Some wood, some strings, and some skill – acoustic guitars are that simple. Yeah, right.
You can spend a fortune on a period-correct prewar Martin or Gibson made with pure finger-magic lutherie. Conversely, you could blow a couple of Gs on a machine-made carbon-fiber acoustic-electric guitar – the ones with offset sound ports, fan frets, and all sorts of futuristic shenanigans.
At some point, we all graduate from our pawnshop dreadnought and start looking for “the one”. And, as I once did, this is when you might struggle to differentiate between the subtypes to find which shape/size/design is right for you as there are so dang many of ‘em.
Clearly, even the humble acoustic guitar sits on a stream of evolution fueled by high demand, human ingenuity, and technological advancements. Whether you prefer steel or nylon strings, you ought to know the types of acoustic guitars and their corresponding tonal fingerprint.
These characteristics play a decisive role in sound and playability – the two factors that heavily bear down on our choice. This post will zip through the prevalent acoustic guitar types and explain how they look, sound, and play.
Types of Acoustic Guitars
1. Classical, Spanish, or Nylon String Guitars
“Classical guitars” refers to nylon-string guitars that include Spanish, Flamenco, Hybrid/Crossover, and Baroque guitars. This category has a rich legacy that dates back to the turn of the 15th century as a vihuela (lute-like guitars used in Spain).
However, classical guitars as we know them (and shown in the picture) draw from the designs of a Spanish luthier/guitarist, Antonio de Torres. His 19th-century design has become the springboard for the spinoffs you find in the market today.
Classical guitars are commonly used for fingerstyle playing, usually in a classical music repertoire. It’s also native to genres such as flamenco and bossa nova, but it has worked its way into the hands of jazz cats like Earl Klugh and singer-songwriters such as Jose Gonzalez.
“Spanish/Classical guitars” can be used for any guitar with nylon strings. Technically, it refers to the standard classical guitar. It has two noteworthy subtypes:
Flamenco guitars: These are classical guitars specifically used for flamenco music. They have thin soundboards, low-string action, tap plates, and an aggressive/gritty tone – elements that lend well to percussive playing native to the genre.
Additionally, there are differences in the material, construction, and design to suit the playing style for which the instrument is designed. CordobaF7 and Thomann1F are popular (and readily available) examples of the flamenco guitar.
Hybrids or Crossovers: A hybrid is a middle-ground guitar, a mix of steel string and nylon string guitar. In other words, the instrument offers the classical guitar experience with the familiar steel-string playability.
Such guitars are popular with fingerstyle guitarists, especially those who aren’t wholly committed to the classical guitar. For instance, you’d want a hybrid/crossover if you only use a nylon string guitar for a few songs in your set.
Hybrids have regular-guitar-like proportions. So, it’ll shave off the adjustment curve. Many of these are made by custom guitar makers, although they are also available commercially. The Cordoba C9 is a notable example of a hybrid.
2. The Acoustic Archtop
The acoustic archtop guitar, created by Gibson, came to the forefront in the early 20th century. These guitars get their name from the arched soundboard (top) and back. In contrast, regular acoustic guitars are called “flattops” because they have a flat top and back.
The overall build/design of an archtop borrows heavily from the Mandolin. It sports f-shaped sound holes, a floating/moveable bridge, and a rear-mounted tailpiece.
A focused sound and cutting tone is the outlining trait of the instrument. It’s one of those rare instances when a guitar is prized for its pitiful sustain. That’s because some blues and jazz players don’t care about sustain. So, what would otherwise qualify as a drawback, actually works in favor of the instrument.
For what it’s worth, the acoustic archtop is somewhat outmoded. It’s an acquired taste, mainly because it’s a one-trick pony. It endures to some extent because of a gratuitous admiration for the “vintage” look and feel. In a purely acoustic context, it’s too inglorious for most genres.
You can look to Gibson (L-7C), D’Angelico, Loar (LH-600), and Godin (Montreal) for some notable instruments. Currently, luthier-built archtop guitars (primarily electric) are in vogue. The Godin 5th Avenue Kingpin is one of the best affordable archtops in today’s market.
