Buyers Guide: How do I Choose the Right Steel-String Guitar?
So, you've decided to buy an acoustic guitar—a steel-string acoustic guitar, to be specific. You've realised quickly that there are tons of steel-string guitars out there, all with different features, and you're a bit overwhelmed. That's ok, we understand it's a tough decision with a whole lot of choices! Luckily, you've come to the right place. Once you've given this buyers guide a good read, you'll have all the information you need so you can choose the best steel-string guitar for you.
What is a steel-string guitar?
We'll start with the basics. A steel string guitar is a modern version of the classical guitar. Steel-string guitars were born in the nineteenth century out of the need for louder acoustic guitars. Back then, guitarists had to compete with banjos, mandolins, violins and more on stage, and nylon strings just weren't cutting it. Really though, it was in the beginning of the twentieth century that the famous American guitar brand, Martin, brought out the first steel-string guitar.
We've included the diagram below to show you all of the most important parts of an acoustic steel-string guitar so you can better understand the advice in the rest of this guide.
Wood types and design create the sound
The most important deciding factors for the sound of a steel-string guitar are the types of wood that are used and the design of the body. A body consists of a top, sides and a back. Together, they form a sound cabinet that uses resonance to amplify string vibrations and project them out of the soundhole. The better the resonance, the more acoustic volume the guitar will be able to produce.
The timbre depends on the combination of wood types and the shape of the body. Some woods produce a warm tone with full bass (e.g. cedar), while others produce a much brighter tone (spruce). A large body will also resonate better than a small one. If you compare the shape of an acoustic guitar to a meal, you could think of wood types as the seasonings.
The top: solid top or laminated?
The most important part of an acoustic guitar is the top. This thin piece of wood is in direct contact with the bridge, and is responsible for transferring the string vibrations to the sides and back. Without the top, the strings would just cut through air without being heard. Thanks to the top, the size of the vibrating surface is increased, which in turn improves air movement. More air movement means louder volume, and in order to get more air movement, you need a larger surface. That's why large guitars are always louder than small ones. There is another important factor to consider when it comes to the top, however, and that's whether it's made of solid or laminated wood.
Steel-string guitars with a solid top have tops made of one single piece of wood, as opposed to laminated tops which are made of three or more layers (plies) of wood. Laminated wood is a lot stronger than solid wood, making it more resistant to chances in temperature and moisture. That strength comes at a cost though, and that's the sound. Tops need to vibrate optimally, which means that the wood needs to be as flexible as possible. That's why a solid-top guitar is going to sound fuller and louder than one with a laminated top.
Whether the sides and back are made of solid wood is less important, and because laminated wood is less expensive, you'll find that laminated sides and back are much more common. A good full-solid steel-string guitar can easily cost £1000 or more.
When it comes to acoustic guitars, the thinner the top, the better the resonance. But the top still needs to be strong enough to take on the tension of the strings. It's for this reason that many guitars feature bracing on the inside of the top. The bracing will follow a specific pattern, with Martin's X bracing being the most common. The braces are also strategically thinned out in certain places to keep the guitar lighter without sacrificing strength. This kind of scalloped bracing is extremely work-intensive, so you'll normally only find it on better (and more expensive) steel-string guitars. If you read about this in a product text, then you can take that as a sign that a lot of time and effort was spent on perfecting the small details of the instrument to produce the very best quality.
What are you planning to use the guitar for?
Before we get into the sound characteristics of the different types of wood, it's important to know what kind of sound you're looking for. This will, of course, depend on your personal taste and the type of music you'd like to play.
Maybe you're a soloist who want to cut through the band mix, or maybe you're a singer/songwriter looking for a mild sound to accompany your vocals. Perhaps you want a guitar suited for hard strumming with a pick, or maybe you'd rather have one that responds in detail to the smallest nuances of your finger picking. These are just a few of the questions you should ask yourself before you decide which type of wood your guitar should be made of.
Most common wood types
If you're looking for a particular sound, then you'll want to have a look below at the most common wood types used for nylon-string guitars, along with their characteristic traits.
