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How Good is This Guitar?

by William R. Cumpiano

Published in Frets magazine 1995


    You're buying a guitar, and it's time to make a decision. You've tried out a dozen different instruments: several brand-new ones and some used ones on consignment at the music store; an older guitar you liked that a friend is willing to part with; and some you found in your local paper's classified section. Finally, you've narrowed it down to just three or four that seem to fit your ear, your hand, your style, your wallet.

     But wait! Have you asked all the RIGHT questions of each instrument? Can you tell which factors point to quality construction? Can you tell which factors point to a manufacturer trying to cut costs? Were you able to spot potentially expensive problems in the making?

     A wry remark I've heard inside the luthier's trade goes, "if a guitar is easy to play and it stays in tune, you'll find someone who'll love it." This implies that people aren't usually willing to go beyond first impressions when evaluating a guitar for purchase. This may be true, but it needn't be thus. After you decide you "like" a guitar, it's far better to evaluate it the way a professional technician would: dispassionately.

     An evaluation of this sort begins with a once-over. First, examine the guitar's stressed seams--those between the neck and the body, between the neck and the headstock, and between the bridge and the soundboard. Are they closed and tight? Next, scan the entire guitar, looking for ripples or bulges that really shouldn't be there. With a knuckle, rap all over the front and back and listen for rattles.

     Now check the height of strings. The critical questions to ask are,

* If the action is high, is there sufficient saddle protruding above the bridge to adjust it downward?

* if the action is low, is the saddle too high already to adjust it further upwards?"


Clearly, a excessively low (barely protruding) saddle or an excessively high (tottering or tipping-over) saddle can signal serious problems. They may reveal that the neck angle, and thus, the action, has changed--and someone has tried to make do rather than fix it.

      The reason these all are crucial as primary observations is that they betray the instrument's general integrity, the precision of it's construction, and it's success in bearing up to string tension--matters of basic importance for the future prospects of the instrument. Make mental note of any marginal or suspicious observations for closer scrutiny later.

     Now play the guitar. I usually like play a series of difficult or challenging rapid passages, and then perhaps several slow, singing musical fragments. This way, the guitar as a tool for making music is quickly revealed: it's tactile responsiveness, it's playability, it's musicality. Often, these qualities are thought of as elusive, mysterious gifts that only a few rare instruments possess. Instead, they are rather straightforwardly the result of thoughtful design and accurate execution by the builder.

     While determining a guitar's playability and responsive- ness, note how much effort, how much concerted intent is required to achieve clear, well-formed individual notes, particularly rapid arpeggios. I pay attention to how well the guitar "forgives" my less-than-perfect articulation. This quality of "forgiveness" is a crucial quality which exists to varying degrees on different instruments. I wish I had a nickel for each time I've heard the remark, "I've never been able to play THAT passage quite as easily before." Some instruments let you play your best, others slow you down.

     Evaluating the guitar's musicality is best done in the upper positions, while playing slow, singing passages. That satisfying sensation when the instrument wants to make music (rather than just a sequence of notes) is the result of it's ability to produce accurate pitch, volume and sustain, evenly, in all positions. These qualities are most sorely tested in the upper positions, where pitch distortion is most noticeable and where short vibrating string lengths (with a corresponding reduction of the string's output) demand the most from the whole system. These qualities--playability, tactile responsiveness and musicality--exist in direct proportion to the fretboard accuracy, scale accuracy, and fretwork quality on the guitar. Fretboard accuracy demands not only that the fret intervals be cut true to formula, but that the fretboard's inclination (the "neck angle") be precisely correct. Scale accuracy requires that the bridge's placement be exactly correct. The quality of the fretwork depends on the firm, level seating, and the accurate milling of each and every fret. The ravages of time and tension, however, can take their toll, bringing on an inevitable, gradual degradation of all those qualities.

     Such precision requires concerted attention and care on a new instrument when it's made, so you're most likely to find it on guitars made in the smallest batches, from shops with the most motivated and experienced builders. Or, you could have a reputable technician improve the instrument's fretwork and action, where it falls short--but later, and at a price. So if it has it now, you're ahead of the game.

