How to buy an acoustic guitar based on the tone, tonewood and finish

How to determine the tone, tonewood and finish you want before purchasing your acoustic guitar.

Before purchasing an acoustic guitar, one should understand what causes the overall tone, volume (projection) and sound profile / quality of a guitar.  In this article, we will give a general overview of the main features that affect the sound profile of an acoustic guitar so that you will be more  equipped to purchase the guitar that suits your goals, or for the beginner, to help him or her to purchase the best beginner acoustic guitar for his or her money.
If a particular player of decent skill sat down and played several different guitar makes and models, the sound profile or personality of the guitar would be quite varied from guitar to guitar.  With all else being equal, it is good for a guitar player to understand what affects the sound profile of the guitar in order to make the right purchase in alignment with his or her goals.
so, what produces the overall “tone” of an acoustic guitar.
The sound profile and projection quality of an acoustic guitar are affected by many things including:
  • the tonewood used for the top
  • the tonewood (or substitute material) used for the back and sides
  • the finish coat of the guitar body
  • the bracings inside the guitar body
  • the craftsmanship of the guitar
  • the strings used
  • the environment where played
  • the body size of the guitar
  • the saddle & bridge and overall “setup” of the guitar
In this article, we will focus on 3 of the major factors:
  • the tonewood(s) used for the top of the guitar or soundboard,
  • the tonewood(s) used for the back and sides and 
  • the finish coat of the guitar  
By researching each of these factors more in-depth, you can become better equipped to make a more educated and confident acoustic guitar purchase.
It is difficult to get a good, consistent sound from a poorly manufactured guitar, however, if you perform and adequate check on these traits, you will be sure to have much better understanding of your acoustic guitar purchase.  
Top or soundboard tonewoods:  The most common top tonewood used for an acoustic, 6-string (steel stringed) guitar is Sitka Spruce.  This wood is chosen because of a few main characteristics. It's relatively light with with a straight, tight grain pattern allowing this wood to give one of the highest “velocities of sound” to produce the most balanced and best projected sound.  It grows in enough abundance to better suit the demand over other similar tight grained woods.  Additionally, the way the Sitka Spruce grows gives a high yield per log for producing quality sound-boards (or acoustic guitar tops).  Other commonly used woods for sound-boards or tops are Englemann Spruce, and Cedar (mostly for classical guitars), and less frequently used species include other global species of spruce, Mahogany, Maple, and Koa.    
The Sitka Spruce produces the best sound projection on most levels of pitch and volume, (along with its relative abundance and yield per tree) thereby making it perhaps the most popular wood for a soundboard (top).  The other woods, with reduced velocities of sound produce more mellow sounds, and can even favor different pitch ranges in their overall tone quality.  The Cedar tends to create a more mellow and bass focused yet very rich and lush sound, while Mahogany tends to accentuate the mid and higher frequencies, and can be punchy in the mid-range making it great for bluegrass styles of playing.  Maple is perhaps balanced more in the higher pitches, but has one of the lowest sound velocities making it the least projecting across the Eq spectrum.   Koa has been used for a long time in the Hawaiian style slide guitar playing and tends to have a sweet mid-range mellow projection.  
Here is a great beginner guitar in the low price rang with a Sitka Spruce top and great sound and playability: Yamaha FG700S

This is also an excellent guitar in the mid price range with built in pickup for the more intermediate player wanting to have the ability to plug his or her guitar in:  Alvarez Acoustic Guitar MF80C Cutaway Grand Concert Top Solid Spruce Back & Side Solid Mahogany
Here is a unique video from a professional luthier (guitar maker) showing how he inspects the tops of his guitars when they are still raw wood book-matched pieces:
Dana Bourgeois - professional lutheir of Burgeois Guitars
Engelmann Spruce:  is another variation of the Spruce-Top guitar tonewood that was used extensively in the early to mid 1900's, and has been exceeeded in use by the Sitka Sprice for many reasons.  Both offer superior tonal projection and sound velocities, and have an extremely high strength to weight ratio making these two woods ideal for top woods because they can offer:
1)  The best (highest) sound velocity or sound transfer for the string vibrations getting the most efficient sound transferred from the strings to the guitar body
2)  High strength at very thin gauges allowing the tops to be made to exacting minimal gauges / measures
3)  Very straight, tight grain wood growth pattern adding to the length of life and ageability of these woods (they sound better and better as they age).
However, the Sitka Spruce comes from a much larger tree in the Spruce family, making it much more abundant in supply.  The Sitka Spruce grows much taller and wider, getting almost 4 times the amount (yield) of top tonewood while also offering a slightly higher velocity of sound, making it superior to Engelmann Spruce in supply, tone projection and overtone qualities added to the acoustic guitar sound. 

