For reasons I'll go into some other time, I decided a couple months ago I needed a new flattop guitar, and needed it more or less at once, and so I started shopping around. I've never bought an acoustic guitar from a shop before (except once when I got a $15 guitar form a pawnshop for the purpose of smashing it onstage), always having acquired them through friends or family, or by soliciting admired luthiers; and so it's been an eye-opening ramble. I find myself beset by an angel in either ear, one training me toward an ideal sound that I love -- basically, that of a well-set-up and beautifully intonated Martin 1937 D18 -- and the other reminding me of the real-life destiny of the instrument I'll buy, in the hands of baggage handlers, bumping around in the backs of drunkenly packed minivans, in lands hot and cold and in all the least well-humidified sectors of the earth. These humbling considerations, along with the fact that my search yielded no ultra-desirable vintage Martins for less than $20,000, focused me on the category of New Guitars. These are expensive enough to bring on a sort of continuing revulsion, as one trots from shop to shop, and expensive enough to attach a glum weight to the prospect of finally committing to anything. But they're not $20,000 and up, they're $5000 and down. A bit down.
Here are some very basic tips offered to anyone shopping for a newly-made steel-string.
1. If you find yourself falling in love with something, set it down, clear your mind, return to the store the next day or the next week, and play it again. Repeat three or four times. This technique saved me, cumulatively, $14,000. It's hard to notice every relevant quirk and flaw in an instrument over the first 10 minutes of play, and it's no easier once the love starts to kick in. (By the way, I didn't lose any instrument due to my delay tactics; $5000 guitars can sit around stores for a l-o-o-ong time.)
2. Bring it into different rooms in the store to play.
3. Carry a clip-on tuner around with you and check the intonation up and down the fretboard. You're very unlikely to find a guitar that stays center-green all the way across the 15th fret, but for thousands of dollars, you shouldn't be settling for (for instance) audibly sharp tones at the 12th fret on the 6th and 5th strings. Collings makes the most consistently in-tune guitars on the market (like a Southwest Airlines passenger, the Collings customer may wonder, "Why aren't there dozens of competitors out there mindlessly apeing this awesome model?"), but there are independent builders getting closer all the time.
4. If you find yourself thinking about a used new guitar, find out a little about the history of it if you can -- who owned it and for how long and why he is selling, what work has been done on it, and whether the bridge or tuners have been replaced.
5. Play every note on the fretboard.
6. Move each tuning peg.
7. Guitar retailers are surprisingly careless about cosmetics. You don't find dusty, bad-smelling cars with crummy tires when you go into a car dealership, but you sure do find plenty of untuned guitars in the showroom with rust on the strings and shoddy neck set-ups. Well, you can't reset it, but you can get the guy to put fresh strings on it (and tune it up!).
8. Even leaning forward, it's not easy to get an accurate picture of the sound of an instrument the way everyone else will be hearing it acoustically. Get a trusted, discerning friend to sit in front and give you her opinion. Bring a recording device and use it to compare a few that you like.
9. You can't realistically separate the two stimuli, hand-feel on fretboard and sound in ear. These, in my experience, reinforce each other and work together to bring out your best technique and clearest inspirations. But that said, you might remember that once you slap a pick-up on the thing, as a lot of guys do these days, the sound is all about the pick-up, and only the feel of the neck is left. If a pick-up is in your future, concentrate on how the neck feels in your hand.
10. Brand new guitars can take a while to settle in, stop moving, and achieve something like their real tone. Their settledness is one solid advantage of guitars that are newish but not brand new.
11. Slide a finger up and down a string briskly. Grip the neck with your left hand, thumb touching the top edge of the fretboard and fingers at bottom, and slide the whole hand up and down. In other words, make sure the frets are cut and set comfortably for you, and that at the very least you won't hurt yourself making an impulsive move.
12. Take longer shopping? Adjust your price celing upward? Or settle for something you didn't quite have in mind? Obviously this three-way trade-off is for each of us to figure out, but as I shopped around and became attracted to this or that instrument, I found myself unwilling to put thousands of dollars into something that fell an iota short, even though "thousands of dollars" isn't a lot in the world of good guitars, and even though I strongly liked one or two not-exactly-appropriate (or certifiably flawed) guitars.
One week it was a 1973 mahogany Martin D18 that played and sounded spectacular and was priced at a shocking $1500. What was wrong with it, besides the stigmatizing "1973"? It took me a week to figure it out -- no note happening at string 1 fret 15. Well, I don't use that note all that much, and $1500 is so little -- wait, what am I thinking??
A used double-O Collings with a nice fat fretboard and slotted headstock was suiting my left hand perfectly. But there was no inlay above the 7th fret to help guide me in a pinch when I might have to think fast. Also it had a 12-fret scale, and I do like to get up there into the teens now and then, as nimbly as I can. I could arch my hand -- on the other hand, could do me some good to work within the very conventional, old-school limitation of twelve frets -- and what kind of so-called man needs markings all up the neck like a Suzuki beginner....stop!! This is thousands of dollars we're talking about! Multiple miserable wedding gigs!
The frustrating thing is that you know that somewhere out there is an impeccable piece of workmanship, meant for your hands alone, that you could get for one or two thousand bucks...if only you had the years and the stamina to find it. Unless you're poor, and on no kind of timeline, the best course seems to be to hold out slightly longer than you wanted and pay slightly more than you had hoped. I am not seeing any bargains out there in guitar stores, though maybe this is different in smaller towns (I shopped mostly in Chicago and New York) and obscurer retailers. But the good news is that there are more great-sounding, well-made guitars from a variety of builders than ever before, all accessible to people with middle-class incomes and up. (Though probably the wood is not as good as in years past.)
This all reminds me a little bit of house-buying -- the ideal particulars slowly warping and giving way as the price point floats ever higher. It's funny, but there's nothing easier than getting used to the little quirks of a place once you've moved in: the too-low showerhead you have to duck under, the noisy old furnace, the heroin merchant next door. Whereas one twangy fret way up the neck will put a guitar on the blacklist forever. The thing that cost hundreds of thousands of dollars is held to a lower standard. But the elements of a house aren't as unpredictably interdependent. You can change out the bathroom fixtures without worrying about the effect on the wiring in the basement. And it's enough, usually, if the guy doing the work is an honest, experienced handyman. The guys that fix up guitars, though, the good and trustworthy ones, are as much artists as handymen. They sit in their garrets smoking incense; they lay their hands on your wood and mumble indecipherably; they refuse to admit your guitar into their lives if they don't like it for some reason. In addition to their time and labor, you pay them for what they don't do. And any little changes they make, from altering the neck angle to dressing the frets, from something as easy and routine as switching out the saddle to the open-heart surgery of bridge rebuilding, affect the sound and feel of the whole. I regret to say that I once had a guitar of great value permanently maimed by a repairman who added a bizarrely gratuitous and ruinous task to an otherwise routine bill of work. This is like a guy you've hired to paint your window treatments deciding to paint all your furniture while he's at it, which somehow decimates your home value. I think houses are sturdy simple things next to guitars.
Anyway, how long are you likely to inhabit your house, on average? 20 years, 40? A good instrument will easily last you and your legatees much, much longer than that.
Well, I think I have it narrowed down to 4 possibilities, and by now it won't surprise you to know that they're all Collingses. I'll let you know what I pick in a week or two...or else you'll just see me out there playing it.