When it comes to acoustic guitars, shape and size really do matter. After talking to many students over the years, it has become obvious to me that one of the lesser considered features of an acoustic guitar when making a purchase is the acoustic guitar body shape, size, and tonewoods.
As it turns out, the acoustic guitar body size and shape play a major role in the guitar’s volume, tone, visual appeal, and perhaps importantly, the price range. We’re going to take a tour through all of the varieties of acoustic guitar sizes and shapes, as well as some of the critical features that differentiate each guitar’s unique tone and volume such as the tonewoods and standard acoustic guitar dimensions. After this rundown, you can confidently pick the guitar shape and size that best fits your unique style and needs.
It makes sense to start with the most classic, timeless acoustic guitar. The dreadnought shape to many people is the platonic ideal of an acoustic guitar shape. It is used across a wide range of price ranges, from the cheapest budget guitars to the elite Martin and Taylor brands.
The Dreadnought, named after the British battleship the HMS Dreadnought, was first produced by Martin in 1916, who defined the genre of the dreadnought with its signature D-series guitars. Of course, this was before guitar amplification was invented, which the dreadnought body aptly compensated for by the sheer volume its capable of producing from the large, wide soundboard and the large volume of resonating wood that went into its construction.
It features rounded shoulders, the part where the body meets the neck joint, and a neck that joins the body usually at the fourteenth fret. It has a typical body length of around 20”, a body width of 16”, a scale length of 25.4”, and a body depth of 4”.
Some dreadnoughts have squared shoulders, so the top of the body is flat, while others have rounded or “sloped” shoulders, with a more gradual curve from body to neck.
How it sounds
The Dreadnought strikes a perfect balance between size, volume, and playability. The large sound cavity gives rise to the guitar’s impressively boomy, bold, and balanced sound. It has a powerful low and mid-range and bright, crisp trebles. The bass response is also great, giving the guitar an overall wide and rich tone that is well-suited for ensemble playing. As such, the guitar will not be drowned out by trebly and sharp banjos and mandolins. Now a worthy mention as an offshoot of the classic dreadnought is the round-shoulder dreadnought variant the Gibson J-45. This guitar was coined the “workhorse”, flaunting a beautiful sunburst and a warm, luscious tone.
Who plays it
The popularity of the guitar has led to it being played across virtually every style of music from rock and blues to country, folk, and bluegrass. They are heavily associated with the 1960s, specifically during the folk boom, but are seen across nearly every genre and style. It is especially loved by strummers and flat pickers with its strong low-end response. The full-sounding low-end also makes the dreadnought great for singers, as this bass response supports the voice well. Fingerstylists may also use a dreadnought, but the volume projection lends itself more towards the others.
The dreadnought may not be well-suited for smaller-framed players and children due to the guitar’s large body size. Tons of artists play the dreadnought, but notable mentions include Johnny Cash and Joni Mitchell, the latter of whom played it for everything from jazz and rhythm to sweet folk, soulful rock, and pop.
The Martin D-18 stands as one of the best in the high-end range as well as the beautiful Gibson Hummingbird. On the lower end, the Yamaha FG-840 has a great sound and is excellent value for the price.
The Jumbo was introduced by Gibson in 1937 with its signature J-200 model. It’s truly the epitome of a cowboy guitar. It flaunts well-rounded shoulders and bottom and one of the largest sound cavity of all the varieties. This, along with its widths of up to 17”, gives the jumbo the loudest volume projection of the varieties. If Gibsons are out of the price range, Epiphone offers well-crafted jumbos without the high price tag. The jumbo length is generally around 20” long, with a 4” depth.
Aesthetically, the Jumbos are very pretty look at it. With its highly decorative inlays found commonly on the pickguard, headstock, around the sound hole, and near the bridge, you will definitely be turning heads with this variety.
How it sounds
Tonally, the Jumbo has a very well-balanced spectrum. Due to its large body and volume, it has a high low-end boom, great volume projection, and high top response. The maple back and sides give the jumbo a snappy tone that lets it easily cut through the mix.
Who plays it
The jumbo is popular in country music. The high sound output makes them a great choice for large gatherings with or without amplification. The impressive volume is also taken advantage of by aggressive strummers. Some well-known artists that use jumbos include Noel Gallagher, George Harrison, Bob Dylan, and Elvis Presley. The high volume easily backs up big, booming vocals, so the jumbo is a good choice as both a solo instrument or for ensemble use.
Due to its large size, the jumbo isn’t recommended for travelers, children or smaller players who might find a smaller guitar (perhaps a mini-jumbo, with its shallower depth) a better option. Also, because of its big sound, the guitar might not be a great choice for those who mainly play on the quieter side.
