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Looking to learn how to play the guitar? One of the first questions you’ll need to ask yourself is what kind of guitar you should get. And that’s harder than it sounds—there are lots of options! Here, we’ll go over 15 different types of guitars, what makes them unique, what they’re best used for, and what’s different about playing them.
And if you already play acoustic or electric guitar but are looking to grow your skill set (and guitar collection), you’ll have no trouble picking up most of the options we’ll cover. You’ll love their unique construction, playability, and distinctive sound.
Acoustic Guitar Types
Acoustic guitars are the oldest type of guitars—their predecessors have been around for thousands of years. They don’t need an amplifier, since the vibrations of the strings resonate inside the hollow body of the guitar and sound comes out through the sound hole. This makes them a great option for playing on the go.
1. Steel String Acoustic Guitar
When most people think of an acoustic guitar, they think of a steel string one. It’s a 6-string instrument with strings made from steel alloys (steel mixed with other metals), which gives it a bright, crisp, and clean sound. This is the guitar you’ll most often hear in country, folk, rock, pop, and other mainstream genres.
Though all steel string acoustic guitars function in the same way, there are quite a few varieties. They differ in the type of wood they’re made from, their size, and body shape, all of which affect the sound they produce and how comfortable they are to play.
Here are the three most common body types of steel string acoustic guitars:
Parlor guitars are generally smaller in size than other types, which makes them a perfect choice for beginners, young players, and musicians who travel a lot. They have a clean, balanced tone and great responsiveness, which lends itself well to fingerpicking.
Dreadnought guitars are the most common body type. They produce more volume and a fuller sound than parlor guitars, and they’re a great choice for players who use picks, do a lot of strumming, and accompany singers.
Jumbo guitars have a larger body but a tighter waist than dreadnought guitars. They’re not very responsive, so they’re primarily used for strumming and filling out the rhythm section in an ensemble.
2. Classical Guitar
The classical guitar is a precursor to its steel string counterpart, but it’s still widely played today, especially in classical music, jazz, and bossa nova.
In the past, strings were traditionally made from animal guts, but today’s classical guitars have nylon strings. Unlike steel strings, nylon strings are easier to fret and are less painful for the fingers, which is why the classical guitar is a great choice for beginners.
Nylon strings produce a soft, mellow sound. They’re very responsive but don’t produce the same level of sustain that steel strings do. For this reason, the classical guitar is primarily fingerpicked and almost never strummed. Its fretboard is wide enough for the player’s fingers to move around quickly without touching other strings.
The other key difference between classical and steel string guitars is in how they’re played. Steel string guitar players rest the guitar on their right knee when sitting or use a strap to hold the guitar while standing. Classical guitar players, on the other hand, rest their left foot on a footstool and place the instrument on their left knee, so that the neck of the guitar points up at a 45-degree angle.
Steel string guitar players use their fingers or picks to pluck the strings, while classical guitar players use their fingers or fingernails. Many classical guitarists take great care to grow and maintain strong nails, which is what helps them produce a brighter sound and more volume.
3. Flamenco Guitar
The flamenco guitar is another nylon string acoustic guitar and a close cousin of the classical guitar. On the surface, they can look almost identical, and many people use the two terms interchangeably. However, there are a few key differences between the classical and the flamenco guitar.
The differences stem from the fact that flamenco is a very distinct genre of music. For one, flamenco players tend to tap their fingers on the surface of the guitar to create percussive sounds, which is why you’ll often see a protective plate around the instrument’s sound hole.
They also move their fingers very quickly on the fretboard. To make this easier, the strings are set quite close to the fretboard. This often produces a bit of buzzing—a sound that is unacceptable in classical music but is considered a hallmark of the flamenco genre.
Finally, flamenco guitars tend to be lighter in weight and are played in the standard position (resting on the right knee).
4. Crossover Guitar
If you’re struggling to choose between a steel string and a nylon string guitar, the crossover guitar might be the perfect option for you. It combines the best of both worlds—the warm sound of the classical guitar with the playability of a steel string acoustic guitar.
The crossover guitar has nylon strings, but is constructed and played like a steel string guitar. For example, it doesn’t have an extra-wide neck like classical guitars do.
It’s perfect for steel string players who like the sound of a classical guitar but don’t want to learn a new style of playing. It’s also perfect for beginners who would like to eventually play a steel string guitar but like the responsiveness and comfort of nylon strings.
5. Archtop Guitar
Both steel string and nylon string acoustic guitars have flat tops, meaning that if you look at them from the side, the top and back pieces of wood are completely flat and parallel to each other. Flattop guitars also have a round sound hole.
Archtop guitars, on the other hand, have a curved top (and often back, too). Instead of a round sound hole, they have two narrow holes shaped like the letter “f”—these are called f-holes.
