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How to Find the Best Bluegrass Guitars

How to Find the Best Bluegrass Guitars
Latest posts by Calum Vaughan (see all)

Guitars are incredibly versatile instruments – they are the sound behind rock, blues, indie, and all sorts of other types of music. This is something that has always kept me interested in the instrument, there are just so many opportunities for creative exploration, and I love it.

Out of all the genres out there, one of my favorites to play on the guitar is bluegrass. It’s a genre that I grew up closely with, and whenever I play it, my heart sings! Recently I’ve been playing bluegrass more than ever, and it’s made me go on a bit of exploration as to which guitar is the best for the genre.

Whether you’re a new guitarist or an intermediate looking to perfect your bluegrass style, this is the guide for you, because I’m going to be compiling all of my knowledge on exactly how to find the best bluegrass guitars. If this sounds like something you’d be interested in sharing with me, read on to find out more!

Bottom Line Up Front: The best bluegrass guitars will always be a flattop dreadnought acoustic, have rosewood or mahogany tonewoods, have a circular soundhole, and a standard bridge as opposed to a tailpiece. Bluegrass staples such as the Martin D-18 are prime examples of this, but the resonance and tones are also emulated beautifully by cheaper alternatives such as the Fender Squier Acoustic.

A Brief Introduction to Bluegrass

I’d like to think that if you’re reading this, you already have a good idea of what bluegrass is, but just in case you don’t, let me give you a quick explanation. Bluegrass music is a genre of music that holds its roots in 1940s American country music, and the name was coined because of the band Bill Monroe and the Blue Grass Boys.

Whilst many people get mixed up and call bluegrass country music, they are different things entirely. Sure, you could say that bluegrass is a form of country music. However, there is one major difference – bluegrass is entirely played on acoustic stringed instruments. You’re likely to hear the banjo, the guitar, the fiddle, and perhaps even some bagpipes if you’re lucky!

In terms of the mood, it’s generally quite upbeat and sure to make you want to tap your feet, full of fast-paced rhythms. However, there are solemn and often ambivalent overtones, and that’s why I always think of the genre as a cross between country, blues, and a bit of jazz.

Guitar, or a Banjo?

Best Bluegrass Guitars

I mentioned earlier that bluegrass frequently includes the banjo – the banjo is so common in bluegrass that it has almost become synonymous with the genre. If you tell someone that you are a bluegrass musician, they are almost certainly going to turn up to your gig assuming that you are going to play the banjo.

It doesn’t work like this – the banjo is a core element of the genre, sure, but guitars and fiddles are equally common. However, this does mean that you should have a good think about what instrument you want to play. If you are a beginner musician and you have found yourself inspired by the sounds of bluegrass, perhaps you should consider picking up the banjo instead.

However, if you are fully aware of the differences between guitars and banjos and you know that you want to use the guitar, then continue reading because I’ll soon be telling you about my top recommendations for the genre!

Acoustic or Electric?

I will always remember the first time that I turned up to an open bluegrass jam in a village not far from mine. I saw it advertised and thought that I would bring my electric guitar along to see if I could make some new friends and form some musical connections. Let’s just say that when I turned up, I got some pretty mixed reactions.

Whilst the majority of people were supportive of the fact that I had turned up, many others scowled at me for bringing an electric and not an acoustic guitar. Little did I know that the definition of bluegrass essentially involves the use of acoustic instruments, not electric! Luckily I had an acoustic guitar at home, so I came back the next week better prepared.

So, before we get started, bear in mind that we will be discussing acoustic guitars. Most modern bluegrass musicians will accept the fact that times have changed, and electroacoustic guitars are just more convenient, so I’ll be throwing one of those in the mix. However, we’ll be leaving electric guitars out of the equation this time, as I don’t want to upset anyone again!

What Makes a Good Bluegrass Guitar?

Good Bluegrass Guitar

Without further ado, let’s take a look at exactly what makes an excellent bluegrass guitar. I’m going to be breaking things down into four key sections: amplification, tonewoods, strings, and build. Let’s get started!

Build

Perhaps the most important and defining feature of a bluegrass guitar is the build of the instrument itself. This comes down to several things, and the first is its shape. Ask anyone in the bluegrass community, and they will tell you that your guitar should be a flattop. Much like the name suggests, this is literally when the top of the guitar is flat, as opposed to being arched.

Whilst this is partly due to it being the traditional aesthetic of a bluegrass guitarist, the more important thing is that it determines the sound quality, providing that flattop acoustic tone that is inseparable from the genre of bluegrass. You can essentially rule out any alternative guitar shapes if you want a bluegrass guitar, it’s just how it is!

There are a couple more important things to consider – a good bluegrass guitar should have a standard circular soundhole. I’ve always found this strange as I think f-hole acoustics look and sound great with bluegrass, but I’ve been told otherwise by many people who are much more pro at the genre than I am. The overall shape of the guitar should be a classic dreadnought style, although if you’ve already ruled out non-flattop guitars, this should be a given.

Finally, I’ve been told by many people that bluegrass guitars should never have a tailpiece. In case you are unaware, this is essentially when the bulk of the guitar’s bridge is at the very bottom of the guitar, creating tension between the headstock.

