At first glance, the classical and acoustic guitars look very similar. They are both hollow-bodied with six strings each, and neither can be amplified without making modifications. When looking at most standard guitar bodies, you can tell them apart as the acoustic guitar is usually larger, with a heavier overall weight, however, the other differences are a little more subtle.
Other than the overall size and weight, the differences between the classical and acoustic guitar include the type of strings used, the neck’s width, and the ease of play with fingers rather than a pick. The classical guitar also has a more mellow sound compared to the twang of the acoustic.
In this article, we will look at these differences, including the design and functionality, and explore how they change the sound and feel of the individual instruments. We will also look at each type of guitar’s pros and cons to see if one is better overall than the other.
A Brief History Of Classical And Acoustic Guitars
We can trace guitars further back than the written word through drawings and works of art. A 3,300 years old Ancient Greek depiction clearly displays a guitar-like instrument. It is believed that the modern-day guitar is a close relative of the lute, which has a long neck and hollow body.
A member of the chordophone family, the guitar is a stringed instrument that makes its sound by tightening strings over a soundbox, plucked in sequence to make a melody. Much like the lute, a guitar is played with fingertips, or sometimes a pick, creating vibrations from the strings.
Antonio de Torres Jurado was a well-known luthier in the 19th Century and is responsible for the shape of the guitar we know today. His design used a fan-shaped bracing inside to support catgut and silk strings. He was also one of the first to work with thinner material in the soundboard, emphasizing the sound better.
Pulling from the Torres design, Christian Frederick Martin worked throughout the 1800s to establish himself as a pioneering lead guitar maker. After moving from Germany to New York, he established the CF Martin & Co., which is still in operation today.
Martin was the first to design the inner X-bracing inside the soundboard. This allowed for the use of steel strings, as the new bracing was strong enough to hold the added tension needed to keep the steel strings in place.
The acoustic guitar is thought of as an evolved classical guitar. Where musicians all played similar varieties of the classical guitar once, the X-bracing and the introduction of steel strings changed the instrument’s sound and feel. Though both are acoustic in nature, the names are given to differentiate between the softer nylon-stringed instrument and the louder steel-stringed instrument.
Classical Vs Acoustic Guitars: The Classical Guitar
The vihuela was first recognized in Spain around the 15th Century. It had four sets of double strings that stretched the neck’s length and is the closest ancestor to the guitars of today. But it was Torres who decided that the instrument needed to be more prominent in order to amplify more sound. He extended the neck further and widened the body, adding to the curve and hourglass shape.
Initially, stringed instruments used catgut. This natural fiber found in cattle and sheep intestines would be thoroughly cleaned before being drawn out and twisted to make strings. However, catgut was also used for sutures, and due to the increased need during the second world war, catgut became scarce. This forced instrument makers, such as Albert Augustine, to search for an alternative.
When looking at nylon strings, the first three produce treble tones and are made from a single piece of transparent nylon. The last two produce bass tones, which are actually made from approximately 200 strands of nylon that get wrapped in silver-plated copper.
Since nylon strings are not pulled as tight as steel, they have more movement when plucked. For this reason, classical guitars have a wider neck to allow for better movement during play. If they are too close together, there is the chance of the strings hitting one another accidentally.
Due to the wider neck, it is not usually possible for a player to use their thumb. In some cases, with the narrower acoustic guitar, a musician can use their thumb to hold down certain strings. However, the thumb is used as a back support for the four fingers to press the classical guitar strings.
Similarities With the Flamenco Guitar
The flamenco guitar, which is traced to Spain, has a very similar body and playing style as the classical guitar. These guitars are typically made using a thinner and lower density wood than the classic. The overall body is slimmer, and the strings are closer to the guitar with the flamenco. This allows for faster play, the sound picking up sooner and fading quicker, which is better suited to the fast-paced flamenco style of music.
