Getting into guitars is an exciting time. However, beginners are often times bombarded with all kinds of useful and not so useful information which can cause a lot of confusion. One of the more common distinctions beginners get confused about is the difference between an acoustic and classical guitar.
To an uninformed eye, these two instruments look the same and probably sound the same as well. Needless to say, that’s not the case and knowing the difference can save you from a lot of disappointment down the road. Today we’ll talk about what makes these instruments different and what each can offer to a beginner.
Acoustic vs Classical Guitar
1. The Looks Can Be Deceiving
On first glance, both the acoustic and classical guitars look the same. To truly spot a difference, you need to come closer. The first thing you will notice is the neck width. Classical guitars have much wider necks than acoustic guitars that run steel strings. This is where you’ll run into two schools of thought. One claims that learning how to play on a classical guitar is beneficial because of that wider neck. The reasoning being that a wider neck will force you to learn proper left-hand technique (or right-hand technique if you’re a southpaw).
The other group doesn’t share those ideas. They feel that acoustic guitars are different enough from their classical brethren to a point where learning how to play on one and then switching to the other has very little practical value. Ultimately the choice is yours.
We’ll say that classical guitars don’t necessarily lend themselves well to steel string playing techniques and styles. You can strum a classical guitar but actually finger picking it suits this instrument a lot more.
2. Difference in Sound
Aside from a wider neck, classical guitars use nylon strings. On the other hand, acoustic guitars use steel strings. Here’s the thing, using the wrong type of string on a classical guitar or an acoustic one can end in a disaster. Don’t make that mistake. If you were to put steel strings on a classical guitar, chances are that you would bend the neck. Steel strings exert a lot of force onto the guitar and classical models simply lack the necessary design.
As you can probably guess, steel strings and nylon strings don’t sound the same. The difference may not be as obvious or as drastic to a beginner, but you will notice it once your ear learns what to look for.
That difference in sound isn’t merely aesthetic. Steel-string acoustic guitars work much better in an environment where other instruments are involved. The same can’t be said about classical guitars. Here’s an example. Imagine playing with a band that consists of a drummer, keyboard player, bass player and you, the acoustic guitar player.
Your ability to cut through the mix of all those instruments will be tested with the acoustic guitar. However, it’s perfectly doable. When you switch to the mellow sounding classical guitar, things become much harder from a sound engineering standpoint. That is why you don’t often see classical guitars used in modern bands, regardless of the music genre.
3. Volume Matters
Another physical difference that is worth mentioning is the overall volume. Both acoustic and classical guitars come in a variety of shapes and sizes, some louder than others. As it so happens, classical guitars project less volume on average. This has to do with the nature of the strings used, but also the classical design of the guitar. Slim waist paired with moderate lower and upper bouts usually means less volume.
On the acoustic guitar side of the family, this isn’t an issue. Steel strings resonate much louder to begin with, but then you have the whole array of body shapes designed specifically to boost volume. One of the most popular designs is the Dreadnought. An average Dreadnought style acoustic guitar will offer impressive volume for its size. That’s just a fact of the matter.
There is another facet to this issue and it has to do with amplification. Classical guitars can be amplified, but they often times use built-in mics to catch the sound. Since nylon strings aren’t capable of disturbing a magnetic field of a pickup, you can’t use standard guitar pickups. With acoustic guitars, that is a non-issue. Acoustic steel string guitars come with all kinds of pickups, built-in amps, EQs and a whole lot of other cool features.
Generally speaking, if you ever plan on performing with your guitar, going with an amplified acoustic will be your best bet in most cases.
At the end of the day, it all comes down to personal preference. If you are a classically trained guitarist or plan on becoming one, your path will take you deep into the classical guitar territory. If you are just a person looking to learn how to play guitar, you’re better off with an acoustic. Does that mean that you should never, ever even look at a classical guitar? Absolutely not. Nothing is set in stone. Maybe you simply like the way a classical guitar sounds or maybe you appreciate the challenge of that wide neck.
Either way, you should with the guitar that will keep you coming back. If the guitar of your choice doesn’t excite you enough to pick it up every day and practice, you’ve messed up somewhere along the way. Find a guitar that does these things for you. This applies to both acoustic or classical models, but also any other type of guitar.
As we reach the end of this little guide, you should have all the info necessary to make a positive distinction between acoustic and classical guitars. They are similar enough to cause confusion but different enough where knowing the difference matters. Once more, pick the one that makes you most excited to play, practice and learn. Everything else comes in a distant second place.