How many of us remember the day we stepped into a music store and were dazzled by the vast array of glossy coloured guitars of all shapes, sizes and sounds? Accompanied, if we were lucky, by an ‘experienced’ guitarist who could play at least 3 chords, we relied on his judgement to select a good quality instrument. If we were not so lucky, the choice was determined by the amount of $$ in the pocket.
Here are some points to check on when purchasing an instrument.
The beauty of the classical guitar is in its graceful shape and the selection of woods. The front or top of the guitar is usually made of spruce or cedar, and is quite thin, between 2mm and 3mm.Underneath this top, there is a system of struts which support it and help transmit vibrations from the bridge over the whole area of the front, strengthening the sound and determine the basic tonal character of the instrument. The grain in the front should be straight and fairly even. Spruce and cedar tops have different sound characteristics, the tone of spruce tends to be clear, firm and more focused. It improves with age and playing. Spruce top guitars often continue to ‘grow’ for many years. Cedar front guitars need less playing in, and is capable of its full power almost immediately after construction. The characteristic sound of these instrument being crisp, brilliant and powerful.
Laminated fronts should be avoided if possible, as the glue joining the layers tend to dry out after some time, and the guitar’s volume and tone suffer quite markedly.
The sides and back should produce a vibrant and resonant tone chamber. While a variety of woods and even some laminates can be used, the most effective timber is rosewood, either Indian or Brazilian. The neck greatly influences the playability of the guitar. To prevent warping, a straight grain wood is needed. This type of wood should be resistant to moisture, and as rigid as possible to resist warp. Necks are generally mahogany or cedar. The fingerboard should be of ebony, although good quality rosewood is acceptable. This area is constantly being scuffed so it has to be hard, dense and wear resistant, yet smooth enough for easy playing. Check warpage by sighting along the edge of the fingerboard looking along the ends of the frets from the nut to the bridge. Make sure the bridge is not lifting away at any point. Tap the front and back of the guitar for any rattling sounds which may be a result of poor gluing of the struts.
Check to see that all joints are secure. All edges firmly glued together without gaps between the sides and the front or back. All frets should be fitted firmly into the fingerboard.
Machine heads have a critical job to do. Any inefficiency here can ruin an otherwise musical performance. The tuners must be easily adjustable and yet firmly locked when the required pitch of the respective strings are reached.
The final check is the height of the string above the frets or ‘action’ as it is called. There is an ideal height for each player(mine is 4mm at the 6th and 3mm at the 1st string 12th fret).The action can be adjusted by either lowering or raising the bridge saddle height. Too low renders the guitar useless whilst too high makes it difficult too play.
To conclude, I would like to suggest certain aspects relating to the tonal qualities, noting again that the quality of an instrument is largely governed by the price one pays. The criterion as to what constitutes a good guitar would probably not vary much from one player to another. What would be different would be the order of priority. Sound is very much a personal taste, and it is difficult to describe. Muddy to some might well be rich to others. Thin to one could be clear to another. However, there seems to be a concensus among professionals as to those properties and characteristics which are desirable, namely balance, projection, clarity and a wide range of tone colour. A balanced guitar is one in which every note come across with the same amplitude. Projection relates to loudness and the ability to be heard clearly in today’s concert halls. Tone colour can be defined as the inbuilt potential of the guitar to allow the player to express himself to the best of his ability.
Obviously there’s much more to a guitar than meets the eye. Playing and enjoying the right guitar will enable you to experience musical moments that are among the most satisfying.
So… happy shopping!