The sound of a tuned acoustic guitar is one of the most pleasing things that one can hear. Learning to play the guitar can be a very rewarding experience. It is one of the most versatile instruments available.
Even in times like now, when electronic or dance music rules the music charts, almost every song features a guitar.
What does the term “Acoustic Guitar” mean?
You will often hear people classify any instrument into two categories – acoustic and electric. This term is not only associated with a guitar but every instrument there is. Any acoustic instrument produces its sound through natural resonance of its structural materials (for instance, wood) and air.
An electric instrument is one that relies on electronic sensors and an amplification circuit to produce its sound. Alternatively, there are electro-acoustic or acoustic-electric instruments. These combine bits of both worlds in their own ways.
What makes Guitar a Unique Instrument?
Unique and expressive
Guitar is somewhat like a human voice. The exact same guitar played by two different people tends to sound different. This is because the sound produced by a guitar depends a lot on the fingers that are playing it.
Every guitarist has a unique hold because every playing hand is different. The shape and size of fingers, the size of the palm, all play a role in shaping the tone.This, in turn, makes the guitar a very personal and expressive instrument.
Easy to learn
The guitar is designed to be a beginner’s instrument. Its ergonomic design makes it very easy and comfortable to hold. It is a fretted instrument and, therefore, you do not need to think about playing in tune.
Although, the first few days might make it seem impossible to play, the guitar has a steep learning curve. With regular practice, most people can play their first song in abouttwo to three weeks.
Difficult to master
While it is easy to learn, the guitar is very hard to master. No matter how good you get, you will always find new styles and new techniques to master. People all around the globe are doing incredible things with a simple six-string guitar.
From percussive sounds on the body to two handed tapping techniques that create the illusion of multiple guitars playing at the same time, there is simply no end to what you can learn and achieve with just an acoustic guitar.
Guitar can be played as both a solo instrument and for accompanying vocals just like a piano. Many singer-songwriters play rhythm guitar and sing along to their own music. The tonal range of a guitar is very well suited for the human vocal range.
No other instrument has a bigger market for its accessories than guitar. From amplifiers to effect pedals and loopers, any guitar with a pickup system can be connected to them for added effects and functionality. This means that even with a limited amount of skill, you can make wonderful music.
Acoustic Guitar – Deconstructed
The wooden box with a hollow chamber and a sound hole in the centre forms the guitar body. This is the most important part of the guitar because its effect on the tone of the guitar is very dominating. Also, the guitar body withstands the tension in the strings. The body is comprised of the following parts:
The body is constructed as three separate pieces. The top is where the strings are attached to. The top also houses the sound-hole, the bridge and the saddle. The tonewood used in making the top usually determines the tone of the guitar.
The back of the guitar body is made out of denser and more resilient wood. This provides strength to the overall structure. The back does not contribute to the tone as much as the top.
The sides of the guitar body is what holds the top and back together. It might simply be glued to the top or a binding might be used.
The bridge sits over the top of the body behind the soundhole. This is usually made of lighter wood to increase sustain. The bridge has different mechanisms via which the strings are attached to the guitar body.
The saddle is usually made of synthetic bone material. It transfers the vibrations of the strings to the top of the guitar body. Saddle plays an important role in increasing sustain.
The neck is the part of the guitar on which the fretboard or fingerboard lies. The neck can either be screwed or glued onto the body of the guitar. It is debatable as to how much the wood used in the neck affects the tone of the guitar. However, it definitely has some effect, at least for an acoustic guitar.
The fretboard or the fingerboard is where the action happens. For a right-handed player, the left-hand is the fretting hand. It is called fretboard because of the metal frets that are fixed on the fretboard. The wood used in making the fretboard impacts playability much more than the tone. Rosewood, maple, and ebony are the most common fretboard wood.
The nut is the part at the end of the fretboard with slots cut in to allow the strings to pass through. Most of the string tension is between the nut and the bridge. The nut is made of similar materials as the saddle.
The headstock is present at the end of the neck. This is where the other ends of the strings are attached. The headstock has posts through which the strings pass. These posts are connected to geared machine heads or tuners. These tuners are used to tighten the strings and tune-up the guitar.
Choosing Your First Acoustic Guitar
Every guitar player starts with a unique aspiration. Every guitar has its strengths and limitations. It really depends on the kind of music that you are inclined towards. In general, the following parameters will help you decide on what your first guitar should be like:
- Type of strings – Steel or Nylon
- Construction – Solid or Laminate
- Shape and size
Steel-String Vs. Nylon String Acoustic Guitars
Broadly, there are two kinds of acoustic guitars depending on the type of strings used by them:
Steel-strings acoustic guitars are way more bright sounding. The sustain on these guitars is much more. The bell-like highs characterise steel-string sound. These guitars are great for strumming and singing along. They are also good for finger-picking.
Classical guitars have nylon strings. These guitars do not sound very bright. However, the tonal clarity is much more than steel-stringed guitars. These guitars are for finger-picking. They produce a more natural sound.
Laminate vs Solid Construction
Guitar bodies can be made of either solid wood or laminate. Laminates are more durable and inexpensive.
However, solid wood construction has richer tones and a more dynamic response. These days, it is common to make the top or soundboard from solid wood. While the back and sides are laminate.
This not only reduces the price but also makes for great-sounding and durable guitars.
Acoustic Guitar Shapes
Acoustic guitar designs have come a long way in the past century. The clear, crisp, accurate but sweet-sounding instruments, that we recognize as acoustic guitars today, are a result of hundreds of years of evolution. The modern guitar has been shaped from many medieval instruments that had their origins in every part of the world.
There have been guitarists of all shapes and sizes. This, in turn, has also led to a variety of different shapes and sizes for acoustic guitars. Every guitar shape has its own unique tonal characteristics. Also, the ergonomics, the balance and playability play a very important role in determining the shape of the guitar.