3. Selmer (Macaferri) Guitar
Selmer, Selmer-Macaferri, or Macaferri guitars are a famous line of French guitars that were made from 1930 to 1952. You’ve probably seen one of these if you are acquainted with the work of Django Reinhardt. Henri Selmer Paris and Mario Macaferri conceived their design. It’s closely associated with jazz and swing music, especially in the gypsy jazz or jazz manouche tradition.
These guitars have an unconventional sound hole that is either an “elongated D” or “small O”. The elongated-D guitars are called “Grande Bouche (big mouth)” whereas the small-O guitars are known as “Petite Bouche (small mouth)” models.
They typically have a square body bout and a moving bridge with mustache markers. The original Selmer-Macaferri designs are no longer in production but guitar manufacturers such as Ibanez, Godin, and Yamaha have dabbled with this style over the years.
Other brands such as Gitane, Paris Swing, and Cigano are famous for making traditional Maccaferri-style guitars. They offer models ranging from student to signature instruments in the $300 to $1000 range. For hobbyists, the Richwood RM-70L and Godin’sMultiac Gypsy Jazz guitar are a good place to start looking.
“Acoustic guitar” refers to any guitar that doesn’t need amplification. However, in the real world, this term is reserved for flattops or steel-string acoustic guitars.
Steel-string guitars are the meat and potatoes of the acoustic world. From the parlor to the jumbo to the dreadnought, they span a wide range of sizes and designs that have become synonymous with certain sounds and genres. We’ll look at their variations in more detail in the next section.
Acoustic Guitar Body Shape
I’ll preface this section with a disclaimer. The same guitar shape can have more than one name. Guitar manufacturers aren’t out to make our lives easy in this area. Each brand, big or small, is guilty of modifying the standard shape with a freshly minted name as a part of a new series.
So with this in mind, we’ll stick to the most basic designs you’re likely to encounter.
1. Dreadnought: The Jack of All Trades
Ideal for: All-round workhorse
Any guitar shape named after a British battleship created by C.F. Martin is destined for greatness. Over the decades, the dreadnought guitar has become the workhorse guitar that suits nearly all styles of music.
This flattop guitar enjoys an unmatched reputation, and for good reason. It’s a versatile instrument with a resonant voice with rich lows and low mids. From jangly strumming to nifty flatpicking, it can suit anyone from a beginner to a touring musician. It’s an in-demand guitar type and is frequently recommended for beginners.
Even so, dreads are bull-necked and stocky. They have a large/broad body with a 25.4-inch scale length – a full-sized guitar. Thus, those with small hands or stature should either avoid them or opt for a mini-dreadnought, ¾ size dreadnought, or a different shape altogether.
Dreadnoughts have a thoroughly balanced EQ response – an even tonal response that can be easily coaxed out of the guitar without too much effort. They sound lush, full, and warm while strumming, with a somewhat mid-scooped sound.
There can be many variations among models based on tonewood and other design elements. However, typically, they do an equally brilliant job with strumming, flatpicking, and fingerpicking.
Countless guitar manufacturers produce high-quality dreadnought guitars. Martin D-28, Fender CD-60S, Guild D-55, and the Gibson Hummingbird are some structurally fantastic and all-conquering examples.
Ideal for: Strumming, Flatpicking for Rock, Pop, Folk, Country, and Singer-songwriters
If you thought a dreadnought is a pinnacle in volume, you’ve never played in a folk/bluegrass band with violins, banjos, and mandolins competing with your strumming. That’s where the jumbo steps in with its bold looks and big sound.
Call it a parlor on steroids or a loud flattop. Either way, the Jumbo is the largest body shape by far. The body chamber is so large that it can move a lot of air and create serious vibrations. Plus, it has a to-die-for top-end snap!
Now that we’ve got electricity and amplification, you could compensate for the volume with other models. However, the Jumbo aficionados want an unplugged volume scale that will satiate all their campfire, rehearsal, and porch jam sessions.
