Whether you’re looking for an acoustic parlor guitar that’s lightweight and easy to travel with, or just looking for a smaller body acoustic for fingerstyle playing you’ve come to the right place. The acoustic guitars on this list are small, durable, well made guitars that sound great, play great and cost less than $600 – and in many cases, just $300.
Small body guitars are great for fingerpickers in either blues, folk or even jazz styles. Their smaller body usually accentuates the higher end of the sound spectrum, making them “brighter” or more treble dominant. They’re great for keeping on hand around the house to help encourage more regular practice, or for traveling with. Great for songwriting too. What they’re not great for is playing gigs in bands, since they lack the body size to project enough sound to compete. Some can also sound “tinny” when strummed aggressively. Some are better than others in these regards though, as you will see.
These are all steel string small body acoustics (no nylon or classical guitars) made by quality builders. There are a few terms to get through before I give you my picks, so let’s get going…
HPL – High Pressure Laminate
As you look over this list of small body guitars you will notice many use something called HPL for the sides and some for the backs.
What is HPL and why should we care?
HPL is short for High Pressure Laminate. Just like furniture Laminate, HPL is formed by layering multiple, thin pieces together to form one stronger solid piece of wood. HPL is where these layers of wood are combined at higher pressure than normal (or LPL) laminate. The result is a more solid and durable composite wood.
What does all this mean for your guitar?
HPL is cheaper than solid wood, so manufacturers can keep the costs down, but it’s better than LPL, or traditional laminate (sometimes referred to as “plywood”). In short, HPL is a compromise to give you a better sounding, cheaper guitar.
In other words, solid wood is still the best but if you want a small body guitar for less than $1,000 you’ll be getting an HPL body guitar.
Besides the cheapness of HPL, it’s also more resistant to weather and climate changes, which means that your guitar is more resistant to the wood cracking or and won’t go out of tune as easily when the seasons change. It also produces a generally brighter sound that can present itself as a “crispness” and is less prone to become “muddy” sounding.
You’ll find some people love HPL guitars and others despise them and disparaginly call them “plywood guitars.”
For what it’s worth, I’ve been playing guitar for over 12 years and have both a solid wood body and a newer HPL body and I love them both. If anything, I find the HPL to be lighter and brighter and often prefer playing it to my solid wood body. The HPL also requires less adjustment and care when summer turns to winter.
12 vs 14 Fret Models
The next thing you will notice when searching for small body guitars is that they are oftentimes grouped into 14-fret and 12-fret models. This does not mean they have only that many frets, rather it’s the number of frets on the neck from the body to the nut.
So, what does the number of frets that clear the body have to do with anything?
Well, in general 12 fret models traditionally have a wider neck than the 14 fret models. They also typically have a shortened scale length (length from the saddle to the nut), which means less string tension which in turn makes for easier bending of the strings. This is one reason you see a lot of fingerstyle blues players with 12-fret models.
Some people say that this also gives 12-fret guitars a richer and fuller sound. This may be true, but I think the type of wood and the strings you use make more of a difference to the sound than the number of frets clear of the body.
Now that you have a basic understanding of the various aspects of small body guitars, we can on to the list. I’ve broken these down into 3 categories:
- Parlor guitars
- 12-fret models
- 14-fret models
Best Parlor Acoustic Guitars Under $600
Parlor guitars were popular in the late 19th and early 20th century and they derive their name from the fact that they were quite small and typically played in the home parlor. These are about the smallest guitars out there, so they’re extrememly portable, light, great for finger picking but don’t project enough sound to fill a large, busy room. They’re ideal for practice, travel, or recording but not for playing in a gig.
The R314KK is part of Washburn’s vintage series that attempts to capture the vibe of turn of the century (20th century, that is..) Washburn models. Basically, they’re built to look like 100 year old instruments, but they are made with modern techniques and modern materials and often sound better than the originals.
The R314KK features:
- Spruce top
- Trembesi back and sides
- Ebony fingerboard
- Abalone rosette.
- Bone nut (for better intonation)
- 24.75″ scale
- “Distressed” open-gear tuners (to complete the vintage look)
The WP11SENS is also based on designs Washburn used over 100 years ago, but this is a mahogany model.
- Mahogany back and sides
- Pearl dot fingerboard inlays
- 24.75” scale
- Natural stain finish
- Solid cedar top
- Abalone rosette
- Rosewood bridge
- Bone nut
- Gold open gear tuners
The Mahogany back an sides give it a warmer and more mellow tone than the R314KK.
TWJP Acoustic Guitar
The Java TWJP is a lightweight, at only 3.8 pounds, but don’t let that fool you – it’s got a big sound for a parlor, reminiscent of a small-bodied flattop from the 1930s.
The TWJP is a classic 12-fret parlor design, with a slotted headstock. It’s well suited for fingerpicking, where it sounds tight and focused, but loses its clarity when strummed hard.
- Solid cedar top
- Amara and spalted mango back
- Amara sides
- Natural gloss finish
- Nato neck with sonokeling fretboard
- 25.5″ scale length
- Open-back nickel tuners
The Tanglewood Java TWJP is designed in the United Kingdom and made in Indonesia
Recording King may sound like a new name to some of you, but they actually got their start in the 1930’s as the Montgomery Ward house brand! The brand was discontinued during WWII and rediscovered in 2007. While they don’t have the kind of name and history of Martin, Taylor, Gibson and others they are a good quality manufacturer at reasonable prices.
