Acoustic Vs Classical Guitar: What’s The Difference?

acoustic-vs-classical-guitar

When it comes to acoustic vs classical guitar, the distinction isn’t necessarily apparent to the untrained eye, as both instruments share as many common features as not. Their similar bodies and necks, soundholes, and hardware may seem indistinguishable to the uninitiated, but these two instruments have several significant differences.

On closer inspection, even many of the similar features of the classical and standard acoustic guitars are not that similar at all. There are differences in body shape, neck configuration, bridge, tuning pegs, and the type of strings used on each guitar, to name just a few.

Differences Between Acoustic And Classical Guitars

Despite their similar looks, classical and acoustic guitars are two different instruments; even the way they are held and played is different. If you’re a beginner guitarist trying to decide between a classical and acoustic guitar, you want to know what you’re spending your money on.

The following are some of the more significant differences between the classical and the acoustic guitar.

Strings And Tone

The main difference between an acoustic and a classical guitar is the difference in tone, which is mainly due to their different strings. Acoustic guitars use steel strings whereas classical guitars use nylon strings. The nylon strings of the classical guitar produce a far warmer, more muted tone than the standard acoustic.

classical guitar strings vs acoustic

The steel strings of a standard acoustic guitar, on the other hand, produce a brighter, more resonant tone than the classical. The standard acoustic guitar is a much more versatile instrument, as it produces tones that sound great when playing the blues, country, rock and many other genres of music.

Classical and Flamenco guitarists, on the other hand, use nylon strings, and nothing compares to the tone of a nylon-strung guitar in the hands of a gifted, classically trained musician.

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If you want to know more details about acoustic strings, check out our full guide on acoustic guitar string and best acoustic strings for beginners.

Neck Differences

The neck of a classical guitar differs from that of the standard acoustic guitar mainly in terms of width. The classical neck is significantly wider than the acoustic’s neck, which means there’s more space between strings.

By comparison, the neck of the standard acoustic guitar seems positively thin, and the strings appear to be right on top of one another.

Classical guitars and acoustic guitars also differ in neck length. Speaking generally, the modern classical guitar has a slightly shorter neck than the standard acoustic.

This is partly because most standard acoustic guitars have necks that meet the body at or around the fourteenth fret. On the other hand, the modern classical guitar’s neck usually meets the neck at the twelfth fret.

Body Size

According to several sources, the modern acoustic guitar was conceived when some unknown pioneer strung a classical guitar with steel. This experimental prototype was further developed, initially to deal with the much higher tension of steel strings, but later to enhance the sound.

The resulting modern acoustic guitar has a larger body than classical guitars, though the body shapes remain more or less alike. Today, there are many variations on the classical acoustic body. From largest to smallest, there are the Jumbo, Dreadnaught, Orchestra, Concert, and Parlor.

The body of the modern classical guitar is smaller than even a Parlor-bodied standard acoustic guitar. Only Flamenco guitars, travel guitars, and mini-guitars are smaller than the standard classical guitar.

Pick-Guard Vs Golpeador

A pickguard, sometimes called a scratchplate, is the thin surface of plastic, mother of pearl, or other material beneath a guitar’s soundhole that prevents scratching the guitar’s wooden finish. On modern acoustic guitars, pickguards are traditionally black, though some are decorative and even artfully engraved.

A golpeador, which translates into English literally as “hitter,” is a type of pickguard positioned above and below the soundhole of a classical or Flamenco guitar.

A golpeador serves a dual purpose on a flamenco guitar, as it is used not only to protect the guitar’s finish but to tap out percussion too. On the modern classical guitar, a golpeador is mainly ornamental, though it does provide some protection for the guitar’s finish.

Differences In Fretboards

As mentioned earlier, the neck of the classical guitar is significantly wider than that of the standard acoustic. Aside from the width of the neck, the classical guitar differs from an acoustic in terms of neck and fretboard shape.

The fretboard on a classical guitar is more or less flat. Partly, this is due to how the instrument was initially designed, but it also facilitates more comfortable playing for the classical style. Standard acoustics, on the other hand, have more of a rounded shape.

