Quite a debate surrounds this topic, and it is interesting how sometimes it can be quite heated. Regardless, the Acoustic vs Acoustic-Electric Guitar discussion is an interesting one.
Normally when deciding between two similar but different products, you can decide which one to go for by asking a question. What do you want to use it for? But in this case, there is far more to it than just that. And even when you have decided between them, other factors come into play.
An Easy Decision?
You could argue that it should be. A standard acoustic guitar has no built-in electrics to amplify its sound. An acoustic-electric will have a pickup, volume, and a basic EQ, or tone control. It might also have a tuner built-in.
The decision then is easy, isn’t it? You want to buy an acoustic guitar, and you want to plug it in and amplify it. Simple. But not really. As I said, there is a bit more to it than that. So, Acoustic vs Acoustic-Electric Guitar? Before we let battle commence, let’s talk a little about both instruments.
The Acoustic Guitar
Well, this doesn’t need an introduction. We all know what it looks like. It produces its sound when strings vibrate over the soundhole. The sound hole is the opening for the hollow chamber that makes up the acoustic guitar’s body.
The vibrations, or sound, travel through the air. No amplification is required to hear it. The amplification and the tone are provided by the body through the soundhole. However, Volume and Tone are limited to what the guitar produces itself naturally. If limited is the right word.
So you can’t amplify it for live work on stage? Oh, but you can. There are two ways you can. More on that later.
The Acoustic-Electric Guitar
Is the same thing. Soundhole, strings vibrating, you don’t need amplification to hear it. If you want to be awkward, you could say that both Acoustic and Electric-Acoustic are Acoustic Guitars. And to a certain extent, you would be right. They both produce their sound acoustically.
As we know, the acoustic-electric has a pick-up, preamp, and electrics. You can plug it into an amp, Mixer, or PA. The pickup takes the sound and converts it into an electrical signal. That is amplified by the preamp and fed to your main amp.
The acoustic-electric is made in all the same sizes as the straight acoustic. Those are the Dreadnought, Jumbo, Parlour, and Classical. Although, the latter is not as common as the others.
The electrics turn your acoustic guitar into an electric guitar. But without most of the benefits that the full electric guitar has. But let us return to a previous point.
Can You Amplify an Acoustic Guitar?
Absolutely. It doesn’t have amplification and electrics built-in, but that doesn’t mean you can’t use external amplification sources. There are two main ways for how to amplify an acoustic guitar.
1 – Use a Mic
This is probably the best way to amplify standard acoustic guitars. I have read that you place the mic over the soundhole. Err, not a good idea. Place it ideally pointing at the 12th fret, not the soundhole. But also not too close to the guitar. Some engineers also like to place the mic above the body pointing down, or if you want a lower sound, mic the lower right-hand corner of the guitar.
Whichever you choose, it is better to avoid the “blast” that comes straight out of the soundhole. Where you use it to record is also where it should be placed for both live performances and recording.
Is there a downside?
Not unless you are so lazy you can’t be bothered to set up and position a mic. Common sense will be needed over the positional placement of the mic and the polar pattern chosen, but that is all.
If you are unfamiliar with sound and sound collection, or maybe in a new band and not sure, you can ask. People are normally helpful, and the local music shop where you get strings and other accessories will be only too pleased to help.
2 – Install a pickup
This can be done either permanently, or as a fixture that you can take on or off. Although why you would want to install a permanent pickup defies logic somewhat. There are plenty of options for pickups to do the job, from Piezo to transducers and soundhole pickups.
Is there a downside?
Some, like microphone mics, are clip-on. They are vulnerable and can damage the surface of the guitar. And others, like Piezo pickups, might need you to start chopping bits out of the guitar for a good fit.
Furthermore, not all sound holes are universal in size. Some will fit, some won’t. Finally, a pickup placed in the soundhole? Welcome to the world of feedback.
The best way, in my view, to amplify an acoustic guitar is using a good mic through a PA. But that bodes the question, why would you want to amplify it at all? We will come on to that a bit later.
Can You Play Your Electric-Acoustic Like an Ordinary Acoustic?
We have established that the acoustic guitar can act like an acoustic-electric. But does it work the other way round? In simple terms, the answer is yes. It has the same build and form as an Acoustic. Therefore, the chamber of the body and the soundhole will give you the volume and the sound.
Will it Sound the Same as an Acoustic?
Here is where some battles commence. In my opinion, no, it won’t. Although some will argue till they’re blue in the face, there is no difference. I think there usually is, and this is why.
The good manufacturers of acoustic guitars spend a lot of money on research and development to get you a great sound. That includes designing the internal bracing system and even the wood the bracing is made from.
It also includes making sure there are no internal interferences with the flow of air inside the body. That could cause acoustic turbulence.
The Bracing System is vital to the Sound
Some Acoustic-Electric guitars cannot have the same bracing system because there are pickups and preamps to be accommodated. That will change the sound because of the slight change of airflow. Even though that difference is small, it can have an effect.
The inclusion of pickups and preamps also changes the body space and alters the size and competence of the chamber. So, no, they don’t sound identical. There will be some subtle sound differences between acoustic and acoustic-electric guitars.
Are Acoustic-Electrics Better Plugged In?
