This was a massively popular live Google Hangout Q&A where I listed my top three acoustic guitar recommendations for beginner guitar players. I thought I’d post it here since it’s helped so many people get a feel for what beginner acoustic guitars are available. I’d love to do another segment where we focus on $500 and under or $1000 to $1500. Let me know in the comments if you have questions or ideas for future videos! Cheers! Tony
The ULTIMATE Guitar Practice Routine
Just show up every day, and I'll tell you what to play!
This is the first time I get to do this for the Acoustic Letter. Normally I get to do hangouts monthly on my Tony’s Acoustic Challenge website, and this is exciting because it’s the first time I’m able to do this with the Acoustic Letter and talk about guitars, kind of geek out on guitars.
What I’m about to do is tell you my top three guitars under $1,000. Now, this should take about 15 to 20-ish minutes, maybe a hair longer, and then it’s going to be open forum, where you can ask any questions you wish. While everybody’s getting settled, I’m actually going to field maybe one or two questions right off the bat.
The first question, this is from Will CrawFord. Thank you for writing in. “I’m very interested in 00 12-fret guitars. I hope you’ll be reviewing something like that. Thanks.” Actually, Will, not this very day. I wanted to try and find a smaller-body guitar in this price range and a lot of guitars fit the bill. There’s a ton of guitars under $1,000, so it was very difficult for me to even get three, which you’ll see very soon.
Let me shed a little bit of light on 00 12-fret guitars for those of you that may be interested, or those of you that might not even know what they are. 00 refers to the body size. It’s a smaller body. I kind of refer to it as a folk size, but there’s a lot of different kind of terminology thrown around. 00 is smaller. It’s smaller than an orchestra model and larger than a 0, and the 12-fret refers to where the body meets the fingerboard.
Okay, a standard-issue guitar is 14-fret, or actually I shouldn’t say standard-issue. What we’re used to seeing is a 14-fret neck/body joint. A 12-fret puts that joint right up at the 12th fret and it gives the top a little bit more surface area, so even on a smaller-bodied guitar, you get a noticeable increase in volume and even bass response.
I have done plenty of reviews on 00 12-fret instruments on the Acoustic Letter site, the review site that we do brought to you by Music Villa, and one of my favorite 00 12-frets is actually the 00-28 Custom Music Villa model, which is just a killer guitar. It’s got some great upgrades, a thinner top, [inaudible 02:20] bracing. It’s a 00 body with a 12-fret, 1 3/4 inch nut width and a slotted headstock as well. It’s just a killer guitar, a really, really killer guitar.
That’s about as far as I’ll go on 00 12-frets right now, but if you’re interested in more, head on over to Acousticletter.com. There’s a ton of reviews of those over there. Thanks, Will. Appreciate the question. Very good question.
Yeah, let’s do one more question. Wow, 167. Thanks for joining, everybody. I should just start off with a big thank-you, because this is cool. Usually I’m in here alone … well, not alone. Usually Levi’s running the camera, and we’re just reviewing guitars and it’s just the two of us. You know, it gets a little lonely, so having a hundred and now seventy-three people join us, this is a different ballgame.
This is way cool. We get to all be geeks together and we can kind of unite, which is awesome. One more question, and then I’m going to get to my top three guitars under $1,000. That should take about 15 to 20 minutes, and then I’ll open the floor back up for questions right afterwards.
The next question’s from Dom, and I’m going to say this. “How you doin’? Any OMs under $1,000?” Yes, I do have one, ish, under $1,000, but I can’t get there quite yet, but it’s actually a perfect segue. Dom, thanks for the cue. I’m doing well, thank you. I hope you’re doing well as well. We’ve got a big game tonight against the Tampa Bay Lightning. The Blackhawks are playing the Lightning tonight, and, well, the Hawks just flat-out need a win right now, and I know Dom can hear me out on this because he’s a Hawks fan as well. Before I get started, let’s just do a quick “Go Hawks.” It’s very important that they win tonight, because Chicago needs another Stanley Cup.
Anyways, on to my top three guitars under $1,000. The guys thought it would be funny to get me to pick three guitars under $1,000, and I actually had a very difficult time with this. I didn’t want to pick just three. In fact, I didn’t pick just three, but had I had to pick just three, I will share those with you first and then later I will show you my, dare I say, honorable mentions, but basically they were the guitars that Tony wanted to include anyway, despite the rules that were set for me.
The first guitar that I have under $1,000 is the Yamaha AC1M. This guitar comes in at … I just want to make sure I get my pricing correct … $599. We have a solid spruce top, a killer pickup system, the SRT pickup system. A very comfortable neck, rosewood fingerboard, rosewood bridge, plastic saddle, plastic nut, cutaway. It’s a little bit of a smaller-body guitar and it sounds really, really, really good.
Now, I’m going to strum it just a little bit on here, but please know that the audio quality is nothing like we use on the Acoustic Letter reviews. That being said, you can always go to Acousticletter.com. I have reviewed, I believe … let me check … I’m pretty sure I have reviewed all of these guitars, so you can see a very accurate-sounding Acoustic Letter review on all of these. The first guitar again, Yamaha AC1M, comes in at $599. It sounds great. [Music]
Just a great little guitar, and I was actually astounded. I was in search of another Yamaha model when I was putting this particular list together and I stumbled on this one, and I was like, “This thing’s awesome.” It sounds great, it’s got great volume, great responsiveness. It does have a pickup. It’s stage-ready. It has a tuner built in, so a very, very good guitar for the price. Again, $599, and just a killer-sounding instrument. That’s number one, the Yamaha AC1M. This is in no order of importance, merely because I got my arm twisted and had to pick three, so I’m just presenting them as I see fit.
The next guitar, my number two guitar under $1,000 is the Taylor 114e, and Dom, this one kind of speaks at you a little bit. It’s a smaller-body guitar, as was the last one actually, but this I would call, dare I say, more than OM. We have a solid sitka spruce top, forward-shifted X bracing, an ebony bridge, ebony fingerboard, 1 1/16 Tusq nut, laminate back and sides, as did the Yamaha have. This also has a pickup.
