IS THIS A GOOD GUITAR?Copyright 2008 & 2010 Steve Carmody
Every so often someone asks me a simple, and yet intriguing, question: Is this a good guitar?
The question may seem obvious in its implication, but it really isn´t.
In my opinion, there are at least three levels at which a guitar can be “good”.
Technically Good Guitars
A technically good guitar is one which is built in such a way that it is adjustable for comfortable play in the style for which it is designed. There are couple of specific
features which all technically good guitars will share.
Correct Neck to Body Fit
Some guitars lend themselves more particularly to a certain style than another, but regardless of the style for which it is designed, a technically good guitar has adjustable string height.
Necessary for such adjustability is a correct neck to body fitting. Whether an acoustic or an electric, solid body or archtop,
a correct neck to body fit is reflected in the ability to adjust the string height over the frets to a range of settings. This adjustment is done by raising or lowering string saddles. For any given guitar, when the neck is correctly oriented to the body there will be adjustability of the strings from very low to very high. This reflects one aspect of a technically good guitar.
If a guitar does not have the correct neck to body fit, it must be re-set to the appropriate angle.
Functional Neck Tension Rod
The plane of the fretboard must be nearly flat, or adjustable to such a state. Most modern guitars have an adjustable tension rod in the neck. This enables subtle tensioning of the neck to afford the preferred profile of the fretboard while under full string tension. A properly functioning adjustable tension rod will enable a range of curvature, from flat to slightly forward bowed, regardless of string gauge. A properly functioning neck tension rod is another feature of a technically good guitar.
On guitars which do not have an adjustable tension rod (pre-1985 Martin guitars, and some others),
a neck which has an appropriate profile under either light or medium tension strings is
considered acceptable. If a guitar without an adjustable neck tension rod has too much
forward neck curve, or too little, the remedies are either to re-fret ( to adjust stiffness),
to heat bend the neck,or to replace the fretboard. The fact that these more extreme remedies may be
necessary to bring Martin guitars into functional playability, does not, in
my opinion, disqualify them from being technically good guitars. But I would also note that there are many
other older guitars, particularly at the lower end of the quality scale, which were built without adjustable
truss rods. Taking the more elaborate measures needed to correct neck problems in these guitars is
often not worth the time and expense.
A technically good guitar will either have, or be adjustable to achieve, correct intonation up and down
the playing area of the neck. The factors which impact on the ability to achieve good intonation are:
1. THE FIT OF THE NUT
2. THE PLACEMENT AND CONDITION OF THE FRETS
3. THE HEIGHT OF THE STRINGS OVER THE FRETBOARD
4. THE LOCATION OF THE STRING SADDLES
If the nut is not correctly fitted at the end of the fretboard, or if the strings to not
bear cleanly off the fretboard edge side of the nut, the intonation of the fretted notes will be
inaccurate.The fit of the nut can be adjusted or corrected by a competent repairperson.
On most modern production guitars fret placement is not going to be an issue, and only rarely
will it ever be an issue, but frets must be properly located for good intonation.
In addition, frets must be properly shaped (“crowned”) so that the fretted string
bears off the center point of the fret location.
As frets wear, the point at which the string bears off can shift forward or backward enough to affect
intonation. Worn frets can either be re-crowned or replaced by a qualified repairperson.
The higher a string sits over the fretboard, the more the string is stretched
when pushed to the fretboard. This stretching tightens the string slightly and can sharpen the
actual note relative to the intended note. (The thickness and tension of a given string also bear into
the deviance from the intended v. the note achieved.)Particularly with playing styles that may dictate a
higher string height (Bluegrass players generally want higher strings so they can “dig in” with a pick
for more volume), a player may prefer higher string action. But in some cases, either the neck-body fit, or the
curve of the fretboard, or both, may be the cause of the high strings. Regardless of the reason, intonation may
be negatively affected by excessive string height. Except in cases of poor neck to body fit, or unadjustable excess
forward curve in the plane of the fretboard, most guitars can be adjusted to play in tune within a
range of string heights. This leads to the last factor affecting guitar intonation-
the positioning of the string saddles.
By design, on most guitars, string saddles are positioned slightly
further away from the frets than the actual scale length dictated by the frets, (luthiers refer to this
as “compensation”). This set-back serves to help counter the sharpening affect of string height over the
fretboard. You will notice that individual string saddle locations vary from string to string. On most
modern production guitars, the bridge saddles either are, or have some range within which they can be, correctly
positioned- but this cannot be taken for granted and should be checked when evaluating any guitar.
It should be noted that on older guitars, particularly acoustic guitars by various manufacturers,
there are sometimes intonation problems directly related to the position of the bridge saddle/s
(Martin guitars of the 1970´s have intonation problems) which can only
be corrected by repositioning of the bridge.
All of the above qualities are features of a technically good guitar. Interestingly, having these qualities is no sign of the monetary value of the guitar. There are plenty of guitars which meet each of these criterion, and yet are not valuable guitars. This leads to another meaning of a good guitar.
Sometimes when I am asked the question- Is this a good guitar? The intent is
to elicit my estimation of the monetary value of a guitar, or whether it
is worth the price paid. This is a fair question, particularly with older
and small maker guitars, and many of us do see our purchase of a guitar as
Just as with a new car, nearly every guitar purchased new from the manufacturer
instantly drops in resale value as you carry it away from the store. Not
even vintage re-issue models escape this fate. But there are many guitars that
maintain and even increase in value over the years.
The guitar buying and selling community is as advanced as any, and there
are a number of “Blue Book” reference books that are updated each year. While
these are just a starting point in determining the value of a given guitar,
they are an important reference.
The basic conceit of all of these reference guides is that the market dictates
the value of vintage musical instruments. Consequently, the publishers collect sales information
from a range of established instrument sellers and distill these numbers to come
up with a value.
So the first thing I will do if someone wants to know what their guitar is worth, in dollars
and cents, is to look it up in a couple of the industry accepted Blue Books. For most guitars
this is a good beginning frame of reference. Next, I will research recent sales and listings of similar
guitars. As I said before, the market dictates
the value of a given. Finally, I will evaluate the condition of the instrument. Condition can be
a huge factor in determining the value of any guitar.
But while condition is very
important in determining the value of an instrument, it is
important to note that the fact that a guitar is unique, old, or technically “good”
does not necessarily mean that it has or will maintain value, or will increase in re-sale value over time. Monetarily,
the most important factor in establishing value is demand
by buyers for a given guitar. In most cases, guitars that hold or increase their values
over time are technically good guitars, but often they also have been produced during
significant periods of a guitar makers history (for example- Pre-CBS ownership Fenders and Brazilian
So, we have at least two categories of good guitars- Technically good guitars, and Valuable guitars. But there is another category of good guitar-
Guitars That You Like
This may be the most important quality a guitar can have. On the assumption that you are not buying a guitar with concern about long term value, the most important quality a good guitar has is that you like it. It doesn´t matter what anyone says, it doesn´t matter whether it is technically good, it doesn´t matter that it has no monetary value, if you like it, if it does what you want it to do - it is a good guitar.
Steve Carmody is an independant guitar repairman and luthier with a shop in Silver Spring, Md.
He has has been doing guitar repair and restoration full-time since 1990.
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