Guitars are believed to be direct descendants of a variety of stringed instruments, primarily the lute. When going back to well before the written word, guitars have evolved a great deal over time. The jump from acoustic to electric guitars is often very noticeable, but given the semi-acoustic guitar’s look, it is not uncommon to confuse the two.
The main difference between an acoustic and a semi-acoustic guitar is the addition of pickups on the latter. The acoustic guitar has a limited volume, while the semi-acoustic can be plugged in to amplify the sound. Visually, they look similar, except for the F-hole over round soundholes.
It might be possible to modify and amplify an acoustic guitar, but they are designed and manufactured to be played without pickups or plug-ins. In contrast, the semi-acoustic is intended to be played both with and without amplification. In this article, we will:
- Compare the differences between the newer semi-acoustic guitars and the classic acoustic style guitar.
- Look at the different acoustic guitar types along with semi-acoustic guitars and how they are made up.
- Explore the history of the guitar and how the modern acoustic guitar came to be.
Acoustic Vs Semi-Acoustic Guitar: Sound
Both the acoustic and the semi-acoustic guitar can be picked up and played without the need for electronics or amplification. Though due to the center block found in most semi-acoustic guitars, it will not be as loud as the acoustic version.
Though the semi-acoustic, semi-hollow body will provide a warmer tone that you would get from an electric guitar, it will not have the same quality as an acoustic guitar. On the other hand, the semi-acoustic guitar will offer a more natural sound than a fully electric guitar.
Acoustic Vs Semi-Acoustic Guitar: Volume
The sound emitted from an acoustic guitar is often enough to accompany a singer in a small to medium-sized room. However, a semi-acoustic guitar sound without amplification would likely be too quiet to hear properly over a singer.
However, they truly shine when plugged into an amplifier. Unlike an acoustic guitar, they can be connected and the volume exponentially improved by a series of pickups.
Acoustic Vs Semi-Acoustic Guitar: Pickups
It is possible to add pickups to an acoustic guitar to amplify the sound (though it would then be known as an electro-acoustic guitar). However, unless you are willing to pull the instrument apart and/or drill holes in the front and back, the pickups will likely have to be placed on the outside or just inside the soundbox. This can reduce the quality of the sound and will often create feedback through the amplifier.
Semi-acoustic guitars are fitted with pickups during manufacturing to allow for the best positioning and optimal sound. These internal pickups can be combined with microphones and other styles of pickups to create the most authentic acoustic guitar sound.
Acoustic Vs Semi-Acoustic Guitar: Strings
Most larger acoustic guitars benefit from the use of steel strings due to their size and the amount of tension required. However, they can be used with nylon strings, provided the gauge is thick enough.
By contrast, due to the need for electromagnetic induction for the pickups to work, a semi-acoustic guitar will make no sound when plugged into an amplifier if nylon strings are installed.
Acoustic Vs Semi-Acoustic Guitar: Cost
Although there are many acoustic guitars worth hundreds, and sometimes thousands, of dollars, you can find decent options for less than $100. As a beginner, an acoustic guitar can be found cheaply while you are still learning.
It is possible to find an electric guitar for under $100, but there are added costs. Playing your guitar will need an amplifier and cables, which can cost another $100 or more.
Which One Is Right for You?
The sound created by an acoustic guitar is very different from that of the electric guitar. The feel of the instrument, the weight, and the style, are all unique with each design. Both have their benefits and drawbacks.
An acoustic guitar offers a natural sound and is often inexpensive when compared to an electric guitar. In contrast, the electric guitar has an electric sound and can cost far more, especially when you include the cost of an amplifier.
The beauty of a semi-acoustic guitar is that it sits in the middle of the two. It has many of the acoustic guitar qualities, with many of the advantages of the electric guitar. It will have a warmer tone but can also be amplified to fill a larger room.
For those not looking to play in front of a room of people, an acoustic guitar is more than enough. They are light-weight, readily available, and easy to use. You can use nylon strings, which are often more straightforward for beginners, and there is little need for extra, like cables and speakers.
For those looking to save money but still want the electric and acoustic guitar experience, a semi-acoustic can become a two-in-one option until you can purchase both.
