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Noyce Guitars
Mount Clear
Ballarat, Victoria
Australia, 3350
+61 3 5330 2244

Choosing a guitar (1)

How to find the right guitar Pt 1. © Ian Noyce 1996
Until you've clocked up five or ten footy seasons playing and buying guitars, enduring at least a couple of broken love affairs (with guitars) then it's likely that deciding whether to buy that almost new shop demo Vectra Titanium neck Stage Deluxe is not going to be easy!

Do I really need it? Will it fix all my sound problems? Am I buying it 'cos Dude (the salesman) said "It was made by Gods' brother-in-law and it's the only one Australia gets". Some of these questions can only be answered personally but the important questions are:

    1. Does it look good?
    2. Does it feel good?
    3. Does it sound good?

And question No.3 is the tricky one! In the right hands, almost anything can sound great!

What can help here is some way of playing different guitars in different locations and being able to compare and evaluate them. Before looking at the two most popular guitar types (Steel string acoustics and solid body electrics) we should have a look at the full family of guitars.

1. Classic.
Nylon or gut strung guitar usually with Spruce or Cedar top, Rosewood back and sides.

2. Flamenco.
Nylon strung with less body depth and thinner wood dimensions than the Classic, usually with Cypress back and sides and Cedar Top.

3.Flat Top steel string acoustic.
Available in many shapes and sizes and scale lengths, usually with Spruce Top (solid wood or ply), Rosewood, Mahogany or Maple back and sides (solid or ply).

4. Solid Body "bolt-on" neck.
The vast majority of electrics in all shapes and sizes. Best known (and most copied) being the Fender Stratocaster and Telecaster, first produced in the fifties.

5. Solid Body "set-neck" and Plank neck(neck through body) guitars.
Best known of these would be the Gibson Les Paul and Gibson Firebird models respectively.

6. Semi-Acoustic.
Typically these are guitars like the Gibson 335 constructed from a steam pressed ply top and back with a glued in set neck.

7. Arch-Top or Jazz guitar.
This is usually a full sized body with a carved Spruce top and carved Maple back and a high set movable bridge.

8. Semi-solid.
A somewhat recent addition to the family typically being like a bolt-on solid body, hollowed out with a strutted acoustic style top built over the body.

There are many variations within each of these types (including Bass guitars) and we'll get further into that a bit later.

Before looking at the workings of a guitar it's important to realise a couple of basic truths about the mechanics of a guitar.

1. Strings behave in a way (wriggle about) that is dependent on what they are attached to.

Let's take a very stiff guitar made out of relatively dense material like the carbon fibre Steinberger guitar. This guitar has a very rapid response time, long sustain and a clear, clean cutting sound with a fairly tight feel under the hands. By comparison a much lighter, looser feeling guitar like a Gibson SG is made of relatively light wood with a long neck producing a slower responding more mellow, full bodied sound.

In both cases the string behaviour is inextricably "married" to the guitar it's attached to and although the sound is what the pick-ups see of the string movement it's really a way of "seeing" the behaviour of the whole guitar.

2. Most of the behaviour of a guitar is analogous to a mass suspended on a spring.

Let's imagine the mass (weight) above being a house brick. If we pull the brick down a little bit and let it go, it will oscillate up and down around the original position at a certain frequency. If we increase the mass, the system will oscillate proportionately more slowly over a larger distance.

This simple relationship between stiffness and mass is true for all oscillating systems and any consideration of guitar behaviour can be looked at in this way.

For example, if we clamp the house brick to the headstock of an acoustic guitar, it will reduce the amplitude of back and forth motion the vibrating string induces into the headstock, and also increase the resonant frequency of the headstock. The effect of this is to cause a lot more of the string energy to be dissipitated at the body end of the guitar, thereby increasing the volume, transient response, fullness and sustain of the guitar!

Try it if you don't believe me- it really works, and in fact there are products advertised in music mags. that add weight to the headstock for this very purpose. Pressing an acoustic guitars' headstock against the kitchen table is a great organic amplifier at those louder kitchen partys; lost headstock energy is used to vibrate the table and the guitar sounds firmer to boot!

Okay!- armed with the notion that mass and stiffness are somehow important, we can look at the Flat top steel string acoustic guitar, commonly called an acoustic.

I break acoustics into three groups.
1. All ply construction:
These are most guitars up to $400-$500 and the top, back and sides are made of three veneers of wood with the centre veneers grain running at 90 Degrees to the others.

This produces a strong, stable, stiff and heavy top or back compared to solid wood. It is also much more economical in mass production. Most guitars in this group are Dreadnought size and sound relatively similar, although the characteristics of different back/sides timbers come out in ply guitars if to a lesser extent as they do in solid wood guitars.

In choosing a guitar in this range I tend to look for lightness and playability. Generally the lighter guitar will be more responsive and fuller bodied whereas the heavier guitar will be brighter, punchier and tighter to play. These days all guitars should be reasonably playable with no more than the thickness of a $2 coin between the low E and the 12th. fret and no more than a 50 Cent piece on the high E.1

2. Solid Top, Ply back and sides construction:
This group ranges from around $500-$1500 and offers a variety of Dreadnoughts, Jumbos, Concert and Folk shapes and sizes. (In the catalogues these are usually specified as Solid Top, whereas all ply type guitars are referred to as "select spruce top".)
The solid top is lighter and more compliant and responsive than ply and therefore produces a sound richer and more complex in harmonic (overtone) structure and a sense of more responsiveness under the hands.

3. Solid Wood guitars:
This is the $1500 and up group and any design parameters such as size, sound hole size, scale, body depth etc. applies to ply and solid top guitars as well.