We currenttly do not recommend any Engelmann Spruce Models as there is no distinct advantage in price, quality, or sound projection over its cousin, the Sitka Spruce Top.
Cedar & Redwood:  Cedar and Redwood are also soft woods that are in similar families as the Spruce, all being large, coniferous woods (needle bearing instead of lead bearing) trees.  These grow with very small rings, but grow rapidly to allow for fine, tight, straight grain patterns as well.  Though cedar is the choice topwood for classical guitars, it is secondary to Sitka Spruce for flat top steel string guitars.  Cedar top guitars offer a warmer response, with less high end or treble response.  If you are looking for a guitar with a more lush sound that is not a bright or crisp, a cedar top guitar would be right for you.
Some highly recommened and reviewed cedar top guitars are:
Classical Guitar Model Cedar Tops (for fingerstyle playing, Flamenco, Mexican / Spanish Style with Nylon Strings)
(Cordoba is our top choice guitar manufacturer for classical guitar players due to quality and craftsmanship)

Classical Acoustic Guitar Budget conscious classical guitar shopper recommendations:

For someone with slightly smaller hands , the Antonio Hermosa narrow fretboard here:
Antonio Hermosa Classical Guitar, Solid Cedar Top, Narrow Fretboard

The budget Antonio Hermosa Classical with standard fretboard width
Antonio Hermosa Classical Guitar, Solid Cedar Top
(Antonio Hermosa is our choice for a budget classical guitar that has a great sound but will not have the same high quality standard of Cordoba and is produced overseas)
A quality left-handed model on a modest budget - good guitar maker, good reviews
Classical Guitar at 3/4 model size for the smaller player, or classical student-size model
Steel String Acoustic Guitar Cedar Tops:

Our Pick for professional, high end Steel String Acoustic Cedar Top
A budget conscious Cedar top by Takamine - soft top - mid range, mellow sounding guitar but full body size dreadnought
The Acoustic Guitar Sides and Back(sound box)

Choice # 1 Rosewood for the back and sides
- most bass, most projection, richest sound of the tonewoods
The choice wood for the back and sides from our perspective would have to be East Indian Rosewood (belonging to the Genus Dalbergia as all true Rosewoods are).  Though Brazilian Rosewood is just as rich in providing tone qualities and overtone enrichments that are unmatched in the bass, mid and treble Eq projections, Brazilian Rosewood has been on the endangered species list for quite some time.  If you are looking for a sweet sounding, rich guitar that is unparalleled in all 3 basic ranges, bass, mid and treble, by all means, go with an acoustic guitar built with Rosewood back and sides.
For the Budget Conscious player, looking for a sound solid Rosewood guitar and you're not concerned about name brands
For the Classical Style Player, smaller waist than the Dreadnought and more distinction between bass and treble, these Taylors sound exquisite, but the sides are laminated vs. solid.  Please understand that these two models are built for nylon (non-steel) strings for more of a classical, finger-picking style vs. a strumming and flat-picking style player.
For the Steel String Right Handed Player in the mid price range, you really can't go wrong with a Taylor Guitar
The Full Size Dreadnought from Taylor (biggest sound - most projection)
Taylor Dreadnought Cutaway for more access to higher fret fingering
Taylor Guitars 210ce, Dreadnought, Solid Sitka Spruce Top, Rosewood Back/Sides, Cutaway, ES-T
Taylor Guitars 214, Grand Auditorium, Solid Sitka Spruce Top, Rosewood Back/Sides (a bit smaller or less sound projection than the Dreadnought body style but with a little more distinction between bass and mid-range - good finger picking or flat-picking guitar)
The Same Taylor Full-Size for the Steel String Left Handed Player
Full Size Alvarez Dreadnought Steel String with all solid Rosewood back and sides (not a veneer or laminated woods for a richer sound)
The finish coat: Guitars can have many different kinds of finish coats or polymers that actually can create a vast difference in tonal quality between guitars of the same construction and tonewoods.  We will only briefly describe how different finishes affect the overall tone in this article.  Though there are several different kinds of  polymers and lacquers, we will look at 3 general finishes.
The Glossy Finish:  The Glossy finish gives the guitar a very shiny, brilliant, crisp look.  This is often favored for the flashy look it gives, especially when under stage lights.  However, one should know that a high gloss finish will create the brightest and most projection of the sound of all 3 general finish grades.
An excellent beginner guitar with a glossy finish:   Yamaha FG700S
An excellent mid range guitar with a glossy finish:  Seagull Performer CW Flame Maple HG QI Guitar
The Satin Finish:  The Satin finish is more of a soft, semi-gloss and can give the guitar a softer look, as well as a bit less projection or “punchiness”.  “Punchiness” is how well a tone pierces through or makes itself distinct among other sounds in concert.  A satin finish will be more balanced and will have a tendency to blend in with other instruments without completely being masked.  When choosing the finish of the guitar, it is best to know what kinds of music you will be playing, as well as the mix of instruments you will be playing with.
An excellent performer guitar with onboard electronics and a satin finish:
The Flat or Dull Finish:  Being the least common of commercial acoustic guitar finished, the flat or dull finish can appear to have no finish at particular distances and angles.  The flat finish produces the least projecting of the finishes and can really mellow out a guitar's tone wood. 
          D15M Acoustic Guitar
In purchasing your guitar, be sure to understand the delicate balance of  tonewoods and finishes and how they will affect the overall projection and Eq balance (low, mid and high range tones) of the acoustic guitar sound. 
This article was written by Aaron Schulman, a musician for over 25 years and and guitar player, teacher, and enthusiast for over 20 years.