Electric guitar players might experience difficulties when they decide to try playing an acoustic guitar. The reason behind this potential issue is that electric guitars typically have 21 or 24 frets, while acoustic guitars rarely go above 20. But why do acoustic guitars have fewer frets?
Here are 5 reasons why acoustic guitars have fewer frets:
- Acoustic guitars have a larger body.
- Acoustic guitars have a soundhole.
- They have a neck joint that meets the body on the 14th fret.
- They don’t transfer vibrations well in higher positions.
- Acoustic guitars sound better on lower frets.
In this article, I’ll explore the reasons why acoustic guitars have fewer frets in more detail. I’ll also discuss why some types of acoustic guitars have more frets than others. Keep reading to learn more.
1. Acoustic Guitars Have a Larger Body
The primary reason why acoustic guitars have fewer frets is that they have a larger body compared to electric guitars.
While electric guitars rely on electronics and magnets to produce sound, acoustic guitars use their hollowed body as a resonator.
Even though a larger body on an acoustic guitar typically means a louder and fuller tone, it comes with its disadvantages. One of the most noticeable disadvantages is that a larger body won’t allow the players to reach the higher frets.
Acoustic guitar builders are known to prioritize sound and volume over the number of frets. And they’re probably right when you think about it; there aren’t many guitar players who’d rather have a few more frets at the cost of losing on sound quality.
2. Acoustic Guitars Have a Soundhole
The presence of a soundhole differentiates acoustic and electric guitars, and influences how the sound is produced. All acoustic guitars have a soundhole, electric ones do not.
Every acoustic guitar needs to have an opening where the vibration of the strings will be focused on in order to travel into the resonance chamber and back out again. Thus, these openings are referred to as a soundhole or a sound port.
Most commonly, the soundhole has a central location on the upper soundboard on acoustic guitars. While the shape of this opening can vary, the location doesn’t. Acoustic guitars without a centrally located soundhole sacrifice a lot on volume and tone quality.
Due to its necessity and location, the soundhole is a limiting factor to any acoustic guitar’s neck length. The limit in the length of the neck translates into a limit in the number of frets.
On the other hand, electric guitars don’t require a soundhole to enhance their sounds. Instead, this is achieved by plugging the guitar into an amplifier, which helps project the sounds better. This also means that electric guitars are able to accommodate more frets, due to the lack of a soundhole.
3. They Have a Neck Joint That Meets the Body on the 14th Fret
Another reason acoustic guitars tend to have fewer frets is the way the instrument’s neck and body meet. This joint sees the guitar neck extending outward from its body.
On acoustic guitars, the neck and body meet at the 14th fret, but the strings often extend beyond that for a few more frets. On some guitars, this joint is created on the 12th fret. It’s up to the manufacturer to decide which fret the neck and body will meet at, but joints created on fewer frets can obstruct a player’s accessibility to the remaining frets.
For comparison, electric guitars typically come with the neck and body connected at the 17th fret. This allows guitar players more space for maneuvering and playing on the higher frets.
In case a guitar has a standard 14th fret neck joint, all of the frets that are located beyond that joint will be difficult to access and are usually much smaller than the frets on the neck. Even players that have practiced finger exercises might find it challenging to access those frets.
The issue described above is the most pronounced with dreadnought acoustic guitars. They have a solid body that simply isn’t built for higher fret access. Acoustic guitars with a treble-side cutaway slightly improve on this, providing more access to the players.
Regardless of the acoustic guitar cutaway style, upper fret accessibility is a known issue for this type of instrument. Considering that the neck connects to the body fairly early, especially when compared to electric guitars, there’s simply no need for more than 20 frets on acoustic guitars.
This is why most manufacturers and luthiers decide to produce their acoustic guitars with 18-20 frets.
4. They Don’t Transfer Vibrations Well in Higher Positions
Another, much simpler, reason that acoustic guitars don’t have more frets is that they weren’t designed for playing on higher frets. Even if an acoustic had 24 frets and those frets could somehow be accessed, the sound produced may not be as pleasant.
When guitar players play on higher frets, they effectively shorten the scale. This, in turn, leaves the strings with significantly less room to vibrate. On acoustic instruments, less string vibration means a loss in tonal qualities.
For an acoustic guitar specifically, playing on higher frets leads to a decrease in tone quality and the overall volume of the tones played.
Having both the volume and tone deficiencies that come with more frets in mind, guitar makers avoid building acoustic guitars with more than 20 frets.
5. Acoustic Guitars Sound Better on Lower Frets
After going through all of the reasons why acoustic guitars have fewer frets, it’s time to make one last argument in favor of this fret reduction:
Acoustic guitars usually sound better when played on lower frets. While some might find this statement subjective or even controversial, there are plenty of arguments that can be made to support it.
We rarely think about acoustic guitars as solo instruments. They’re most commonly used as a rhythm and harmony addition to a vocal performance. With this type of application, one could argue that acoustic guitars don’t require the higher frets, as all of the needed tones can be found within the first 12 frets on the instrument. Playing higher might also interfere with the vocals in a negative way.
Even when used as a solo instrument, most acoustic guitar players tend to stick to the more accessible part of their instrument, which, in a way, makes the higher frets obsolete.
Furthermore, lower frets on the instrument also lead to a fuller tone. I’ve already mentioned how shortening individual strings’ length by playing higher also shortens the room for oscillation, thus, affecting the tone and volume negatively.
Finally, it can be said with confidence that guitars with fewer frets sound better. Famous guitar companies, such as Fender, confirm this statement.
How Many Frets Do Acoustic Guitars Have?
While it’s true that acoustic guitars have fewer frets than electric ones, that doesn’t necessarily mean you can count on all acoustic guitars to have the same number of frets. The number of frets can vary based on the type of guitar and its anticipated purpose.
Acoustic guitars can have anywhere from 18 to 20 frets. Classical guitars are known for being on the lower end of this range, with just 18-19 frets, depending on the model. Steel-string guitars typically have 18-20 frets, though not all of them are usable.
Let’s take a quick look at both of these acoustic guitar types and see why there’s a difference in fret numbers:
Classical Guitars Have 18–19 Frets
Classical guitars, just like their name suggests, are constructed according to traditional guitar building methods. This means that these kinds of acoustic guitars have symmetrical bodies, wide necks, plastic strings, and fewer frets than western-style acoustic guitars.
Sticking to traditional guitar building methods also means that classical guitars avoid cutaways that allow access to higher frets, therefore eliminating the need for more than 19 frets.
Steel-String Guitars Have 18–20 Frets
One feature that sets classical and western guitars apart is the type of strings used. Western guitars use steel strings, which is why they’re commonly referred to as steel strings.
They’re the most popular type of guitar, both for beginners and advanced players. They’re also versatile and produce decent-sounding tones, despite the lack of frets.
Typically, steel-string guitars have no more than 20 frets, regardless of whether their body is symmetrical or has a cutaway.
There isn’t a particular reason why these guitars have one more fret than classical guitars, except that they don’t follow traditions as closely.
Acoustic Guitars Typically Have Just 12–14 Usable Frets
Whether they come with 18, 19, or 20 frets, both classical and steel string guitars have accessibility issues with higher frets.
This means that there aren’t many acoustic guitars that have more than 12 or 14 frets that a player can effectively use. The number will depend on where the body meets the neck.
Guitar players with bigger fingers and a wider span might reach a few more frets than those with smaller hands.