The Epiphone EJ-200CE is a more budget version of the Gibson Jumbos but still very finely crafted.
The ultra high-end Gibson Super Jumbo, or SJ-200, has a great, wide response and probably the biggest acoustic you would come across.
Less expensive variants come from Morris, Ibanez (Ibanez concord Jumbo), Alvarez, Takamine
Guild is known for their Jumbo 12 string, the Guild 2512E, which has a very warm, bright sound.
At the other end of the spectrum lies the Parlor, which has one of the smallest sizes not including the modern shrunken mini acoustics. This old-world guitar rose to fame in the late 1800s and is made by companies such as Fender, Washburn, and Ibanez. It is a compact-style guitar that is very easy to hold with a great feel. It has a small overall length, a width of usually under 14”, and an elongated body. Some say to classify as a parlor, it must be smaller than an “0”-sized concert, but this classification scheme is not quite watertight.
Parlors can have anywhere from 12 to 14 frets, and higher fret access (especially where the neck joins the body) can be difficult, but not impossible. The guitar’s shoulders are more sloping compared to the rounded dreadnought and has a much narrower body base.
How it sounds
The parlor’s tone is well-balanced, light, and focused. It has less of a bass response compared to the bigger varieties and more of a mid/high-range focus. The dynamic range isn’t quite as wide therefore, so tone purists may not Its appeal comes in part from its “boxy” vintage sound that vintage guitar aficionados enjoy.
Who plays it
Thanks to that light, boxy sound, the guitar largely appeals to players of blues, slide guitar, folk, indie, and fingerstyle players. It’s standard nut width suits a wide range of playing styles, from hard strumming to fingerstyle. It’s particularly great for solo artists, its naturally quieter sound lets the vocals shine without overpowering them with that big booming dreadnought sound. One popular artist that uses a parlor is Ian Anderson.
Another great thing about its smaller size is that it’s a great choice for smaller-framed players and children, who would consider them a lot more comfortable than full-size dreadnoughts or jumbos. Travelers also commonly pick up a parlor for its great portability as well. Players who plan on playing to big crowds or in big performances may not want to choose a parlor due to its reduced volume output.
The Fender PM2 is an immensely fun and playable guitar. To really maximize the tone, put some nice strings on it. In my experience, elixir medium gauge really does the job.
Not to be confused with the concert, the auditorium was originally produced by C.F. Martin. It comes in sizes ranging from (small to large) “0” to “00”, “000”, each with its own unique tonality and volume differences. For a more detailed analysis in this naming convention, check this video out.
The auditorium expertly balances playability and comfort. The streamlined hourglass design sits nicely on the leg due to the smaller waist compared to body shapes of a similar size. In size, the auditorium is between a dreadnought and a concert, with a lower body width of around 15” to 16” for the grand auditorium.
The grand auditorium was first produced by Taylor. As the name suggests, it is a larger-bodied version of the auditorium with more width and slightly more depth, similar to a full-size dreadnought in size and sound (although a bit tighter sounding). It is also synonymous with the “000” naming convention. Slightly bigger than the 000-sized guitar is the OM. The scale length of the 000 is 24.9” while the OM is 25.4”
The orchestra model is worth mentioning in this section because some manufacturers don’t make the distinction between it and the auditorium. It has slightly more volume and is slightly bigger than the auditorium
How it sounds
The auditorium is one of the most popular choices today, with great overall versatility in tone and performance. It has a warm, clear, tone and a well-balanced tonal range, especially in the mids, but with an overall great treble-bass balance. The auditorium is louder than the smaller-bodied variants due in part to the more volume of wood resonating. The auditorium is particularly great sounding with lighter string gauges.
Who plays it
This multi-purpose guitar adapts to a wide range of playing styles and is a natural choice for strummers, flat pickers, and finger stylists. It can be found across a wide range of genres, from rock and blues to folk and country. The midrange scoop makes this guitar type especially compatible with singer-songwriters. Taylor Swift almost exclusively used the grand auditorium style in her country albums.
The auditorium may not be preferred for heavy strummers due to its lower volume ceiling compared to the jumbo and dreadnought. Though, if you pick one up with a pickup/preamp system, you can’t go wrong with this guitar either in small pub gigs or large performances. Many artists have played the grand auditorium, but perhaps one of the most well-recognized is Eric Clapton, who famously used it in his unplugged concert. It performs beautifully across everything from heavy strumming to quiet fingerpicking and bluesy licks.
Taylor 214CE grand auditorium is one of the most popular body shapes.
The OM is something of a middle ground between the parlor and a dreadnought. The Martin OM 28 shines when either strumming and fingerpicking.
