Whether you’re strumming through a quiet evening around a campfire or shredding during a raucous jam session with a group of friends, few instruments are as essential and versatile to the creation of great music as a good guitar. A good acoustic guitar will grow with you musically and provide hours of song-building and years of enjoyment.
When it comes to choosing your particular instrument, the choices can seem overwhelming. But that’s where we come in. In this guitar buying guide we break down what you need to know before you make your next guitar purchase.
From brand to tone wood to body style and everything in between, we give you an overview of the important characteristics to look for in your next acoustic guitar. And this article features reviews of the greatest guitars pound for pound on the market right now to give you a head start on shopping. Make it to the end and you’ll be a (nearly) certified expert in all things guitar.
What Type of Acoustic Guitar Should You Get?
Before we get into specifics, first we need to talk basic terms. You will see quite a few different options in acoustic guitar styles when you go to buy. While this isn’t an exhaustive list of all of the bells and whistles you will find as options on store shelves, it is a list of what I think are the most important considerations.
Steel String or Nylon String?
Choosing between a steel string acoustic and a nylon string “classical” guitar will be one of your first decisions in the guitar-buying process.
Steel string guitars are probably what you think of when you picture an acoustic guitar. They’re the acoustic guitars played most widely in rock, folk, country, and blues (not to mention many other styles of music). Steel string acoustic guitars come in several body shapes – dreadnought, parlor, grand auditorium, and more – but they all have steel strings. Typically, the four strings with the lowest tone are wound (wrapped with steel), while the higher two strings are bare wire.
Nylon string, or “classical guitars” differ in design and body style, with rounded shoulder and curved bottoms. They also feature wider necks and fingerboards, which makes the fingerstyle playing common with these guitars easier. Nylon string acoustic guitars also lack truss rods, and have different style bridges and tuning pegs. These guitars are typically used in classical, flamenco, and other traditional music styles, and may also be used in fingerstyle playing, folk, and jazz.
Besides the appearance and playing style, nylon string and steel string acoustic guitars also differ in sound.
Nylon string guitars are smoother, quieter, and subtler. The strings and the difference in body design combine to produce a distinctive classical guitar tone. If you’re ever heard traditional Spanish or flamenco music, you’ve heard the tone that a classical guitar produces.
Steel string guitars, on the other hand, are louder, brighter, and punchier. The wide variety of body styles means you can get different sounds, but the typical “steel string sound” is that of the full size dreadnought guitar.
Choosing a classical guitar versus a steel string acoustic should be based primarily on what type of music you see yourself playing. Steel string guitars are what you hear in rock, blues, bluegrass, folk, country and most other modern styles.
We’ll be focusing on steel string guitars for the rest of this article.
What Body Style?
There are several different body styles to choose from when picking out your acoustic guitar. The dreadnought body is a classic, and is probably the most well-known and popular body style. With their distinctive square shoulders and bottoms, dreadnoughts are well known their sound. The design allows for clear tone and excellent projection, with more emphasis on the bass end.
There are several other full-sized guitar body styles to consider, including Auditorium, Concert, and Orchestra shapes. Each shape emphasizes a different part of the acoustic spectrum to produce a different sound.
For a full breakdown of all the different body styles, see our guide to different types of guitar.
Construction and Choice of Tonewoods
Few things affect how your guitar sounds as much as the tone woods used to make it. A spruce top will have a brighter, punchier sound than a mahogany top, which will have a warmer, more mellow tone. Cedar is becoming more and more common, and this unique wood is both bright and warm, with a mellow, aged tone.
The best quality acoustic guitars are made with solid wood tops, and higher end models have solid backs and sides as well. Solid woods tend to produce deep and interesting tones that become more complex with age.
Mini and Travel Acoustic Guitars
Full-scale travel guitar with a solid spruce top built for players of all skill levels
Another option you will have when choosing your next acoustic guitar is whether to pick a travel-friendly model. While many manufacturers sell acoustic guitars specifically labelled “travel” guitars, really the name refers to any model of acoustic guitar that is smaller in weight, size or has other options that help improve portability.
