Whether you're an experienced musician looking to pick up a new instrument or a complete beginner with no prior musical experience, the guitar is a fantastic instrument that'll change your life for the better. If you're wondering whether to learn how to play an electric or acoustic guitar first, you've come to the right place.
In this blog, we'll examine the similarities and differences between the two guitar types, discuss the pros and cons of learning on each one, and break down some tips on what to expect as a beginner guitarist.
At the end of the day, there's no one right answer as to what type of guitar you should start out with. The answer lies within your interests and goals as a guitarist. Let’s dive in!
Here's what we'll cover in this article:
- How are they similar to each other?
- Differences between electric and acoustic
- Is electric guitar easier to play than acoustic?
- Determining your preference
- Pros and cons of electric and acoustic guitars
- Price differences
How are electric and acoustic similar?
Electric and acoustic guitar are similar in that they both:
- Have six strings
- Feature the same tuning and fretboard layouts
- Can handle lead and rhythm guitar playing
- Are suitable for a variety of playing styles
Here's the good news: By learning one you lay a great foundation for learning the other. In fact, we can confidently say that once you know how to play either, you’ve got the basics covered for the other type.
Differences between acoustic and electric guitar
Now let’s look at the differences between an acoustic and electric to figure out which type is right for you. We’ll start by comparing the foundation of the guitars and how they work. After a brief comparison, we examine each instrument in detail, talk about how they sound, and explore the contexts in which they work best.
Difference 1: How they project sound
The way the two types of guitar project sound is one of the main differences between them. Acoustic guitars are quite large compared to electric guitars, and there's a good reason for it.
- The acoustic guitar body is hollow with a big hole in the center.
- The sound of the vibrating strings is amplified by the hollow body's resonance.
- Since the guitar amplifies itself, you can play it whenever and wherever you want without any additional equipment.
Electric guitars, in contrast, operate a bit differently.
- Most electric guitars have a solid body, which means there's very little sound coming from the vibrating strings without the resonant hole that an acoustic has.
- Instead, electric guitars rely on pickups positioned underneath the strings in the body's midsection to provide the sound.
- As the name suggests, they "pick up" the vibrations from the strings, and use magnets (or metal rods) to convert those vibrations into an electric signal.
- The electric signal travels from an instrument cable to an amplifier.
Difference 2: Variety
Another important (depending on who you ask!) difference is the look of the electric and acoustic guitars.
- Electric guitars come in a near-endless combination of shapes, colors, and sounds.
- Acoustic guitars feature much less variety in their shape, color, and sounds.
Difference 3: String differences
Perhaps one of the most glaring differences between acoustic and electric guitars is the type of strings they use. The feel and sound of different string types is quite significant.
- Acoustic guitars can use either nylon or steel strings
- Nylon strings are commonly used on classical acoustic guitars and feature a softer sound.
- Electric guitars generally need steel strings.
- Compared to steel strings on an acoustic guitar – electrics use a lighter-gauge (thickness) steel string than acoustics.
When it comes to electric guitar, you can choose the thickness of the strings. Thicker strings produce a richer sound and are more durable, but they're harder to manipulate while playing. How thick you want them is largely a personal preference.
Difference 4: Size and portability
Acoustic guitars are bulkier than electric guitars. This can affect the space between strings as well as the string height or action − how far from the neck the string is – which may pose difficulties to beginners.
- Acoustics generally require more hand strength to get a clear sound out of the guitar.
- Initially, the thicker strings will hurt your fingers more.
- The sometimes thicker neck of an acoustic will also require you to stretch your hand more in order to play a chord.
- For children and people with small hands, this can make it difficult to play a clean-sounding chord.
Proponents of learning on an acoustic will tell you that it's important to develop hand strength right off the bat, so this shouldn't necessarily be a reason to avoid learning on an acoustic. Also, a well-built acoustic guitar won't be significantly more difficult to play than an electric.
Electric guitars can have thinner necks and are overall smaller because they don’t rely on natural acoustics to create the sound.
- The smaller size of the electric guitar can make it slightly easier to learn on as a starter guitar.
- The strings are lighter, the neck is thinner, and the body is smaller.
The neck size difference affects how the instruments are generally played:
- The acoustic guitar is great for open chords, a big resonant sound and rhythmic strumming patterns.
- On the other hand, the thin neck of the electric guitar makes it easier to play bar chords and reach higher notes while soloing.
An acoustic guitar actually weighs less than the electric one despite having a bigger body. If you plan to travel with your guitar, this is something you should consider. Additionally, since the electric guitar requires an amp, it’s even less convenient to take it with you when you go places.
Further down in the article, we have a pros and cons list you can go through to compare the two instruments.
Difference 5: Sound
The sound difference between acoustic and electric guitar is quite significant. How your acoustic guitar sounds out of the box is essentially how it will sound forever.
- This is determined in part by the strings (which you can change), but mainly by the acoustic's body, wood type, fretboard, and overall construction.
Electric guitars, on the other hand, have a much more customizable sound.
- Once you plug it in to an amp, you can immediately start tweaking the sound to your liking.
- The guitar itself has knobs and switches that allow you to change the amount of bass and treble.
You probably already know that Metallica’s guitar sound is different from Bob Marley’s.
- The amp you play with has a massive impact on the sound (or tone) of your electric guitar.
- Once you have an amp, you can further tailor your tone to your exact liking by using different kinds of effects pedals. Read about guitar effects pedals for beginners here.
