Differences between good and not-so-good guitars
If you have ever ventured into a guitar store, you must have noted the impressive difference in price between some of the models offered. While some are around $100, the most expensive can easily reach $3500 or even more. And, in most cases, nothing seems to justify such a difference. At first glance, low-end guitars do look like their higher-end counterparts. That is, until you hear them both!
Nothing too surprising so far: even without knowing too much about guitars, one expects a cheap guitar to sound cheaper than a high-end guitar. But why is that? And what brings about such differences?
Let’s take a closer look.
NOTE : Click on any picture to enlarge it.
Solid wood vs. plywood
One of the major differences between high-, mid- and low-end guitars is the choice of solid wood or plywood in their construction. The plywood used to make guitars is made up of very thin (from .5 to 1 mm) layers running cross-grain to each other. Generally, only the outside plies (the visible ones!) are quality wood veneers. Although plywood is more durable (less prone to cracking, less sensitive to variations in humidity), it is also much more rigid, which greatly lowers its ability to vibrate, hence to produce a richer sound.
On higher-end guitars, plywood is practically never used, only solid wood. The lower the quality of a guitar, the more plywood will be used in the construction of its body.
Going down a step, quality-wise, we see sides make in plywood. Since the sides of a guitar don’t vibrate much, this is probably where the impact on the sound will be the least. Further down in the quality scale, plywood will be used for the back and the impact becomes quite significant. Finally, on the least expensive guitars, the top will also be made of plywood. And this is certainly the worst place to use plywood! The strings have a hard time getting a plywood top to vibrate correctly.
It is not always easy to tell if plywood is used on a guitar, but there are some tricks! On a top, look at the sound-hole. If it is made of plywood, the layers (usually three) can be seen clearly. There would be a single one if the top were solid wood.
On the upper half of this picture, one can see the three plies of the top. The bottom half clearly shows the grain of the wood going all the way through the top, leaving no doubt that it is indeed solid.
On the back and sides, it is more difficult to identify plywood, but still possible. One must try to find inconsistencies in the grain between the inside and outside faces of the wood.
In the upper half of this picture (showing the back of a guitar), a joint between two pieces of wood is quite visible from the inside. On the lower half of the picture, that same joint is not present on the outside, proving beyond a doubt that this back is indeed made of plywood.
Woods used for fretboards and bridges
The materials used for the fretboard and the bridge play a significant role in the quality of a guitar.
The bridge calls for a hard and dense wood, such as ebony or rosewood, to properly transfer the vibration from the strings to the top. If the wood is too light or soft, it will muffle the strings and, consequently, the sound of the guitar.
Low-end guitars frequently have bridges made of lower quality woods, « ebonized » — that is died in black — to mimic the real stuff.
Here, a bridge reveals its true nature once unglued!
As for the fretboard, the hardness of the wood is a question of durability. Indeed, the pressure of the fingers on the strings causes friction on the fretboard when the guitar is being played and will end up gouging small « divots » over time. These particular notes (over the divots) will eventually become sharper and the guitar will sound out of tune.
On a cheap guitar with a fretboard made of soft wood died black, these divots will appear much more quickly than if it were real ebony. Even worse, since the wood is died, the divots will show up as paler spots scattered all over the fretboard!
On a guitar, the materials used don’t cost as much as the time it takes to make it. So, it should come as no surprise that all attempts are made to reduce assembly time.
One of the means is the use of fast drying glues, to reduce the delay between various assembly processes. Unfortunately, in some cases these glues happen to have very poor acoustic qualities. Bad glues (often applied generously) between each and every part of a guitar will also impede vibration, reducing not only the volume but also the sustain of the instrument.
The finish process on a quality guitar can easily eat up 25% of the time it takes to make it. Once more, it should come as no surprise that this part is often botched. On low- and mid-end guitars, the finish will be sparingly applied. The pores of the wood will often show through. In these cases, while the finish leaves a lot to be desired visually, it does not affect the sound quality.
In other cases, a very thick finish is applied, with no regard for its effect on the sound. Although very glossy and rather uniform, it will tend to muffle the guitar. The thickness of the finish is visible at various joints on the guitar, such as the junction between the heel and the sides, and the junction between the fretboard extension and the top.
On the upper half of this picture, it is possible to see the significant accumulation of varnish at the junction between the heel of the neck and the side of the body. In the lower half, the accumulation is reasonable.
A warranty with an impact on the sound!
Nowadays, few guitar manufacturers don’t give a lifetime warranty on their instruments. It has become some kind of a norm, so much so that any lesser warranty would lead the consumer to believe these guitars are of lower quality. To reduce their operating expenses, manufacturers will try to produce guitars that are less prone to damage, thereby reducing to a minimum the repairs under warranty. To that end, plywood as well as thicker (and heavier) woods are used, resulting in guitars which are unfortunately less efficient sound wise. Indeed, the thicker the wood, the less easily it will vibrate.
It takes a minimum of experience to determine if a guitar is built for durability or sound. By looking at and through the soundhole, the thickness of the top and the size of the braces can be evaluated. An easier way is simply to feel the weight of a guitar. The heavier it is, the less easily it will vibrate. Obviously, this method is far from an exact science; the species of woods used can alter the weight of a guitar without any bearing on its quality.
It is important to understand here that the weight of a guitar is not necessarily a shortcoming but could explain its mediocre sound. If the guitar is on the heavy side but sounds really good, all is well!
Brands and reputation
Of course, the price of guitars depends a lot on offer and demand. And demand depends a lot on brand reputation.
An unknown brand making very good guitars will not be able to ask the same prices as well known high-end brands. On the other hand, a well known high-end brand can make a very mediocre guitar and ask an exorbitant price. There will always be a customer convinced of the quality of that guitar simply because of the brand on its headstock!
I hope you now have a better idea why the prices of guitars vary so wildly in stores. Of course, other factors — beyond quality itself — can contribute to the price of a guitar, such as inlays, limited edition models or electronics. But at least, when you see two guitars which look similar but have very different prices, you’ll have a better understanding why!
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