The idea of the acoustic guitar dates back to the 16th Century. Over the course of hundreds of years, it's evolved into numerous forms. This rich history, combined with modern manufacturing techniques, means that there are more varieties than ever before!
With this in mind, it can be a little daunting figuring out which one would work for you. Walk into any guitar shop's acoustic section and you're greeted with a blur of different wood types, body shapes, brand names and more. That's why we've compiled this in-depth guide to help you through the choosing process!
Types of Acoustic Guitar
The idea behind an acoustic guitar is that it is a self-amplifying instrument that doesn’t require any external equipment for performance. As venues have become larger and production has grown, using a PA system at almost every gig is required but that doesn’t mean that the nature of the acoustic guitar is lost. The body of the guitar acts as a large speaker cabinet that has the sole job of protecting your sound as far forward as possible. While different body shapes and sizes respond differently, producing varied sounds that will suit different players, the job of it is still exactly the same.
If you ever played guitar at school in music class, you most likely picked up a classical acoustic guitar or nylon strung acoustic guitar that has a very different sound when compared to a steel strung guitar. So let’s take a look at the few most common acoustic guitar styles:
- Nylon String: The nylon strung acoustic is the oldest of the acoustic guitar styles by far, but that does not limit its usability. Although professionally these guitars can be found in a bunch of different traditional music styles, they are also commonly used in schools as a first guitar. They work so well as a first guitar for young children as the nylon strings do not hurt your fingers when starting out, like the much tougher steel strings would. The strings are also further apart, making it easier to fret notes without accidentally muting or fretting other strings.
- Steel String: The steel strung acoustic is by far one of the most common types you will see from day to day. Every style of music from folk to country and from pop to rock this is the staple of many genres. By using steel strings rather than nylon, you get a much fuller and richer sound that can sound amazing on its own or with a larger band. It’s got depth and clarity and works well with singer-songwriter type players.
- Electro-Acoustic: The electro-acoustic guitar was designed to allow users of steel strung guitars to amplify their sound without a microphone. By using a bunch of different built-in pickup styles, you can plug these either straight into a PA system or into an acoustic amplifier to make sure you’re heard on stage. Whether you’re playing solo or with a band, you can make sure you’re heard in the mix.
- Hybrid Acoustic: The hybrid guitar is not a very common type of acoustic guitar, but it does something very interesting. What separates a normal electro acoustic and a hybrid acoustic is that a hybrid incorporates both a regular acoustic guitar pickup and an electric guitar pickup in the same guitar. This means that you can play a wider range of styles, and also means you can restring the guitar with either electric or acoustic guitar strings for different kinds of sounds. This is for the acoustic player that wants to push the boundaries of a normal acoustic guitar.
- Resonator: The resonator is a really interesting guitar, as it was one of the first ways in which people looked at trying to boost the volume. They did this by using a resonating metal cone inside of the body where the soundhole would normally be. This not only gives off a unique bright tone, but it also makes the sound a lot louder than a conventional guitar. While the volume issues of regular guitars has been solved with amplification, the Resonator is still heavily used in blues and bluegrass music.
Acoustic Guitar Body Woods
When picking up an acoustic guitar, choosing the right woods to fit your sound is one of the most important decisions. While it’s vital to your tone, there aren’t that many different options with tonewoods apart from a few more premium exceptions.
Starting off, there’s the choice between laminated/layered woods or solid woods. This may not be a choice you actually need to worry about as this is normally determined by budget. Lower cost guitars are normally made out of a selection of laminated wood, while in more expensive guitars you will get solid tops made out of a single piece.
Please note that at this point we are not referring to whether a top is one, two or three piece, as normally this is talking about pieces of solid wood glued side to side. The difference between laminate and solid wood comes on the sections being glued one on top of the other, using very thin pieces that eventually add up to the same thickness as a solid top.
The benefits of using solid wood are that you get a much more resonant sound, as you only have one material there. Also, woods like solid spruce age wonderfully, actually sounding better as the years go on which can’t happen with a laminate top.
