It could be the funky groove in the song. Or the catchy riff in the chorus. Could definitely be the powerful solo building the crescendo.
For what ever reasons we have, we can no longer deny ourselves the passion.The decision makes itself.
To finally get yourself that guitar. Or that keyboard, the drums or that blues harmonica. It’s an awesome feeling, expecting to give life to your favorite songs with your own hands. To feel what it must feel like, to know and play the notes,chords and produce sweet, sweet music.
But the journey must start somewhere, like it did for a friend who asked me to accompany him to purchase a new acoustic guitar. We walked into an impressive music store in Bangalore to look for a companion for his lonely fingers. Music stores today stock an intimidating lineup of instruments and accessories ranging across all levels of musicianship and are increasingly digital and sophisticated compared to instruments of yore.
We looked at some good brands and he quickly decided it was up to me to find the right guitar for him. I list here some of the key factors I considered while picking his guitar:
- Guitar Body: The popular three types of guitar body construction are Classic, Dreadnought and Jumbo. Technical specifications to distinguish them across various brands are beyond the scope of this post. But simply put, they indicate the size of the guitar body. This directly impacts the tonal qualities of the guitar. Larger bodied guitar have a better bass response as the resonance cavity is larger. Smaller bodies are usually more “trebley” in nature.If you like playing solos, then a guitar with a cutaway allowing access to the higher range of frets will interest you. Purists claim the missing chunk of wood will adversely affect the tone. The counter argument is that the upper bout is structural in function while it’s the lower bout that is acoustic.
- Wood: Materials used in constructing the guitar body/neck affect the timbre or quality of sound. The tonal signature of an acoustic guitar is heavily dependent on the wood (density, strength). As opposed to commercial wood, quartersawn logs are used. The top surface of the guitar which is called the soundboard traditionally has spruce/cedar wood ground to 1.5 to 2 mm and fixed in place with tubular bracing. The vibration of the soundboard transmitted via the saddle resonates in the cavity. For the back and sides, hard woods like mahogany, walnut and oak with their distinctive grain and color make for a good guitar. The fingerboard usually has ebony/rosewood glued over the neck. Nowadays though, it’s not uncommon to use alternate material like graphite or carbon fibre for the back, sides and neck.
- Action: Upon holding your first chord on the guitar, your left hand starts becoming aware of the kind of effort required to fret notes. This may be rendered more difficult if the ‘string action’ is set high. This simply means the space between the fretboard and the strings parallel above it. The thumb rule is that the string height at the 12th fret should be around 3mm – 5mm. Further tweaking is subject to personal choice. What I did notice at the store was that the saddles are much higher than they should be. I would suggest removing it and filing down the opposite side to set it right. Medium gauge strings are the best for acoustic guitars allowing for greater sustain and a crisper tone.
- Craftmanship: It’s difficult to discuss this since all guitar brands nowadays manufacture in China. There is still something to be said about the way guitars need to ‘feel’ the minute you hold one. In my opinion, this is the single most important factor deciding a guitar’s quality.
- Electronics: Almost all guitar brands come with an onboard pickup for a premium. The electronics will allow your acoustic guitar to be plugged in via a 1/4″ jack sending a signal to a mixer for a live show as opposed to mixing it live. Let this be the last of your concerns while picking up a guitar, if your intention is to learn. The flashy tuner and three-band equalizer may not be the first thing you need to occupy yourself with. Although it’s a direct passport to join a band later!
How do I know so much about guitars? I spent the last ten years researching for the purchase of my first acoustic guitar!