An absolute stellar guitar. The responsiveness, the clarity of tone, the crispness is exceptional on this instrument. Again I’m going to play a little bit, but the sound quality not definitely what you’re used to hearing on the Acoustic Letter, but I’ll give it a little play. [Music]
It’s a very out-front guitar. It’s got tons of volume. It is a killer, killer instrument, and coming in at $629, this comes highly recommended from me. I’m not afraid to say that. If somebody came in and said, “Hey, I want to buy a guitar under a thousand bucks,” and they left with something like this, the 114e or the 110e, the bigger version of this, I’d be very happy. These things sound great, they get better over time, and they play fantastic. Taylor 114e. Hopefully I mentioned it has a pickup, because it does have a pickup as well.
Now, again, this is my top three under $1,000, so we’re coming up on the third one here, and the third one that I picked is a personal favorite of mine. It’s a Martin DRSGT. This is part of the Road series. It’s a dreadnought body. We have a solid sitka spruce top with A-frame X bracing. Laminate back and sides, mahogany neck. We have an ebony fingerboard … ah. Rather, sorry, Richlite fingerboard, Richlite bridge, Tusq saddle, Tusq nut, chrome tuners.
This also has a pickup, but it’s a little bit less intrusive as the other models that I had mentioned. The Yamaha AC1M, the Taylor 114e, all have controls on the side. This particular pickup, the controls are on the inside. It’s a Fishman pickup, and it’s kind of a … we’ll call it a ninja pickup because the controls are not … you can’t really see them.
This particular guitar, for those of you looking for a dread under $1,000, this comes in right … you basically will have a dollar left. It comes in at $999, and what I like about this particular guitar is that it’s a killer-sounding, boomy, bassy dread under $1,000. It’s got great, robust tone, awesome volume. It’s a great flatpicking guitar. [Music]
It just has really good warmth. It’s got a really solid midrange, great bass, and clarity on the high end as well. I’m going to play this again so you can hear it. [Music]
I love this guitar because can you get that classic Martin tone, just under $1,000. Right there you have my top three guitars under $1,000.
Now, because this was so difficult for me, I had to make some exceptions in the rules, so I’ve built this category called honorable mentions. It’s not because they didn’t perform well, it’s just because I needed an excuse to bring three more guitars into the studio. The first one I will mention, an honorable mention number one, if you will, is a $200 guitar. It’s actually $199. It’s the Yamaha FG700S.
This particular guitar, I think ever since I started working in music stores back in … I guess we’ll call it the early 2000s, 2003. Oh, my gosh. That’s terrifying. Ever since I started working in the music store, in the music industry, and trying to help people find guitars, this was one that I always leaned on, the Yamaha FG700S. A solid sitka spruce top, laminate back and sides, X bracing. We have a rosewood bridge, rosewood fingerboard, plastic saddle, plastic nut, and probably in my opinion one of the best guitars you can get for $200.
Now, you know, a quick disclaimer. There is a ton of guitars in this price category, under $1,000, so I tried to divvy it up in terms of bang for your buck, sound, and just kind of the overall package, what you get. This guitar definitely can stand in the ring with some of the, dare I say, more mid-priced guitars, the $500 and $600 guitars. This is the Yamaha FG700S. [Music]
Actually a really killer-sounding guitar, and again just for $199. Honorable mention number one, the Yamaha FG700S.
Okay. Now, this is where I may have gotten in a little bit of trouble, but the whole idea was to come up with guitars under $1,000, and I had to just extend that a little bit.
If you’re an acoustic guitar geek, you’ve just arrived home. You are at the epicenter of all acoustic guitar geekdom right this very second, so I want you to sign up for our YouTube channel so you don’t miss any of our awesome interviews with players, luthiers, or our gear reviews or anything else that we do that’s just acoustic guitar-related and awesome. Please subscribe right now by clicking the button. [Music]
Here’s the scenario. You’re shopping for a guitar. Your girlfriend, your wife, your husband, whomever’s with you, and you get this guitar in your hand and you say, “Gosh. Honey, it’s $1,300.” Because they love you so much, they’re going to say, “You know what, honey, you do the $1,000, I’m going to pitch in the extra,” so that’s what this category is. This is the “Honey, I’ll help you” category, and the first one that I have here, it comes in at $1,249. It is the Martin GPCPA4.
I am a big fan of the Performing Artist series from Martin in terms of, again, bang for the buck. It comes with a case. It has a pickup on board, tuner on board. It’s a solid top, solid back and sides. An absolutely stellar instrument. The neck profile, the Performing Artist profile, is extremely comfortable. We have a solid sitka spruce top, hybrid X bracing. We have a black Richlite bring, black Richlite fingerboard, Tusq nut, Tusq saddle, and just a great smaller-body guitar.
Now, they have a bunch of different sizes. I believe they have an OM. Yeah, they have an OM, the Grand Performer, which is this size, and then the dread. I love them all equally, but they’ll emphasize different kind of tonal areas. Let me give the Martin GPCPA4 a play so you can hear what it sounds like. [Music]
Just an all-around great, all-solid guitar, again at $1,249. This was a price point that I had a hard time with, because I wanted to bring down one more guitar but I figured I’d cut it at six. I wanted to bring down a Martin 000-15. I think the 15 series is equally as awesome, but as far as having a pickup and things, this one won out because it has that equipped. Whereas if you’re kind of more of a traditionalist and you’re looking for a guitar in the $1,249 price range, the 000-15 is incredible. That’s the Martin GPCPA4. It comes in at $1,249.