Spruce is one of the most commonly used woods in acoustic guitars. If you look at what’s currently available, about 90% of the guitars you see will have some kind of Spruce top. This is due to the fact that it is lightweight while still being very strong, and has a flat frequency response letting the back woods help define the sound.
Available in a bunch of different variants, you will often see Sitka, Engelmann and Adirondack Spruce available on different guitars. Each of these top woods all offer a slight difference in tone. Sitka is often considered to be the most sensible choice with its wide dynamic range and rather flat sound. Engelmann is often used on guitars where you want lower weight and a sound more suited for strumming styles. Finally, Adirondack is the most desirable option with the ability to be driven much louder with stronger overtones. Sadly, it is also very expensive and with its lack of consistency from tree to tree, makes it much harder to work with.
Most commonly found as a back wood but sometimes as a top wood as well, Mahogany has a very warm sound that can either be used to mellow out a bright sounding top or make a small guitar sound massive.
This warm and almost dark sounding wood really brings the most out of the mid-range of your guitar. This is great if you are using a smaller guitar, as it allows you to get a punch full sound without needing to use a bigger guitar.
This is one of the most interesting woods, as it’s very bright-sounding and has a great attack meaning that it suits fingerpickers to a tee. But normally you’ll find this wood on much bigger, jumbo-sized guitars to help bring out the high-end in what would have otherwise been a warm sounding guitar.
Often used as a top and sometimes as a back as well, Maple is sometimes used for an aesthetic touch as well. Thanks to some of the incredible flame and quilted Maple that is available today, you can make your guitar really stand out by choosing Maple.
The most expensive of the regularly used tone woods is by far Rosewood. Never really used as a top wood, Rosewood has an interesting mid-range sound that is neither too bright nor too dark. It does however have a scooped midrange that really makes both the lows and highs pop out.
Popular with both strummed and fingerpicked styles when matched with something like Spruce, you get a stunning ‘Hi-Fi’ sound that’s really brought in through the scooped mid-range of the rosewood.
Acoustic Guitar Body Shapes
This is really important when picking your guitar. The size of a guitar not only affects its sound but its feel as well. So make sure that when buying an acoustic guitar, get the right one to suit you.
The trouble is that naming conventions are vague at best, as all of the top brands use different names for their different shapes. So while you will recognise some of the names below, in your search for the best acoustic guitar you might stumble across some others.
- Parlour - originally invented as a low cost alternative to larger guitars, parlour models were extremely popular in the late 1800’s early 1900’s, as it meant more people could play guitar. Nowadays, these small guitars are loved by musicians that spend their time on the road, or just don’t have the space for a larger bodied acoustic. You would be forgiven for thinking these guitars would have a thin and tinny sound, but due to the wonders of modern engineering, that’s not the case. In fact, some parlour guitars can have a large, deep and warm sound given that it is so small. It’s all down to the internal bracing, which can allow the top to resonate and give you a bigger sound than expected.
- 0 - the Martin 0 sits at the top of what people would call parlour guitars. With a short and thin body, these guitars became an instant hit with blues and folk groups thanks to their mid-range punch. Because Martin like their guitars to have the same sound that they did when they first launched, you’ll never find any crazy technology or woods on this guitar to make it sound bigger or deeper. Instead, they accept the smaller and mid-range heavy sound and make it the best it could possibly be.
- 00 (Grand Concert) - the 00 is another Martin design, and is just a bit bigger than the 0 model. This slightly bigger sound kept the same mid-range focus but had much stronger projection that allowed it to travel much further. This was vital when people wanted to see musicians at bigger and bigger venues. Due to the bigger size, it’s not quite as portable but it still is a lot smaller than guitars with similar levels of projection. Nowadays, this model is played by artists like John Mayer, who want to get a powerful but authentic bluesy tone.
