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When you think of 'music', it's hard not to think of the acoustic guitar. It has dominated Western music for generations and has been used by all types of musicians, from icons and legends like Bob Dylan all the way to the busker on your local street corner.
If you're just starting your journey into learning the acoustic guitar, or if you're simply curious about this great instrument, you'll enjoy this guide. We'll first take a look at a brief history of the acoustic guitar and how it came to be. Next, we'll look at the different types of acoustic guitars available to us today. Finally, we'll take a deep dive into the parts of the acoustic guitar. We'll examine the instrument from top to bottom so that we understand the whole picture. When it comes time to buy your own guitar and learn how to play, you'll be glad you spent some time upfront to really understand the details of this beautiful instrument. Let's get started!
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The acoustic guitar has existed in various forms for thousands of years. Depictions of guitar-like instruments have been found in the caves of Turkey and ancient Babylonia dating back over 3000 years ago! The acoustic guitar traces its roots primarily through the fretless Middle Eastern oud. The Europeans added frets to the oud and created the lute. These instruments share two major important characteristics with modern acoustic guitars: a row of strummable strings that create sounds and a hollow chamber to project and amplify noise. You can still hear the lute and oud in European and Middle Eastern folk music today.
From the Middle Ages to the Renaissance, the evolution of the lute led to quite a few guitar-like instruments with 3, 4, or 5 'courses' (pairs) of strings. The most important of these was the vihuela, which most closely resembled the modern guitar in shape and function. The vihuela had 6 courses and, instead of a rounded back like the lute and oud, it had a flat-back. It unfortunately never gained widespread popularity and the vihuela eventually was replaced with the 5-course baroque guitar. A slender instrument, it bears striking resemblance to present-day acoustics guitars. As the years went on, courses became single strings, and a 6th string was added to the guitar.
The modern acoustic guitar was created by a Spaniard named Antonio de Torres Jurado. He solidified the design and shape of the instrument. Nearly all current designs of acoustic guitars are derivatives of his work.
Where does the name 'guitar' come from? The modern 'guitar' comes from the Spanish 'guitarra'. The Spanish 'guitarra' has its roots in the Sanskrit word 'tar', meaning 'string'.
Just like you and me, the acoustic guitar has a head, neck, and body. Let's take a look at each of these sections of the guitar, starting from the head and working our way down.
The head (or 'headstock') is one of two points on the acoustic guitar where the strings are attached. Headstocks can come in many different shapes and can either be flat or angled. On the head, you'll find tuners. Tuners are what you use to adjust the tension (and, as a result, tuning) of each individual guitar string. On classical guitars, you'll usually find 'open' style tuners in which the gear is exposed, while on most steel string guitars the tuners are closed, where the internal gear is enclosed in a metal casing.
The neck of the guitar projects outward from the body of the guitar. At the very top of the neck is the nut. The nut supports the strings and affects the tonality of the guitar. Generally, the nut is cut to the proper specifications at the factory, so you'll never need to mess around with it yourself. The nut can be made of bone, plastic, and other more exotic materials.
The neck also holds the guitar's fretboard (sometimes called 'fingerboard'). Embedded in the fretboard are strips of wire called frets. When you press down on a string between two frets and pick that string, you produce a pitch. Play a few of these and you'll start creating music! Colloquially, we also refer to the space between two fret wires as a 'fret.' The first fret of the guitar is between the nut and the first strip of fret wire. The second is between the first fret wire and second fret wire, and so on. Frets are usually stainless steel and can vary in size between guitars. Between certain frets are fret markers. Fret markers help you to orient yourself when you're playing. Fret markers are usually placed on the 3rd, 5th, 7th, 9th, 12th, 15th, 17th, and 19th frets of the acoustic guitar.
The body of the acoustic guitar is the heart of its tone. The guitar body itself vibrates along with the strings. These vibrations are amplified and emitted through the sound hole of the guitar. Different woods behave differently in response to string vibrations, which is why a guitar made of spruce won't sound the same as a guitar made of mahogany. The shape of the guitar's body will also affect its tone, such as it's bass response and loudness. We'll talk more about the different acoustic guitar shapes later in the article.
