There comes a time in the life of a guitarist when you want to get your hands on an acoustic. Maybe you’re looking to hone your skills, or just driven by curiosity. Either way, you want the next piece of gear you buy to be a best acoustic guitar for the money.
That’s great, but what type of guitar are you planning to get? Acoustics come in two forms: the traditional acoustic guitar, and the relatively-modern best acoustic electric guitar. Let’s look at each of them in detail to help you choose the right one for your strumming needs.
Deconstructing the Acoustic Guitar
It’s the grandfather of the pack; the guitar that gave birth to all the types of guitars we have today. The acoustic guitar oozes so much pedigree that it’ll fit into any context, be it a punk rock anthem or classical concerto. And while it was once thought that its younger siblings — specifically the electric — could drive it to oblivion, acoustics remain as popular as ever. This is mostly because only they can offer the guitar sound in its purest form; crisp, clear, and unadulterated by electronic wizardry.
A standard acoustic is comprised of a set of strings that vibrate above a hollow chamber on the main body. These vibrations are picked up by the body’s top side and transmitted into the chamber (now you know where the word ‘pickup comes from). Once they’re inside, the air enclosed by the guitar’s body also begins to vibrate, magnifying the sound. And that’s how acoustics are able to produce audible sound without external amplification.
What’s important to note is that all these vibrations (on the strings, air and top side) occur at different frequencies. The result is that some overtones are amplified more strongly than others, influencing the guitar’s projection. However, it’s the body’s top side (AKA soundboard) that holds the biggest influence over the guitar’s voice. On one hand, its large surface area is able to capture more energy from the vibrations than the strings would by themselves. It also offers an efficient route for the sound getting into the chamber (you’ll recall that solids are better at transmitting sound than air).
Now it’s easy to understand why woods are of such significance when it comes to acoustic guitars. An ax can sound bright, dark, full, or thin depending on what woods were used for its body, neck and fretboard. Also, woods lacks the homogeneity of, say, metal or plastic; it’s possible for two samples of the same species to sound differently, depending on where they were derived. And that’s before you bring in the solid vs laminate debate!
The Acoustic-Electric Guitar in Detail
Acoustic-electric, or electric-acoustic guitars (or sometimes called the electro acoustic) ; it doesn’t matter what you call them. Both terms refer to the same thing, which is an acoustic guitar equipped with a pickup system. This works pretty much like a microphone, capturing the instrument’s sound and sending it into an amplifier and loudspeaker in that order. It’s worth noting that guitar pickups are actually designed to capture vibrations, rather than sound. However, guitars with nylon strings have their pickups paired with built-in mics — standard pickups only work with metal strings. Whatever the case, electric-acoustics need a preamp to amplify the captured signal before it’s sent elsewhere. This preamp is usually powered by an inbuilt battery, and manufacturers take advantage of this to provide onboard tonal controls and EQ.
Now, before proceeding any further, it’s important to clarify that semi-acoustic guitars don’t fall within the acoustic electric family. Both make use of onboard pickup systems, but semi-acoustics are quality electric guitars through and through. They just have hollow bodies to give them certain acoustic sound properties.
Comparing the Acoustic vs Acoustic Electric Guitar
Time to stack the two side by side and see how they compare. Let’s start with the similarities; there are certain aspects that both acoustic axes and their electric-acoustic counterparts have in common. These include:
- Construction and materials: As we’ve already seen, an electric-acoustic guitar is nothing more an acoustic ax that’s been fitted with a pickup system, either by the manufacturer or player (yes, you too have that option). In the former case, you’ll often find acoustics and electric-acoustics that are variants of the same model, featuring the same exact design and body materials.
- Strings: While electric guitars require special strings, acoustics and electric-acoustics have no problem sharing — they can be strung with identical sets with no problems whatsoever.
- The ability to play unplugged: Much like a regular acoustic, an electric-acoustic guitar can be played without plugging into an amp and still be heard.
- Cost: Digits may vary here and there, but acoustics and acoustic-electrics are usually priced in the same bracket. Do keep in mind that pricing varies with features, quality, and so on.
Now let’s delve into the differences:
- Amplification: Or, rather, the ability to plug into an amp or effects chain; this is only possible with acoustic-electric axes.
- Cutaway: Modern electric-acoustics are beginning to depart from their traditional cousins with cutaway bodies. For all the playability it offers, a cutaway body changes the character of a guitar’s sound, reducing volume and resonance. But the difference only becomes evident when you play unplugged.
- Size: To continue on the above point, size isn’t as big a concern with electric-acoustics as it is with standard acoustic guitars. And the reason is simple; the former needn’t be huge to be loud.
- Portability: Acoustics take the prize here — there’s no need to lug around extra gear when you want to travel with your guitar. With an acoustic-electric, you’ll have to find room for guitar patch cables and amplifiers in your case. Not to forget your effects chain if you’ll want to use it.
It’s hard to discount the charm of a traditional acoustic; a guitar that’s designed to sing entirely with its own body. A guitar you can trust to sound great every time with no need to tweak your effects chain. And being devoid of electronic components, an acoustic guitar is less delicate than its electric-acoustic cousin.
However, there will probably be a time when you want to amplify your sound for a live performance — an electric-acoustic seems like a more prudent choice in that case. It gives you most of the qualities of a standard acoustic, but with the added versatility of having an in-built pickup for amplification.
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