Now, I really pushed it here, but I felt the need to. I wanted to give you the best “Honey, I’m doing this because I love you” category I possible could, and this is for the person that’s got $1,000 that’s ready to spend, and that special someone in their life really wants them to have this guitar. What I have for you is the Gibson J-15. All solid wood, a very, very cool guitar and a great price point … I just want to make sure I’m accurate here … at $1,499. We have a solid sitka spruce top, scalloped X bracing, walnut bridge, walnut fingerboard, walnut back and sides, maple neck, and a just stellar instrument at just around $15,000. [Music]
It’s full, it’s responsive. It has that kind of classic Gibson voice, where it’s nice, crispy in the midrange, gets great note separation. It’s a great strummer, it’s a great fingerpicker. It’s just an all-around really killer guitar. Mini Grover tuners. Just kind of a comfy, classic-looking guitar. It’s kind of one of those guitars that you look at and think, “Wow, that’s a guitar I want to play,” and it’s only 1,500 bucks. This is the Gibson J-15. [Music]
Just a really, again, exceptional instrument in its price category. Again, we have the Gibson J-15.
Now, let me give you a quick rundown of what we went over. Starting first with I broke the rules, okay? I’m just going to own up to it. I’m not going to blame it on somebody else. I’m not going to tell the teacher that somebody else did it, not that I’ve ever done that. I broke the rules and picked six under $1,000, but I’m going to start with my top three under $1,000, if I had to get rid of everything else. Yamaha AC1M at $599. The Taylor 114e at $629. The Martin DRSGT at $999. Those are the top three.
Now, coming in as an honorable mention and one I feel the need to share, the Yamaha FG700S at $199. Again, that’s a killer guitar that I’ve been recommending forever, and I think it’s an awesome, consistent instrument. Then the “Honey, I’m doing this because I love you” list, we’ve got here the Martin GPCPA4 at $1,249 and the Gibson J-15 at $1,499. All killer guitars.
You know, again, this is really difficult to do, because I had a lot of guitars to pick from that I wanted to include. I mean, if it was up to me, I’d probably have a ton of guitars in the studio right now, but unfortunately I had to pick only three, and then I pushed it to six and I felt the need to kind of cut it off there.
Now it’s your turn. I want you to write in a question. Let’s queue up some questions and have a little geekfest here, because I’m a geek. Let’s talk some questions.
If you’re an acoustic guitar geek, you’ve just arrived home. You are at the epicenter of all acoustic guitar geekdom right this very second, so I want you to sign up for our YouTube channel so you don’t miss any of our awesome interviews with players, luthiers, or our gear reviews or anything else that we do that’s just acoustic guitar-related and awesome. Please subscribe right now by clicking the button. [Music]
“What are your thoughts on Recording Kings? All-solid, handmade guitars made in China, but a tremendous value. They offer many small-body guitars, all under $1,000.” Yes. Those … actually I ‘m glad you brought this up, because I have another category. I have a lot of categories today. Guitars that I wanted to include but I guess, again, I didn’t really have the room or the time to do so. Recording Kings are absolutely awesome instruments. They kind of conjure up some of the more classic models. Think Gibson L-00, think kind of parloresque instruments, again smaller bodies like you mentioned, and all solid wood, so killer guitars.
Another guitar in that price range, one that I feel the need to mention, is Blueridge. Blueridge guitars are fantastically made. I’ve had experience with Blueridge probably for easily ten-plus years, and I continue to see their consistency and quality go up. Both phenomenal manufacturers. Thank you for bringing up the Recording King stuff, because it’s really, really cool, especially if you’re looking for that kind of traditional, vintage vibe but don’t want to pay the vintage price. Killer guitars, and a great question and recommendation. Thank you very much for writing it. Appreciate it.
I’m going told to hold the guitar here because the lighting’s all messed up. Sorry, guys. It’s hard for me to hold a guitar and not play it, but I’m going to not. I’m putting my pick down and I’m going to try and keep my hands on my knees so I don’t touch the strings. I’ve got to follow these rules today. It’s really hard.
Next question, “What does the neck, bridge and fingerboard wood type contribute to? Sound, sustain, et cetera?” This is a phenomenal question, and one of those ones that I think will be debated about forever. The question again, just to reiterate, “What do the fingerboard wood type, bridge wood type, neck wood type, what does that actually contribute to? Is it sound, is it sustain? What is it?”
That’s a really difficult question to answer, and what I can say is it contributes to all of those things. As far as the percentage with which it contributes to those things, I feel like it’s fairly small. Now I’ve probably polarized everybody at this point, because I know there’s a contingent of folks that think it’s got to be an ebony fingerboard, it’s got to be an ebony bridge. It sounds the best, and it’s got to be a mahogany neck because that sounds the best. I feel like there’s validity to that, because wood type and the characteristics of the wood in general will affect the tone.
If we look at the neck, the fingerboard and the bridge … probably the bridge being the most important, but certainly the neck and the fingerboard … our main tone producer is our top. I would say, you know, 75-plus percent of the sound, the coloration, the volume, is due to the top. The back and sides color it. They color the flavor. They give you the nuances, they give you the overtones. The bridge, even less so, but since it’s setting on the top, it’s important.
As far as, you know, if somebody put the same guitar in front of me with a maple bridge, an ebony bridge, a rosewood bridge, a walnut bridge, I think it would be hard for me to tell. I know it would be hard for me to tell. I’m sure there would be some subtle changes and some subtle differences, but as far as it being a major contributor to sound, sustain, et cetera, I don’t think they are. Sustain probably, as far as the neck, but that really to me is more of a proper neck joint issue. If you have a good solid neck joint, good wood-to-wood contact, you increase your sustain.
As far as the fingerboard wood, I would definitely say that, you know, fingerboards generally, harder woods … ebonies, walnut in this case … are better because they’re more resistant to wear. More kind of closed or denser hardwoods are better for fingerboards. A lot of factors in terms of sound and sustain with a guitar, but fingerboard wood, neck wood and bridge wood type, I wouldn’t necessarily put at the top of the list as contributors to differentiating a guitar as far as tonally, from one to the next. It’s definitely a small-percentage contributor.
I hope I answered that question okay. That’s a hard one because it’s like kind of Pandora’s box a little bit, but a really, really, good question. That’s a very good question. Thank you.