The rounded shape of the standard acoustic fretboard developed over time, an innovation that makes playing the traditional acoustic easier and more comfortable. A classical neck is too wide to be rounded; it would make playing more difficult and awkward feeling.

Differences In Headstocks/Tuning Pegs

Another significant difference between classical and acoustic guitars is the instrument’s headstocks and tuning machines. Perhaps the most striking difference between the two is the slotted headstock of the classical guitar.

difference in guitars headstock

Though the difference is visually striking, aesthetics isn’t the only reason for the classical guitar’s slotted headstock. There are practical reasons for it too. Housed within the headstock’s slots, a classical guitar’s tuning machines apply downward pressure to the strings.

Placing the tuning machines in such a way improves the instrument’s tone and reduces buzzing.

The tuning pegs on a classical guitar are made of plastic and metal, whereas the tuning pegs on a standard acoustic guitar are made solely of metal. Another difference is that the tuning pegs on a classical guitar face “backward” or toward the guitarist. On a standard acoustic guitar, the pegs face “outward.”

Differences In Playing Style

At no time is the fact that classical and acoustic guitars are different instruments more evident than when they’re being played. While most standard acoustic guitarists (and electric guitarists, for that matter) play with their instrument’s neck parallel to the ground, the classical guitar is played with the neck angled upward about forty-five degrees.

Tradition is undoubtedly one reason classical guitars are played with their necks angled upward, but it is far from the only reason. There are practical reasons the classical guitar is approached this way.

Holding the guitar with its neck angled upward allows a guitarist’s fretting hand greater freedom of movement. Angling the neck also places less strain on the fretting wrist. This may not be an issue when strumming out chords on a standard acoustic guitar, but the intricate fingerings necessary to play classical guitar can place undue strain on the wrist if the guitar’s neck is angled incorrectly.

When playing seated, the standard acoustic guitar is usually positioned, so the “waist” of the guitar’s body rests on the leg of the guitarist’s strumming hand-side. This is why the neck of the standard acoustic guitar rests at an angle about parallel to the floor. The instrument’s body should be fully supported by the knee and by resting against the guitarist’s chest and abdomen.

Different Playing Style for Acoustic & Classical Guitar

The classical guitar is held differently when played sitting down. In order to keep the guitar’s neck at or around the proper angle, the body of the guitar rests not on the knee but between the legs. In this configuration, the “waist” of the guitar rests against the leg of the guitarist’s fingering hand.

Some classical guitar players find using a footstool helpful, as a raised leg helps stabilize the instrument. Ideally, both guitars should be held so that, when seated, the body and neck of the guitar are stable. You don’t want your fretting hand involved in stabilizing the guitar because it needs to be free to move up and down the neck unobstructed.

How Does Playing Each Guitar Feel?

Though they share so many similar attributes, the standard classical guitar feels quite a bit different when played than does the acoustic guitar.

The classical guitar is likely to feel alien in the hands of a guitarist only familiar with standard acoustics. With smaller bodies and less metal hardware, they are generally lighter than most acoustic guitars.

Another difference that will be immediately noticed is the width of the neck. As discussed above, the neck of a classical guitar is significantly wider than that of a standard acoustic. Those unfamiliar with the classical guitar will find themselves stretching more than usual to finger chords.

The feel of the strings is also very different. Any guitar player worth their salt will note the difference in how nylon strings feel and the pressure difference it takes to sound and maintain a note.

Finally, the flat fretboard of the classical guitar makes playing this instrument feel significantly different from playing on a standard acoustic. It will likely take some adjustment for a guitar player accustomed to standard acoustic guitar when playing the classical guitar, as the curved fretboard of the acoustic is designed for ease of play.

Check out this relevant short video from another music educator, Tomas Michaud:

Classical Vs Acoustic: Which Is Harder To Learn?

When it comes to which is harder to learn, the classical or acoustic guitar, the answer depends on your musical preferences and guitar goals.

Generally speaking, learning classical guitar requires a more significant commitment of time and energy, both mental and physical, than learning other genres. Music theory and literacy are essential to learning classical guitar, whereas a self-taught standard acoustic guitarist can go a long way using guitar tablature and chord songbooks.

