When buying an acoustic guitar, the playability is often overlooked.
Most people choose based on the look and brand name only.
But an easy-to-play guitar is a key to you progressing your technique.
In short, what makes an acoustic guitar easy to play?
Any guitar needs good string action and a lack of fret buzz to make it easy to play. The body shape, dimensions, scale length, neck profile, and fret size all vary and affect a guitar’s playability. What one guitarist finds helpful, another won’t. It largely depends on preferences and skill level.
Keep reading to learn more about the things that make a guitar easier to play.
1. Body Shape
The body shape is key to playability. From a practical point of view, larger body shapes are near impossible to play for smaller framed guitarists. Let’s run down the most common body shapes and who they are best suited to.
For the on-the-go guitarist, mini acoustic guitars are practical. You can board them on a plane and take up little room if you’re short on space.
But beyond the practicalities, many guitarists find the maneuverability of a small body liberating.
One of the more petite body shapes, the concert body shape is ideal for players with smaller hands and a slighter frame.
Similar to a classical guitar, the scaled-down body isn’t huge in volume. The concert body yields a controlled tone suited to fingerpicking techniques.
Many professional studios have access to a concert like the Godin Fairmount to add a delicate and articulate touch to tracks.
Pioneered in 1916 by Martin, the dreadnought got its name from the battleship because of its power and projection. Since then it has become the industry standard and the most traditional of body shapes.
If you’re a beginner, it’s advised to start with a dreadnought like the Yamaha FG800. A dreadnought is an all-rounder to help you find your feet. This type of guitar suits all playing styles and withstands more aggressive strumming. But, the wider waist makes it difficult for smaller-bodied guitarists to play.
Jumbo guitars are the largest-bodied guitars with a deep and bulky design. Whether it’s hard strumming or soft fingerpicking, a Jumbo generates volume.
Seeing the likes of Elvis with a Gibson EJ-200 is enough for anyone to want a jumbo. But it’s best to go into a local shop and try one before you buy. The sheer size makes it hard to play for many guitar players.
2. Scale Length
Scale length is another contributing factor to how easy a guitar is to play.
In theory, the scale length is the distance between the bridge and the nut. But because the bridge placement varies, many experts disagree with this measurement. Many claim the true scale length is double the distance between the nut and the center of the 12th fret.
Scale length varies between nylon and steel string guitars. Nylon string guitar’s scale lengths are often longer. For a steel string, anything above 25.5″ is long while any measurement below is short.
A longer scale length causes tighter string tension. The tightness of strings makes these guitars better suited to advanced fingerpicking techniques. Because classical players use fingerstyle techniques, this is why nylon guitars have a longer scale.
A shorter scale has lower string tension, making the strings looser and easier to form chords on. Also, a shorter scale requires less stretching of the arm. If you’re a beginner, look for a scale length below 25.5″.
3. Neck Characteristics
Acoustic guitars are for strumming and fingerpicking so have large necks to grasp and shape chords.
This is a difference between acoustic and electric. Electric guitars have thinner necks for players to move along the fretboard at speed. A thin neck makes techniques like shredding easier.
There are two important neck features you should pay attention to when looking at an acoustic.
Neck profile refers to the shape of the back of the neck as viewed from a cross-section perspective. Guitar makers refer to the neck profile as a letter.
A C-profile is the most common. It’s a generic semi-circle profile comfy on the hand. I learned on a C-profile and found the curvature natural to grip.
When I upgraded to an Epiphone acoustic, the neck profile was a SlimTaper D-profile. D-Profile necks are squarer at the joint with the fretboard. But having learned on a C-profile, the transition to D-profile was seamless.
From personal experience, if you’re a rookie, opt for slimmer neck profiles in a C or D shape. The curvature is easy to clutch and smaller-sized necks make barre chords easier when you get to that stage of your progression.
As a beginner, avoid a vintage guitar that often has a V-profile. V-profiles are thicker along the center. The thickness provides added strength, but novice guitarists will struggle with the bulk of a V-profile.
Acoustic guitar necks generally have either a satin or a high gloss finish.
Both are good and one doesn’t really make the guitar easier to play for most people.
Guitarists sometimes find high gloss necks become sticky under warm temperatures. But if you’re clumsy and feel your guitar will be prone to dents, high gloss adds protection.
Satin necks feel more natural and smooth, so sliding along the neck is comfortable.
If you can, try both and go with the one that feels best to you.
4. Fingerboard & Frets
The fretboard is where fingertips meet the guitar to form chords and notes so it’s pivotal to playability.
Different fingerboard materials have varying feel on the tips of the fingers.
Indian rosewood is the most common wood used as a fretboard. Hard-wearing but also rich in natural oils, it allows for fast fingertip movement. It’s a good option for a beginner’s guitar.
Ebony has the same characteristics as the Indian rosewood but with a finer grain. Found on more premium guitars, ebony is smooth to play.
Fingerboard oil is available to condition and adds shine to the wood. Most fingerboard oils are mineral oils like lemon oil. Overuse of oil can make it too slippy and create a beacon for dust.
Pro-tip: light polish can be good to cleanse and add sleekness to playability.
Frets are the wire strips running across the fingerboard. It’s the parts where the strings lean on when you press them.
The term fret size refers to the width of the fret and the height of the crown fret wire.
Here are the standard sizes.
- 6230 (.078″ x .043″): Smallest fret size.
- 6150 (.102″ x .042″): Wide and tall, referred to as jumbo.
- 6105: (.090″ x .055″): Narrow and tall.
- 6100 (.110″ x .055″): The largest fret size.