All right. This is from John. He says, “Your thoughts on tonewood, solid back and sides versus laminate?” A great question, because a lot of these guitars, especially in the mid range that I picked today, were laminate back and sides. As I just mentioned, that’s actually a really great question and a good segue. I feel like the top produces the majority of our sound, so having a solid top is extremely, extremely important. The back and sides color our sound. They kind of give it flavor, they give it overtones, they give it darkness or muddiness or crispness.
I feel like, as far as back and sides go, laminate back and sides can sound okay. However, solid back and sides, think of a piece of plywood, okay? It’s got layers, and imagine that between each layer, you lose a little bit of vibration. That’s kind of laminate land. If you go to solid-wood land, it’s a solid piece of wood. There’s no layers, so there’s no vibration or resonance lost. That right there is why solid back and side instruments generally sound more rich, more complex, than a laminate back and sides.
Now, that doesn’t mean, you know, a guitar with laminate back and sides is bad or is poor. I’ve played some absolutely stellar laminate-back-and-side instruments. The Taylor 114e and the 110e both blow me away, and they’re laminate-back-and-side instruments. They sound great, but they do lack a richness because it’s laminate. I think it’s a very valid question, and I think for everybody out there that has this question in mind, if you can get to a place that has guitars with all solid wood and laminate back and sides, it’s definitely worth your time to put some time in on each instrument, because there are differences.
Again, there’s great-sounding laminate instruments and there’s great-sounding all-solid-wood instruments, but I generally personally prefer all solid wood, just because they resonate a little bit more readily. A great question. Thank you, John. I do really appreciate that. That’s an awesome question.
The next question, “Are most guitars under $1,000 laminate bodies?” No, they’re not. Rather, let me back up. That was a quick answer. I think, if we looked at percentages, yes, absolutely. Most guitars under that $1,000 mark are going to be at least laminate back and sides. That being said, there are exceptions. The two that were brought up earlier, Recording King and Blueridge, the BR-163, 143, 160 and 140 all have … it’s all solid wood. The 40 is all-solid mahogany back and sides, spruce top. The 60 is all-solid rosewood back and sides, spruce top. I’m not as familiar on the Recording King models, but I know that they have some all-solid-wood models in that kind of realm as well.
Again, going back to the last question that was asked, you can find some really good laminate-back-and-side guitars and you can find some great all-solid-wood guitars as well, but really, it doesn’t necessarily indicate a guitar’s sonic greatness if it’s all solid wood. I’ve played all-solid-wood guitars that I’m like, “Where is the sound? What’s happening?” Just as I’ve played laminate-back-and-side guitars and I’m like, “Whoa, is this really laminate back and sides?” Yes, the gems are out there. The all-solid-wood guitars under $1,000 are out there, but I think you’ll find the majority have laminate back and sides. Great question. Thank you, thank you.
Of my top three, which are more recommended for full-band usage? Great question. This is from Dave. Ooh. Actually, for full-band usage, okay. If we’re talking … here’s a scenario. This is a phenomenal question, because there’s a lot of players looking for a guitar to fit this kind of scenario. You’ve got a full band. Let’s say you have drums, bass, maybe another side instrument, a rhythm guitar, maybe a mandolin or a banjo or something like that, and then the guitar that you’re going to buy. You’re asking me which of the top three that I had are the best for band usage.
Now, let me first say this. They all do have a pickup, so they’re all equipped to do so. Now, as far as the one that I think would no doubt excel the best, the 114e by Taylor is probably my go-to. Why do I say that? Its tonal offering is in the area that will cut through a band. I think the Martin DRSGT is a phenomenal model, but as far as with a band, its focus is on the low end, so it might get lost, whereas the Taylor 114e is crispy, it’s bright, and that carries over to the pickup as well. I feel, of those top three, the Taylor 114e is no doubt the best fit for a band situation.
That’s a phenomenal question. I think you always have to examine what the musical situation is, and then pick an instrument according to what you’re looking for or what’s being demanded of the scenario. Good question. Thank you very much, Dave. Appreciate that.
All right. Did you cue up a question? Could you cue up a question? All right. This is from Lee. Lee asks, “What do you think of the Taylor 314e for a `Honey, I’ll help you out’ guitar? I’m a strummer/rhythm player and tend to play hard.” Yeah, Lee, that’s a really good question, and I believe we just had the official first use of a “Honey, I’ll help you with that” guitar. I don’t know if I’ve heard that ever before, but I appreciate you using that. I think this is a movement we can all become part of.
That being said, I love the Taylor 314e. Solid sapele back and sides, solid spruce top. A phenomenal-sounding instrument, great pickup. If you play hard, if you’re mainly a strummer, I think the 314e is kind of one of those jack-of-all-trades type of guitars, or rather a Swiss Army knife type, because it fits the bill well.
As far as the last question that was just asked about the band situation, that’s another great one, the 314e. Again, it’s pushing the price point a little bit, but if Honey’s going to help you out with that, you can push the price point just a little bit. That’s okay. I’m into that. The 314e gets two thumbs up from me, absolutely.
Again, I want to take a second and thank everybody for being here. This is the largest hangout that I’ve done thus far. Now, usually every month, over on my lesson website, Tony’s Acoustic Challenge, we do a hangout, and it’s very much like this in that it’s just a bunch of guitar geeks that get together and talk about guitar stuff, ask questions, talk about tonewoods, et cetera. Being able to do this here on the Acoustic Letter is kind of a special treat, and it’s a little cool extension of what we do monthly on Tony’s Acoustic Challenge.
If you’re ever interested in that, you can go check out the website at Tonypolecastro.com. It’s got tabs and all sorts of other really cool stuff, and just kind of acoustic guitar … it’s kind of like acoustic guitar geek heaven. It’s just really cool, so I just wanted to mention that because this is the first time I’ve ever had to do this, I’ve ever got to do this, for the Acoustic Letter audience, so this is awesome. Having 241 viewers just geeking out and talking about the guitars we want, this is fantastic, so thanks for being here.
