Sound is the probably the most important factor for the experienced player but should also be considered by the beginner. If a guitar lacks dynamics, a solid low end, or ringing crystal clear highs, then it is easy to get discouraged as a player and difficult to hold an audience. A guitar should be able to sound beautiful when played softly but should also emit clear notes and chords when played loud! The bass should not overshadow the high strings and the high strings should not sound thin or “tinny.”
Quality guitars that will improve with age are usually constructed with solid tonewoods. Most importantly, a solid wood guitar top is essential. Tops are generally constructed from Sitka or Englemann Spruce, Western Red Cedar, Redwood, and sometimes Mahogany or Koa. Do not accept a laminated (plywood) top or a top constructed from any other wood not mentioned. Most inexpensive factory guitars made in Korea, Mexico, or China will have laminated tops so be careful and avoid them.
It is preferable to have solid backs and sides made out of traditional tonewoods. The most common woods include East Indian Rosewood, Honduran Mahogany, Bigleaf Maple (curly or fiddleback), Cypress, Koa, and Walnut. Many guitar manufacturers and some luthiers (independent custom guitar builders) will use laminated sides. This practice is becoming increasingly more prevalent as a means to strengthen guitars and conserve precious wood resources. A laminated side will have perhaps the least effect on a guitar’s sound so it is an acceptable compromise.
Strum the guitar and listen until the sound stops. This is called sustain and an acoustic guitar should ring for at least 30 seconds – the longer the better! Play many guitars or have a guitar player you know play the guitars and listen carefully. Select the one that touches you the most.