3. What makes a good guitar?
Whether it’s made in North America or China, make sure you get a guitar with a solid wood top.
Often the first thing people ask when they walk in and see walls filled with guitars is “what makes a good guitar?” or “Why is this one so expensive?” They see some guitars that sell for $200 and others that sell for $2000 and wonder what factors determine these prices. And is the guitar that’s on sale for $200 still a good guitar? Why or why not?
While there are many factors that are reflected in the price of a guitar, there are only few that are going to you right now. Maybe when you’re on to your second, third or tenth guitar they will be important, but not so much today.
The two biggest factors that contribute to the price of a guitar are going to be the materials and construction techniques used to build the guitar, and where the guitar is built. Let’s take a look at the first one:
Materials & Construction
It should be fairly obvious that the overwhelming majority of guitars that are built today are built out of wood, but no two types of wood are the same. There is a huge amount of diversity in the types of woods that are used in guitar building and the way they are put together.
Guitars tend to be constructed out of either laminate (basically plywood), solid wood or a combination of the two. Most entry-level guitars tend to be made entirely out of plywood. This is one thing that you will be looking to avoid.
It is generally accepted that guitars made out of plywood tend to not sound as good as guitars made with solid wood or a combination of solid wood and laminate. While the best guitars tend to be made entirely out of solid wood, it’s not hard to find very good sounding and affordable guitars that are made with a combination of solid wood and laminate.
Since the type of wood used for the top of the guitar dictates the majority of the guitar’s sound, you will want to make sure that the guitar you buy has a solid wood top. The back and sides of the guitar factor less in the sound of the guitar, so it is fine to go with a guitar with laminate back and sides.
In addition to the woods that are used, the quality of the hardware on a guitar is going to be important. In this case, hardware means stuff like the tuners, nut and saddle, the most important of these being the tuning keys. Try to avoid cheap, low-ratio geared tuning keys that look like this:
Instead, opt for a guitar with higher quality die-cast tuners that look like this:
These die-cast tuners usually have a higher gear ratio like 14:1 or even 18:1 which means the post rotates in smaller increments, giving more accuracy and less of a chance of flying past your target note.
The construction methods used to build the guitar are also going to factor into its quality and price. At this point we’re not going to get too carried away with details as we could write another entire guide about top bracing and neck joints, but just know that these factors are important. You should take the time to look into some of the construction techniques used by popular guitar manufacturers like Martin, Taylor, Norman and Seagull and see how they affect the finished product.
As many different options as there are when it comes to acoustic guitars, there are even more when it comes to electric guitar. There are so many different types of body styles, neck joints, pickups and pickup configurations and other options that it can be completely overwhelming! An easy way to navigate your way through these options is to take a look at the types of guitars that your favourite players use. The type and style of guitar that they are using is going to influence their sound and the way they play so it makes sense to look for something similar. You can also take a look at some classic designs like the Fender Stratocaster or Telecaster or Gibson Les Paul or SG to get a sense of what appeals to you.
Where the Guitar is Manufactured
As with many consumer products available these days, the quality of a guitar can often be inferred by simply looking at where it was built. Generally speaking, guitars made in Canada or the US tend to be of a higher quality than those built in Mexico or Asian countries like China or Indonesia. This is not to say that there aren’t quality instruments produced in those countries; companies like Epiphone, Squier and Yamaha build some wonderful instruments in Asia while Fender, Martin and Taylor build some very good instruments in Mexico.
Generally speaking however, the folks building guitars in Canada and the US tend to be more skilled than those in Asia or Mexico, which generally leads to higher quality guitars. In addition, the tolerances for the quality of materials used in North America tend to be tighter than those overseas, so North American made instruments tend to be more consistent. These qualities generally mean that North American-made instruments are a little more expensive than their Asian or Mexican counterparts.
All that said, these are not rules, more like general observations. There are many well built and inexpensive Asian-made guitars, just like there are cheap and poorly-built North American-made guitars. Speak to your local guitar shop expert about what they stock and how their Asian-built guitars stack up to their North American-built ones.