Selecting and Acquiring the Classical Guitar

By Randy Reynolds/Luthier

Perhaps you're coming to the conclusion that you would like to have a better guitar.  No doubt this hasn't been a sudden urge as we all carry that little message in the back of our brain that continues to whisper encouraging acquisitive thoughts.  These are ideas such as "I need a guitar that inspires me" or "This thing is much harder to play than a good guitar would be" and the deadly "I've always wanted a fine instrument and by now I deserve not to wait any longer". 

If you're like me, these little messages would often arrive when I was least able to afford these whims.  So let's start there…….you want a better guitar but right now you're going to have to settle for putting on a new set of retreads on the old family bus and finding a way to restore your interest in your existing guitar.

Let us pause for a moment and consider the words of Bobby Jones, golf's greatest legend, advising us on "Choosing a Putter"……I think you'll find some parallels:

"Nine times out of ten, a change from one type of putter to another will effect no lasting good.  The new one may work better at first or on occasions, but consistency would be better served by sticking to the old one and making friends with it.

It is, of course, up to the individual to choose the kind of putter that he wants.  The design makes little difference so long as the balance is good, the club is easily handled, and the face is true. Whether the head be aluminum, wood or iron is a matter of little consequence, generally speaking, although it has been the experience of most good putters that that certain types of clubs are more reliable under certain conditions"

From "Bobby Jones On Golf " published by Broadway Books used without permission but with all respect possible.

So with the words of the Maestro ringing in our ears let's start by taking off the old strings and refreshing the fingerboard with a good cleaning with some Lemon oil and 0000 steel wool.  This can really make the fretboard sparkle and cause you to look further and critically at the shape of your instrument.  Next use some guitar cleaner such as that from Gibson Guitar and clean the finish thoroughly inspecting for cracks or finish checks.  Clean the tuners with a bit of Naphtha or Mineral Spirits applied with an old toothbrush and then re-oil the gears.

Now let's consider the strings.  Often a guitar can change its voice character substantially with a change of string brand, type or tension.  The composite strings can sometimes energize an older guitar and clean up muddy sounds you may have grown used to.  These strings are often a bit more expensive but worth it if they renew your interest in the instrument.  I would recommend Hannabach 728 basses and Carbon trebles as a good place to start.  Hannabach also offers "Goldins" that will indeed energize the tone of your guitar in ways you might enjoy.  Savarez Alliance trebles and Corum basses are also highly thought in the composite choices, as are the D'Addario offerings.  Finally, try varying the tension a bit to see if you like the differences.  I would recommend high-tension basses and medium tension trebles as a place to start while some experienced players like just the opposite.

Finally, look at the action. If it seems high then that can have a negative impact on playability.  The standard is 4mm between the top of the fret and the bottom on the string on the bass side and 3mm on the treble side.  Most players like the action a bit lower than this.  Also check the action at the nut.  Fret each string between the second and third fret and then touch the string exactly at the first fret. There should be only a slight distance of about .006" between the top of first fret and the bottom of the string. 006" is the equivalent of a two pieces of index card stock.  If this action is too high it will make barre chording more difficult and when coupled with a higher overall action will reduce your enjoyment in playing.

Now, what to do about high action?  Some players are comfortable in grinding away at nut and saddles to adjust action.  But this is not recommended for the average person as one can greatly affect sound and intonation with a poor job.  Best to take your guitar to a competent repair person to verify your opinions regarding action.  If possible, locate a classical guitar luthier who will be familiar with the idiosyncrasies of the nylon string guitar.  While you're at it inquire as to anything that might be done to improve the sound or playability of the instrument.  Surprisingly, both can be helped with some tinkering of the fit of both nut and saddle perhaps even replacing one or both with better, intonated versions.  Expect to pay $50-100 for such refinements.

Assuming you've done all or part of the above you should find some improvement in your relationship with your existing instrument.  Hopefully you'll be able to stave off your Guitar Acquisition Syndrome (GAS) until another time.  At the least you'll really know your instrument is truly the best that it can be and if nothing else can make a good back-up or travel guitar in your future. 

