If you’ve been playing guitar for a few months, or even a year or two, and are gaining ground, you might want to start thinking about upgrading your guitar to a better instrument. While many starter acoustic guitars offer great value for the money, there are distinct advantages to investing in a higher quality guitar.
When we talk about the “feel” of an instrument, there are several factors that come into play. Some of them include the physical feeling of the neck, frets and strings. Often, lower priced instruments will have a rougher neck and frets, with an action that is a little bit higher, so it’s hard to press on the strings and move around the fretboard efficiently. This is the most common limitation of a lower priced guitar. Higher quality guitars often have frets that are set by hand and necks that are smoothed to perfection. If you feel like your hands are fighting to hold down strings or to move around the neck with ease, this may be why.
Sometimes lower priced instruments are set up with a higher “action.” Action refers to the distance between the strings and the fretboard. A higher action can be more difficult to play because you have to press down harder to get the note to ring true. However, a lower action can sometimes lead to a buzz, as the strings may lightly touch other frets as you finger a note. In a higher quality instrument there is often more control over the action setting and playability can be greatly improved.
When starting out, many young students first try a ¾ sized guitar, which makes it easier for smaller frames to maneuver around the instrument. Shorter arms can reach the frets more easily and reach over the smaller body of the guitar for strumming. Then as young players grow, it often makes sense to upgrade to a full-sized guitar. You’ll get a larger tone, a longer neck, and a more authentic guitar-playing experience with a full-sized dreadnought or cutaway model.
One of the first things you learn as a guitar student is how to tune your guitar. As you move into playing all along the neck, you may realize something surprising. Your guitar may sound in tune as you play using the lower frets that are closer to the headstock, but as you go up the neck, they may sound out of tune. This can be the result of poor intonation.
In higher quality guitars you can have a much more stable playing experience with a neck that stays in tune throughout. Or, you may have the ability to adjust the saddle and correct discrepancies. Playing a guitar that stays in tune is a wonderful feeling, especially if you’ve been experiencing the opposite for a while! Better quality tuning pegs can help keep strings in tune as well.
Finding Your Tone
Tone. It’s that elusive, hard to define element that is at the heart of what makes a guitar really special. Once you can finger a variety of chords and move more easily around the fretboard, you might still wonder why your performance still sounds a bit flat or dull. It could be that you need new strings (we’ll talk about that another time), or it could be that your guitar just doesn’t produce a full tone. Tone is greatly affected by the type of wood your guitar is constructed from, the bracing and other design elements and the quality of construction. Even the glue used to keep a guitar together can affect the tone! A high quality guitar will produce a magical tone that inspires you and your listeners.
If you’ve started to step up and play open mics or other performances, you may want to amplify your acoustic guitar. To have better control over your guitar sound, consider upgrading to an acoustic/electric model. These include built-in pickups, so you can easily amplify your guitar. Simply plug a cable into the jack that is typically part of the strap peg at the bottom of the guitar and connect to an amp or PA for instant amplification.
Other features might include a built-in tuner, or volume and tone control knobs that give you the ability to adjust your guitar’s sound and tone. These more advanced features come in very handy when you are playing guitar with a band as well.
And, if you’ve built up some left hand strength, you might want to try a 12-string guitar. The gorgeous sound from one of these instruments can fill a room, and add a distinct, magical presence. Think Bon Jovi’s intro to “Wanted Dead or Alive,” or The Eagles’ “Hotel California.”
Think about pretty much anything you own. Isn’t it true that a higher quality product typically retains its original qualities for a longer period of time? Guitars are no exception. Solid and thoughtful construction stands the test of time, and some high quality guitars get even better as they age, offering a lovely, warm tone for a lifetime.
Remember, it’s certainly time to upgrade your guitar when you’ve made the most out of your current instrument. Whether that has to do with size, feel, intonation, or features, there are a variety of wonderful instruments out there to suite your guitar needs and to inspire and energize your learning experience.
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If you’re ready to start looking for some intermediate guitars to step up to, this is a great place to get started.
Shop Intermediate Acoustic Guitars.
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Check out the Acoustic Guitar Buyers Guide for more about upgrading your acoustic guitar.