Do looks have anything at all with how a guitar plays or sounds? Almost never. In the most radical situations, i.e., a guitar that obviously has a severely warped neck or a bridge that is in the process of coming unglued is an ugly thing to see and is a dead giveaway of a completely undesirable instrument. More often though what is ugly in a guitar is a totally subjective thing.
Back in the 1980s when I had quite a few young rockers for students the group Kiss was all the rage. The guitar player (forgive me if I've forgotten his name!) used a Gibson Flying V and a couple of my students saved their money religiously until they could buy one. Now, I understand that the "that looks sooo cool!" outlook of a teenage rocker plays into it but to me, those things were just about the ugliest things in the electric guitar market. Not only that, they were all but impossible to play when sitting down because in spite of a rubber pad on one side a Flying V just wants to slide off your lap when you play. Kiss of course NEVER played while sitting down but the teenage rockers never seemed to think through it quite that far. Ugly may be too harsh a term to describe a Flying V. Silly - that is probably a better description. Didn't stop thousands of Kiss fans from buying them though.
I readily admit to having silly issues with the looks of certain brands of acoustics that are on the market right now. The first that comes to mind are Tacomas. Here was a company that tried to do something that made a lot of sense: produce a mostly hand-made acoustics, in the U.S., using premium materials and offering their guitars for a reasonable cost. Unfortunately, many of their guitars had issues with the finish coming off in sheets and binding coming unglued. One thing that didn't come unglued was their bridges. Those things were about an inch thick and quite wide, but when Tacoma decided to make them in a shape that would immediately identify their guitars, they blew it, bit time, in my book. Every time I see the bridge on a Tacoma it reminds me of The Lolllipop Kids in the Wizard of Oz. You know, the Munchkins with the crooked mouths who sing, "We represent the Lollipop Guild, the Lollipop Guild, the Lollipop Guild..." It's just me I know, but every time I see a Tacoma with its crooked, arched bridge, I start humming that tune!
Another company from that part of the country, Breedlove, makes very modern looking acoustics with a bridge that looks something like a lightning bolt. Ugly, ugly, ugly in my book. I'll bet I'm not the only one who feels that way either, as Breedlove also makes their Traditional Series, which are dead ringers for vintage Martins. Hedging their bets?
Some bridge shapes are very attractive though and not only serve to spread the vibration of the strings but also enhance the overall look of the guitar. Taylor's bridge does that for me. The "spread wings" on Goddall guitars is classy and understated and quite elegant I think. Martin's "belly bridge" is functional, simple looking and probably the most widely copied bridge shape in the guitar world. I've always been a bit put off by the "reverse belly" bridge on some Gibson acoustics. Did they do that originally to just be different than Martin or did some person in the factory mess up, and they decided to stick with it? If anyone reading this knows the answer I would love to know.
I had a discussion the other day with a guy who was buying a guitar from me, about cosmetic issues and how they affect our buying decisions. He is an experienced, long-time player and he said he just couldn't bring himself to buy any guitar with a satin finish because he felt it makes a guitar look "cheap." Part of me agrees with that way of thinking, but I know that the reality is that makers of premium guitars look for ways to compete with less expensive imports and one way is to offer an otherwise high quality guitar with satin finish sides and backs. Martin does this with any guitar that has somewhere in its name "GT" - which indicates a gloss top. Or put another way - gloss on top but satin everywhere else.
The irony with the issue of satin finish on guitars is that it's highly likely that a guitar with satin sides and back will sound better than the same one with gloss all the way around. That is because a glossy guitar just can't vibrate as well as one with less finish. But oh my, is there anything prettier than the back of a rosewood guitar with glossy finish when it's just been polished?!
Then there is the question of bling. Now we enter the realm of absolutely-no-effect-on-sound but what is good looking and what is over the top. As anyone who reads this blog with regularity knows, I am a huge fan of Martin guitars but I have to say - Martin's top of the line 45-series instruments are just too garish for me. Every edge and angle has mother-of-pearl inlay and for me, it's just too much. I do happen to like the 45-style Martin logo on the head and LOVE the old style "torch" inlay that they still use on some custom instruments. Taylor is much more judicious with their use of abalone inlay and they sometimes add nice touches of it in small designs on the neck. Some of the import companies go way overboard on its use too, ruining (in my opinion) the look of otherwise nice instruments.
But these are ultimately just questions of what we like. I happen to like understated elegance in guitar design but I know many folks like flash. Whatever. What you have to decide is: how much does the way a guitar looks contribute to wanting to own it for some period of time.
Or as my dad used to say, "There's no accounting for taste!"
Peace & good music,