Introduced in the mid to late 19th century, the concert and grand concert, which we are lumping together, are one of the smaller acoustic varieties, just a size up from the parlor guitar. The narrower waist compared to the dreadnought and auditorium styles makes it very comfortable to play while sitting down or lounging around. It is an “0” sized guitar in Martin, sitting somewhere between a dreadnought and a classical.
The grand concert is a slightly bigger concert with a style derived from the classical guitars with its rounded shoulders and shallow body. It sits at about 14” lower body width, 18” long, and a 4” depth.
How it sounds
The concert guitars are known for their bright, trebly sound. The shallower depth of the concert body creates a quieter sound compared to the dreadnought, jumbo, and auditorium. It has a very robust midrange, nice clarity in the treble, and a well-defined tone that makes it stand out in the mix. As a result of its smaller size, it is more responsive to a lighter touch
Who plays it
The concert is a great choice for smaller-framed players who don’t want the boxy, vintage sound of a parlor. It is favorable to finger stylists due to its bright, crisp articulations and great response in the trebles. Aggressive strummers may not find this variety to be ideal, as the sound will distort as the volume increases. Woodie Guthrie famously played the concert variety as well as John Mayer. Bob Dylan’s first guitar was also a Martin 00-17, so it’s clear that this variety is pretty well-revered by many of the greats.
Some of the most popular guitars in this category are the Martin-00 series, introduced in 1877 as gut-string guitars. The modern Martin 00-28 features a solid Sitka spruce top and rosewood back and sides for a very bright, balanced tone with crystal clear high ends.
More affordable guitars of this type are made by Yamaha and Takamine. From the latter brand, GF30CE is a great beginner choice.
Originally developed in Spain, this nylon-stringed acoustic is in its own domain of classification. There are a wide variety of classical manufacturers, but specialty brands exist such as Kremona, Cordoba, and Yamaha. The classical is distinguishable by its wider neck and fretboard, which gives a more spacious surface to finger frets in a variety of styles. It also has a signature slotted headstock with open-geared cam tuners. The tuners are perpendicular from the back of headstock rather than parallel with the sides. The surface area is also flatter compared to its steel-stringed counterparts. The scale length of the classical sits somewhere around 26”.
How it sounds
The classical guitar, due to its nylon strings and unique construction, has a much warmer sound than its steel-string counterparts. It never sounds harsh in the upper register due to its lower string tension. Its tone is well-balanced and the sustain is less compared to the steel-string acoustics.
Who plays it
It’s warm, unique sound lends itself to Spanish fingerstyle and flamenco guitar (it originated in Spain after all). The classical is a great choice for beginners because of its softer strings, which could make playing more comfortable as hand strength and dexterity develop.
The classical is not as great of a choice for flat-pickers and strummers who capitalize on the loud, bright sound that steel-string guitars offer. Also, small-handed players may not like the wide neck and fretboard, but scaled down versions do exist. One well-known classical player is Willie Nelson
Don’t be fulled by its small-size, the travel/mini guitars are definitely not toy guitars. They are built with craftsmanship and high-quality materials, and many offer full-size fretboards, giving the travel guitars a great feel and premium quality. The higher ends of this type are made by Taylor and Martin. The guitar is close to full-scale length depending on the model, around 23” for the Taylor Big Baby.
These guitars balance great tone with great portability. Some models such as the Little Martin LXM are made with high-pressure laminate, which gives the guitar great durability and resilience to temperature and humidity changes. The bigger models such as the GS Mini and Big Baby are close to full-scale length (sitting at 15/16 full-size) and have a very similar action with a full-size fretboard.
How it sounds
Since these guitars are about ¾ size the regular dreadnought size, the projection is considerably less. However, these guitars have impressively an impressively warm and bright sound, with well-developed mid-range and trebles. The tonewoods chosen will play a role in the sound, as some like the Martin LX1 and Taylor Big Baby have solid Sitka spruce for that louder, brighter sound, and the Martin LX2 with its mahogany body will be darker with well-developed bass response.
Who plays it
The travel/mini guitars are great for smaller students or beginners of the guitar, children, and of course, travelers who want to lug it around on road trips or in the overhead bin. The guitar has been widely popularized by Ed Sheeran, who has been known to use the Little Martin LX1E. Increasingly more people have been picking them as their main, or as a spare guitar to bring to campfires or to be a little more rough with. Since this guitar is more on the quieter side compared to its full-size relatives, it is not great for large performances. Bigger players may also find it harder to play.
Martin, Taylor, and Johnson are all popular brands when choosing a travel-sized guitar. The Big Baby Taylor and the GS Mini are both great options and have won numerous awards.
