What Makes A Cheap Guitar Sound Bad? (Detailed Explanation)

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Written By Musical Scoop

Chief Music Officer

There are a variety of factors that can influence why a cheap guitar might sound bad. 

For acoustic guitars, it is usually the materials used to make the guitar, whereas for an electric guitar it is usually the components that are fitted to the guitar.

However the guitar action, and neck setup can also have a big influence on both acoustic and electric guitars. 

Throughout this article we will explore in detail, the factors that can lead a cheap acoustic guitar to sound bad, and the factors that can lead a cheap electric guitar to sound bad.

What Makes Cheap Acoustic Guitars Sound Bad?

Materials Used To Make The Guitar

For an acoustic guitar, the defining factor in the tone that it makes is the wood that the guitar is made from. 

Especially the top of the acoustic guitar, also known as the soundboard. 

In many cheap guitars, this sound board is made from laminate, which has very poor sound qualities, and it will be very difficult to get a nice acoustic sound out of a laminate guitar.

If you have a guitar with a solid top, this means the top of the guitar is made from real wood, whether that be spruce, mahogany, or some other sort of wood. 

These guitars produce a much better sound, however, that better sound comes at an increased price. 

So if you have a cheap acoustic guitar, and it sounds bad, the main reason that it sounds bad is probably because of the materials it is made from.

Guitar Strings

A cheap guitar may also sound bad because it may come from a factory fitted with very cheap strings. 

There is a difference between the sounds cheap guitar strings make, compared to the sounds that expensive, quality guitar strings can make.

Guitar Setup

The setup of an acoustic guitar refers to how the strings of the acoustic guitar in relation to the neck of the guitar. 

If the guitar is not set up well the strings could be sitting either too close to the neck or sitting too high above the neck, both of which can have a negative impact on the sound of the guitar. 

Because of the low price of cheap guitars, they do not get much individual attention from a guitar technician to spend the time to set them up properly in the manufacturing process. 

As a result there is an increased chance that the guitar is not set up in an ideal way, which negatively impacts sound.

Components

In addition to the guitar wood, strings and the setup, certain components of a cheap acoustic guitar can also have a negative impact on the sound. 

Components such as the nut at the head end of the guitar, and the saddle, at the bridge end of the acoustic guitar can have a significant impact on sound. 

In cheap guitars these are typically made from plastic, whereas other materials, that are more expensive, can have better acoustic properties, and a better influence on tone.

What Makes Cheap Electric Guitars Sound Bad?

The factors that contribute to an electric guitar sounding bad tend to be different from those factors that contribute to an acoustic guitar sounding bad.

Electrical Components 

One of the biggest factors of an electric guitar that determines how it sounds, are the electrical components. This includes the guitar pickups, switches, knobs, and the wiring.

Of course, on a cheap guitar the manufacturer has used the cheapest components possible, and the quality of these components does have a very significant impact on the quality of sound that comes out of the guitar amplifier.

Guitar Setup

Like an acoustic guitar, the setup of an electric guitar also has a big impact on sound and cheap electric guitars do not get much individual attention during the manufacturing process to make sure this setup is optimized.

Other things such as the nut and the saddle also impact the sound that a cheap electric guitar can make, but the electrical components, and the guitar setup, are the two biggest factors.

Can Cheap Guitars Sound Good?

Yes it is possible for a cheap guitar to sound  good, but on average, a cheap guitar is not likely to have a sound that matches one of it’s more expensive counterparts. 

These things can be addressed after you purchase the guitar, for a cost. But there are certain foundational aspects of a cheap guitar, especially a cheap acoustic guitar, that are not reversible.

Is There A Way To Make Cheap Guitars Sound Better?

Yes there are ways to make a cheap guitar sound better. 

New Guitar Strings

For both electronic and acoustic guitars, the first thing I would do is put on a set of new high quality guitar strings. 

Manufacturers of cheap guitars are trying to save as much money as possible, and that will include putting on low quality guitar strings.

Sometimes the simple addition of a new set of strings can make a significant difference to the sound of a guitar, so that is always the first place I would start.

Guitar Setup

The second thing I would do would be to fine tune the setup of the guitar. 

This would include making sure the action is of a suitable height and making sure the neck has appropriate relief, to make sure the fundamentals are in place. 

While doing this you could also check the guitar frets to make sure they are all level and sitting at the same height, as this can have an impact on the playability and quality of sound a guitar makes.

Replace Components

You can always replace the existing components of both acoustic and electric guitars, and replace them with more expensive items.

Whether this be removing the plastic nut and saddle and replacing them with ivory alternatives, or completely removing the whole electrical system and replacing it with high quality electrical components, these are things you can consider.

Though this is possible, it is probably a significant investment of time and resources, meaning you are better off spending more money on a more expensive guitar instead.

Is It Worth Buying A Cheap Guitar Even If It Sounds Bad?

If you are on a low budget, and can only afford a cheap guitar, I personally still think it is worth buying a cheap guitar. 

If you are a beginner player, and needing a guitar to practice on while you learn your craft, having a cheap guitar is much better than having no guitar.

You can still play live performances, and even record music with a cheap guitar, but it will sound just that, cheap. If you do end up recording, there is a potential to hire, and potentially even borrow from a friend a more expensive, better sanding guitar.

The most important thing is that you have a guitar you can play, and just have fun playing by yourself, and with your friends and bandmates. 

As a beginner it is good to buy the best guitar you can reasonably afford and then just get started playing. 

If in future you find yourself with some spare money, and you have applied yourself and have taken the guitar seriously, you can then consider buying a more expensive guitar.

Another thing you could do if you only have a limited amount of money, is to keep your eye on the second hand market, as you may be able to pick up a better quality guitar for the same price as a new but cheap guitar.