You would probably have to answer yes to that. That is what they are designed for. If someone is saying that an acoustic-electric sounds better when it is not amplified, it rather defeats its object.
So, no, I don’t go along with this idea that they sound the same. The design, internally and sometimes externally, is slightly different. That will usually affect the sound.
Better plugged in?
In anticipation of what we are going to talk about soon, the answer to that is, yes, if you don’t mind the tone they produce. I say that because often it is not great.
So Why Have Them at All?
Because they are convenient and there is no “big laborious effort” to set up a mic and stand for an acoustic guitar. Some people think they are more versatile. And of course, because some people prefer the sound they generate. Nothing wrong with that. One sound will appeal more to some than others.
Are Electro-Acoustics More Versatile?
There is a case for saying they are. But not in the measure that most try to tell us. The usual reason for the claims of their extra versatility is the sounds they can get from external sources. This might be the amp or an effects board.
That is in itself admitting failure. Why put an EQ, which is usually hopelessly inefficient anyway, on an acoustic-electric. If you have to rely on another EQ to get a decent sound, what is the point? It seems to me, the only bit of the electrics – other than the pickup and preamp – that serves a purpose is the tuner, if it has one.
Playing with Sounds
So yes, you can tweak the controls on your amp and get a good sound. You can run it through an effects board and get some reverb, delay, chorus, and all the rest. You can do a bit of tone sculpture. The chance to add different effects and expand the sound of the acoustic-electric massively.
But here is a question. Can’t you do that with an acoustic that is mic’d up? As long as it isn’t going through the PA and has its amp, I can’t see why not. But let’s cut to the chase and get to the most important aspect of this Acoustic vs Acoustic-Electric Guitar debate. How does each Sound?
The Sound of Your Acoustic
It depends primarily on what you’re playing. A $1500 acoustic is going to sound a bit better than a $200 one. But leaving that aside, you bought it, so you know what you are going to get. The basic Acoustic guitar sound has been the mainstay of almost every genre of music. And in many cases still is.
Attaching a pickup?
Not for me. If I have spent a lot of money on a classy acoustic, I am not going to drill holes in it. And I am not going to risk scratching it with a clip-on.
Using a Mic?
That will work fine, provided you use a good mic. There is a very good option at the end of this article. You are likely to get a more realistic amplified version of the sound of an acoustic this way. But what is more relevant is how does the acoustic guitar that was designed to be amplified sound?
The Sound of Your Acoustic-Electric
If you think you are going to buy an acoustic-electric and it will sound like an acoustic, you are making a mistake. It won’t. It will not sound like a louder version of a basic acoustic. It will not even sound like the unplugged version of what you have.
Some are not impressed
Some have been less than flattering over the sound of an acoustic-electric through an amp. It has been described as “tinny” and “thin.” Not having a “natural acoustic sound” and rather “flat” and “lacking depth.”
All reasonable comments. But in the guitar’s defense, a couple of issues should be mentioned. Those people are often comparing it to how an acoustic sounds and expecting the same. We have already said that isn’t going to happen.
Also, if it was that bad experienced players wouldn’t use them on stage or in the studio. But they do, so the sound can’t be awful.
That is the main reason those comments on the sound can be justified. A usually quite basic pickup and preamp cannot hope to collect the full spectrum of the acoustic sound. It just isn’t possible.
You only have to consider the recording studios and what they use. You will find that most use an acoustic that is mic’d up. It can capture the “real” sound. The natural organic sound that you would hear as a result of what comes from the chamber and the soundhole.
I would agree there is some versatility of an acoustic-electric guitar that you might not get from a standard acoustic. You have to decide what is most important. The sound of the instrument or its convenience and versatility.
Let me just briefly touch on another subject while we are considering sound. Some instruments on both sides of the fence can have a cutaway design giving you more access to the fingerboard.
This is probably for another discussion, but bear this in mind. That is a convenient feature if you need to play higher up. But having a cutaway will also affect your sound. It might be a feature best left for the acoustic-electric guitar.
There are plenty around. For those looking for a quality instrument that won’t break the bank, there’s this Yamaha FG850 Solid Top Acoustic Guitar. An Acoustic-Electric option from a renowned manufacturer is this Martin Guitar X Series D-X2E Acoustic-Electric Guitar.
A cutaway Acoustic-Electric from another quality manufacturer is the Takamine GN93CE-NAT Nex Cutaway Acoustic-Electric Guitar. And if you are going down the acoustic route but might want to mic up, there are few better than the classic yet incredibly affordable Shure SM57-LC Cardioid Dynamic Microphone.
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Acoustic vs Acoustic-Electric Guitar – Final Thoughts
In certain circumstances, they both have their plus points. But for me, the plus points for the acoustic outweigh those for the acoustic-electric.
The acoustic-electric is convenient in that it can be plugged straight into its amplification. It probably does offer you a little more tone-shaping options with an amp and effects. And it does allow you to move around a stage. But the sound to me will always be the most important.
Some people like the sound of the acoustic-electric and buy it for that reason. It’s similar to someone choosing a guitar with a single coil rather than a humbucker. They might just prefer the sound. That applies to the acoustic-electric. The sound has its own style, and therefore, its own place. The choice is ultimately yours.
Until next time, let your music play.