The guitar is an extremely popular instrument, with sales in the millions and growing steadily since the Great Recession of 2009, according to the New York Times.
There are many different types of guitars, though. While you can probably tell that a metal or rock band favors one style of guitar and a folksy, bluegrass singer-songwriter favors another, you might not be able to recognize what the differences are or why they matter.
This guide will help you understand the difference between the two main types of guitars: Acoustic and electric.
The Basics: Definition of Acoustic and Electric
The most basic difference between acoustic and electric guitars is the source of their power. An electric guitar, as the name indicates, is designed to be powered by an electrical source. An acoustic guitar is not.
- Electric guitar: Powered and amplified by an internal and external electric source
- Powered by natural resonance and projection from its own body
One definition of the word acoustic is sound that “it is not electrically enhanced or modified.” Connotatively, acoustic guitars are associated with a gentler, more soulful sound as opposed to the more intense precision of its electric counterpart.
The most basic difference between acoustic and electric guitars is the source of their power.
Different genres that use guitar music can be associated with one type of guitar sound over the other, although both acoustic and electric guitars are fairly versatile.
Are the generalizations true?
When beginners start their research as they look to choose a guitar for themselves, they might hear that electric guitars are physically easier to play but more complex to set up.
In contrast, acoustic guitars are physically more demanding for your hands but do not require as much initial setup or accessories.
- Electric guitar: Easier to play but harder to set up
- Acoustic guitar: Easier to set up but harder to play
These generalizations are essentially accurate.
However, it's hard to make a perfect generalization that always applies. Not every beginning player should get an electric guitar just because it would be easier to learn to play. An acoustic guitar could be the right choice, depending on what kind of music and sound the player wants. Conversely, an acoustic guitar isn’t necessarily right for everyone. Some players may get frustrated when that guitar doesn’t give the powerful sound they’d want, in which case an electric guitar could be a better fit.
There’s no one definitive answer as to what type of guitar beginners should always get, and no quick/easy way to define which guitar type is “easier” or “better” across the board.
Still, these generalizations can be a helpful starting point for music novices seeking their first instrument.
The Similarities Between Acoustic and Electric Guitar
To understand the differences between the guitar types, you have to first understand the similarities.
Fundamentally there are certain elements common to most guitars. Guitars typically have six strings, and any variations will be labeled to denote the different number of strings.
Guitars also share a similar shape, including incurved sides and a fretted fingerboard.
Almost all acoustic and electric guitars come with steel strings, in contrast to the nylon strings used for the classical or Spanish guitar. Both acoustic and electric guitars are usually played by plucking or strumming the strings either directly with the players’ fingers or by using a guitar pick.
Most guitars are primarily made of wood and can be held with a strap.
Some brands specialize in certain types of guitars, while others have a variety of both acoustic and electric guitars with a large range of prices and features.
To summarize similarities:
- Playing method (strumming/picking)
The Differences Between Acoustic and Electric Guitars
While you can strum on the strings of an electric guitar and get some sound without plugging it in, the full effect requires more gear.
Unlike the acoustic guitar, an electric guitar is intended to be used in conjunction with an amplifier, or "amp", that is plugged in. That means more equipment, but it also means not all of the sound comes from you. So, with the amplified sound, mistakes on electric guitars are somewhat less obvious than on an acoustic.
Because the strings of an electric guitar are usually lighter and the sound is bigger, it’s also much easier to play the electric guitar for longer without hurting your fingers or hand as much, especially as a beginner.
The different shape of an electric guitar (usually with a cutaway) also allows you to reach the higher frets more easily than you would on an acoustic guitar.
As with any instrument, a primary consideration for the guitar is its sound.
Acoustic guitars sound more natural than electric guitars due to their high sustain. This means that sound is more exposed, with natural sustaining power rather than technical precision or electronic amplification.
Electric guitars usually offer more volume because of amplification, and the tone is usually more precise and flexible than that of an acoustic guitar. So, a chord played on an acoustic guitar versus on an electric guitar will have the same notes but not necessarily the same sound or feel.
Which Type of Guitar Is Better to Learn On?
