".

So when one of my friends recently asked me the question, I did what I always do. I asked The Master. The Master was there when it was my time to ask him the question many years ago, and he guided me through selecting my own axe, which I still have and play to this day, and which played no part whatsoever in me landing the chick who usually prefers to be referred to as "my wife", or simply "Wifey".

While reading The Master's most recent response to my forwarded question I thought that this is exactly the sort of knowledge that the Internet is meant to store and make available to the masses as opposed the the mindless drivel that tends to clutter its nether regions. So here I am, doing my part to bring a spectacular response to the question to any who may stumble upon my humble corner of the tubes.

It is important to note that this particular answer to the question is lovingly crafted to the exact specifications of the original requester and is not meant for everyone. In fact, in order to present the correct context for this targeted answer to the question it is necessary to include the requester's description of his/her desires in this respect.
I am looking for guitar for fun - not to do any professional gig or anything like that. Neither I am a purist about Acoustic Vs Electric - whichever one is more fun to play for an amature like me.
I do like slow songs. No heavy metal. For me, being able to play something like "Hotel California" would be great.
As I see it, I will play around with guitar, maybe take few lessons. In couple of years, if I still enjoy it, will trade it for a better/fancy one. If I do not enjoy it, will put it on craigslist or give it away.
Right now, I am looking to spend less than $500

Now, without further ado, here is The Master in his own words. Draw nigh that ye may bask in his answer. . .
Excellent, you gave me all the info I need here. I would recommend getting an acoustic guitar as you can play without plugging in and it will be more satisfying as a solo instrument. There is a steep increase in quality when going from $200-500. The main difference is that once you get near $500 then you've increased the number of guitars that have the appropriate fit/finish.

Fit and finish are not referring to cosmetics, but instead to the playability of the guitar and quality of construction. On cheaper instruments, you may have loose tuning knobs, poor action, fret ends sticking out, and in general traits that make the guitar difficult to play. As such, I would encourage you to move up to the higher end of that range ($400-500).

Another huge factor in the price of guitars is the use of solid versus laminate wood. As you can imagine, a piece of solid wood has some flex to it and can act like a "speaker cone" to amplify and impart a pleasant tonal signature as you pluck the strings. Laminated wood is exceptionally stiff and is a poor conductor of sound. It is essentially the difference between jumping on a trampoline (solid wood) versus concrete (laminate). Vibration is key to creating the sound.

With this in mind I would recommend purchasing a guitar with a solid spruce top. Sound modeling, and other experiments, tell us that between 80-90% of a guitar's tone comes from the top (the sound board). As such, it is most important that this is constructed from solid wood. For your price range, you will be unable to find a playable guitar with solid wood sides and back. But it is a fair trade off for cost as you are new to the instrument. There are some chinese knockoffs being produced around $500 with solid wood all around (e.g., Blueridge guitars), but these instruments have quite poor fit and finish. I would strongly discourage a new guitarist from purchasing this instrument. Such an instrument would work as a "beater" for someone like myself, but would be exceptionally frustrating and counterproductive for a newbie.

Finally, given that you don't know if you'll enjoy playing the guitar and could potentially put it on ebay or craigslist, I would recommend purchasing a well known brand as it will hold value well.

So in summary, we are looking for an acoustic guitar with good fit and finish, good playability, solid spruce top, laminate back and sides, and a well known brand to hold value.

In short, these are the guitars I would recommend:
1) Martin DX1K

2) Martin DX1

3) Martin 000X1

The difference between 1 and 2 is simply cosmetics. Option 1 has nice looking wood on the back and sides. This means nothing tonally because both have laminate back and sides. I like the way #1 looks, but for a more subdued look you might go for 2. Now, what about 1/2 versus 3?

If you plan on strumming a lot and are above average in height/build I would choose options 1 or 2. This is a dreadnaught sized guitar. Great for strumming and good for fingerpicking. If you are a slightly smaller build (<5' 11"), want a very comfortable guitar to play on the coach and plan on fingerpicking I would choose option 3. I would choose option 3 for myself because although I am almost 6' with long fingers I find the 000 body size more comfortable and I love fingerpicking. That being said, the D size will be a much louder guitar. I hope this was helpful.

Best regards and enjoy playing.

Rock on.

Rock on indeed.


Anonymous said...

was the master your college roommate?

John Russell said...

The Master's identity is a closely guarded secret as there are many people who would do him harm for pointing out the crappiness of their laminate topped guitars.

The master must constantly be moved from place to place for his own protection and that of his loved ones. His loved ones being his guitars. I think he has a kid too.