Big on looks and tone, the Gibson and Guild jumbo acoustics came to a head in the hands of crooning cowboys and steel-strung rock stars. They also found favor in pop, country, and folk genres in the hands of artists such as Bob Dylan, Neil Young, Woody Guthrie, and Elvis Presley.
What does a Jumbo acoustic guitar sound like?
Jumbos are known to have a narrow or tight waist that renders a scooped sound with fat lows and bright/punchy highs. It’s the perfect shape for loud strumming that can cut through the mix and is arguably better than a dreadnought at conveying the big guitar sound.
The jumbo is the go-to shape for a 12-string if you love sheer power and a cutting tone. Some iconic Jumbo models include the Guild F-50, Gibson J-200, Taylor 815, and Martin J-40. Although, you need to be rolling in money to afford any of those upmarket models. Luckily, Yamaha, Breedlove, Epiphone, and Larrivee offer some frugal models under $1000.
3. Slope-shoulder Dreadnought (SS) Shape: The Jam-buster
Ideal for: Flatpicking, strumming, and bluegrass, country, rock, and pop.
The SS can be traced back to the 1930s and Gibson’s fetish for curvy acoustic guitars. It is essentially a dread with a subtle and gradual body-to-neck curve. Thus, referred to as a sloped shoulder, Southerner dreadnought, or curved-shoulder acoustic guitar.
The shape was the obvious evolution of the Gibson L-1 archtop design. It’s unmistakably evident in today’s acoustics such as the Gibson J-35, Gibson J-45, Eastman E20SS, and Blueridge B40 among others – all of which are popular among flat pickers.
It will typically have a 25 to 26-inch scale length, a 14-fret neck, and a powerful low-end for driving the rhythm. They are popular in genres like folk, country, and bluegrass. This might be your shape if you play aggressively and hanker for projection with articulation.
What does a slope-shoulder dreadnought sound like?
The slope shoulder is great for chord-oriented playing but also lends well to licks and solos. Compared to the dreadnought, there are some supposedly refined differences in the tone. Ask a bluegrass player, and they will say it’s plain as a pikestaff – fat lows, a mid-range snap, and crisp top end.
4. Grand Auditorium (GA): A Gentle Jack of All Trades
Ideal for: A little bit of everything
The 90s saw a rise in the popularity of the Grand Auditorium shape/design as a promise to deliver on both fronts – strumming and fingerpicking. The resulting instrument is a middle point for medium-strength picking and strumming. A jack of all trades.
The GA design is credited to Bob Taylor (1994), although other brands have created similar acoustics over the years. The Taylor GA-style guitars feature a 25-1/2” scale length with 20” x 16” x 4 5/8” dimensions (L x W x D).
These types of acoustic guitars are perched on a sweet spot in the size chart. Everything larger than them (the dreadnoughts and jumbos) cater to flatpicking and strumming. Everything below (Parlour, Grand Concert, etc.) is ideal for fingerstyle playing. But GA guitars are good for both styles.
What does a GA sound like?
Grand Auditorium guitars are known to sound well-defined, balanced, and versatile. They usually have a noticeable (but not overbearing) emphasis in the midrange. Grand Auditorium guitars are sometimes touted as the best all-purpose acoustic guitars. Whether that is true or not, they certainly rank among the most popular body shapes.
The Orchestra or OM body shape is crisp, curvaceous, and comfortable for people of all statures. It is less commonly called an Auditorium guitar. Generally, an Orchestra model has a 25.4-inch scale length, which is as long as a dreadnought. The ‘000’ has a 24.9-inch scale length, although this can vary based on the make/model.
Either way, the Auditorium guitar is always a touch narrower than dreads with a shallower body depth. It is much easier to wrap your arms around the 15-inch body. The long scale length makes it easy to fret chords and fingerpick notes. This, of course, comes at the cost of depth in the low-end.
What does an OM guitar sound like?
