Acoustics have been around since the mid-1800s when people started experimenting with different materials like wood or metal to make their own instruments. Today’s guitars come from all over the world, but most of them still use similar construction principles.
They typically consist of a hollow wooden body (or plastic), a neck made out of one piece of wood, frets on top of the finger board, strings running between tuning pins at the end of each side, and pickups attached somewhere near where the strings meet the fretboard. These components work together to produce sound waves which travel through the air into our ears.
There is no single right way to build an acoustic guitar so it may be difficult to pick exactly what type of guitar you need. However, there are some general guidelines that will help narrow down your options. Here are several factors to keep in mind before purchasing your next instrument.
The first thing you should think about is the material used for making the body of the guitar; this can vary greatly depending on the country of origin. Most popular models today are constructed using solid spruce or mahogany, although other woods such as rosewood and maple are also common.
Many cheaper guitars are made from plywood covered in either veneer or paint while more expensive ones feature genuine wood bodies. The choice of material really depends on how much money you’re willing to spend. Solid wood guitars tend to cost more than those fashioned from less durable materials because they take longer to manufacture and require greater precision during assembly.
On the downside, solid bodied guitars require a great deal of maintenance. Varnish must periodically be reapplied to protect against moisture damage, particularly if playing outdoors. Also, the headstock needs to be carefully sanded every few years to remove any buildup of varnish dust. Finally, the entire guitar needs periodic treatment to prevent cracking caused by changes in humidity levels. Mahogany bodies hold up better under varying weather conditions and aren’t prone to warping like spruces often do. Plus, mahogany tends to age well without needing refinishing, unlike natural wood.
As far as aesthetics go, even though solid bodied guitars are generally larger than laminated models, they don’t necessarily look “bad”. On the contrary, many players find these types of guitars to possess a warm tone that isn’t quite as bright as those produced by thinner sounding laminates. Another plus? Solid bodied guitars usually weigh just slightly more than comparable models manufactured with lighter woods.
Neck and Fretboard Materials
Most necks found on inexpensive acoustics were originally made from hardwoods like cedar, pine or oak. Over time, however, manufacturers began replacing traditional hardwoods with softer tropical composite materials like bamboo or fiberglass due to production costs. This trend has continued recently as composites provide a lightweight alternative to natural materials.
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Today, low cost guitars are almost always built with a thin strip of wood called a “fret ribbon” glued directly onto the face of the neck. A fret ribbon consists of three layers: a layer of glue between two strips of wood (usually balsa) held together by small pieces of string. Forged steel posts sit beneath the fret ribbon and support the bridge plate, allowing the whole system to flex without breaking.
While a fretboard made with a fret ribbon provides decent quality control, its durability leaves something to be desired. After prolonged play, fretboards begin to warp and eventually crack along the grain causing unwanted noise. Eventually, the cracks become large enough to cause serious buzzing problems when strumming open chords. As a result, cheap models featuring fret ribbons are best suited for beginners who won’t expect high performance after only a short period of ownership.
In comparison, higher priced acoustics feature more substantial fretboards designed specifically for professional musicians. To achieve this level of rigidity, makers sometimes lay up individual strands of rosin-free basswood across the width of the neck instead of cutting full sheets. When combined with a thicker back block and heavy gauge bracing wires, this method produces a strong yet flexible fretboard capable of supporting stronger action heights.
Frets and Tuning Pins
Frets, which look similar to the teeth on a comb, serve as markers for the strings and are installed between the fretboard and the playing surface to create different pitches. They’re typically made from hard steel but some cheaper models feature teflon or bakelite instead.
Most manufacturers use 24 frets on their acoustics although special order models can have less or more depending on customer needs. As far as widths go, most electric guitars incorporate spacing of 2” while certain acoustic instruments use 3/8″. Just be aware that spacing is never consistent between manufacturers.