Both the arched design and the f-holes were inspired by the violin. They give the guitar a full, balanced tone, a bit less sustain than what you’d hear from a flattop guitar, but also a bit more volume. For these reasons, archtop guitars have been a popular choice among jazz musicians.
6. Resonator Guitar
The resonator guitar was invented before the introduction of electric amplification, in an effort to make acoustic guitars louder.
While all other acoustic guitars rely on the hollow body of the guitar to amplify the sound, resonator guitars use one or more metal cones for amplification. The bridge of the guitar is attached to these cones, so that when the strings are played, their vibrations travel through the bridge and into the cones, which resonate and produce sound.
The resonator tone is bright and almost has a metallic quality to it. It is most often associated with blues, bluegrass, and country music.
There are a few different types of resonator guitars, and they vary based on the type of resonator they use (biscuit, spider, or tricone), the shape of the neck (round or square), and the material of the body (wood or metal).
Square neck resonator guitars are laid across the player’s lap and played by gliding a solid tone bar across the strings. Round neck resonators can be played like this too, or held in the traditional position, in which case the player would wear a hollow slide on the left hand and use it to glide across the strings.
Electric Guitar Types
Electric guitars were invented in the early 1930s in an effort to make guitars louder. Instead of relying on a hollow body to amplify sound, they have what’s called a “pickup”, which transforms string vibrations into electrical energy. Electric guitars need to be played with an amplifier, which further transforms this energy into sound waves.
7. Solid Body Electric Guitar
The solid body guitar is the most common type of electric guitar. As the name implies, it’s made from a solid piece of wood and doesn’t have any parts that are hollow. The body of the guitar is really just there to house the bridge, strings, pickups, and controls, so it tends to be much smaller than the body of an acoustic guitar. Electric guitars produce very little sound on their own, so they need to be plugged into an external amplifier.
Most solid body electric guitars have two to three pickups, and they’re positioned in different places (usually, closer to the neck, the bridge, or somewhere in the middle). Their placement affects the tone of the guitar—the neck pickup produces a warmer, more mellow tone, while the bridge pickup produces a fuller, brighter tone. There is a switch that allows you to toggle between pickups.
You’ll also find a few knobs on the body of the electric guitar. You can use them to adjust volume or to further control the tone by adjusting the frequencies that pass through. Some guitars also have a tremolo bar, which loosens and tightens the strings to temporarily alter their pitch and create a vibrato effect.
Finally, many electric guitar players will run the signal through an effects chain before it comes through the amplifier, adding effects like reverb, compression, and filters. It’s also common to add a volume pedal to this effects chain, so that volume can be controlled manually while playing.
8. Lap Steel Guitar
The first instrument to be electrically amplified was actually the lap steel guitar. This guitar is laid across the player’s lap and played with a steel tone bar. This style of playing was invented in Hawaii in the late 19th century and was popularized in the United States in the 1920s.
With the instrument on the lap or hanging by a strap in a horizontal position, the player holds the tone bar in their left hand and slides it across the strings to produce a gliding sound and change pitch. With their right hand, the player uses finger picks attached to their fingers to pick individual springs.
9. Pedal Steel Guitar
Playing with a tone bar is essentially like fretting with just one finger—there’s no way to fret multiple strings at a time and create chords. This makes the lap steel guitar quite limited in its playability.
The pedal steel guitar was invented as a solution to this problem. It’s a free-standing instrument that resembles a piano keyboard on a stand. The player uses a tone bar and finger picks like they would with a lap steel, but there are other ways to change the strings’ pitch.
The pedal steel guitar has pedals and knee levers—when these are triggered, the pitches of certain strings change by 1-2 semitones. This, in combination with the gliding of the tone bar, means the player can create chords and have a lot more freedom with melodies.
Pedal steel guitars typically have 10 strings per fretboard and 1-2 fretboards per console, each one tuned to a different tuning. This gives them an even wider range and even more creative freedom for the player.
Acoustic-Electric & Semi-Acoustic Guitars
Some guitars have both a hollow body and a pickup, which means they can be played with or without an amplifier. These guitars offer the versatility of acoustic guitars but can also produce a lot of volume when needed.
10. Acoustic-Electric Guitar
An acoustic-electric guitar is simply an acoustic guitar with a built-in pickup. It can be played as an acoustic or plugged in and played like an electric guitar.
This is especially useful for guitar players who like the acoustic guitar sound but need amplification when performing. Their only alternative is placing a microphone in front of the guitar, but this option produces inconsistent results and limits how much the guitarist can move around on the stage.
You can purchase a ready-made acoustic-electric guitar, but you can also transform any acoustic guitar into an acoustic-electric by installing a pickup.
