Unlike an electric guitar, acoustics generate sound all “in the box.” It is not necessary to plug in if you are playing with other acoustic musicians, alone in your bedroom or around a campfire. Acoustic literally means “unplugged,” which can also translate to “freedom.”
In fact, I would go so far as to say the acoustic guitar is the most capable instrument in the world in terms of mechanical ability. From singer-songwriter to the recent flamingo-inspired Percussive Fingerstyle movement, the acoustic guitar can rock out or lullaby a newborn to sleep.
The goal of this article is to familiarize you with the features of an acoustic guitar, show you what to look for when purchasing, and ultimately arrive at a modest menu of what I personally find to be the best buys under $1,000.
And, to better help you make an informed decision, we have created a guide of popular sub-$1000 acoustic guitars below. Please use it to compare many of the guitars we will discuss in-depth today.
Acoustic Guitars – Features
Acoustics are their own natural amplifier. Much of their construction and architecture is built inside the box and is not seen by the player. Underneath the top of the guitar are long strips of wood known as bracing. There are numerous different configurations that lend themselves well to different sounding instruments.
The most famous style of bracing is coined by the Martin Guitar Company, the “X-Bracing” system. The longest strands of wood are glued in an X configuration just below the sound hole. Once a string is plucked, its vibration resonates along the top through these braces, only to dissipate along the edge of the soundboard (top). The sound hole is the “speaker” which allows this vibration to escape.
There are two main types of wood used in the construction of a guitar top – spruce and cedar. Spruce is by far the most utilized, of which there are several different types. Pre-War Martin guitars utilized Adirondack Spruce, which is making a comeback in the boutique guitar world. Sitka spruce was originally used on airplane wings for their favorable stiffness-to-weight ratio. Today, they are used on guitars all over the world.
Wood and Sound
Acoustic guitars generally use a single type of hardwood for the back and side construction. There are dozens of choices builders use, from exotics to native hardwoods. East Indian rosewood, black walnut and soft/hard maple are just a few common choices. Generally, manufacturers will prefer that the back and side material is more dense than the soundboard so the strings’ vibration will be contained inside the soundboard.
The percussive quality of the acoustic guitar lends itself well to the finger style techniques of Andy Mckee, Don Ross, Max Roest – all champions of the style modernized by Michael Hedges. Even players who strum the instrument will “slap” the top of the soundboard to create a snare-drum effect, or even the strings themselves. Tapping the sides of the guitar with one’s palm creates a bass-drum effect. An experienced player can make music that sounds as if two players are playing simultaneously.
While acoustic guitars are able to be played without an amplifier, pickups are available or included in some models. These pickups come in a wide variety of styles, but all allow the guitar to be plugged into an amplifier. There are acoustic-specific amplifiers available that play nicely with piezo pickups or sound-hole microphones.
It is not always recommended to play an acoustic guitar that isn’t using a magnetic pickup through anything but an electric amplifier, however. Playing open mic nights at the local bar may necessitate a pickup so you may play through the house PA system, but more often than not you will have a microphone available to play in front of.
Unlike electric guitars, you need little more than the guitar to get up and strumming. Acoustics are very budget-friendly. However, I do have a few recommendations.
- Hardshell case
- Extra strings
Depending on which model you purchase, the guitar may come with a hardshell case as opposed to a “gig bag,” which is nothing more than a padded backpack the size of the instrument. While one can get away with a gig bag with a solid body electric, acoustic guitars are fragile instruments. Think about it as extra insurance that will protect your new axe from drops, stomps and mosh.
Picks are always essential, especially when jamming out in a group. Newer players will find it easier to get up and strumming as they learn a few chords. Rather than worry about 5 fingers on their strumming hand, they will only have to worry about making string contact with the pick, leaving more time for learning how to play rhythm.
A capo is a great way to change key signatures without much hassle. Essentially, a capo is a sixth-finger for your fretting hand (typically your non-dominant). There are many different types of capos out there. I would recommend a capo for musicians who feel they have a handle on playing without one, or a player who understands the basics of key signatures.
Extra strings are essential; don’t be caught at your next gig without a spare set. Speaking from experience, a quick string-change before a show never hurts. It also rejuvenates the sound of a dull-sounding guitar: as strings make contact with our oily fingers, they oxidize and eventually corrode.
Goodbye, beautiful tone.
Of course, there are many more examples of accessories one could choose to purchase. Effects pedals are an incredible invention. While they may be “purposed” for electric guitars, I have found much success onstage with my reverb and delay effect pedals.
There are countless music greats that utilize them as well. With pedals comes amplifiers and the necessary chords, however. As we attempt to “electrify” our acoustics, the cost rises considerably.
At the end of the day, it is all about what you want as the player out of your axe!