If you’re looking for an even smaller guitar, at ¾ size, the Little Martin LX1 and the Baby Taylor are both great choices, sporting solid Sitka spruce tops that will give a nice, bright sound that matures with age. If you’re looking for a bit of a unique style, the Johnson JC-TR6 is also a solid option with excellent portability.
Originating out of the mind of Orville Gibson around 1890, the archtop acoustic guitars have a body a that evolved from the design on mandolins and other stringed instruments. Instead of a regular soundhole, they feature a violin-inspired f-hole in which the top and back of the instrument are carved in an arched, curved shape, rather than a flat one. Some tops are hand carved, which takes a lot of time and skill, and so naturally translates to a costly guitar. Other archtops have their tops pressed into shape using a mold.
More features include a hollow body, adjustable floating bridge, and a 14-fret neck join. They are found as either acoustic or electric, though, its very common for acoustic archtops to come with floating pickups, which allows the player to play it amplified while keeping its trebly, warm acoustic sound when unplugged.
How it sounds
The archtop acoustic is known for its mellow tone, smoothness in all frequency ranges and lack of sustain but great, focused “cutting power” when played hard. It has a very focused mid-range and sharp attack.
Who plays it
The lack of sustain and focused sound is very favorable for players of jazz, rockabilly or fingerstyle blues. Guitars had a hard time competing in the big band era with the brass and other jazz instruments, but archtops were loud enough to hold their own in jazz bands of the 1930s until electric guitars began to replace them by the early 40s. Some early rock and rollers played acoustic archtops, such as Bill Haley.
Among the cheaper variety of archtop acoustics is the Loar LH-600, which has great craftsmanship, loud volume output, and perhaps the best you can buy for under a grand.
The Critical Feature of Tonewoods
While many features go into developing the sound of the guitar, including the craftsmanship of the builder, the bracing, the dimensions, and much more, the tonewoods are an integral component of a guitar’s construction because they are the main distributor of the string energy of the guitar. The top wood is especially critical for producing the sound of the guitar, as the top resonates together with the strings, saddle, bridge, and rest of the body to produce a wide range of tones. Many factors in the tonewood play a part in developing the sound, including the tonewood durability, stiffness, hardness, color, and sustainability.
While the relation between sound and tonewoods can be fairly subjective (as these properties can vary between trees of the same species or even in the same tree), there are some general trends between tonewood and sound “flavor” and frequency range. Here are the most popularly used tonewoods.
Solid Sitka spruce
This is a very popular top tonewood for acoustics, balancing light weight, stiffness and elasticity nicely. It generally has a broad dynamic range, high responsiveness, and a bright, loud sound great for large performances. It also matures with age which increases the tone and resonance. This tonewood fits virtually every playing style well.
This spruce is similar to above but seen as more responsive when played softly. This makes it ideal for fingerstyle players, for instance.
This is a common tonewood in vintage acoustics. To many guitarists, this tonewood is considered one of the most lively, but it has been overharvested so many manufacturers do not use it. It also matures with age but takes longer to open up compared to the other varieties.
Less dense than spruce, cedar is a warm tonewood known for its luscious tone. It doesn’t have the same hard attack of spruce, which makes it great for light strummers and finger pickers.
This wood is commonly used in the back and sides, it has a meaty midrange, well-balanced bass, and a punchy and woody sound. Popular in country blues to folk and rock, this wood is great for ensemble playing as well as players with a strong playing attack for rhythm playing.
This wood type is common in archtops and jumbos. It has a flatness of tone that produces a quick decay. Common in archtops or jumbos, maple has a linear, transparent response and a focused, bright tone that helps to balance out the jumbos overabundance of low-end frequencies.
Rosewood has a rich, musical tone that adds complexity and sustain. It has a wide spectrum frequency range with deep lows, bright highs, and somewhat scooped mids. This wood type is very versatile and works with many different playing styles, but finger pickers and flat pickers are a very good match for this type of wood.
Laminated wood is essentially thin sheets of wood glued together, as opposed to solid wood, where a solid piece of wood is cut off the tree. Laminated woods don’t resonate as freely as solid wood. Their lesser price makes them particularly attractive options when making budget acoustics. The laminated wood construction is very durable and can be veneered with a variety of exotic woods for visual appeal. This makes them attractive for travelers or anyone who wants a guitar they can treat a little rougher.
It’s clear there is a variety of acoustic guitar types, all with its own unique tonal profile. A guitar’s physical dimensions play a crucial role in creating its fundamental sound and comfort.
At end of the day, the choice should be made based on the player’s unique style, what music he or she wishes to play, and which guitar shape feels most comfortable based on the physical characteristics of the player.