Years back, I remember mulling over the electric vs acoustic guitar face-off, which is the best beginner decision when learning to play the guitar?
As with most enjoyable things in life, the answer comes down to your unique preferences.
The easiest guitar to play is the one you are most motivated to learn on and grow your skills. If you’re a die-hard rock and roll fan, learning scales on a classical nylon guitar won’t be nearly as exciting as practicing solos on a Telecaster.
However, to arrive at a well-thought-out decision, we’re going to take a comprehensive journey through the main differences between electric and acoustic guitars informed from my years of experience with both types of guitars. We’ll take a look at the differences in design, components, ease of use, and mobility, to name a few, as well as what brands to consider purchasing as a novice player. We’ll also consider meeting halfway with the electro-acoustic guitar.
Electric vs. Acoustic Guitar: What are the Main Differences?
The Differences in Construction
Some fundamental, basic mechanisms are in play for both an acoustic and electric guitar. Both involve tuners, have six strings that vibrate when plucked, a bridge, and many other similar physical attributes. In either case, pressing down a fret shortens the effective length of the string, causing it to vibrate at a different frequency and produce a different note. However, many differences exist in construction that may lead the beginner player to opt for one over the other.
Acoustic guitars have large, hollow bodies with a sound hole just below the strings. The wooden front of the guitar, or soundboard, is made of laminate or thin wood, often spruce, mahogany, or red cedar, chosen for its varying sound qualities. In general, spruce often gives a bright, warm, meaty sound with high volume output, while mahogany produces a solid, punchy tone well suited to country blues, with great response at the upper end of the dynamic range. Red cedar, on the other hand, has less volume projection than their spruce cousin and has a lush, dark tone.
When the metal strings of a guitar are strummed, the vibrations are transmitted through pieces of wood on the body, called the “bridge” and “saddle”, to the soundboard. The bridge serves as an anchor for the end of the six strings closer to the top frets. The saddle is a thin, hard piece of wood embedded in the bridge where the strings rest against.
The soundboard transfers the majority of the string energy to the air within the hollow guitar body, which amplifies the sound to project outwards for everyone to hear.
Electric guitars, on the other hand, were developed in the 1920s. They have thinner, solid bodies that don’t use a sound cavity to project the sound outwards. Electric guitars instead use transducers called “pickups” to convert the vibrating string energy to an electrical signal. The signal is sent to speakers that amplify it and modify the tone by emphasizing or de-emphasizing certain frequencies using equalizer controls.
The pickups are essentially bar magnets wound with over 7,000 turns of fine metal wire. The vibrating strings cause fluctuations in the magnets’ magnetic fields. Since an alternating magnetic field creates an electric field (the law of induction), the vibrating currents create an electric signal that is sent to the output jack and then amplified at the speaker. While it is true that acoustic guitars can be fitted with electric pickups, I wouldn’t advise a beginner to take on this sort of DIY project before they have some more experience under their belt.
The Differences in Cost
Working within a budget may be a priority when choosing your first guitar. Since electric guitars require an amplifier and other accessories before being playable, there is a clear cost distinction between them and acoustic guitars. With acoustic guitars, all you really need is the guitar itself, and occasionally a set of strings.
Nevertheless, both a basic acoustic and electric guitar setup package can run somewhere in the range between 200-300 dollars, while more serious beginners may wish to extend their budget into the 400-500 range for increased quality and craftsmanship.
The Differences in Accessibility and Mobility
There is a case to be made for the simplicity of an acoustic guitar. You simply pick it up, tune it, and play it, pick or no pick. It sports no distortion, cables, pedals, and knobs of all kinds on the amplifier, the beginner can focus solely on the ins and outs of the instrument.
Furthermore, if the beginner values mobility, acoustic guitars are an attractive option because they are so easy to transport. This is especially true in ¾ size dreadnought acoustics, which flaunts easy transport, a thin beginner-friendly neck profile, and usually have a high-quality gig bag included.
In contrast, playing an electric guitar is a little more involved. You have to pick it up, tune it, plug it in, turn on the amplifier, and then play it. However, there are many advantages to starting on an electric guitar.
Electric guitars offer more flexibility with the ability to easily volume adjust. When playing at home, the beginner with an acoustic will only be able to play at the volume set by the body’s construction and tonewoods, while with an electric, you can practice at low volume, with headphones, or even unplugged.
Moreover, electric guitars provide more versatility. Many modern amps have an array of effects built in that allows for a variety of playing styles, including rock and roll, bluegrass, metal, blues, jazz, and much more.
No matter which guitar is chosen, it is crucial to have the instrument set up and adjusted properly to suit your needs. Many acoustics and electrics are sold ready to play out of the box, but consider having the instrument fully inspected and adjusted for ease of play by a local guitar technician.
Which One is Harder to Learn how to Play, Electric or Acoustic Guitar?
Beginners may be wondering, is it easier to learn and play an electric guitar compared to an acoustic guitar? While the strings on both an electric and acoustic guitar will make your fingers tender at first, especially with lots of practice, it is true that it is easier to play an electric guitar compared to an acoustic.