Classical Vs Acoustic Guitars: The Acoustic Guitar
The acoustic guitar can usually be set apart from the classical guitar by its use of steel strings. As mentioned above, once Christian Frederick Martin designed the new inner bracing, the instrument was then able to withstand the added tension from steel strings. In these early days, an acoustic guitar was nothing more than a classical guitar with steel strings. As time went by, the acoustic guitar was modified to create a better sound.
The strings of a guitar run from the top of the neck into the middle of the body. When plucked, the string’s vibration transmits from the bridge to the body until eventually producing a sound through the soundhole.
Like the classical guitar, the acoustic usually has six strings, named in numerical sequence from bottom to top. The first two are bare steel and the thinnest on the guitar. The next four strings get progressively thicker and are wound with steel.
The thicker strings have a lower pitch than the thinner strings when they are the same length. But the pitch can be altered by pressing on the frets closer to the soundhole. Thus, shortening the line and changing the vibration. A shortened string will produce a higher pitch.
Due to the tension in these strings, the acoustic guitar’s neck evolved to be more narrow. There was no need for added space because the strings did not move as much during play, and the likelihood of accidentally touching strings was far less than with the nylon strings.
Each part of the guitar will affect the sound played in the end. If there is less tension in the strings, if a capo is used to press all the strings at a certain point, or if the thickness of the wood making up the body is greater, the sound will be different. Specifically for the body, it can be kept the same size but given a thicker wooden structure to help increase the overall sound.
There are many differing acoustic guitar styles, each with a slightly different size and sound. These include but are not limited to:
The main types of acoustic guitar include but are not limited to:
- Dreadnought – The most famous acoustic guitar and the most widely used, this guitar has the most volume and creates a broader range of tone
- Parlor – Much smaller than the Dreadnaught, this guitar is easy for fingerwork and provides a higher range of notes
- Jumbo – This larger guitar has a broader base and shoulders, making the hollow cavity larger and the sound greater
- Auditorium – The tighter waist of this guitar allows it to sit more comfortably on the knee
- Grand Auditorium – Made famous by Taylor Swift, this guitar made the Taylor Guitars company a household name
If you were to open a hollow body guitar, you would find harmonic bars across the top plate. Their primary purpose is to provide support to the instrument. The wooden bracing is used to prevent the neck from warping under the tension of the strings.
The secondary purpose of these bars is to provide the desired timbre. Timbre refers to the tone and sound quality of an instrument and can be affected by the size, shape, and positioning of the harmonic bars.
On a classical guitar, the bars are laid out in a fan formation. This is believed to provide the best quality of sound from the nylon-stringed instrument. In contrast, the harmonic bars on the acoustic guitar have been altered to account for the greater tension applied by the steel strings.
The Differences Between Classical and Acoustic Guitars
Technically, both of these guitars are acoustic guitars. By definition, an acoustic guitar is an instrument with a sound box, over which strings vibrate to make music. Almost always made from wood, any external energy does not amplify these guitars.
However, the style, history, and sound of the classical and acoustic guitars make them quite different instruments. Some of the key differences between the classical and acoustic guitars include:
- The classical guitar usually has a smaller body and is lighter
- The acoustic guitar typically uses steel strings as opposed to nylon
- There is slightly more space between the strings on a classical guitar
- The classical guitar is reserved for specific genres of music, where the acoustic is suited to a wider variety
- The sound from the classical guitar is closest to their violin and lute ancestry
- Musicians tend to play with a pick when playing an acoustic guitar
- There is less need for finger pressure when playing on the nylon strings of a classical guitar
When looking to compare these two visually, they can often be differentiated by the headstock and the pickguard. The classical guitar has plastic barrels around which the strings are attached, leaving gaps above and below, where the acoustic guitar has a solid headstock with machine heads attached to the face.
Although not all acoustic guitars will have a pickguard, you will not find them on classical guitars because classical guitarists tend to use fingerwork rather than picks to play. Acoustic guitarists who use picks to pluck and strum include a pickguard to avoid scratching their instrument’s front.
One of the most apparent differences between the two guitars is that classical guitars will use nylon strings more often than not. In contrast, the larger acoustic guitar will generally always have steel strings.
