How to Choose Your First Acoustic Guitar (Do’s and Don’ts)

If you need advice on how to select your first acoustic guitar, be sure to check out this guide!

How to Choose Your First Acoustic Guitar (Do’s and Don’ts)

Pranshu, a guitarist who runs Harmonyvine, is sharing his advice for anyone trying to pick out their first acoustic guitar!

I still have fond memories of the day I got my first acoustic guitar. That was after several weeks of researching online and scouring guitar stores (I guess many of you can relate!).

It was a brand new Yamaha costing just 100 bucks. It’s certainly not the most comfortable or the best-sounding guitar I’ve owned, but that thing will always have a special place in my heart.

However, things have changed a lot since then, and we’re bombarded with so many more low-cost options today. It can be a daunting task to know where to start, which is why I created this guide full of actionable advice on guitar shapes, tonewoods, and pricing.

Today, I’m going to share a 5-step process that’ll save you weeks of research and get you the right instrument in your hands.

Let’s get in!

1. What’s Your Budget?

The first thing to do is set a budget in mind and get the best possible guitar you can afford.

If you find something that you really love but is slightly over your budget, you SHOULD consider going for it. Remember, it’s a long-term investment, so you shouldn’t have any regrets later.

But don’t overspend!

If you’re serious about learning guitar, I recommend getting something that’s at least in the range of $200-$300. Anything less than $150 is not worth your money. Of course, the higher you go, the better it gets quality-wise.

2. Choose The Right Body Shape

Acoustic guitars come in a wide variety of shapes and sizes.

While you can play any style and genre on any guitar, some shapes are more suited to a specific musical style than others.

Generally speaking, the bigger shapes are louder and bassier and are more suited for strumming and flat-picking. On the other hand, the smaller shapes have more mid-range and highs and are ideal for fingerpicking or more intricate styles of playing.

Here is a quick overview of some popular shapes out there, in order of increasing size:

  • Parlor: Compact body closer to a 3/4-sized guitar. Not very loud but has that classic folky or blues sound that’s perfect for solo fingerpicking.
  • Concert/Grand Concert: Similar in size and shape to a traditional classical guitar. Produces a round tone with clearly defined mids.
  • OM/000: One of the most versatile shapes out there. Sound-wise, the OM (or Orchestra Model) offers the perfect middle ground between the delicate parlor tones and the loud and full dread sound.
  • Grand Auditorium: Similar in size as the dreadnought but shaped like an OM. Almost as loud as a dread but has more defined mids and highs due to the narrower waist.
  • Dreadnought: The traditional workhorse type of guitar and the most common shape out there. Loud and bassy – this is THE classic rock and bluegrass guitar.
  • Jumbo: The big boy of the pack. Loudest sound but unwieldy for smaller players.

There are even more shapes, such as Mini (1/2 or 3/4 size) and Traveler guitars, but those are only good in some specific scenarios and are not as popular.

If you want a detailed comparison of all these or want to hear them side by side, you should check out this video by Paul Davids. It’s a fun video to watch, and you’ll learn a lot about the sound, feel, and looks of all the popular acoustic shapes.

Bonus Tip: If you’ve never played the guitar before, you should ideally try out different shapes and brands in a local shop. Even if you can’t play any notes yet, it helps to see which one looks and feels the most pleasing for you.

3. Tonewood Matters… A Lot

The shape and size might impact the volume and projection of the guitar, but when it comes to overall tonality, nothing is more important than the tonewood used.

There are four main parts to consider here: The top, body, neck, and fingerboard.

The most important one is the guitar top, as the majority of the sound vibrations are produced by the top. I highly recommend getting a solid wood top instead of a laminate one.

A solid top is one solid piece of wood, while laminate tops are thin layers of wood glued together. The former produces much richer sound and projection as well as gets better over time.

Here are the recommended tonewoods for different parts of the guitar:

  • Top: Spruce, cedar, or mahogany
  • Back & Sides: Nato, mahogany, rosewood, and maple
  • Neck: Nato or mahogany
  • Fingerboard: Rosewood, ebony, or walnut

Apart from those, there’s a whole realm of “exotic tonewoods” for guitars. These are rare species of woods such as Koa, Cocobolo, and Brazilian rosewood.

As a complete beginner, you should avoid these unless you’re willing to stump up extra cash for the looks. These woods are mostly there for their rarity and ‘exotic’ appearance and do not necessarily sound better than typical tonewoods like spruce or mahogany.

4. Don’t Forget The Setup

Playability is the most important factor for beginners. Newbie guitarists are already struggling with seemingly-impossible chord shapes and finger pain due to no calluses. Adding an uncomfortable instrument is a recipe for disaster.

Before you walk away with your brand new guitar, perform the following checks (or ask someone experienced to do them):

  • Neck relief and string action should be perfect – not too high and not too low. Try fretting notes on all possible parts of the fingerboard and see if it feels even and that there’s no fret buzz.
  • Check for proper intonation, which refers to how “in tune” the guitar is high up the neck. Play some notes on the 14th fret and beyond and check their tuning with the help of a tuner.
  • All the frets should be even, shiny, and not have sharp edges. Otherwise, your fingers will pay the price.
  • If your guitar has electronics, check if all the ports are clean and the controls are working properly.

As you’ll often find me saying, any decent entry-level guitar can be made to ‘feel’ like a $1000 guitar with the proper setup.

If you’re buying the guitar from a local shop, you can ask the salesman to set it up for you. It only costs around $30-$50, but some stores will do that for free.

5. What About Pickups?

For most people, I recommend getting a guitar with electronics from the get-go. Even if you don’t think you’d be using them often, it adds extra versatility to the instrument.

An acoustic-electric guitar is an excellent choice if you plan on playing live gigs, jamming with a band or some friends, or recording yourself.

However, if the instrument is going to be strictly for home practice or campfires, you don’t need pickups.

Keep in mind that pickups add extra cost to the instrument. So, if you’re super-tight on budget, you should skip those. The money saved on pickups can go into more fundamental aspects like woods and construction.

My favorite “value-for-the-money” guitar brands are Yamaha, Seagull, Takamine, and Fender. You just can’t go wrong with a budget guitar from these.

Other great brands:

  • Epiphone
  • Ibanez
  • Washburn
  • Alvarez

In particular, the Yamaha FG800 and the Fender CD-60s are outstanding guitars in the $200-$300 segment. Both have a “solid top” and sound fantastic for the price.

If you have a little more cash to spare, the Seagull S6 and S6 Slim are phenomenal instruments around $500-$600 that can give some premium acoustics a run for their money.

At around $1000, you can get some incredibly high-quality instruments that’ll serve you well in the studio and on the road.

If you care about having the most quality for the price, you should consider getting a premium acoustic from Yamaha/Takamine/Epiphone at this price.

On the other hand, if you’re all about having an iconic brand name on the headstock, you’re looking for an entry-level Taylor/Martin. I have guides for both Martin and Taylor guitars on my website that’ll help narrow down your choices.

Final Words

Well, now you know what to look for in an acoustic guitar. And more importantly, what to avoid!

You don’t need to spend thousands of dollars to get a great acoustic guitar. A smarter choice would be getting one that inspires you to play music and doesn’t make a hole in your pocket.

I hope this article has brought you one step closer to your guitar journey. Thanks for sticking around till the end!

Happy guitar shopping!

Pranshu is the owner of Harmonyvine music blog. He has been playing the guitar and piano for over 16 years and recently stepped into the music production scene. Head over to his website where he shares his musical journey and valuable advice for budding musicians.