Go, Johnny, Go And Pick A Guitar

So you're hankering to play an acoustic guitar again? Are you in for a shock. Back when you formed that first E chord, the only names you needed to know were Guild, Martin, and Gibson, the three great American acoustic-guitar companies. Nowadays, a reasonably well-stocked guitar store will also display names such as Taylor, Alvarez-Yairi, Lowden, and maybe more. Where to begin?

First, decide what you can spend. For $250 to $300, you can find a decent Korean-made beginner's model from Fender Musical Instruments. But chances are it will sound thin and trebly, because guitar bodies at this price level are made entirely of laminate, or plywood, which doesn't vibrate as freely or evenly as solid wood.

If you can pay $600 to $1,000, you'll find plenty of good guitars with solid tops (usually spruce) and laminate sides. A solid top makes a big difference, because the top produces most of the instrument's sound. Alvarez-Yairi,a Japanese manufacturer, makes a wide range of good-looking, easy-playing guitars in this price range.

STARS. Above $1,000 you'll find guitars with solid wood bodies that, properly cared for, will only sound better with age. This is the realm of the Big Three and challengers such as Taylor Guitars, the acoustic of choice for Bonnie Raitt, Bruce Springsteen, and Prince. Be forewarned: You may spring for one of these babies even if you planned to spend less. "Solid wood guitars sell themselves," says John Salvaggio of Rudy's Music Stop in New York. "They just sound better."

Now think about your playing style. If you use a pick, you don't want a Lowden, a guitar that lacks a pickguard to protect the wood below the soundhole. Do you play finger-style? Then skip the jumbo models that are a chore to get your arms around.

Even famous craftsmen have bad days. Check the instrument's bridge and the area where the neck joins the body. If you see bubbles, ripples, or discolorations, move on. They may mean something is wrong with the way the neck or bridge has been glued to the body.

The real test is sound. Does the high end ring out? Does the bass boom? Set the guitar aside, and play a few more. That first one still sounds the best? Then what are you waiting for?

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