We’re willing to bet that you’ve seen an acoustic guitar sitting in quite a few living rooms you’ve visited. While some acoustic guitars will set you back thousands of dollars, many others can be had for under $100. On top of that, it’s a surprisingly welcoming instrument. Even many of the more musically challenged folks out there have managed to learn a few guitar chords.
Although the acoustic guitar is ubiquitous, the instrument also has a rich history full of twists and turns that you’d never expect. Let’s explore the humble beginnings of the acoustic guitar and how the simple yet complex instrument has evolved over the years.
What is an Acoustic Guitar?
Acoustic guitars are hollow-bodied string instruments that rely on resonance to produce sound. When you pluck a string or strum a chord, the vibration of the strings is amplified by the top of the guitar and through the soundhole.
Here’s a quick review of the individual components of an acoustic guitar.
- Headstock: This is where the tuning pegs of the guitar are installed. Headstocks are often found as solid pieces of wood, but some players prefer a slotted style headstock.
- Neck: The neck is the base of the fingerboard, where you place your fingers to perform chords or play individual notes.
- Fretboard: Fretboards are thin, long strips of wood that are installed to the front of the neck. Your strings run over the fretboard and are typically made of materials such as rosewood, maple, or ebony. You’ll often find ebony fretboards on less expensive acoustic guitars.
- Body: Guitarists use the term “body” to describe all the components that produce sound, including the soundboard (top), the back, and the saddle. Guitarists often obsess over the materials their body is made of. Less expensive guitars might have a laminate wood body, while more expensive instruments will be made of birch, maple, or koa.
- Nut: The nut is a small piece of plastic or other soft material that’s installed next to the headstock. Your acoustic guitar’s nut ensures that each string is separated by the correct distance and determines the height (or action) of each string. Typically, guitarists prefer a lower action, which allows them to fret each string properly without needing to exert too much pressure.
- Bridge: The bridge is a small piece of wood or synthetic material that’s mounted to the body of the guitar. Your bridge allows you to connect your guitar strings to the instrument. Much like the other parts of your acoustic guitar, less expensive guitars will use materials such as ebony. On more expensive guitars, you’ll find rosewoods or birch bridges.
Obviously, there’s a lot going on here. But who came up with this madness? And how long has this instrument existed? The answers to these questions are far more interesting than you’d expect.
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Who Invented the Acoustic Guitar?
According to Yamaha Music (and confirmed by several other sources on the internet), the first examples of steel-stringed acoustic guitars were invented by Christian Frederick Martin.
Martin was a German immigrant to the United States who noticed how difficult it was for a musician to switch between a banjo and a more “traditional” guitar. The culprit? Banjos used steel strings, while acoustic guitars of the time used strings made of sheep intestines.
This is how we ended up with the acoustic guitars that we know today. But when did the world see the first example of any acoustic guitar? That’s a little trickier to unpack.
When Was the Acoustic Guitar Invented?
To understand the origins and evolution of the acoustic guitar, let’s take a time machine back to roughly 3,500 years ago. Marty at The Acoustic Guitarist explains that the first stringed instrument that resembles today’s acoustic guitars had just three strings and was owned by an Egyptian musician named Har-Mose.
In 1776, an Italian Luthier named Gaetano Vinaccia invented what most people consider the first “real” guitar. In 1850, Antonio Torres Jurado increased the surface area and reduced the thickness of Vinaccia’s guitar. These dimensions, coupled with a unique bracing system, are still considered standard today.
The Difference Between Acoustic and Electric Guitars
One of the appeals of learning how to play the acoustic guitar is that your skills also translate to electric guitars. Know how to play a G major scale on an acoustic guitar? You also know how to play that scale on an electric counterpart. Neat, right?
While there are plenty of similarities between acoustic and electric guitars, there are also a handful of subtle but important differences to be aware of. Here are just a few that you should know about.
Acoustic Guitars Have Larger Bodies Than Electric Guitars
We reviewed just a handful of the most important components of an acoustic guitar. What does that add up to? In some cases, a very large instrument. Beginner guitarists are often surprised by how bulky an acoustic guitar is, especially when they hold the instrument for the first time.
On the other hand, most electric guitars are solid-bodied instruments that are very thin. Because they require external electronics and amplification to be heard by an audience, they don’t require components such as a sound hole that require acoustic guitars to be larger.
Acoustic Guitars Don’t Require External Amplification
While we’re on the topic of external amplification, we have good news for folks on a budget: Acoustic guitars don’t require them.
Sure, touring musicians often use acoustic-electric guitars or guitar pickups to amplify their instruments. But if you’re just getting started, these tools are far from necessary. All you need to make your acoustic guitar loud enough for a crowd is a guitar pick, a song you want to play, and a willing audience in a small room.
Acoustic Guitars Have Fewer Customization Options Than Electric Guitars
Musicians with unlimited budgets tinker with their instruments until they’re blue in the face. They’ll swap out a nut made of plastic for one made of bone. They’ll try endless combinations of strings. But at the end of the day, there’s really only one sound you can get from an acoustic guitar. Sure, that sound is nicer on some acoustic guitars than it is on others. But aside from a little reverb or echo, there isn’t much you can do to dramatically alter the tone of your instrument.
That is, unless you want something that’s totally unpleasant to listen to. I once plugged an acoustic guitar into an electric guitar’s distortion pedal. It was terrible, and everyone who heard it thought I was insane.
On the other hand, electric guitars are very flexible. Guitarists use elaborate pedal boards to dial in the right amount of distortion, echo, and reverb—and once they get it right, those effects can make even the cheapest guitars sound incredible.
Acoustic Guitars Can Be More Difficult For Beginners to Learn On
We’ve alluded to this in several parts of this guide, but let’s dig into why many people agree that acoustic guitars are more difficult for beginners to learn on. Before we do that, we should pause to say that acoustic guitars are not impossible for aspiring guitarists to play. There are just a few nuances that make them a bit more unwieldy in the early days.
Let’s start by talking about the strings. Acoustic guitars use heavier strings that are made of bronze and brass. You’ll often hear musicians say that guitarists have unbelievable calluses on their fingertips, and that’s because they’ve built finger strength on more abrasive acoustic guitar strings. Electric guitars, on the other hand, use thinner nylon strings that guitarists of all levels find more comfortable to play.
Acoustic guitars are also larger instruments to hold. Not only are the bodies larger than their electric counterparts, but the necks on acoustic guitars can be fairly thick, which can make it difficult for newer players with smaller hands to fret chords or reach certain notes in a scale.
Ready to Strum?
It’s probably not a stretch to say that acoustic guitars will be an essential musical instrument until the end of time. And while they’re quite affordable, easy(ish) to learn, and fun to play, knowing the history of the instrument should make you appreciate it on a new level.
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