The Difference Between Electric and Acoustic Guitars
On a superficial level, electric and acoustic guitars basically seem to be about the same instrument. They both usually have six strings, both play in the same range, and both are about the same size. Even a bass guitar, which has a fairly similar design, is still a distinctly different instrument. However, when it gets to much higher level techniques of playing, electric and acoustic guitars are worlds apart. As parts become more complex in songs, it will usually be quite apparent when one or the other is more appropriate to use.
The obvious difference between the two is how they actually project sound. An electric guitar uses a pickup to send a signal to an amp, an acoustic guitar relies purely on the actual noise generated by the strings and the guitar. The differences between the two methods of amplification have a dramatic effect on the kinds of techniques that can or can’t be used well on each instrument.
By their very nature, electric guitars are much more sensitive, which has both positive and negative effects. On one hand, much more subtle techniques, such as harmonics, bending, vibrato, etc are much more readily heard and usable in parts. However, without proper muting and control, electric guitars are capable of producing some truly horrific noises, as well. Many guitarists also neglect the fact the amp is just as much a part of the instrument as the guitar itself, and often overlook the importance of choosing the right amp and knowing how to use it.
Acoustic guitars tend to sound very pretty, but a lot of faster techniques that sound great on an electric tend to be unresponsive and muddled on an acoustic guitar. For a good example of this, just listen to the little solo part from “More Than Words” by Extreme. The guitarist really did probably the best that could be expected on an acoustic with those types of techniques, but even then it still just doesn’t sound as good as his electric guitar work. However, acoustic guitars tend to allow much more sloppy play than electrics without the risk of feedback or other horrible noises.
In addition, acoustic guitars are further divided down into steel string guitars and classical guitars. Steel string guitars are probably the ones most people think of when they think acoustic guitars. Classical guitars consist of three bass steel strings and three nylon treble strings, and have a wider, flatter neck than most steel string guitars. They are almost exclusively used for classical style guitar work, and lend themselves quite well to it. The slight tonal difference between the steel strings and nylon strings can make for some very interesting tonal qualities, sometimes even sounding like the guitarist is playing two separate instruments at the same time.
There are also hybrid guitars with both acoustic and electric properties, but in general they favor one or the other. Semi-hollow body guitars do tend to be louder acoustically than a regular electric guitar, but usually not enough to use without an amp. Mainly they are used for their different tonal qualities. On the other hand, acoustic guitars with electric pickups tend to only be there to allow easier amplification, and don’t really have the capabilities of an electric guitar, despite the pickups.
Electric and acoustic guitars both have their own roles in music. Once you get beyond the superficial level though, it is quite easy to see that the higher end playing techniques do require focus on a particular instrument. Guitarists like Randy Rhoads or Michael Romeo or Ritchie Blackmore, who become proficient with both types do play them quite differently. Learning the strengths and weaknesses of both is important to getting the most out of whichever one you play.
Keep on rockin'!