Acoustic guitar

Last updated
Acoustic guitar
String instrument
Classification String instrument (plucked or strummed)
Hornbostel–Sachs classification 321.322
(Composite Chordophone)
Developed13th century
Attack Fast
Related instruments

An acoustic guitar is a musical instrument in the string family. When a string is plucked, its vibration is transmitted from the bridge, resonating throughout the top of the guitar. It is also transmitted to the side and back of the instrument, resonating through the air in the body, and producing sound from the sound hole. [1] While the original, general term for this stringed instrument is guitar , the retronym 'acoustic guitar' – often used to indicate the steel stringed model – distinguishes it from an electric guitar, which relies on electronic amplification. Typically, a guitar's body is a sound box, of which the top side serves as a sound board that enhances the vibration sounds of the strings. In standard tuning the guitar's six strings [2] are tuned (low to high) E2 A2 D3 G3 B3 E4.


Guitar strings may be plucked individually with a pick (plectrum) or fingertip, or strummed to play chords. Plucking a string causes it to vibrate at a fundamental pitch determined by the string's length, mass, and tension. (Overtones are also present, closely related to harmonics of the fundamental pitch.) The string causes the soundboard and the air enclosed by the sound box to vibrate. As these have their own resonances, they amplify some overtones more strongly than others, affecting the timbre of the resulting sound.


The guitar likely originated in Spain in the early 16th century, deriving from the guitarra latina. [3] Gitterns (small, plucked guitars), were the first small, guitar-like instruments created during the Spanish Middle Ages with a round back, like that of the lute. [4] Modern guitar-shaped instruments were not seen until the Renaissance era, when the body and size began to take a guitar-like shape.

A reconstruction of a medieval gittern, the first guitar-like instrument Dusepo gittern.jpg
A reconstruction of a medieval gittern, the first guitar-like instrument

The earliest string instruments related to the guitar and its structure were broadly known as vihuelas within Spanish musical culture. Vihuelas were string instruments that were commonly seen in the 16th century during the Renaissance. Later, Spanish writers distinguished these instruments into two categories of vihuelas. The vihuela de arco was an instrument that mimicked the violin, and the vihuela de Penola was played with a plectrum or by hand. When it was played by hand it was known as the vihuela de mano. Vihuela de mano shared extreme similarities with the Renaissance guitar as it used hand movement at the sound hole or sound chamber of the instrument to create music. [5]

By 1790 only six-course vihuela guitars (six unison-tuned pairs of strings) were being created and had become the main type and model of guitar used in Spain. Most of the older 5-course guitars were still in use but were also being modified to a six-coursed acoustical guitar. Fernando Ferandiere's [6] book Arte de tocar la Guitarra Española por Música (Madrid, 1799) describes the standard Spanish guitar from his time as an instrument with seventeen frets and six courses with the first two 'gut' strings tuned in unison called the terceras and the tuning named to 'G' of the two strings. The acoustic guitar at this time began to take the shape familiar in the modern acoustic guitar. The coursed pairs of strings eventually became less common in favor of single strings. [7]

Around 1850, the form and structure of the modern guitar was established by Spanish guitar maker Antonio Torres Jurado who increased the size of the guitar body, altered its proportions, and made use of fan bracing, which first appeared in guitars made by Francisco Sanguino in the late 18th century. The bracing pattern, which refers to the internal pattern of wood reinforcements used to secure the guitar's top and back to prevent the instrument from collapsing under tension, [8] is an important factor in how the guitar sounds. Torres' design greatly improved the volume, tone, and projection of the instrument, and it has remained essentially unchanged since.

Acoustic properties

Classical Guitar labelled english.jpg
Basic anatomy of a classical guitar
Acoustic Guitar Anatomy.jpg
Basic anatomy of a steel-string acoustic guitar

The acoustic guitar's soundboard, or top, also has a strong effect on the loudness of the guitar. Woods that are good at transmitting sound, like spruce, are commonly used for the soundboard. [9] No amplification occurs in this process, because musicians add no external energy to increase the loudness of the sound (as would be the case with an electronic amplifier). All the energy is provided by the plucking of the string. Without a soundboard, however, the string would just "cut" through the air without moving it much. The soundboard increases the surface of the vibrating area in a process called mechanical impedance matching. The soundboard can move the air much more easily than the string alone, because it is large and flat. This increases the entire system's energy transfer efficiency, and musicians emit a much louder sound.

