3 types of guitars. So...... what's the difference

As a teacher of guitar I am often asked the question, what is the difference between an acoustic guitar and an electric guitar? Today, I am going to give a little lesson for all who are thinking of learning to play the guitar. It is an investment when you purchase an instrument and you should be as informed as possible before you make your purchase. I will share my opinion on some things and please remember, it is an opinion.

1. Classical/ Flamenco guitar. These guitars are nylon string based. They pay hommage to the days when gut was used as a guitar string. We have advances in technology so they have been nylon strings my entire life. They are simple machines. They have just the basics needed to make a guitar and require an intense mastery of luthery to manufacture a proper instrument. Concert level guitars are manufactured with fine exotic woods and beginner instruments are manufactured with plywood and laminate wood. These guitars have no truss rod in them so they are manufactured with a wider neck. The tuning pegs on any guitar should turn easily. The amplifier is the hole on the soundboard and the performers skill. The tradition of these guitars is for solo performance where the melody and harmony are performed by the performer. These guitars are used today and are the guitars that guitar music was played on since the 1500's until the late 1800's when steel string acoustic guitars started being used. There have been many changes to the guitar in that time. For a comprehensive look at the guitar I suggest reading "The Guitar" by Harvey Turnbull. Never ever ever put steel strings on a guitar that is made for nylon strings. The bridge will rip off because it is not supported for the tension the steel puts on it. If you live in a dry climate as i do always humidify your guitar. Check with your local trusted music shop on whether you need to humidify your guitar or not. Adjustments are not very common with these instruments.

2. Steel String acoustic guitar. What prompted the change to a steel string instrument? The classic thing with all guitar music. Volume. The steel string guitar was better suited for playing in the large ensembles of the twentieth century. At the turn of the century you had big bands and if you have ever sat a guitar down next to any wind instrument the guitars soft spoken voice is a problem. The action on inexpensive acoustic guitars is generally the biggest issue. The action is how far the strings are sitting above the neck. If there is a large distance it will be painful to play and you will quit in a short amount of time. If your guitar is one of these and that is why you don't play much, find a local guitar shop with a reputable repair man.( He should have learned the craft of guitar repair somewhere not just a guitarist who fixes things) and ask him if this guitar's action can be fixed. Some can, some can't, but it beats buying a new instrument if it can. Acoustic steel string guitars have thinner necks so they have truss rods in them you can adjust if the neck warps in any way. Both the classical and the steel string can be played with a pick or fingers however traditional classical music had no such thing as a pick. The choice on the classical between a pick or not a pick was between using fingernails on your picking hand or no nails on your picking tone. All is a matter of choice and preference and should be left to an individual to decide. Never ever ever put nylon strings on a steel string guitar as there is not enough tension to keep the instrument working correctly. Humidity is an issue for both acoustic guitars nylon or steel. Please check with your local shop for needs concerning humidifying your guitar. Adjustments can and should be made to these instruments. How often depends on the quality of the instrument.

3. Electric Guitars Why did we start making electric guitars? Again, this was brought about due to volume and guitarists being unable to be heard (little did we know it would lead to guitarists going deaf, but that is another story) The following statement came from Monica M. Smith  in her article The Electric Guitar how we got from Andres Segovia to Kurt Cobain in the Summer 2004 Volume 20 No 1 issue of Invention and Technology.  " The first guitar pickup was made by a Gibson engineer named Lloyd Loar, a functional coil wound pickup in 1923. The first commercial guitar was offered in 1929 by the Stromberg-Voisinet company of Chicago. Les Paul was also experimenting with making the guitar electric in his early teens in 1929." The electric guitar is a steel string guitar. It has many more adjustments and personal choices to make than either of the other instruments unless you get a custom made guitar. The bodies can be either solid or semi hollow. Examples of each are, a Fender Stratocaster, which is a solid body electric guitar. Any guitar that has F holes or those cool scrolly things on the soundboard of the guitar generally is a semi hollow body guitar. They require an amp and cable for sound production. You do not have to worry about humidity as much with an electric guitar. But neck adjustments and general adjustments are done a lot more often.

It is my opinion as a teacher who holds a degree in music and a lifelong player of the guitar that if you undertake a study of the guitar you make this choice. Learn how to play a classical/flamenco guitar. It teaches you how you really sound, it does not lie. A steel string is harder on the fingers than a nylon string guitar and I have seen many a student quit because of this particular issue.  An electric guitar can hide how you really sound because it sounds really cool and it is a much harder switch from electric to classical. If you want to be an electric guitar player as soon as you start to get a feel for how you sound on an acoustic and understand the correct principles of guitar playing you should move over to your instrument of choice. Hopefully, you will find joy and beauty in each of the instruments as I have.


Painted guitar by Paula Manning Lewis



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