The next question, “Martin X series guitars. There is a lot of debate about these with the HPL back and sides. Some love it, some hate it,” my thoughts. I have a great story about the Martin X series. When I was first getting into acoustic guitar, I was living in Chicago and my uncle gave me some 1970s Ovation thing. It was literally trashed. It was barely playable, cracks all over it, et cetera. I went to Guitar Center at the time and I traded it in, and got a guitar with laminate back and sides and a solid top, and very quickly realized that the guitar that I got was not something I was interested in.
I proceeded to buy … after that, I took it back and I said, “Hey, this isn’t for me, what else do you have?” They had a used … I’m trying to get the model right … DXK2, I think. It was an X series Martin with koa, HPL. Koa really was just basically the picture they put on top of it. It had high-pressure laminate top, back and sides, Stratabond neck, the whole deal, and I thought the guitar was incredible. At the time I worked at a gym in Chicago and I did the opening shift, and I would bring my guitar to practice because once the initial rush was there, you know, nobody would come in, so I got some good practice in.
Anyway, the job basically involved me handing out towels and keys to members, and I had the guitar resting on the counter. I turned around to get a key and I proceeded to knock the guitar off the counter onto a cement floor. I was real bummed because it split. It split right on the seam, all the way around the top, and I was like, “You’ve got to be kidding me.” The top never cracked, the sides never cracked, the back never cracked. It just split on the seam. I took it to my local shop, and in about a week they had it glued up and it looked like nothing ever happened.
I think my personal opinion of the HPL guitars, the X series that you had asked about, I think they’re really innovative. I think they’re really “good-sounding for what they are” guitars, but most importantly I feel like they’re extremely durable. You don’t have to worry about humidity. You don’t have to really worry about knocking into things. You’re not going to necessarily ding an HPL top, although I probably could stand to be corrected, but I don’t think I’ve ever seen one dinged. I’ve seen them split along the seams, but again that’s just kind of a quick little fix as far as, you know, the worst-case scenario.
Do they sound like all-solid-wood guitars? No, not really, but I don’t think they sound bad for what they are, and I think you have to keep that in your mind as you’re looking at those guitars and kind of taking them in. The traditionalist in me is like, “Really? HPL? Not for me.” If I was traveling and I didn’t want to worry about humidity, it’s a great fit. If I led an active lifestyle or I wanted to, let’s say … oh, gosh.
Let’s say this is the best-case scenario. Let’s say I had a vacation home and I couldn’t humidify the guitar all the time. A guitar with all HPL would actually be a great fit, because I don’t have to worry about it. I think the X series is awesome. I have personal experience with it and it’s all been good, even when I drop it off a counter, so great question, and great guitars to bring up. They fit in this price category very well.
This question is from Don. “Which of the six is the best for fingerstyle, and which size for fingerstyle in general?” Great question, Don. We have an interesting smattering of guitars. Now, as far as what I would prefer for fingerstyle, I would go with the Martin GPCPA4, which is in the “Honey, I’ll help you out” category. I feel like it’s the best for fingerstyle because of a couple of things.
It’s a smaller body, and this goes to your question. Generally I prefer, and I think the general consensus is smaller bodies are nice for fingerstyle. They’re a good fit for fingerstyle because they project, they’re focused. There’s great string separation, which if you’re playing fingerstyle, is a great asset to whatever instrument you might be using.
Yeah, definitely of the ones I have here, the Martin GPCPA4 because it’s a smaller body style, but also because it offers a little bit of warmth and kind of fatter, rounder single notes, something that kind of fills out any fingerstyle arrangement. You don’t want something that’s too brittle and too high-endy, because then it just sounds really kind of, dare I say, nails across a chalkboard-ish, which is a term I just made up as a description.
Generally for fingerstyle, smaller-bodied instruments. Again, of the ones I have here, probably the Martin GPCPA4 would be my front runner for anything fingerstyle. Good question, Don. Thank you very much.
All right. “Tony, what do you use for picks?” This is a great question. I happen to have a whole bunch in my pocket. Can you imagine? If we were all sitting in the same room, this is the cue for me to just start throwing picks out everywhere, just throwing them into the audience. I had a capo in my pocket. May as well go for that too, since I have it. This is a Shubb Deluxe capo, one of my favorites. My other favorite is the Paige capo. I’m sorry, not the Paige capo. It’s the McKinney-Elliot capo. It’s a stainless steel version of the Paige capo.
As far as what I use for picks, well, I’m doing this to prove a point. I have a whole pocket full of … I don’t know if you guys can see these. These are Dunlop Ultex Sharp 2.0 millimeter picks. I absolutely love these, obviously. I have probably a dozen or so in my hand, and I think they are the absolute best-sounding picks for my particular style. They’re extremely … they’re thicker picks, you know. They’re two millimeters, so they … dynamically I feel like I have more control. I can loosen my grip if I want it soft, I can hold my grip a little bit tighter if I want it louder.
The sharp point allows me to come off the string a little bit smoother, and the material, the Ultex material, it’s very strong. It’s wear-resistant. However, you know, if I use a pick for a while, it gets worn down like any other, and I just think they’re great. Dunlop Ultex, 2.0 millimeter Sharp picks. That’s my pick of choice. It’s been so for four years and I’ve never really turned back. I’ve tried other things, but I always seem to come back to those picks. Great question. Thank you for asking.
All right. This is from Jim. He says, “What is your opinion on the quality versus value of a torrefied top and a normal spruce top?” Awesome question. There’s been a ton of attention brought to the torrefication process of a spruce top, and let me explain for those of you that might be here and not necessarily aware of what a torrefied top is. A torrefied top is basically a spruce top that’s gone through a slow baking process, to make it sound older, okay, versus a brand-new sitka spruce top, which is still old but it has not been baked.
This is a tough one. I’m kind of scared to answer this question. I’m going to go for it, though. Today’s the day where I’m just taking leaps, really big leaps, and I like the sound of torrefied tops. I think it adds a warmth. It adds a woodiness to the tone. I think it also adds a responsiveness, and I think if I had to just come up with an answer right away, I think, yes, it’s worth it, because it’s a noticeable difference. To me it sounds better, and I’m sure the work involved in torrefying a top is not necessarily an easy task.