The OM shape is famous for a mid-focused tonal fingerprint –one that has been utilized brilliantly by fingerstyle guitarists ranging from Paul Simon to John Mayer. Eric Clapton used an OM guitar in his legendary MTV Unplugged concert.
Such guitars sound articulate (especially while fingerpicking) with excellent dynamic range and a reasonable amount of projection. Martin OM-28, Eastman DT30, and Guild OM-140 are some prime examples of this body shape.
Handmade with heavy-duty materials, time-tested styles, and innovative designs, Martin Guitar's Standard Series delivers classic acoustic and acoustic-electric guitars that any musician will love to play.
Ideal for: Fingerpicking, mild strumming for indie/folk, and singer-songwriters.
The Grand Concert acoustic shape, a.k.a the double-O guitar, is the thinnest (body depth) among the shapes we’ve covered so far. I’m talking about a thin soundbox with a small upper and larger lower bout.
The Double-O guitar is almost identical to the classical guitar shape. Its dimensions make it comfortable and well suited for players with small hands or stature. Therefore, they are often chosen for young students or kids.
Again, the shape will deprive you of some low-end. Moreover, it also detracts from the overall volume/projection of the guitar. This makes it more suited for singer-songwriters or fingerstyle players than for big strumming in pop or rock scenarios.
What does a Grand Concert guitar sound like?
Grand Concert guitars are famed for their intimate feel and compact dimensions. They have controlled overtones, light string tension, and ideal clarity for fingerpicking. Take one on your back porch and enjoy the tight bass and sweet highs on a sunny day.
In a nutshell, OO guitars are finger-friendly and well suited for studio/stage work. Famous examples of the Grand Concert shape include the Eastman E10OO, Taylor’s x12 guitars, and Martin guitars from the 00-xxx series.
7. Parlor Acoustic Guitar: Slide and Punch
Ideal for: Fingerstyle, slide, indie/folk, and blues.
A parlor is a living area where people would entertain guests in their homes back in the days. That’s how these guitars got their name – they started as instruments played during gatherings to entertain guests in the late 18th and early 19th centuries.
This, of course, was at a time when there was no electric amplification. Once other options were available, they were commandeered by blues and slide guitar players because of the punchy tonality and mid-focused sound.
Nowadays, the term ‘parlor guitar’ refers to any guitar that is smaller than the smallest size – the OO guitar. Their bout width can widely differ but they usually have an hourglass figure. Since these guitars are lightweight with a small/narrow body, they can double up as a travel guitar.
What do Parlor guitars sound like?
A parlor guitar has a distinct mid-range emphasis. The focused hi-mids yield what is commonly called the ‘parlor punch’. Moreover, they are mighty loud for a small guitar. That’s why slide players love ‘em and fingerpickers claim they sound visceral and gritty. Although they are balanced and dynamic, their shapes usually lead to a dip in the overall low end.
Ian Anderson (Jethro Tull) famously played a Matin 0-16 NY during the Thick as a Brick and Aqualung tours. Parlor guitars are making a comeback among fingerstyle and slide guitar players, especially those of the country, indie/folk, and blues ilk.
This has prompted every major brand from Dean to Yamaha to take a dig at the body style. Gretsch G9500 Jim Dandy, Fender PM2, and Eastman E10P are some options worth checking out.
I’m sure some busker is live looping in Prague with a custom-built 7-string archtop Macaferri acoustic-electric guitar as we speak. Secondly, Pandit Vishwa Mohan Bhatt (an Indian maestro) was awarded a Grammy for his instrumental album recorded with a hybrid archtop Hawaiian guitar (the Mohan Veena).
Clearly, the variations can be wild in the acoustic guitar world. As an acoustic aficionado, I’ve made it a mission to explore and experience every type of guitar that I can lay my hands on. I hope I’ve set your heart racing to try some of them out as well.
You might encounter a body style/shape that I haven’t mentioned. In such cases, keep this simple rule in mind – smaller guitars have mid/treble focus but less volume/projection while larger ones have more volume/projection and a deeper low-end. Use this as a guide to steer you towards your dream guitar!