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Dreadnoughts - Archtops
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|Written by Paul D. Race for , , and|
Dreadnought Guitar Buyers's Guide, from Riverboat Music(tm)
As guitar continued to become more important to American homes and popular music, demand for louder guitars led to continued experimentation. Dreadnought guitars, essentially pioneered by the C.F. Martin company, made the "waist" less prominent and lengthened the part of the body where the bridge attaches.
Gibson had taken a different approach to the need for louder guitars with their "Jumbo" shape. However, dreadnoughts are easier for some people to handle than jumbos, and - to some ears, at least - have a more balanced sound. Eventually the dreadnought became so popular in certain circles that Gibson adopted a similar shape for lines like the J45 and J50.
Here's an irony: when I was starting out on guitar back in the early 1960s, most folk or pop guitar players I emulated or knew were playing what we would now call parlor or jumbo guitars. The first time I saw a dreadnought guitar, it looked peculiar to me. Dreadnoughts were early hits among Country and Western pickers, though, and for several years, catalogues advertised them as "Western-style" guitars. Due to its playability and big, but bright sound, the dreadnought is the most popular "fullsized" guitar shape today. To kids starting out today, I imagine that parlor and jumbo guitars look peculiar.
Dreadnought Guitar as a Starter Guitar
US-built or Imported?
The good news is that you can still buy professional solid-topped dreadnought guitars that are made in America. The other good news - for folks without a "pro" budget - is that you can get a relatively decent Asian dreadnought without spending too much money. As with all imports, if you wind up buying online, you must have someone who knows what they are doing check it out and set it up while it is still in the return period.
Note: Martin's Mexican-built guitars, while technically imported, are made in a Martin-owned factory and have far better quality control than almost all Asian-made guitars. So when I'm talking about imports, I'm not really talking about those, or about Seagulls, which are - technically - imported from Canada.
Back to Chinese-built musical instruments: When I've ordered off-brand import instruments online, I have to return the first one because of manufacturing defects or shipping damage about 60% of the time. When I've ordered "brand name" (Chinese-built) import instruments online, I have to return the first one about 40% of the time. When I do get a good one, I still have to restring and set it up 100% of the time. If you don't believe me, look at the 1-star reviews for any Chinese-made instrument. Ninety percent of them are complaining either:
On the other hand ninety-five per cent of the 5-star reviews are from people who know nothing about the instrument and just know it's pretty.
The reviews you need to look for are 4-star reviews from experienced players who have ordered an import just to have one to take to parties or whatever, and realize it's nearly as much fun to play as their pro instrument. Again, the first one you get may fall short of your expectations, but the next one you get may far exceed them. That's the "upside" - such as it is - of poor quality control.
By the way, I'm writing this page in 2015, based on experiences in the last five years. If I was writing this in the early 1960s, I could have been saying the same thing about Japanese-built guitars, which were nothing to write home about at first. Depending on the market, it's totally possible that ten years or so from now, China will have multiple guitar factories that set standards for quality and the "cheapo" guitars will be built in Myanmar or someplace. So my "rules of thumb" based on the current state of Chinese musical instrument manufacturing may be completely overturned by, say 2025.
Acoustic-Electric OptionsI don't always recommend the acoustic-electric version of fretted instruments, but in this case, it's worth considering, Acoustic-electric dreadnoughts have from $30-$50 worth of added electronics, but will save you some hassle if you do start playing "out." The typical ingredients are:
The tuner option, ironically, appears on beginner-oriented guitars as well as better guitars, so don't assume that a fancier preamp automatically means a better guitar.
Here's an irony - unless you get to very high-end professional guitars, all of the electronics in all acoustic-electrics sound put a similar sound into the guitar cord. So if you come across a $300 acoustic-electric you like, don't automatically assume that the $1600 acoustic-electric hanging next to it will sound noticeably better plugged into the amp or board at the next open mic you attend. The better guitar may sound far better through a microphone. It will sound far better in the studio. It may be far easier to play, which may improve your performance. But the electronic signal coming out of the piezo/preamp combination may not be that much better.
That said, if you wind up with an acoustic-only guitar and later on wish you had bought an acoustic-electric, it is possible to retrofit them. You can even buy a piezo-only setup like the one here and use an outboard preamp, which significantly reduces the amount of carving you have to do on your guitar.
Cutaway OptionsLead guitarists used to playing way up the neck sometimes get frustrated when they get up to the fifteenth fret on a dreadnought and can't go any higher. So manufacturers have invented the cutaway option to give those players better access to the higher frets. It does affect the tone a little when the guitar is not plugged in (most people can't hear the difference, to be honest). But most manufacturers only put cutaways on guitars that they are also putting pickups on, and as I said earlier, the difference in the sound going down the cord to the amp is almost identical. In other words, having a cutaway won't really hurt your guitar, but unless you're already used to playing on the fifteenth fret or so, or all your friends think it's cool, it's not worth spending extra cash on either.