A Note on Electro-Acoustic Guitars
If you are looking more for an acoustic guitar’s sound without the electronic tones, an electro-acoustic guitar might be the better option. This type of guitar is essentially an acoustic guitar fitted with electronics and pickups by the manufacturer. This allows the instrument to be plugged in, and the sound is amplified like an electric guitar.
Although the semi-acoustic will have more of a natural sound than an electric guitar, it will not have the same tone as an acoustic. This option allows for greater volume without losing the natural tone of the instrument.
One drawback of this type of guitar is the need for a battery. Though it will not need to be replaced too often, it would be advised to purchase and carry a spare. Also, the sound can be slightly distorted. However, many musicians use a combination of pickups to get the best sound possible.
At home, modifications are possible, as can be seen in the video below. Here, he is fitting a simple pickup over the soundboard:
For a more permanent option, you would need to drill a hole at the base of the guitar to allow the cord to fit inside the body rather than hang from the front.
Acoustic Vs Semi-Acoustic Guitar: What Is an Acoustic Guitar?
An acoustic guitar is defined as having a hollow chamber over which strings can vibrate. The use of frets allows the sound created by the strings to change, and the sound is able to carry through the air without the need for an amplifier.
The main types of acoustic guitar include but are not limited to:
- Dreadnought Variants
- Grand Auditorium
Typically created with six strings, some do have a 12 string design with pairs of strings that offer identical pitch and a chorus-like effect. The strings can be played with the fingertips or with a pick, depending on the style of the musician and the sound desired.
The Flat Top
The first variety of acoustic guitars is the flat top. It gets its name from the flat surface on the top and bottom of the instrument. These are the most commonly found acoustic guitars and what you would expect to see the most often. Due to their cheaper design, they are used for beginners and are the closest relative to Martin’s work.
Orville H. Gibson, the founder of the Gibson Guitar Company, is credited with the invention of the archtop guitar. Designed to enhance the tone and quality of the instrument, Gibson took his inspiration from the violin. Incorporating a curved (arched) back and front, he discovered that both the sound and quality could be amplified.
Steel String Guitars
The most commonly used steel strings guitars are primarily suited for strumming and fingerpicking. Though due to the tension in the strings, advanced arrangements can be more challenging to achieve. The Dreadnought and the Parlour are two of the most commonly seen types of steel-stringed guitars.
Initially launched by CF Martin & Co. in 1916, this is possibly the most famous acoustic guitar style today. It has the most volume and bass frequency with a rich and wide range of tone, making it suited to any number of musical styles, from rock to punk to country music.
Named for the British battleship, the HMS Dreadnought, this body style includes a broad top with a large internal cavity. This allows for extra volume and incredible bass and midrange sounds that are preferable to Bluegrass musicians.
The Martin D might be the most popular choice amongst musicians in the Dreadnought style. Artists like Tony Rice, Joni Mitchel, and The Dave Matthews Band have all made historical records using one of the Martin D range Dreadnought guitars, proving that it can be used in all types of music.
Where the Dreadnought is quite large, the Parlour is known as one of the smallest guitar bodies available. Another CF Martin & Co. design, the Parlour guitar, has a focus on the higher range. The smaller dimensions make it easier for fingerwork, and the slimmer shoulders (where the body meets the neck) make it slightly easier to handle.
The Parlour design and smaller shape include many different acoustic guitars that are far more portable than the larger designs. The lighter design and smaller body were made famous by Ian Anderson (frontman of Jethro Tull), who was known to throw the instrument onto his back during his performances.
Introduced by Gibson in 1937, as the name suggests, these are much larger than the previous two acoustic guitar styles. The broader shoulders and base make for extra space in the hollow cavity, which allows for far greater sound.
These guitars are excellent for use in front of a crowd when an amplifier is not an option. Accentuating the bass sounds, Bob Dylan is famous for his love of the larger guitar.
Very similar to the Dreadnought, the slight difference in this style guitar is the tighter waist. Believed to enhance certain tones, this design fits more snuggly over the knee, keeping it from moving around during play. Although it can be played with lighter strings, the larger body more often calls for more robust, steel strings.
Founded in 1974, Taylor Guitars is an American company known for its selection of acoustic guitars. The Grand Auditorium guitar is arguably the instrument that put the new company on the map. They claim that the design allows for ample volume and comfort. It is the guitar that Taylor Swift used from the very beginning of her career.