     Now let's check the stuff this guitar is made of. Your first interest should be the soundbox's materials: it's "plates". First question: Are they laminated or "solid"? What's the difference? Does it matter? It certainly matters a great deal, to both the tone and cost of the instrument. Of all the timber which is commercially available, only 1% is suitable for instrument-making. This is partly due to the fact that many species that are prized for acoustic responsiveness are scarce and come from distant lands. When those species CAN be obtained in commercial quantities, they must then be accurately sawn in a way that, unfortunately, yields a lot of waste. Quarter-sawing, which results in a lot of wood in the sawmill dumpster, insures that thin wooden slices can retain maximum strength, resilience, and stability.

     Laminating several paper-thin sheets of less valuable woods into plate thicknesses is the expedient, cost-cutting alternative. Now, as long as the outside surfaces are covered with the more valuable, prized material (cut in the more economical way), you can hardly tell it apart from the real thing. Laminated plates, however, have significantly greater sound-absorbing properties than solid plates, due to cross-plying and all the glue in between the sheets. Thus, a guitar with all it's plates laminated--top, back and sides--comes to sound, typically, rather thin and sweet: pretty, but not much there.

     The major cost in tone quality is paid when the SOUNDBOARD is laminated. The laminating of the back and sides has considerably less adverse impact. Thus, solid top, laminated back-and-side guitars usually result in the best sound-to-price value.

     Can anything positive be said about laminated plates, other than their reduced cost? Yes, laminated plates will not crack due to dryness and will absorb greater abuse before breaking, making laminated instruments ideal knock-about guitars. Also, laminated instruments are easier to amplify: the reduced sensitivity of the plates reduces feedback problems to virtually nil. The venerable Ramirez builds many guitars with laminated SIDES. Classical-guitar sides are especially thin and thus, particularly fragile. The slight acoustical cost for using laminating sides is borne on these expensive Classics.

     "So, how can I tell for sure?" Scrutinize the edge of the soundhole. A layered, sandwich effect betrays a laminated top. If, however, the grain lines on the top drop down across the entire thickness of the soundhole, the soundboard is solid. If the soundhole-edge is painted or otherwise covered, don't be fooled; it's laminated.

     Making out the back and sides is tricky. Closely examine the interior back and side surfaces through the soundhole. Look for color variations or distinctive grain features on the surfaces. If these features do not have corresponding matches on the outside, assume the plates are laminated.

     Guitars that are made up entirely of laminated plates are student-grade, entry-level instruments. You shouldn't be asked to spend over $250 for any of them, least of all if used. The addition of a solid spruce soundboard, however, initiates the instrument into the next quality category. Modest specimens of solid-soundboard guitars sell in stores for as little as $250, with the fancier (the ones with finer-quality tops and better hardware) going for around seven to eight hundred dollars. The finest guitars, however, are made entirely of solid-wood plates and start at around $1000 and go up from there.

     All of these price-categories have been ratcheting steadily upwards over the years. During the fifties and sixties most tropical timbers, including those ideally suited for guitar construction, were cheap and plentiful. Even low-priced instruments of that period were made of solid woods. So, it's quite possible to find high-value used american-made guitars in that category which are superior in sound and construction but cheaper than newer, laminated ones. You've got to find them, though. If you have a new or used solid-wood guitar, what are the quality "signposts" to look for? Let's look closely at the soundboard. Take note of the fine comb of grain lines ("reeds") that travel lengthwise over the top. The tightness, or density of this grain pattern, contrary to popular misconception, is NOT the definitive sign of superior-quality tonewood. Acoustic quality derives from superior stiffness coupled with light weight. This occurs without regard to the number of reeds per inch. Far better evidence of a superior, well-selected soundboard is the UNIFORMITY in the grain pattern and the presence of medullary rays. Medullary rays (also called "silk") are cross-linking fibers that run perpendicularly across the grain lines. They impart not only a beautiful luminescence to the top, but superior strength and resilience as well. They are found in their richest profusion on the very best quarter-sawn soundboards.

     On newer guitars, a pale-orange color denotes Alaskan ("Sitka") spruce, the most commonly-used soundboard wood by far. A paper-white color and a finer texture denotes either European "Silver" spruce (also known as Bavarian or German spruce) or Englemann spruce. These are rarer, more expensive species found only the more expensive factory and handmade models. Characteristically, the white spruces impart to the guitar a smoother, silkier tone than Sitka, which lends the tone more of a "bite".

