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What is the difference between the acoustic and electric guitar?

Updated: Mar 28

The guitar as we know it, having six strings and a conventional body shape, is generally thought to have been invented in the late 18th century, though the lineage of the instrument can be traced back much further than that even. Understandably, the acoustic guitar came first given the technological capabilities at the time, but since then there have been countless alterations, improvements and changes in design that have led us to what we have today.


The acoustic guitar had been developing progressively, leading up to the Big Band and Swing music movements, popular in the early 20th century. Due to the sheer size of the ensemble needed, the volume of the acoustic guitar was insufficient and the requirement for electric guitars was born. This already gives us our first significant difference, electric guitars are usually amplified, therefore would be louder than their counterparts. Let’s break down some of the key differences by highlighting some specific qualities of each:



The Electric Guitar



Design -


The shape of the electric guitar is not drastically important, as the sound changes so significantly as it progresses through the signal chain and out of the speakers (which are the biggest contributing factor to your tone). The design is usually aesthetic, with only the most modern of creations having some additional functionalities (moveable pickups etc). 


Wood choice -


Woods used for construction are often shared across the two main types of guitar. The term ‘tonewood’ doesn’t really apply to the electric guitar in any significant way for the reasons explained above. However, I feel that really cheap, low quality wood is easy to notice. 


Due to the typically solid construction of electric guitar, alternative wood choices are available that serve an aesthetic purpose. For example, quilted, flamed or spalted variations of Maple are often believed to be unstable by luthiers and are not suitable for building acoustic guitars.


Hardware/Electronics - 


Again, thanks to the solid construction of an electric guitar, it is possible to fit certain pieces of hardware, like tremolo systems (up to and including the floating type, like Floyd Rose), a D-Tuna (a device for dropping the guitar down to drop D with the use of a lever) and certain types of bridges - obviously, there are exceptions to the rules, but this is uncommon.


Naturally, electronics will also differ. An electric guitar might have a higher number of pickups and an advanced switching system to change between them and provide the player with a myriad of options (sometimes too many!). There are also guitars with effects installed in them, boosting options and robot tuners… the possibilities are virtually endless!


Genre -


There is an endless crossover here, and restricting either instrument to a specific genre is a hotly debated topic. The truth is, you can play something like rock on the acoustic, like Tenacious D for example. Likewise, you can play Country and Western on the electric guitar. 


From an objective standpoint, certain styles and genres are associated with either instrument and it has always been that way. If you think of rock or heavy metal, you think electric guitar and so on. For the electric guitar specifically this can be split further by assuming that all hollow-bodied electric guitars are for jazz or all Stratocaster type guitars and for funk - it’s not always the case! 


The Acoustic Guitar 



Playability -


Acoustic guitars typically rely on themselves to project their volume. For that reason, thicker strings are often used because they tend to be louder. Not extremely so, but a little goes a long way here. Thicker strings can be harder to press or bend which is off putting for some people.


The action (the gap between the strings and the frets) may also be higher to allow for more vibration, which again makes it difficult to press frets down and also play barre chords etc. 


Other aspects of the design, such as the shape and the cutaway higher on the neck make it harder to play higher notes and melodies - not something that happens too often, just don’t tell Tommy Emmanuel (acoustic guitar extraordinaire - see Michael Kaplan’s interview courtesy of The American Guitar Academy here).


An acoustic guitar would also usually have a wider neck or a bigger distance between each of the strings. Some open chord shapes and wide spread techniques become a little more difficult as a result. 


Materials - 


Acoustic guitars tend to have a more holistic approach to the materials used in their construction. For example, most of the guitar is wood with other components such as the bridge being made from wood also. Things like the bridge pins (something unique to the acoustic), the nut and the bridge saddle (s) are made from bone (they have also been made of ivory in the past, but that is extremely rare and often illegal). 


The choice of wood is more critical here, as there is less of a signal chain the the sound needs to pass through to reach your ears; there are no wires, no speakers and rarely effects pedals that could color the sound in any way. Therefore, the ‘sound’ of the wood is clear and easily observable, the quality of which is disparate between budget friendly and boutique level instruments. That doesn’t mean to say that cheaper or intermediate acoustic guitars sound bad, but they are definitely different.


Another point regarding materials is the strings. A steel string acoustic guitar commonly uses a bronze based alloy set of strings, the sound lends itself that of the acoustic guitar and doesn’t really work on the electric for tension and sounds purposes (the same is the other way around - it could work but is probably not a good idea). A classical acoustic guitar (as demonstrated by The American Guitar Academy’s own Carl in this video) uses strings made entirely from nylon, or with a nylon core - these won’t work with an electric guitar at all, but some students like them as they can be softer on the fingers. 


It should be pointed out that when being recorded or played live, the acoustic guitar is being picked up by a microphone, a magnetic or microphone based pick-up within the guitar or a combination of the two. This does pose some feedback issues at high-volumes, but is manageable if you know how or have a competent sound engineer. 


Similarities


There are many similarities between electric and acoustic instruments. For example, the notes are laid out on the fretboard in exactly the same way and every applicable theory wise is also interchangeable. Also, aside from a traditional method of holding a classical guitar, you are likely to be holding them the same way too!


Many of the same riffs and melodies can be played on either instrument, although it may not sound correct due to tonal differences. There is nothing stopping you from playing an acoustic version of your favorite electric guitar parts, but some musicians have made a career out of rearranging a tune to make it more appropriate or conducive to the acoustic. 


Every professional guitarist will have experience in performing and working with both types of guitar - it’s a necessary skill to be an adaptable and sought after musician. 




In conclusion…


In conclusion, if you are considering learning the guitar but you don’t know where to start or what to pick, consider what you would like to play and your musical tastes - that should put you on the right path. You should definitely not feel like you are not allowed to play something on your instrument that is unconventional, just be understanding that there may be additional challenges in the way - or you could see it as an opportunity to create your own rendition. 


It also helps guitarists have a greater understanding of their craft, if they can apply themselves in a way they wouldn’t usually, step out of their comfort zone if you will. If you are a metal player and you love performing Slayer’s entire ‘Reign in Blood’ album, fantastic! However, you will gain a higher level of understanding of chords and chord progressions if you learn some songs by the Bee Gees or learn every John Denver song.


It is my recommendation that you try and play both - who doesn’t love more guitars?


Alex

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