Travel guitars are great for versatility. Most smaller guitars will fit great as carry-on luggage or in the cramped spaces of a packed car, train or bus seat. Washburn even makes a travel acoustic that is specifically designed to fit into overhead luggage storage pockets on planes. The lightweight is also a great feature if you’ll be lugging your acoustic around to multiple locations.
Smaller in size does not have to equal smaller sound either and you can find many great acoustic guitars in the travel category. Most modern travel guitar designs still get amazing projection and volume through innovative body designs and other technological advancements such as added electronics (see below).
Acoustic-Electric or Fully Acoustic
One of the last big choices you’ll have to make when purchasing your next acoustic guitar is whether to splurge for built in electronics. A good acoustic-electric guitar includes a pickup, pre-amp, volume and tone controls, so you can amplify the sound of your acoustic guitar. Some even include built in tuners so you won’t have to carry around your guitar headstock tuner.
Having built in electronics adds a level of versatility to your playing. If you are in a larger venue it can be difficult to be heard all the way in the back of the room. Mic’ing up your guitar means that you’ll be more or less stationary on the stage. This works great for some singer-songwriters, but not so well if you like to be active and put on a show. Built-in electronics let you plug into an amp and produce an acoustic guitar sound that can be heard no matter how far away your listener is.
Top 5 Acoustic Guitar Reviews
There is simply no better acoustic guitar on the market, in terms of quality for the price point, than the Seagull S6 Original. The flagship guitar from Seagull (parent company Godin Guitars) has been revamped without losing the core features that makes it such a success among beginners and seasoned vets alike.
This dreadnought is made with a solid cedar top, which allows the guitar to produce a midrange that is crisp and responsive. The most eye-catching part of the guitar is going to be mostly yours to enjoy, as the wild cherry used on the back and sides not only provides a tight low end, but also has a wood grain that is simply beautiful. The neck is made of silverleaf maple (fitting, as the guitar is made in Canada) with a rosewood fingerboard.
The 25.5” scale length on the S6, combined with the 16” radius makes this guitar a breeze to play, without ever feeling like the strings will slip out from under your fingers. The playability is further helped by Seagull’s signature tapered headstock, ensuring that the S6 stays in tune at all times.
Guitars like the S6, that offer so much value at an accessible price point, don’t come around often. This is a guitar that would be fitting for a strumming singer-songwriter or a finger style guitarist. It’s made of top notch materials that will make it a great travel companion, while having the playability to inspire continuous practice and creativity. This is an underdog guitar that everyone should be more aware of, which is why it takes the top spot on this list.
Hear it in Action:
If you’re in need of an electro-acoustic guitar that performs above its price range, then look no further than the Taylor 114E. Even though this model is considered a “budget” guitar from Taylor, you are still getting nothing short of a fantastic, truly Taylor quality acoustic guitar.
The Grand Auditorium body shape gives you the volume of a dreadnought style guitar, but the curvier body offers a more comfortable playing experience whether you are standing up or sitting down. The tonewoods used include a solid sitka spruce top paired with layered walnut back and sides. This tonewood combination strikes a great balance between full low ends, present midrange, and delicate highs that make for a jack of all trades guitar. The bracing on the new 114E has also been improved by Taylor for added resonance and stability.
The neck is sure to feel comfortable in just about any hands with its satin finished sapele neck and ebony fingerboard. Whether you are playing bar chords down by the 1 – 11/16 inch nut, or playing melodies higher up the 20 frets, the 114E is comfortable and easy to play.
The most notable aspect of the Taylor 114E is that it comes with Taylor’s discrete Expression-2 (ES2) system that utilizes three, behind the saddle sensors for a natural and dynamic sounding voice when played into a PA system or other monitor.
This is the perfect gigging guitar for all genres.
Hear it in Action:
One of the most iconic styles of guitar is an all mahogany, dreadnought acoustic and in this modern age you can’t go wrong with a timeless classic like the Martin D-15M. The D-15M calls back to the 15 series acoustics that were popular in the 40’s for their dark look and warm tone.