Let’s Get Down to Business
I have enjoyed the opportunity to play, test and rank several acoustic guitars under $1000. This guide is purposed for the novice and master player alike. Each guitar listed was curated with the idea that any of these instruments can be found online or in your local music store.
Having owned nearly a dozen instruments in my 15 years of playing, I consider myself a professional shopper. Purchasing an acoustic guitar is a lot different than buying an electric in that there is no real way to “dress up” the sound.
What you hear is what you get in terms of how it sounds. Even multiple guitars of the same model can sound different, so it’s important to trust your ears.
Below is a list of what I personally look for in an acoustic guitar:
- Sound – Does the guitar sound good? This is a question that the player should be able to answer right off the bat. Experienced players can walk along the rows of acoustic guitars in a music store and simply brush the strings to assess its quality of sound.
- Looks – It’s not all about personality, people. Don’t be ashamed that you want your axe to look just as good – or better – than the guy or gal holding it onstage. Acoustic guitars may feature either a satin or glossy finish. The type of finish doesn’t necessarily effect the sound of the instrument, nor relate to its price.
- Feel – A guitar should feel comfortable to hold, even to a first-time wielder of the axe. There are a variety of body shapes and sizes to fit every possible shape and size of player. For instance, I prefer the feel of larger-bottomed guitars that have a figure-8 shape bilaterally. An entire newsletter could be devoted to the complex-concept of necks, and frankly, I wouldn’t bother reading it. My only comment is this: if it feels good to you, it is good for you.
- Setup and Action – Many guitars are setup the same way. The strings should be relatively close to the frets. Ask yourself: is it easy to fret? If you find a guitar in a shop that has high-action, walk away from it. Many shops with any sort of reputation inspect and setup instruments before they hit the showroom floor. However, it is common for issues to arise after the instrument hits the showroom floor. If the guitar has become unwieldy when you found it, chances are it’s going to cause even more problems down the road. This could be due to faulty manufacturing or extreme changes in temperature and/or humidity during shipping. This is especially true in acoustic instruments due to their thin strips of wood.
- Brand – What is the brand’s reputation among the guitar player community? Standing on any showroom floor, and the names Martin, Epiphone and Taylor will jump at you. All three brands are staples of the industry – and for good reason. It is important to recognize the following: Epiphone is a subsidiary of Gibson, as Squire is to Fender. Epiphones and Squires are cheaper than their parent brands. But does cheaper mean you are purchasing a “lesser” guitar? Nothing could be further from the truth, especially when considering these brands. Other brands listed here are lesser-known, but also have excellent reputations with their own audiences. That could mean you!
Our Favorite Acoustic Guitars Under $1,000
And now, without further ado, here are some of our favorite acoustic guitars.
Fender CD-60 – $200
The Fender CD-60 is the best acoustic guitar under $250. This guitar features a solid spruce top with the necessary bracing to keep it strong and sturdy. I have recommended this guitar to new students for years based on it’s ease of playability; it frets easier than hitting the home button on your phone. The Fender CD series features a Dreadnought shape (larger-bodied acoustic with square shoulders) and a smaller, curvier auditorium size. Both sound truly excellent. I recommend this guitar for brand new players as an affordable but quality instrument.
Epiphone EJ200CE – $430
Based off of Gibson’s bold J200, the EJ200CE is the most ornate of the guitars in this article. The pick guard and bridge feature inlays similar to what one would find in more expensive guitars. The fretboard features Gibson’s classic crown inlays as fret-markers. The “C” stands for a cutaway, which allows for access to frets higher than the 14th. The “E” stands for electronics on-board.
That’s right, the EJ200CE features an under-saddle pickup so you can plug in and jam with the band. However, I found this instrument to lack in nearly every other department. I found the guitar to feel overall heavy and bulky to hold. The neck felt a touch too thick for my taste, and the sound less-than what I would want to hear at this price range. It sounded rather dull across all six strings.
The trebles sounded muddy in with the bass, resulting in a disappointing flat sound. I feel as if the engine isn’t large enough to drive the chassis in this case. Perhaps this eye-candy guitar is best suited for someone playing nothing more than power chords on an acoustic, but not much else.
Ovation Ultra 2071 – $899
Ovation guitars are simply fascinating in construction. Unlike virtually every other acoustic guitar on the market, there are no real sides on this guitar. Rather, a heavy duty plastic is used to form the back and sides of the guitar. Although I have not tested it, this axe looks like it can take a beating. Being that there are no real edges on the body, they are fantastically comfortable to hold.
Their unique headstock combined with intricate sound hole rosette design make this one an eye popper. This particular model features one of the best acoustic guitar pickups I’ve ever heard, making for a unique experience when plugged into an amplifier. It’s playability is superb, and the neck felt fantastic. I felt as though the unplugged guitar sounded rather tinny, possibly due to the back and side construction material.
