What Is an Acoustic Guitar?

Yamaha CGX102
Yamaha CGX102

An acoustic guitar is one that does not have electric amplification of its sound.

But it’s not as simple as that. If it were, I wouldn’t be writing this article for you.

This article is really going to be a comparison of what is traditionally known as the acoustic guitar versus the classical guitar and the acoustic-electric hybrid guitar.

Let’s first look at what is generally considered the oldest of the three, the classical. Then we’ll see what makes up an acoustic and finally the acoustic-electric guitar.

What Is a Classical Guitar?

There are two main distinguishing features of what we call a classical guitar.

One is that it uses nylon strings. Strings made of nylon exert less pressure on the guitar neck, so the maker doesn’t need to reinforce the neck structure in any way. The neck can hold its own versus the pressure the strings produce when you tighten them with the tuning knobs.

I managed to explain that first feature without comparing it to one of the other types of guitars we’ll be looking at later, but I really can’t get away with that when talking about the other main distinguishing feature which is the guitar’s overall size.

A classical guitar is smaller than the standard dreadnought acoustic guitar. It’s usually about ¾ the size of an acoustic guitar. True, I could have said that a typical classical guitar measures between 38 and 40 inches, but I don’t think that gives you as much information (when you don’t have one in hand) as the comparison does. In any case, now you have both pieces of information.

There is another feature that is often true of a classical guitar. The neck is usually wider than that on an acoustic guitar. There I go again making a comparison, but I think it’s another good one to know.

It almost goes without saying, but I better mention it anyway. A classical guitar does not have any electrical amplification on board. If you need to broadcast the sound far and wide, you have to place a microphone near the sound hole where you’re strumming the chords or picking the melody.

Now, on to the acoustic guitar.

What Makes Up an Acoustic Guitar?

For the description of an acoustic guitar, I’ll go full bore into the comparisons.

An acoustic guitar uses steel strings instead of nylon. Because the steel strings exert much more pressure on the neck, the maker inserts a metal truss rod inside for reinforcement. Otherwise, the neck might just collapse on you when you tighten up the strings.

An acoustic guitar comes in several sizes but is normally larger than a classical guitar, especially when you’re talking about the most common style, the dreadnought.

An acoustic guitar has a narrower neck than a classical guitar. Acoustic necks do come in a wide variety of shapes and sizes, though.

An acoustic guitar has no electric amplification built in.

Or does it?

That brings us to the final type of guitar, the hybrid acoustic-electric guitar.

What Is an Acoustic-Electric Guitar?

An acoustic-electric (sometimes called an electric-acoustic) guitar is the same as an acoustic in every aspect, except that it does have electric amplification on board. You can plug it into an amplifier and be heard for miles around, if your amp is big enough.

Unless you make special adjustments, either to the guitar itself or to the sound after it travels out the electric cable, your acoustic-electric will still sound like an acoustic guitar, not like an electric guitar.

For many players, this is what makes an acoustic-electric so valuable. When you’re practicing at home, you don’t need to be plugged in to hear yourself play. When it’s time to go on stage with the rest of the band (or solo), you can easily amplify yourself so your whole audience can hear you (and maybe even sing along).

What Acoustic Guitars Do the Pros Play?

Speaking of singing along, that’s what professional guitarists hope you’ll do when they write songs with lyrics. So you might be wondering at this point, “What guitars do the pros play?”

Many of the stars play both electric and acoustic guitars. After all, that’s a huge part of their business, so why not play both kinds?

I did a little research and found some acoustic guitars that some of the more popular artists of today (and the recent past) have been using?

These stars have been seen playing these guitars. These aren’t the only ones each of these artists have ever played (or own), but it gives you a good idea of what the pros tend to go for. (Note: These are probably more expensive than anything you’ll want to get for yourself.)