The diamond and squares short pattern on the fingerboard contributes to the modest, old-time feel. It also features open back nickel tuners suitable for the 40’s, east Indian rosewood fingerboard, and faux tortoise pickguard (no turtle harmed here). The modified low oval neck allows for quicker playing, while keeping bar chords easy to play too.
Though certainly not the most expensive guitar Martin has to offer, this is a comparatively accessible price point for a top notch acoustic guitar. As one would expect from a mid to high range Martin, the D-15M stays in tune, is properly intonated.
This guitar doesn’t feature any electronics and is truly a player’s guitar, perfect for writing full records or for micing up at small, intimate shows. The sounds that this guitar produces immediately come across as vintage or from a bygone era and it makes you want to create music of that sort.
Hear it in Action:
How could you possibly pass by the Epiphone Hummingbird Pro without picking it up and pretending like you’re Keith Richards?
It is made with a solid spruce top combined with select mahogany back and sides. While the Hummingbird can sound admittedly thin compared to other dreadnoughts in its price range, it certainly doesn’t lack in volume or playability. It is often revered for its amazing action, which is due to the D shaped neck combined with a 12” fretboard radius.
We can’t talk about the Hummingbird Pro without acknowledging its beautiful and iconic look. The hummingbird scratch plate against the faded cherry finish was an instant classic and is sure to catch an eye or fifty when you’re on stage.
The Hummingbird Pro is meant to be gigged with, as it comes stock with either a Shadow ePerformer and NanoFlex pickup system or Fishman electronics depending on the year, allowing you to plug into any PA and sounding great.
It’s not often one gets to pick up an iconic guitar on a budget, but the Hummingbird Pro does just that. Whether you’re playing country or rock, the Hummingbird Pro is a cross-genre classic.
Hear it in Action:
Just because you’re a beginner or working on a budget doesn’t mean you can’t get a guitar that performs well, and this is where a guitar like the Yamaha FG830 becomes a stellar option. The FG830 expands upon its predecessor, the FG730, to sound and perform even better than before.
Yamaha included solid sitka spruce as the topwood, ensuring a great sounding instrument right out of the case that will only improve as it ages. The top can be finished in a number of different colors ranging from Natural, to Autumn Sunburst, to Black, giving those with a sense for aesthetics a chance to really express themselves beyond their playing. The rosewood back and sides allow for a deep and resonant sound that is perfect for strumming chords, and the abalone inlay around the soundhole adds some glamour to the guitar’s design.
Through serious R&D developments, Yamaha has increased the volume and presence of the FG830, making it a more dynamic acoustic that can hold up under live performances at busy coffee shops or jam sessions. It really sounds balanced and warm, especially when strummed. If you’re a musician looking for a workhorse, the FG830 is a cost effective and fun guitar to play.
Hear it in Action:
5 More Great Acoustic Guitars to Consider
- Alvarez MD60BG Masterworks Dreadnought Guitar
- Fender Tim Armstrong Hellcat Acoustic-Electric Guitar
- Blueridge BR-143A Historic Craftsman Series 000 Guitar
- Yamaha LL16 Acoustic Guitar
- Guild D-260CE Acoustic Guitar
Top Acoustic Guitar Brands
The top acoustic guitars come in a variety of makes and models. While you can find good guitars from just about any manufacturer, certain brands have their own flavor or style. Here I break down what you need to know about some of the best guitar brands.
Taylor is an iconic name in acoustic guitars. If you’re looking for top notch playing action, look no further than a Taylor. Customer service for this decades-old company is also acclaimed. And Taylor is committed to using only sustainably sourced tone woods which means you can be eco-conscious while playing your new acoustic.
It’s no wonder that Martin guitars are at the top of many acoustic guitar reviews. Few names in guitars are as well known for producing a consistent, iconic sound as well as Martin. The Martin “voice” is hard to imitate and definitely unmistakable. If you are looking for a deep, warm tone and sensitive dynamics, then a Martin might be the best guitar for you.