This is most commonly found with other stringed instruments such as banjos, and I have always assumed that this is why bluegrass guitarists do not like them. In my opinion, it doesn’t affect the sound much, so it’s the closest thing to an explanation that I’ve ever heard!

Tone Woods

tone woods

Next to the build and shape of the guitar, I believe that the most important contributing factor to a bluegrass guitar is the tonewood, meaning the wood found on the back and sides of the guitar that contributes the most to the overall tone.

Unlike many genres where electric and even acoustic guitars form the bulk of the treble frequencies, this is not the case for bluegrass. In general, banjos have a much brighter high-end than guitars, and as a result, guitarists in the bluegrass genre tend to search for something with more mid-range frequencies.

How they achieve this is by choosing guitars that have tonewoods that are made out of rosewood and mahogany. Rosewood is a common choice here due to the immense resonance that it provides, providing extraordinary bass tones that are difficult to produce otherwise. It’s a common choice as it juxtaposes the bright tones of banjos perfectly.

However, some people find the tone of rosewood slightly too bass-heavy, and these are the people that tend to choose mahogany instead. When applied to the back and sides of a guitar, this wood produces a tone that is commonly described as “woody” or “oaky”, providing a rich resonance much like rosewood but with significantly less bass response and overtones. Ultimately, this produces a more mid-heavy frequency scope, with a little extra emphasis on crispy clear trebles.

Ultimately, whether you are a rosewood or a mahogany kind of guitarist all comes down to personal preference. It is also wise to consider the rest of the musicians in your bluegrass group, their opinion, and the instruments that they play.

If you can see yourself performing with a lot of treble-heavy instruments such as fiddles and banjos, then rosewood would probably be better suited. However, if your band is missing such musicians and you want to contribute towards the high frequencies, then mahogany would be a better choice.

Strings

Next, let’s talk about strings. Due to the soft nature of the genre, I’ve heard a lot of students who claim that bluegrass guitars use nylon strings much like those found in classical and Spanish guitar music.

However, this is a common misconception – in fact, bluegrass guitars almost always use steel strings. This ultimately comes down to the brightness that steel strings provide.

When you consider the fact that most bluegrass guitars are made out of mahogany or rosewood, it makes sense, as nylon strings paired with those tonewoods would not leave much treble to play with!

Just like in most popular music genres, there will be six strings found on a bluegrass guitar. I’ve heard of a couple of crazy people using seven strings, but I bet you any money that they got some funny looks for this.

It’s a relatively conservative genre and people find stuff like that quite unusual. Plus, when there are violins, banjos, and fiddles handling the trebles and double basses handling the bass frequencies, there isn’t much need for such an increased frequency range on the guitar.

The gauge of bluegrass strings ultimately depends on the action of the guitar and the guitarist’s personal preferences. However, the most common setup for this is medium gauge strings.

Phosphor bronze or 80/20 brass is pretty common here, but it ultimately does not matter as much as other elements such as the tonewood and the build.

Amplification

amplification

After you’ve considered build, tonewoods, and strings, I would say that amplification is the next essential part of a bluegrass guitar. Sure, you could argue that the build quality, tonewoods, and dreadnought shape mainly contribute to this, but every guitar is different and some are simply louder than others.

So, why does this matter? Well, bluegrass is very much a genre of music that is enjoyed in life, usually in the form of jam bands. This means that if you are going to explore the genre of bluegrass, you’re likely to be in an unamplified musical setting, sitting around with some fellow musicians without any electricity in the room.

When you consider that you are going to be competing with the volume of double basses, fiddles, and banjos, perhaps amplification makes a bit more sense!

I would pick something that plays loudly and proudly. You can always play a little quieter if you are sounding overwhelming, but there’s only so loud that you can play in a bluegrass band without compromising the technique.

There is one other option of course – electroacoustic bluegrass guitars. These do exist, and personally, I have nothing against them. At the end of the day, bluegrass is an insanely popular genre of music, and this means that there is a thriving live music scene.

You will always get old-fashioned elitists and conservatives that claim that “using a guitar amp takes away the roots of bluegrass”, but I think this is just silly. After all, the alternative is using a microphone, and this is amplified by electricity anyway!

If you want to buy an electroacoustic bluegrass guitar, I’d say go for it. The only thing to bear in mind is that you may get some annoying comments about it. However, just ignore them – it’s all rubbish.

My Top Bluegrass Guitar Recommendations

In the short amount of time that you’ve been reading this guide, we’ve covered a whole lot of information. We’ve investigated what a bluegrass guitar consists of, the qualities to look for, why you shouldn’t purchase an electric guitar, and why you may want to consider a banjo.

It’s now time to put all of that information together and take a look at my three top bluegrass guitar recommendations. Hopefully, there will be one that sounds good to you too!

Alvarez Masterworks MD70EBG Bluegrass Dreadnought Electroacoustic

Alvarez Masterworks MD70EBG

I mentioned earlier that I thought it was only fair to bring up at least one electroacoustic guitar for those who are not worried about conventions, and therefore I decided upon this Alvarez Masterworks MD70EBG. This electroacoustic is delightful – I’ve sadly only had an opportunity to get my hands on it once, but someday I plan to own one myself.

