33 of the best high-end acoustic guitars
23rd Nov 2012 | 09:30
We've plucked the best guitars we've reviewed over the last four years - plus a few classic models - to show you the very best of what's out there.
After looking at budget and mid-range guitars, here are the the very best of the high end, the guitars that are reserved for those lucky folks who have north of £1000 (or $1,500) burning a hole in their pockets.
All of the guitars in this gallery are either time-proven classics or have been reviewed within the last three years and have gained a minimum of a 4.5 star rating. That means we feel these models' build quality, sound, playability and value for money are not in question at their relative price points.
Patrick James Eggle Parlour
Patrick James Eggle is obsessed with guitars. Some 10,000 guitars and 30 years after he built his first one, Eggle is one of the few UK luthiers who enjoys an enviable reputation both at home and overseas.
Based on our initial impressions of the guitar, its sound has a lot to live up to, but we aren't disappointed. Though not having the volume of larger-bodied guitars, this model is highly impressive in terms of its articulation and lucidity.
"A visually and tonally stunning work by perhaps the UK's best acoustic guitar maker."
Buoyant, convincing sounds with a wide and shallow neck add up to an exercise in tasty tones and cosmetics
This model falls firmly within the classic Martin OM/000 genre. With its wider neck, though, the Tanglewood will attract fingerstyle fans to its fairly shallow neck.
"An extremely well-delivered instrument."
Boasting a full 15mm extra width, the CPX has much more of a traditional acoustic guitar body size than its stablemate the APX1200II.
In short, the CPX is a show-stealing instrument that appears to have it all: good looks, high standards of craftsmanship and a versatile, capable amplified and acoustic output.
"Great looks, great tone and well-priced for a pro-grade instrument - what’s not to like?"
The 000 has a bold speaking voice that punches single notes or plucked chords to the front
We don't recall any acoustic guitars - from any maker and at whatever price point - that have caused the stir that this simple-looking 000-15 and its D-15 sibling have managed. But it's their total, non-frilled fitness for purpose that has galvanised us all into wanting one so much.
"It looks brilliant, plays and sounds amazing and at this price point, its Gold award must be the no-brainer of the century."
In terms of playability, build quality and affordability, Martin has again produced a fantastic electro worthy of inclusion in the PA Series. Acoustically, the OMCPA4 offers something distinct from Martin's familiar and distinguished tone.
Since its launch, the Performing Artist Series has been accused of being too Taylor-like. We'd suggest that with this fourth generation member of PA guitars, Martin has produced an electro even more akin to its biggest rivals in both form and tone. Whether that's a good thing is, ultimately, up to you.
"A capable electro-acoustic, balancing warmth, clarity and clout"
Guild D-40 Std
Okay, it lacks a few Traditional Series features, but these are essentially cosmetic and don't detract one iota from them being a great-sounding acoustic, simply yet elegantly styled, and crafted to a very high standard.
The D-40 is a pedigree example of its body style, amply demonstrating that in no way is Guild letting its, er, standards slip. Indeed it's very much the opposite.
"Punchy and articulate sound with excellent playability this is everything a great dread should be... apart from no second strap button!"
Guild F-30R Std
The sustainfully vibrant tone is warm and fluid, with silkily sunny highs, and the whole sound displays a delightfully smooth poise and articulation whether strumming or picking.
Try it with various tunings - especially drop D or open G - and the guitar positively sings, making it an engaging and highly enjoyable player.
"Expressive, lyrical, clear-toned - nailing the essential OM criteria."
Whether gently played fingerstyle or thrashed with a heavy pick, the D-18 offers a balanced, well-rounded timbre with bags of headroom and sustain.
Martin's revisions have come together to take the D-18 to another level. In fact, we'd offer a word of warning for current D-18 owners: try the new models at your peril - you'll want one.
"Martin has managed to improve and refine what was an already great guitar. This new D-18 is truly fantastic."
Gibson J-45 Standard
Gibson first produced the Gibson J-45 back in 1942. Originally conceived as a replacement for the earlier Gibson J-35, the J-45 had a list price of $45. Nicknamed by its creators as 'The Workhorse', the J-45 quickly became the flagship of Gibson's acoustic range and to this day it remains its most popular acoustic model.
In terms of its notoriety, reputation and legendary status, the Gibson J-45 sits comfortably alongside Martin's square-shouldered D-28. For nearly 70 years singer-songwriters the world over have relied on the full, strident tone of the J-45.
There's good reason why Martin's OMs are so loved: they sound fantastic.
The lower registers have that familiar plumpness, the top end has a bell-like clarity and the separation throughout the tonal spectrum is excellent.
"New Performance neck profile, same instantly likeable tone - the new OM-21 will remain a firm favourite with fingerstyle players."
Taylor 214ce K DLX
Taylor's grand auditorium is the definition of the modern electro steel-string, and this deluxe version is well aimed.
