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Dreadnoughts may be the world’s best-selling acoustic guitars. But the fact is, in the grand scheme of flattop history, dreads are still the new kid on the block. Body styles we now know as 0, 00, 000, and parlor each preceded the dread by decades. And the dreadnought really only rose as larger bands and the more raucous sounds of dance and country music left players looking for more volume.
The appeal of a big dread remains eternal—sometimes only that booming bass with its banjo and fiddle-killing volume will do. These days though, an acoustic player is just as likely to be a home recordist working in a small apartment as a singer trying to be heard over the clamor of a brew pub or honky tonk. And this begs a question: If volume isn’t what it used to be, what other acoustic flavors are out there? How do you get them? And how do you do it without spending the equivalent of several luxury car payments?
Some of the answers lie in the sampling of affordable, small-body guitars we’ve assembled here. These five guitars represent the better percentage of classic small-body styles. Simon & Patrick’s contribution is a parlor—one of the smallest and oldest incarnations of the gut or steel-string flattop. Epiphone gives us their take on the Gibson L-00, a compact and portable instrument of unique proportions that plenty of rambling bluesmen and folkies thought was a perfect combination of voice and portability. The Loar’s contribution to our roundup is closer to a Martin 0-sized guitar. Martin’s own contribution is its 000X1AE, an affordable take on one of its most iconic, enduring, and significant instruments. Another American acoustic legend, Guild, lends an affordable, Asian-built cousin of one of its own icons, the M-20—an all-mahogany marvel that, like Martin’s similar 00, is regarded by many as the perfect convergence of tone and size.
The simple fact that these guitars are smaller than a dread will be appeal enough for a lot of potential customers. As anyone with a smaller frame can tell you, a dread is a whole lot of guitar to hold. And even for those of us big enough not to consider a dread’s girth a bother, the realities of all those repetitive-stress injuries from our desk jobs, or bum shoulders from a baseball injury two decades past make the comfort and diminished strain associated with a small body a very soothing notion indeed.
But beyond comfort, small bodies are capable of very interesting sonic tricks. Much of the resurgence in popularity of small bodies, after all, can be attributed to the resurgence of fingerstyle guitar in the ’70s. Fingerpickers realized that 00s and 000s exhibited an ideal balance of volume and harmonic detail for their intricate patterns and arpeggios. And recording engineers have known for decades that the prevailing sonic qualities of many small bodies—compact, less booming bass tones, rich and focused midrange, and smooth, consistent sustain and decay, make these instruments ideal recording mates. Over the next few pages we’ll examine the merits, both in practical and sonic terms, of these five affordable flattops. And as we’ll see, many of these guitars open up a lot of creative possibilities for not a whole lot of bread.
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