The acoustic guitar is one of the most popular instruments in the world. With so many different types of acoustic guitars to choose from, it can be complex. This article walks you through each of the different types of acoustic guitars, so by the end, all will be clear.
What is an Acoustic Guitar?
Before diving into the different acoustic guitar types, let's address a basic question. What is an acoustic guitar?
The acoustic guitar is a stringed instrument played by plucking or strumming. The plucked guitar strings resonate with the hollow body to produce a clear and percussive sound. This sound continues to be a staple in many recordings and live performances.
Acoustic Guitar Guides
These guides will help you find the best option for your needs:
The core design has remained the same over the years. But these days, there are now plenty of options to consider. This includes different string types, shapes, sizes, and tonewoods.
With that out of the way, here are the three most common acoustic guitar types. We've also included popular subsets, characteristics, and the genres that they fit in.
The last two sections provide information about wood and how they impact sound. These can be helpful when deciding on a particular guitar model of the same type.
Section 1: Steel Stringed Acoustic Flat Top Guitar
Gibson J-35 Slope Shoulder Dreadnought Guitar
The name says it all, these are acoustic guitars with steel strings. It is the most popular among the three main acoustic types, thanks to its versatility. It works great for strumming or fingerpicking and is viable for a wide variety of musical genres.
There are many subsets under this steel string acoustic guitars, the dreadnought models being the most popular. As long as they have steel strings and an acoustic body, they fall under the steel string acoustic guitar group.
Because of its broad scope, we are only going to feature the three main body styles - Dreadnought, OM, and Parlor. These are the ones that you’re going to encounter 90% of the time.
Here's a good rule of thumb: smaller guitars sound warmer with focused mid-range. While large-bodied ones are louder and have more bass.
If you're choosing between two guitars of similar size, you ought to put more weight on the tonewoods.
Martin D-45 Square Shoulder Dreadnought Acoustic Guitar
The dreadnought/dreadnaught guitar is the most common acoustic guitar body style. It is the shape that most people have in their minds when they think of acoustic guitars.
C.F. Martin & Co developed the design in 1916 and it gained popularity in the 1930s. Amplification back then was still in its infancy. It was well-suited for ensembles thanks to its wide and rich tone. These days it continues to be a crowd favorite, thanks to its loud projection and deep low-end.
Dreadnoughts of different makes and prices flood the market now. This makes it more accessible to musicians regardless of budget and experience.
There are two main dreadnought guitar kinds. The most common one is the square shoulder, which has a straight upper and bottom section. The slope shoulder dreadnought has rounded upper and lower bouts.
Aside from these two, many of today's acoustic body shapes can be traced back to the dreadnought design. This includes the grand auditorium, grand concert, jumbo, and more.
For easier access to upper frets, there are Cutaway versions of the dreadnought and other shapes. Cutaways have since been the standard for acoustic-electric guitars. Some are not happy with the cutaway look. But when it comes to acoustic sound quality, there's no clear winner between cutaway vs dreadnought.
OM Guitar (Orchestra Model Guitar)
An OM (Orchestra Model) body style is the middle ground between a dreadnought and a parlor guitar. It sounds good both while strumming and while fingerpicking. The tradeoff is that it doesn’t excel at either. However, a well-built OM (like the Martin OM-28 for example) is still going to be a very good-sounding instrument regardless of how it’s played.
Having owned acoustic guitars of different shapes, I prefer the clarity and note definition of the OM. It's one of the best acoustic guitar styles for fingerstyle playing. And it's a perfect fit for singer songwriters.
Distinguishing features of the OM include longer upper / lower bouts, and a small waist. Other manufacturers also have OM style guitars, often with specs and labels.
Takamine GY11ME Parlor Guitar
A parlor guitar is a small body acoustic defined by a focused high-end midrange tone. Because of its smaller body, the resulting sound is a bit boxy and gritty, especially when played hard. And this particular tone makes it viable for blues, folk, rock, and similar styles.
This is well suited to fingerstyle, because of its smaller dimensions it’s easy to activate the top. “Activate the top” means playing your guitar with enough force to vibrate the top for a fuller sound. This is why a light string attack produces a weak and anemic tone. You need to apply the right force to get a full representation of the bass, mid, and treble frequencies.
Note that there are no agreed standard specifications for parlor guitars. So, it encompasses a lot of traditional and modern shapes, including 0, 00, and sometimes even 000 body styles. But these body styles are very small and have a similar response. Some parlor guitars have their own unique acoustic guitar setup, from the neck profile to the string action.