In addition, the acoustic guitar has a hollow body, and an additional coupling and resonance effect increases the efficiency of energy transmission in lower frequencies. The air in a guitar's cavity resonates with the vibrational modes of the string and soundboard. At low frequencies, which depend on the size of the box, the chamber acts like a Helmholtz resonator, increasing or decreasing the volume of the sound again depending on whether the air in the box moves in phase or out of phase with the strings. When in phase, the sound increases by about 3 decibels. In opposing phase, it decreases about 3 decibels. [10] As a Helmholtz resonator, the air at the opening is vibrating in or out of phase with the air in the box and in or out of phase with the strings. These resonance interactions attenuate or amplify the sound at different frequencies, boosting or damping various harmonic tones. Ultimately, the cavity air vibrations couple to the outside air through the sound hole, [11] though some[ which? ] variants of the acoustic guitar omit this hole, or have holes, like a violin family instrument (a trait found in some electric guitars such as the ES-335 and ES-175 models from Gibson). This coupling is most efficient because here the impedance matching is perfect: it is air pushing air.

A guitar has several sound coupling modes: string to soundboard, soundboard to cavity air, and both soundboard and cavity air to outside air. The back of the guitar also vibrates to some degree, driven by air in the cavity and mechanical coupling to the rest of the guitar. The guitar—as an acoustic system—colors the sound by the way it generates and emphasizes harmonics, and how it couples this energy to the surrounding air (which ultimately is what we perceive as loudness). Improved coupling, however, comes costing decay time, since the string's energy is more efficiently transmitted. Solid body electric guitars (with no soundboard at all) produce very low volume, but tend to have long sustain.

All these complex air coupling interactions, and the resonant properties of the panels themselves, are a key reason that different guitars have different tonal qualities. The sound is a complex mixture of harmonics that give the guitar its distinctive sound.


An Ovation Celebrity with sound hole caps (similar to Ovation Adamas ), whose parabolic shape reduces feedback Ovation acoustic guitar.jpg
An Ovation Celebrity with sound hole caps (similar to Ovation Adamas ), whose parabolic shape reduces feedback

Classical gut-string guitars lacked adequate projection, and were unable to displace banjos until innovations introduced helped to increase their volume. Two important innovations were introduced by United States firm C.F. Martin: steel strings and the increasing of the guitar top area; the popularity of Martin's larger "dreadnought" body size among acoustic performers is related to the greater sound volume produced. These innovations allowed guitars to compete with and often displace the banjos that had previously dominated jazz bands. The steel-strings increased tension on the neck; for stability, Martin reinforced the neck with a steel truss rod, which became standard in later steel-string guitars. [13]

Many acoustic guitars incorporate rosettes around the sound hole Pattern on Acoustic Guitar.JPG
Many acoustic guitars incorporate rosettes around the sound hole

An acoustic guitar can be amplified by using various types of pickups or microphones. However, amplification of acoustic guitars had many problems with audio feedback. In the 1960s, Ovation's parabolic bowls dramatically reduced feedback, allowing greater amplification of acoustic guitars. [14] In the 1970s, Ovation developed thinner sound-boards with carbon-based composites laminating a thin layer of birch, in its Adamas model, which has been viewed as one of the most radical designs in the history of acoustic guitars. The Adamas model dissipated the sound-hole of the traditional soundboard among 22 small sound-holes in the upper chamber of the guitar, yielding greater volume and further reducing feedback during amplification. [14] Another method for reducing feedback is to fit a rubber or plastic disc into the sound hole.

The most common types of pickups used for acoustic guitar amplification are piezo and magnetic pickups. Piezo pickups are generally mounted under the bridge saddle of the acoustic guitar and can be plugged into a mixer or amplifier. A Piezo pickup made by Baldwin was incorporated in the body of Ovation guitars, rather than attached by drilling through the body; [15] the combination of the Piezo pickup and parabolic ("roundback") body helped Ovation succeed in the market during the 1970s. [14]

Magnetic pickups on acoustic guitars are generally mounted in the sound hole, and are similar to those in electric guitars. An acoustic guitar with pickups for electrical amplification is called an acoustic-electric guitar.

In the 2000s, manufacturers introduced new types of pickups to try to amplify the full sound of these instruments. This includes body sensors, and systems that include an internal microphone along with body sensors or under-the-saddle pickups.


A selection of acoustic guitars in a store, including steel-string and classical type instruments Acoustic guitars in store 20180625.jpg
A selection of acoustic guitars in a store, including steel-string and classical type instruments

Historical and modern acoustic guitars are extremely varied in their design and construction. Some of the most important varieties are the classical guitar (Spanish Guitar/Nylon-stringed), steel-string acoustic guitar and Colombian tiple.

