We don’t recommend getting an expensive first guitar. But we think every serious guitarist should eventually have a great all-around guitar that can be played in almost any situation.
We don’t recommend getting an expensive first guitar. If you’re just starting out, you can get a capable, well-built instrument for under $200. But when you’re ready for a really great guitar, we have some recommendations for what to jump to. Of course, as you grow as a musician, the number of available options that could make sense for you explodes as you start to explore different styles of music and play in different settings. There’s no single guitar that can cover all these potential use cases, and indeed many serious guitarists end up with dozens of different instruments to satisfy their needs. That said, before you start collecting all the sounds you can get with different exotic tonewoods and shapes, we think every serious guitarist should have a great all-around guitar that can be played in almost any situation. Even here, there are plenty of good options, and the right answer will depend on what types of music you are interested in.
If you’re a traditionalist at heart, CF Martin and Co. probably makes the guitar you want. They are iconic, and having been around since 1833, are steeped in a rich history. They also make amazing quality guitars and are famous for inventing the Dreadnought form factor, a size that is still to this day considered the standard for its booming bass and full sound. Because of their history, Martin’s are often associated with the classics. Think Bob Dylan, Johnny Cash, Elvis, Willie Nelson (though that’s not to say modern artists don’t use them either: Ed Sheeran, Mumford and Sons, Chris Martin of Coldplay, and John Mayer depending on the song are all Martin fans).
We don’t think it’s worthwhile to pick a guitar based on its image and which famous people have used it, but Martin’s have such a distinct character that it’s worth understanding what types of songs and artists in the past have used "that sound" if you’re looking to recreate something faithfully. If you know who inspires you, there’s a neat website called Equipboard that lets you see what type of guitars your favorite artists and people have used in their music (at this level, people these days tend to use a different $5000 guitar for every song, so this is more about looking for trends rather than picking out particular models).
Like all makers, Martin offers cheaper entry-level guitars, but we think there is more value elsewhere at the low end (you’re paying somewhat of a premium for the brand), so if you’re going to get a Martin, we recommend something in their standard range. Their most famous guitar is the D-28. They make some higher-end stuff where the sky’s the limit as far as price, but this represents the sweet spot of the lineup where you aren’t paying extra for fancy ornamentation or exotic tonewoods (that aren’t strictly better or worse) than the classic rosewood found on the D-28. If you take care of it, the instrument will outlive you (and it has a great resale value, so your heirs will have no problem finding it a new home).
On the other end of the acoustic spectrum is a Taylor. Though a relatively new kid on the block, Taylor guitars have become a force due to their emphasis on innovation and consistent quality. If you want what is considered a more modern brighter sound and a bit less bass than the Martin, a Taylor is the way to go (think Dave Matthews, Taylor Swift, and Jason Mraz here). While Martin is known for their Dreadnoughts, Taylor’s signature shape for all-around playing is their Grand Auditorium (usually with a cutaway for easier access to the upper frets).
Taylor’s solid wood lineup starts at their 300 series, which is a big step up from 100/200 series guitars, which feature laminate sides similar to our budget pick, the Yamaha FG800. The 314CE is the aforementioned Grand Auditorium with cutaway and represents a really nice guitar. It's made with the same process and high quality as all the other guitars in the 400/500 and up series. The only difference is different (not necessarily better) but more exotic woods. Like the Martin, this is an amazing instrument of the highest quality.
Unfortunately, both these solid wood guitars from Martin and Taylor cost in the range of $2000 (or typically more in the case of the Martin). That’s a lot of money to spend on an instrument and beyond the reach of a lot of people. Is there a middle ground?
If you want to stick with an all-solid wood design as opposed to laminate, Martin now makes a great "entry-level" guitar called the D-10e (formerly the DRS2 which can still be found in stores as of this writing). This runs well under a thousand dollars and is part of their "road series," which is designed for people on the go - it’s a bit smaller and more able to stand up to some abuse. Part of its affordability comes from the factory it’s built in - Mexico rather than in the United States - but the quality is still very high, and we recommend it in this price range.
On the Taylor side, the 300 series is actually their cheapest all-wood construction, so you’re not going to get an all-wood guitar from Taylor for under a thousand dollars. Taylor’s offering in this price range is the 114CE, which uses some high-quality laminate on the back and sides. There’s an argument to be made that unless you’re going to spend $2000+ on a guitar that it’s not worth going for a solid-wood construction; compromises will have to be made elsewhere, and you’re better off with a quality guitar that includes some laminate (as long as it’s not on the top). Laminate is also a bit more tolerant of humidity and rapid temperature changes. All this is to say, don’t dismiss the Taylor on account of it failing some sort of laminate purity test. It’s a very high-quality guitar and one we highly recommend if you’re looking for something with the bright modern Taylor sound in the under $1000 price range.
In summary, if you’re ready to plunk down $2000 on a guitar, you should get a Martin D-28 or a Taylor 314CE (the Martin if you’re into a classic sound, the Taylor if you're into a modern sound). If you’re not quite ready to take the plunge but still want a great quality instrument, we recommend the Martin D-10e or Taylor 114CE as more budget options.
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