Part Two - Selecting an Excellent Used Guitar

All right, even contrary to the wisdom of Bobby Jones the time has come to buy another guitar.  You're not going to buy a new one quite yet but you've got enough bucks to afford a reasonably good guitar.  You have decided to look into used guitars because you figure that it will have played into its mature voice and suffered any structural issues by now so as to not surprise you after the purchase.  Good for you, for coming to this logic as there are surprisingly good bargains available in the used market.  Where are these guitars?  Start by inquiring with the local guitar teachers or guitar societies.  They may know of people who have guitars for sale and probably even have some knowledge of the quality of the guitar.  Often music stores specializing in acoustic guitars will carry some used guitars although not every city has such a store.  One can find instruments offered on E-bay and at dealers to be found on the Internet via your search engine.  I would not purchase any instrument without a return privilege usually a 5-7 day approval time which normally will cost you at least return shipping costs which can mount up dollar-wise.  Finally, if there is a classical guitar luthier within driving distance of you they will often have a few used guitars for sale or know where some are located.

What to look for?  First, suspend any notion of buying by maker or brand.  If you want the best guitar, buy with your ears and your fingers.  Used guitars often have finish marks and come pre-dinged so you don't have to go to the trouble to make the first one yourself.  Ideally one will not consider appearance or aesthetics but of course visual appeal does matter……. just make sure it is third or more on your list of important things rather than number one.

Here are the important issues to look at first before even playing the instrument:

1.) - Look at the action.  If it is very high, take a look at the fingerboard by sighting down it toward the bridge to determine if it has too much bow.  If it has a lot of bow check out the amount of saddle remaining above the bridge to lower the action.  If the guitar has very little saddle showing and the action is very high then that is a guitar that is in trouble.  These things can be fixed but the guitar would have to be available at quite a discount and make a very lovely sound to make it worth the costs to have a luthier repair things.  Not that a lot of neck bow by itself isn't a serious problem but with enough adjustment left at the saddle sometimes these guitars will play very well.

2.) - Check the string condition and/or inquire as to the age if the owner knows.  Surprisingly, if the guitar is in a music store you can pretty well count on the guitar having dead strings.  Ask if the strings can be changed if they look dull, tarnished or worn.  Bass strings in particular are vulnerable to rapid degradation.  Needless to say, acoustic performance is best evaluated with good strings.

3.) - Hold the guitar up to the light and look for deformation of the top and back.  Chances are there will be some, which is normal.  Just make sure that it isn't excessive as this is a sign of stress due to string tension or humidity problems in the guitar's past.  It would be a good idea to determine if the guitar is being stored in a proper environment especially if it is located in a music store.  Often guitars can change once stabilized in humidity conditions that are right for it, usually between 35-50%.  Anything outside that range can effect action and tone negatively.

4.) - Check the back of the bridge to make sure that it is securely attached especially at the base of the tieblock.  Bridges can be reattached but it costs money and can have positive or negative effects on tone.  Better to pass and look for a guitar without issues such as this.  If the guitar has extraordinary sound though it may well be a good negotiating point.

5.) - Closely check the soundboard, back and sides for cracks.  Surprisingly, cracks usually don't affect the guitar sound that much but they can have continuing structural threats to the guitars health.  That being said, cracks on the back often can be very stable.  The author has owned a guitar with a 4" fine crack in the back that has remained unchanged for over 30 years.

6.) - Look at the condition of the frets and fingerboard for wear.  Many players think that this indicates a need for refretting but usually the fret can be dressed and polished without any problems.  Any competent repairman can likewise repair fingerboard wear.

7.) - Operate the tuners up and down several turns to see if they operate smoothly.  Tuners are easy to replace so don't place too much importance on them.  Instead you can use that as a negotiating point and replace them at your convenience.  Good quality tuners can be installed for you for less than $125.  Excellent quality tuners are available for $200 installed.

Very well, now is the time to play the guitar in earnest.  Listen for clear, strong basses especially on Cedar guitars.  Often, older Cedar guitars can go muddy and out of focus on the bass side especially if the soundboards were made too thin.  Conversely, Spruce guitars often develop very fine powerful basses as they age.  On the treble side, listen to the high trebles, as you want to hear some sustain and character up there.

Listen for any weak or wolf notes.  The good thing about older guitars is that they usually have worked out these problems.  Now is the time to locate the problems in note production as one can have these problems escalate in importance and quickly ruin appreciation for the new acquisition.

Loudness or power, balance, separation and sustain should be evaluated separately on the candidate guitar with scales and set pieces you have identified before heading out to shop for the new instrument.  Once you have narrowed down the acquisition to a couple of prospective instruments, then come back at a later time with your own guitar for a good comparison.  The reason for this is that guitars can sound different in a strange environment and it is better to have along your trusty ax with its familiar tone.  Even better is to ask to take the guitar to your home studio environment.  Not likely, but it's worth the asking.  Forget any preconceptions about wood types, only focus on the tone being made by the instrument and it's effect on your creation of music.

