Hype and the guitar

Today, I’d like to back track a bit and go into what makes a “good” guitar.  First, I’d like to say that there is no best.  People who like my instruments tend to like what I like.  Bluegrass players are not going to like my fingerstyle guitars and that’s okay.  Also people who like a particular brand are usually very loyal.  If someone thinks his Taylor is the best guitar made, then it is for him, even if I don’t drink his particular brand of Kool-Aid.

What does give me pause is the hype surrounding the marketing of high end instruments.  The list of “BS” is mind numbing.  One company has a patent pending “hundreds of hand-carved grooves on the top and back in carefully selected acoustic panels, creating a resonance never before heard or felt on an acoustic guitar.”  REALLY!  Is that off center sound hole going to revolutionize the guitar world?  I think not.  That is not to say that people like Michael Kasha haven’t pushed real boundaries.  Just play guitars by two of his most famous practitioners, the late Richard Schneider and Steve Klein, but are they better?

I believe that good guitars are based on two things: Quality of materials and quality of construction.  I’ve had the privilege of overseeing over 25 instruments completed by my students in my building classes and every one has sounded extremely good.  Now I will say that to make a great guitar is a matter of practice.  Once you’ve made several and have evaluated your best instruments you can try and duplicate that process. There is no secret formula, no holy grail.

There are also the details of construction.  Some builders swear by dovetail joint necks.  I’ve done about half dovetails and half bolt on (about 25 of each) and I cannot tell any difference in tone or weight.  More and more luthiers are using bolt on necks and with good reason.  As I mentioned before, an acoustic guitar will eventually need its neck angle re-set.  A guitar has over 200lbs of pressure trying to draw the neck into the body and over the course of time the strings will get higher and higher.  The neck has to come off in order to accomplish this and with a dovetail it is the most invasive thing you can do to a guitar.  Think of it as heart surgery.  In a bolt on neck that is a much simpler procedure.  In the case of Taylor it’s a job that can be accomplished in minutes.

All this hoey goes for electrics as well.  I once read a review in a respected guitar magazine that said poplar was the contributing factor in making this particular guitar heavy because it was more dense than maple!  In what universe, I don’t know, but on this world the opposite is true.  Again there are no secrets.  Good materials, good construction.

My point is that play as many guitars as you can.   Even with well respected brands you will find differences in the same model.  You can play 10 different Martin D-28’s and only find one that floats your boat.  If you’re going to buy a guitar from a single builder try and play as many of his instruments as possible to see how consistent he is.  Obviously a cocobolo guitar will sound different than a walnut one but can you tell if it has good string separation?  Do the treble strings have the same balance and power of the bass strings (it’s easier to get a good bass sound than a good treble response)?  Look on the inside.  Is the construction neat, no sloppy glue joints?  Are the bindings and purflings nicely mitered?

Things I don’t do:  Count the grain lines per inch in the top.  Adirondack spruce typically has less lines per inch than Sitka.  Is Sitka better?  Don’t say that to pre-war Martin fans.  I also don’t get the idea of buying a guitar… any guitar online.  If you can’t play it, how can you evaluate anything about it?  I also stay away from big box stores, such as Best Buy and Guitar Center.  The guitars go from the box to the hanger and don’t benefit from any set up, intonation, etc.  I also like the idea of going to the local shop, which in most cases will match prices too.

So much for my rant, hope this helps you find the right guitar for you.


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