- As a general rule, you should develop a strong foundation of guitar playing before you use effects pedals, which can create bad habits by covering up poor playing technique.
- Additionally, you can change the pickups in an electric guitar to further alter your tone.
The inflexibility of an acoustic guitar's sound isn't necessarily a bad thing.
- They're designed to have a rich, full tone that's perfect for playing alone (which most beginners will do).
- Electric guitars don't sound as full as acoustics because they're generally played in the context of a band (where you don't want to take up "sonic space" that other instruments need to share).
Is electric guitar easier to play than acoustic?
This is a common question, but not one that’s easy to answer. The truth is that it depends on what you want to play and how good you want to be. You will pick up the fundamentals of both rather quickly.
For the acoustic guitar, that’s enough for many people. Being able to play the basic chords will get you a long way − especially if you’re also a singer.
The electric guitar is typically preferable for music with lots of individual notes. You certainly can play open chords on it, but it's better suited for riffs and slightly more detailed playing, which will take a little longer to learn. Moving beyond open chords requires more work on the picking hand, too.
By the same token, there's no ceiling for how advanced an acoustic guitar player can be. Listen to flamenco, gypsy jazz, or classical guitar music, and you’ll hear acoustics doing much more than open chords.
Determining your preference
The genres of music you prefer and which sound resonates with you the most should be the ultimate consideration before picking which one to learn. At the end of the day, the best guitar to learn on is the one you already own – because you can start playing today.
However, if you know the type of music you’re most interested in and want to base your purchase on that information, this short list of genres can guide you in the right direction:
- Folk music
- Country (works great with electric guitar too)
- Classical guitar
Keep in mind, this is just a beginner-friendly guide, both instruments have a place in almost all genres.
These two lists are by no means to suggest you must limit playing on either type of guitar to these genres. For example, there is distorted electric guitar in Taylor Swift's music and there is acoustic guitar in Slipknot’s music. Once you get familiar with playing the guitar, you will realize that there are more types of guitar than just acoustic and electric.
Once you become comfortable playing you’ll discover your own style based on all your different influences.
Which sound inspires you?
You should pick the one that inspires you the most. Go to your local music store and test how they both feel in your hands. Some find the acoustic sound inspiring, while others prefer the power of the electric guitar. There are no wrong answers and only you can decide for yourself which one you like the most.
Remember, the choice isn’t mutually exclusive! Picking one over the other doesn’t mean that you won’t end up owning and playing both at some point in the future.
If you don’t have a strong preference for one or the other, you can base your decisions on how practical either type would be.
Pros and cons of electric and acoustic guitars
Need a quick breakdown of each type? Here's a pros & cons list
- You can play it anywhere. No need for extra equipment. Just tune it and play.
- You can play a lof of different genres with many different and interesting techniques and tunings.
- For beginners, it’ll most likely be the cheaper option.
- More defined sound. What you buy is what you get. You don’t really get to change the sound of the guitar.
- Some argue that it’s harder to learn as a beginner because of thicker strings and higher action. This can hurt motivation to continue practicing.
- Versatility. Just like with the acoustic guitar, the electric guitar is great for many different kinds of genres. But you also have a greater ability to shape and customize your sound, from using a different amp to adding effects pedals and adjusting your tone knobs.
- Lead and rhythm. You can play rhythm with a serious groove and immediately switch to a tear-jerking guitar solo.
- Easier on the hands. The smaller size of the electric guitar, in body, neck, and strings makes it easier to balance in your lap and play when you’re first learning.
- The sheer amount of different guitars. The acoustic guitar mostly comes in a few popular shapes, but there is no end to what an electric guitar can look like. Choice can be a luxury, but also make it harder to decide.
- Less fullness of sound for playing alone.
- Amplifier dependence. Wherever you take your guitar you will need an amp to play, and carrying an amp around is not particularly convenient. However, If you’re only going to play at home, this is not an issue. If you have a band you can often find rehearsal space with amps so you don’t have to bring your own.
At the beginner level, the acoustic guitar is probably the cheapest option. However, both guitar types have quite expensive high-end models. If you start playing the acoustic, that’s all you need to buy - the guitar (and maybe a capo, strap and pick). You can buy your own tuner, or use our free online guitar tuner.
As a beginner electric guitar player, you’ll also need an amplifier and cables. Although there are great beginner deals and bundles you can buy, it’s still not as simple as the acoustic guitar.
As you progress, you’ll most likely want to buy some effect pedals, a better amp, replace broken cables and even take the guitar for maintenance (the electronics on the inside can suffer from wear and tear).
Final words on electric vs. acoustic guitar
Only you can decide for yourself where you want to begin. It comes down to which sound you prefer and what genres you see yourself playing in the future.
Just remember, it’s not as big of a decision as you might think. In fact, you most likely will end up playing both types. And learning one is to some extent the same as learning the basics of the other.
The most important part of getting your first guitar:
Always, always, always have a guitar technician examine the guitar for you.
- Guitars are living breathing creatures, and the wood that they're made of often causes the instrument to warp over time.
- A guitar technician can "set up" your guitar so that it's easy to play.
- A well set-up $100 acoustic guitar will sound and feel better than a poorly set-up $10,000 guitar 99% of the time.
Good luck on your guitar journey! If you're looking for the best way to learn guitar as a beginner online, check out Pickup Music’s guided Learning Pathways and guitar lessons for beginner guitarists. We offer free 14-day trials for beginner guitarists.
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