The Different Types of Acoustic Guitars Explained

Acoustic Guitars

The acoustic guitar is an instrument with a long and storied past, being a fixture in Western music for more than a century. It’s played an integral part in the most innovative and influential albums ever released and it’s yet to be replaced by any other instrument.

Though, like many instruments, trying to figure out which acoustic guitar is going to work well for your needs can be a challenge. It’s hard to know what you should buy if you don’t know the types of acoustic guitar, because while they look similar the differences between them will have a huge impact on your sound.

So rather than trying to figure it out on your own, let us give you the information you’ll need to make an informed purchase. The sections below outline the differences between the types of acoustic guitars, what genre to use them for, as well as some of the features that can help you choose between different acoustic guitars of the same type (how to choose a specific dreadnought, for example).

Section 1: Steel String Flattop Guitars

Gibson J-35
Gibson J-35

The steel string acoustic guitar is the type you’re most likely to encounter and it’s the most widely used variation of the acoustic guitar. The basic thing to know about this type of guitar is that it’s well suited to strumming and acoustic fingerpicking, though playing modern or classical fingerstyle arrangements can be a challenge because steel strings require more strength to play. This type of guitar is also available in a variety of different body styles.

We’re only going to get into the three main body styles because they’re what you’re going to encounter 90% of the time. If you happen to be interested in a jumbo or a body style that doesn’t fit into one of the categories below the general rule of thumb is that a smaller guitar will have a more focused mid-range and high-end tone while a larger guitar will have more volume and a higher representation of bass frequencies at the expense of a focused sound.

The difference between say a 00 (a slightly longer type of parlor guitar) and a parlor isn’t going to be all that noticeable. There’s actually going to be more of a difference between different tonewoods than there will be between a 00 and a parlor, or a slope-shoulder and a dreadnought.

Acoustic Guitar Size Comparison Chart
Acoustic Guitar Size Comparison Chart

Parlor:

A parlor guitar is defined by a focused high-end midrange, though some believe that the body style sounds a bit boxy when compared to the open sound of a good dreadnought. This guitar is really well suited to fingerstyle, because due to its smaller dimensions it’s easy to properly activate the top.

What I mean when I say “activate the top” is playing your guitar with enough force to generate a large enough amount of vibration to get the full frequency response the instrument is capable of. That’s why if you lightly play a dreadnought the tone can be a bit weak and anemic, while if you strum it with more force you get a sound with a greater representation of bass, mid, and treble frequencies.

Another important thing to know about parlor guitars is that there isn’t a true definition as to what a parlor guitar actually is. The term parlor guitar encompasses 0, 00, and sometimes even 000 body styles. However, all of these body styles are very small and have a similar response overall.

OM:

Martin OM-28Martin OM-28

An OM body style is the middle ground between a dreadnought and a parlor guitar. Basically, this is a guitar that sounds good both while strumming and while fingerpicking. The tradeoff is that it doesn’t really excel at either. However, a well-built OM (like a Martin for example) is still going to be a very good sounding instrument regardless of how it’s played.

The best example of this type of guitar would be the Martin OM-28. Note the elongated upper and lower bouts and the relatively small waist.

Dreadnought:

The dreadnought is the most widely available acoustic guitar body style, and has the most volume and the highest amount of bass frequencies out of the three body styles. The dreadnought’s main selling point currently is that it has a wide and rich tone well suited to playing in an ensemble, though the majority of steel string acoustic guitars can perform the same role when amplified. So if you’re a smaller bodied musician you may find that a smaller body style is more comfortable in a live setting, and contrary to what some may believe, you’re still going to be able to get a tone that works well to strengthen a mix.

Section 2: Nylon String Guitars

Cordoba C3M
Cordoba C3M

Nylon string guitars are exactly what they sound like. Guitars strung with nylon strings. These guitars are commonly called classical guitars, though in reality classical guitars are a subset of nylon string instruments. Don’t let cheap beginner “classicals” influence your opinion of genuine classical guitars or nylon string guitars as a whole, because those cheap ($50 or less) guitars are generally more “guitar-shaped objects” instead of proper instruments.

Nylon string guitars have a much warmer sound than their steel string counterparts. They never sound harsh in the upper register, though they aren’t quite as focused as a good steel string instrument. Nylon string guitars also have much less string tension, which helps to facilitate the complicated passages commonly found in classical and fingerstyle guitar.

The three main categories are as follow:

Classical Guitars:

Classical guitars are nylon stringed instruments generally used to play classical music. These guitars generally have smaller dimensions than that of a dreadnought, being closer in size to that of a parlor guitar. They’re a bit bigger than your standard parlor guitar in width (right side of the top to left side of the top) though the two instruments are still very approachable by smaller framed musicians. They’re closest in size to an OM, though they don’t have bouts that are quite as dramatic. The action on these instruments are also higher to help facilitate different techniques as well as provide a clear and glassy tone with plenty of volume. Classical guitars also have a wider nut width than steel string guitars, being between 0.2 and 0.3 inches wider.

