Thinking about buying a first guitar for yourself or someone else? If so, it will help if you understand a little about them. You might think there are only a couple of Types of Guitars. But there is quite a bit more to it than that.
What you may mean is there are acoustic and electric guitars. Just two options. You would be right about that. But there are quite a few versions in each group. They can be divided up into the shape of the body, the hardware, and even the number of strings.
If you’re reading this hoping to find out what sort of instrument you should buy, we will deal with that in the end. Before we get to that, let’s take a look at the choices you have. Acoustics first. These are essentially split into two groups. Those with Nylon strings and those with Steel strings.
Acoustic-Classical – Nylon Strings
Nylon string guitars are usually used for playing classical music. Though, of course, you can play anything on them. You do not need any amplification to be heard. The design ensures that an adequate sound is produced by the body.
They have six strings. All are nylon, except the lower three have a wire covering. That makes them look like they are steel strings, but they are nylon inside.
They produce a soft tone. As a result, Classical and Flamenco players typically use nylon string guitars. But you will also see them used by Folk and even Jazz musicians occasionally.
Easy to Play…
They are easy to play because the strings have a low tension, and the fingerboard is quite wide. This is why classical nylon string guitars are good for beginners. It won’t take away that initial finger soreness everyone gets when they start to play. But it will make it a little easier.
These guitars are usually made from wood. The better the quality of the wood, the better the sound. Cedarwood has been a traditional wood used in Classical guitar manufacture. But Spruce, Mahogany, and Maple are also good sounding woods.
The designs will be similar and traditional in shape. Occasionally you will find one with a cutaway to allow full access to the fingerboard. The Yamaha C40 Full Size Nylon-String Classical Guitar is a good example of a quality classical instrument at a reasonable price point and is highly recommended in terms of value for money.
Acoustic – Steel-string
Acoustic guitars that have steel strings are designed for different styles of playing than the ‘Classical’ styles. There are four types of Acoustic Guitar. They are Dreadnought, Parlour, Jumbo, and…
The fourth is ‘Travel’ guitars, which are scaled-down versions of the full-size instruments. Easy to carry around for people who travel, they often suit young players as their first instrument.
The Dreadnought is the most popular type of acoustic guitar. You’ll see just about everywhere. The Parlor Guitar is almost the same shape but a little smaller. The Jumbo, on the other hand, is, as the name suggests, the largest physically.
A different sound…
They sound very different from their nylon-strung counterparts. Much brighter and sharper, they are also louder. They tend to be used in Pop, Rock, Blues, Folk, and Country music. But you will find them in other genres like Bluegrass. You could describe them as a guitar for just about everything.
They are a little harder to play than the nylon version. The fingerboard tends to be narrower, and the strings have more tension. Being steel, they are also a little hard to push and hold down. Sore fingers will be experienced early on.
Choice of Woods
Along with the different types of guitars, the choice of wood used to build a guitar is also important. The sound will be governed by a variety of things, from its size to the quality of the bracing inside. The top wood is important as it has a big effect on the sound produced.
Spruce is a big favorite because it is bright and crisp. Mahogany is good and a little warmer in sound. But Cedar and Maple are also good woods for the top. The body will usually be mahogany. But again, the other woods work well.
The size of the body will affect the sound. Larger body guitars like the Jumbo will give a ‘big’ rounded sound. The Dreadnought is similar but with slightly less of the bass frequencies. As the body gets smaller, the sound will gradually lose its depth and warmth.
Neck woods will vary, but you should look for a Rosewood fingerboard and preferably good hardware. Some instruments will have a cutaway; others will not. The Taylor 210ce Dreadnought is a good example of a quality steel-string acoustic with a cutaway. This is not a budget guitar but real quality.
Acoustic-Electric – Steel string
The final option is an Acoustic-Electric. As you may be able to guess, this is a guitar that is essentially a steel-string acoustic, usually a Dreadnought. But this version is fitted with a pickup.
It looks the same, the only difference being a jack socket to plug it in. You will also get a small control panel that will let you adjust volume and tones. There could even be a tuner built-in to the panel.
You can plug it in…
The big advantage of these guitars is that they can be used with or without amplification. Plug them into an amp, and you will get as loud a sound as the guitar will allow. Being hollow, feedback can be a problem if you try and play too loudly. Played acoustically, they will sound just like the steel-string acoustics.
Another advantage is that when plugged in, you can play with the tones. Even using effects pedals to get the sound you want. They are most often found in Rock, Pop, or Country music. But they do have the potential to fit into any genre.
The Amplified Sound…
A final thought about plugging it in. Don’t expect them to sound like they do unplugged. They don’t unless you want to pay a fortune. The pickup they use is not the best and is there to give you a little amplification, and that is all.
