When buying your first guitar, it’s tempting to go as cheap as possible. After all, you might not be sure how much time you’ll want to spend on an instrument you may have never even played before. However, buying a cheap guitar can slow your learning process.
Expensive guitars will usually sound significantly better than cheap guitars. Cheap acoustic guitars can have numerous design issues, while cheap electric guitars usually have “buzzy” pickups. If you’re looking at purchasing your first guitar, you may want to invest in a medium- to high-end model.
This article will outline why expensive guitars sound so much better than cheap guitars. It’ll also go over ways to improve the sound quality of cheap guitars if you’re saddled with one already.
Why Do Expensive Guitars Sound Better?
In a nutshell, expensive guitars sound better than cheap guitars because they’re made from higher quality materials and with a more meticulous manufacturing process. More often than not, an expensive guitar will have a human element at some point in the assembly process. This ensures that the setup is not slightly off and that if anything goes wrong in the automated process, they’ll catch it before it’s up for sale.
Cheap guitars are made in factories with no human beings involved in the process. This can result in problems that aren’t immediately visible to the human eye but will be extremely obvious to the player. Not only do cheaper guitars usually sound worse, but they’re very frequently much more difficult to play.
Electrics and acoustics function very differently, so the reasons cheap versions of both have low sound quality vary. Some of these reasons are outlined below.
Why Cheap Acoustics Sound Bad
Acoustic guitars use their hollow body to project the noise they create. The strings’ vibration resonates in the guitar’s chamber, which then comes out of the body’s soundhole as a powerful, rich noise. Because of this, the construction of the body itself is crucial to the quality of its sound.
There isn’t much room for error when making acoustics. Common issues with cheap acoustic guitars are as follows:
Top Wood Is Too Thick
The wood that makes up the body is what projects and “colors” the guitar’s sound. Acoustic guitars will ideally have a very thin top wood, which is the wood on the guitar’s face with the soundhole. Thick top wood will actually absorb some of the sounds, which will rob you of much volume and richness of tone.
Another common problem with cheap acoustic guitars is that the fretboards are often not straight but slightly tilted either backward or forwards. Warped fretboards can be due to the humidity not being right in the manufacturing or even budget shipping methods.
In any case, a warped fretboard will cause the guitar’s action to be either too high or too low. The action of a guitar is the distance between the string and fretboard. A high action will make the strings very hard to press down on, making it hard to get a ringing note instead of a dull thud. It will also make the guitar extremely difficult to play. Acoustics have higher action in general, so an action that’s much too high can render a cheap guitar nearly unplayable.
Conversely, a low action will cause the strings to hit the frets as you play, which will result in a buzzing noise as you play.
Why Cheap Electrics Sound Bad
Electric guitars don’t project their sound with a resonant body, and in fact, are almost completely solid. The reasons cheap electrics may sound worse than expensive electrics have to do with the quality of its hardware instead of its wood.
The pickups on cheap electric guitars will be inferior to the pickups on an expensive one. A pickup is a transducer that senses vibrations from the strings, converts it to an electric signal, and then amplifies it through a loudspeaker. Pickups are made by wrapping wires around magnetic poles. At least one is put under each string, though most expensive guitars have several under each.
On nice electrics, the pickups will be oriented to have a certain effect on the guitar’s sound. Some electrics even have humbucker pickups wrapped in two coils instead of one to combat noise interference.
On a cheap electric, these pickups can have numerous issues caused by the magnet not being properly grounded or faulty wiring. This can cause crackling or buzzing noises as you play.
An acoustic guitar’s action is very important to get right since it tends to be high anyway, but the action on an electric can be wrong as well! The necks of a cheap electric will occasionally warp so that the action is much too low, making it nearly impossible to get a ringing sound.
For more information, check out this article about why electric guitars are shaped the way they are.
How To Improve the Sound Quality on a Cheap Guitar
Maybe someone else purchased a cheap guitar for you, or you simply don’t want to shell out the money for a high-end guitar. If that’s the case, there are plenty of ways to make the sound from cheap guitars better.
Get Quality Strings
Whether you have a low-quality electric or acoustic, chances are the manufacturer outfitted the guitar with a cheap set of strings. If you want to improve your sound quality, the easiest thing you can do is get a nice set of strings.
For a cheap electric, the Ernie Ball Regular Slinky Nickel Wound Set is the most popular on Amazon, with over 40,000 five-star reviews. This isn’t a set of strings that will break the bank, but they are high-quality enough to make a difference on an electric guitar.
- Includes 3 individually wrapped sets
- Recipes and popular gauges created by industry icon Ernie Ball
- Played by legends around the world including Slash, Jimmy Page, Metallica, Eric Clapton, and more. . .
Meanwhile, the D’Addario Phosphor Bronze Acoustic Strings are among the most popular ones for acoustic players. They come in several different styles as well, including Bluegrass and Resophonic, so that you can customize the strings to your own playing. These will also ship in packs of three, ten, or 25.
- MOST POPULAR – Pursue your passion with D’Addario’s most popular acoustic guitar string set, the Phosphor Bronze Acoustic Guitar Strings. Since 1974, phosphor strings have been known for superb, long lasting tone and comfortable playability. They are the choice of professionals worldwide.
- INSPIRING PERFORMANCE – These light acoustic guitar strings help you achieve amazing performances, as they offer a long lasting, warm, bright and balanced acoustic tone with excellent intonation.
- CORROSION-RESISTANT – These strings feature a precision wound corrosion resistant phosphor bronze wire that is carefully drawn around a hexagonally shaped, high-carbon steel core. The result is consistent, long lasting tone.
If there are major problems with your guitar, keep in mind that no set of strings can fix a warped neck or a heavy top wood.
Take the Guitar to a Luthier
A cheap guitar with action that’s too high or too low is difficult for the beginner guitarist to fix. However, you may want to consider bringing the guitar to a luthier, a carpenter who repairs string instruments. Luthiers will have tools and experience that beginning guitarists just don’t have.
A luthier will be able to adjust the action on your guitar in most cases, making it easier to play and helping it sound much better. They may also be able to adjust the pickups of a cheap electric.
If your acoustic has thin top wood, however, there may be little your luthier can do. Still, it may be worth it to take it in and see what they can do.
Expensive guitars will have a higher quality sound than cheap guitars in almost all cases. Though acoustics and electrics have fundamental differences in how they’re constructed, a cheap manufacturing process makes guitars of all types sound worse. A luthier may be able to improve the guitar, but there are some problems they won’t be able to fix.
If you’re setting out to buy your first guitar, you will probably be saving yourself money down the line by purchasing a more expensive model. Learning how to play the guitar is much more rewarding when you have an instrument that plays and sounds well.
- Wikipedia: Action (music)
- Wikipedia: Pickup (music technology)
- Wikipedia: Humbucker
- Wikipedia: Luthier
- Midlife Guitar: Cheap vs Expensive Guitars
Last update on 2021-08-01 / Affiliate links / Images from Amazon Product Advertising API