Picking your first guitar is intimidating for a beginning guitar player. The biggest question that comes to mind is whether to get an acoustic or electric guitar. Both have their quirks, but is one harder to learn than the other?
An acoustic guitar is slightly harder to play than an electric. Acoustic guitars have heavier strings that sit higher, which can irritate a beginner’s fingers. However, once you get past this obstacle, deciding on an acoustic or electric guitar comes down to what music genre you wish to play.
Read on to learn about acoustic and electric guitars. I will guide you through each instrument so you know which is right for you.
Acoustic vs. Electric Guitars: How Do They Differ?
As I mentioned before, acoustic and electric guitars are very similar. Their main differences originate from their purpose. Acoustic guitars make their sound without an amplifier. Conversely, electric guitars need outside amplification to produce audible sound. That is why you need to know how guitars work to understand their structural differences.
Guitars produce sound by striking strings to make them vibrate. The vibration travels from the bridge to the soundboard of the guitar. In acoustic guitars, the hollow body amplifies the sound so others can hear it. The pitch of the sound depends on the mass, tension, and length of the strings. It’s best to understand the composition of an acoustic guitar first since it precedes the electric. Here is a diagram below:
The lower strings are thicker and produce a lower pitch. Tuning a guitar tightens and loosens the strings, heightening and lowering the pitch, respectively. Lastly, pressing down on the frets determines how much string can vibrate. Less space between the fret and the soundhole shortens the vibrating string’s length, heightening the pitch. Pressing down on a fret further away from the soundhole will accomplish the opposite effect, lowering the pitch.
Electric guitars were born out of the pursuit to create a louder guitar. The earliest prototypes came about in the 1920s and 30s by attaching a pickup to a hollow-bodied guitar. Today’s electric guitars use pickups consisting of electromagnets that convert string vibration waves into electrical signals that travel to an amplifier. There are two kinds of pickups: single and double coils (also known as humbucking). Double-coils produce a fuller sound.
By the 1940s, musicians continued to pursue a louder and cleaner sound from the electric guitar. They discovered a hollow-bodied guitar was too confusing for a pickup since the soundboard and string’s vibrations got jumbled together. On the other hand, solid-body guitars absorb vibration with less response, providing the pickup with a cleaner sound signal to send to the amp.
Today, solid-body electric guitars are the most common due to their clean sound that can easily change with a fuzz box. However, semi and entirely hollowed electric guitars still get played today. For instance, jazz guitarists are partial to hollow-bodied electric guitars due to their warm tone.
As you can see, there are some apparent differences between acoustic and electric guitars, especially in terms of body and means of amplification. Still, the basics of how they work are constant, no matter the type of instrument. Let’s take a look at the differences you will notice the most as you play: the weight, tension, and space between the strings.
The first difference you may notice between acoustic and electric guitars is the weight of the gauge strings. Acoustic guitar strings are noticeably heavier than their electric counterpart, especially at lower pitches.
Guitar strings measure by one-thousandth of an inch (about two-thousandths of a cm). The typical medium string gauge of an acoustic is .012in/.03cm-.056.in/.14cm The highest string, high E, is the lightest at .012in/.03 cm. The lowest, sixth string, low E, measures .056 inches/.14 cm. On the other hand, electric gauge strings measure .011in/.027cm-.05in/.127cm. While the difference between the high strings is minimal, it becomes noticeable at the bass strings.
Acoustic guitar strings are heavier than electric guitar strings because acoustic strings must create enough vibration for the body to pick up and amplify. Electric guitar pickups do not require a loud vibration but a clear one, which is why their strings can get by with less weight.
This difference becomes apparent to beginners unfamiliar with a steel string’s sensation beneath their fingers for long periods. Callused fingers are a rite of passage and strengthen the guitarist’s ability to play. However, the feeling can be unpleasant for newcomers. Electric guitar strings can ease this burden. Still, once one becomes used to the feeling, the concern will not be as glaring.
Note: Young children wishing to learn guitar may benefit from starting with a classical guitar since the nylon strings are not as abrasive to their fingers.
Guitar action is the height between a guitar’s strings and the fretboard. It significantly affects how it feels to play the guitar since it determines how far you need to push down the strings to create sound. Here is a visualization below:
When guitar strings are too close to the fretboard, they risk vibrating against them, causing fret buzz that muddies the sound. Since acoustic guitar strings are thicker, they require more action from the fretboard than electric guitars. That means they need more finger pressure to play. Electric guitar strings do not require as much action, which means you should play the electric guitar accordingly. A lighter touch prevents fret buzz on an electric guitar.
From a beginner’s perspective, less action from the fretboard and lighter strings means it takes less effort to play the electric guitar. However, this also requires the new musician to adopt a more delicate touch with an electric guitar than an acoustic.
Which Instrument Should You Pick?
The differences between playing an acoustic vs. an electric guitar are not as significant as you may think. You may assume an acoustic guitar is not beginner-friendly due to the weight and action of its strings. Or maybe you feel that an acoustic guitar better suits learning techniques than an electric. Neither is true. They are both instruments suited to slightly different tasks.
Acoustic guitar strings assist the fingerpicking that often occurs in folk music. Conversely, those fast and furious rock riffs are possible due to the lightweight, spaced-in strings of an electric guitar.
So how do you know which is right for you? Start by asking yourself these questions:
- What artists do you admire the most? Do they play an electric or acoustic guitar?
- What music do you want to play? And which guitar plays it better?
- What is your budget? Can you afford the accessories required to play an electric guitar, like an amplifier?
- Test the guitar before buying. How does it feel to play? How does it sound?
- What inspires you? Go with the instrument that you will look forward to practicing every day.
In short, an acoustic guitar is not difficult to play. There are small differences between an acoustic and electric guitar based on their needs.
Acoustic guitars amplify through their body, which means they require heavier strings that sit higher above the fretboard.
Electric guitars convert sound to electrical signals that get strengthened by an amplifier, so their strings can afford to be lighter and closer to the fretboard. Novices should learn the guitar they enjoy more.
If you play the guitar long enough, you'll eventually run into a situation where you have the wrong guitar for the occasion. Sometimes you may have to play an acoustic-style song—but you only have...
Most guitarists start on an acoustic guitar, then graduate to an electric. Acoustic guitars are notoriously harder to play, with high action and heavy strings. It's common to question if you're...