RPH-05 DIRTY THIRTIES SOLID TOP SINGLE O
First up from Recording King is the RPH-05 – their “Dirty Thirties”, dust-bowl inspired Single O.
The RPH-05 features a solid spruce top (though the back and sides are laminate) and makes a great guitar for singer-song writers or folk players. The vintage 30’s look is complete with aged binding and vintage tuners. It’s like stepping back in time!
- Bone nut and saddle (for better intonation)
- Satin sunburst finish
- Vintage-inspired tuning keys
- White Wood laminate back and sides
- Rosewood fretboard
- Nato neck
- Solid Spruce top
- 39 x 14 x 4 inches ; 7.5 pounds
The Recording King RPH-05 is a great way to get a vintage vibe and great sound for the budget conscious consumer.
BEST SMALL BODY ACOUSTIC GUITARS UNDER $600
With the Parlor style guitars out of the way, we now come to the slightly larger small bodied acoustic guitars – the 12 and 14 fret models.
12 fret acoustic guitar models
ROS-06 CLASSIC SERIES 12TH FRET 000
While not as image conscious as the RPH-05, the ROS-06 is built with the same attention to detail. But what the ROS-06 lacks in vibe it makes up for in refined simplicity.
- Solid Sitka Spruce Top
- Mahogany Back & Sides
- Tortoise shell binding
- Slotted headstock with rosewood overlay
- Butterbean tuning keys
- Bone nut and saddle for better intonation
- 25 1/4 ” scale
The Recording Kind ROS-06 is a classic 12th fret OOO design with a wide, flat neck is great for fingerstyle and delta blues players. It sounds good when strummed also, which makes it a great entry level guitar as well.
14 fret acoustic guitar models
As the name suggests, these models have necks that are joined to the body at the 14th fret.
The Martin LXM (Little Martin) is by far the most affordable Martin models available today.
- Spruce HPL Top
- Herringbone Style Rosette
- Mahogany HPL back and sides
- Birch Laminate neck
- 23” scale length
- 1-11/16” white corian nut
- compensated tusq saddle
While the Little Martin is all incredibly cheap for a Martin, it is made entirely of HPL (i.e. no solid top wood). This makes it very light and resistant to changes in climate (which is great for a travel guitar), but it also gives it a brighter sound than it would have if it was made with solid wood. But it is still made to Martin quality and you’d probably have to add a zero to the end of the price tag if it were a solid wood construction.
All in all, it’s great quality for what it is and the price makes it a little easier to take you Martin camping without worry.
The Martin 000X1AE is a 14-fret 000 body acoustic-electric guitar with a smaller body design than the traditional Dreadnought, but a surprisingly full sound. Clarity of sound is provided by the solid Sitka spruce top married to the mahogany grained HPL back and sides. The 000X1AE features Fishman electronics, so you’re all set to plug in and play amplified.
The neck is a modified low oval shape and made of Birch laminate, and has a black Richlite fingerboard and 20 frets total. The Martin 000X1AE has a white Corian nut and compensated white Tusq saddle.
RO-310 CLASSIC SERIES 000
The recording King RO-310 Classic Series 000 comes in at the top end of this list in terms of price. The RO-310 is a high quality, small body guitar and not just a “take anywhere” kind of guitar.
- Solid Adirondack Spruce Top
- Solid Mahogany Back and Sides
- Scalloped Forward X-Bracing
- Deluxe Grover Rotomatic Tuners
- Rosewood Fretboard
- 1-3/4″ bone nut
- bone saddle
- Deluxe Grover tuners
The first thing you will likely notice is the use of solid wood for the top, back and sides. No HPL here! Of course, you’ll pay more for the privilege.
The RO-310’s solid Adirondack Spruce top gives it the clarity and projection to cut through the mix in a band setting, but it’s still a small body acoustic with all the portability and play-ability that comes with that style.
Taylor guitars is one of the most active brands in the small body acoustic field. If they didn’t start the small body/parlor guitar revival, they were one of the makers who helped propel the style to the forefront of modern guitar styles with the Taylor Baby. The Big baby and gs-mini followed and they keep getting better. It will be interesting to see where Taylor goes next.
BT2 Baby Taylor
Taylor’s BT2 Baby is a 3/4-size Dreadnought acoustic that helped revitalize the small body acoustic guitar market. Sold a as travel guitar, it’s bigger than most guitars in that category today but still very portable. It’s the perfect size (and price-point) for beginning guitarists of all ages or seasoned players looking for something to take wherever they may go.
The Taylor baby features Layered Sapele back and sides, with mahogany top and neck and ebony fretboard. A Nubone (synthetic bone) nut and saddle and Die cast chrome tuners round out the rest of the package.
BBT BIG BABY
As the name suggests, the Taylor Big Baby is the “upsized” version of the Baby. The Big Baby is almost a full-size Dreadnought (15/16 scale) that bridges the gap between the Baby and full size Dreadnought. This one features Layered Sapele back and sides with and Ebony fretboard (the same as the Baby) but Sitka Spruce for the top wood. Click the image for more info on the actual size so you can compare it with the Baby.
Lastly, we come to one of my favorite small body acoustics available today: the Taylor GS-Mini.
The GS-Mini is the next step on the Taylor’s evolution of small body guitars. It’s the newest in their series; after the Big Baby, after the Baby. The Baby and Big Baby guitars are excellent instruments, but a good luthier is always learning new ways to do things and discovering all sorts of enhancements along the way. All that knowledge gleaned from earlier models has been put into practice on the GS-mini. The result is a small body guitar that sounds like a full body Grand Symphony guitar, and is fun as hell to play.