That being said, there’s nothing wrong with a regular sitka spruce top, and if you can be patient for, say, I don’t know, 50, 60 years, you’ll start to get some of the flavoring that a torrefied top will offer. I think that’s where the price kind of comes in, is you’re trying to simulate, you know, many, many years of play and just age, but I do think it’s worth it. I think the torrefication process is really cool.
Last time I was Martin, they passed under a light a torrefied spruce top and a sitka spruce top. The sitka spruce top passed light, no problem, like I could see through the piece of sitka spruce. The torrefied top passed zero light, which is just a … kind of to show that the breakdown of the cell structure on the inside, it kind of hardens it and crystallizes it, hence the sound being a little bit different. Two thumbs up for torrefied tops. I think they’re awesome. Again, we did fine without them for quite a while. They’re just getting a lot of attention now, and deservedly so. I think they’re very cool, and I think they do make an impact on the sound.
Great question, Jim. A very, very cool question. That is the blue ribbon, gold medal geek question of the day so far. That’s an awesome question. Thank you. That was a blue ribbon and a gold medal, which means it’s really important and two thumbs up. You can hold the medal around your neck, put the ribbon on one of your thumbs and then hold the other thumb up. It was a really good question. Thank you. Sometimes I do things and I don’t even know why.
Next question, “Where do you stand on slot-head, or is there no real difference?” The question here is slot-head headstock versus a standard, for lack of a better term, “paddle head” or standard headstock. I think that slotted headstocks generally sound better. Why do I think this way? The peghead angle on a slotted headstock and the string pressure downward on the nut is much greater, so I feel like you get a little bit stronger resonance transfer down into the nut, which anytime the strings pass over an object, that’s where you have a chance to have vibration transfer, the nut being one, the saddle being the other. The harder those strings are coming down on the nut, the better transfer.
Now, I don’t think a standard peghead is any slouch, by any means, but the angle’s a little bit softer so you don’t get as much downward pressure. Now, you know, if I played a guitar and it had a standard headstock and I thought it sounded amazing, it wouldn’t make a difference to me if it was standard headstock or slotted. I think a good-sounding guitar is a good-sounding guitar, and there’s a lot of pieces involved in making it that way. My heart goes out to slotted-headstock instruments. However, I don’t own any at the present moment.
I’ve got some great guitars but no slotted headstocks, but it’s on my list. My list contains instruments that I desire, and at the top of that list is a 12-fret dreadnought because I love Norman Blake. Norman Blake played a lot of 12-fret dreadnoughts. I think they sound just huge and amazing, so I’m a fan of slotted headstocks. As far as the tonal difference, I hope that helped kind of give some reasoning as to why they would sound different. Great question. Very, very good question. That is a single … no, that’s still a two-thumbs-up. That’s a two-thumbs-up guitar geek question for sure, absolutely. Nice question. Very good job.
This is from Dave. “This is a follow-up on having a guitar for travel and needing to avoid issues with humidity, air pressure, sea level, elevation, et cetera. Which would perform better, HPL or composite/carbon fiber?” Awesome question, Dave. Without a doubt, if you’re doing the flying thing and you’re worrying about air pressure, extreme humidity variations and just overall wear and tear, carbon fiber instruments are extremely strong, extremely light, extremely portable.
A couple months back … gosh, was it months back? We did a Journey travel guitar, where the neck comes off and it’s a carbon fiber instrument. That thing was a tank. It was light, it was strong, and it sounded pretty good for a smaller-body carbon fiber instrument with literally no top braces. There’s no bracing. You don’t need to, because it’s incredibly stiff. I talked to a pilot … I think he was a pilot … shortly after that review who ended up getting that instrument, and he said it was a perfect match. “I’m flying all the time. Basically the guitar has been through hell and back, or is going to be going through hell and back, and it is a perfect fit.”
I think a lot of times, we base our opinions of certain instruments off of, “Oh, that sounds good,” or bad or what have you, but in certain instances we have to look at the practicality of an instrument. The carbon fiber travel instrument that’s going to be brought on a plane or boat or what have you, that’s a great fit, and it might not sound like a wooden instrument, but it’s a good fit. Yeah, for extreme conditions, carbon fiber is definitely my pick. HPL is the second, but I think carbon fiber is stronger. That’s a really good question, Dave. Thank you.
All right, this is from Perry. He asks, “What factors, such as materials, et cetera, contribute to a guitar aging well?” That’s a phenomenal question. As far as what factors into a guitar aging well, if we’re just strictly talking about materials, solid wood. Any organic material I think is a sure bet to a guitar aging well. Take for example nitrocellulose finish, which, while it may not be necessarily a truly organic material, it’s got chemicals and things, but it’s organically derived. Solid sitka spruce, solid pick-your-favorite-tonewood back and sides, a bone saddle, bone nut. Anything organic that changes over time and kind of crystallizes or solidifies over time is a good recipe for a guitar aging well.
Now, there’s another caveat to that, and that is proper care. If you do not care for your instrument, be it regular setups, watching your humidity, just overall care and maintenance, that guitar will not sound well when it gets older. That’s harsh. I’ve played a lot of old guitars that have not been taken care of very well and they’ve sounded fine, but as far as the guitar functioning well and not having to put a ton of work into it … you know, the dreaded, you find the guitar under the bed and it’s totally dried out and it’s cracked and you’ve got to get it all fixed up. To save yourself that step, properly humidify your guitar. Take good care of it. Keep it in its case when it’s not in use. That is just as important as the materials in terms of the guitar aging well.
Then the other factor in a guitar aging well is you should play it every single day. I’m a firm believer in, even if it’s for just ten minutes a day, playing your guitar every single day. Think of a guitar being assembled. These are just random pieces of wood that are thrown together. They were all trees at some point, and some of them came from different forests. This sounds like a fairy tale, but really and truly I’m getting to a point. They’re all different pieces of wood, and then they come together and they’re supposed to be a guitar, like magic.