Body shape

Common guitar body shapes: A. Range - B. Parlor - C. Grand Concert - D. Auditorium - E. Dreadnought - F. Jumbo Body Shape Guitars.jpg
Common guitar body shapes: A. Range – B. Parlor – C. Grand Concert – D. Auditorium – E. Dreadnought – F. Jumbo

Common body shapes for modern acoustic guitars, from smallest to largest:

Range – The smallest common body shape, sometimes called a mini jumbo, is three-quarters the size of a jumbo-shaped guitar. A range shape typically has a rounded back to improve projection for the smaller body. The smaller body and scale length make the range guitar an option for players who struggle with larger body guitars.

ParlorParlor guitars have small compact bodies and have been described as "punchy" sounding with a delicate tone. [16] It normally has 12 open frets. The smaller body makes the parlor a more comfortable option for players who find large body guitars uncomfortable.

Grand Concert – This mid-sized body shape is not as deep as other full-size guitars, but has a full waist. Because of the smaller body, grand concert guitars have a more controlled overtone and are often used for their sound projection when recording.

Auditorium – Similar in dimensions to the dreadnought body shape, but with a much more pronounced waist. This general body shape is also sometimes referred to as an "Orchestra" style guitar depending on the manufacturer. [17] The shifting of the waist provides different tones to stand out. The auditorium body shape is a newer body when compared to the other shapes such as dreadnought.

Dreadnought – This is the classic guitar body shape. The style was designed by Martin Guitars to produce a deeper sound than "classic"-style guitars, with very resonant bass. The body is large and the waist of the guitar is not as pronounced as the auditorium and grand concert bodies. There are many Dreadnought variants produced, one of the most notable being the Gibson J-45.

Jumbo – The largest standard guitar body shape found on acoustic guitars. Jumbo is bigger than an Auditorium but similarly proportioned, and is generally designed to provide a deep tone similar to a dreadnought's. It was designed by Gibson to compete with the dreadnought, but with maximum resonant space for greater volume and sustain. The foremost example of the style is the Gibson J-200, but like the dreadnought, most guitar manufacturers have at least one jumbo model.

Playing techniques

The acoustic guitar is played in a variety of different genres and musical styles, with each featuring different playing techniques. Some of the most commonly used techniques are:


Strumming involves a rhythmic upward and downward motion of the picking hand (right if playing a right-handed guitar; left if playing a left-handed guitar) across the strings, while the opposite ("fretting") hand is in chord formation. This can be done with or without a guitar pick, depending on if the guitarist wants a crisp or more dull and blended sound, respectively. There are many common strumming patterns, which are played based on the specific time signature of a given song. [18] Simple on-beat strumming is typically the first and least complex technique that guitarists learn. Guitarists can also alternate patterns or emphasize strums on specific beats to add rhythm, character, and unique style to a song. [19] An example of a song featuring the strum technique is "Free Fallin'" by Tom Petty, where you hear full open chord strums.


Fingerstyle, also known as fingerpicking, involves a patterned plucking of the strings with the picking hand. This technique focuses on playing specific notes in a melodic pattern, rather than full chord strums. Guitarists use their thumb, index, middle, and ring fingers, which are notated as "p" (as in pulgar), "i" (as in indice), "m" (as in medio), and "a" (as in anular), respectively, based on the Spanish language. [20] This "PIMA" acronym in sheet music or tabs tells guitarists which picking hand finger to pluck a string with in a given picking pattern. [21] When strings are plucked downward, this technique produces a clear and articulate sound that adds movement and melody to a song. A variation of fingerstyle is "percussive fingerstyle," where guitarists combine traditional fingerstyle with rhythmic taps or hits on the body of the guitar to imitate a percussion sound. [22] An example of a song featuring the fingerstyle technique is "Landslide" by Fleetwood Mac, where you hear plucked moving notes rather than full strums.


Slide guitar is a common technique that can be played on acoustic, steel acoustic, and/or electric guitars. It is primarily used in the blues, rock, and country genres. [23] When playing with this technique, guitarists wear a small metal, glass, or plastic tube on one of their fretting hand fingers and slide it across the fretboard rather than pressing firmly on singular frets. [24] The picking hand either strums or plucks as normal. This produces a smooth and blended transition between notes and chords, called glissando. [25] An example of a song featuring the slide technique is "For Emma, Forever Ago" by Bon Iver, where you can hear a seamless sliding melody over the song.