- 6130: (106″ x .036″): Low and wide, often called medium jumbo.
If you prefer clearer notes, you should go for taller fret sizes. Although taller frets require less finger pressure, light gauge strings feel sharp.
So if you’re a beginner, smaller and medium frets are a comfortable middle ground allowing you to install easy-to-play strings. Most beginner guitars come with vintage-style frets. Vintage frets are slimmer than the standard medium-jumbo frets.
The fingerboard radius describes the curvature of the fretboard.
A smaller radius means there’s more curvature to the fretboard. a smaller radius is better for playing chords.
A larger radius is a flatter fretboard, generally perceived as ideal for bending and single-note runs.
Old strings are hard to play and don’t sound good. If you’re shopping for a used guitar, ask when the strings were last changed.
A new set of strings gives the guitar a new lease of life and feels fresh on the fingers, thus reducing hand fatigue.
Before you change the strings with the cheapest ones you can find. Here are a few things to consider about strings.
Guitar strings come in different thicknesses.
- Extra Light (10’s)
- Custom Light (11’s)
- Light (12’s)
- Medium (13’s)
- Heavy (14’s)
The higher the string gauge, the thicker. Heavier strings are fuller with a more pronounced low end but are difficult to play.
For beginners, extra light strings are the best gauge to start with. Lighter gauge strings are easier to press down. Although more susceptible to fret buzz, they’ll make the guitar easy to play as you develop calluses and improve hand strength.
The action refers to the distance between the fretboard and strings. The string height plays an important role in playability. If the distance is larger, then you’ll need to apply more pressure to form notes and chords.
If you’re buying second-hand or a cheap guitar, it’s wise to have it setup by a professional to optimize the action.
To achieve this, guitar technicians predominantly use the truss rod. The truss rod is a metal pole running the length of the neck. Its purpose is to reinforce the neck but also to facilitate adjusting the action.
Loosening the truss rod decreases tension and increases the string action. Tightening the truss rod heightens compression and pushes the center up the neck towards the strings.
Other factors that influence string action include fret size, nut, and bridge quality. For example, if the nut is too high, it’ll elevate the string height.
Whether you opt for a nylon or steel string guitar is often down to playing style and genre. But beginners usually find nylon strings easier to play. Smoother on the fingertips they’re a good way to ease yourself in.
But, there’s a middle ground in the way of silk and steel strings. If you are struggling with the harshness of standard steel strings, silk and steel strings are easier on the fingers. Mellow and softer, folk players even prefer the likes of D’Addario EJ40 Silk and Steels.
6. Don’t Overthink It
Ever heard the saying, “a good worker never blames their tools“?
To some extent, it’s true of playing the guitar. There are videos of blues players playing slide guitar on cigar boxes and spades.
You shouldn’t stress about every detail. The information in this article is more than enough for you to pick a decent guitar.
Any guitar won’t be easy to play because you don’t have the skillset when starting. A guitar over $2,000 won’t change that. You’ll still have the same problems.
So you should do things for yourself to make learning easier. Like self-teaching the right way or receiving guitar lessons.
Easy To Play Acoustic Guitars
Here are a few of the easy-to-play guitars for each skill level.
Best Guitar (Entry-Level)
Fender CD-60S: Available here
The Fender CD-60S is an entry-level guitar. Priced under $250 is a price range full of underperforming guitars. The Fender name comes with certain guarantees. A CD-60S is the perfect first guitar if you’re on a budget.
Fender guitars are super to learn on. With its dreadnought shape, the CD-60S is an affordable way to become accustomed to this body style. The sweet action makes it an ideal beginner guitar that helps you learn and form chords.
Best Guitar (Intermediate)
Taylor Academy 12e: Available here
Think Taylor, think acoustic guitars. Taylor has attempted to manufacture electric guitars, but acoustic guitars are their specialty.
The Taylor Academy 12e is such a gem. For under $700, you can expect more. A grand concert is more manageable than bigger bodies. An armrest on the top of the body prevents the edge from digging into your arm.
Innovative electronics amplify the signal so you’re ready to play amplified.
Best Guitar (Professional)
Martin D28: Available here
Martin is acoustic guitar royalty. As creators of the dreadnought, they know what they’re doing.
Guitar players often talk of the Martin D28 as the best acoustic guitar. An all-solid body creates the quintessential guitar sound, resonant with colorful tones. But what makes it so easy to play is the craftsmanship.
All edges are smooth because they’re hand-filed by skilled luthiers. A professional setup before leaving the factory makes for primed intonation and string action. These factors contribute to a guitar with peak performance.
What makes an acoustic guitar easy to play is a discussion with many caveats.
Things that need to be right for all guitar playing skill levels and techniques are string-related. For instance, a new set of strings makes all the difference.
Then there’s the guitar’s action. If the string height is too high, your finger will suffer from fatigue having to apply the extra pressure.
Luckily, these issues are fixable. Truss rod adjustment and shaving the nut all improve the high action.
Now, if this sounds overwhelming, get the help of a professional. Most local guitar shops have in-house technicians or will have contacts with one.
A guitar with a fresh setup is easy to play, furthermore, during setup ask for a new set of strings.
Other factors are down to personal preference but in the end, it’s a case of closing your eyes and feeling the guitar.
It might take some trial and error, but it’s worth it to find the right guitar,
Drawing on over 15 years of experience in the music industry, Neal’s writing specializes in all aspects of music. A self-taught guitarist who’s passionate about words, he’s at peace when songwriting. He finds comfort recording, traveling, and wearing his favorite leather jacket. Keep up to date on Twitter @TheNealSawyer