You can learn more about these small guitar types at Parlor.Guitars.
Section 2: Nylon String Guitars
Taylor Academy 12e-N Nylon String Guitar
Nylon string guitars are the most student-friendly of the 3 types. Nylon strings are soft, making them ideal for beginners and kids. And they are the preferred string material of serious classical guitar students.
Nylon string guitars have a much warmer sound than their steel string counterparts. They don't sound harsh in the upper register, but they don't have the sustain and zing of a steel string guitar.
Nylon string guitars also have less string tension. This makes it easier to do complicated classical and flamenco passages.
Classical guitars and Flamenco guitars are the two most common subsets of nylon string instruments. While the hybrid subset covers non-traditional builds like travelers, 3/4 size, and silent guitars.
The three subcategories are:
Cordoba C3M Classical Guitar
Classical guitars are nylon stringed instruments generally used to play classical music. They have a clear piano-like glassy tone with plenty of volume.
To appease its intended market, classical guitars retain much of the old design. But they now employ modern production methods and materials.
These guitars generally have smaller dimensions than a dreadnought. But they are slightly bigger than your standard parlor guitar in width. Its small size makes it ideal for smaller framed musicians.
They’re closer in size to an OM but are shaped differently. String action is a bit higher to help with different techniques. Nut width is around 0.2 to 0.3 inches wider than regular steel stringed acoustic guitars. This means that your fingers will have to stretch a bit more to play wide chords and passages.
Yamaha CG172SF Flamenco Guitar
Flamenco guitars are built to play flamenco music. They have tap plates for rhythmic tapping that’s an integral part of flamenco music.
These guitars generally have low action, suitable for fast riffs and percussive strumming. When played hard, the lower action also allows for the growly and passionate tone that Flamenco is known for.
Like classical guitars, they tend to have a wider nut width than a standard steel string acoustic.
Hybrid Guitars / Crossover Guitars & Other Nylon String Guitars
Ibanez TOD10N Nylon String Guitar
While flamenco and classical guitars are the most common. There are non-traditional options that combine different elements of other guitar types.
These guitars let you play with nylon strings, without the usual traditional body and neck specs. Tim Henson's acoustic-electric nylon string guitar is a good example. He uses it in progressive metal playing with his band Polyphia. Other examples include mini and 3/4 size nylon string guitars for beginners.
There are so many types of hybrids and crossovers that it’s hard to pin them down to specific specs. But the same rules apply to them, bigger bodied guitars will be louder and have more low end. While thinner and smaller ones will have more mids and highs.
Section 3: Archtop Acoustic Guitars
The Loar LH-700
The defining trait of acoustic archtops is their warm punchy tone and lack of sustain. This lack of sustain makes them ideal for complex and intricate jazz passages.
Archtops are also great for guitar comping, an accompaniment style used in jazz music. This rhythmic playing employs advanced muting, strumming, and fingerstyle techniques.
Its distinct sound makes it a great guitar for jazz gigs, the downside though is that it's a one-trick pony. So unless you want to play jazz (or potentially finger style blues guitar) you are better off with a regular flat top guitar. But if you are into jazz, acoustic archtop guitars could be a huge asset to your collection of gear.
If you're looking for a versatile acoustic that can do folk, pop, rock, and more, then the archtop guitar is not for you. Archtops also have bulky bodies, which aren't as portable and as comfortable as many of today's sleeker acoustic guitar designs.
Section 4: Other Different Types of Acoustic Guitars
Cigano GJ-15 Gypsy Jazz Guitar
In this section, we will give special mentions to non-mainstream yet noteworthy acoustic guitar types. First is the Gypsy jazz guitar, a distinct acoustic guitar type dedicated to jazz music. It is based on the instrument that Django Reinhardt used in Gypsy jazz music.
It has a larger than average body and a longer neck. It stands out with its distinct D-style sound hole, while other models sport a small oval sound hole. Gypsy guitars sound similar to an archtop but are more percussive and snappy. Most Gypsy guitars have steel strings, but there are some models that use nylon. So it's hard to pin this one down into a main category.
Next is the 12-string acoustic guitar, it is a steel string guitar that as the name implies, has 12 strings. These extra strings result in a fuller voice but make it harder to do techniques like bends and slides.
Kids and beginners will most likely encounter 3/4 size acoustic guitars. These are miniature acoustic guitars that are easy to play. Some manufacturers made their own small guitar categories called Mini and Junior. Note that these types of guitars fall under the parlor guitar category.