Spruce, particularly sitka spruce, is the most common wood type used for acoustic guitar tops. It has a light colour, tight grain, and either a yellowish or reddish tint. Spruce combines strength and elasticity, resulting in a bright, articulated sound with a wide dynamic range. There are different types of spruce, and all of them have their own sound characteristics. Besides sitka (Canadian spruce), there's also Engelmann spruce from North America. This type of spruce sounds 'riper', resulting in a somewhat rounder sound with richer mids. Then there's the rare Adirondack spruce, which is a bit more dynamic than Sitka, making it louder and simultaneously more articulate and bright when you play it hard with a pick. Finally, there's also European spruce, which combines the power and headroom of Adirondack with a bit of the warmth of cedar.
Cedar, or western red cedar, is typically greyish-brown with a reddish tint. Its grain is comparable to that of spruce, except that it's less dense. Due to the lower density, it's also lighter in weight and produces a warmer tone. Where spruce is very dynamic, cedar makes the soft sounds louder. It's the ideal wood type for fingerstyle players with a light touch. One disadvantage of cedar is that it produces less overall volume than spruce, meaning that you're going to find your dynamic limit faster when strumming with a pick.
Mahogany is a reddish-brown wood type with lightly speckled wood grain. It can be used for both the top as well as the sides and back. This wood type is quite dense and stiff, resulting in a clear sound. Mahogany is known for producing a rich, punchy mid-range that gets fuller as the guitar ages. Thanks to the warm, sweet mids this wood type produces, it often sounds deeper than spruce. Because of its dark colour, a steel-string guitar with a mahogany top has a beautiful, rustic look, which can be nice if you want something different from the more generic spruce.
Rosewood is pretty much only used for the sides and back of an acoustic guitar. It's reddish-brown in colour with wild chocolate brown wood grain. Rosewood has the same rich mid-range as mahogany, but it adds some extra-deep bass along with clear, articulated trebles. As such, it can produce slightly 'scooped', or less prominent, mids. Rosewood is ideal if you value beautiful wood and are looking for a deep yet sparkling sound, such as what you'd hear in Bluegrass. The most common types of rosewood used for guitars are Indian Rosewood and the scarce and valuable Brazilian Rosewood.
Maple is a light-yellow wood, sometimes with a pinkish tint, and is typically used for the sides and back of steel-string guitars. The term 'flamed maple' is used a lot, and refers to a 3D-type striped pattern that runs perpendicular to the wood grain. It's purely aesthetic, but because this type of maple is pricey, you'll mostly only find it on more expensive guitars. Maple is a harder, high-density wood type, which translates into a bright, tight and focused sound. It's the ideal wood type if you want to cut through the mix.
Shapes and sizes
The shape of the first steel-string guitars was based on the eighteenth-century romantic guitar. They were slightly smaller than their predecessors, and they were also smaller than traditional classical guitars. These models were called parlour guitars. It didn't take long before different guitar brands started to experiment with larger sizes to make the steel-string guitar even louder and fuller. Today, there is a tremendous range of models available in all shapes and sizes. There are also guitars available with necks that are mounted to the body at either the 12th or 14th fret. Each version has a different type indication or name, which doesn't really help in adding any clarity to it all. Luckily, there are three main models that are the most common, in addition to the parlour guitar.
Below are the most common body types, from small to large:
Thanks to its rather small, thin and compact size, the Parlour guitar produces a tight, balanced sound with articulate bass and clear trebles. This sound is particularly popular with blues guitarists and folk guitarists who play fingerstyle. Of the four most common types, parlour guitars produce the least amount of volume. Thanks to their small size, hourglass-like design parlour guitars are great for smaller guitar players and children.
The Triple O is a model by Martin that has a lot in common with the classical guitar when it comes to design, though it's a bit bigger in size. The width of the body is, however, comparable in size. A later model by Martin is the Orchestra Model (OM), which had just about the same design, the only difference being that the scale length was a bit longer and the neck was attached to the body at the 14th fret to offer better access to the higher frets. A lot of guitarists are referring to this model when they're talking about a Triple O. Steel-string guitars this size produce more volume and have a broader dynamic range than parlour guitars. As such, they respond better to different types of playing, whether it be your fingers or a guitar pick. You'll find that the bass levels are more prominent, which makes the sound fuller. The Triple O is a medium-sized guitar, and as such it's a great choice for smaller guitarists.
