Frets About Frets August 2011

I have had several customers come into my shop this month asking advice about purchasing Acoustic/Electric guitars. Some have been beginners who have played for less than 6 months. Some are just looking for a “gigging” axe. Some are under the impression that an Acoustic/Electric is the “next step” up the evolutionary ladder from “just and acoustic”.

To the beginners, I gently remind them that the reason to buy an Acoustic/Electric Guitar is to have the capability to plug into a sound system and allow more people to HEAR them… Now, If you’ve only been playing for a couple of months… you have to ask yourself…

Do you really want MORE people to hear you?

To the pickers who are looking to gig… well… to these folks I can only HELP advise them as they sift through a myriad of choices. It all boils down to “the right tool for the job”… And the jobs range from the fingerpicker who is looking for a fine guitar that they can plug in and play at performances with the same clarity and depth of sound that the guitar can produce acoustically… To the working musician who needs a “work horse” laminated instrument that can take the rigors of the road and still perform every night without fail. There are plenty of offerings from nearly EVERY manufacturer… for a wide variety of prices.

The “Next steppers” are the most challenging. Many have done some research and their monologue goes something like this:

“I’m looking for an acoustic electric guitar… I want a good one… a name brand… As much solid wood as possible… The electronics need to truly reproduce the instruments natural sound… An exotic wood is cool. I’ve seen those… It needs to have low action… AND… I don’t want to spend over $400…”


WHOA… Whoa… whoa… There’s the rub!

While there ARE several acoustic guitars with electronics that are priced under $400… the quality of the guitar AND /OR the quality of the electronics will, in most cases, be compromised.

An Acoustic/Electric guitar has two major components to reproduce an amplified acoustic sound:

First – The guitar… Preferably one with a solid wood body, although finding one for under $600 or so can be challenging. There are some “not-so-name-brand” instruments (Asian made) out there that sound quite good and are reasonably priced. The Luthiers in Asian countries have been producing guitars for western markets for over 35 years, now, and have pretty much mastered the art of building a quality instrument. One of these would be the imported offerings from Blue Ridge… They are great sounding acoustics!

Some large manufacturers like Martin, Taylor, Larrivee and others pride themselves in making the fine acoustic instruments that have an electronic pickup option.

Other manufacturers such as Gibson, Fender, Yamaha, Ibanez, Alvarez… and others… offer “entry level” Acoustic/Electric models that range from $200 to $600.

When shopping these instruments, the buyer must pay close attention. One has to remember that manufacturers are trying to make a product within a particular price range that can have a sufficient profit margin to justify the continuation of the line. In other words, they have to balance how well the acoustic instrument is built with the quality and reliability of the electronics on board… and make it cheap enough to make money.

These will start with all laminate bodies with little or no detail/binding, inexpensive tuning keys, basic electronics with an LED tuner for “bling”. Sometimes they even throw in a strap and some picks… probably because they feel guilty about the quality of the instrument.

Now, I’ve mentioned “laminate” several times so far and if you are still a little fuzzy on this guitar building material, here’s a quick rundown.

Laminate is, basically, a 3-layer plywood. The inside layer and outside layer is a thin veneer, usually of the same wood so as to “fool” the buyer into thinking it is made of solid wood.

Now, Not all laminate is bad… It is very strong and holds its shape well. While it may not resonate like solid wood, it still vibrates and can sound surprisingly good when properly braced.

Another cool application is that builders will layer an exotic wood with a cheaper “strength” wood in the middle to produce a strikingly smart looking instrument. Alvarez does this with one of their lines and while the guitars are pretty “dead” sounding acoustically, they make up for it by putting in decent electronics for a darn good sound when amplified. It looks pretty “flashy” on stage!

Acoustic/Electrics that have solid wood tops and solid wood backs with laminate sides make for a good sound acoustically but unless a decent preamp and pickup is installed, the package CAN miss the mark.

This is why I will usually recommend that a buyer find the best ACOUSTIC guitar that they can get within their price range… A player needs to “love” the way the instrument feels and sounds first… THEN have a good pickup installed.

I also advise them to have their guitar tech do the least invasive installation as possible. This is to not disturb the intended acoustics of the instrument. There is no need to cut a big hole in the side of the guitar for a control panel… no need for an on-board tuner (get a clip-on!)… Also… when installing the jack to allow for connection to an amplifier, make the hole through a part of the guitar that can support some pulling and tugging. I promise… at some point, the cord WILL get stepped upon. The end block is usually a good site for jack installation.

Above all pick an Acoustic/Electric instrument that SOUNDS good… After all… you want more people to hear you, right?

If you have questions or would like to recommend topics for discussion in this column, email

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3 Responses to Frets About Frets August 2011

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