Electric guitar strings have a lighter gauge and are closer to the fingerboard. This higher action makes fingering chords and playing scales easier. Additionally, electric guitars have a smaller body and a thinner neck profile which may be ideal for playability and comfortability.
Acoustic guitars tend to have higher action, as the strings on the guitar are further away from the fretboard which can make fretting notes more difficult. The high action can make it more challenging when learning the basic finger shapes of chords. Acoustics also tend to have wider necks and bigger, heavier bodies in order to support the tension of heavier gauge strings and adequately project the sound for everyone to hear. This is especially the case with full-size dreadnoughts.
As a beginner, dexterity, flexibility, finger strength, and muscle memory will come in due time with patience and lots of practice. Pretty soon you’ll be moving around the fretboard with ease.
Acoustic vs. Electric Guitar Strings
When comparing electric vs. acoustic guitar strings, there are many factors in play such as the alloys used, the gauge, the construction, and more. To note a basic similarity, acoustic and electric guitar strings are both constructed with a steel core, but usually wound with different materials.
There are five main types of strings: steel and nickel, brass and bronze, and nylon. Electric guitar strings are usually made of steel, nickel, cobalt, or chromium alloys due to their magnetic properties. Steel-string acoustic are usually wound with bronze and brass alloys, offering high volume and resonance with a warm tone. Classical guitars, in a class of their own, commonly feature nylon strings.
Common Electric Guitar Strings
There are three common varieties of electric guitar strings: stainless steel, nickel-plated steel, and pure nickel. Most electric guitar strings are steel wires with the three thickest strings plated in nickel. Let’s take a look at them one by one.
- Stainless Steel. This string type is resistant to corrosion and has a nice mixture of brightness and sustain. They are a great fit for genres such as rock, metal, and country where a lively, well-developed high-end response is needed.
- Nickel-plated Steel. This type is a nice combination of warmth and brightness. It has a strong picking attack and lots of body in their low-end response while maintaining a strong lead tone in the treble strings.
- Pure Nickel. These strings have a richer tone and give you that classic old vintage sound. They are a great fit for rhythm work, or older genres such as blues.
Common Acoustic Guitar Strings
Since there aren’t any pickups or amplifiers involved in an acoustic guitar’s sound production, strings have a relatively bigger impact on their overall sound. Acoustic guitars can be roughly divided into steel-string acoustics and classical guitars, the latter utilizes the last string type on our list. There are some of the most common varieties of acoustic guitar strings.
- 80/20 Bronze. As brass-plated steel, this string is 80% copper and 20% zinc. With a treble-laden tone, this type sports a clean, bright sound but is more vulnerable to corrosion than the steel varieties. This one is common on dreadnought guitars, jumbo guitars, and OM guitars.
- Phosphor Bronze. This type is similar to the above, but with phosphor added to add corrosion resistance and increase the string life. As a result, they are a bit less bright than the above, and have a smooth high-end response and a warmer sound. These strings are good to use on smaller-bodied guitars or larger bodies in more relaxed genres.
- Silk and steel (“Compound Strings”). Made to be used on steel string acoustics, silk and steel strings use a nylon filament between the metal outer winding and the steel core. They have a mellower, warmer tone than regular steel strings and are commonly used by fingerstyle players to create a nylon classical sound.
- Nylon. Common in classical and flamenco guitars, these strings have a bright, clear tone. There are many varieties of nylon, including clear nylon (the most popular), rectified nylon, black nylon, and composite. Generally speaking, nylon guitars are not set up to use steel strings because of their light bracing. The neck construction, saddle, bridge of classical guitars may be seriously damaged because of the greater tension produced by the steel strings.
What is String Gauge?
A string’s gauge is simply how thick it is. The thicker the string, the warmer its response will be and the more volume it will produce. When buying strings, you might see on the package words like extra light, light, and medium. These designations can vary from manufacturer to manufacturer, but the string diameter is standardized. String gauge is measured in 1/1000ths of an inch, ranging anywhere from 0.08 on the 1st string to .056 on the heaviest 6th string.
The Differences in String Gauge: Which is Right for Me?
Light string gauges are common in blues and soloing, vintage guitars, small-body guitars, and for those interested in fingerpicking. Heavier gauges are better suited for unamplified acoustic playing, slide players, and guitars with low action. They offer high volume, durability and great sustain.
Since acoustics utilize the soundhole to project out the sound, acoustic guitar strings tend to be heavier gauge than electric guitar strings. In acoustics, the thicker, heavier strings are more conducive to fingerstyle playing or strumming.
For beginner players, I recommend starting with a lighter gauge regardless of whether you end up with an electric or acoustic guitar as your first guitar. Lighter gauges are easier when fretting notes and can help ease of playing while hand strength and calluses develop. With the thinner strings on an electric guitar, you can also easily perform hammer-ons, pull-offs, and various legato licks that are common in everything from blues and jazz to rock and metal.
Recommended String Brands
There are dozens of brands of guitar strings, but you can’t go wrong with these companies, which easily constitute 90% or more of the string market.
