Beyond that, there are no rules about the guitar’s characteristics, but there are some traditions. Most bluegrass guitarists play a flattop guitar with a dreadnought body shape with a spruce top. Classic Martin brand guitars are the standard for the style, but there are plenty of other options in the modern guitar market that will give you the fingerpicking and power you need for a bluegrass band.
Below are, in our humble opinion, the 5 best bluegrass guitars on the market.
The Martin D-28 is the gold standard for bluegrass guitars, with a sound that has been called quintessentially American. It was the guitar of choice for such players as Bob Dylan, Hank Williams, and Joni Mitchell, and today’s models are made with the same precision craftsmanship as they were when they debuted in 1931. The top is solid Sitka spruce with sides and back of East Indian rosewood, using genuine ebony for the fingerboard and bridge. This combination of tonewoods is what makes it so popular among bluegrass musicians, giving your sound a lot of power and punch that make it perfect for rhythmic strumming, with a sweet, resonant tone on the sustain. If you’re willing to shell out the dough, well, this just might be the best bluegrass guitar period.
Taylor Guitars DN3
The DN3 is a traditional Dreadnought guitar with a Taylor twist. The specialized bracing in this model gives the bass register more oomph, mellowing the traditionally bright Taylor tone without losing the high-end clarity the brand is so renowned for. The sapele used on the back and sides gives the sound warmth and resonance, especially in the mid-range, which melds nicely with the snappy articulation from the Sitka spruce top to give you a tone that’s both focused and powerful. The lustrous gloss lacquer on the top and textured satin finish on the back and sides is specially designed by Taylor to improve the durability of the tonewoods, so you know you’ll keep that fantastic tone for a long while.
The tonewoods of an acoustic guitar are the most important variable when it comes to the tone of the instrument. The Adirondack spruce used in the top of this Blueridge model is a rare and highly-valued tonewood, used in the construction of the vintage bluegrass guitars from the early 20th century. The back and sides, meanwhile, are built of East Indian rosewood, handcrafted to the perfect thickness. Combined with the scalloped, forward-X top bracing, it gives you the right combination of weight and strength for a powerful tone and clear attack. With the BR-180A, you get the best of vintage sound and modern construction techniques. This should be on anyone’s list of the best bluegrass guitars.
They’re not as well-known as Gibson or Martin, but this San Francisco-based company specializes in vintage-styled guitars that strike a balance between traditional sound and modern construction quality. Their Dreadnought acoustic uses an Adirondack spruce top and mahogany back and sides, resulting in a strong mid-range that’s responsive to fingerpicking dynamics. The exquisite craftsmanship includes a dovetail neck joint and hand-carved parabolic braces that use a traditional forward X pattern. At just over $700, this guitar is also an exceptional value, sharing tonal qualities with traditional bluegrass models like the Martin D-18 but costing a fraction of the price.
Yamaha FG840 Dreadnought Acoustic
Bluegrass guitars can be pretty pricey, but with this Yamaha FG840 guitar you can get a great bluegrass sound for less than $400. This model gives you an option of tonewoods: either mahogany or Sitka spruce on the top and a back and sides of maple, mahogany, or rosewood. Most bluegrass players will choose the spruce top with the mahogany body, but you can pick your own combination to find your perfect sound. The scalloped X bracing and dreadnought body shape give you the power and punchy articulation you need to cut through the ensemble.
Construction and Materials
The two most important characteristics for a good bluegrass sound are power and clarity. Power lets your acoustic sound cut through the ensemble, while a crisp and punch attack is imperative for the high-speed fingerpicking the genre calls for.
The tonewoods and bracing used in the construction are going to have the biggest impact on these qualities of your sound. The most common tonewoods seen in bluegrass guitars are rosewood and mahogany. Many bluegrass players prefer rosewood, which is very resonant and gives your sound deeper bass and a darker overall sound profile. Mahogany has a warmer tone that’s bright in the upper register with less pronounced overtones.
When it comes to the top wood, the vast majority of bluegrass guitars use spruce because it improves the clarity of the tone; Adirondack or Red Spruce is especially coveted because of how clearly it articulates at all dynamic levels. A mahogany top, on the other hand, will give you a richer sustain and a more nuanced attack.
The bracing used on the inside of the top has a significant impact on the sound and response of the instrument. Most steel string dreadnoughts use an X-pattern bracing, but the wood type and thickness and the positioning of the bracing relative to the sound hole will alter the sonic profile of the top. Many bluegrass guitarists prefer a scalloped bracing in their instruments. Scalloped bracings make the instrument louder and improve the responsiveness of the top wood, perfect for the fast rhythmic lines common to the genre.
What kind of strings you use is also important to getting the ideal bluegrass sound. The standard for a bluegrass guitar is to use medium gauge strings that are wound with either phosphor bronze or 80/20 brass. The differences between the two materials will be subtle. An 80/20 bronze string will have brighter tone, one that’s often described as a “true brass” brilliance. Phosphor bronze strings, on the other hand, give you a warmer, richer tone.
Ultimately, it’s a matter of personal choice. Both these materials will give you the bright steel-string sound you want when you’re playing in a bluegrass style, but consider the tonal characteristics of your guitar and what you want to emphasize in your sound. If you have an all-mahogany guitar, you might not need the added warmth of a phosphor bronze string, and may find that the brighter edge of an 80/20 brass string is just what you need to round out the tone. Once you find an instrument that has the overall sound you’re looking for (i.e., the best bluegrass guitar according to your own personal needs), experimenting with different strings can let you make final tweaks to perfect your tone.