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15 quality checks when buying a new acoustic guitar


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Hello Everyone, I'm a luthier who writes informational articles about guitars using what I've learned while building. I wrote an article detailing 15 components related to musicality, playability and quality of an acoustic guitar. I aimed this as a guide to explain to someone looking to buy a new guitar what to look for. There's a lot of text, too much for this post. So here is the list below and you can check out more here acoustic guitar buying guide intermediate

The list that I go through is

Top quality , back and sides quality, tuning ease, bridge pin ease, fretboard buzz, fretboard dead spots, neck shape preference, action preference, measuring stiffness of the top and back, mass consideration, evenness of finish, craftsmanship details, intonation quality, pickup quality.

My list is by no means exhaustive and there are many things I missed or could explain in more depth or with more clarity.

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I have to admit that I also just need to play and hear a guitar to know if the builder managed to avoid problems in any of the major areas. 

It's cool to isolate and focus on all of those variables if you're building them, but as I'm sure you know that doesn't guarantee a "greater than the sum of the parts" like you get when they're all great.

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Same here regarding playing versus walking through a pre-flight checklist, but in defense of it I'd call the checklist a good idea for people not so experienced in sound and playability. Going in as a greeny so many years ago a checklist would probably have been useful to me. These days I can pluck the strings while the guitar hangs on the wall to know whether it's a candidate or not for sampling. As a matter of fact, that method has saved Gibson's product line from suffering my DNA for years.

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Posted (edited)

Tuning stability. First thing I'll do is tune 'er up and play some cowboy chords, then arpeggios, then a few runs. From that, I have the tones, playability and intonation variables accounted tor. From there, if pleased, I'll check out the body's integrity and aesthetics, and go deeper by checking the frets, action and intonation at the nut and 12th fret. So, first sound, second what needs done, and third, structural integrity, and then a deeper pass. If I love the tone and I can determine that a proper setup will get me where I want, and there's no issue with the guitar, I keep it.....

The instrument's voice has to speak to me. If not, everything else is irrelevant.

Until I sell it for another, and go through the same lunacy again.

Edited by Glenn F
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agree with strum on the wall yea or nay approach.

Good to have a checklist, mental or otherwise.

I reckon good thing to use list to keep us from falling into hubris

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20 hours ago, Emory said:

agree with strum on the wall yea or nay approach.

Good to have a checklist, mental or otherwise.

I reckon good thing to use list to keep us from falling into hubris

Not sure the humility needs a revisit as much as I am my patience needing a reboot, having lapsed into a state of despair over the quality of sound, which is to say that I'm not sure there is such a thing. The search was afoot at one time but it has since gone lame from over exertion. A 50-year expectation without reward becomes a fools game. If badges are handed out for that I've certainly earned one, but my list of validating brands/models would also certainly be challenged. I know I can't be alone in having the ear I have that has not been resolved to-date, and I'm not accepting of other's aural infatuations (more towards ocular infatuations me-thinks) so I wait. 

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This thread got me thinking (yes, I know, there's a first time for everything, LOL smiley-wink). Anyway, from time to time a new poster will ask for advice on buying a new (to him/her) guitar and inevitably an argument starts about whether a new/inexperienced player should consider a used guitar. There's the "No, you don't know what to look for" side, the "Buy used, you'll save money and it's not rocket science" side, the "Buy your first guitar new and when you have more experience you can buy used" side (which includes me), etc.

Let's put together a checklist for buying a used guitar, something that goes beyond "It's purty and it sounds nice." When we're done, maybe it can be made into a sticky like Freeman's old "sick guitar" threads.

Obviously overall condition matters. Is it dried out and if so what are the chances it can be resuscitated? How much does initial playability count? Most of us could look at a guitar and tell if a setup will help it (for example, what is the action like and how much saddle is exposed?) but new players not so much. What is the condition of the strings? Personally, I tend to look askance at a guitar that has the strings installed haphazardly and not trimmed. It may not bother anyone else but it demonstrates a lack of care, IMHO.

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Regardless of assembling your own accumulated knowledge and experience, and best intent at giving advice, an entry-level person will do what he/she does and end up with a dart board choice (by our own reckoning).

Sensibilities are all over the place. The slightest difference in feel between two guitars could be the pivotal push away from a great sounding guitar, that an experienced player could easily adjust to, to a distant second guitar by the noob who can't bring an ear to the task yet.

Also, all those factors that are second nature to one person who feels he can employ them to make good decisions for himself may be well short of the experience of another player whose skills are more advanced. This is where a conflict arises when offering advise to a noob. Advising a person about the finer points of choosing a guitar, in the forum environment, can be counter-productive despite good intentions by all.

I think it's enough to suggest a guitar that plays easily. Nothing defeats a person faster than a guitar that's disagreeable in the hands. The new guy doesn't have a developed ear yet so rule that out. That comes down the road when playing skills can be brought into play. And, don't even talk to him about finding a decent sounding guitar and having a tech set it up for him. That's ridiculous. He does not have the ear yet, nor does he possess the skill set to set up a guitar for, meaning, he can't tell a tech what he wants and the tech isn't a psychic.

The main point is advising a person about getting a guitar should not include any other point than ease of play and that's what our friend Denny Zager is capitalizing on with his easy-play come-on. Smart guy, and his customers by and large are happy with the guitars wholly based on their ease of play.

Last word about experienced players trying their hands at altruism - don't. We differ with each other on the jam floor so don't expect to be useful when offering advise. I've read all kinds of advice that might/might not be useful to the anal person who can make sense of it, but most people are not wrapped that tight (yet). Steer the noob to something that plays easily, is inexpensive and has a decent reputation.

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