See also

Related Research Articles

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Steel-string acoustic guitar</span> Musical instrument

The steel-string acoustic guitar is a modern form of guitar that descends from the gut-strung Romantic guitar, but is strung with steel strings for a brighter, louder sound. Like the modern classical guitar, it is often referred to simply as an acoustic guitar, or sometimes as a folk guitar.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Classical guitar</span> Member of the guitar family used in classical music

The classical guitar, also called Spanish guitar, is a member of the guitar family used in classical music and other styles. An acoustic wooden string instrument with strings made of gut or nylon, it is a precursor of the modern steel-string acoustic and electric guitars, both of which use metal strings. Classical guitars derive from the Spanish vihuela and gittern of the 15th and 16th century. Those instruments evolved into the 17th and 18th-century baroque guitar—and by the mid-19th century, early forms of the modern classical guitar. Today's modern classical guitar was established by the late designs of the 19th-century Spanish luthier, Antonio Torres Jurado.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Electric guitar</span> Electrical string musical instrument

An electric guitar is a guitar that requires external amplification in order to be heard at typical performance volumes, unlike a standard acoustic guitar. It uses one or more pickups to convert the vibration of its strings into electrical signals, which ultimately are reproduced as sound by loudspeakers. The sound is sometimes shaped or electronically altered to achieve different timbres or tonal qualities from that of an acoustic guitar via amplifier settings or knobs on the guitar. Often, this is done through the use of effects such as reverb, distortion and "overdrive"; the latter is considered to be a key element of electric blues guitar music and jazz, rock and heavy-metal guitar-playing. Designs also exist combining attributes of the electric and acoustic guitars: the semi-acoustic and acoustic-electric guitars.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Guitar</span> Fretted string instrument

The guitar is a stringed musical instrument, that is usually fretted and typically has six or twelve strings. It is usually held flat against the player's body and played by strumming or plucking the strings with the dominant hand, while simultaneously pressing selected strings against frets with the fingers of the opposite hand. A guitar pick may also be used to strike the strings. The sound of the guitar is projected either acoustically, by means of a resonant hollow chamber on the guitar, or amplified by an electronic pickup and an amplifier.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">String instrument</span> Class of musical instruments with vibrating strings

In musical instrument classification, string instruments or chordophones, are musical instruments that produce sound from vibrating strings when a performer plays or sounds the strings in some manner.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Sound board (music)</span> Musical instrument part

A sound board, or soundboard, is the surface of a string instrument that the strings vibrate against, usually via some sort of bridge. Pianos, guitars, banjos, and many other stringed instruments incorporate soundboards. The resonant properties of the sound board and the interior of the instrument greatly increase the loudness of the vibrating strings. "The soundboard is probably the most important element of a guitar in terms of its influence on the quality of the instrument's tone [timbre]."

When the [guitar] top vibrates, it generates sound waves, much like a loudspeaker. As the soundboard moves forward, the air that is in front of it is compressed and it moves away from the guitar. As the soundboard moves back, the pressure on the air in front of the guitar is reduced. This is called a "rarefaction," and air rushes in to fill the rarefied region. Through this process, an alternating series of compression and rarefaction pulses travel away from the soundboard, creating sound waves.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Jazz bass</span> Use of the double bass or electric bass guitar as a jazz instrument

Jazz bass is the use of the double bass or electric bass guitar to improvise accompaniment ("comping") basslines and solos in a jazz or jazz fusion style. Players began using the double bass in jazz in the 1890s to supply the low-pitched walking basslines that outlined the chord progressions of the songs. From the 1920s and 1930s Swing and big band era, through 1940s Bebop and 1950s Hard Bop, to the 1960s-era "free jazz" movement, the resonant, woody sound of the double bass anchored everything from small jazz combos to large jazz big bands.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Fingerstyle guitar</span> Playing technique

Fingerstyle guitar is the technique of playing the guitar or bass guitar by plucking the strings directly with the fingertips, fingernails, or picks attached to fingers, as opposed to flatpicking. The term "fingerstyle" is something of a misnomer, since it is present in several different genres and styles of music—but mostly, because it involves a completely different technique, not just a "style" of playing, especially for the guitarist's picking/plucking hand. The term is often used synonymously with fingerpicking except in classical guitar circles, although fingerpicking can also refer to a specific tradition of folk, blues and country guitar playing in the US. The terms "fingerstyle" and "fingerpicking" are also applied to similar string instruments such as the banjo.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Strum</span>