It’s got that classic dreadnought build that you would expect from a bluegrass guitar, Rosewood tonewood on the backs and sides giving it a bass-rich sound, and a gorgeous tortoise wood pick-guard that I think adds to the aesthetic beautifully. The inlays on the fretboard allow it to stand out from similar guitars too.

Whilst it’s worth mentioning that some people don’t like electroacoustic guitars in the bluegrass scene, if you like this guitar, tell them to deal with it and move on. It’s too nice of a guitar to let other people’s opinions change your mind!

Pros

  • A traditional dreadnought build
  • Rosewood back and sides
  • Stunning tortoise wood pick-guard
  • Electroacoustic amplification for unlimited volume

Cons

  • Some bluegrass elitists do not think bluegrass guitars should be electroacoustic
  • The Rosewood tonewood can feel too bass-heavy without treble-rich instrumental accompaniment

Fender Squier Dreadnought Acoustic GuitarFender Squier Dreadnought Acoustic Guitar

I’m a huge fan of that last Alvarez guitar, but it’s undeniably a little on the pricey side. I decided that it was only fair to consider a more budget option, and when it comes to budget, you simply cannot go wrong with Fender guitars. Anyone who has purchased a guitar from this popular brand will know that they never fail to impregiss, and this dreadnought acoustic is no exception.

It’s got everything you would expect from a budget bluegrass acoustic – a dreadnought build, a circular soundhole, and even mahogany tonewood.

Sure, it’s not going to sound quite as good as a more expensive and high-quality option, but it ticks all the boxes in terms of bluegrass guitars, and that’s impressive considering the price.

It even comes bundled with a couple of guitar learning CDs, three plectrums, a strap, a guitar case, and a tuner! This makes it an absolute bargain, especially if you’re a beginner guitarist looking to be kitted out for everything bluegrass-related!

Pros

  • Extremely good values for money
  • Dreadnought build and mahogany tonewood results in a classic bluegrass tone
  • Comes bundled with everything a guitarist needs to get started
  • You just cannot go wrong with Fender guitars!

Cons

  • This guitar is not going to sound as good as a pricier alternative
  • A great choice for beginners, but perhaps not for a seasoned bluegrasser!

Martin D-18Martin D-18

Although that last Fender acoustic was a serious bargain, it probably gave bluegrass pros the heeby-jeebies. I think that’s unnecessary really – after all, everyone needs to start somewhere, and it does give you a lot of bank for your buck. However, this one goes out to the bluegrass experts – it’s the Martin D-18.

Yup, this guitar is going to put you back at least $3,000 which is pretty insane considering the price of the last two. However, you get what you pay for, and this truly is a special bluegrass guitar.

When you hear that the instrument has a mahogany neck, ebony fretboard, and mahogany tonewoods, you might wonder what’s the point in spending all that money when the Fender Squier has similar properties.

Well, all I can say is that you need to give this guitar a go for yourself – the quality is insane. The wood is all completely authentic, acoustically treated for durability, and the resonance is superb.

I would honestly go as far as to say that having a pickup and an electroacoustic jack on this guitar would do it a disservice. Does this mean I’ve become a bluegrass conservative? Maybe, but for this guitar, it’s worth it!

Pros

  • A tone that is unbeatable by any bluegrass guitar, period
  • Incredibly high-quality and authentic woods all across the board
  • Just holding this guitar feels special, it’s extremely comfortable
  • You pretty much cannot beat this guitar for bluegrass, ask anybody!

Cons

  • I honestly cannot think of a single con to this guitar, other than the price tag

FAQ

Well, that brings us to the end of this guide on how to find the best bluegrass guitars! In case you have any final questions, let’s round things off with a quick FAQ – hopefully, it will prevent you from walking away with unanswered questions!

Question: What are the Key Properties of a Bluegrass Guitar?

Answer: Bluegrass guitars should be acoustic, flattop, have a circular soundhole, and have tonewoods made out of mahogany or rosewood.

Question: Can Bluegrass Guitars Be Electric?

Answer: Electric guitars are not traditionally used in bluegrass music, but many people accept electroacoustic guitars as viable bluegrass instruments.

Question: What is the Best Acoustic Guitar for Bluegrass Music?

Answer: The Martin D-18 is commonly known as the king of all bluegrass acoustic guitars, period.

Final Thoughts

Well, that brings us to the end of this guide on how to find the best bluegrass guitars! Always stick with an acoustic (or electroacoustic), find something with rosewood or mahogany tonewoods, and if you’ve got cash to splash, just bite the bullet and grab a Martin D-18. However, if you’re like most of us and on a budget, the Fender Squier Acoustic is a seriously good compromise.

I wish you all the best on your bluegrass journey, and I hope you enjoy performing the genre as much as I do. Finally, please learn from my mistake and don’t turn up to a bluegrass jam with a Flying V electric – I guarantee that you will get some funny looks!

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