In this article, we're going to explore the differences between acoustic and classical guitars. While the two instruments are obviously quite similar, they're stylistically unique and feel different from a playing perspective, largely because of their strings.
Let's start there.
Read more: Best acoustic guitars overall
Steel VS Nylon Strings
The single most important consideration when assessing acoustic guitar VS classical is the difference between steel and nylon strings. Acoustic guitars use wound steel strings, while classical guitars use nylon strings, the two of which feel and play completely different.
You could consider both steel and nylon strings "acoustic" in that they're made to resonate naturally in open air. However, steel strings are made with different types of metals while nylon strings are made from a type of synthetic polymer.
For nylon strings, this is a big improvement over the previous primary ingredient, sheep and cow intestines or "plain gut." Gross.
The difference in feel and sound is significant. Here's a quick summary of both:
Steel (acoustic) strings
- Heavier and harder to play
- Tone is bright, with a metallic chime
- Scraping against pick and fingers is pronounced and abrasive
- Thickest three strings are usually wound with nickel or some kind of metal
Nylon (classical) strings
- Softer, easier to play and bend
- Finger movement is smoother and not as noisy
- Tone is much softer and more subtle
- Less emphasis on the picking hand movement
From a playing perspective, the differences in the two string types will have the most to say about how the instruments differ. And while steel strings are harder to play, nylon strings are extremely limited in their uses and application, as they're almost exclusively used in the context of classical guitar.
If you aren't planning to move into the classical music style, at least in some capacity, it's hard to recommend a classical guitar above an acoustic.
Aside from the strings, there are some differing physical characteristics between acoustic and classical guitars. Generally these can be attributed to the shape of the fretboard and body of the guitar.
On a classical guitar the frets are usually wider from top to bottom. For a lot of players, particularly those with smaller hands, this effectively wipes out the advantage of playing with softer strings. This is part of why classical guitars are often played while sitting down, using a very particular stance.
With body shape you have a bit more crossover, simply because acoustic guitar manufacturers have adopted the "concert" body type, which is smaller and has a thinner waste. This shape was originally an exclusive classical guitar design, which is why it's called the concert body shape.
However, classical guitars do not typically come in the dreadnought body style. Traditionally, they also avoid cutaways.
In summary, classical guitar bodies are smaller and more slimmed down, while acoustic guitars tend to be larger or a mimic of the classical body design.
Some models, like this Kremona Verea, break the cutaway mold:
If you want just a direct, visual comparison between two typical acoustic and classical guitars, you'd be looking at something like this:
Differences in Price
Though I've read in some places that classical guitars trend cheaper than acoustics, I would disagree with that assertion, based on both the eye test and the data I've seen over the years.
My primary reason:
The tonewoods in both types of guitars are essentially the same grouping. Cedar is more common in classical guitars, but you also see plenty of solid Spruce, Nato, Rosewood, and Mahogany. All of these are seen in both types of guitars, which is one of the most significant aspects of determining the cost of an acoustic guitar or a classical variation.
We'd argue there isn't much difference in price between the two guitar categories. And, if there is, it's not enough to make much of a difference.
Differences in Sound
In covering strings we've already touched on the major differences in tone and sound between acoustic and electric guitars. In this section, we can be a little more specific and list some tone attributes for each type of guitar.
Acoustic Guitar Tone Qualities
- Bright, emphasizing midrange frequencies
- Accentuates picking hand movement
- Louder pick scrapes
- More rhythmic
- More full and loud, overall
Classical Guitar Tone Qualities
- Mellow, emphasizing bass frequencies
- More pronounced melody
- Softer hand movement and less emphasis on scraping
- More melodic
- Warmer and more subtle
Now, certainly there are exceptions to these rules. But speaking broadly, you can expect the sound qualities of each type of instrument to mostly line up with these descriptors.
Which one is right for me?
That's the big question:
Which of the two types of guitars is the right choice in your situation? I'll go back to what I said previously, and reiterate that for most beginners or aspiring guitarists, a traditional acoustic steel string guitar is going to be your most ideal fit, just because it can be applied to so many different styles.
At the same time there's worthy context for both scenarios. Let's start with classical guitars:
Go with a classical guitar if:
If you intentionally plan to study classical music or pursue it in some kind of formal context, then it makes sense to focus on classical guitar. Additionally, if you like the larger fretboards and your hands are big enough to handle it comfortably, you could really take advantage of the softer strings since they're easier to play.
Though most of the classical guitar appeal will center around being interested in that style of music. If you are, it's the only type of guitar you should be targeting.
If you're not, there's isn't much reason to get one.
Go with an acoustic guitar if:
As you might assume, a traditional acoustic guitar is a better option in any situation where classical music isn't your primary interest. While it's true that the strings are a little harder to get used to and manipulate, the acoustic guitar is applicable to more styles.
Once you learn and play for awhile, you can use it to jump into a wider range of music that might be more interesting to you.
Could you do that with a classical guitar?
Yeah, probably. But it wouldn't make sense if your ultimate goal isn't to be playing classical music.
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