What to look for in an acoustic guitar—from strings to wood, body and beyond

Even though someone had the earth-shaking notion to run electricity into a guitar a few decades ago, the acoustic guitar remains just as potent as it ever was. The instrument spans genre and culture, from the Gipsy Kings’ flamenco grace to Bob Dylan’s folk strumming and Jimmy Page’s driving leads. In the right hands, the simple combination of wood and strings can lay down a strong groove or conjure wistful waves of fingerpicked notes. And as most any great songwriter will tell you, a song doesn’t truly work unless it works with nothing but a voice and acoustic guitar.

There are countless variables to factor in when it comes to picking your own acoustic axe and getting the most out of it—steel strings or nylon? Six strings or 12? To help, we turned to experts Jake Ezra Schwartz and Jude Gold. Schwartz plays guitar for the Tony- and Grammy-winning Broadway show The Book of Mormon and has previously worked on hit shows like Wicked and Legally Blonde, as well as leading the rock-funk-jazz group Van Davis. Gold is the guitar program director at Musicians Institute, and has played with artists like Miguel Migs, Eddie Money, Kristin Chenoweth and 2 Live Crew.

Why use a steel-string guitar?

GOLD: Most songwriters and singers tend to favor the power, projection and strong chordal delivery of a steel-string guitar. It’s great for strumming, but new players will need to develop calluses.

SCHWARTZ: Your basic Martin or Taylor acoustic guitars have steel strings, playing fingerstyle or with a pick. Whether it’s pop, rock, country or bluegrass, a lot of driving rhythm comes from steel-string acoustics—although you can play strong lead lines on them, too. Lots of singer-songwriters like Bob Dylan and Joan Baez use them to establish rhythm and the form of a song.

What about nylon strings?

GOLD: If you’re picking or strumming, you should probably stick with steel strings. But if you use your fingers, nylon gives you a delicate approach that can be great for jazz, bossa nova and quiet songwriting. There aren’t any hard-and-fast rules, though—Willie Nelson plays some really edgy stuff with nylon strings. It’s also important to know that it’s harder to bend notes using nylon strings, and nylon-string guitars often have a wider neck and a little more space between strings.

SCHWARTZ: Nylon-stringed acoustics are great, but they’re funny animals. They don’t have the same volume projection as steel-stringed acoustics, and you need to put a little more thought into how you’re going to use them. They can still give you rhythm, but it’s not going to cut the same way. The one I use is a Takamine TC132SC nylon-string classical guitar. It’s a fun, responsive instrument.

How about size and shape?

GOLD: Steel-string guitars come in multiple sizes. Parlor guitars are smaller and give you a well-rounded, compact sound. They’re great for recording or going through a pickup system and will easily fit in your lap. On the other end you have the dreadnought, which is the big daddy.

SCHWARTZ: Dreadnoughts have a big sound that hits you like a cannon. I play a Martin D-16RGT Dreadnought, which has a spruce top and rosewood back and sides, in The Book of Mormon. It’s a powerhouse rhythm instrument. I also play a Taylor Dreadnought 710ce with a cutaway that has nice subtleties to it.

GOLD: Necks and bodies join in different places on different models, so if you’re going to be playing a lot of lead lines in the high register make sure you choose a guitar that has the joint on a high fret—or has a cutaway to give your picking hand better access to the frets.

What are 12-string guitars like?

SCHWARTZ: That’s an even bigger sound than a regular acoustic. You have two strings for each note and you always play both at once. The pairs of strings are each tuned in octaves, except for the highest two pairs, which are tuned in unison. I played a Taylor 854ce 12-string in the pit for Legally Blonde and it plays like a dream. The 12-string is also a very specific sound, so it’s too big for some uses. If you’re a singer, it can sometimes occupy too much space in the vocal range.

GOLD: Twelve-strings are a wonderful luxury, because you get such a full sound and a natural chorusing with some of the strings. It sounds like a dulcimer or mandolin.

Do you need a pickup?

SCHWARTZ: When I bought my Martin it didn’t have a pickup in it, so I installed a Fishman Ellipse Matrix Blend. It’s got a tiny mic that sits inside the sound hole and a piezo pickup under the bridge. You can blend the sounds coming from the piezo and mic to get the balance you want. Pete Townshend uses a Fishman in his Gibson acoustic, and he strums like crazy.

GOLD: There are also systems like the D-TAR and the DiMarzio Angel System that combine both mic and piezo in one. When it comes to acoustic guitars, digital technology has come a long way. You can even use devices like the Fishman Aura to simulate room and mic ambience without worrying about feedback.

Does the type of wood matter?

SCHWARTZ: It does. It’s best if you can get an instrument that has a solid top and isn’t made of plywood or multiple pieces of wood put together. Spruce is a lighter-colored wood that Martin uses, and cedar is a darker wood with a darker sound. These days there are lots of boutique companies that make specialized guitars out of high-quality wood. For example, Larrivee and Collings guitars are gorgeous, and Santa Cruz guitars are great as well.

GOLD: Every little aspect of the way a guitar is made affects the sound—the way the instrument is braced inside, if there’s a coat of paint or lacquer on the outside, whether the neck is thicker or thinner. In the end, the construction is more important than getting a fancier wood.

What are the most important effects?

SCHWARTZ: Sometimes a guitar may sound good acoustically, but once you plug it in it’ll sound too midrange or dark. Fishman EQ pedals can be good tools to help you dial out unwanted frequencies and make the guitar sound more natural. HardWire’s RV-7 Stereo Reverb pedal costs under $200 and gives you a great, spacious sound with a real sweetness to it. Other players I know really like the Electro-Harmonix Holy Grail for reverb. I’ve experimented with chorus and distortion on my acoustic guitars. It works and it’s fun, but too many effects can take away from the sound. In general, keep the acoustic guitar sound simple and save the stompboxes for the electric—though one very cool effect I’ve heard comes from Steve Morse’s crazy classical acoustic guitar. It’s a Buscarino, and the way it’s built he can pan each string to a different place in the stereo spectrum to get a very wide sound.

Any advice for new players?

SCHWARTZ: Trust your hands and ears. Whatever feels and sounds good to you will be your best choice, and it could be something you’ve never heard of before. Everyone wants to use what their favorite player uses, but chances are that even if you played through your idol’s rig you’d still sound like you. Use what makes you comfortable.

—Michael Gallant

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