The guitar is a ubiquitous instrument found in nearly every genre of music. From the soulful blues of B. B. King to the energetic shredding of Eddie van Halen to the pop music world of the Beatles, the guitar can adapt itself to any context.
Part of this is due to the many different types of guitars there are. The modern guitar shape developed around 1850 thanks to the innovations of the Spanish guitar maker Antonio Torres Jurado. Since then, there have been many changes and new inventions to the instrument resulting in a wide variety of guitar types. This article will examine the different types of guitars, their history, and how they compare to each other.
When most people think of a guitar, it’s most likely an electric guitar that comes to mind.
The electric guitar was invented during the 1930s and 40s and since then different companies have developed many diverse models and shapes have appeared.
Some of the most well-known models are the Fender Stratocaster, the Gibson Les Paul, and the Fender Telecaster.
Unlike acoustic guitars, electric guitars are not hollow which means the instrument cannot resonate and project sound. In order to be heard, electric guitars have magnetic pickups on the body of the guitar underneath the strings.
The pickups convert string vibrations into an electrical signal which is then sent to an amplifier (amp) which increases and projects the sound.
Electric guitars strings are often plucked with a pick, although some players choose to use their fingers.
Because of their wide variety, electric guitars are usually what most people begin playing on.
They are available in smaller sizes, such as ¾ size, which work well for young children.
Many players also use effects pedals when playing on electric guitar.
The huge range of effects pedals available can add delay, distortion, reverberation, or any effect one can imagine.
Electric guitars changed the sound of pop music and introduced new genres such as rock and roll and metal.
However, they are also used in jazz, blues, and other styles of music, as are acoustic guitars, which are discussed next.
Acoustic Guitar (Steel String)
Another popular guitar style is the acoustic guitar.
Like the electric guitar, acoustic guitars use steel strings and have the same general shape of a neck attached to a body.
Unlike many electric guitars, acoustic guitars are hollow and therefore wider.
The space inside the guitar is called the sound box.
This allows the body of the guitar, particularly the top part called the soundboard, to vibrate and create resonance to greatly increase the volume of plucked strings.
Although acoustic guitars are loud on their own, they can also be outfitted with pickups and plugged into an amplifier to increase the sound.
They will still retain their acoustic sound which is a bit brighter and more resonant than electric guitars.
Acoustic guitars come in different sizes and some have a cutaway which allows the player to reach higher notes on the fretboard.
Although there is not as much variety as electric guitars, acoustic guitars still come in different models and sizes.
This is the perfect instrument to bring to a beach bonfire!
As the name implies, semi-acoustic guitars, also called hollow-body electric guitars, occupy a middle ground between the electric and acoustic guitars previously discussed.
Semi-acoustic guitars have a sound box but they are not as wide or large as acoustic guitars.
They always have at least one pickup and they usually look more like electric guitars with f-holes on the front of the body.
During the 1930s, semi-acoustic guitars were used widely in jazz bands.
The smooth sound, which is a bit less piercing than acoustic guitars, fit well into jazz ensembles and the portable guitar could be used to play chords when a piano was not available.
As construction improved and new models emerged they began to be used in folk, pop, blues, and other musical styles.
A special type of semi-acoustic guitar is called an archtop guitar.
They are called that because, unlike other types of guitars, the top and back of the guitar are arched, not flat.
Sometimes bass guitars (which we’ll look at shortly) can even be arched.
In this video featuring some great jazz guitarists, you can see two archtop guitars, a nylon-string guitar, and a bass guitar all at once!
Be careful though! Some solid-bodied guitars have arched tops and backs and are also called archtops.
You can always ask if a guitar is a flat top or an archtop if you need clarification.
Unlike the usual guitar, which has six strings, 12-string guitars are called so because they have twelve strings.
12-string guitars double each guitar string which results in more resonance and a big, luscious sound perfect for playing chords in a rhythm section.
Typically, strings an octave higher are added to the four lowest strings and strings in unison are added to the two highest strings.
A set of doubled strings is called a course.
Other than the extra strings, 12-string guitars are very similar to 6-string guitars, although there are some minor differences such as a wider fretboard in order to accommodate the playing of the extra strings and a longer headstock to hold the extra tuning pegs.
While these guitars are perfect for chords and rhythm playing, the doubled strings make solo playing or fast single notes quite hard.
You can find electric as well as acoustic 12-string guitars and they are frequently used in rock, pop, and folk music by guitarists such as Jimmy Page and John McLaughlin.
Classical Guitar (Nylon String)
Classical guitars, also called Spanish guitars or nylon string guitars, are similar to acoustic guitars but with one crucial difference: the strings are made of nylon rather than steel.
These guitars are used primarily to play classical or flamenco music but they have been incorporated into other musical styles, especially jazz and bossa nova, as well.
The wide string spacing and the soft nylon strings lends this type of guitar to finger-styles playing instead of using a pick.
Because of the string material, construction, and playing style, these guitars have a darker and richer sound than their steel-string relatives.
While this is great for solo playing, it can make classical guitars hard to hear in a band setting.
Fortunately, just like acoustic guitars, they can be amplified with the addition of a pickup!