Look for the guitar that convinces you without reservation that you must have it.  Please don't look at price tags or labels until you have completed all of the above steps.  This may surprise you as it is possible that you will select an economical instrument over a more expensive one as your must have baby.  Many guitars are priced on intangibles such as original price, maker or popularity………they can mean little or nothing, trust only your ears and your fingers.  What if you select the guitar that is well outside your pocketbook?  Sorry, that's the risk you take with my method!

Now is the time for negotiation.  With used guitars there is usually room to move the asking price down somewhat.  The old used car line "How low could you go on the price?" is always a good place to start.  After hearing that figure it would be good to bring up any discount issues you might have such as needing new tuners or set-up work.  Check into the quality of the case that comes with the guitar. If the guitar is in a music store, they may be willing to provide an upgraded case if you buy.  As usual, you have to tread that fine line between finding a fair price and letting the guitar become a materiel thing to haggle over.  Remember the guitar will bring it's personality to you in the creation of music and you don't want the acrimony of negotiation to accompany the new instrument to it's new home with you.

As a final note, forget about trading in your guitar or wondering if your guitar will hold its value or even getting into the idea of collectable value.  Only buy a guitar because of its musical and emotional value to you.  Never, never, never, ever fall into thinking of the guitar as an investment. A guitar is to be enjoyed here and now as our musical partner and just as a musical note exists in our imagination and dreams, the instrument that creates that magic is most valuable when it is fulfilling it's personal mission with you.

Part Three - Buying a New Guitar

You have decided to buy a new factory-made guitar.  The price ranges start at less than $200 and can easily top several thousand dollars.  There are a couple of dozen manufacturers and numerous dealers in retail centers and on the Internet.  Everything you have just read regarding used guitars applies here as well.  Because a guitar is new doesn't mean that you can assume that there are no problems, in fact, often the opposite is true.  A new factory-made guitar leaves its place of origin and is shipped to a dealer.  Often the conditions in those two environments are quite different and this can have quite an adverse effect on a new instrument just discovering that it must shoulder string tension and learning how all of it's parts fit together.  Necks can bow, tops can sag and frets can lift in a new instrument and in fact these are quite common problems.  A responsible dealer will guard against those factors and assure you of a good experience, but in the last analysis, you should take that responsibility upon yourself.

It is common for new guitars to make better sound after it has been played for several months but don't count too heavily on this.  If the instrument doesn't speak to you with allure at the dealers, don't buy it.  This is one of the primary reasons for looking at used guitars first……you know how they are going to turn out. 

One can observe a lot of chatter on Internet chat rooms regarding recommendations on "the best guitar for under $(insert price)"  These are often useful conversations and equally often quite misleading as people usually recommend the guitar that they have in their possession.  It is in our human nature to support the choice that we may have recently made. When these recommendations are passed along to us by anonymous, faceless contributors on the web, the results can be worse than wrong.  I'm sure that there are better brands out there, but to listen to web advice and order a new guitar from a discount dealer based on that advice is sheer folly.  The person who will do that is only interested in acquisition not in finding a good musical partner.  I'll repeat what I've said earlier…………"Only buy the guitar that satisfies your ears and your fingers; brands and prices mean next to nothing"  If one were to line up 10 identical guitars from the same maker, some will be poor, some will be outstanding and the rest average.  Do not buy guitars sight unseen unless there is a return provision based on your approval.

There are hundreds of thousands of Classical and Flamenco guitars made each year by factories around the world.  These factories are typically based in Asia, Spain or Latin America.  Often the instruments are properly made and finished and look very good to the eye. Where this process falls down is in the lack of attention to fitting the best in design with optimum materials.  Factories count on efficiency of operations, minimizing hand labor and keeping materiel costs (wood) to a minimum.   These are extremely important factors in the lifeblood of a for-profit company.  They are also the enemy of exceptional quality.

I find that some owners of factory guitars are not aware that their instruments are made of laminated woods…. not that there is anything wrong with that from a structural standpoint.  Laminated woods are in use in my own guitars especially in the sides.  But when laminations are used in the top or back, be aware that there is normally a severe penalty to be paid in terms of sonority.  Lamination helps a factory minimize costs and warranty returns.  This is because laminated wood is stronger and more stable, capable of handling a variety of environmental conditions in its lifetime.  Usually the lamination consists of a thin exterior veneer, inexpensive filler and perhaps a third wood or fiberboard veneer for the interior.  The result can look very good, but be aware that you are looking at the guitar equivalent of a Formica countertop.

The factory guitar, when selected properly, can provide a good instrument at reasonable cost and I am not attempting to minimize the importance of that fact. However, I would not recommend spending more $2000 on a new factory guitar as there are terrific bargains at that price for excellent used guitars and entry level handbuilt guitars from luthiers.

