Selecting a Guitar from a Players Perspective
Finding the perfect instrument is a personal venture. We all have different tastes and different needs. Our guitar isn’t only our tool for creating music, but in a way, also a reflection of our artistic identity. Even though we do most of the work, the guitar we choose helps us (or might also prevent us) to achieve what it is we envision. Though tastes and preferences in what kind of sound, timbre, scale, wood, etc may differ from player to player, there are basic aspects to choosing an instrument that should be considered by all, whether choosing a high end concert instrument, or middle priced student guitar.
Without going into the details of construction and the science behind it all, I will try to cover the basics in choosing a guitar, from a players perspective and leave all the building details to the luthiers. The point is to choose the final product which results from all the construction science. Before our taste comes into play, we should choose a guitar that covers the fundamentals necessary to allow us to play our best on it. Only after that can we start thinking if we like the specific timbre, resonance, warmth, clarity, etc…
Chances are if you are in the market for a high end concert instrument, you won’t need to worry too much about the accuracy and attention to detail when it comes to its construction. But if you are choosing a middle priced or student instrument, there is more room for error to look out for.
First and foremost, make sure that the spacing between strings is equal. It might sound like a no brainer, but surprisingly I have played some “concert model” guitars that did not have equal spacing between all the strings. If you have a trained eye, most of the time you can tell just by looking at it, but if you’re unsure, take a ruler with you. Besides the equality, the actual size of the spacing is also very important, but that’s more a matter of taste. Some players prefer wider or narrower spacing. Choose the spacing that fits your needs.
Play some notes on the 1st string above the 7th fret and make sure that the 1 strings doesn’t slip off of the fretboard. If the strings aren’t set up the right way and the 1st string is too close to the bottom edge of the fretboard, it will slip off the neck when playing above the 7th fret and the problem gets worse as the spacing between strings widens closer to the 12th fret and up. It’s usually not a matter of “practicing” it enough to avoid slipping. A quality guitar should require significant effort to slip the string off the fretboard, so even if we’re playing slurs, the string remains on the fretboard. And the same thing applies to the 6th string slipping off of the top of the fret board. This happens less often, but it does happen. Now, I’m not saying you should put all your efforts into pulling the string off the fretboard and then disqualify the guitar for succeeding, but there should be reasonable effort required, so the string doesn’t’ slip off by accident when playing.
The next “check” is an easier fix. Run your 1st finger along the bottom of the fret board and make certain that frets aren’t sticking out from the bottom of the fretboard ready to take half your finger with them. Sometimes the ends of the frets aren’t filed and polished, which causes them to stick out and scratch the first finger when quickly moving backwards in position. This can also happen in dry climate. If the guitar isn’t properly humidified, the wood in the neck shrinks, making the frets stick out. However, in normal conditions, the frets should not stick out.
Pay attention to the overall size and shape of the neck. It’s true you can get used to something new, but there are neck shapes that are outright uncomfortable to play and in the process of “getting used to it” you might actually injure your hand. So be aware of the neck shape. Make sure that it’s tapered in a way that doesn’t allow your thumb to slip off too easily off the bottom. That usually happens when the neck is too round. By the same token, if the neck is too square, it might actually hurt your thumb, because you’re constantly pressing against a harsh edge. How fat or thin the neck is, is more of a personal preference and will differ depending on the players hand size.
Arm rests. More and more guitars nowadays have arm rests on the larger bout of the guitar. Some are more prominent than other. Even though you will probably only encounter these on the higher end concert guitars, you should still be aware of their effect. There are different reasons luthiers build arm rests on the guitar. Some are to prevent our arm from touching the soundboard and allow it to vibrate more freely. Others are to create a rounder “softer” edge for our arms to rest on. However, be aware that an arm rest can also change/raise the distance between your arms resting area and the strings. This might not make a difference to some, but can cause an injury for others. I’m not saying don’t get a guitar with an arm rest, however be aware, that if you have always played a guitar without an arm rest and you switch to a guitar with one, be extra vigilant about how your arm feels. This would probably matter more for a smaller person. A taller player with long arms, might actually prefer the arm rest for extra size.
The same applies to the actual size of the guitar. Some guitars are smaller in size, but even guitars that are pretty much the standard size, can be wider or narrower in the sides. So pay attention to how the guitar you are choosing feels in your hands. The point is to choose an instrument that fits our needs. There are some things that we can choose to get used to, but others that are just not worth the effort when we can choose a different instrument.
Now that we’ve covered some of the basic technical parts, in the next article I’ll go over what to look for in the sound quality of the guitar.