To keep the body of the guitar in good shape, there's a pickguard placed at the bottom of the sound hole. It helps protect the guitar so you don't scratch up the body of the guitar while playing.
The bridge is the last major component of the acoustic guitar. It's where the strings anchor to the body of the guitar. A vibrating string on its own does little to create sound. The job of the bridge is to transfer the vibration of the strings to the body of the guitar, where its sound can be amplified by the natural acoustic properties of the wood. The strings are held in place by string pins (or 'bridge pins'). These pins keep each string secure and taut.
Before attaching to the body of the guitar, the strings are guided through the saddle. The saddle is a piece of bone or plastic that is embedded into the bridge. It's the first major contact point that transfers the vibration of the strings to the body of the guitar. It also affects the playability of the guitar in a major way. The saddle determines the action of the guitar - how high the strings are from the fretboard. Some players enjoy low action for fast playing and solos. Others enjoy a medium action. Depending on how low the action is set, you might hear buzzing when you play. Buzzing usually means you need to adjust your saddles. Too high of an action and your guitar becomes difficult to play. Generally, with acoustic guitars, it's tough to adjust the saddle yourself, so if you're unhappy with it, you'll want to take your guitar into your local guitar shop for a setup.
The steel-string acoustic guitar is the most common type of acoustic guitar you will come across. They are very versatile instruments, great for all styles of music and can be strummed or fingerpicked equally well. Steel string acoustics, as the name suggests, are strung with strings made of steel, which lends the instrument a bright and present tone with good sustain and attack. This makes steel strings popular for all types of music from jazz to pop to folk and beyond.
Nylon string guitars are, like the name suggests, strung with thick nylon strings. These types of acoustic guitars are sometimes called 'classical guitars' due to their prevalence in Spanish, classical, and Flamenco music. Nylon strings are much easier on the hands than steel strings thanks to their reduced string tension, which makes fretting and bending notes quite easy. Nylon also has gives the instrument a warmer, bassier sound compared to the brightness of steel.
You can identify these types of guitars at a distance by looking at the the headstock of the guitar. If the tuners are open-slotted instead of pegs, then you're looking at a nylon string guitar. Nylon string guitars generally have a wider fretboard, which accommodates finger picking. They also tend to be slimmer than their steel-strung counterparts.
You might have noticed that acoustic guitars come in a few different body shapes. Some are large and rounded, while others are trim and narrow. The shape of the guitar affects its tone considerably. Smaller acoustics emphasize mid-range and higher frequencies. They also aren't as loud as their larger counterparts, which tend to emphasize more of the bass frequencies. You might also notice that some shapes have cutaways - indentations in the guitar that make it easier to access the upper frets.
You'll notice that there are quite a few different types of acoustic guitars shown in the image above. The basic idea is the same: a larger body means more bass and more volume. Of these different acoustic guitar body shapes, let's look at the 3 most common below, starting with the largest and working our way down.
The aptly-named 'jumbo' guitar is the largest size of guitar you can find. Thanks to its size, the jumbo acoustic guitar can get very loud and boasts very good bass response. This makes it very popular for players who mostly play with a strumming style.
The most common acoustic guitar shape, the dreadnought is a great choice for adult beginners. The dreadnought was named after a type of British battleship due to its large size. It has powerful bass response and can get pretty loud if you play hard. The dreadnought sounds very full and is popular among singers who use it as accompaniment to their voice.
The smallest of the acoustic guitars, the parlor's compactness is great for guitarists who primarily play fingerpicking styles. It's tone is not as full as larger guitars, focusing more on the upper frequencies. The parlor is a good body shape for smaller-framed guitarists who might not be able to physically handle a larger dreadnought or jumbo sized guitar.
We've covered a lot in this article! Let's recap. We learned a little about the origins and evolution of the acoustic guitar - from its humble beginnings to its modern incarnations. Next, we saw what makes the acoustic guitar an acoustic guitar, learning about each part and its purpose. Finally, we looked at the different types of acoustic guitars and the different body shapes and how they affect your tone.