With its upgraded pickup system, all-gloss exotic wood body and a hard case, while you can't call a four-figure sum a 'steal', in reality it is. It's superb.
"A substantial upgrade to the standard 214ce, in terms of appearance and sound: an excellent serious gigger's tool."
Larrivée OM-3 Swamp Ash
Larrivée may have a lower profile than the USA big boys, but don't for a moment think it's lacking. This guitar is a superb pro-level tool, very well-priced and offering something a little different in terms of the woods.
It is a very special musical instrument that any discerning amateur or professional should be happy to add to their collection.
"This is an exceptionally beautiful acoustic guitar that nails it in looks, sound, feel and playability."
Larrivée OM-3S Silver Oak
A very special musical instrument that any discerning amateur or professional should be happy to add to their collection.
Although most players would automatically choose a 14-fret, we had to be prised away from this 12-fret silver oak model. When you come across something this good, you don't want to let it go...
"Combining Larrivée's favourite tonewood with his preferred 12-fret neck, is it any surprise this is so good?"
Martin D-15M Burst
The D-15M puts every single cent of its build budget into making the best sounding and playing instrument, with very little concession to cosmetics, electronics or anything else.
Solid woods, improved neck joint, bone nut and saddle, no frills whatsoever, save for the 'burst top: it's unreservedly recommended.
"Want a simple, light and resonant, superb-sounding dreadnought for sensible money? This is it!"
There's a lot to evaluate here with the new 814ce: a sea of subtleties, perhaps, that results in really quite a different voice for Taylor's definitive modern cutaway electro-acoustic.
The improvements to the acoustic sound of the guitar, to our ears, broaden its versatility - especially for fingerstyle. It doesn't compromise Taylor's renowned clear voice, but does seem to bolster the midrange and thicken up the highs a little.
"A re-evaluation of the guitar that made Taylor's name, with a redesigned electro system. A new benchmark?"
In order to genuinely appreciate this guitar, you need to take some flattop history lessons, then play a bunch of J-35- and J-45-inspired guitars, including Gibson's own, of course.
What that would conclude is that the quality of build, not to mention the precision and depth of the CJ35's tone are second to none. By no means a vintage clone, it sounds spectacular now, so heaven only knows what it's going to sound like with 25 years of solid playing on it.
"Simply jaw-dropping build quality and awe-inspiring modern-vintage tone, albeit at an equally arresting price."
Guild Traditional D-55
It's a genuine pleasure to hear, see and feel Guild at the top of its game. If this guitar is anything to go by, the latest Traditional models are absolutely up there with the other big American names, offering superb quality craftsmanship and world-class tone.
The D-55 is a potentially serious workhorse that has every likelihood of outlasting and outperforming any one of us as long as we can keep on picking - a sumptuous strummer.
"A loud, proud and classy dread offering serious credibility, quality and tone. Just make sure you bond with the flattish neck profile."
Guild Standard F-30
The F-30 is Guild's take on the curvier, thinner, orchestra-style instrument beloved of all manner of folkies and fingerstylists for a tone you'll often hear described as anything from "balanced" or "vocal", through to "focused".
There's something just so fundamentally right about the F-30. Absolutely no-nonsense from start to finish, it has an appointments list that puts function over form at every turn, for example the beautifully cut and finished bone nut and saddle, but a lack of excessive decoration.
"A superb, pro-grade picker that trades visual niceties for the most important tonal features and build."
This instrument again illustrates just how good a maker Larrivée is.
Faultless build, setup and playability, with a sound that doesn't step too far from the classic American steel-string, but far enough to make you, the player, sit up and take notice. In particular, for recording and perhaps ensemble use, it simply sits and fits very nicely.
"We truly are in the golden age of the acoustic instrument and, yes, there is plenty of choice out there. The thing is that Larrivée, in terms of sounds, build and price, is becoming a very hard act to beat."
The ubiquity of the modern dreadnought can be its downfall. And this was our first surprise: this D-40R is all about balance, something many dreadnoughts can get a little wrong.
So there's roomy low end and balanced highs as you'd expect, but rather than sound a little flat, the mids sparkle more like you'd expect from a smaller-bodied guitar.
"A beautifully expansive dreadnought that is equally at home strummed or fingerpicked. A must-try."
As one of the world's largest and most consistent makers, when Taylor does something it's usually for a reason. The inclusion here, then, of a mahogany top to its key range might seem a cynical bandwagon-jumping exercise - until you hear one.
Of course, it still sounds, feels and plays like a Taylor. It's hugely reliable, stage ready, and while it might not appeal to vintage-ophiles, for the rest of us they are undoubtedly great playing and sounding, professional working instruments.
"This 'hog beaut is not some retro timepiece; it's a different, punchier-sounding Taylor, fit for full pro duties."
Larrivée OM-03E 'Vintage'
The 'Vintage'-spec OM, of course, is more expensive than the standard model. Larrivée remarks that it's virtually a custom build and that the all-over Sunburst is extremely time-consuming to achieve.
