Well, are they? People buy expensive acoustic guitars for a lot of reasons. They’re emotionally connected to a brand (I’m looking at you, Martin players…), they believe in a particular construction technique, they have money to blow on new toys, or they believe they’re making a financial investment that will hopefully appreciate with time.
For most of us, though, a pricier guitar promises two basic functions: it plays better, it sounds better. And as a bonus, it usually looks cooler. Let’s take a look at whether expensive guitars are worth the money. A quick shout out to Harmony Central, I was inspired to think through this issue by a discussion in their acoustic guitar forum.
First question: What’s an expensive guitar?
Acoustic guitars range in value from $10 at your neighbor’s garage sale, to $10,000 for custom, tone-wood instruments. But acoustic guitars tend to be priced in tiers. Disclaimer: these numbers aren’t written in stone, this is just my observation over the years.
The Beginner: $50 – $300. Typically bought with a low commitment level to learning. Possibly for a child, or an adult with limited spare time to invest. Examples include the Fender beginner packs and Yamaha’s.
The Intermediate: $300 – $750. Targeted at beginner players who are probably taking lessons, and moving towards proficiency on the instrument. Most of these models include built-in pickup systems for plugging into a PA. I played a Takamine in this range for many of my first years in a band.
The Workingman: $750 – $2,000. Targeted at proficient, semi-professional, adult players. Big improvements in playability and sound over the previous models. In addition to nice options from Martin and Taylor in this price range, many of the smaller, boutique shops have lines beginning in this range (see Larrivee ).
The Professional: $2,000 – $7,000. For the pros or non-pros with a lot of extra cash. This level of acoustic guitar is going to sound phenomenal and play well. Often, you’re paying for a very specific type of tone at this level. You can see this with some of the Martin custom signature editions.
The Collector: $7,000+. IMHO, these are for people who love buying guitars as much as they love playing them. At trade shows and fairs, I have yet to play one of these that displays a markedly improved tone over a sub-$7,000 guitar. These are collector’s items meant for investment and showing off. The other possibility is that people pay this much for a heavily customized guitar built from scratch. For pro players with very specific needs, and the money to spend, this is the only way to go.
When someone talks about buying “an expensive guitar”, my experience is that they’re moving past the Intermediate level into Workingman territory. They’re moving past the $750 price point, and considering 4-figure price tags for the first time. Is this worth it? As I mentioned above, you get improved playability and sound. But what does that mean, specifically? Let’s take a look at some reasons to buy an expensive guitar.
What do I get for my money?
- Even Volume & Pitch: Guitars can have uneven volume and pitch up and down the fretboard, and across the strings from low to high E. Quality acoustics respond with consistent volume and accurate pitch across the whole guitar.
- Dynamic Range: Dynamic range refers to the ration between the biggest and smallest values. For guitars, it usually refers to the range of volume. How does the guitar sound when you fingerpick gently? How does it sound when you strum full out on a rock song? A good guitar will perform well at both extremes, responding with sensitivity to the player’s input.
- Timbral Variations: This is another type of “dynamic range”, but this time in terms of the character of the sound produced by the strings. How does the guitar sound when you strum close to the bridge vs closer to the neck? Harmonics? Fingerpicking vs pick? The guitar should sound pleasing and unique under these different conditions.
- Projection: How well does the guitar project a clear sound? It’s always surprising to me to hear how good my Larrviee D-60 sounds on the other side of the room. Of course, I can hear it perfectly while I’m playing it, with my head only inches from the body of the guitar. But because of the quality construction, the audience on the other side of even a large room can hear it clearly as well. (Note: Make sure you’re comparing apples to apples on this one. My Larrivee is a dreadnought body style, which means it has a bigger sound. A smaller body style would have a different level of projection.)
- Fit: The guitar should fit your body well when you play it. The shape of the neck, the cut of the body, the fretboard – these are all factors considered by fine luthiers during design.
- Solid Wood vs Laminate: More expensive acoustic guitars use higher quality ‘tone woods’ instead of laminate wood. There are different types of tone woods that sound good for different reasons – brazilian rose wood, cedar, maple, etc. In all cases, guitarists overwhelming prefer solid tone woods to the laminate wood used in cheaper models.
- Wood Aging: Because these guitars are using solid woods, the guitars age and mature in good ways (usually). Laminate guitars do not. When collector’s drool over “pre-war Martins” and other old acoustic guitars, it’s largely because the high quality wood used in these guitars have aged and matured, resulting in beautiful tone.
- Finish: Fine guitars often have beautiful and age-defying finishes applied. For acoustic guitars, these finishes do double action. They show off the natural beauty of the wood. They also protect the wood from wear and tear while preserving tonal response.
- Workmanship: The basic workmanship on an acoustic guitar will noticeably improve as you move into the $750+ territory. Telltale signs of poor workmanship show up at the neck joint, bridge, and fretboard. These joints and edges should be smooth, the glue neat, and the guitar should feel solidly constructed.
- Looks: A nice guitar should, of course, look good. In my experience, I start seeing inlays and decorative work done on guitars over the $1,000 mark. Some of the high end models have elaborate inlay work made from rare materials.
Some, or all, of these qualities may be important to you. If so, that’s probably enough to push you over the hump into high price territory. A few bits of age-old wisdom are in order, though.
Conlcusion: Age-Old Wisdom
1. Find one that speaks to you.
Most guitar players experience, at one time or another, playing guitar that is just simply inspiring. It’s rare, and wonderful, and somehow always feel magical. You’re just messing around with guitars at the store one day when… Bam! The guitar feels like it was just made for you. The feel, the sound, the look – it’s perfection. A situation like this ALWAYS trumps any of the wisdom above. If you encounter a guitar like this, just buy it.
2. Nothing can make up for becoming a better player.
There’s no substitute for practice and training when it comes to sounding good on a guitar. Even a poor guitar in the hands of a great player will sound good. The reverse is not true. As a fellow guitar player used to always tell me, “It’s all in the hands.”
3. The best guitar is the one in your hands.
Guitars are sexy, and we all find ourselves giving into G.A.S. (Gear Acquisition Syndrome). It’s inevitable. All the more reason to remind ourselves about the point of all this stuff, though: making music. At the end of the day, the best guitar is the one that you’ve got handy to make music with.