Guitar History



Other Types




Acoustic guitars

Acoustic guitars are used in a variety of genres. Because of the long history of the acoustic guitar, there are many different kinds; some kinds are rarely considered guitars, such as the ukulele. The body of the guitar is large and hollow, allowing the sounds to resonate and providing a natural means of amplification. The sound of the acoustic guitar is characterized partly by a weak sustain, meaning notes will fade after being struck. However, some master-built classical guitars ("concert guitars") feature very good sustain and excellent overall performance.

Acoustic guitars are often used in performance. When the performance is in a personal setting or in an amphitheater an acoustic guitar can often be heard with no amplification. In most other performance scenarios amplification is required for the audience to be able to hear the guitar well. An acoustic guitar can be amplified by placing an amplified microphone near (possibly within several inches) the soundhole of the guitar or by installing an electric pickup in the guitar. An acoustic guitar with an installed electric pickup is not considered an electric guitar.

When we refer to acoustic guitars, we usually think of the 'flat top' guitar, with a distinctive soundhole. They are usually bigger than classical guitars(described below), and feature a somewhat thinner neck and metal(steel) strings. They come in a variety of sizes, from the smaller 'parlour' and 'concert' sizes, to the larger 'dreadnought' and 'jumbo' sizes with the most typical being the 'dreadnought'. They have a distinctive warm (although sometimes metallic) sound and can be strummed for playing rhythm in a wide range of popular music genres, including country, pop and rock, or played 'fingerstyle' for country blues, ragtime and folk. A plectrum or 'pick' can be used, for instance in the bluegrass 'flatpicking' style.

Unlike the electric guitar, the traditional acoustic guitar is not dependent on any external device for amplification. The shape and resonance of the guitar itself creates acoustic amplification. However, the unamplified guitar is not a loud instrument, that is, it cannot "compete" with other instruments commonly found in bands and orchestras, in terms of sheer audible volume. Many acoustic guitars are available today with built-in electronics to enable amplification.

Electric guitars

The electric guitar is the workhorse of rock music, but has its uses in other genres such as blues, jazz and pop music. While an acoustic guitar can be played right off the rack, an electric guitar requires amplification (It is possible to hear an electric guitar without amplification for the purposes of practicing, but it will be much quieter than an acoustic guitar, and electric guitars are never played this way in performances.) The sound of an amplified electric guitar is very different from that of an acoustic guitar, even when no effects or distortion are used - the pickups and amplifier define the guitar's sound to a large extent. Like the acoustic guitar, the electric guitar has a poor sustain. However, amplification and especially overdrive will increase the apparent sustain, and feedback can allow a note to be sustained indefinitely, even for several minutes.

Many (but by no means all) people who play the electric guitar wish to use the distortion and other effects. This is covered in more detail in Anatomy of a Guitar.

Technically speaking an electric guitar is any guitar with an electromagnetic pickup to amplify the sound created by the vibration of the strings. Electric guitars come in a variety of shapes and sizes which are not always limited to the acoustical qualities of the shapes and thus can be more comfortable to play. Electric guitars are typically easier to play since the strings usually are much thinner (the strings to not have to resonate as much as with an acoustic), and are closer to the neck, requiring less force to press them down. The multitude of variations amongst these guitars allow them to have a vast variety of different tones. The two most popular basic shapes of electric guitar are the Stratocaster style and the Les Paul style. Most electric guitars are solid body create very little sound on their own and therefore require an amplifier for all performance purposes.

The typical electric guitar is a solid body guitar. They are called solid body because they are made from one solid piece of wood(or several pieces of wood glued together) and have no soundhole or obvious body cavities. With no soundhole to project the sound they make very little sound on their own and therefore require an amplifier for all performance purposes.

Classical guitars

The classical guitar (or Spanish guitar) is an acoustic instrument and has its own genres, such as flamenco. It can be easily distiguished from other acoustic guitars because it is equipped with nylon strings (as opposed to metal ones found on most guitars). Relatively few classical pieces were written specifically for it; many such pieces were originally written for other instruments such as the lute and later adapted to the guitar. Most of the Latin and many world music artists use this particular kind of guitar exclusively (flamenco, gypsy, Latin jazz, etc.). It is not commonly used in American popular music, so it is advised that the aspiring guitarist only get one if it is exactly what he or she wants to play. These guitars are almost never amplified using a pickup but instead use a microphone placed near the soundhole of the guitar.

Archtop guitars

An archtop guitar is typically a hollow body acoustic or electric guitar which uses steel strings and has an arched top which creates unique resonance. The hollow body archtop is a guitar whose form is much like that of a mandolin or violin family instrument in that the body of the guitar is hollow. Archtop guitars may be acoustic or electric and can look very similar, the only certainly distinguishing feature being an electromagnetic pickup. Some solid body electric guitars are also considered archtop guitars based strictly on their body shape which includes an arched top although usually 'Archtop guitar' refers to the hollow body form. Archtop guitars have been particularly popular in jazz music, usually using thicker strings than acoustic guitars(the thicker strings add tone). These are often louder than a typical dreadnought acoustic guitar. The electric hollow body archtop guitar has a distinct sound among electric guitars.

Twelve string guitars

The twelve string guitar is usually an acoustic instrument, but electric twelve string guitars exist, usually in the form of a double-neck guitar. Twelve string guitars produce a more ringing tone, however, they are a bit harder to play and maintain than the standard guitar and are usually confined to niche roles, and are usually used strictly for rhythm. They are played in the same fashion as a six string guitar, as the strings are paired together. Playing them is more difficult than a six string guitar however, because the additional strings require more pressure to depress. It is also more difficult to bend notes tunefully. They are usually more expensive then your average acoustic or electric.

Steel guitars

The steel guitar is distinctive in being played horizontally, either across the players knees or on its own legs. There are two main varieties of the instrument, which is played using the metal slide, or 'steel', from which the guitar takes its name. The steel is held in the left hand, when used by a right-handed player. The two main variations are the lap steel guitar, which typically has six strings, and the pedal steel guitar, which can have more - and sometimes two or even three separate sets, each tuned differently. Pedals and knee levers are used to alter the tuning on particular strings whilst playing which, along with the sliding action of the steel, gives the pedal steel its distinctive voice, most often heard in country music and western swing.

Resonator Guitars

Often mistakenly refered to as 'steel' guitars (some models have metal bodies), the acoustic resonator guitar is distinctive in not having a regular soundhole, but a large circular plate which conceals the resonator cone. The cone closely resembles an audio loudspeaker, though made from spun aluminium. The bridge of the guitar is connected to the centre of the cone, and the strings vibrations are thus amplified and projected outwards through the perforated plate on the guitars top. The most common resonator guitars have a single cone, though there is a variation (the tri-cone) with three. Resonators possess a loud, bright voice, making them easily heard in a large room or in the open air. They are popular with blues musicians, and country players. They can be played in the conventional style, or with a metal or glass slide.

Bass guitars

The bass guitar is usually an electric guitar although in recent years acoustic bass guitars have become quite common. While the bass guitar is a member of the guitar family, its musical identity is so different that the instrument is usually treated separately from 6- and 12-string guitars. The Bass Guitar usually has only 4 strings, although 5, 6, and more unusual string instruments are also available.(Courtesy of Wikibooks)

A well-rounded guitarist should have a familiarity with all types of guitars such as classical, steel-string acoustic, archtop, and electric as well as the major guitar makers.

To learn more about some of the most famous guitar makers of all time, click to the left.

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