Top OptionsFor about a century, the wood of choice for the face/top of dreadnought guitars has been solid sitka spruce. It's rated on appearance and on how close the grain is together (closer is better). The best rating is AAA; AA usually signifies a professional or near-professional-quality guitar as well. A or no rating at all is still almost always better than laminate, which is where they shave a 1/20th of an inch from a sitka spruce board, and glue it on top of who-knows what, and still call it a "spruce top." (Notice the lack of the word "solid" in that phrase.)
A few manufacturers have experimented with solid mahogany tops, which aren't as loud, but are more reliable in damp conditions. Unfortunately, the look caught on, so a number of low-end guitars now have laminated tops with mahogany as the only visible layer. And yes, they are advertised as "mahogany guitars."
Another experiment is cedar, the kind of face usually reserved for classical guitars. Even though cedar-topped dreadnoughts have steel strings, the expectation is that you'll fingerpick them to get the best use of the unusually rich tone. (Think James Taylor style.) You'll note that cedar-topped dreadnoughts usually have no pick-guard. That lets the cedar vibrate more freely, and actual guitarists almost never really need the pick guard anyway. However, it also means that if a drunk buddy used to banging on steel-stringed guitars with a flat pick borrows your guitar at a party, you might get it back with a hole dug in the face. So if you get a cedar-topped guitar of any kind, keep it close.
To give you some idea of what you can expect in various price ranges, I've listed some guitars that may be worth checking out. There are several other good brands that I just ran out of room for, including Yamaha's intermediate guitars and Taylor's professional instruments. But these represent the range of features and quality you can get in the various price ranges. Please pardon me for sneaking a few fairly expensive guitars in at the end. No, I wouldn't ordinarily expect you to buy a $1500-$2500 guitar sight unseen, but these are among my favorite dreadnoughts, so I had to show them at least. And some folks really don't have anywhere to get these except online.
When you do buy, whatever you buy, please either:
Whatever instrument you choose and however you get it into your household, we wish you the best and hope it brings countless hours of enjoyment.
Please check back for updates, and contact us with any questions, corrections, additions, or "reader responses."
Note about Suppliers: While we try to help you get the instruments and other products you want by recommending suppliers with a good record of customer service, all transactions between you and the supplier you chose are governed by the published policies on the supplier's web site. So please print off any order confirmation screens and save copies of invoices, etc., so you can contact the appropriate supplier or invoke the product warranty should any problems occur.*
Note about Ordering Musical Instruments Online: Buy only from folks with a reasonable return policy and be sure to have any musical instrument you ordered online checked over by a professional as soon as you receive it. Every musical instrument has the potential for being damaged in shipment, even if the box looks fine when you get it. In addition, musical instruments shipped across the Pacific have a very high percentage of manufacturing defects. If you look at online reviews, a surprising percentage of the one-star reviews say something like "By the time I realized it was damaged (or had a critical manufacturing defect), the period for returns had run out, so now I'm stuck with a useless piece of . . . . " Yes, the manufacturer should have better quality control, and the store should pack things better. But in the end, you are responsible for making certain that an instrument or product will serve your needs while you still have time to return it.
Note about Buying Musical Instruments New: Before you spend $2000 on an instrument that will be worth $800 once you get it home, check out the used market for that sort of instrument in your area. Depending on where you live, or what kind of instrument you're looking for, it may not be an option. But if you can get a used professional instrument for the same price as a new student instrument, it is often worth taking the risk. Especially if you have a knowledgeable friend who can go along and check it out for you. In fact, many of our pages include links to articles on how to shop for used instruments of various types. However, we recognize that many folks have limited access to good used instruments, and everyone needs to see what is available in the various price ranges. So we do list, when possible, live links to real vendors with a good return policy, in case they're your best choice for getting what you want. Again, once you buy something, your satisfaction is between you and the vendor.
Note about Availability and Pricing: Although I try to keep an eye on things and to recommend products that are reasonably available, the model train market does fluctuate, and any product on this page may change price or become unavailable without prior notice. If you "click through" to see details on a product, and nothing happens at all, or you are routed to a supplier's home page, please let me know and I will remove the product from the online catalog until I can find a replacement or another supplier. For more detailed information about why products seem to come and go and why I have stopped listing prices for most products, please see my article "About Pricing and Availability."
*Here's an irony: every year, I receive about a dozen complaints from folks who have never been to my sites before, angry that a deal between that person and a vendor or manufacturer I recommend went south (in their opinion). They "googled" the product, saw my recommendation or review, then e-mailed me to tell me they were going to sue me or report me to the Better Business Bureau for personally ripping them off by recommending a product they had bought from someone else. Ninety-nine times out of a hundred, the problem is really because the customer didn't read the whole ad, or ordered the wrong thing, or threw away his paperwork and doesn't know where he bought it from, etc. I'm always polite, and sometimes I can even help them get things straightened out with the vendor, but it's not, technically, my problem.
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