You can quickly tell the difference when the instruments are played. Steel strings will emit a brighter twang when plucked, rather than a softer, more mellow sound from the nylon strings. You can clearly hear the difference in sound in the video below:
As mentioned in the video, nylon strings have less tension, making the notes more comfortable to achieve. Steel strings often require far more pressure to perform the notes. Similarly, nylon strings are softer on the fingertips than thin steel strings.
For beginners, nylon strings will be easier to play, making it a more comfortable introduction to guitar playing. However, the acoustic guitar is far more versatile when it comes to playing across multiple genres.
The neck and fretboard of a classical guitar are generally flat. For some, this makes it more difficult to play certain chords, as it goes against the hand’s natural curve. On the acoustic guitar, there is usually a slight curve, making it easier to play.
Classical guitars have a wider spacing on the neck, giving the player more room for finger placement. However, this can make it more challenging when playing specific notes that require finger placement across a few frets and the width of the neck.
For people with smaller hands, especially children and young adults, the standard size of the classical guitar may be considered too challenging to play. Whereas people with larger hands will often feel more comfortable with the larger spacing, which can help prevent interference of touching multiple strings simultaneously.
The guitar neck’s width is generally measured at the ‘nut.’ The guitar nut is a small piece of material, typically ebony or plastic, that joins the neck of the guitar with the headstock. Since most guitar necks taper out as they move down toward the body, the width is measured at the nut, which is the most narrow part of the neck.
According to Yamaha, there can be as much as a 1 cm (about 0.39 inches) difference in width between standard classical and acoustic guitars. The typical width of a traditional classical nut is 52 mm (about 2.05 inches), where an acoustic nut’s standard width is 42 mm (about 1.65 inches).
On a classical guitar, the nylon strings are wound and tied in a knot to secure them to the bridge. This differs significantly from the steel-stringed acoustic, which incorporates pegs and holes to secure them in place.
At the top of the neck, where the strings are attached to the tuning pegs, you can see clearly how the classical and acoustic guitars differ. Where the classical guitar uses barrels to wrap the nylon strings, the acoustic uses metal machine heads.
To restring a classical guitar, follow these steps:
- Remove the old strings by cutting in the middle and unwinding from the barrel and bridge.
- Thread the new strings through the bridge, leaving a couple of inches of material on the end.
- Wrap each string around the bridge, tying a double knot and pulling tight.
- At the other end, start with the barrels at an angle, facing the nut to allow for better access.
- Thread the other end of each string into the barrels, looping and tying a knot in each to secure in place.
- Using the tuning pegs, tighten the strings, one by one.
- Once in place, the strings can be tuned appropriately to play.
You can see how to restring a classical guitar in the video below:
To restring an acoustic guitar, follow these steps:
- Working in pairs, remove two strings and replace these strings to ensure adequate tension is held on the neck.
- Loosen the pressure on the first two strings and clip them free, unwinding from the peg to remove.
- Lift the pegs on the bridge to remove the other end of the strings.
- Insert the ball on the end of the new string into the hole on the bridge.
- Place the pin into the hole, with the cut-out facing the string.
- Press down and pull the line tight.
- Thread the other end of the string through the hole in the machine head, from the middle of the headstock.
- Using a string winder, wind the string until taught.
- Repeat with the other strings, working in pairs.
- Once in place, the strings can be appropriately tuned to play.
You can see how to restring an acoustic guitar in the video below:
You can often tell if the musician has an acoustic or a classical guitar by the placement of their left thumb during play. When used to create the chords, the left-hand moves up and down the neck to change the notes that are played.
Classical guitarists keep their thumbs on the back of the neck, using it as a balance to support the front where the fingers work to create music. On an acoustic guitar, the player will often use the neck curve to rest the thumb on top of the neck. It can even be used to play bass notes from the 6th string.
Since the classical guitar is better suited to fast-paced music, the musicians will pluck the strings using their fingers more often than not. They will use the flesh on the end of the thumb, index, middle, ring fingers, and sometimes the fingernails to pluck the strings. Using multiple fingers allows for faster play.