     Other coniferous softwoods such as cedar and redwood are slowly gaining acceptance as alternatives to the spruces on classic and steel-string guitars. You may note them on some guitars because they appear decidedly darker than spruce tops. Their growing popularity is due to their remarkable loudness. But spruce-top guitars invariably "mature", becoming fuller and richer in sound due the cumulative effects of many hours of playing. Cedar and redwood are reputed not to mature, however, and to be more fragile and fracture-prone, besides. Their characteristic loudness is certainly a plus, however, and you'd be surprised how well a factory-made, laminated-back-and-side, solid cedar top classical guitar can hold it's own when compared to an expensive hand-made solid-wood instrument.

     The specie of wood chosen for solid back and sides--usually maple, mahogany, East Indian rosewood or Brazilian rosewood-- dramatically affects a guitar's cost and perceived value. Maple is known as a "blond" wood, while mahogany is reddish-brown in hue. Both East Indian and Brazilian rosewood are chocolate brown, but you can tell them apart by their darker-pigment figure: Indian is streaked with dark brown, soft-edged flecks and lines, while Brazilian displays spidery-sharp blue-black lines meandering along it's surface. The difference between the rosewoods, in terms of their acoustic quality, is in fact rather insignificant. Nevertheless, a mystique has grown around Brazilian rosewood which clouds objective assessments of it's value. Whereas mahogany and maple can be had for a few dollars a pound and East Indian rosewood (albeit costly) is still relatively plentiful, Brazilian rosewood has become one of the rarest and most expensive exotic hardwoods on the planet! Needless to say, many "connoiseurs" are unduly swayed by this fact. Yet truly, a well-made mahogany or maple guitar can be every bit as "good" as one made from Brazilian rosewood. The difference is the subtle tone coloration imparted by the different species: all other things being equal, maple and mahogany are associated with a warm, blended tone, while the rosewoods lend a glassy clarity to it. In this instance, the right question should be, "which do I prefer?" not, "which is the best?"

     Now let's look at the guitar's neck. Here, straight and homogeneous grain is crucial. If you can spot any dramatic sworls or striking changes in the grain texture, put the instrument back on the rack--it's likely to be a "reactive" neck. Sharp, protruding fret ends can be a danger sign, too. They may betray a ill-seasoned fingerboard, so suspect other poorly-selected materials on the guitar. Alternatively, they may give evidence that the guitar has been exposed to a chronically dry, overheated environment. In either case, you should suspect drying out (i.e., cracks, shrinking) on other parts of the instrument. Examine the frets and the fretboard surface, especially under the strings. A guitar that has been played a great deal will develop characteristic wear patterns on it's frets, such as dents, valleys and "flat-tops". A sharp detective can reveal a lot about the previous owner's playing style and musical preferences from these patterns. What's more important to you, however, is that fret wear significantly degrades an instrument's tone, playability and pitch accuracy. Resurfacing the existing frets, (or replacing old with new) is a fairly expensive proposition. On a new instrument, a good benchmark for workmanship is how uniformly shaped the fret-ends appear. On an older instrument, uneven fret-ends can show a long history of fretwork, and the likelihood that some frets may have come loose.

     "Sighting" the neck is an exercise that can reveal several important faults. You can sight the neck (like a carpenter sights a board) by bringing one eye close to the edge of the fingerboard, and view it down it's length towards the bridge or conversely, towards the nut. Thus, it is possible to see the fingerboard in a foreshortened way, making some special relationships easier to evaluate. You can, for example, determine if the neck is twisted by comparing the level of the upper frets, seen in foreground, relative to the level of the nut, seen in the background. If they do not seem parallel the neck is twisted, meaning that optimum action and playability is not possible until it is remedied. Also, any "kinks" along the length of the fingerboard, which would otherwise be unnoticeable while looking straight on, can become obvious while sighting. A popular misconception is that the ideal sighting is a fingerboard edge which is dead-straight along it's entire length. Instead, a better sighting would be a very slight, evenly-swept upward curve--barely noticeable on a Classic, but more evident on a Steel string--and about equal on both sides. A dramatic upwards- crook right where the neck meets the body can signal that an expensive neck-reset is in the cards for that instrument.