The same issues concerning woods used for manufacture also apply here. Most acoustic-electric guitars are Dreadnought or Jumbo sizes, though there are few smaller options. A good example is the Ibanez AW54CEOPN Artwood Dreadnought Acoustic/Electric Guitar.
Having looked at the acoustic options, let’s move on to their electric-based cousins. Once again, there are a variety of options.
Electric – Hollow Body
There are a few differences between hollow body and semi-hollow which justifies dealing with them separately. Both are very similar in their basic design and style.
In some cases, it is very difficult to tell them apart. The hollow body goes back a bit further in time. Created in the 1930s, the idea was to make the guitar a bit louder in the jazz bands of the time. The ‘F’ holes and the arched top are the usual design features that single them out. Though, as we shall see, not always.
But then came pop and rock bands…
Amplifiers began to be used, the volume went up, and so did the feedback. At some of the volumes being used, they quickly became unusable.
Nevertheless, they have maintained an important place in guitar usage. They are great guitars at lower levels of volume. You can even practice with them without amplification. You will still see them being used in small trios, jazz bands, and some country music arrangements. They are sometimes used specifically in recording studios.
The woods used in manufacture, as always, are important. Likewise, the pickups give you a good sound. Mahogany and or Spruce work well for the body or the top.
An iconic guitar…
There are still some very well-made options. There is also a slimline version of the hollow body. Perhaps the most famous was the favorite guitar of John Lennon and George Harrison, the Epiphone Casino.
A hollow body that made great contributions to modern music. And being slimline, it didn’t feedback quite as much. The Epiphone CASINO Coupe Thin-Line Hollow Body is the modern-day version. It is nowhere near as good as a vintage model, in my opinion; however, it is far, far more affordable.
Electric – Semi-Hollow
As the name implies, it is a hollow body that isn’t. The reason why is that it has a block of wood that sits under the pickups and bridge. The idea was to reduce the amount of space inside the guitar, thus reducing feedback. It worked to a certain extent, although not as much as some would like.
These days there are more semi-hollow than hollow-body guitars for this reason. But their uses aren’t limited to the “loud boys.” Probably the best semi hollow body guitar is the Gibson ES335. It is seen in Jazz, Rock, Pop, and just about everywhere.
Some good copies…
It is still made today, though not to the standard of those 50s and early 60s models, which are worth a small fortune. But some companies produce a copy that is worth considering if semi-hollow is what you want. They usually have two humbucker pickups and a nice neck. Depending on the woods used, they can sound exceptional.
When you use it without an amp, it is quiet but audible enough for practice. The sound is a bit like an acoustic. A very quiet one. Plugged in, you get a sound that is part acoustic, part electric, but we have to say more electric. It generates a rather unique tone and resonance that is not heard in other designs. They are quite bulky, even the Thinline versions.
If you are buying your first guitar, you won’t be looking at the Gibson catalog. But you might consider an alternative semi-hollow like the Guild Guitars Starfire Semi-Hollow Body.
Electric – Solid Body
Included in this section are names that roll off the tongue like a who’s who of great instruments. The Telecaster and Stratocaster from Fender. The Les Paul and SG from Gibson, and the Rickenbacker. And in later years, PRS, Ibanez, Schecter, and many others. These guitars are favored in modern rock, metal, and all the other genres.
The Telecaster from Fender was the first solid body. The Stratocaster is the most used and recognizable guitar ever by its shape.
All shapes but similar in size…
There is a wider choice here than in any other type of guitar. But it’s not the shape that defines it; it is the hardware. It can be very different from one instrument to the next.
Every guitar can feel different, and it can certainly sound and play differently. That, in turn, gives you a variety of tones. What you get with the solid body is that some guitars are made for specific genres.
Feedback generated by a hollow or semi-hollow body is all but gone. It is just a single piece of wood for the body. That wood can range in quality, and it can affect the overall sound. But the pickups and the amp you use will be the biggest factors in how it sounds.
Easy to Play…
They are usually easier to play than an acoustic steel-string as the string tensions are lower. They could be considered a good guitar for a starter. The top of the range from the big companies are very expensive, but there are some great cheaper options, such as the Squier Classic Vibe 60’s Stratocaster.
Acoustic or Electric – 12-String
And then there were 12. The very first 12-string was produced in 1961. It is not the most common of instruments today, but it certainly has one of the most distinctive sounds. Having said it is not common, it has featured on many well-known songs.
You will find acoustic and electric versions. The designs for the acoustic versions are all quite similar and tend to fit mostly in the Dreadnought style. The construction is very similar using similar woods. The necks are wider, and, of course, there are 12 tuners, not 6.