The picks used by acoustic guitarists are better suited for slower melodies and strumming the strings.
The Sound Difference Between Classical and Acoustic Guitar
If you were to compare two identical guitars, each of the same size and thickness, they would likely sound the same. However, if you were to fit one with nylon and one with steel strings, the sound will always be louder with the steel strings.
The timbre made by the two different guitars is noticeable even to those that aren’t familiar with the differences:
- Nylon strings create a softer sound
- Steel strings create a louder, more metallic sound
Not only is the sound made by steel strings louder, but it also lasts longer. For music such as flamenco, which is fast-paced, the classical guitar is ideal, as the notes will be cut off sooner.
The sound difference between the two can be better heard when comparing them side by side. You can listen to the same song played by each type of guitar in the two videos below to better understand the sound differences.
This music is ideal for the classical guitar. You can hear how each note lingers much longer when played on the acoustic guitar, and the song loses some of its staccato rhythms. Rather than each note and pluck of the string being distinct and detached from the next, as with the classical guitar, the melody flows more in the acoustic version. The softer tone is also easy to pick out from the nylon strings.
Another big difference in the sound is that you often hear slight scratching when playing with steel strings. This is caused by the musician’s fingers sliding along the steel and usually can’t be helped.
Pros and Cons of a Classical Guitar
For beginners, the softer feel of the nylon strings and the instrument’s lighter weight, in general, will help when initially learning. The nylon is less harsh on the fingertips and will make playing far more comfortable.
In addition to being lightweight, they are often much cheaper than their steel-stringed counter-parts. Classical guitars can be found in many shops and markets and will often cost considerably less.
However, many seasoned musicians feel that the nylon strings can inhibit proper play, as they feel so different from steel. For example, moving from an acoustic guitar to an electric guitar will be far more manageable since they both use steel strings. Whereas moving from a classical guitar can feel like starting from the beginning.
In terms of sound, the lack of resonance – the sustained sound produced from plucking the strings – can make beginners feel they need to pluck harder to achieve better notes.
Pros and Cons of an Acoustic Guitar
The acoustic guitar is very balanced in terms of size, weight, and sound. It is favored by many newcomers and seasoned musicians alike due to its style. There is a cutaway under the neck in many designs, where it meets the body, to allow easier access to the lower frets. For beginners, this is invaluable when just starting out.
The larger size might make the instrument broader, but it also allows for easier access to the strings with the fingers. When plucking, the musician can more readily rest their arm on the body, which will prevent fatigue during play.
However, one of the main drawbacks of the acoustic guitar is the price. They are often much more expensive and not attainable to beginners. Also, as mentioned above, the steel strings can be tough on the fingertips when you have little to no experience. It can take a lot of practice to form calluses on the fingertips, making playing more comfortable.
Which Type Of Guitar Is Right for You?
If you are a beginner and on a budget, the classical guitar is an excellent choice. It is inexpensive, and the softer nylon strings will allow you to learn chords with ease without causing too much damage to the tips of your fingers.
However, if it is your goal to learn and move onto playing other types of guitar, such as the electric guitar, it would be beneficial to start off learning with steel strings. Steel strings feel totally different from nylon, and playing each feels different in both the pressure required and the amount of tension on the neck. Moving from a classical guitar to an electric would be difficult since the musician won’t have the experience of steel strings.
Though they are often slightly more expensive, the acoustic guitar is worth the investment if you plan on playing in the long run.
That being said, it also depends on the type of music to be played. If you are looking for an all-round guitar that will work well in any genre, the acoustic guitar is the better option. Classical guitars have less range and are better suited to classical and Latin-inspired music, such as flamenco.
The main difference between the acoustic guitar and the classical guitar is the use of steel and nylon strings, respectively. Sticking with the lighter, softer design, the classical guitar has a narrower neck and a warmer tone. By contrast, the larger acoustic guitar utilizes a more substantial inner brace to account for the steel strings’ added tension. This guitar is considerably louder, heavier, and larger overall.
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