The evolution of the acoustic guitar is typically one of quiet radicalism, with technological advancement secreted under the soundboard, in novel bracing patterns that accentuate the guitar's tone, improving resonance and performance.
It is often the case that new materials resemble the old. What looks like ebony is really a composite. What looks like mahogany is a more sustainable alternative. Performance and sustainability are key drivers of innovation, with the latter a growing concern as guitar builders – and, indeed, players – become more conscious of dwindling tonewood stocks and habitat preservation.
This year's readers' poll is proof that sometimes that evolution is not so quiet, and sometimes the design to challenge norms and push the boundaries is the one that captures the imagination of the guitar playing public. Even if their first reaction is one of disbelief, as surely it was at NAMM when Martin unveiled the guitar that topped your list... An electro-acoustic that redefines performance.
1. Martin SC-13E
It's not just the body shape that makes the Martin SC-13E seem so aggressively modern the first time you catch sight of it. Flip it round and check out that Sure Align neck system. This allows you to make pitch and intonation adjustments via the soundhole. Convenient.
Wrap your palm around the neck and you'll find that it is comfortable, the action is super low – as in Jackson/Charvel electric guitar levels of low. On closer inspection, you might notice that the neck profile is asymmetric, but the chances are you might be too busy playing.
The offset singlecutaway body shape is certainly different. It's quite a shallow body. It all adds up to an electro-acoustic that offers unparalleled playability for guitarists of all styles, with a cutaway that exposes the whole fingerboard. Its balanced voice flatters fingerstyle players. Its lower-mid power a fine fit for strummers.
The SC-13E shows up well through an amplifier. The MX-T pickup and preamp does a fine job. By which point you should have fully come around to that body shape. The koa veneers on Sitka spruce catch the light in all the right ways, with the touch of azure a touch of modernist showboating from the design team. They've earned it.
2. Taylor American Dream AD27
The American Dream series arose out of the economic upheaval of the Covid-19 pandemic. As such, it is the cheapest US-built range that Taylor has ever made. The AD27, without electronics, costs £1,619. Not cheap, but cheap as American-made Taylors go, and it's an incredible build.
The AD27 assumes Taylor's 14-fret Grand Pacific shape, a proprietary take on the round-shouldered dread, and has a solid mahogany top with V-Class bracing, with solid sapele on the back and sides, and a mahogany neck carved into the softest of V shapes. The setup is meticulous.
There is enough room at the nut to accommodate the fingerstyle player, but with its organic, rootsy tone and superlative projection from that V-Class bracing pattern, you could consider the AD27 an all-rounder.
3. Taylor Grand Theater Gte Urban Ash
A compact electro-acoustic that comes somewhere between Taylor's GS Mini and its full-sized siblings, the Grand Theater Gte Urban Ash's finds a happy medium with a 24/1/8" scale. Does the Gte connote some sort of sporting excellence? Well, in terms of performance, it offers a very comfortable ride.
It's the sort of acoustic that you'll sit with on the couch for hours on end, but should you want to gig it – and with this impeccable build and tone, why wouldn't you? – it comes equipped with Taylor's ever-impressive Expression System 2.
Now, let's get to the nitty gritty. All this is all very familiar. What's less so is the partnering of a solid Sitka spruce top with Urban Ash on the back and sides. Now, here's where innovation has sprung out of a desire for sustainable tonewoods, with Taylor sourcing felled trees from the streets of Southern California and using them for their guitar.
Master luthier and partner Andy Powers says it is not unlike Honduran mahogany, and it certainly complements the spruce nicely. Good for the planet, good for your tone. What's not to like?
4. Larrivée C-03R-TE Custom
A "tribute" to Tommy Emmanuel's much-loved custom C-10, the Larrivée C-03R-TE Custom is a luxurious acoustic with a Florentine cutaway and an air of sophistication.
Sitting down to some fingerstyle playing and it will reward you with some exceptional dynamics and enough treble and upper-mid sparkle to bring all the detail out in your playing. The Florentine cutaway encourages some adventurism up the top end.
The finish is breathtaking, satin smooth, flawless, with a tried and true tonewood cocktail of solid spruce on top and solid Indian rosewood on the back and sides making for a well-balanced and authoritative tone.
If you are thinking it sounds a little polite, dig out a pick and strum a few open chords and there's a big rambunctiousness that could do a good imitation of a dread. We often talk about certain acoustics favouring certain styles, but when they are made as well as this, that all seems besides the point. This is a resonant, musical acoustic that's impossible not to like.
5. Cort Little CJ Walnut
A three-quarter jumbo at a very tempting price, the Cort Little CJ Walnut would give entry-level Martin and Taylor acoustics a run for their money.
The build is tip-top. You've got an open-pore solid spruce top complemented by laminated walnut on the back and sides, with an extremely comfortable mahogany neck that assumes a V-profile and hosts an ovangkol fingerboard.
With such compact dimensions, what you lack in low-end boom you make up in treble clarity and an expressive upper-midrange that'll make your cowboy chords pop.
The onboard electronics aren't bad either – Fishman Presys II complete with Volume, Bass, Treble, and Phase switch. Oh, and an onboard tuner, too.
All this for £369. Little CJ, you're all right!
6. Cort Gold-OC6
Don't be fooled by the modest price tag on the Cort Gold-OC6. This cutaway electro-acoustic would look good in any company.
The quality begins with the choice of tonewoods – solid Sitka spruce on the top, okoume on the back and sides – and extends throughout the build and finish, hardware and components. We've got a bone nut here for crying out loud...
On the headstock you'll find a set of gold Grover Deluxe Vintage tuners, a little bling to offset the Macassar ebony fingerboard and bridge. Under the hood there is a Fishman Flex Blend System, with a nice, bright LED tuner – all discretely mounted on the shoulder and a very nice piece of kit. Percussive players will love it.
A little abalone flourish graces the rosette. The decorative flourishes are well considered. It comes with a gig bag, too. Very impressive.
7. Atkin The Forty Three
With the Forty Three, the clue is in the name. This is a British built and designed acoustic that lovingly recreates the wartime banner headstock J-45 vibe for a the contemporary player who wants to bust out some chords on a vintage flat top but doesn't quite have the coin.
Indeed, so strong is the illusion that Alister Atkin and his team create, you might well catch yourself digging out the ration book when you're next in Tesco.
It assumes the round-shouldered dreadnought shape, with a baked solid spruce top and mahogany on the back, sides and neck. The baking is important, artificially ageing the wood and endowing the instrument with a bright response and a detail to its midrange that you might find in a vintage instrument.
From the distressed three-on-a-plate tuners and white buttons, to cream binding that makes it look like the Marlboro Man once owned the guitar, the Forty Three is all about that vintage appeal – a workhorse acoustic for powering through folk songs or thumbing earthy Delta blues. It's very cool.