From the November/December 2022 issue of Acoustic Guitar | By Martin Keith
How can you improve a budget guitar? This is a simple question with a complicated answer. Actually, to really tackle the subject, we’ll have to consider quite a few different areas. Let’s start with the easiest one—playability.
Is it possible to make a less expensive guitar sound and play better? If so, what do you recommend doing? —Carmen Shaw
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Most inexpensive instruments on the market these days are fairly well-made, especially compared to the budget guitars of yore. Many of the weaknesses of those older bargain guitars— rough, poorly installed frets; soft plastic nuts and saddles; ineffective truss rods and sloppy tuning machines—have been addressed in the modern production process. I’ve played quite a few cheap guitars recently that had admirably level, well-dressed frets, decent tuners, and very good truss rods.
However, nearly any brand-new factory guitar can benefit from a careful setup by an attentive luthier. Every player is different, and no single setup can accommodate everyone’s preferences. Furthermore, the retail environment is not kind to instruments, and it’s pretty common to see guitars on the showroom floor that are badly in need of some routine adjustment.
A skilled setup tech can make a few basic adjustments that will make a world of difference in playability. The big three are the truss rod, nut slots, and saddle; by dialing in these three variables, nearly any guitar can be set up to suit the player’s preference. Ten minutes of work on the nut alone can make a tremendous difference in playability and feel.
The exception is the occasional case where the guitar’s neck angle is not correctly set—I have seen this on brand-new guitars whose prices varied widely, from $500 to almost $3,000! When buying an acoustic, I suggest checking the neck angle with this very simple rule of thumb: sight down the neck from the headpiece towards the body. The plane of the frets should line up nicely with the top of the bridge (not the saddle, but the wooden bridge itself). You can also check this by laying a ruler or other straightedge on the frets themselves, and seeing if the end lands nicely on, or very close to, the top of the bridge. If the guitar doesn’t pass this test, then it may need more extensive work in order to play correctly.
Now, onto the bigger question: Can an inexpensive instrument be made to sound better? This is a tough one, and it depends quite a bit on what improvements the player is hoping for. There are hundreds of products on the market designed to improve your tone: exotic bridge pins, high-tech composite nuts and saddles, assorted string alloys, soundhole inserts, and more. The first step is to identify which part of your tone you’d like to change, and then try to find the best route towards that.
The nut and saddle are traditionally made of bone—an organic material that can be brittle to machine, and can vary from piece to piece. Modern factory instruments frequently use composite materials to simplify manufacturing and improve consistency. However, many players feel strongly that replacing the composite parts with bone enhances the sound of the guitar, and my experience confirms that—I usually hear an improvement with a bone saddle installed. This is a simple and fairly inexpensive job, and is frequently already part of the basic setup that most new guitars will need, so it’s a nice easy place to start.
Not much can be done to dramatically increase the volume of an acoustic instrument, or its basic character—a dreadnought, for instance, will always sound more or less as expected. Some products, such as D’Addario’s O-Port, play with the main resonant frequency by altering the behavior of the air that passes in and out of the soundhole. The result will be a modest change to the frequency response, which may or may not be what you are after. This effect is similar to changing the EQ on a voice recording—the tone will change, but the speaker’s identity will still be recognizable.
The topic of bridge pins was covered in a prior column, but I’ll touch on it again just to say that, in most cases, the subtlety of the differences they make is not likely to be noticeable on less-expensive factory instruments. As with many of the aftermarket tone-improving devices, the effects are always more evident on instruments with light, responsive tops, and most factory instruments are not built lightly enough to make the most of these improvements.
In recent years, a few “play-in” products, like the ToneRite, have been introduced to the market that use an electric shaker to vibrate the guitar vigorously to accelerate the break-in process that typically comes with years of regular playing. I have heard the full range of opinions on these devices, from pure skepticism to wide-eyed evangelism. Some players and makers whose opinions I trust have said that these devices can be helpful. Others have said that the improvements are temporary. I have no direct experience with these devices, so all I can offer is that these kinds of tonal changes can be very hard to evaluate objectively.
As a repairperson, I have to end with a word of caution: Beware of people who offer to modify guitars by shaving down the bracing, removing “unnecessary” braces, thinning the headpiece, or any of the other irreversible changes I’ve seen done to guitars. There are folks out there who routinely do these and other things in an attempt to open up or otherwise improve guitars—and then, later on, there are those of us who try to repair those instruments after they have caved in, cracked, or otherwise failed. The most experienced luthiers can make exquisitely subtle adjustments to a guitar’s voice by carefully shaving the bracing during assembly, tap-tuning the top and measuring deflection until everything is just right. However, it is next to impossible to do this kind of work accurately through a soundhole, and many otherwise decent guitars have been ruined in an attempt to make them just a little bit better. As my mom used to say, “Better is the enemy of good.”
After all is said and done, the most honest advice I can give is to get the best guitar you can afford, and get it set up to play right for your style and preference. If it doesn’t give you everything you want from an instrument, save up and buy another one that does. None of the products on the market can make a lousy guitar into a good one; they can only help make a good guitar sound a little different. There are many good choices in the budget range these days, and a never-ending stream of quality used instruments that offer excellent value. After years of trying to modify instruments to get the sound I was chasing, it was a revelation to find one that simply had the sound from the outset. Wonderful and inspiring guitars can be found at every price point—I work on them every day. Try as many guitars as you can, and eventually the right one will find you.
This article originally appeared in the November/December 2022 issue of Acoustic Guitar magazine.