Part Four - Luthier Built Guitars

Why buy from a luthier? I suppose most of us value the notion of a handmade guitar in a world of consumer driven products.  We can appreciate the great care and skill that it takes to build a fine instrument as well as the creative promise it represents.  From the fine tonewoods to the hand rubbed finish, the luthier built guitar seems to have a presence that speaks quietly of high purpose.

In a more practical sense there is the likelihood of better sound, playability and strong value inherent in a handbuilt classical or Flamenco guitar.  If you choose to work with a luthier, you can be assured of an instrument that is just right for you, a unique creative partner for your music.

Why would it be that handmade guitars possess all of the traits suggested above?  To be sure there is a lot of romance surrounding the tradition of a dedicated craftsman laboring over a workbench to produce what some might call a work of art.  In reality, building a guitar takes a lot of training, hard work and committment; a mix of technique, science and intuition resident in one person.  To control the making of a guitar from design to execution focusing on hundreds of critical steps that must be integrated with sound and player objectives is an all-consuming effort.  And this is precisely the reason why a luthier will usually produce an instrument far superior to a factory full of machines and specialists.  The luthier can more accurately balance all of the factors influencing the completed guitar because he or she has the ability to make material selections and adjust thicknesses intuitively.  An assembly line simply isn't designed to accommodate variations.  Moreover, guitar factories can't walk that fine line of performance that luthiers always do, rather they seek the low road of warranty return percentages instead…it's a profit deal.

How can one locate candidate luthiers to work with? Start by asking around at music stores or repair centers; inquire of other players or guitar societies and finally let your search engine loose on guitarmakers having websites.  In an evening you should be able to visit dozens of websites illustrating ideas that will find some appeal for you.  Additionally, you'll find other details on the conventions of working with luthiers to acquire your guitar.  Another option is to ask around at various classical guitar chat rooms and often you'll receive recommendations that will pay off.

If your budget isn't up to hiring the most experienced luthier, then you might take some time to locate the luthier just starting out on a career.  Often these builders will have several guitars on hand at very reasonable prices…and the guitars can be surprisingly good.  Expect some joinery and finish flaws and perhaps some action issues to iron out but this is also instructive for you.  Additionally, it may well be that you can put a second guitar on order with this luthier after buying something on hand.  This would give you the excitement of watching your own guitar come to life while still finding the experience very affordable.  Beginning luthiers acquire skills very rapidly and don't be surprised if the second guitar from your builder is amazingly improved in many ways.

Just a brief primer on the conventions of working with a luthier:

-Emailing questions to prospective luthiers has become a contemporary and effective way to interview your builder and it also gives you a good idea of how communications might progress on an order.  Speaking from experience……..give the luthier a break, if you're just window shopping and not serious about entering into an order, be aware that the luthier is taking valuable time to be courteous with you and you should return the favor.

- You should be able to receive client references from your candidate builder and this can provide insight as to the type of person you're thinking of working with.

- Many luthiers require a non-refundable deposit when entering an order.  I find in my own case that I have typically invested several hours of email interview time and phone calls to identify objectives and preferences followed by time to put the customers order into shape to be produced.

-You may expect that individual luthiers request some level of payment when construction commences and payment in full before the guitar is shipped.

-Most luthiers provide for you to have approval of your new instrument.  If it's not right you should be able to send it back for a full refund or correction.  Exceptions to this convention may be when you have specified features that would make it difficult or impossible for the luthier to resell.

- There are a variety of options and upgrades that you can specify and it is smart to make sure you have a working record of all options and specifications to avoid misunderstandings.

- Luthiers offer a variety of guarantees with their instruments.  Be aware that since these guitars are made of wood and the builder can't be assured of how you and your environment will impact the instrument, humidity damage often isn't covered. Workmanship always is covered.

Don't be surprised if your luthier has a wait list numbered in years.  This is one indication that you're entering into a world that doesn't offer instant gratification!  Arrange to have periodic updates from the luthier if possible in order to keep your interest up. How do you know that the guitar you receive after such a wait will have been worth it?  I assure you that taking possession of your new handbuilt guitar is not unlike the time when your first child comes into the world.  You lose the idea of good, better, best comparisons with other guitars and you find that you treasure it for what it is, a great lifelong friend.  Good Luck!

(Note: the information in this article is the opinion of the author, not necessarily CSGS or any other group, entity or person.)

(PS: As the webmaster, I must advise you that Randy knows what he's talking about. ed.)