Before the industrial revolution, acoustic guitars were strung with gut strings. In that same tradition, classical and flamenco guitars use nylon strings today, and are most commonly fingerpicked. Typically used for classical music, as well as Latin styles, nylon strings provide a warm, gentle sound, and beginners gravitate toward them because they are easier on the fingers.
Around the turn of the century, C.F. Martin & Co. began building guitars with steel strings. The structure of the instrument changed dramatically in order to withstand the added tension against the neck and body. The result is a much louder, brighter instrument that can be played either with a pick or with fingers.
Along with the strings, the type of tone woods that a guitar is made from has a huge impact on sound. Often the top, which is responsible for transferring the string energy into audible sound, is made from spruce, yielding a loud, sustaining sound with an even tone. Another common material is cedar, which has a warmer tone and less volume.
The back and sides of a guitar also play a role in the tone, volume, and looks of a guitar. Here, the two most common materials are mahogany, which gives a bright, snappy sound, and rosewood, which has a lot of bass but also top-end sparkle. Other woods used include koa, ovangkol, sapele, and maple. Some acoustic guitars aren’t made of wood at all–builders are experimenting with synthetic materials like carbon fiber and fiberglass and getting excellent results.
Guitars come in a wide variety of shapes and sizes. Most builders go by the classification system used by Martin, with the most common size being a dreadnought, which is a large-bodied, deep sounding guitar with a lot of volume and sustain. Jumbo’s are larger and very loud, with even more bass response. Smaller-bodied guitars include O, OOO, concert, and auditorium size.
Many builders offer cutaway guitars, where a lower part of the body is removed to allow easy access to higher frets. While the loss of wood extends the instrument’s range, there is a slight reduction in tone and volume.
When choosing a guitar, try to find one where the tone woods are made from one piece, as opposed to being laminates, which don’t sound as good, and are typically less durable. Also, it’s always better to try before you buy, and keep in mind that no two instruments sound alike. When you find one that sounds good, don’t count on another of the same model to be the same. Bringing along a trusted guitar playing friend to help you assess the sound and playability of an instrument is a great idea, too. Beyond that, take your time, play as many guitars as you can stand, and trust your ears and hands to choose the best instrument for you!
Which is for me?
Small body steel strings
Small body acoustics come in a variety of shapes and sizes, as defined by C.F. Martin & Co. Some common small body sizes, from smallest to largest, are O, OO (pronounced “double-oh”), OOO, and OM (orchestra model). You might also see auditorium and concert-size guitars. While these classifications are almost universal, keep in mind that the actual dimensions used by the builders are not standard, and do vary from brand to brand.
Try This: Sheppard Madrigal Grand Concert
Dreadnought & Jumbo
When someone says “acoustic guitar,” most people think of a dreadnought. They have big bodies and produce punchy mids and bass frequencies with lots of sustain. Dreadnoughts are favored by country and bluegrass musicians. A jumbo is even larger, with a large, curvy body and plenty of bass and volume.
Try This: Ayers D-02 Dreadnought
Flamenco & Classical
These instruments have a body size and shape all their own, with flamencos being somewhat smaller and lighter in construction. The nylon strings produce a rounder, more bell-like sound, and are meant to be picked with fingers. If you’re considering classical guitar or Latin music, a nylon string is for you. Also, nylon string guitars are great for beginners because they don’t hurt your fingers as much as steel strings.
Try This: Cordoba C9-SP Classical
This article is from our March-April 2011 issue. Click to order!