Beowulf wrote: ↑
Fri Dec 23, 2016 3:58 am
By John M. Gilbert:
"Selecting a Guitar
Four Pertinent Questions
By John M. Gilbert
“How do I choose a good guitar?” After years of hearing this query I decided,
several years ago, to write a brief outline of those things that are pertinent to the
question. At the same time I decided that this guide could serve as a format for the
lectures I give on this subject. I would like to share that outline with you now and then
proceed to a more detailed discussion of some of the points it raises.
How to Select a Guitar
The four areas to look into are:
2. Action and feel
3. Condition and construction
1. The most important of these is Sound: That’s what the guitar is all about
There are several ways to check for sound:
A. Bring a good sounding guitar for comparison.
B. Bring along a friend with a good ear who can also play.
C. When testing guitars do it outdoors or if that isn’t possible, do it in the largest
room you can find.
The important facets of overall sound quality are:
1. Timbre. (Quality of the individual tones.)
2. Balance. (Trebles must match bass.)
3. Separation. (The clarity with which individual tones can be distinguished in a
4. Sustain. (The rate of decay of a tone after it is struck.)
Always remember that sound can rarely be greatly improved in a guitar without
2. Action and Feel.
Action is the height of the strings above the fret and fingerboard.
Feel pertains to those features that comprise the playability of a guitar other
than the action, such as: neck size and shape; string length; string spacing and
location from the edges of the fingerboard; body shape.
Actions can usually be corrected at moderate expense. Other than reducing
fingerboard width and neck size, little else can sensibly be done to change the feel.
3. Condition and Construction.
If the guitar is new, then examine it for clean construction inside the body and
carefully tap around the face and back to check for broken struts. Check for depressed
or swollen face.
See if the bridge is on tightly. Check the condition of the neck and frets.
If the guitar is old, examine it for the above conditions plus cracks in the face,
back, sides, neck-to-body joint, head-to-neck joint, purfling and centerjoint of the back.
Also examine the tuning machines for worn gears or sloppy installation.
Let the buyer beware! Know the seller! Ask about a guarantee. Shop
around. Remember the most costly guitar isn’t always the best. Think about re-sale.
While this outline is basic in content, it does generate questions from the audience and
we often delve at some depth into the various facets of guitar construction, testing, and
The most important subject we discuss is sound. Here are some of the things I
discuss with them:
Loudness. If you intend to give recitals and concerts in large halls, you had better be
sure that the guitar you choose projects well. The best place to test for this is outdoors.
If weather deters you, the second best method is to use an auditorium, gymnasium, or
a church. Lacking all of the above, use the largest room you can find. When making
this test and, for that matter, all test pertaining to sound, it helps to have a proven guitar
along (or several) to use as a basis for comparison and, naturally, someone to play for
you and to listen while you play. If you do not plan on concertizing or if you intend to
amplify electronically, loudness is not the most important factor of sound to you, but all
other sound qualities will be. So at this time, with guitar in hand, let us test for them.
Timbre (pronounced tamber, tanber, or timber according to which authority you
choose) is purely subjective, so that what sounds great to me may not impress you at
all. However, the instrument must have a tone quality that truly satisfies you, or you will
not enjoy playing it no matter what other attributes it may have.
Balance. This I prefer to think of as mostly an objective test because if either the treble
or bass end is weak, it will be very noticeable heard at a distance. Be sure to test for
this by barring each fret from the first to the twelfth because some guitars have
weaknesses more pronounced in certain areas of the fingerboard than others.
Separation (or clarity) is, to a great degree, a quality that goes untested by most
players because it is such a difficult and elusive feature to listen for. When a guitar has
loudness, good timbre and balance, it is hard to remind yourself to really listen to
chords to see if you can hear individual tones (like a good barbershop quartet) or only a
glob of sound.
Sustain. Some guitars have an even output of sound and will appear to have good
sustain, whereas a guitar with a robust or popping initial output of sound will seem to
have less sustain. Therefore, when comparing guitars set a metronome at some fast
tempo and count the beats from pluck (or pick) to silence. Some interesting facts will
emerge by trying this with different guitars. As to the amount of sustain, all tones on the
guitar should have some, with the lowest tones having more than the higher tones.
Wake Up the Soundbox
One word of advice about testing guitars: be sure to play the instrument for at least ten
minutes or more before testing in order to “wake up” the soundbox. This is particularly
true for spruce-faced guitars. Cedar faces are less likely to require this.
Intonation is included as a branch of sound quality because if the guitar doesn’t play in
tune it sounds bad. Fortunately, you can check for fretting accuracy and saddle and nut
placement. If errors are found, they can be easily corrected by any competent repair
There are several ways to test for tonal accuracy. Let us start with one that many of
you are familiar with. Play each string at the 12th fret. Then strike the 12th fret
harmonic. These should be identical in pitch. If they are, it tells us only that the maker
placed the saddle correctly. If all six strings play sharp, it tells us that the saddle wasn’t
set back far enough. If all strings play flat, it tells us that the saddle is set too far back.
The cure for either of these conditions is to have the saddle or nut reshaped or
repositioned. Again, a repair person should be consulted. Keep in mind that faulty
strings can also sound either sharp or flat, but never all six in the same direction. So
you should be able to rule out the occasional bad string."