Is One Guitar Enough? A Guide to Determining (and Justifying) Your Need for Multiple Guitars

Ideally, a new guitar should fulfill a need so it doesn’t end up getting resold as an unused piece of gear. Here are some reasons why you might need multiple guitars.

More than any other readily available instrument, guitars come in a vast array of shapes, sizes, designs, timbres, and intended uses. While many guitarists get along perfectly well with only one guitar, there are also good reasons (Guitar Acquisition Syndrome aside) to invest in a new instrument. Some players may be looking for a different set of features, such as a shorter scale or wider nut, to make certain techniques easier. Others may be looking for a specific tonal quality that is not available from the guitar at hand, or for an instrument more suited to a different playing style or musical genre. And performers will find that having another guitar on hand can facilitate fluid sets by minimizing time otherwise spent tuning.

Ultimately, players must ask themselves, “Can a new instrument enable me to easily do something I can’t do now?” Answering “no” doesn’t necessarily preclude a purchase—the world is full of collectors of specific guitars or guitar types—but “yes” may well mean that it is time to seriously consider another guitar. Ideally, a new ax should fulfill an unmet need so that it doesn’t end up as an unused piece of gear that’s sold somewhere down the road. Keeping this problem-solving approach in mind can ensure that your new instrument will become a valued and much-used part of your musical arsenal. 

A Perfect Match

The stars seem to align for some fortunate players who find the perfect guitar for their music. Such a player/guitar matchup often results in a signature sound that suits a specific style. Tony Rice and his 1935 Martin D–28, for example, are a match made in bluegrass heaven. Old-time picker David Rawlings finds similar bliss with his 1935 Epiphone archtop; Britain’s Martin Carthy played his Martin 000-18 at every gig for almost four decades; and countless classical specialists use a single concert guitar. For generalist players who cover a variety of playing styles, however, having multiple guitars can be a real asset.

Suit Your Style 

While a skilled, determined picker can make just about any guitar work for any tune, solo, or song, different guitar designs produce unique tones. And a guitar that’s notably different from what you’re used to can help you to develop your skills in a new way or adapt them more easily to a new style. 

A fingerstyle steel-string player who wants to explore jazz chord-melodies might find it easier and more interesting to begin those explorations on a nylon-string, with its mellow tones that can make complex jazz chords sound more at home. Similarly, a D-28—toting singer-songwriter might take advantage of the faster decay of an archtop to master the subtle phrasing of a jazz standard. A steel-string might be the ticket for a classical player who wants to get better acquainted with Celtic music that might reinforce and enhance a classical repertoire.

An Ax for Every Tuning

In theory, a player who worked in multiple tunings could buy a decent electronic tuner and take a minute between songs to change tunings without upsetting the flow of a show or their practice routine too much. But the fact is many tunings won’t stay in tune using strings intended for standard tuning. Dropping down to C, for instance, can render a lighter string incapable of holding its pitch. 

Anyone whose performance (or even home practice) includes alternate tunings will find that an additional guitar can save a lot of time and headaches. “For me, that’s the whole reason to take more than one guitar on the road—the tuning thing,” says Dorian Michael, a California picker who plays blues, fingerstyle, and bluegrass. “I can easily grab different guitars for different keys without a lot of hassle and keep the show moving.”


Certain body styles also work better for certain tunings. A deep or large-bodied guitar like a dreadnought or jumbo, which projects well and is bass–responsive, is a great choice for dropped tunings and makes a great complement to a medium-size OM or grand concert strung up in standard tuning. This approach works for Montana-based singer-songwriter John Floridis, who uses a Taylor 815c jumbo for this purpose. “I keep in a low-C tuning,” he explains. “It’s actually a C9 with no third—all Cs and Gs with a D on top and it works great for slide and bluesy stuff, as well as some songs.”

acoustic guitars hanging on a wall in the store

Bodies and Builds

Floridis is among the many players who contend that “there’s probably a song in every guitar.” And if you spend a day playing five different types of guitars, each constructed with a different wood combination, you can understand why. The projection of a certain body type, how a given wood resonates, the feel of the neck in your hand, and how the body feels when you sit down to play—these all contribute to the way you play.

Body styles also affect your tone—particularly the amount of focus and/or overtone content. Jumbos and dreadnoughts lend volume to spare and excellent bass response, while OMs and other smaller bodies—like concerts, grand auditoriums, and 000s—tend toward softer, more balanced, and controlled volume and tone. 

Wood choice, too, is critical to tone and vibe. The classic combination of a spruce top and rosewood back and sides makes use of spruce’s clarity and brightness and rosewood’s highly reflective properties to impart a snappy, boisterous tone that really projects when strummed and cuts through a mix when played fingerstyle. 

Other woods used for tops include cedar, a softer wood known for its excellent warm tones and responsiveness to nuanced, dynamic playing, and mahogany, which, while less responsive and touch-sensitive, tends to deliver exceptionally bluesy tones.

Wood types used for the backs and sides of guitars are more numerous. As commonly seen as rosewood, mahogany is known for its strong fundamentals and midrange. Other typical choices include mellow and bassy maple; bright, midrange-y koa; walnut, which falls somewhere between koa and maple tonally; and cherry, which tends toward the maple end of the spectrum. More specialized builders will sometimes use ornate, figured cocobolo, with its rosewood-like tonal qualities, and classical builders often use cypress. 

Selecting the right combination of woods and body styles can give you a completely new tone experience. If you already have a spruce-and-mahogany OM for bluesy fingerpicking, then a cedar-and-walnut small jumbo would come in handy for exploration of slow Irish aires.