Along came George…
The Electric version was made famous by George Harrison on the Beatles album “A Hard Day’s Night.” The Rickenbacker 360 became a collector’s item after that. A great-sounding instrument, acoustic or electric, but tuning it can be fun. Not a beginner’s guitar.
There are some great 12 strings around. The Takamine GD30CE-12NAT Dreadnought 12-String Cutaway Acoustic-Electric Guitar is a fine example.
There are some other types of guitars you won’t see around very often. Having said that, one of them certainly made an impact.
Built the same way as a steel-string acoustic, the difference is it has an all-metal top. Instead of the soundhole on the guitar, there is a metal cone. This gives it a very distinctive sound because they are designed with a variety of options for sound to escape the body.
They were first manufactured in 1927 and were popular amongst some blues, country, and bluegrass players. They achieved modern recognition in 1980. Mark Knopfler used his on “Romeo and Juliet” on the Dire Straits “Brothers in Arms” album. An interesting sound but not really for a beginner.
Seven, Eight, and Nine String Guitars
This is where the purists throw up their arms, but they do exist. The seven-string guitar has been around for quite a while.
They are more correctly known as “Extended-range Guitars.” They first arrived in anger in 1968, though they had been used before then. But it was Steve Vai’s 1990 model that got things going. They have now become very popular, especially in certain genres of music.
We won’t go into too much detail concerning tuning. The tuning for all three variants is based on the standard tuning for a six-string. For instance, the 7 string tuning is usually a standard E with the 7th string tuned down a 4th, giving you an extra B. Probably a good idea that you let them get used to a six-string first.
The Lap Steel
The Lap, Pedal, or Hawaiian steel looks similar to a standard guitar. The difference is that you play them sitting down with it on your lap or a stand.
They also require different tuning, the most common being High G, High A, or C6. The playing technique is also vastly different. Pitch is changed by pushing a bar whilst plucking the strings.
If this is an instrument you intend to persevere with, then that is fine. But it’s not an instrument for those who just want to learn guitar.
Finally, we leave the best to last. It’s okay; I do like to wind up the guitar players. Nevertheless, without the bass, you would soon hear a problem.
The bass guitar as we now know it only really arrived in the 50s. Before that, bass was played on an orchestral-like double bass. But as the music got louder, more volume was needed. Leo Fender came up with the Fender Precision, the first electric bass guitar. A radical step forward and, still to this day, the best and most influential bass ever made.
Today the bass has as much variety as the guitar…
Normally having four strings, you can get 5 and 6 string variants. Basses that have different sounds and even basses without frets that give you a different sound completely.
There are also differences in scale length. The Precision and similar full-size basses can be very long. Especially for a beginner. Therefore, you can get short-scale bass guitars that are not only shorter in length but lighter. These tend to be better for the beginner.
Most basses are solid body, though again, there are semi-hollow versions. Paul McCartney’s Hofner Violin being a good example. As always, though, feedback can be a problem.
The Squier by Fender Classic Vibe 60’s Mustang Bass is a great example of a 30-inch short-scale bass suitable for a beginner.
Looking for the Best Guitars?
Well, your search has ended. Check out our in-depth reviews of the Best Acoustic Guitars Under $500, the Best Acoustic Guitars Under $600, the Best Cheap Acoustic Guitars Under $200, the Best Classical Guitars, and the Best Hollow And Semi-Hollow Guitars you can buy in 2021.
And don’t miss our helpful guide on Everything You Need to Know About Guitar Sizes for more useful guitar information.
Types of Guitars – Final Thoughts
Now you have a basic understanding of guitar types; I presume you are going to want to buy one. So what should you buy?
My advice to the complete beginner is to start by not specializing too much. Starting out, you think you might know what music you want to play. Even what sort of guitar you want to play. But it often changes. Buying an electric guitar won’t help if you decide you want to play classical or flamenco.
On the other hand, a basic 6-string nylon acoustic will allow you to learn fast. And it will allow you to at least have a go at a few different styles. Easy to play and on the fingers, it will allow you to learn the basics. Something very important.
Keep it simple…
As an example, my first efforts to learn bass were taken on a beaten-up old acoustic nylon six-string. It allowed me to begin to understand how the bass worked before I got the real thing. It was easy to play, which helped immeasurably.
New players often want to get a tune out of a guitar quite quickly. It is likely to be easier to do that on an easy-to-play guitar. If you already know exactly what you want to play, then the principle should still be to get a guitar that will be easy to play at first.
Now you have some knowledge of the different guitar types; you can choose a guitar that is best for you. Whatever you choose, learning is supposed to be fun, so enjoy every moment.
Until next time, may your music make you merry.