One of the biggest questions asked by beginners trying to decide between acoustic and electric guitars is which type is better to learn first.
The short answer: It depends.
If they want the easiest playing experience, they should probably spring for an electric guitar. However, if a beginner wants a simpler setup so they can just practice the basics and learn their chords, an acoustic guitar could be a better fit.
Acoustic guitars are often larger and heavier than electric guitars, but this can actually be a benefit, since beginners can rest their picking arm on the body of the guitar while playing, reducing hand fatigue.
However, to get a louder sound, an electric guitar has the advantage of sound amplification, which saves the fingers from having to strum as hard
The steel strings of an acoustic guitar can be painful for beginners to learn on.
Guitar Type Combinations
Acoustic and electric guitars aren’t the only two types of guitars, and they aren’t always completely separate.
Acoustic guitars are sometimes called “regular acoustic guitars” because you can also purchase “acoustic-electric guitars.” Acoustic-electric guitars include an electronic pickup, so there is the option to plug into an acoustic amp or mixer.
This also means acoustic-electric guitars have EQ/volume controls and sometimes tuners built-in.
- Acoustic guitars don’t have any electronics to amplify sound
- Acoustic-electric guitars have the option to electronically amplify sound
- Electric guitars require electronic amplification
- Acoustic and electric remain the main differentiation between guitar types.
Purchasing a Guitar
If you’re in the market for purchasing a guitar, deciding between electric and acoustic is a critical choice, but not the only one.
When chosen correctly, a guitar can be a great fit that provides an excellent experience, whether new or advanced. However, the wrong guitar can be a source of frustration — even if that guitar comes highly rated and may have been the best choice for another musician.
Broadly, electric guitars are more expensive than acoustic guitars, but you can find a wide range of prices for both types. You might think that cheap electric guitars wouldn’t give the best playing experience, but there are plenty of budget-friendly guitars that still offer a great sound.
Similarly, the best acoustic guitars aren’t always the most expensive. Ideally, you’ll want to find a guitar with a balance between the right price and top-tier features like good tone, build quality, and ease of play.
An Overview of Guitar Equipment
Usually, to play an acoustic guitar, all you need are picks, a guitar strap, and a small tuner.
More equipment is required for an electric guitar, however.
In addition to the picks, strap, and tuner, there may be one or more connecting and power cables required, as well as the amplifier, which is commonly called an “amp.” If guitar equipment feels overwhelming and you’re looking for a simpler instrument style that you can tote around and play easily, an acoustic guitar will be a better fit.
How Your Equipment Can Make All the Difference
Especially if you want a home music studio, equipment is going to be a huge part of your experience. The right home music studio equipment, including quality headphones and microphones with an easy-to-use audio workstation and MIDI controllers with great features and audio interface, can help you turn a dream into a real, enjoyable activity.
For those interested in electric guitars, the amp can make all the difference. There are a lot of factors that need to be considered when you're researching to find the best guitar amps, from tone to size, and features.
Not all amps are created equal.
Guitar amps range widely in tone, size, and quality, and you need to consider each of these components if you opt to purchase an electric guitar rather than an acoustic guitar.
Do I Have to Get an Amp?
If the cost of an amp seems to stand in the way of choosing an electric guitar over an acoustic one, but the electric guitar would otherwise be a better fit for the prospective player, there are options for playing an electric guitar without an amp.
Of course, the full volume, tonality, and effect of any electric guitar will only come when it is plugged into the right kind of amp.
Still, stereo systems, multi-effects pedals, and, increasingly, desktop and phone apps can provide cheaper alternatives to the traditional guitar amp. These can allow practice at home or on-the-go without the extra equipment usually required for an electric guitar.
The Bottom Line
Ultimately, both acoustic and electric guitars are popular options and can be great for experienced players or those who are just starting, depending on personal circumstances and preferences. Audiences and players enjoy all types of guitars with many different options, styles, and sounds.
Get Started with Your Chosen Guitar Type
If all the options seem overwhelming to you, check out Guitar Chalk’s other articles, guides, and tips so you can make sure you find the right guitar for you.
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