Like electric and acoustic guitars, bass guitars are plucked with fingers or a pick and are tuned similarly.
However, there are some key differences: most importantly, bass guitars sound an octave lower than non-bass guitars and they usually only have four strings.
Because of the lower sound, the strings of bass guitars are much larger and they have longer necks and scale length.
Bass guitars are generally electric instruments but it’s not too hard to find an acoustic bass guitar if you look.
It’s also possible to find bass guitars with five or even six strings!
Bass guitars are used in rhythm sections in a wide variety of musical styles but they can also be used as lead instruments.
Here, we see bass great Victor Wooten play a bass solo which incorporates harmonics, slapping, and other techniques.
Sometimes called resophonic guitars, resonator guitars are similar to acoustic guitars except they have metal cones on the front of the guitar instead of a wooden soundboard.
This was done in order to make the instrument louder, that is, more resonant, so they could be heard over other instruments.
Other than the increased volume, resonator guitars have a specific tone and are used frequently in bluegrass music.
Oftentimes, resonator guitars are played with a steel – see the next section to learn more about what that is!
Steel Guitars (Lap and Pedal)
Besides resonator guitars, the two main types of steel guitars are the lap steel and the pedal steel guitars.
However, any type of guitar played with a steel bar, or any other hard object, such as a bottleneck, can be considered a steel guitar.
The steel bar, just called a “steel,” is used in place of the fretting-hand fingers and frets to determine which notes to play.
The steel slides along the strings and can be used to slide continuously from one note to the next.
Lap steel guitars are held on the player’s lap while pedal steel guitars sit on a metal frame in front of the player.
These guitars are used frequently in country music, honky-tonk, and blues.
Here, the famous song “Ghost Riders in the Sky” is played on a pedal steel guitar.
Unusual Guitars (Multi-Necked, Touch, Harp)
While it’s likely you’ve seen a lot of the guitars we’ve looked at above, there are also a lot of unusual types out there that you might not have seen before.
Guitar makers must be crazy to think up new designs for us enthusiasts who just can’t get enough!
Multi-necked guitars have more than one neck.
This is most usually two but you can find guitars with more than four if you look.
In the live clip above from a 1983 concert, Jimmy Page plays the “Stairway to Heaven” solo on a double-necked guitar.
If you look closely, you can see one neck has 12 strings while the other has the normal 6.
A touch guitar is designed to be played without any type of plucking.
Instead, the player “taps” the strings on the fingerboard sort of like a piano player hits the keys.
To facilitate this, the strings of a touch guitar are thicker and more spaced out than on other types of guitars.
As you can imagine, the harp guitar is a combination of a harp and a guitar.
In addition to the normal guitar neck and body, harp guitars have strings extending past the lowest string on the body of the guitar.
These low strings can’t be fretted but they can be used to generate deep, resonant harmonies while the strings on the guitar neck play melodies or chords in the normal way.
Cousins of the Guitar
Besides guitars, there are many fretted string instruments that aren’t exactly a type of guitars but are definitely related to it.
The mandolin is a small instrument with four doubled courses (sets of strings).
It originated in Italy and is played with a pick.
Because they are so small, the distances between frets are much smaller than on a guitar.
Mandolins are used extensively in folk, bluegrass, and country music but they aren’t uncommon in other musical settings as well.
The banjo is an American instrument well known for its use in folk and country music.
Instead of being made of wood, it has a membrane, usually plastic, stretched over a frame or cavity.
Banjos usually have five strings, but the highest string only goes about halfway down the neck.
Banjos are notable for their twangy sound and are often plucked with a thumb pick and fingers.
Ukuleles are small instruments with four nylon strings and they come in four main sizes: soprano, concert, tenor, and baritone but there are lots of other types of ukulele too.
They are often used by singer-songwriters to accompany their singing and are often used by children to learn on as there are lots of easy songs for beginners to learn.
Lutes are an older fretted, stringed instrument.
Some courses are doubled while others are single strings.
There are more types of lutes out there than this article can cover, but they are all generally plucked with fingers, have a rounder, shorter shape than guitars, and have gut or nylon strings.
Besides the lute, there are also historical models of the guitar proper.
Of the types of guitars discussed, they are most similar to the nylon-string guitar.
These are hard to find nowadays, but some players specialize in performing on these old instruments.
The Renaissance guitar is a very small guitar with four courses.
They were popular in the 16th century and were mostly used to play chords.
The Baroque Guitar from the 17th century has five courses and is slightly larger than the Renaissance guitar.
Like Renaissance guitars, baroque guitars’ strings and frets were traditionally made out of animal gut and the frets were movable.
Romantic guitars have six strings and were used during the 18th and 19th centuries.
These guitars are still much smaller than modern guitars but are larger than baroque guitars.
While the bodies of Renaissance and baroque guitars are straight, the curved guitar shape, familiar to us today, originates with this instrument.
Well, that wraps up this comprehensive list of all the types of guitars!
As you can imagine, the wide variety of guitars has done much to contribute to the instrument’s popularity.
No matter what style of music you want to play, there is a guitar out there for you!