In music, strumming is a way of playing a stringed instrument such as a guitar, ukulele, or mandolin. A strum or stroke is a sweeping action where a finger or plectrum brushes over several strings to generate sound. On most stringed instruments, strums are typically executed by a musician's designated strum hand, while the remaining hand often supports the strum hand by altering the tones and pitches of any given strum.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Electric upright bass</span>

The electric upright bass (EUB) is an instrument that can perform the musical function of a double bass. It requires only a minimal or 'skeleton' body to produce sound because it uses a pickup and electronic amplifier and loudspeaker. Therefore, a large resonating structure is not required to project the sound into the air. This minimal body greatly reduces the bulk and weight of the instrument. EUBs must always be connected to an amplifier and speaker cabinet to produce an adequate audible sound. The EUB retains enough of the features of the double bass so that double bass players are able to perform on it.

<i>Yueqin</i> Traditional Chinese string instrument

The yueqin, also called a moon lute or moon guitar, is a traditional Chinese string instrument. It is a lute with a round, hollow soundboard, a short fretted neck, and usually four strings. It is an important instrument in the Peking opera orchestra, often taking the role of main melodic instrument in lieu of the bowed string section.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Citole</span> Medieval lute

The citole was a string musical instrument, closely associated with the medieval fiddles and commonly used from 1200–1350. It was known by other names in various languages: cedra, cetera, cetola, cetula, cistola, citola, citula, citera, chytara, cistole, cithar, cuitole, cythera, cythol, cytiole, cytolys, gytolle, sitole, sytholle, sytole, and zitol. Like the modern guitar, it was manipulated at the neck to get different notes, and picked or strummed with a plectrum. Although it was largely out of use by the late 14th century, the Italians "re-introduced it in modified form" in the 16th century as the cetra, and it may have influenced the development of the guitar as well. It was also a pioneering instrument in England, introducing the populace to necked, plucked instruments, giving people the concepts needed to quickly switch to the newly arriving lutes and gitterns. Two possible descendant instruments are the Portuguese guitar and the Corsican Cetera, both types of cittern.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Outline of guitars</span> Overview of and topical guide to guitars

The following outline is provided as an overview of and topical guide to guitars:

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Plucked string instrument</span> Subcategory of string instruments

Plucked string instruments are a subcategory of string instruments that are played by plucking the strings. Plucking is a way of pulling and releasing the string in such a way as to give it an impulse that causes the string to vibrate. Plucking can be done with either a finger or a plectrum.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Mexican vihuela</span> Mexican string instrument

The Mexican vihuela is a guitar-like string instrument from 19th-century Mexico with five strings and typically played in mariachi groups.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">3rd bridge</span> A guitar where the bridge extends beyond its usual stop

The 3rd bridge is an extended playing technique used on the electric guitar and other string instruments that allows a musician to produce distinctive timbres and overtones that are unavailable on a conventional string instrument with two bridges. The timbre created with this technique is close to that of gamelan instruments like the bonang and similar Indonesian types of pitched gongs.

A third bridge can be devised by inserting a rigid preparation object between the strings and the body or neck of the instrument, effectively dividing the string into distinct vibrating segments.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Guitar picking</span> Guitar playing technique

Guitar picking is a group of hand and finger techniques a guitarist uses to set guitar strings in motion to produce audible notes. These techniques involve plucking, strumming, brushing, etc. Picking can be done with:

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Bridge (instrument)</span> Part of a stringed instrument

A bridge is a device that supports the strings on a stringed musical instrument and transmits the vibration of those strings to another structural component of the instrument—typically a soundboard, such as the top of a guitar or violin—which transfers the sound to the surrounding air. Depending on the instrument, the bridge may be made of carved wood, metal or other materials. The bridge supports the strings and holds them over the body of the instrument under tension.

Classical electric guitars, also known as nylon-string electric guitars, represent a unique fusion of traditional classical guitar design and modern electric guitar technology. These instruments combine the rich and warm tonal qualities of nylon-stringed classical guitars with the versatility and amplified sound capabilities of electric guitars. By integrating nylon strings with onboard electronics, pickups, and preamp systems, classical electric guitars offer musicians a wide range of sonic possibilities for various musical genres and performance settings.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Lichty Guitars</span>

Lichty Guitars is an American company based in Tryon, North Carolina, that has been making custom acoustic guitars and ukuleles since 2009. It was founded by musician Jay Lichty.


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Further reading