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Buying an Acoustic Guitar

Most beginners start with an acoustic when they first tackle the world of guitars. Whether you're just learning to strum or can already pick like a professional, there are countless choices out there. Start your search prepared.

1. Guitar Use
Who will be playing the guitar and where narrows the focus of a search immediately. Consider these quick questions to help you find a guitar that has all the features and characteristics you need. What type of music? What sound do you want? Playing in public or on your own? Smaller hands or big ones? What is your budget? Does it need to be portable?

2. Strings
Strings are the most defining feature of an acoustic, and there are two types. Nylon strings offer a sound that's round and smooth, also described as warm and mellow - best suited for classical, Latin or folk. Nylon has more sound control, but they're not as loud as steel. And since the strings are softer, there's less sustain. Steel strings carry a bold, strong, rich tone best for jazz, blues, rock and county. Steel strings are strummed more, while nylon strings are picked. And although steel hurts your fingers more initially, it's easily overcome once calluses develop.

3. Tonewood
The wood of an acoustic guitar very much determines its sound, as different types of woods produce different tones. Spruce is most common for tops; mahogany, rosewoods and maple for backs and sides. Cedar is a popular choice for classic acoustic guitars. Other woods used are ebony, koa, ovangkol, sapele and walnut.

4. Soundboards/Tops
The soundboard (or top) is a vital part of any guitar as it vibrates to dictate the guitar's tone and sound. The material it's made of is very important. Solid tops are made from a single piece of wood. They are generally more expensive, but offer greater resonance and projection, making the notes the guitar produces louder and clearer. And the tone gets better with use - it breaks in. Laminated veneer tops are made from several thin plies of wood pressed together, so they resonate less than solid wood and don't break in. However, they are more affordable and durable and less affected by temperature and humidity, making them a good choice for children or outdoor use.

5. Body Style
A number of body styles and sizes exist for acoustic guitars, from the smaller classic to the jumbo and the dreadnought and variations on these. Many of the styles are manufacturer specific, but a general rule to follow is the bigger the soundboard, the more low-end tone and volume the guitar will generate.

6. Electronics
You only need to consider electronics if you plan to play in front of an audience or want to amplify your sound. Putting a microphone in front as you play is always an option, but so is a pickup (a special microphone inside the sound hole), a piezo pickup (a pickup that mounts under the guitar's bridge) or an acoustic-electronic (the guitar comes with a built-in pickup and plugs into an amplifier).

7. Neck
Necks vary in size and shape according to the make of guitar. While the material used to make a neck is key, the most important factor is the fit and feel of it in your hand. The best necks are tight, rigid and straight to ensure the action remains consistent. Most acoustic guitars use a set (glued) neck; few have bolt-on necks like electric guitars.

8. Cutaway
Cutaways are something to consider if buying a steel-string guitar especially. A cutaway lets you reach the higher frets (near the sound hole) more easily. Your guitar will then produce those extra high notes, but at a loss of volume and bass.

9. Research
Research the manufacturers of the guitars you're interested in, and educate yourself on the details of the various models so you can make an informed choice. Check out review sites, read about the pros and cons, and consider others' opinions. Research is important, especially when you're buying online.

10. Cost and Quality
When buying an acoustic guitar, quality matters because the tone of a high-quality guitar actually improves - it produces a richer, fuller tone over time. Plus, a good acoustic will not only retain its value, it could even appreciate. Quality doesn't necessarily mean more expensive.

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