If you think it's over-priced, it's time for a reality check. The OM-03E sounds truly world class - a superb all- rounder and one of the finest 12-fret fingerstyle guitars we've encountered. It looks vintage and sounds it, too.
"An exceptionally beautiful guitar that hits all the right notes in looks, sound, feel and playability."
There's something about the D-17M's mahogany and spruce combination that appeals to us greatly.
This guitar is warm-toned, and it's punchy and loud, with no need for breaking in - just perfect for someone wanting the moody look of a 15 but with a touch more sonic sophistication.
"A great guitar that screams, "Play me!" Covers more bases than you expect, without batting an eyelid."
Lowden 32SE Stage Edition
The 32SE is quite simply one of the best-suited stage electros we've encountered.
It doesn't want to be pigeonholed stylistically, and either acoustically or amplified seems able to suit a broad range of styles. It feels, too, like a very comfortable pair of shoes - all the rough edges are worn away.
"A superb instrument, built for the stage, but with an endearing acoustic voice. If you're a performing musician, you must try one."
Taylor Grand Orchestra 518e
The 518e has a superb balance, and for such a big guitar it's surprisingly dynamic, powerful and responsive.
You really don't have to dig in hard to get the sound out. Put another way, if big guitars aren't your thing, it's time to change your opinion. It's not quite an orchestra, but it's damn close.
"Powerful and with a real bass guitar-like low-end, the Grand Orchestra offers a new voice. Where will it take you?"
Martin Retro Series HD-28E
Martin's Retro series is aimed at more traditionally-minded players than its Performing Artist series, and will excel in any home or any studio.
Its tones work superbly in a live environment, too, though how many people will realistically submit such finery to regular gigging life remains to be seen.
In any case, top marks to Martin and Fishman for travelling back in time to create a forward-thinking guitar worthy of anyone's collection.
"One of the most exciting and rewarding electros Martin has produced in recent times."
Martin Retro Series D-18E
Acoustically, the Retro D-18E offers a clean, bright, crisp tone with lots of power and projection. It's a mid-heavy sound that's sensitive to dynamic variations.
Without an original Golden Era guitar to hand, we can't make an accurate judgement on how closely the F1 Aura Plus replicates that museum piece. We can, however, confirm that this guitar is an exceptional electro.
"An attention-grabbing electro in terms of both looks and tone."
Taylor, despite building guitars since 1974, is still seen as the very modern opposite to Martin's oh-so-vintage style. That perception will probably never change, but this year's Taylor line features the overhauled 700 Series that, "with their vintage sunburst tops and ivoroid heritage fretboard inlays conjure a distinctively old-school Americana vibe".
The steel-string 712ce is one of those dream all-rounders that feels, sounds and plays superbly. Factor in the very cool visual aesthetic, effortless playability and what is a just-about realistic price for a premium USA guitar of this quality, and you have a hugely attractive instrument.
"A superb all-rounder - a guitar that will accompany you from the sofa to the biggest stages effortlessly."
The ultimate modern version of genuine vintage tone; flawless build and ultimate playability.
We have bleated on about the 'law of diminishing returns' in reviews of expensive kit for years. But never has the term been so appropriate. For the gigantic extra outlay you get a palpably better sounding guitar, possibly even the best you've ever heard - by maybe 10 percent.
"This OM1AV is the ultimate modern version of genuine vintage tone; flawless build and ultimate playability. Sorry Granny, you've got to go."
Patrick James Eggle Parlour Cuban
Conventional wisdom says that a parlour's default sound is boxy and brash. Not so with this all-mahogany Parlour Cuban.
It has an impressively grown-up, open timbre: warm, smooth and, for its body size, richly textured and dynamic, counterpointed by a sweetly sustaining bite in the highs to endow the required presence. Lovely.
"Extremely mature, atypical parlour sound: another world-class guitar from PJE."
Atkin AA AM Special
There's a timeless, vintage-like demeanour to this AM Special that greatly impresses and attracts.
It's not a flash instrument but it definitely shines - both literally and metaphorically - where it needs to. It looks and plays the business in AA form, and doubtless will do likewise, whichever Atkin body style takes your fancy.
"Puts a fine gloss on the all-mahogany genre, with great style: superb."
Martin must be congratulated for this superb guitar. Build quality is high, acoustic tone is compelling and the onboard electronics first-class.
Some will initially struggle with getting the desired settings out of the F1, but for those who persevere the rewards are great.
"Stunning acoustic tone and great plugged in with the Fishman F1. Versatility, playability and performance: our new favourite electro."
Patrick James Eggle Linville
Perusing Mr Eggle’s super-clean internal and external workmanship immediately tells us he fully appreciates and complies with the punishing standards set by today’s finest acoustic makers.
Breathing fresh life into even your most well-worn old party pieces, the Linville runs your repertoire through a magical musical makeover; sympathetically conveying even the most subtle moments of your performance, so everything sounds more focused and emotionally intact.