This post is aimed towards the intermediate-level player, who has now played for more than a couple of years and has attained a certain level of proficiency.
Wishing to buy a ‘real’ guitar, what are the things to bear in mind.
What to look for
1) The first and foremost thing to take note of when buying your first ‘real’ guitar is the wood used in its construction.
Why is that important? It is the top that moves when you strum a guitar. Its movement forces the air out of the instrument through the soundhole, and that produces sound. The more it moves, the more is the sound produced. To some extent even the back moves and helps in the propagation of sound.
So, if it is solid wood, the movement of the top (and the back) is that much uniform and better, vis a vis a plywood or a laminate guitar. Let me illustrate this by taking you back to school and into the physics class: refraction of light. Through a single medium, there is no refraction. And when light passes from one medium to another, the density of media comes into play.
Thus, if it is a single wood instrument, the transfer of sound is uniform without any loss of energy. In an instrument made of laminated wood, the varying densities of woods used are the reason for that dull and hollow sound that lacks sustain. The different woods absorb much of the vibrations, resulting in the ‘dead’ sound which you hear.
The wood combinations
There are traditional combinations of woods for the top, back and sides, which have withstood the ravages of their players and that of Time and have thus earned a reputation. The two most popular combinations are spruce and mahogany and spruce and rosewood – spruce for the top and mahogany and rosewood for the back and sides. Again, traditionally, the back and sides are always made from the same material – whether solid wood or laminate.
Spruce is a lighter/softer wood in comparison to mahogany and rosewood, and thus lends itself well to its role of having to move once the instrument is played. In comparison, both mahogany and rosewood are harder woods, serving their purpose of providing structural support without impeding sound.
And then there are varying types of spruce and within each type, categories, which are graded. Besides rosewood and mahogany, flame/tiger/quilted maple, walnut and cocobolo are also used for the back and sides, while cedar is a popular option for the top.
Cedar is warmer/muddier than spruce (lending itself well for rhythm guitar playing). Likewise, rosewood is harder than mahogany and maple, making the instrument sound warmer – with more bass. Increasingly, koa is being used in place of all three, being cheaper.
With growing environmental consciousness, man-made materials have made an entry into the guitar industry with quite spectacular results, though it will be some time before they really catch the fancy of players.
How to check whether it is really solid wood
If you look through the soundhole of the guitar, you will notice a certain type of wood grain pattern. Turn the guitar around and look at the outside of the back of the guitar at the same point where you saw the pattern inside the guitar. If you see the same pattern outside too, it is a solid wood instrument.
2) The bracing
Under the top, there is a bulwark of (generally) spruce wood that helps support it. Now, you might think that if the purpose of the top is to move, when the instrument is played, won’t this bulwark hamper that? Logical but not true.
These struts, or braces – as they are rightly called – only brace the top and stop it from caving in under the pressure of the pulling strings. They are placed in such a manner that they not only support the top but also help it to move, when the instrument is played.
Just carving the braces and putting them on the top or the back is an art in itself, and in factories of the bigger guitar manufacturers, there is an entire department of workers that work on just the braces. And then there is the boss, who inspects each brace and how it sits on the top or the back. No wonder, you like the sound of that guitar!
Braces may be scalloped or unscalloped. While the former, naturally, are more rigid, the latter allow freer movement of the top and thus, clearer sound. So, what should you look for?
If you are a finger-style player, go for scalloped braces. If you are a rhythm guitarist and love to accompany singers or players, choose an unscalloped instrument.
3) The Tuning Machines
If ever you try and replacing the tuning machines on your guitar, you will know that there is a huge price range they are available in.
You will be surprised to note that the most plain looking of them are more expensive than the more ornamental of them. And then there are those that are really fancy-looking and cost a right eyeball, a left ear and a right leg just for one piece!!!! This is because tuning machines are assessed on their gear ratio. The gear ratio is ascertained by the number of teeth on the gears of the machine, which helps tune the instrument to a greater accuracy.
On open-back tuners, you will be able to see the gear. Count the number of teeth on it. 12, 14, 16, 18, 21: the more the teeth, greater the accuracy.
The gear ratio is the number of turns of the tuning key which will make a complete turn of the string post. A tuner with an 18:1 gear ratio means that you would need to turn the tuner knob 18 times to make the string post go around one complete revolution.
When buying a guitar, once you have chosen the guitar that you wish to buy, ask the salesperson the gear ratio of the tuning machines. If you are not happy with the gear ratio, you can always have the tuning keys replaced with something better. But then, be prepared to shell out extra moolah for them!
If all of the above are in order, the rest, whatever it is, can be changed or replaced at a later date. Strings, saddle and nut, bridgepins, pickguard installation or removal, rosewood fretboard and bridge versus an ebony fretboard and bridge – even the fretwire – can easily be swapped one for the other.
The one reservation that I would make here is that though even the colour of the paint and polish of the instrument can be changed, it takes a real expert to strip the instrument of the finish on the instrument and put on new one.
It is not unheard of that while stripping a guitar of its finish, some part of the guitar got scraped off too!!!!
The cost of a real wood guitar is – at least – 10 times that of an ordinary guitar but then the manpower that is used to make it, knows what needs to be done to make a real instrument. And so it is that when you play a real wood instrument, you are forced to close your eyes at the beauty of the sound emanating from the instrument.
Also, a real wood instrument requires much greater care in terms of keeping the moisture content of the wood measured and replenished in times of need, failing which, it can easily let the rot set in.
DISCLAIMER: All of the above was general knowledge. There is nothing in this mortal world which says that a plywood guitar can NEVER sound as good as a solid wood instrument, or, conversely, a solid wood instrument CAN’T SOUND AS ORDINARY as a plywood instrument!!!!