I worked with a guy, a phenomenal guitar player, over at Weber Mandolins when I first moved to Montana. His name was John Lowell, and he had a great way of putting it. He said, “The guitar, the pieces of wood have to get used to one another and learn how to function together.” That’s a great recipe for aging your guitar well, is playing it every single day. Take your guitar out of the case every single day and play it, because the more you play it, the more those pieces of wood are going to start working together and kind of securing their bond, if you will, and they’ll live happily ever after, just like the fairy tale ends.
I started a fairy tale, and I figured I should end it properly with happy ever after, but that’s a really good question. I don’t think you can do anything to really accurately and sufficiently accelerate the aging process. I think you’ve just got to let time do its work, as hard as that is, and there’s some really cool stuff out there that helps, but true age is definitely something worth waiting for in guitar terms, anyway. That came out weird. I don’t want to go down that other road. Anyway.
All right. It looks like we have time for about three more questions. Again, I’ll thank you again before this is … see, I played, because the guitar’s in my hands. I want to thank you all for being here again. This is a really cool opportunity to do this for the Acoustic Letter crowd. Again, I normally get to do this just for the crowd at Tony’s Acoustic Challenge. We do it once a month, and to do it here on the Acoustic Letter is really a cool opportunity, and I appreciate you all taking time out of your schedule today to join in and contribute.
We’ve got time for about three more. The first of the three is going to be “How does the string gauge contribute to the sound of a guitar? How about when it’s plugged in?” That’s an awesome question. String gauge is a hot topic. Let’s look at three basic string gauges, extra-light, light and medium. As we go towards the medium set, we increase tension and pressure, and increased tension and pressure basically translates to driving the top of the guitar harder. With an extra-light set, you have less tension and you’re not driving the top as hard but you’re going to get more sustain, whereas if you go towards the medium end of the spectrum, you’re driving the top much harder.
You’re going to get more volume but maybe a little bit less sustain, and that correlates to the pickup as well, especially an under-saddle pickup. An under-saddle pickup reacts to pressure. If you have a medium string, it’s pushing down on the saddle harder, harder than an extra-light and harder than even just a regular light string. That’s a great factor, something to factor in when you’re picking out strings. Extra-lights, not a lot of tension. Mediums, more tension. That will correlate into how the guitar top reacts and ultimately how the pickup reacts.
That’s a great question, and one that I think not a lot of people think about, is how their string gauge is not only going to affect the guitar’s performance but ultimately their pickup’s performance, so an awesome question. Very, very good. Thank you very much for asking that.
All right. Ooh, this is cool. “Yo, Tones. With all the Gibson L-00 clones out there lately … Waterloo, CEO-7, all the Gibson reissues, et cetera … what’s your personal fave for blues and beauty? Say Mississippi John Hurt wanted to play harp harmonics. I’m shopping.” Ooh, this is a great question. I’m going to try and summarize this question, because I just went on a mental tirade of a lot of awesome guitars.
Of all the Gibson L-00 clones out there … Waterloo, CEO-7, Gibson reissues, et cetera … what’s my personal favorite? Oh, man. Let me first define what I think is a good L-00. Look, let me go there first. I’m going to walk you through my thought process. This is going to be a scary journey, so bear with me. To me what makes a good L-00 or a blues, small-body guitar, is it’s got to have a little bit of bark. It’s got to have bite. It doesn’t have to necessarily have a ton of sustain. It needs to be direct. It needs to have really good protection, and it needs to sound almost thunky.
I favor … oh, man. I can’t believe you’re having me actually pick one between all of those. I really like the Waterloos. I’m really excited to play them. I’ve heard sound clips. I like what I hear. I haven’t had a chance to play them. I love that they offer ladder bracing. We have a really hot comparison coming up as soon as they come through the back door. Really, my fingers are crossed, August, comparing an X-braced Waterloo to a ladder-braced Waterloo, from Collings. I’m very, very excited about that comparison.
You know, I would go … huh. Oh, man. I’m going to say I’m going to just take a firm stand on the CEO-7. If I can’t get a vintage L-00, I’m going to say the Martin CEO-7. Bang for the buck, that’s a great instrument. I’ve been very happy with that. We’ve seen … I’ve personally seen three or four different ones. They’re very consistent. They have bark. They have a little bit of sustain, maybe bordering on a little too much for me, which is why I want to lean towards the ladder-braced Waterloo, but it’s a tough matchup.
I think if I had to just walk away with one … oh. All these lists today are killing me because I want to walk away with more than one, which is why I love guitars so much. I would say a CEO-7 … oh … with a real “Honey, will you help me get the ladder-braced Waterloo?” That’s what I’ll say. That’s my answer. Definitely pick the Martin CEO-7 with a look over to a significant other, saying, “Honey, I really like that Waterloo, that ladder-braced one too. Can I get that?” Of course she’d be like, “Okay, that’d be great. You can have two instruments. Do you want another one?”
She might not say that, so CEO-7 and a very, very, very, very, very close Waterloo, ladder-braced. That’s my answer. That’s it. That’s my answer. I got it. We’ve got to move on to the next question, because I could ruminate on this one all day.
This is from Steven. “Hey, Tony. Loved the guitar practice this week. My pinky is stronger already. Speaking of torrefied tops, you once said the HD-35 was the best guitar Martin makes today. For your personal taste and needs, is it even better than the dread Authentics?” Oh, that’s loaded.
First of all, thank you. If you guys don’t know, Steven’s referring to my … on Tonypolecastro.com, the Tony’s Acoustic Challenge kind of lessons site, I do a weekly practice plan where I basically design a week’s worth of practice for finger strength, chords, progressions, keys, licks, you name it, and each day we dole out another little exercise. That’s what he was referring to, his pinky being stronger. I give you maximum, maximum kudos for that, because the pinky is notoriously our wimpy finger, so good job doing the exercises. Great job on that.