John Mayer plays…

  • Martin 0045
  • Martin OMJM – 45SC (Stagecoach Edition)
  • Martin ECHF Belleza Nera
  • Martin D-45

Bruce Springsteen plays…

  • Gibson J-40
  • Gibson J-45
  • Takamine EF341C
  • Takamine EF350SMCSB

Dave Matthews plays…

  • Taylor 914CE (Grux) – his “signature” instrument

Brad Paisley plays…

  • Gibson J-45

Noel Gallagher plays…

  • Gibson ES-345
  • Gibson ES-355

Slash plays…

  • Martin D-18
  • Gibson Sheryl Crow
  • Taylor 616CE

Paul Simon plays…

  • Yamaha LS400
  • Martin OM-42PS

Dave Grohl plays…

  • Gibson Elvis Presley Dove
  • Martin D-28
  • Taylor 612CE

Neil Young plays…

  • Martin D-45
  • Martin D-18
  • Martin D-28

If you look back at that list, you’ll see that Martin, Gibson, and Taylor are rather dominant. That doesn’t mean they’re the best guitar makers around for every occasion – though they are very good.

The guitar you like best might be made completely differently from those the pros play. Much of what makes a player like his or her guitar is in the wood(s) used in construction.

So before leaving the topic of acoustic guitars, let’s examine the kinds of wood that they (especially the tops) can be made of.

What Is an Acoustic Guitar Made Of?

Some types of wood are much more commonly used than others, both because of their sonic qualities and their availability.

Note that it’s especially what the top of an acoustic guitar is made of that gives it its special sound.

Spruce is the most common wood for an acoustic guitar top. (The top is the area where the hole is, where you strum or pick the strings.) Makers can use a relatively thin piece of spruce that will still be both strong and resonant.

Cedar isn’t as strong as spruce, so it’s often used for classical guitars as well as for the sides and backs of the instruments.

Rosewood is a dark material that gives you more warmth and richness of tone than the above. It’s also more expensive and is popular for fingerboards and bridges.

Mahogany falls somewhere between spruce and rosewood, tone-wise. Many country western and blues artists like its sound.

Maple is commonly used for sides and backs of guitars because it has a lower resonance than the other woods. It won’t interfere as much with the tone that the top wood is trying to produce.

Cocobolo is also used for sides and backs. It’s a Mexican hardwood that produces a bright sound.

Ebony is great for your fretboard.

Koa is another pricey wood that can be used throughout a guitar but is most often employed as side, back, neck, and bridge material.

Ovangkoi is an African wood that gives you the warmth of rosewood but the brighter midrange of mahogany or koa. As such, it’s great for backs and sides.

Sapele, another African wood, is similar to mahogany and is used primarily for sides and backs.

Walnut is a decent alternative to mahogany and koa. It works well for all parts of the body.

Then there are the synthetics. Makers like Ovation and Rainsong, for example, use a fiberglass composite and graphite, respectively. Other makers may use other non-wood materials. There’s nothing wrong with this, per se. The main thing is that, while woods tend to improve with age, synthetics do not. That said, synthetics are less susceptible to climate changes. If that’s important to you, go for it.

Choosing Your Acoustic Guitar

I’m not going to actually give you any specific advice here about selecting an acoustic (or classical or acoustic-electric) guitar. That’s really beyond the scope of this article.

However, based on what you’ve learned above, you should be able to search for a guitar that would suit your purposes and desires in a knowledgeable way. For example, if the guitar you’re researching has a spruce top, you’ll know that’s not unusual. If it doesn’t have a spruce top, you might want to find out what the maker was trying to accomplish with that particular design.

You saw that even the pros don’t all agree on a “best” guitar. Each of them have guitars they like for different reasons.

You will too.

Gary Sonnenberg

Gary has been playing keyboards since he was very young. He started on a chord organ because that's what his father liked. He's played guitar since he was a teenager, and he recently learned he could keep the beat on a drum set.
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What Is an Acoustic Guitar?
Article Name
What Is an Acoustic Guitar?
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Comparison of acoustic, classical, and acoustic-electric guitars; what acoustic guitars the pros use, and what woods are most often used to construct them.
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My Musical Picks
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Author: Gary Sonnenberg

Gary has been playing keyboards since he was very young. He started on a chord organ because that's what his father liked. He's played guitar since he was a teenager, and he recently learned he could keep the beat on a drum set.