Some say that a true artist can make any instrument sing, cheap or expensive. But certainly, a good instrument (not necessarily expensive) can improve the quality of the sound and performance. When we listen to a recording, we admire the player for his/her techniques, musicianship and the composer for writing the piece/song. But we sometimes forget how important the instrument is, especially when it is an acoustic instrument like a classical/flamenco guitar, violin or cello. A good instrument will give you a nice tone, decent playability, and proper volume.
People have different reasons for upgrading their instruments. If you are going to buy or upgrade your classical guitar, keep on reading. At the same time, you might find some general information to help you choose or upgrade your instrument.
I have to say this is a broad subject and depends on your musical level, the guitar you started with and many other factors. But as a general rule, when you feel your current guitar is holding you back either technically or musically, maybe it’s time to upgrade.
Points on the materials
Most of the classical guitar tops are made of spruce or cedar. There has always been a hot debate on which one is “better” but at the end of the day, it’s a matter of personal taste. Spruce gives you a clear and bright sound but cedar is darker, not as clear as spruce and can have a deeper tone.
The back and sides are mostly built by (Brazilian, Indian, Madagascar, etc.) rosewood, ziricote or cypress. But rosewood is more common. It’s popular to use ebony for fretboard and cedar/cedrela or mahogany for the neck and head.
Make sure you consider the CITES (Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species). Brazilian rosewood for instance, though it has a lovely tone is a risky wood, especially for a traveling musician. One must receive the CITES documents when buying a Brazilian rosewood guitar (or other Dalbergia nigra types) but there have been instances where the Brazilian rosewood instrument has been taken from the musicians when traveling although they had the proper documents. So it’s best not to travel so much with a Brazilian rosewood instrument or make sure about everything before traveling.
Points on the construction
Generally, there are two different types of guitars: factory made and luthier made.
Factory made guitars (classical and flamenco)
When we say factory it means it’s an industry right? The factory is more interested in the quantity rather than quality. There is not much care for essential details that make a good instrument. Usually, the material does not have a very good quality (reflected in the price tag). Some standards were not followed. The biggest advantage of factory-made guitars is that they are cheaper. But it doesn’t mean that all factory made guitars are bad or of low quality – there are good factory made instruments out there, you have to find them. Nevertheless, there are some guitar making brands that offer instruments that are as expensive as a luthier made guitars and claim that the instrument has been made by a master guitar maker. I personally have never tried any of those to give any comments.
Luthier made guitars
Luthiers/guitar-makers (some are more experienced and knowledgeable than others) spend more time making the instrument, pay attention to details and use better materials. So these guitars mostly sound better and are naturally more expensive. You can order an instrument to be made for you and share your preferences with the luthier so he/she can make your guitar exactly the way you want it to look and sound!
Evolution of the guitar
Guitar has always been changing in terms of shape, bracing and construction since the early beginning up until now. Hermann Hauser Sr. (1882-1952) made significant changes in the construction of the classical guitar in around 1924. He also made a guitar for Segovia. There are still many luthiers who copy Hauser or Torres models. But there are modern luthiers who believe in refining those methods to achieve better
tones, playability, and volume. Thomas Humphrey (USA), Greg Smallman (Australia), Matthias Dammann (Germany) and Jeroen Hilhorst (Netherlands) are some of the greatest modern guitar makers.
A good guitar is/has:
Easy to play
The high price cannot necessarily guarantee that it is a good guitar. Some materials like the machine heads/tuners can go up to 1,500 USD but they don’t really have much effect on the sound quality, same is true for cosmetics. Try to play guitars in different price ranges and then decide which one works best for you.
The recordings that we have listened to can unconsciously affect our preferences of sound. For instance, if you have been listening to John Williams (the guitarist) mostly, you may find the sound of a Smallman guitar (or generally lattice guitars) very attractive. But you may be surprised how different it might sound when you play it compared to the recording that you have in mind. So try different models and makers before deciding what is best for you. Guitar making is about knowledge, skills, and art.