This is where it gets a little more complicated, because different guitar brands have their own names for similar models. You've got the Grand Concert, the Grand Orchestra, and the Grand Auditorium. Sometimes they're even the same size and depth as a Dreadnought (more on that model below), but because of the shape (small waist), the sound is more comparable to a Triple O. For those reasons we've put all of these models together under one filter in the shop.
This might be the best-known and most popular acoustic guitar model. When you think of a steel-string guitar, then you're probably thinking of this one. The Dreadnought was named after one of Martin's flagship models, and it was their answer to the demand for a guitar with extra volume and a deeper, more bass-intensive sound. In order to achieve this, the Dreadnought got a deeper body and a wider waist, so that it no longer had much of an hourglass shape. That means that the Dreadnought has a large top surface which, following the logic we explained earlier, results in better air flow and therefore more volume.
The Jumbo was designed by Gibson to compete with the Dreadnought. This steel-string guitar's shape has the same proportions at the Grand Auditorium, but it's a lot larger overall. The Jumbo's defining characteristics include large round lines and a small waist, which equals a smaller top surface. In order to still achieve the same full, deep sound as the Dreadnought, the body needed to be even deeper and bigger. Due to its size, the Jumbo might not be very comfortable for some folks.
Travel guitar and archtop
You'll also find smaller travel guitars in our shop, along with archtop guitars. The latter have the design of an acoustic guitar, but then with an arched top and back, just like on semi-acoustic (hollow-body) guitars. Travel guitars are a perfect way to be able to practise when you're on the road without having to check extra luggage. They're also a great alternative for kids.
What else should you keep in mind?
Intonation: compensated saddle
You don't just want your guitar's sound to be good, you want it to be clean. That is to say, if you play a note lower on the neck, it should be just as clean when you play it in the higher positions. If that's not the case, then something's up with the intonation. The intonation is the length of the string from the string nut to the bridge. This length is different for every string gauge. For electric guitars each string has its own adjustable saddle, but acoustic guitars typically have a bridge made out of one single part. Because the string length of the thick E string needs to be longer than that of the thin E string, the bridge on an acoustic guitar is crooked.
Less expensive steel-string guitars usually have a plastic bridge, while more expensive models typically have a compensated bridge that's often made of bone, like you'll see in the top picture. Here, a small notch has been made per string so that each string will be the ideal length, and therefore have the best intonation possible. Takamine have two-piece bridges on their guitars.
Acoustic guitars are finished with a very thin layer of lacquer, which helps to preserve the body's resonance. The more expensive the guitar, the better the finish. You can between gloss and matte, and you can also between having a natural finish or one with a colour, such as sunburst or black. The colour is purely a question of taste, and has absolutely no influence on the sound.
The price of a steel-string guitar is heavily influenced by the detailing on the instrument. You might have multiple layers of body binding, for instance, and that might be made of mother-of-pearl. Or you might choose a guitar with a decorative inlay made of mother-of-pearl, wood, stone, or other materials. A lot of careful manual labour goes into these kinds of details, which results in a more expensive guitar. As such, you're not typically going to see an abundance of decorative details on a budget model. These kinds of frills are, just like the colour of the guitar, a matter of preference, and don't have any influence on the sound or playability of a steel-string guitar.
6 or 12 strings?
Some steel-string guitars are also available in a 12-string version. 12-string steel-string guitars produce an incredibly full, rich sound, thanks to the fact that it has two sets of six strings. This is set up by putting a thin string tuned an octave higher next to each of the regular six strings. That means you'll need to press down two strings per finger. As a result, you'll need to put more power into playing chords, making a 12-string guitar a better choice for more advanced players.
If you're a beginner, you might not know which accessories you need to start out with. That's we've created an acoustic guitar set category in web shop. There, you'll find beginner sets that come with all of the most essential accessories, such as a gig bag, tuner, guitar stand, and guitar strap, so you can get going right away. Of course, you'll also find links to bundles and package deals on our guitar product pages.