Nylon String Guitars
Nylon strings can produce a warmer tone during play and help with complicated melodies due to their lesser tension. These are more commonly found amongst beginner guitars and instruments, as the softer strings are more comfortable to play and great for those who are learning. These guitars tend to be on the smaller side, as larger guitars require stronger strings.
Typically used to play classical music, these guitars are of a similar size to the Parlour guitars. Though some may think of these as cheaper models only for beginners, there are a number of higher-end designs that have great sound, such as the Merida Trajan range. Willie Nelson is known to favor the classical guitar, having played one throughout his whole career.
Acoustic Vs Semi-Acoustic Guitar: What Is a Semi-Acoustic Guitar?
Semi-acoustic guitars generally have a hollow or semi-hollow body with an archtop. They look almost exactly like their acoustic counterparts, with a long neck and strings pulled tight over the bridge.
One main difference is the use of F-shaped holes on the sides of the strings, rather than the larger hole in the center. These guitars are designed to be amplified with the addition of pickups, putting them in the electric guitar category.
F-holes were implemented initially on acoustic guitars to provide greater external amplification, as seen on violins. However, the hollow body of the acoustic guitar often created feedback issues during play.
Although there are some acoustic guitars with the F-hole design, it is more commonly found amongst electric guitars. The design is thought to sustain notes better and provide ample volume when unplugged.
This device is used to convert the vibration created with strumming guitar strings into electrical signals that are then boosted by an amplifier. Made up of a magnet that is wrapped in wire, they use the mechanical vibrations of steel strings to produce electrical signals through electromagnetic induction.
Depending on the type of guitar being used and the sound desired, the pickups will be slightly different.
These are the main types of pickups that can be installed on acoustic guitars:
- Transducer pickups: Transducer pickups translate from the soundboard, providing an electrical signal that is closest to the tone of the guitar.
- Piezo pickups: This transducer, the piezo pickup, is found under the strings to “hear” the sound before it reaches the soundboard.
- Soundhole pickups: Soundhole pickups are often thought of as electrical sounding, though they are the most affordable and non-invasive as they fit in the soundhole directly.
- In-body microphones: Though not technically a pickup, in-body microphones are often paired with a pickup to provide the most genuine acoustic tone.
The type of pickup used is usually a preference of the musician, and most acoustic guitar players seek the most natural-sounding option. Though some manufacturers will provide pickups with their acoustic guitars, they are often added by the owner.
There are three main types of pickups installed on electric guitars:
- Single coil: Single coil uses a single magnet and is best used for music that does not require high levels of distortion, such as heavy metal.
- Humbucker: Using a pair of coil pickups, humbuckers work together to cancel out any electrical interference frequently experienced by single-coil pickups.
- P90: P90 pickups sit in the middle of the single-coil and the humbucker and are great for playing the blues.
Electric guitars and semi-acoustic guitars are manufactured with pickups already installed in the correct place to achieve the best sound and highest volume with as little feedback and interference as possible.
Much like the very first electric guitars, hollow-body semi-acoustic guitars are built in a similar fashion to acoustic guitars. Their hollow body allows for play when not plugged into an amp, and they will usually have the traditional round soundhole.
Pickups can be found on the front of the guitar, capturing the strings’ reverberation from inside the hollow body. These guitars tend to be on the larger side and provide a far warmer and more natural tone.
Although there is some debate about how a true hollow-body should be made up (some claim to be hollow but actually have a center block in the middle), the semi-hollow body guitar is usually designed in the same way, model to model.
Rather than an empty cavity and round soundhole in the middle, these have hollow “wings” on either side of the strings and bridge, with a center block placed down the middle. The F-holes are found over the hollow wings, and the center block is often used to house both the bridge mount and the pickups.
The History Of The Acoustic Vs Semi-Acoustic Guitar
The guitar is a stringed musical instrument that can be traced back as far as the first written word and beyond. One of the oldest known depictions of Ancient Greeks playing a guitar-like instrument is dated at over 3,300 years old. However, it is highly likely that some variation of the instrument existed before then.
The guitar is a type of chordophone, which is a stringed instrument that makes music by plucking taught strings. There are four main groups associated with the chordophone category:
- Zithers have many strings stretched over a flat, typically wooden board.