As far as the HD-35 versus the Authentics, I’m still going to stand by my HD-35 for what I do. Let me get a little detailed on that. The HD-35 I love. It’s quarter-inch braced. It’s scalloped, so it’s the lightest production top that Martin makes on a dreadnought guitar. For me, I do a lot of alternate tuning stuff. I do some flatpicking, I do fingerpicking. I do a lot of different styles, so I generally have a lighter touch, especially on alternate tunings, and it reacts incredible to those alternate tunings. As far as flatpicking, I love that I don’t have to dig in as hard and I still get sound out front. Then for fingerstyle, again, that lighter-braced top is really a good fit for my touch as far as how I approach the instrument.
That is not at all to discount the Authentics, but for me, the way that I play. If I was buying a guitar just for flatpicking and I was just a straight-ahead, pure 100 percent bluegrass machine, the Authentics would be in my radar and definitely be an option. For what I do, I’m kind of more of an acoustic geek. I like to try all different styles, all different tunings, and the HD-35 has been, you know, for … gosh, I’ve had that guitar almost ten years, a little bit shy of ten years. It’s always stood up to the challenge of anything I threw at it, and I’ve been very, very happy with it.
No discredit to the Authentics, because they’re phenomenal instruments. However, the HD-35 is my standby. It’s a great instrument. Whenever I pick it up, I’m like … it’s one of those moments where I’m like, “This guitar’s awesome. I’m so glad I have this.” I just think it’s one of those … not necessarily a forgotten model, but definitely a less popular model, and I’m happy to own one. I love it. It fits the bill for me. If you happen to hear that groan in the background, I think Argos, my dog here, she’s falling asleep, because she’s heard me talk for about an hour.
That being said, we’re almost done, here. Thank you, Steven. That’s a really good question, a very good guitar kind of head-to-head question. I appreciate that, and thank you, everybody, for being here. I’ve got time for about one more question, and then I’ll send you all on your day.
This is from Dave. “Will you post this video for future viewing?” Yes. All of the live hangouts are captured and then posted on YouTube. Are we going to put it on Acousticletter.com? Yeah, we’ll have it on the Acousticletter.com site, and even all the ones, if you guys are curious, the past hangouts that I’ve done for my lessons website are also … are they on YouTube? One of them’s on YouTube so you can check it out. It’s a very similar form, just kind of open-form guitar geekiness.
For your friends who may have missed this, please send them to Acousticletter.com to check out the hangout, and I’m assuming we will be doing this again. I mean, I had fun, so if I can convince these guys to do it again, I would stay tuned and encourage your friends, family and guitar lovers, guitar geeks, bandmates, to sign up for the Acoustic Letter. It’s a great place where I get a chance to review some killer guitars. Then also, after you’re done hearing a review, if you’re just smitten with the guitar, you can call Chad or go to Acousticletter.com and, if that’s the guitar for you, then you have a chance to actually get it. The number that you’d reach Chad at is eye (855) 55-STRUM.
Again, thank you all for joining me. I know I’ve said thank you about a hundred times, but this is a highlight for me, to be able to connect with you guys, in all sincerity. It’s just fun to talk guitars, and sometimes I go on some really interesting tangents that, even if you’re not into guitar, sometimes it’s worth just hanging around because sometimes I get real lost, real quick.
Do you want to answer the bonus question, because everybody’s just …
Oh. Okay, yeah. We can do a bonus question. This is so cool, because I’m breaking lots of rules today, and I’m getting encouraged to break the rules too. It’s awesome. This is from Dennis. “What do you think about the Martin Ed Sheeran Signature model?” That is a cool guitar. I love it. It’s a travel guitar. It’s smaller. I actually like the graphics.
I think they did a good job, and more importantly … now, I just learned this, so I don’t have my facts completely straight. I know that … I feel … don’t quote me on this, but I’m pretty sure that all the proceeds from that guitar being sold go to a children’s hospital. I’m pretty sure. I don’t know if it’s St. Jude’s, but it’s some sort of charity, and I thought that was, in and of itself, an incredibly generous thing to offer, and kind of makes that model stand out, in my opinion.
I think it’s very cool. I think it’s a cool guitar, but I think the kind of motive behind it is even cooler. I think it’s awesome. I think it’s awesome they’re doing that, and again, I’m not sure if I have my facts 100 percent, but I’m pretty sure. I literally just read it like last night or the night before, so an awesome guitar. Let’s do one more. Can we do one more?
I push the envelope a little bit. Okay, this is the official last question. Again, thank you all for being here. The last question is “What are the top three acoustic guitar pickups that you recommend? Please list if there are any cheap ones that are as good.” Great question. I love acoustic guitar pickups, because it’s this constant battle of trying to find good tone plugged in, so let me try and do this.
Okay, I’m thinking in my head. Okay. Number one is a soundhole pickup. The DiMarzio Angel pickup is an awesome soundhole pickup. I literally just put one in my Martin OM-28 Marquis. For a soundhole pickup, it still has body and clarity, which sometimes you miss a little bit of the attack on the soundhole pickup, and this one actually captures it, which I’ve been very, very pleased with. Number one, the DiMarzio Angel.
Number two, the K&K Pure Western Mini, which is a bridge plate pickup. A very transparent tone. You do get a little bit of body noise with it, but it works phenomenal in conjunction with my DiMarzio Angel pickup. I also have that on my OM-28 Marquis.
Then my last one, whew. I’m going to go with … oh. I’m going to go with the L.R. Baggs … I believe it’s the Lyric, or the Anthem. I can’t remember which one, but it has an interesting character. I think it’s the Anthem. It has kind of a bump in the bass that warms up the entire plugged-in presentation of the tone, so a great pickup. In order, DiMarzio Angel soundhole pickup, the K&K Pure Western Mini, and the L.R. Baggs Anthem. Those are my top three pickups.
It’s a good top three day today, so thank you again, everybody, for joining. I really, really appreciate it. Thank you for taking time out of your day and for making today just totally awesome. I really, really appreciate it, and I’ll see you in the next hangout.