The differences between all of the styles and types of guitars on the market can be difficult for a novice guitarist to comprehend. While the guitar is an ever-evolving instrument and new brands and models of guitars are being released every year, the major differences between guitars can be broken down into a few simple categories.
Number of Strings
Most regular guitars have six strings. Seven, eight and 12-string versions are also relatively common. A guitar with only four (sometimes five) strings is known as a bass guitar. Bass guitars play notes an octave deeper than those played by a regular guitar.
Acoustic guitars are hollow instruments that naturally amplify the sound of the guitar strings. The size of an acoustic guitar affects the overall volume and tone of the instrument. Larger guitars tend to be louder and accentuate bass frequencies more than smaller guitars. Most acoustic guitars use steel strings, but some -- called classical guitars -- use nylon strings. These strings are better suited for classical music than steel strings (which work well for popular music). Acoustic-electric guitars have a small microphone-type pickup that allows you to run the guitar through an amplifier system in order to boost the volume of the instrument.
Electric guitars rely primarily on electronics to amplify the sound of the strings. The magnetic pickups on the body of an electric guitar interpret the vibration of the strings and send this information to a guitar amplifier. The electric guitar is more tonally versatile than the acoustic guitar because the signal coming from the pickup can be easily manipulated at the amplifier or with a guitar effects pedal. Distortion, wah-wah and chorus are some of the effects that can be applied to an electric guitar. Electric guitar bodies tend to be mostly solid, but semi-hollow versions do exist. Electric guitars use thinner strings than acoustic guitars, so they are easier for novice guitarists to play.
Maple, rosewood and ebony are all relatively common fretboard materials, while mahogany, koa and maple are often used to make guitar bodies. These woods affect both the sound and the look of the instrument. The nut material is also an important difference between cheap and expensive guitars. Most cheap guitars use weak plastic nuts that will quickly wear away under the pressure of the guitar strings, while more expensive guitars use ivory, bone or high quality plastic nuts. Decorative neck inlays (which add nothing to the tone of the guitar) can be made out of several different materials including abalone and mother of pearl.
The electronics in an electric guitar have a major affect on the tone of the instrument. Single coil pickups sound twangier and thinner than humbucker pickups (the physically larger of the two types) and some guitars -- including some acoustic electrics -- have a built-in preamp that allows you to significantly mold the tone of your guitar. This preamp needs to be powered by a battery.
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