The author is a guitarist and bassist with over 35 years of experience as a musician.
Acoustic or Classical?
When a wannabe guitarist starts looking for their first instrument one significant point of confusion arises when trying to choose between a classical or acoustic guitar. Both instruments look kind of the same, and surely you can play the same songs on each if you really want to. So what are the differences between them, and should you really care when you are first starting out?
When we talk about classical guitars we are speaking of nylon-stringed guitars used in classical music. These are, of course, acoustic instruments, but for the sake of clarity, we call them classical guitars.
Acoustic guitars are steel-stringed instruments used prominently in just about every other style of music. These are the most common guitars newbies start out with, though as we will see they are not the best choice for everyone.
In this article, we’ll cover the main differences between these two types of guitars, including sound, playability, and construction. By the time we are done, you’ll have a better idea of which is the better choice for you and your goals.
Before we get started I want to make two important points:
- The descriptions regarding the uses for each of these instruments are going to be very general here. You can do whatever the heck you want, with any kind of guitar you want, and over the decades musicians certainly have.
- If you continue on as an acoustic guitar player you are probably going to experiment with each type of instrument during your career. You’ll figure it all out eventually, and the decision you make now isn’t binding for life. So relax! Make the best choice you can when first starting out, and everything will fall into place from there.
Let’s get down to it and start sorting out this classical vs acoustic guitar question.
Basic Differences Between Classical and Acoustic
Classical and acoustic guitars share many similarities, which are easy to see at a glance. From shape to woods they might even look identical to the uninformed. That’s not you of course. At least not anymore.
It’s worth noting that classical-style guitars are much older in terms of design. As guitars evolved to become the modern instruments we see today many of the attributes of classical instruments were abandoned in favor of improved technology. This doesn’t mean classical guitars are archaic or outdated, just more traditional.
Some of the differences are:
- Strings: Most modern acoustic guitars utilize steel strings, whereas classical guitars have nylon strings. Nylon strings give us a more mellow sound, and they are easier on the fingers.
- Body Size: Classical guitars have smaller bodies compared to the most popular sizes of steel-stringed acoustic. Though, some acoustic guitars, such as parlor models, are similar in size and dimension to their classical ancestors.
- Fingerboard: Generally, classical instruments have wider, flatter fingerboards with slightly wider string spacing. In my opinion, this makes them super comfortable to play, but people with smaller hands may struggle at first.
- Headstock: Machine tuning pegs are an innovation we take for granted, but classical instruments still use slotted headstocks. The nylon strings make this a viable option, though some parlor, steel-string guitars have slotted headstocks as well.
- Bracing: Steel-stringed acoustics incorporate solid bracing, not only to keep the guitar sturdy with the tension of the strings but also for better projection and resonance. Classical instruments feature much lighter bracing.
- Truss Rod: The truss rod is a steel rod that runs the length of the guitar neck on steel-string instruments. These are necessary to counteract the tension of the steel strings, and they can be adjusted as needed. Because nylon strings put much less stress on the neck, classical instruments often do not have adjustable truss rods, though some do.
- Neck-to-body Joint: If you look at most modern steel-string guitars you’ll note that the neck and body join at the 14th fret. A joint at the 12th fret is an older, more traditional design, and while some acoustic guitars are built this way (typically parlor guitars) it is a hallmark of the classical design.
Which Is Better for Beginners?
Learning guitar is a fair amount of work no matter which you choose, but starting out on a guitar that sets you up for success is very important. I think a lot of beginners quit because, in addition to the academic work they have to do to learn the instrument, the guitar they started with is a struggle to play. It’s one more hurdle, and newbies can feel like they are doing everything wrong when really the guitar is the problem.
That said, the nylon strings of a classical guitar are easier on the fingers than steel strings, and for some new players, particularly kids, this may make them easier to play. However, this shouldn’t be the only factor in your decision-making.
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Steel-string acoustic guitars lend themselves to a wider range of music. If you intend to strum along with your favorite songs and maybe even write a few tunes yourself, a steel-string guitar is likely your best bet. These instruments are used very prominently in country, rock, and folk music.
Nobody is going to stop you from strumming a classical guitar, but remember they are built to be played with your fingers, not with a pick. The sound is mellow, and they aren’t as loud. Classical and flamenco guitarists play them almost exclusively of course, but some jazz players like them as well, and they even find their way into other genres like folk and rock.
As I always say, make your choice based on your goals and the kind of music you’d most like to play.
Here are a couple of suggestions for beginners. These are instruments that have a great reputation as starter guitars, and in my opinion, they will serve you well. However, think of this advice as a jumping-off point to do your own research. There are a lot of great guitars out there, and while I think these are your best options you may decide something else is more up your alley.
On my list of acoustic guitars for beginners, my top recommendation is the Yamaha FG800. This dreadnought-style guitar has a great reputation as a beginner instrument. It is easy to play, sounds good and Yamaha is known for great quality in budget instruments. If you want a steel-stringed guitar with a slightly smaller body, consider the FS800.
Both guitars feature spruce tops with nato/okume backs and side and nato necks with rosewood fingerboard. The difference is the body style. Dreadnought bodies tend to offer better volume and projection, where smaller, concert-style bodies may be a little easier for smaller people to manage. Both are great instruments, and you can’t go wrong with either.
The Yamaha FG Series
When it comes to nylon-stringed guitars for beginners, I recommend checking out the Cordoba C3M. It’s a full-sized classical instrument with a solid Canadian cedar top, mahogany back and sides, and nato neck with rosewood fingerboard. It features traditional Spanish fan bracing, a bone nut, and even a 2-way adjustable truss rod. Cordoba offers some great value for the money and their lineup is geared more toward nylon-stringed instruments.
The C3M is one of the most affordable guitars in Cordoba's Iberia Series. These are high-quality instruments intended for everyone from beginners to advanced players, and they come in at prices that won't break your bank. If you are interested in a classical, nylon-string guitar I think this is the perfect place to start.
The Cordoba Iberia Series
Choose Your Guitar
As you do a little research you’ll find that many of the things you learned in this article are indeed generalities. There are acoustic-electric guitars with nylon strings, small-bodied guitars with steel strings and everything in between. The top guitar companies come up with some pretty innovative ideas, for every kind of guitar player under the sun.
That said, here is a quick review of the positive points for each type of guitar.
- Easier on the fingers.
- Softer sound.
- Smaller bodies.
- Better for strumming.
- Louder, larger sound.
- Better for a wider range of musical styles.
In practical terms, which is right for you? In my opinion, if you wish to study classical guitar, play finger-style exclusively, or if you have sensitive fingers you might be better off with a nylon-string guitar. If you intend to strum and play modern rock or country music you may prefer the steel-string acoustic.
Hopefully, you have a little better idea about the differences between classical and acoustic guitars, and you're now on the road to choosing the best first guitar for you. Remember, it is probably the first of many, so try not to sweat it too much. Make the best decision you can, and go with it. Good luck!
Classical or Acoustic Guitar?
VS on January 18, 2019:
Good blog. Thanks
Guitar Gopher (author) on November 28, 2017:
@Linda - A steel-string guitar would be better for rock music, but the strings may be tough on his small hands. At six you may want to consider a small-size classical guitar, as the nylon strings will be a little easier to play. Both Yamaha and Cordoba make good half-size and 3/4 size guitars, so you may want to start your search there. Good luck. It's wonderful he is interested in music at such a young age!
Linda on November 27, 2017:
My son is 6 and wants to be a rock n roller and has never played a guitar before so can u recommend one for me please
Isaac on May 03, 2017:
Thanks for the advice!