When beginning guitarists first realize that acoustics have fewer frets than the average electric, they may feel anxious or ripped-off because they might think that fewer frets make the acoustic a “beginner” or “kiddie” guitar. In fact, acoustic and electric guitars are entirely different instruments, so their fretboards are different. But why is this the case?
Acoustic guitars have fewer frets because the higher frets would be nearly impossible to play, which has to do with the high action, the shorter length of vibrating string, and the acoustic guitar’s body size. Some acoustics have even fewer frets than average to combat these issues.
If you’re worried that you can’t learn to play effectively on an acoustic guitar, don’t fret. Learning on an acoustic might actually help beginners rise to a higher level of playing more quickly!
Challenges of Higher Frets on Acoustic Guitars (Why Acoustic Guitars Have Fewer Frets)
Acoustics have a full, rich sound without any amplification. When played at its highest frets, this sound becomes brittle and short, especially if not pressed hard enough. While that harsher sound can be desirable when playing certain songs, for the most part, acoustic players want to avoid this kind of noise.
Besides that, the acoustic guitar is much more challenging to play higher up on the fretboard. Several reasons for this are outlined below.
Action Too High
The “action” of a guitar is the distance between each string and the fretboard. As a rule, this distance is greater the higher up on the fretboard you get. (“Higher” on the fretboard here means closer to the soundhole.)
The action at the 12th fret on an electric guitar is typically between 1.6mm and 2.4mm (4/64″ and 6/64″), while on an acoustic, it ranges from 2.0mm to 2.8mm (5/64″ to 7/64″). High action makes it much harder to push down on the strings, making acoustics much harder to play beyond the 12th fret.
Body Shape Affects the Frets
Not only does the high action make acoustic guitars harder to play at higher frets, but the shape of the guitars is an obstacle to reaching them.
Since the noise from an acoustic guitar depends on the body to be projected, it must be large enough to provide resonance for the strings’ vibrations, which keeps access to the higher frets limited.
Some guitars have a cutaway shape underneath the neck, which allows for much greater access to the frets on the higher neck. The drawback to this is that there is slightly less room for the strings’ vibrations to resonate, leading to a somewhat less full sound.
If you find yourself having to play at the top of your acoustic guitar’s neck often, however, you may want to consider a cutaway guitar.
Shorter Length of Vibrating String
In addition to all this, pressing down on frets higher on the fretboard will lead to a significantly shortened length of string that vibrates. While the body is crucial to the way an acoustic sounds, the strings are the noise’s actual source. The less of the string involved in the vibration, the less sound there will be.
In short, many factors prevent the higher frets on acoustics from sounding good.
Why Electric Guitars Can Have More Frets
Acoustic guitars’ necks usually meet the bodies at their 14th fret, and though they may have as many as 19 frets, only 14 or 15 are reasonably accessible. Meanwhile, electrics may have as many as 22 or 24 frets, all of them accessible to players.
Electric guitars are designed to be plugged in and played out of an amplifier, which has several effects on the design, making them much more suited to playing at the higher frets. That’s why you’re much more likely to hear a guitar solo on an electric guitar!
Acoustics have much higher action than electrics, as a rule. Therefore, the distance between the string and fretboard on an electric is reduced, making them significantly easier to play all parts of the fretboard.
Lower action means that less pressure is required to make the strings vibrate—that is, you don’t have to push down quite as hard to make noise. Less pressure means that it’s much easier to have for the strings to ring out.
While an acoustic guitar must have a bulky body, an electric guitar does not need a resonance chamber to make noise. An electric guitar is just a piece of wood cut into a comfortable shape to hold and looks cool on stage.
Electrics, therefore, can be cut into nearly any shape, allowing them to be built with much greater access to the upper frets. Electric guitar players have access to nearly all of their frets.
Because of the lack of a resonance chamber, electrics require pickups to project their sound, which are magnetic transducers that pick up sound from the strings’ vibrations and send them to the sound system it’s plugged into. Acoustics, meanwhile, use their soundholes to project sound, which is significantly less powerful.
While the length of the vibrating string is shortened when playing at the higher frets, the pickups are so effective that guitarists can still project a clear sound.
Why Do Guitar Frets Get Smaller?
The frets on guitars start out relatively large high up on the neck. As the fretboard gets closer to the body, frets get smaller and smaller. Why is that?
The reason actually has more to do with the length of the string. As the pitch of the notes on a guitar neck get higher, the length of the vibrating string must be shortened by a smaller and smaller amount of distance. In short, as the frequency of the note goes up, the less distance you have to put between the frets.
How To Make Higher Frets on Acoustics Easier To Play
Despite the challenges presented by an acoustic guitar, there are ways to make the higher frets easier to play.
A capo is a tool that shortens the playable length of the strings. Shortening the strings will also lower the guitar’s action, making it much easier to play at the higher frets. Simply clip the capo onto one of the guitar lower frets and make sure each string still rings out when picked.
Bear in mind that capos will also transpose the instrument one-half step up for each fret underneath it.
Capos are easy to find at most local guitar stores. If you’d prefer to buy online, the WINGO Guitar Capo on Amazon comes in a rosewood style and is easy to clamp onto various instruments, including acoustic and electric guitars.
Twelve-Fret Acoustic Guitars
It may seem counterintuitive, but getting an acoustic guitar with even fewer frets may make these frets at the higher end of the fretboard easier to hit.
A twelve-fret acoustic guitar will make it easier to press down on the strings, as it shortens the length of string on the neck. In addition to having a “softer” hand feel, the twelve-fret has a distinctively warm and powerful sound, even for an acoustic because though the fretboard is shorter, the bridge is moved slightly further from the soundhole to compensate, making the length of the vibrating string longer.
Many brands, like Taylor, will make accommodations for the fewer number of frets with a cutaway design. Others, like this Guild Guitars 12-Fret Acoustic Guitar, lack the cutaway design but come at a much lower price.
Acoustic guitars have fewer frets than electrics not because they are “beginner” guitars, but because there isn’t much point in putting more frets on them. Frets beyond the 15th are difficult to reach due to the acoustic’s body style and difficult to play sustained notes due to the high action. You can combat this by using a capo or buying a twelve-fret guitar.
Now you know why acoustics don’t need as many frets as electric guitars!