Flamenco Guitars:

Flamenco guitars are built to play flamenco music. These guitars generally have tap plates on the top of the instrument to facilitate the rhythmic tapping that’s an integral part of flamenco music. These guitars generally have lower action than classical guitars, and are defined by their growly and passionate sound. Like classical guitars they tend to have a significantly wider nut width than a standard steel string acoustic.

Hybrid/Crossover/Other:

While flamenco and classical guitars are the most commonly found type of nylon string guitar there are also a variety of others present. These guitars generally feature some aspect of classical guitars but are made to be more accessible to musicians coming from either an electric or acoustic steel string guitar.

There are so many types of hybrids and crossovers that it’s hard to truly describe this category. But as a general rule the same rules that apply to any instrument applies to hybrids/crossovers as well. A bigger instrument well have more volume and a higher representation of bass frequencies while a smaller instrument will be more focused but have less overall volume.

Section 3: Archtops

The Loar LH-700
The Loar LH-700

The defining trait of the acoustic archtop guitar is that they have a very focused sound without much in the way of sustain. Now we know that in general sustain is a characteristic of an instrument which is highly prized, but for the harmonically complex and intricate passages commonly played in jazz the lack of sustain actually works in favor of the instrument.

There really aren’t a ton of reasons to have an archtop guitar in the modern day. It doesn’t sound like a flattop, so it’s not a good choice for strumming. While it does have the potential to work well in ensembles when playing lead this role can be fulfilled just as well by any amplified acoustic guitar.

Essentially, the hard truth of the matter is that unless you want to play jazz (or potentially finger style blues guitar) you would be better off with a flattop guitar. If you do want to play jazz an archtop guitar could be a huge asset to your collection of gear. There really isn’t any other instrument that sounds anything like a good acoustic archtop, even if it is a bit of a one trick pony.

Section 4: Tonewoods

Tonewoods are an incredibly divisive subject, and we’re definitely not going to claim that this information isn’t going to be contradicted somewhere else. However, we are going to list the general consensus of the impact of different tonewoods. Just remember that construction is just as important as the tonewood used, so don’t assume that just because a guitar is made from a certain wood it’s going to have a particular tone.

Also, remember that most guitars use at least two different tonewoods. So the end tone of the guitar is going to be a combination of the two woods utilized.

Sitka Spruce:

The most common tonewood used for the top of an acoustic guitar, Sitka spruce has a broad dynamic range and a pleasing level of responsiveness. It’s a bright sounding tonewood, making it a good fit for lively strumming or lead playing.

Engelmann Spruce:

Engelmann is similar to Sitka but tends to be a bit more responsive when played softly. However, Engelmann doesn’t respond as well to hard playing as Sitka. This makes this tonewood a great fit for fingerpickers.

Adirondack Spruce:

The tonewood of choice for vintage acoustics, Adirondack was over-harvested to the point where many manufacturers stepped away from using it. The wood is generally considered to be the liveliest among the spruce family, though some do say that it takes longer to “open up” than Engelmann or Sitka.

Cedar:

Cedar is a warm tonewood prized for its luscious tone. It doesn’t have the attack of spruce, which is why it’s commonly used in guitars that prioritize fingerpicking.

Mahogany:

Mahogany, generally used for the back and sides of a guitar, offers a pleasing representation of bass and mid frequencies. The tonewood projects very well, but in some instances can still sound dark when compared to the more focused rosewood. It’s great for guitars that serve a rhythmic role, but not quite as good for guitars primarily used to play lead or to fingerpick.

Maple:

Commonly used in either archtops or jumbo guitars, maple is prized for its flatness of tone and its quick decay. This makes it a great fit for jumbos in particular because it helps to tame their overabundance of low-end frequencies.

Rosewood:

Rosewood is prized due to its incredibly focused tone that maintains a high representation of low, mid, and treble frequencies. It’s much more focused than mahogany while still having a ton of sustain, making it a great choice for fingerpicking and flatpicking alike. Unfortunately, it is also generally more expensive than mahogany.

Section 6: Laminate vs. Solid Wood

Laminated wood is thin sheets of wood glued and pressed together, while solid wood is a solid piece cut off of a tree. Due to the nature of sound, laminated woods don’t resonate as freely as solid wood. This results in a tone that isn’t as full bodied as a solid wood instrument, but because it’s cheaper, laminate construction is still widely used in many budget acoustic guitars.

With that being said, so long as a guitar has a solid top it can still be a great sounding instrument. The top is the most influential part of your guitar’s sound, while the back and sides play more of a supportive role.

Make no mistake, the tone will still be worse if laminate construction is used, it just won’t necessarily be a bad sounding instrument overall. Laminated wood instruments are also more resistant to changes in temperature and humidity, which actually makes them a pretty good fit for musicians who either don’t know how or don’t care to properly store their guitar.

In Conclusion

Learning about the different types of acoustic guitars is a very in-depth process, and even this article is more of a primer than a complete work. But with the information you now have you have everything you need to make an informed decision.

If you have any question or concerns, or you just want to share, feel free to jump down to the comments section below!

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