Online Guitar Lessons: instruments, tone, and guitar setup

In today's guitar lesson, I want to talk about the the importance of a quality instrument and setup.


I’m mostly writing this to wax poetic about the new guitar I received by Elias Bonet Monne from Galerie des Luthiers in Lyon, France. This is my first concert level classical guitar and also my first double-top instrument. 


If you’re not familiar with double-top guitars, here is a link to the Wikipedia article, but also my own short explanation. A classical guitar (or any acoustic guitar) functions by having two parallel “plates,” the soundboard and the back of the guitar, as well as the perpendicular sides to support and create an amplification chamber. The soundboard is usually a very thin piece of wood (cedar or spruce in the case of classical guitars) which is a resonator that amplifies the sound of the strings when played. A double-top guitar, in theory, will be louder than a traditional model because it is made with a doubled soundboard or a composite soundboard. This is most commonly done with a spongy material (usually nomex or a soft wood like balsa) sandwiched between two wood plates of cedar or spruce or a combination of the two. This allows both plates to be lighter, thus being more resonant with the strings. The double resonance also creates more dynamic ability.


My guitar is Señor Bonet Monne’s version of this that is made somewhat different. The top plate is cut a little bit thicker than on a conventional double top but it is made with a divot pattern across it. A second much thinner plate is then attached and braced over this. He calls it the “Aire” model because it relies more on the air between the two plates and in the divots to help produce the sound. Its tone is interesting because it is much more pointed than a cedar, and sounds much more like a traditional classical guitar than other double-tops…but it is LOUD. I should clarify that it is loud if you push it to be so, and it is pianissimo if played that way as well.


My previous guitar was a high-end factory guitar by Cordoba, called the Solista. I can highly recommend this guitar for someone who is serious in their studies but not quite at the professional level. It would also be a good instrument for someone who played smaller events but wanted a quality traditional tone.


The improvements of the new guitar are of course its dynamic range, and, because the tone is much brighter, I feel I can more easily get a wider array of colors. While I don’t advocate that everyone go out and buy a concert classical guitar, I wanted to point out that it is important to find an instrument that possesses a good tone and ease of play. For classical guitar these concerns are likely to have more gravity for a player than if you are a metal guitarist (but you should still take them seriously).


A good setup for your guitar goes a long way. I’d recommend a few luthiers in Colorado, but definitely seek out someone who will work with your concerns and get the guitar playing the way you like.


Tone, dynamics, and versatility are more subjective and depend on the instrument you buy, as well as the materials you use like amps, strings, picks, or nails (false or real). The effect of a good sounding instrument can change the way you play. Any electric player knows that adding more gain to a sound or adding reverb can make their playing more fluid and somehow make the guitar feel easier to control. 


The same is true of an acoustic guitar. If the guitar can offer more character, more volume, and more clarity, you will quickly find yourself playing faster or more difficult passages with a greater level of ease because you’re not fighting to get the right response from the instrument, it is simply working with you to get the effect you ask for.


A few recommendations for improving your sound without buying a new instrument.


For classical guitarists:


New strings! Our strings often outlast those on a steel string instrument, but they can still become dull with use. 


Carbon strings. I like D’addario, but there are many other makers. These are made with a carbon fiber material that can withstand more tension. Thusly the intonation is better, the volume is greater, and the tone can be brighter.


Different string tension. I prefer hard tension strings because they produce more volume, and I feel they are more stable for my right hand, so they help to improve the accuracy somewhat. However, normal tension strings can provide more ease for the left hand with barre, vibrato, and slurs.


A setup. A guitar setup includes adjusting the string height to your desired level and also adjusting intonation. Both of these can greatly affect the resonance of the instrument and also it’s tone. Plus proper action can often eliminate difficulties for the player when executing a barre, left-hand slurs, or fast passage work.



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