by Dave Belcher
If you’re new to guitar or have only ever played one style of guitar before, you might find yourself asking, What are the actual differences between an acoustic and a classical guitar and which one is right for me? It’s pretty easy to discern the difference between electric guitars and acoustics and classicals: while you can indeed get acoustics and classicals with electronics on board designed so you can plug them into an amp, an electric is always . . . well, electric! But what are the main differences between an acoustic and a classical guitar? We’ll clear that up and hopefully give you an idea of what might fit you best.
The main and most palpable difference is that acoustic guitars use “steel” strings while classicals use “nylon.” (I’ve put inverted quote marks around those because the material is not always steel or nylon, but that’s still usually what we call them.) And there is a very noticeable difference in how those strings sound. Even if you were to put steel strings on a classical guitar (which you should never do as it will damage the instrument!) that classical guitar would sound very different than it would with its usual nylon strings. While acoustic strings are made of much harder material (and so require a lot more tension, which is why you also shouldn’t put nylon strings on your acoustic), classical strings are usually thicker. Both can leave callouses on your fingers after long periods of playing, but acoustics will certainly be harder on your fingers.
Acoustic guitars also have much narrower necks than do classicals. Classical guitars’ wide neck profile allows for accurate placement of all four fingers on the fretboard at once, while the narrower acoustic neck is easier for moving chord shapes. In general most classical necks are also not as thick as acoustic necks.
Acoustics also have radiused fingerboards while classical fingerboards are most often flat. (Incidentally, this is why you won’t be able to use your acoustic capo on a classical guitar, because acoustic capos are rounded to match the radius of the fingerboard while classicals are flat . . . you’ll get a buzz on classicals with an acoustic capo.)
While you can find some small-bodied acoustic guitars (such as “folk” or “parlor” acoustics), in general acoustic guitars have much bigger bodies than their classical counterparts. The sides are usually thicker, the back is rounded, and the “waist” of the guitar is usually wider. The most common model of acoustic guitar in fact is called the “dreadnought”! This usually also means that acoustics are a bit heavier than classicals. Most concert classical guitars are full-bodied instruments, while many acoustic guitars have “cutaways” that make access to the upper frets much easier. (To accommodate for the problem of lack of access to the upper frets on classical guitars, many modern luthiers, especially Thomas Humphrey, pioneered elevated fingerboards . . . though even Stauffer was doing this on some guitars in the nineteenth century.)
If you’ve played much on acoustic or electric guitars you may notice that there are dots in the middle of the fingerboard to help guide you where you are on the frets. Classical guitars sometimes do have dots at the seventh and twelfth frets (and in some exceptions elsewhere) on the upper side of the neck, but in general they usually do not have any fret markers on the fingerboard itself.
Another big difference between classicals and acoustics is at the bridge, where you fasten the end of the strings next to the soundhole. On an acoustic guitar strings have little balls on the end of the strings, which are held in place with bridge pins. On a classical, however, the strings are tied around the bridge, making for a very different method of changing strings.
Likewise, at the other end where the strings attach to the headstock, classicals typically use slotted headstocks with in-line tuning machines while acoustics usually have individual tuning machines that stick up through the headstock. This will mean, once again, that changing strings at the headstock will require a different method on a classical than it will on an acoustic.
Because of the differences in string type and tension, acoustic guitars are generally much louder instruments. While modern building techniques have vastly improved the volume capability of modern classical guitars, they are generally quieter instruments.
Finally, in general there is a different approach to the use of the right hand between the two types of guitar. Very often acoustic players will use either a pick (plectrum) or finger picks, while classical players use either fingernails or the flesh of their fingers. On the other hand, the approach to the right hand will in many ways be dictated by the style of the music, and while most would not use a pick on a classical guitar (and almost never for classical music on the guitar) you may find many acoustic players who use fingernails on their right hand to pluck.
But which is right for you? Ultimately it all comes down to your style, what kind of music you want to play, and what sort of sound you want to create. Acoustics and classicals have very different characteristics and each will yield very different musical results. Pick the tool that best suits the music you want to create.