Epiphone has been making guitars for nearly 150 years, and they’ve learned a thing about producing the best sounding acoustic guitars in the process. Innovation is what drives this company, and you’re guaranteed to always have the newest in quality features on an Epiphone acoustic. These guitars are built to last, and Epiphone backs this up with a lifetime warranty on their instruments.
Gibson may have started out producing mandolins over a hundred years ago, but that just means they know how to make a finely tuned string instrument. Gibson operates out of a specially-built facility in Nashville, TN, and also offers custom restoration of older models. I am especially a fan of the Gibson electric-acoustic guitars for top notch onboard preamp and electronic components.
Fender is best known for their electric models, but don’t discount them from the acoustic guitar game. Fender prides itself on its styling and craftsmanship, and that commitment definitely shows through in their instruments. When you buy a Fender you don’t just get a new guitar, you become part of an iconic rock and roll brand.
Yamaha excels at making all kinds of musical instruments, and guitars are no different. From affordable models great for beginning players all the way up to intermediate and professional models, Yamaha produces quality guitars that will grow with you while you develop as a player.
Seagull guitars are handmade entirely in Canada from sustainably-sourced tonewoods. A division of Godin Guitars, Seagull aims to take the components and construction techniques of high end instruments and apply them to top quality guitars that any working musician can afford. Featuring a distinctive headstock and often using non-standard woods like cedar, Seagull guitars are all top notch workhorses that look great and are fun to play.
Alvarez may not be as well known as Martin, Taylor, or Gibson, but they make some great guitars that can go toe-to-toe with any of these top brands. While they are based in St. Louis, MO, their top models are made at the legendary Yairi guitar factory in Japan. Played by such luminaries as Bob Weir, Carlos Santana, and Crosby, Stills and Nash, Alvarez guitars produce complex sounds with excellent playability.
What to Think About Before You Shop
In a nutshell, when it comes to shopping for a good acoustic guitar, you’ll have a host of things to consider. Here are the big ticket considerations to keep in mind:
There are multiple acoustic guitars body styles, and you can find top rated acoustic guitars in a host of different sizes. Whether it be for traveling or playing on a stage, features such as dreadnought vs orchestra vs travel sized and whether or not the guitar has any cut outs will all be choices you will have to make.
Decide whether or not you have the room in your budget to invest in electric components. Adding electric to your acoustic guitar will add versatility and will let you un-mic at events. If you don’t purchase an electric equipped model, consider investing in an acoustic guitar pickup for the sound hole or bridge.
Tone Wood Construction
Wood choice will have a direct impact on the tone and quality of your playing. Mahogany produces deep rich tone while spruce will be better in the mid and upper ranges. Experiment with a variety of different woods to see which produces the sound you like best. Anything with all solid wood will produce the most complex tones and age the best over time.
Acoustic guitars vary wildly in price. More expensive does not necessarily mean better, and there are some great cheap acoustic guitars out there these days. Sure, that $2,000 Martin is likely a great instrument, but is it really all that much better than that $400 guitar you’ve been looking at? Whatever your price range, you can find an awesome guitar to match.
When deciding which acoustic guitar is right for you, think first about when and where you see yourself playing. Campfire tunes require a more rugged and portable instrument. For studio work, you are going to want something with more resonance and pure tone. Make a checklist of qualities and characteristics you will want in a guitar and then narrow down brands and styles based on those considerations.
If you’re buying your first guitar, check out this great Youtube video for more helpful tips and tricks on choosing a quality instrument:
When it comes to guitars, it’s hard to pick just one. Although there are many great models on the market, you may find yourself unable to find a single instrument that meets all of your needs. With variations for every budget, consider whether your next guitar purchase could possibly turn into two or three distinct guitars for different occasions and purposes. You can mix and match your sound even further by playing around with different acoustic guitar strings. Hopefully this handy guide to the best acoustic guitars has given you a starting place for your next guitar purchasing adventure.