I would recommend this guitar to a player who plugs in regularly and wants a comfortable, unique looking guitar to play. As this guitar is in the upper tier of our $1,000 budget, I would be hesitant to recommend it as one’s standalone acoustic guitar in their collection.
Seagull Performer – $800
Seagull guitars have certainly gained a lot of attention over the past several years. This is a Canadian based, Canadian made company which prides themselves on sourcing materials in an environmentally friendly way. The Performer comes in either a jumbo cutaway or dreadnaught cutaway style with a creamy spruce top.
Each are equipped with an excellent sounding under saddle pickup system with controls for tone and volume – a very nice touch. Overall, I found the guitar to look very classy. The flame maple back and sides are both beautiful and laminated to assure stability. The only lacking aesthetic is the headpiece; I can never get over the pinhead shape of it.
Alas, perfection doesn’t exist, but the tone of this killer instrument more than makes up for it. I found it to feel and play absolutely wonderfully. The trebles sat nicely with the bass, allowing me to fingerpick a tune along with my thumb as a bass with clarity. You really cannot go wrong with this choice – the features, aesthetics and playability make for a truly excellent guitar.
Taylor 214e – $1,000
Taylor guitars are known the world over for their excellent tone, structure and aesthetic. What makes their guitar unique in my eyes is the beautiful, milky satin finish they achieve. When paired with the dark rosewood back and sides, this guitar has some killer looks. The 214e is equipped with Taylor’s very-own under saddle pickup system.
What I love about theirs in particular is the controller system: rather that cut a large square from the upper bout and insert an ugly plastic control box, Taylor installs three tiny knobs in black. This means the guitar is not over encumbered by the weight of larger boxes, as well as unrefined looking.
However, I found the pickup system to sound a bit muddy through the speaker. Experiences with past Taylors with the same pickup system reinforce my decision to call the overall plugged-tone of the guitar to sound a bit too electric for my taste. Rather than sound like an acoustic, it sounds all-too bright without the subtle nuances an acoustic affords.
The neck on Taylors is sometimes referred to as a “broom handle” due to it’s narrow width. A player with larger hands will have trouble wielding this guitar. However, the unplugged sound is very well balanced and overall pleasant. I would recommend purchasing a Taylor only if it is played prior to buying to ensure it’s the right fit for the player.
Fender Paramount 2 Deluxe Parlor – $1,000
Let me start off by saying that never in my life had I expected Fender to build such an extraordinary acoustic guitar. I did not want to put this instrument down. The sunburst model I played featured incredible fret marker inlays, a high-gloss finish, special “Fender” logo on the headpiece, bound headstock and fretboard. Wow. These are details usually reserved for custom instruments.
The parlor-sized model I played fit perfectly in my lap and felt lightweight while standing. The neck fit perfectly in my fretting hand and felt consistent all the way up the fretboard. It’s tone was balanced, full, and – my goodness – LOUD! I’d bring this guitar anywhere and everywhere, just to show off it’s stunning looks and proud personality.
It is for these reasons that I consider the Fender Paramount 2 to be the best value in terms of features for the price. While it’s at the top of our $1,000 budget, this guitar is for the discerning acoustic guitarist who wants to treat themselves to something that looks completely custom without the multi-thousand dollar price tag. This guy even ships with a hardshell case.
Epiphone EL-100 – $330
Today’s winner for value guitar is the Epiphone EL-100. It’s living proof that a more expensive guitar does not always mean a better guitar. I found myself playing this guitar longer than some of the more expensive models.
The setups on all four were consistent with excellent feeling necks. I found the sunburst models to be the most aesthetically-pleasing, featuring a high-gloss finish and Epiphone’s signature “E” on the pickguard. This guitar is a great campfire axe for the experienced player, as well as perfect for the newest of players. It projects, it sounds excellent, and it was overall a true joy to play.
What stood out most for this guitar was the harmonics: as a finger-stylist, I appreciated the instrument’s propensity to allow them to stand out in the mix. That’s just it, this guitar sounds musical. This guitar is for everyone, no matter skill. It is for these reasons that the Epiphone EL-100 takes the prize for best value guitar.
I cannot stress enough how personal buying a guitar should be to the player, no matter experience or skill. At the end of the day, it is important to feel fully confident in the final purchase. That confidence is not bought, it is earned by playing every single guitar you can possibly lay your hands on. It is and should be hard work.
I generally take a few weeks at a time to make my final decision, and rarely buy anything sight-unseen. Each guitar will sound and feel slightly different, even if you play several of the same make and model. It’s almost like Harry Potter going wand shopping: you don’t choose the guitar, it chooses you.
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