All of us guitar players have memories of our first instrument. The memories can be good: making those first magical sounds & learning our first riff or chord. Some of us have some bad memories as well: aching fingers from having to push the strings way down to the frets; fingers tangled in strings; buzzy or dead notes when playing certain songs or in certain places on the fretboard. Some chalk these bad memories up to cheap, beginner guitars.
So what makes a cheap guitar cheap? Two things: inexpensive materials & less than adequate workmanship. Lets talk materials first.
Inexpensive guitars often use a combination of plywood & “second tier” hardwoods as the materials in a guitar. These materials cost less than what are considered “tone woods” in instrument making industry. For example, the top, back & sides of cheap guitar will more than likely be some form of plywood, which is thin layers of wood laminated together into a “sandwich”. This sandwhich of wood usually contains 3 layers. Plywood is cheap to make, and durable, so is a good choice for less expensive guitars. Now, the neck of your cheap guitar may be made of some nondescript hardwood, maybe poplar, maybe maple…maybe something else. As long as it is strong enough & yet cheap enough, many hardwoods could be used as a neck.
In and of themselves, plywood and mystery hardwoods might not be all that bad, but when they are used in the wrong places; are not dried properly and/or are not milled properly, they can lead to problems. Examples:
-I’ve seen some guitars that use a very lightweight plywood for the fretboard. The top ply is a thin veneer of rosewood, so the fingerboard looks “right”, but in reality, will not function nearly as well as solid rosewood. It won’t hold the fret well, and the frets can be easily smashed into the wood when they are put in at the factory. I’ve seen this, and it leads to a low fret that buzzes or frets out…not good!
-Many inexpensive guitars use wood that is not dried properly…it has too much moisture content when the instrument is made. This can lead to all kinds of warping & cracking issues, as well as sharp fret ends that stick out as the wood dries and shrinks.
-The internal bracing of an acoustic guitar should be made with quartersawn softwood (usually spruce) with little grain runout & tight grain. This makes for a lightweight, yet strong & stiff brace. This is what you will find in a good guitar. In cheap guitars, I’ve found braces with wildly varying grain direction and runout, not to mention low grain line count. This leads to weaker, more flexible braces that can split or crack over time, and may not support the soundboard properly.
So, as we can see, cheap guitars have a lot of strikes against them & my best advice is to purchase the best guitar you can afford. Often times older, used guitars offer up the most bang for your buck. It seems to me that many older cheap guitars were still made better than today’s & with a little attention, can be made to play well.
Having said all that, what if all you have is a cheap guitar? Does it still deserve attention and care? Can it be made to play well? The answer is….YES! Well, mostly yes. If I can do some basic repair or adjustment that doesn’t cost much, I will do it. For example, I just finished up some basic adjustments on an inexpensive guitar that belongs to a young lady just starting out. Her mother brought me the guitar to look at & I could see right off the action was quite high. I was able to lower the saddle & do a truss rod adjustment that made the guitar much more playable. The neck & frets were not perfect, so I couldn’t get the action as low as I wanted without doing a bunch of work costing much more than the instrument is worth. But still, with some small adjustments, the guitar will now be easier for the young student to learn her first chords or melody without feeling the frustration of strings a mile off the fret board.
So, if you have a cheap or inexpensive guitar, but don’t like how it plays, contact me for an evaluation & I can tell you what I can do without going overboard. Cheap guitars deserve some love, too!
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