Regarding the physicality of playing one or the other, there’s no reason a beginning guitarist can’t learn the basics of standard acoustic guitar on an inherited classical.

Sure, it will sound a bit different, less resonant, and more muted in tone, but the tunings and fingerings are identical. In fact, a classical guitar may suit a young beginner guitarist well, as the body is smaller in size than standard acoustics.

It should be noted, though, that a novice guitarist who begins learning standard acoustic guitar on a classical guitar will likely undergo a period of adjustment when he/she finally transitions to a standard six-string.

Because of the spacing of the strings on the wider neck of the classical guitar, the transitioning guitarist may find themselves fingering more notes than they’d intended.

Conversely, there’s no reason a budding guitarist taking their first steps on the road to a classical education can’t do so on an acoustic guitar. And while it is not advisable to string a classical guitar with steel strings (more on that later), you can, with a bit of ingenuity, string a standard acoustic with nylon strings.

For more seasoned guitarists, the decision between an acoustic and classical guitar is simple. The standard acoustic is something of a musical multi-tool, capable of handling multiple genres; the classical guitar is more specialized, designed for one type of music only.

The seasoned guitarist looking to expand their horizons and learn to play classical music will likely accept no substitutions.

Acoustic Vs Classical Guitar: Which Is Right For You?

Whether an acoustic or classical guitar is right for you depends almost entirely on the genre of music you study (or want to begin learning.) As mentioned above, the classical guitar is a specialized weapon meant to slay classical dragons.

If rock, folk, country, blues, or rockabilly is your thing, you’d likely be throwing your money away on a classical guitar.

If, on the other hand, you are moved by the beautiful strains and raw power of classical music, you’ll do yourself no favors by purchasing a standard acoustic guitar.

But what if you enjoy classical music and rock and want to play both on the same guitar? In that case, you’ll have to buy two guitars or compromise. I would buy a standard acoustic, as it is easier to play at least some classical pieces on a standard acoustic than to play rock on a nylon-strung classical guitar.

Frequently Asked Questions

How To Tell If A Guitar Is Acoustic Or Classical?

There are a number of easy ways to distinguish whether a guitar is a classical or a standard acoustic. Perhaps the easiest is to examine the strings. As noted earlier, the nylon strings of a classical guitar feel smoother than those of a standard acoustic.

Another distinction is that nylon strings are semi-transparent, and the G, B, and high E strings are far thicker in gauge than the corresponding strings on a traditional acoustic.

Another fast and straightforward way to tell the difference between an acoustic and classical guitar is to look at its bridge. If the guitar’s strings are wrapped around the guitar’s bridge, you’re looking at a classical. If, on the other hand, the strings are fed through the bridge and held in place with stoppers, you have an acoustic guitar on your hands.

Can A Classical Guitar Be Used As An Acoustic?

Technically speaking, a classical guitar is an acoustic guitar in the sense that it is not electrified, relying instead on body shape and a soundhole to produce sound.

Practically, yes, a classical guitar can be used as a standard acoustic, though the sound will be notably different. Both instruments are played more or less the same, and both employ the standard six-string tuning (EADGBE,) so what can be played on a standard acoustic can, with very few exceptions, be played on a classical guitar.

Can You Play Acoustic Songs On A Classical?

As covered in the previous paragraph, what can be played on a standard acoustic can, generally speaking, be played on a classical guitar. The sound of a nylon string classical guitar and a steel-string acoustic guitar are quite different, though.

Nylon strings provide a warmer tone than steel strings but don’t have the natural sustain. You may find yourself having to strum more when playing acoustic songs on classical guitar, as the sound produced will fade more quickly.

Can You Put Acoustic Strings On A Classical Guitar?

Because you can play acoustic guitar songs on a classical guitar, you may wonder if stringing a classical guitar with steel strings might be a good idea. It isn’t.

Standard acoustic guitar strings require significantly more tension than classical nylon strings, and putting them on a classical will put undue strain on the instrument’s neck and bridge. Experts warn against doing this, as, over time, the pressure will damage the instrument.

Neither is it advisable to use strings that have stoppers on a classical guitar, as doing so will damage the bridge.

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