In each case, the idea is to take a yin/yang approach and try to avoid duplicating tones. “It changes your mood,” states Michael Chapdelaine, who has famously won both fingerstyle championships and classical competitions. “You strap on a different guitar and it’s going to make you feel different—and that’s a great idea, especially in a show.” 

playing acoustic guitar in a guitar shop


The Case for a Single Guitar?

The rationale for owning not just two, but many different guitars, is pretty easy to argue. It’s harder to make the case for a single guitar, especially for a gear-obsessed player. But if you are space constrained, frugal, or just not the collecting type, know that there are many players who have proven that a single, great guitar can go a long way.

Iconic player and composer Pierre Bensusan’s justification for a single instrument is as philosophical as it is practical. “We have to ask, ‘What about music?’,” says Bensusan, who played the same Lowden for two decades and now uses a Ryan signature model. “We have to find the nuance and the contrast and the opposition inside the music itself rather than, ‘You need a different sound, go to a different guitar.’ I try to get this universal approach to music with one guitar, to find the guitar, and once I have found that guitar which is neutral enough, that guitar will take me to musical places. And then I don’t miss another guitar.”

When asked what he looks for in a guitar that can do it all, Bensusan is insistent about thinking of the guitar as a tool for expression, rather than an object of desire. “It’s important to forget the sound and forget the guitar. It’s like when the sound engineer is doing a good job, it’s unnoticeable. You’re in direct touch with the music. When you condition yourself with one instrument, you are going to find many ways to have that one instrument speak differently.” 

Michael Chapdelaine also understands the merit of working with a single, more versatile guitar. “I listen for a beautiful voice and a huge dynamic range,” he says. This sensibility led him to his current road guitar, a cedar/East Indian rosewood double-top OM by luthier Kevin Muiderman. Unusual for a steel-string, this guitar features a lattice of carbon fiber on top of cedar bracing. “The idea comes from the classical builder world. The lattice and double top combine to give the strength of a traditional solid top, but with less mass for more volume and a quicker response to the lighter touch that classical players use,” says Muiderman. This innovative hybrid concept works for Chapdelaine: “I’ve got all I want at this point.”

All About the Sound

In the end, the guitar is a means for expressing what’s in every player’s head, heart, and ears. For a player devoted single-mindedly to country blues, for example, one worn, old Stella may truly be all that’s needed. More often than not, it’s the issue of suiting or faithfully capturing the essence of a style that necessitates a certain guitar type. And a player, professional or amateur, who wants to work across diverse styles, say flamenco and bluegrass, will probably seek out the instruments that express those styles most authentically.

Perhaps the best guidance, though, is that for all the talk about which guitar fits a certain style or player, there really are no rules. Guitars are about music and music is about feeling. And any guitar that enables the expression of that feeling is the right one—whether it’s one guitar or a dozen.

black guitar in hardcase

Multiple Guitars on the Road

Frequent travelers have an excellent reason for owning multiple guitars. For instance, if you have a prized, high-ticket ax that you don’t want to subject to the rigors of the road, another guitar that’s somewhat less precious (or at least replaceable with one just like it) is a ticket to stress-free travel. Furthermore, many manufacturers now offer parlor guitars and even smaller travel instruments, which make splendid travel companions.


However, for performers, travel can also be the rationale for paring your onstage arsenal of instruments. When asked why he doesn’t take both a steel- and a nylon-string guitar on the road, Michael Chapdelaine—who travels primarily by plane—is quick to cite logistical issues. “I can’t stand carrying two guitars; it’s painful just traveling with one. The issue at hand is not just being able to actually carry the entire load, but also avoiding extra baggage charges, which can add up if you can’t fit the rest of your stuff into a carry-on bag.”

For van-driving road warrior Dorian Michael (who spends about five months each year in the driver’s seat), however, travel is his bread and butter, and he brings along several guitars. Michael has developed a workingman’s relationship with his instruments and can’t let transportation constraints bog him down. “I own a dozen guitars, but I don’t have anything that’s a repeat; everything is a tool for some purpose.”

two acoustic guitars hanging on the wall

String Up a Second Guitar for Alternate Tuning

One of the primary reasons for owning a second guitar is to facilitate the exploration of alternate tunings. And while it’s easy enough to use the guitar you regularly keep in standard tuning for something like an exploration of dropped D, more esoteric tunings and those in lower registers may require a completely different approach to stringing.

In general, tunings that lower the pitch (relative to standard tuning) of two or more strings will be more stable when heavier strings are used. When using a tuning like open G, which drops the sixth, second, and first strings a whole step, an increase in string gauge of at least a hundredth of an inch (say, .12 to .13) on the first string and three to five hundredths on the fifth and sixth strings will stabilize the tuning and increase your guitar’s volume. For tunings that drop the sixth string to C or C#, increasing the gauge yet another few hundredths lends the same advantages.


For tunings (like D modal) that not only drop the pitch by a whole step, but also harmonize adjacent strings as doubles, you may prefer to use the same gauge for each string—which keeps volume and tension even and the strings more responsive to the touch. In these instances, you’ll have to assemble custom string sets each time you change strings. And while you won’t find such sets prepackaged by major manufacturers, most well-stocked music stores will sell you the individual strings necessary to put together the set you need.

Remember too, that any significant increase in string gauge will require a new setup for your ax, and in the most extreme cases may require re-slotting the nut or substantial truss-rod adjustments—all tweaks often best left to a professional. Given the labor-intensive nature of many of these alterations—and the very different feel that results from these setups—many players will find that exploration of a single alternate tuning merits the purchase of an ax singularly dedicated to that purpose. 

—Charles Saufley

This article originally appeared in the October 2007 issue of Acoustic Guitar magazine and was reprinted in the September/October 2020 issue.

Michael Millham
Michael Millham

Michael Millham is an in-demand guitar teacher at Gonzaga University.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *