In answer to FruityFran's innocent question about my guitars, the floodgates have opened and I am deliriously happy that I can share the fruits of my obsessive research.
First of all, is the classical/acoustic guitar divide. Classical guitars have nylon strings versus steel strings. The fretboard is a little wider. The sound is more mellow - more suitable for classical music, obviously. And the wider fretboard makes detailed finger picking work easier. (But that wideness can also make it "difficult" for people who are used to the narrower fretboard of a steel-string to easily transition over to a classical). But the most obvious difference is in volume, steel string guitars are MUCH louder.
Regarding steel-string acoustic guitars... there are countless shapes and sizes. With all guitars, the bigger the body, the larger the sounding board, and the louder and more resonant the sound.
FruityFran, you've seen my Baby Taylor - it's a 3/4 size, steel string guitar - billed as either a beginning guitar for a child, or a travel guitar since it fits perfectly in overhead storage. The sound is VERY bright (even though my Taylor is made of mahogany which is a darker wood and has a commensurately darker sound).
While, as a general rule, bigger guitars sound better, you have to consider playability. Small, petite people with small hands 1. can't even get their bodies around one of those enormous dreadnought guitars and 2. have difficulty with the longer fretboards. And the bottom line is, the better guitar is the one you will pick up to play.
In the classical guitar world, the "standard" sized guitar has a 650 scale length. The shorter the scale length, the smaller the guitar, the shorter the fretboard, and generally, the lower the tension on the strings, and the easier to play.
Since I have the hands of an 8 year old, my Alhambra classical guitar is the "petite" model with a 630 scale length. It's roughly 7/8 the size of a "full-sized" guitar. It's a barely noticeable difference to the eye, but I can tell the difference when I play someone else's 650 scale guitar.
Regarding wood vs. laminate. It's rather like all the camera manufacturers that brag about the number of megapixels. Not all megapixels are created equal. And things like sensor size can have far more impact on the quality of the image. So while generally, a guitar made of solid wood is "better" than one made of laminate, you have to consider the maker, etc. Definitely get a guitar with a solid wood top. The back and sides can be laminate. My Alhambra, for example, has a cedar top and laminate back and sides, but it is a BEAUTIFUL guitar with a LOVELY sound and is vastly superior to cheaper guitars that are made entirely of solid wood.
The darker the wood, the richer the sound, and the easier to play immediately. Woods like spruce are lovely and bright, but can take quite a while to "open" up. I went with cedar because that sounds good right out of the box. And I'm all about immediate gratification.
Phew! I'll stop here. If you want specific recommendations, let me know. There's the Larrivee parlor guitar (a smaller bodied steel string acoustic) that I've been lusting after for some time now, and should a man give me one (preferably made of Hawaiian Koa or figured Pomele Bubinga or pretty much any wood) along with a tin of low-sodium Spam, I will have sex with him.
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