- Lutes have a long neck onto which strings are stretched over a hollow body.
- Lyres have a hollow body with two parallel necks, between which strings are stretched.
- Harps can sometimes be small enough to sit on one’s lap but usually consist of multiple strings in a triangular frame that needs to rest on the floor.
The guitar is thought to have come from the lute family, given its similarities with the long neck and hollow body. The player can pluck the tight strings with their fingers or with a pick to create vibrations that turn into sound when paired with the hollow body at the base of the instrument. The modern guitar typically has six strings and can be distinguished by the tuning.
The Evolution of the Lute
The shape of the lute is believed by some to be drawn from a hanging body, with the neck stretched and the body hanging below. Though it could have a long or short neck, it almost always had a curved body.
There are images of people playing the lute in ancient Greece, Egypt, and Rome, though the depictions vary from country to country. By the 15th Century, its popularity was fading in favor of another style of instrument.
The Baroque guitar was similar in the long neck style with stretched strings but differed in its body design. Unlike the lute, which has a rounded soundbox, the Baroque guitar looked more like the guitars we use today. Where lutes could have anywhere between 20 and 30 strings, the Baroque guitar had just five. It also allowed for the frets to be moved, making it easier to play.
Another lute-like instrument to gain popularity during the Renaissance was the vihuela. This Spanish instrument has an hour-glass shape that more closely resembled the modern-day guitar. By the 1700s, the form and six-string design was well established and is still used by Mariachi groups today.
The hour-glass shaped Spanish guitars of the late 1700s quickly became standard and are seen as the direct inspiration of today’s guitars. The shape continued through the 1800s, running slightly smaller than modern-day guitars. Antonio de Torres Jurado is known to be the creator of guitars that more closely correlate to what we have now.
Who Is Antonio De Torres Jurado?
The renowned luthier is thought to be the most influential guitar maker of the 19th Century, with almost all modern guitars pulling from his designs. Beginning in Spain in the late 1800s, other luthiers began imitating the designs of Torres to achieve the clearer, more balanced sound he was able to achieve.
Ultimately, his designs employed bracing inside the main body of the guitar that was laid out in a fan formation. He widened the body but thinned out the middle, creating a larger curve. He used both gut and silk threads to string his guitars.
Torres was one of the first creators to emphasize the soundboard, understanding its importance to the overall sound of the instrument. He designed guitars with thinner, lighter soundboards with symmetrical arching. Though he was not the first to use this design, he was one of the first to prove that the top of the guitar created its sound, not the back and sides.
Who Is Christian Frederick Martin?
German-born Martin is widely accepted as the first guitar maker in the United States. After spending much of his young life learning how to make guitars, from both his cabinetmaker father and celebrated Vienna guitar maker Johann Stauffer, Martin moved on to making harps and other stringed instruments.
However, in the 1820s, Violin Makers Guild moved to prevent Martin, and other members of the Cabinet Makers Guild, from producing any musical instruments. The violin guild saw themselves as artists and began referring to cabinet makers as mechanics whose “product consisted of all kinds of articles known as furniture.”
The dispute went on for decades prompting Martin to leave Germany for the United States in 1833. By the end of that year, he had opened his own shop in New York City, creating a variety of instruments. After just a few short years, CF Martin & Co. was well established as an unmatched creator.
It was not until 1842 that Martin first created the now-famed X-braced guitar. His design was used to account for the added tension created by steel strings. The fan-shaped bracing of the Torres design was not strong enough to withstand the extra strain of steel strings.
By the 1850s, Martin was offering several different sizes for his guitars, all with his signature X-bracing design. From these models, many advancements were made in guitar making, including high tensile steel strings and the introduction of the guitar pick method of playing.
Acoustic Vs Semi-Acoustic Guitar: Conclusion
The main difference between an acoustic and semi-acoustic guitar is that an acoustic guitar is designed to be played without the need for a speaker. The semi-acoustic guitar was designed to fit somewhere between the acoustic and electric guitar, meaning it will play with or without amplification.
Other differences include the sound and volume exhibited, along with the strings used and pickups installed. In addition, acoustic guitars can cost far less overall when you take speakers and cables into consideration.
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