One of my students was recently considering the purchase of a very high end guitar with a cutaway. He does play beyond first position and the whole idea of a cutaway is so the player can more easily access those high frets. He went to two of the mega guitar stores in our general area, plus a trip to the premier retailer of high end guitars in New England. Amazingly, all three of the stores had an example of the very expensive guitar he was considering. When he came for his lesson the next week I immediately noticed he was carrying the case of his old guitar.
The model he was considering is rigged with a fancy internal pick-up and it is the signature model of a certain popular singer/songwriter. What my student soon found out was that there was a good reason this model is equipped with a pick-up. Played without amplification all three examples had, according to him, weak volume, very little sustain and no character or resonance whatsoever. Not a good thing when you're talking about a guitar with a "discounted" retail price of just under $4k !!
Now, in defense of this particular guitar model and the company that produces it, very few brand new guitars come close to their potential for some period of time. However, my student was very disappointed and we talked at length about his experience. First I asked him - beyond the previously mentioned access to upper frets - what attracted him to the cutaway design (one note here - he is a recreational player, not someone who is gigging)? This was a loaded question. I knew what his answer would be. Well, he kind of sheepishly explained, they just look so cool.... And he was right. Cutaways all but say - hey, I'm a hot guitar player! I need to get to those high notes when I take an awesome lead break! Kinda the same mindset as putting a "spoiler" on the trunk of your car, I think (!)
I asked him, as gently as possible: now really, think about it. How often do you really play up there? Five percent of the time? Less?
He thought about it and agreed.
So why don't most cutaway acoustics sound as good as the same model without a cutaway? Simple physics, really. First, you've eliminated about 20% of the vibrating surface area - which is called the "sounding board" for good reason! Also, in order for the entire face of the guitar to vibrate evenly and to its maximum capability the vibration of the strings needs to be able to disperse evenly. Think of the concentric ripples when a pebble is thrown into smooth water. With a cutaway this concentric pattern of vibration transmission is disrupted. One part of the face of the guitar vibrates less than the opposite side. This HAS to quickly kill the vibration and therefor both volume and resonance.
So if you're considering a cutaway, understand that the cool look and access to the upper frets comes with a pretty severe sacrifice, sound-wise. If you're always going to plug in, no big deal. But if you usually play without amplification, think long and hard about just how much you use those high frets.
Peace & good music,