Here are a few of the most recognizable acoustic guitar shapes:
The parlour shape is characterised by a wider waist and a smaller body. It is very comfortable to hold and is good for singing along or for campfire performances.
- Small size
- Wider waist region
- Great dynamic range
- Prominent mid-range
This is by far the most recognisable guitar shape. It has a much bigger body than the parlour shape. This shape is meant for a loud and fuller projection.
- Bigger and thicker body
- Larger soundboard
- Full sounding with good bass response
The Auditorium or grand auditorium is a great-looking shape by itself. It has a smaller size than the dreadnaught and is larger than a concert shape.
- Bright and loud
- Bell-like highs
The concert shape is preferred by many players as it is very comfortable to hold. While being larger than parlour guitars, concert acoustic guitars are generally smaller than dreadnaughts and grand auditorium.
- Balanced tone
- Medium volume projection
- Makes for a great electro-acoustic
Jumbo guitars have a very large body. They have a much wider waist and thicker body than all other shapes.
- Loud and full sounding
- Depending on tonewood, might have a scooped mid-range
Tonewood is the wood used in making the body of an acoustic guitar. The body is usually made of three parts that are glued together – top, back and sides. The top is most important part in influencing the tone. The tonewood used for making the top usually dominates the tonal characteristics.
All of top, back and sides can be made of the same or different tonewood. Sometimes, different tonewoods are used in order to complement the tonal characteristics of each other – for instance, rosewood top and mahogany back and sides.
Here are some of the most commonly used tonewood:
Perhaps the obvious choice of tonewood for most guitar makers. With a deep bass, scooped mid and bell-like highs, Brazillian rosewood guitars sounded incredible.
Unfortunately, Brazilian rosewood is now an endangered species of wood and its trade is illegal. East Indian Rosewood is another variety that has become popular. It is, however, also listed as endangered and has some restrictions on its trade. The East Indian Rosewood has similar tonal characteristics as Brazilian Rosewood.
- Reddish Brown in colour
- Colour darkens with age
- Medium texture with small open pores
- Warm overall
- Rich bass
- Clear treble
Mahogany is often the choice of tonewood when making fingerstyle guitars. Its warm tone coupled with a good dynamic range makes it ideal for this purpose.
Aesthetically, mahogany guitars have a dark brown look which many find appealing. Just like Brazillian rosewood, Central American Mahogany is no longer available for trade. Instead, African Mahogany is used as tonewood. It has similar tonal characteristics but grows much faster than Central American mahogany.
- Dark brown in colour
- Colour darkens with age
- Straight, fine and even grained texture
- Deep bass
- Warm treble
- Pronounced low-mids
This is currently, the most commonly used tonewood. Sitka spruce is often preferred due to its well-balanced tonal characteristics. It is much lighter than rosewood and mahogany. This gives it a much wider dynamic range. It responds well to fingerpicking as well as strumming and flat-picking. Some of the other kinds of spruce that are popular as tonewood are – Engelmann Spruce and European Spruce.
- Lighter in colour
- Develops a yellowish tinge with age
- Tight grain pattern and high stiffness
- Balanced bass, mid and treble
- Does not respond well to loud strumming
Maple is definitely one of the most visually appealing wood in this list. It is a strong, dense wood and is hence, preferred as tonewood for back and sides by many guitar manufacturers. Tonally speaking, it has fewer overtones and an overall bright sound. The sustain is usually low due to internal damping. Hence, it is not preferred as a top.
- Heavy and dense
- Light in colour
- Acquires reddish hue over time
- Does not have pores
- Less sustain
Koa is an exotic tonewood with a very attractive honey-ripped grain. This makes a Koa guitar very beautiful. This is a hard, dense wood that can be used for both the top, and the back and sides. It naturally cuts off the lows and highs. A Koa guitar generally demonstrates balanced tone. The tone becomes warmer with age.
- Honey-ripped grain pattern
- Hard and dense wood
- Balanced and clear tone
- Bass and treble response is slightly low
Frequently Asked Questions(FAQs)
As a beginner, the task of choosing a guitar can be the most confusing thing ever. You have probably seen acoustic guitarists like Andy Mckee or Tommy Emmanuel and have been inspired by their greatness. If you haven’t heard of them, don’t worry. You can always check them out later. There are several questions going through your head:
- “Is guitar the right instrument for me?”
Guitaris one of the easiest instruments to start with.
- “Does playing guitar hurt?”
Initially, playing will definitely hurt. Fingertips harden with callouses within a week or two of regular playing. With consistent practice, you will no longer feel any pain.
- “Are my hands too small/fat/large?”
There are several different ways to play the same thing across different positions on a guitar. Hand shape or size rarely proves to be a hindrance while learning to play.
- “Is guitar too big for my small frame?”
Guitars are available in various shapes and sizes that suit players of any age, body shape and size.
- “I am left handed. Can I play guitar?”
Of course you can. Guitars are available for both right and left handed players.
- “Is guitar a high maintenance instrument?”
Definitely not. Guitar, although made of wood, has a simple design and does not require much maintenance except an occasional neck reset or adjustment which can be performed by any guitar store personnel.
- “What else do I need to buy along with my guitar?”
If you are starting out with an acoustic guitar, you will only need a guitar and probably a plectrum or pick. However, we recommend that you also buy a guitar carry case to keep it well protected. A soft, padded case is a good option for any beginner.
- “Is it a good idea to buy guitar online?”
Except for the metro cities like Mumbai, Delhi, Kolkata etc., guitar stores are far and few in-between. The return policies of online sellers have become very flexible and convenient. Therefore, if you don’t like something you can always return it.