Which boat guitar is best?

The sailing environment can be tough on delicate objects. So what type of guitar is most suitable at sea? Andrew Simpson has made his choice!

Acoustic guitars – what's best on board a sailboat?

It’s astonishing how many cruising boats carry guitars, so what type of the many available is the best acoustic guitar to have on board?

I believe we should skip over the ‘why bother anyway’ question (if you have to ask, you may never understand) and simply ask you to acknowledge that sailors are often musically inclined and that a guitar cannot be bettered to fulfill their needs. Among their virtues are:

  • Guitars are polyphonic – meaning they can play up to six notes at once, making even the most complex chords possible. In the hands of even a moderately accomplished player astonishingly intricate compositions can be played.
  • A guitar doesn’t need a high level of skill to create a tolerable effect. The beginner determinedly strumming the ‘three chord bash’ can, I admit, become tedious but is never likely to be downright excruciating. Think trumpet, violin, flute or – heaven forbid – drums to imagine the alternatives.
  • All but the very best acoustic guitars are relatively inexpensive and don’t call for much in the way of maintenance. Replacing tired strings is usually all the attention they need.

On that last point – and contrary to popular belief – the environment on board a boat is quite kind to objects made of wood, and that includes musical instruments. Perhaps unexpectedly, the biggest enemies are often found ashore, where the desiccating effects of central heating and air-conditioning can be much more hostile, drying timber to the point where it can shrink and crack. Particularly susceptible are the thin panels that go to make up guitar soundboards.

An atmospheric humidity of about 45-55% is ideal for most conventional guitars, though obviously this isn’t easy to guarantee in the face-it-as-you-find-it conditions of a yacht’s interior.  Nonetheless, the best acoustic guitars can survive, and survive well without undue cossetting. Of the three shown in the photo above, the central one – a ‘dreadnought’ sized Gibson – is a veteran of a several decades afloat in the hands of its boat-owning master. Despite having led a relatively hard life, it remains a very fine instrument. But, as you can see, it’s as broad shouldered and bulky as Bigfoot and size can be a problem on sailboats where space comes at a premium.

Since the notion of sailing without a guitar is unthinkable for me, and I own a couple that I wouldn't dream of taking to sea, I set about searching for the best acoustic guitar that was both musically satisfying and structurally up to the rigours of a boating life. My first experimental acquisition was the Martin ‘Backpacker’ – the somewhat scrawny instrument to the right of the Gibson. Despite its emaciated shape, it has a reasonable tone, quite full enough for the echoic confines of a boat, though lacking depth and timbre when played outdoors.

Then I came across the the Emerald X5 – the black beauty to the left of the Gibson. With the body and neck moulded as one piece in epoxy and carbon fibre, we have an instrument so impervious to moisture you could paddle your dinghy with it if you wanted to – though I've never been brave enough to actually try it. The fingerboard is full length (on later versions it's slightly shorter) with frets of stainless steel. It has a wonderfully easy action. As for tone, it doesn’t quite match the authoritative sonority of a 40 year-old Gibson, but is much, much better than its compact size would indicate.

So, for me the bottom line is this. Confront me with a guitar that will cheerfully live in the corner, will shrug of water as ably as the boat in which it dwells, and sounds terrific and I will buy it! Which is exactly what I did. And have never regretted doing so.
For more information, contact Alistair Hay at Emerald Guitars

Sea Books