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How to Choose a Beginner’s Guitar: Acoustic or Electric

Updated on December 9, 2013

Some beginning guitar students go in enamored with the acoustic guitar. Others really want to play electric guitar. Both types of guitars have attributes to consider carefully, when you’re looking for a starter guitar.

Acoustic Guitar

Youth model Epiphone acoustic
Youth model Epiphone acoustic

Acoustic

The acoustic guitar doesn’t require any amplification. That saves on extra costs of an amplifier, cord, etc. And it means the instrument affords natural volume.

It’s versatile and easily portable. Acoustic guitar doesn’t require an electric power source, so you can enjoy it at a campsite, during a power outage, at a local coffeehouse, or virtually anywhere. And practice sessions are quieter than an electric guitar practice session.

The tone of an acoustic guitar is typically clearer and purer than that of most electric guitars. These models have a large sound hole, which produces a fuller, louder sound than an unamplified electric model. The acoustic creates more harmonic dynamics, arising from the resonating combination of notes.

Within the acoustic family, models come in classical or steel-string varieties. Classical guitars have nylon or other synthetic strings and are designed for concert play. The tone produced is warmer and less metallic. Their sound is somewhat muted.

Standard acoustics with steel strings have a warm, clear tone. The sound from steel strings “pops” when or strummed plucked by a pick.

An acoustic model can be miked or amplified with an insertable pickup. And a good range of models comes with electronics preinstalled. This gives a guitarist the option of playing acoustically or electrically (though the tone and effect of an amplified acoustic model differ from what you get from a standard electric model).

Solid-Body Electric Guitar

Squier electric guitars are designed for young guitarists.  This one is modeled on the Fender Stratocaster.
Squier electric guitars are designed for young guitarists. This one is modeled on the Fender Stratocaster.

Electric

An electric guitar typically requires an amplifier in order to take advantage of its many capabilities. An amplified electric guitar can produce a range of sounds, volume, and tones.

Even for beginning guitarists, powering up the amp and turning the reverb knob can excite students about what they may eventually be able to do with this guitar. There’s nothing like turning a few knobs and playing something that sounds similar to a lick from a Rolling Stones classic.

Electric guitars come in two general designs. The solid-body electric has a substantial, solid body, which may be shaped in any number of ways. Think Gibson Les Paul or Fender Stratocaster. Both are popular solid-body models.

With this style, you can barely hear the sound of the strings without an amplifier. The acoustics come only from the sound of the strings echoing off the solid body.

Hollow or semihollow-bodied electrics come with some or all of the guitar’s body being hollow, like an acoustic style guitar. The hollowness allows the reverberations of the strings to resonate within the guitar. This is the same means by which acoustic guitars make sound.

Hollow-body guitars typically have “f” holes for the sound to escape the guitar’s body. These openings are similar to a singer’s mouth being open, allowing sound to come out unmuted.

When you play an unamplified hollow-body electric, you hear natural sound that’s louder than that produced by a solid-body, but not as resonant as that of an acoustic.

Guitars like the Gibson ES-335, the Epiphone Casino, or the Gretsch G5120 typify the hollow-body electric style.

Hollow-Body Electric Guitar

Epiphone Dot is a semihollow-body electric guitar.
Epiphone Dot is a semihollow-body electric guitar.

Accessories for Electrics

Many kinds of plug-in pedals and special effects kits allow an electric guitar to create all kinds of sounds frequently heard in rock, blues, metal, country, and other music genres. Some amplifiers come with built-in special effects features.

And many computer or iPad apps are available for recording and mixing one’s own music, recorded directly from the instrument into a program like GarageBand on Apple’s iMac.

These extra components expand the possibilities of electrified guitar music. But they also add costs.

For beginners, a guitar alone (for acoustic) or a guitar and amp (for electric) will suffice. Special effects boxes, pedals, etc. can serve as rewards given as the student achieves certain benchmarks of guitar-playing mastery.

Time to Choose

In deciding between acoustic and electric, keep in mind that, even without amplification, strumming open chords on an acoustic guitar will sound different from open chords played on an electric.

On an electric guitar, barre chords generally sound better for strummed rhythms than do open chords. Barre chords are an advanced skill and are more difficult to finger. And every guitarist needs to know and know well the open chord fingerings, as well as be able to execute them cleanly.

Also, it takes a more seasoned ear to hear what a tuned electric, string by string, should sound like. Getting any guitar tuned, for a beginner, can be frustrating. It’s a bit easier with an acoustic. Of course, you can buy an electronic tuner, but there’s value in tuning by ear before a novice depends on a device.

For these reasons, many guitar instructors recommend that beginners start out on an acoustic guitar and make the switch to electric, if desired, after basic knowledge and guitar techniques are mastered.

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