We’re often asked by customers; “What’s the difference between an acoustic and an electric guitar?” or “Which type of guitar is best to learn on?”, and other similar questions. This guide aims to to answer some of those questions.
What do guitars have in common?
First off we’ll look at what a guitar basically is and what they generally have in common. Guitars are stringed instruments which in most cases have 6 strings made of metal. In order to create a sound these strings are plucked individually to make a melody or strummed together to make a chord. In order to change the pitch of each of these strings, the fingers on the other hand must be placed behind the metal strips known as frets and pressed down onto the string. To make sure the guitar stays in tune, each string has a machine head or tuning peg to fine tune the pitch on the string. These act by tightening the tension on the string to tune the pitch higher, or slackening the tension to pitch the string lower.
What are the main differences between electric and acoustic guitars?
Now we will look at some of the differences between electric and acoustic guitars. Acoustic guitars have a larger body than electrics, but are hollow inside. This body is made up of a back, sides and a top or soundboard which has a hole in the middle. When the strings on an acoustic guitar are plucked and strummed, the tiny sound vibrations resonate through the top or soundboard. These vibrations then jump and bounce around inside the body of the guitar and are then amplified much louder as they come back out of the hole. This means that an acoustic guitar can be played more or less anywhere and still be heard clearly when played.
On an electric guitar, the body is very different from an acoustic as instead of being made of different pieces, it is one solid piece of wood which also smaller than an acoustic guitar’s body. Whilst noise can be heard when played like an acoustic, it isn’t very loud and is practically inaudible from the other side of a room. In order to be heard, an electric guitar normally has two or three pickups attached to the body underneath the strings. A pickup is made of 6 magnets wrapped in thin copper wire which “picks up” the vibrations from the metal strings once they are struck because they are in the pickups magnetic field, hence their name. This is the turned into an electrical signal which using a lead, this electrical signal is sent to an amplifier which processes the signal and sends it to a speaker, making the sound louder or amplifying it.
Whilst both types of guitar have a body, neck and 6 strings, there are further differences still with these. To help an acoustic sound louder, they usually have thicker strings than an electric guitar which increases its volume using the amp. Because of this, acoustic guitars are generally viewed as harder for an absolute beginner to learn on than an electric, because more finger strength is needed to press the stings down on an acoustic. Also, because the strings are thinner on an electric, the neck and body are too. This also means that an electric guitar is easier for a child to start learning on than an acoustic. However, the extra knobs and switches on an electric guitar as well as the amplifier it needs can make learning more complicated and daunting to an absolute beginner when compared to an electric.
Other deciding factors
When choosing between an electric or acoustic guitar, another obvious factor is the cost of the instrument. A long standing general rule of thumb is that an acoustic guitar costs around half the price of an electric guitar that is of a similar comparable quality. Today however, with the innovation of modern production techniques, either type of guitar can be purchased relatively cheaply. Another crucial factor is the style of music you want to play, as although both types of instrument have their place in most styles of music, some styles lend themselves better to different instruments. Acoustic guitars are generally suited to country, folk, bluegrass, jazz and other styles where the accompanying instruments are often quieter so that the acoustic can still be heard. Electric Guitars on the other hand are often played in indie, rock, metal, pop and other genres where the guitar needs to be louder through the use of an amplifier. This can often be due to having to compete in volume with other musician such as a bass guitar, drummer or vocalist singing through a microphone. When starting out it is always best to think about what music you like to listen to and would like to be able to play before deciding on acoustic or electric.
What are the alternatives?
Whilst acoustic and electric guitars have both their pros and cons, there are alternatives which try to address some of the cons. For instance classical guitars have softer nylon strings and a smaller body than normal acoustic guitars, making them much easier to play for children and absolute beginners, as well as cheaper. Ukulele’s take this one step further with two less strings and an even smaller body, which also means they can be even cheaper still. There also electro-acoustic guitars which are like an acoustic, but have a tiny pickup attached underneath the soundboard that means they can be plugged into an amplifier like an electric.
As well as the increased volume they bring, it is argued that the thicker gauge strings and hollow body of an acoustic guitar give the instrument a richer or more varied tone than an electric. To combat this some guitarists use thicker strings on their electric guitar once they are more experienced. There are also hollowbody electric guitars which have big, hollow bodies like an acoustic but have f-holes on the soundboard like a violin rather than the large circular sound hole on an acoustic. Similarly there are semi-hollow electric guitars which are similar to hollowbodies, but with a central block of wood inside. As such these lie somewhere between a normal electric and a hollowbody guitar. Both of these variations on an electric guitar are generally used for jazz, blues and early rock and roll, but also have other applications outside of these genres.
With all these differences and alternatives, it can be difficult to decide whether an acoustic or electric guitar is right for you or your love one, and ultimately a great many guitarists come to learn both as they progress with their learning. If you are still undecided, please call us on 01772 622111 or visit us at one of our eight stores to speak to any of our knowledgeable and expertly trained staff who will always be happy to help. Check out some of our other blog posts or videos on our YouTube channel for more useful information on guitars and other instruments!