Gold Tone PBR-D Resonator Guitar
The Resonator guitar uses a metal "resonator" instead of a wooden soundboard. This results in a distinct tone that's bright and thumpy, ideal for slide guitar playing. Its distinct tone works well with bluegrass, blues, country, and similar musical styles.
Traveler and Silent acoustic guitars wrap up this section. These are guitars that prioritize portability, while still providing a similar tone and feel to a regular acoustic. Many of these guitars have skeletal bodies, making them more akin to electric guitars. Some of them need to be plugged into an amp, a PA Mixer, or headphones. But they do play and sound like an acoustic.
Section 5: Sound Clips
Section 6: Difference Between Acoustic and Classical Guitar
This is one of the most common questions that I get, especially from beginners. The short answer is that they have different strings, sound, nut width, scale length, and playing feel.
The long answer is a bit complicated because people tend to mix up the labels. It's better to about ask the difference between steel string and nylon string guitars.
Acoustic steel stringed guitars are the more versatile option, for those who want to play various styles of music. Nylon string guitars are best for classical music, Latin, flamenco, and some pop music styles.
Nut Width and Scale Length
Nut width is the measurement of how wide the guitar nut is. And since it is positioned before the 1st fret, it is a good indication of how wide the neck is.
Narrow necks are easier on the hands but can feel cramped. Wide necks mean more fretting room but it can be a challenge for those with short fingers. Classical guitars have the widest necks at 2", while steel string guitars can range from 1 ¹¹⁄₁₆" to 1 ⅞".
Nut Width and Scale Length
Scale length is another important specification, it is the length by which the strings are stretched. The longer the strings are stretched, the higher the tension. This results in a stiffer feel but better resonance.
Shorter scale lengths have lower strings tension, making them easier on the hands, and will have some effect on tone. Most acoustic guitars fall within the 24.75" to 25.6" scale length range.
Section 7: Guitar Tonewoods
Listed here is the general consensus on the impact of different tonewoods. Note that tonewood is a divisive subject, so take this information with a grain of salt.
Keep in mind 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.
Most guitars use at least two different tonewoods. So, the end tone of the guitar is going to be a combination of the two types of wood utilized.
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 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 is the tonewood of choice for vintage acoustics. So much so that it 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 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. This is my tonewood of choice when it comes to classical guitars.
Mahogany is generally used for the back and sides of a guitar. It offers a pleasing representation of bass and mid frequencies. It projects 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.
All-mahogany acoustic guitars are currently rated higher than traditional builds in the market. This is a testament to how good mahogany is, especially when used by reputable manufacturers. Some manufacturers have resorted to budget-friendly alternatives to mahogany, like sapele and nyatoh. You can read more about them in our Acoustic Guitar Buyer's Guide.
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. Having owned and played on a number of maple body acoustics, I find it to be bright sounding.
Rosewood is popular due to its 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.
How much do Tonewoods matter?
The differences between tonewoods can be very subtle. We could argue that construction is much more important. Studies carried out by the Leonardo Guitar Research Project compared 26 different tonewoods.
Gaëlle Solal played 16 different guitars combined in this one clip. Can you distinguish between the tropical and non-tropical tonewoods used?
Their study found that the type of wood used on the back and sides was difficult to distinguish between.. Less expensive, non-tropical wood species stack up well, and produce equivalent sound qualities.
Section 8: Laminate vs Solid Wood Guitar
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 laminate wood is cheaper, it is still widely used in many budget acoustic guitars.
This is why you'll notice differences between laminate guitars, solid top guitars, and all-solid wood guitars. The more solid wood is used, the more resonant the body is. Note that the top is the most influential part of an acoustic guitar's sound, while the back and sides play more of a supportive role.
One of the upsides of laminated wood is its resistance to temperature changes and humidity. This makes it a good fit for beginners and musicians who either don’t know how or don’t care to properly store their guitars.
For a more in-depth look at tonewoods, and other considerations, you can check our list of Things To Consider When Buying An Acoustic Guitar.
We hope the information here has given you a solid overview. With so many different types of acoustic guitars, getting your head around them all can take some time. So don't be embarrassed to go back and re-read the information. I'm sure you'll pick up something new you missed the first time.
If you have any questions or concerns, or you just want to share, feel free to jump down to the comments section below!
About the Author and Contributors
Original Author: Mason Hoberg
Update Contributor: Alexander Briones
Editor: Richard Guarnuccio