A few years ago I left the corporate world and, building on a childhood spent in Spain and my family’s love of guitars and guitar music, I have began importing the best guitars I can find. I consider myself fortunate that I am able to make my hobby into a small, nay tiny business
Over the years, I must have visited over 60 luthier’s workshops in the quest to find not only the best guitars but excellent guitars at reasonable prices. I have learnt to listen, to test, to prod and to play and build lasting relationships with makers to find the jewels in their hard labor and years of experience.
I agree with Nicole’s “the right guitar will find you" (read Nicole's article here). With experience playing many models, you just know a great guitar. It feels like a long lost friend. There are always guitars that stand head and shoulders above their same-looking brothers and sisters and this is why I travel to maker's workshops and buy on the spot.
It is from the constant stream of guitar teachers and players through my showroom that I have learnt most of what I know and I thank them all for their time and insights. I have come to realise that “one size does not fit all.” Even at the budget end of the market players all listen for different things and playing musically means differences in construction suit different players shapes and sizes.
So while business strategy from my old corporate days would say ‘narrow the choice and models’ and there is no doubt that from this perspective, Alhambra would be the standout brand as it has such a strong line up. But from the perspective of the player - I like choice, I like color, I like tone- probably explains why I have come to stock over 20 or more Spanish and Australian makers, almost 100 models and have at any stage almost 500 guitars in stock.
Why? Because, players need to be able to compare and contrast models and makers even when making a modest purchase to find the one that is the right one for them.
How does this work in practice when a player approaches me or a teacher is looking for a good guitar for a student?
1) The player’s level of skill. Are they seeking an entry level/intermediate/advanced or concert guitar. Are they looking for a guitar that will make them shine in exams or school ensemble playing?
2) What kind of music are they looking to play classical/flamenco/jazz/blues or an all purpose guitar?
3) Physical characteristics come into play also for example small hands, stiff joints; advanced age can determine which makers or combination of special string length and set up are appropriate.
4) Budget is an important consideration since guitars are handmade and with the tone woods becoming scarce, budget often determines the level of the guitar.
Guitar options and budgets: How much?
At the first guitar level, i.e. under $500, there are some better beginning options that are not as much of “an orange box”. This “orange box” reference comes from the fact that cheap guitars came from Valencia in Spain in the 50’s and 60’s where oranges were also exported. The joke was that if the wooden crates that contained oranges were no good they’d be made into cheap guitars! At this level, setup can make the guitar hard to play and the tone can be dull; but there are some reasonable finds such as Aria 20, Takamine, etc., although a keen player will outgrow soon them. Generally these do not feature solid tops, or solid tops of quality cedar or spruce.
Entry “value for money” level ($500-1000). At this level you are getting a guitar with a quality solid top so this is also good for the resale value. I would line up several makes and models such as
Alhambra 1C, Camps Son Satin, Prudencio Saez 2A, Alhambra 2C and 3C, Camps Sinfonia, ST 1-C, Prudencio Saez 4A, 16.
Bang for buck – these feature refined tone and improved dynamic range and playability and from $1500-1700 feature all solid construction leading to improved depth of tone and harmonics.
Alhambra 4P, 5P, 7C, Azahar 142, Prudencio Saez 31, G9, 28. Camps M6C, Juan Hernandez Estudio
Advanced Study Options $2000-4000
Guitars are made by hand and are largely a function of the quality of the harmonic top and tone woods and the time the luthier invests in the complexity of internal structures (much like a high performance car engine) that make the guitar work harder. Therefore, high end student guitars offer some of the characteristics of concert level professional guitars such as superior projection, sustain and playing comfort.
Alhambra 7P, 8P, 10P, Prudencio Saez 138, Juan Hernandez Professor, and Concierto, Angel Benito Aguado Marizapalos, Manuel Contreras C5, C4, C3
Concert Options $4000-$5000
Concert level but under the $5000 magic threshold. Offering refinement and professional performance.
Caldersmith Grange, Alhambra Professional Line, Yulong Guo Concert Chamber Double top, Paulino Bernabe 5, Paulino Bernabe 10, Contreras C1
Concert Options $5000 and above
At this level professional guitars are speciliased and as individual as people. They are made painstakingly with luthiers able to make 12-16 a year only .
Often when I am showing guitars I am asked which one is best. The honest answer is that at this level they are already 'best in class' but they are also very different in the way they respond and play, so it is a question of finding a guitar that does more of the things you like and less of the things you don’t. So players really owe it to their craft to try as many back-to-back as possible to ensure that their guitar choice supports their playing style and their investment will further their playing and get the most out of precious practice time.
Allan Bull, Kim Lisserague, John Price, Paulino Bernabe 20, 30 40,50, Angel Benito Marieta, Luthier India, New Luthier by Javier Mengual & Jose Margarit, Juan Hernandez Luthier, Juan Hernandez Maestro Especial, Jose Miguel Moreno Series C (Lattice), Jose Maria Villaplana India, Rio, Anniversario, New Torres, Teodoro Perez Especial, Angel Benito Aguado Espanoleta.
There is no doubt that a good guitar will be easier to play, have greater projection and sustain and help you on your way since it delivers better tone and will be more responsive. But no matter which guitar you start your journey with, the important thing is to take that first step, to start playing and keep playing! As you play your appreciation of the guitar’s tone, colour and dynamics will improve and you will gravitate towards better guitars that support your playing and help you make progress faster.
In terms of selection process? Not all guitars are created equal and it is not always just a question of money, the fact is some guitars are better than others within every price range. Trust your hearing, play and compare many brands and models back-to-back until one stands out for you. There will be at least a couple, so in terms of which guitar is for you, I always say to buyers that if they cannot hear or feel the playing difference between two favourites buy the cheaper and then upgrade when you can justify it.