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Basics of Acoustic Guitars

By Charles Hopkins Published 07/6/2006 | Music

Among all kinds of instrument in today's world of music in the West, it is the electric guitar which takes the lead role. In halls and concerts, in rock bands and stage shows, the electric guitar is the inevitable choice. Yet in the popular imagination, whenever you say the word 'guitar' it is the image of an acoustic guitar that appears in the mind's eye.

The acoustic guitar is the original form of the instrument. Electric guitars came later and overtook their predecessor in popularity and applicability, but the acoustic guitar holds a place in the minds of people from which it cannot be easily dislodged.

The electric guitar requires a lot of associated paraphernalia to play a single note. It needs magnets, wires, amplifiers and sound boxes, and above all it needs electric power. Naturally, then, it cannot satisfy your craving for a bit of string-plucking as you are walking along a country road, or find yourself in a wide meadow, or by the riverside. Mankind's first music was inspired by nature, and close to that original source it is the acoustic guitar that you shall find useful for the expression of your musical feelings. Which is why acoustic guitars are still the preferred instrument in folk and country music, and musical themes connected with the wild wild west of olden days, or any other romantic theme that evokes the spirit of unadulterated innocence and na´ve non-artificiality.

Technically, an acoustic guitar is a much simpler instrument than the electric guitar, its modern development. Unlike the latter, it does not use the properties of magnetism to turn the string pluckings into electric signals and then passing them on to the amplifier and thence to the sound boxes, to be magnified a thousand times if necessary for assaulting the eardrums of the thousands congregated in a packed auditorium. Rather, it relies on the simple old-fashioned echo and reverb properties of hollow spaces.

Unlike the electric variety, the acoustic guitar has a hollow body, which often also makes it considerably lighter (though larger). The body has a large opening in it, known as the 'sound hole'. There are six metal strings, normally made of steel, and when a string is plucked its vibrations are caught in the hollow and echoed and reverberated until it gets magnified to a level that makes music possible. The tone, pitch and timbre of the sound depend upon the material, tension and length of the plucked wire, as indeed is the case with most stringed instruments. You can vary the functional length of the string by pressing it down at different points along its actual length.

But underlying this apparent simplicity is a variety and depth of subtlety that challenges and perhaps exceeds the similar aspects of the electric guitar. For instance, it is easy to confuse between the standard acoustic guitar and the classical guitar. The latter too is technically an acoustic guitar, but has a somewhat different shape, has three nylon strings and three metal, a different sound and a very different field of application.

What sort of guitar should you buy first? That depends on what sort of music you are interested in, or want to create. The acoustic guitar has its own charm and craft, and while the basics are the same for almost all kind of guitar, your path shall soon diverge from that of the electric guitar, once you move beyond a certain level of expertise. By choosing or not choosing the acoustic guitar over other varieties, you will tell yourself a lot about the kind of person you are.