There are four types of pickups to choose from:
A magnetic pickup is similar to what you’d find on a solid body electric guitar. It’s wedged across the sound hole and sits just underneath the strings. The pickup works by creating a magnetic field and registering the vibrations of magnetically sensitive materials. Thus, this kind of pick up works well for steel strings, but not nylon ones.
An undersaddle transducer is made of thin strips of sensory material and works by registering string vibrations from the saddle of the guitar. Because there’s no magnetic field involved, it works for both steel string and nylon string guitars.
A soundboard transducer works similarly to the undersaddle one, but it’s attached to the underside of the guitar’s soundboard, right behind the bridge.
An internal microphone also senses string vibrations, but it does so from the entire space inside the guitar, rather than just the saddle or the soundboard.
It’s also not uncommon for acoustic-electric guitars to have more than one pickup—combining different types of pickups into one system helps leverage their individual strengths and produce a sound that more closely resembles the acoustic guitar’s natural tone.
11. Hollow Body Guitar
The hollow body guitar is the electric version of the archtop guitar. It has the same curved top and back, as well as the two f-holes above and below the strings. It’s still hollow on the inside, so it does produce sound on its own, but it also has built-in pickups and can be plugged into an amplifier.
Hollow body guitars have a warm, natural tone and are perfect for genres like jazz and blues. When played at high volumes or with distortion, they tend to produce a lot of feedback, which is why guitarists who play hard rock or metal usually choose solid body electric guitars over hollow body ones.
12. Semi-Hollow Guitar
The semi-hollow body guitar was invented in an effort to reduce some of the feedback that hollow body guitars produce at high volumes. This guitar is hollow above and below the strings, but has a solid piece of wood running down the middle. In this sense, it’s somewhat of a hybrid between hollow body and solid body electric guitars.
Both hollow body and semi-hollow body guitars are considered semi-acoustic.
Most of the guitars we’ve discussed so far have six strings. However, there are other types of guitars that have anywhere between four and 12 strings. They can produce frequencies beyond the standard range of a six-string guitar and are, therefore, played a little differently.
13. 12-String Guitars
The 12-string guitar is any guitar that has 12 strings. Acoustic 12-string guitars are most common, but both acoustic and electric guitars—and really, any other type of guitar we’ve seen so far—can have 12 string versions.
The 12 strings aren’t all spaced equally. Instead, they’re paired together into six courses. This means that the player frets and picks two strings at the same time.
The lower four pairs (E, A, D, and G) are tuned an octave apart, while the highest two pairs (B and E) are tuned in unison.
Playing a 12-string guitar is not much different than playing a six-string guitar, but the sound it produces is much fuller, brighter, and louder. It essentially sounds like two six-string guitars playing at the same time.
Having 12 strings creates quite a bit of tension on the instrument, so in order to alleviate it, many 12-string players tune their guitar down by one or two half steps and use a capo.
14. Extended Range Guitars
An extended range guitar is any guitar that has more than six strings. This means the guitar is trickier to play, but it opens up new notes on the fretboard and gives the player more freedom.
A popular extended range guitar is one with seven strings, but there are also guitars with eight, nine, 10, and even 11 strings.
A 12-string guitar is not technically an extended range guitar because it’s played exactly like a six-string guitar and doesn’t have any strings beyond the standard E-A-D-G-B-A tuning.
15. Bass Guitars
A bass guitar produces lower frequencies than a standard guitar and is an indispensable instrument in nearly every genre of music. In an ensemble, the bassist acts as a liaison between the drummer and other players, helping to maintain the rhythm.
Before the invention of the bass guitar, musicians used the double bass, the largest instrument in the string family. The bass guitar was invented as a smaller, more portable alternative.
The most widely used variety is a solid body electric bass guitar—it is versatile and can easily be heard over other instruments. That being said, there are also acoustic, acoustic-electric, and semi-acoustic options.
Bass guitars typically have four strings, but just like with extended range guitars, there are also five-string and six-string versions.
Playing the bass is very different from playing guitar. There’s no strumming, and you typically only play one note at a time. Great bass players move their fingers very quickly on the fretboard, so it helps to practice scales rather than learn chords like you would on a standard guitar.
Which Guitar Will You Play?
Finding the right guitar can feel like a match made in heaven—it will affect how much you enjoy playing, how often you practice, and how quickly you improve.
If you’re a complete beginner, we recommend getting your hands on an affordable steel string or classical acoustic guitar and mastering the basics. There are countless online courses that will help you get started.
Once you feel comfortable and are ready for something more, head to a music store and try out different instruments—you’ll need to feel each guitar in your hands and give it a test drive. It may take a few hours, but somewhere on those guitar racks, you’ll find your soulmate.
Over the years, your collection may even grow to include several different types of guitars, each of them perfect for different occasions and styles of music.
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