- 000 (Orchestra Model) - while the 0 and 00 were great for blues and folk styles, the world wanted something bigger and stronger that would suit new waves of music coming out. The answer was the 000. This larger body makes it perfect for more strum-focused styles as it doesn’t have the same mid-range peak of the earlier 0 models. This opened up the floodgates for a much fuller sounding style, that would eventually evolve into folk and singer-songwriter like music. Commonly found round the neck of guitarists like Eric Clapton, the 000 is a great choice if you want a versatile range of classic American tones.
- Dreadnought - the dreadnought is an incredible choice if you are mainly a strumming or flatpick-style player that wants to be heard with a deep, warm sound. This is probably the most common type of acoustic guitar you will find, as it has a versatile range that will cover most modern playing styles. Both Martin and Gibson are very famous for making different types of dreadnought guitars, known as square-shouldered and round-shouldered models respectively. The differences between these types is minimal, apart from the fact that round-shouldered models have a bit of a softer top-end sound, helping them fit in to a larger band environment.
- Jumbo - jumbo guitars, as the name suggests, are the largest form factor that you can get an acoustic guitar in. This style of guitar sounds incredible when used for a heavy-handed strumming style. It gets this sound from its overly large body that really kicks out the low end and makes sure you are heard on stage. This style of guitar was popularised by Gibson with their Super Jumbo series back in the 1930’s, and has been a staple of country, rock, pop and more ever since.
- Grand Auditorium - the grand auditorium is a relative newcomer to the acoustic guitar world, only being released in 1994. That doesn’t make it any less important though, as it’s possibly the most versatile workhorse acoustic guitar available. Sitting somewhere between a dreadnought and 000 in terms of design and size, these guitars are made so that you can go from gig to gig no matter the style and just have to use one guitar.
Acoustic Guitar Electronics
The other major part of crafting your sound is what electronics are in your guitar. While you may mic up in the studio, live this can be a hassle without some kind of specific guitar microphone system. There are loads of different systems that have their own pros and cons - let's take a look at the different types of electronics you may come across:
- Piezo - a Piezo pickup is an interesting piece of technology that allows you to pick up the sound of the guitar from under the saddle. This small strip will detect any movement from the strings and send that out to the jack to your amplifier or PA system. These can be found on guitars at all price points, and although the technology is similar, there are very different levels of quality. One thing that is common across all Piezo pickups is just how handy they are in any situation, as without a microphone in play you get reduced feedback and don’t have to worry about your placement on stage. The downside is that compared to a microphone, the sound can be a bit thin and flat depending on the quality of pickup and preamp. This system will never capture the full sound of your acoustic flawlessly, but if you don’t want to deal with the pains of a microphone you can get pretty close.
- Internal Microphone - normally when you think about putting a mic on an acoustic, you think about a studio situation but loads of companies are making tools that you can install inside your guitar with built-in microphones. This means none of the messy set up but with that studio grade sound you want whenever you get on stage. Because you are using a microphone, it will also pick up all of the percussive parts of your playing. If you like to tap the body or add any percussive sections to your music, a good microphone is essential. It does have a few drawbacks though, as it does mean you are much more susceptible to feedback issues as you are dealing with a microphone that may pick up sound from stage monitors or other sources.
- Soundhole Pickup - what if you want the ease-of-use of Piezo without having to deal with the quack and squeaks? Your best option may be a soundhole pickup. These are most commonly used when you have a guitar that is not an electro-acoustic that needs amplification. Generally, they require no modification, so it really is easy to set up on any guitar. The sound of these systems is similar to a piezo in how bright of a tone you get. Apart from that however, a decent soundhole pickup can offer a very realistic sound without the hassle of other pickups systems.
- Combination - you will not see this very often in the acoustic guitar world, as it is hard to get both a piezo and microphone working properly. When set up properly though, it is really helpful as it lets you choose what sound you want for every gig at a moment’s notice. The only real downside to these systems is how much they cost to install in your guitar. Because it requires both systems and a lot of R&D to get it right, these are often only on really high end guitars.