     As far as neck comfort, it's surprising how slight variations in neck-shaft contour can affect playing comfort. An inappropriately-contoured neck will rapidly tire the hand muscles at the base of the thumb. The neck should feel inobtrusive and graceful in the hand. Don't hesitate to play a guitar at length to fully evaluate it's comfort over long playing periods, but keep in mind that, if you like all else about an instrument, you can have the neck recontoured later by a skilled technician.

     A major quality-benchmark on an instrument is it's finish. Cheap finishes are thick finishes. Like the drooping film covering a candy apple, a cheap finish is thick and wavy, with bright but indistinct highlights. All protruding corners are rounded over, and interior corners are rounded, too. On older guitars, thick finishes have a propensity to check, displaying a pattern of spider-web fracture-lines. The worst finishes (and, alas, the most ubiquitous) are thick, catalyzed-epoxy finishes that can shrink and crack over time, forcing the wood below to crack also and to pucker, like baked mud. High-quality finishes are usually clear and untinted, crystalline in texture, uniform in gloss like a fine mirror, and with sharply-focussed highlights.       All the guitars edges and features remain sharp and well-defined. Ideally, the function of the finish is simply to keep the wood surfaces from accumulating dirt from handling. Unfortunately, the finish (especially on new guitars) also acts like a damp blanket, muffling the sound: so it is a necessary evil, and so less is truly more. The reason you'll find thin finishes on more expensive guitars is because it takes great skill to apply a thin finish evenly and then polish it without rubbing through. The large-factory solution is to apply dozens of coats and then to press the whole instrument up against a large polishing machine: the likelihood of rubbing through is thus reduced.

      Talking about cracks, some are trivial and some are not. Cracks in the finish can travel with and across the grain. Cracks in the wood (excepting impact damage) travel strictly along the grain. Cracks can point to the guitar's being subjected to an adverse environment for extended periods. While finish cracks are indeed trivial for the most part, cracks in the wood may or may not be. One test to ascertain the seriousness of a wood crack is to alternatively press on the plate on either side of the crack. If the plate behaves as if it were still joined across the crack, it is often just a thin, hairline split that can be quickly repaired by working a little white or yellow glue into it and applying light pressure over it to close it while the glue sets. If the two sides of the crack move independently from each other, the crack must be knitted together by a skilled person. If left untended, the crack may just remain stable indefinitely, or (if in a region of stress) will grow in size, and eventually pucker. Then, a difficult, expensive repair job is in the works. Regardless, two or three soundbox cracks on a good guitar (if tended to) should in no way affect the future prospects of an otherwise good instrument. Neck cracks are a different matter altogether. While splits in the fingerboard are usually inconsequential, cracks in the shaft, heel or headstock region are extremely serious. Have a skilled technician evaluate them before buying the guitar.

      Tension stress eventually takes a toll on every guitar, and it is the natural result of how guitars are made. The effect of string tension, normally, is to bow the neck upwards slightly and to cause the bridge to twist downward towards the soundhole. The presence of tension distortion of the neck to a greater or lesser degree is not unusual, even on the very best instruments. Soundbox distortion is, however, and should cause great concern. Whereas tension on the neck slowly causes the string action to rise, tension on the soundboard is trying to cause the soundboard to collapse. That it doesn't on a lightly-built fine instrument over the span of a lifetime is a tribute to the skill of the builder. Indeed, well-made guitars do react to tension, but they usually stabilize into a more or less permanent configuration. Other guitars, nevertheless, are time-bombs which are actively collapsing, in slow motion. Evidence of slow (and slowly accelerating) collapse is a marked tipping-over of the bridge, strings laying exceedingly low on the fretboard (notwithstanding a tall saddle) and an ugly bulging of the soundboard behind the bridge. Ripples, lumps, or hollows on any of the plates should be cause for alarm also, being evidence of collapsing interior structure.


     Now that you've had a chance to take a closer look at the guitar you were about to buy, doesn't it feel better to know that you've brought a little bit of sensible skepticism into the process? Now you know why the man was trying to sell that guitar with high string action and a low,low saddle. You've also been given a little more ammunition in case you have to bargain with the owner over the price of an instrument which passed the examination but nonetheless needs an expensive fret job. Now, pay the man, take it to a good technician to adjust the action to your particular taste, and enjoy your new guitar!



by William R. Cumpiano

© 1995 All Rights Reserved


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