Tuning machines, or pins, work in conjunction with the strings to hold them in place at the right length. Most acoustic guitars today use six pins although models with up to 12 have been produced. Using multiple tuning pegs on one end of an instrument makes stringing easier but also increases its weight making it more difficult to handle.
The original tuners on acoustic guitars were built using a series of gears. The gears turn as the strings are plucked, causing the tension to change in the strings and cause them to vibrate. As a result, tuning is easily changed by moving the gears closer or farther from each other. Most cheap acoustic guitar models use this type of tuner and can be purchased for less than $20.
As with other electronic components, newer acoustic guitars feature a modern sound circuit in place of the original gears. Instead of moving parts, today’s tuners use a series of capacitors and resistors to determine string tension based on the frequency of the sound waves from your guitar. Modern electronic tuners work on several different levels including Hall Effect and Piezo technology, which work on any electric or acoustic guitar.
Like most acoustic guitars, the strings of an acoustic are responsible for transmitting the vibration generated by plucked or picked strings to the microphone of a PA speaker. Strings themselves fall into two categories based on their composition: nylon or brass. Nylon wound strings contain fibers wrapped tightly around a central core. Brass winding involves wrapping fine copper wire around a cylindrical mandrel until sufficient thickness is reached. Both varieties provide superior tonal qualities and longevity. Typically, nylon strings produce brighter highs and deeper lows compared to brass.
Nylgut and D’Addario are among the most widely recognized names associated with premium quality strings. Both companies invest considerable resources toward research and development to improve the craftsmanship behind their product lines. In addition to offering a variety of colors and gauges, D’Addarios offers a selection of special finishes including pearloid, nickel silver, goldtone, black oxide and white.
While they can be worn on any guitar, electric guitar strings are usually made in sets of six similar to bass guitar strings. The most common gauges available on electric strings include 10s, 11s, 12s and 13s. Each string adds extra tension to the guitar, making it stronger and enabling you to play faster. For acoustic strings, the most common gauges are 12s and 13s.
Finally, let’s talk about controls and pickups. Acoustic guitars can be equipped with a single pickup installed to the bridge, or two pickups on either side of the bridge. Each pickup features an independent output channel to be amplified by its own preamp. Most acoustic guitars also feature a built-in tuner capable of producing three different pitches in quick succession when strumming an open chord.
Each model comes with its own unique set of controls and frequency ranges reflecting the level of craftsmanship involved in its design. A typical acoustic guitar includes volume and tone knobs, a phase switch and a low battery indicator located near the input jacks. As far as frequency range goes, an average acoustic model has a range of 200Hz-20kHz at its lowest setting.
On the surface, preamps may seem like an unnecessary accessory but they’re integral to achieving high-quality sound for your acoustic guitar. The preamp is responsible for adjusting the output of your pickup based on the strength of its signal. In other words, preamps are used to insure each note you play through your acoustic guitar stays consistent no matter what its volume or natural dynamic range.
The tone knob is an excellent example of a controllable output device. While it offers a wide tonal spectrum, its primary function is to compensate for unbalanced pickups. This adjustment allows players to fine-tune their sound without sacrificing the distinct nuances of their instrument’s unique voice.
The Phase Switch is also a highly important control and often comes in the form of a switch which allows you to lockout the pickup at certain points. This can be very useful for acoustic guitarists who prefer an aggressive tone, but still want to utilize the pickup when needed. Turning it off completely trickles out any unwanted harmonics or buzz currently present on your fret board, ensuring your signature tone is never compromised.
Some guitars include a built-in tuner which quickly and accurately tunes your instrument within seconds.
Acoustic guitars are known for their array of unique sounds and distinctive tones. When selecting an acoustic guitar, there’s a lot to learn so make sure you take advantage of all the help available. By following these tips you’ll be able to make a more informed decision about whether an acoustic model is right for you.
For more information on guitar pickups and other components, visit our comprehensive list of best acoustic guitar pickups here.