- D’Addario. A family-owned business, D’Addario is easily one of the most influential string manufacturers in the market today. They offer strings with a variety of construction methods for just about every instrument that uses strings. For acoustic guitars, The EJ16-3D Phosphor Bronze offers high sound quality at an affordable price, and so it is a great beginner option. For electric players, the EXL110-3D XL Nickel Wound electric guitar strings are a great option. They are light gauge, offer a distinctive bright sound, and are very long-lasting.
- Ernie Ball. Founded in 1962 by (you guessed it) Ernie Ball, this company produces high-quality, long-life, and affordable strings for all instruments. They specialize in electric guitar strings. The famous Super Slinky Nickel Wound Set is a great beginner option for electric players. For acoustic guitar players, the Earthwood Medium Light Acoustic Phosphor Bronze String Set offers a nice, rich phosphor bronze sound.
- Martin. Recognized as one of the premium brands in the guitar world known for their quality and craftsmanship. The Martin MSP4150 SP Phosphor Bronze Acoustic Guitar Strings are a great choice because of their light/medium gauge and offer a great balance of volume, tone, and playability.
- DR. Founded in 1989, DR Strings is based in New Jersey and produces great guitar and bass strings. The classic Tite Fit Electric Round Core strings are an all-around great beginner option for electric players, excellent for nearly all genres from blues to heavy rock. For acoustic players, the Sunbeam Phosphor Bronze Strings are an excellent hand wound, cost-effective option with a bright, rich tone.
- GHS. GHS has been making strings for all types of instruments since 1964 in Battle Creek, Michigan. For electric owners, I recommend the TC-GBL Thin Core Boomers, which are nickel-plated and offer a light, playable gauge and rich tone. For acoustic owners, the 345 Silk And Steel, Silver-Plated Copper Acoustic Guitar Strings are light gauge and especially shine on mini beginner guitars made of high-pressure laminate.
- Fender. A truly household name, Fender produces great guitars and guitar strings for nearly all budgets and styles. The 3150R Pure Nickel Bullet End Electric Guitar Strings are great for beginner electric players with its light gauge, warm sound, and great sustain. For acoustic players, the 60L 0730060408 Acoustic Guitar Phosphor Bronze Ball End Strings are easy to fret and offer a high-quality sound.
- Elixirs. Established in 1995, Elixirs create outstanding musical products and are renowned by professionals around the world. The Elixir Nanoweb Electric Guitar Strings and Elixir Nanoweb Acoustic Guitar Strings are great options for electric and acoustic players, respectively. They feature a protective micro-thin polymer coating that, while slightly reduces the brightness and sustain, gives a smooth feel and longer lifespan by protecting the strings from oil, sweat, dirt, and skin.
Recommended Electric and Acoustic Guitar Brands
Based on extensive research and personal experience with these brands, these are the top six brands I would recommend to any beginner guitar player looking for quality craftsmanship, great tone, and excellent value for the price. We will look here at six total brands, three acoustic and three electric recommendations.
- Seagull. Based in Quebec, Canada, Seagull offers great, hand-made acoustic guitars with solid tops. The brand offers budget models all the way up to top of the line guitars in the several thousand range. The company sources all of their wood from sustainable sources and uses hydro-electric power. Flaunting a cedar top, a silver leaf maple neck, and a beautiful semi-gloss finish, the S6 Cedar Original Slim acoustic is a fantastic first option for those willing to purchase in the $400 range.
- Martin. Universally-respected for their premium guitars, Martin is one of the elite brands in the business. The Little Martin LX1, priced around $350, is a great beginner choice that offers an unparalleled Martin tone and a scaled-down body size for playability and mobility.
- Yamaha. Yamaha guitars are easy to play, built to last, and are great-sounding budget instruments. The infamous FG series of guitars are a very attractive option for beginners. I highly recommend the FG800 for most beginner players of the acoustic because of its affordability (at just $200), great sound, and playability.
- Gibson. This is one of the most iconic and well-trusted brands for both electric and acoustic guitars. Founded in 1092 in Michigan, Gibson also owns Epiphone, which produces high-quality, cost-effective models similar to Gibson. The Maestro Electric Guitar is a great starter option that comes alongside a comprehensive starter package consisting of all accessories needed to get started.
- Ibanez. Ibanez makes great quality guitars for both beginners and professionals. The RG450DX is a fantastic option if the $400 or so dollars is in the budget range. It comes in many styles, has a mahogany body, a comfortable maple neck, and a strat-style pickguard.
- Fender. Born in 1946, Fender guitars are widely used in just about every genre from rock and roll to country, western, jazz and blues. Popular guitars include the legendary Telecasters and Stratocasters. Perhaps one of the most recommended and highly-rated beginner electrics, the Squier Strat is a great, cost-effective option with a high-quality build and a great tone.
How about an Electro-Acoustic Guitar: Is it Worth Starting with as a Beginner?
The electro-acoustic guitar is an acoustic guitar that you can plug into an amplifier to reach higher volume output or to use effects. It looks just like a steel-stringed acoustic but has a jack input.
Electro-acoustic guitars will either have piezeo-electric transducers, regular bar pickups, microphones, or some combination. Piezo pickups are under the saddle of the strings, at the bridge. These utilize an on-board preamp alongside a 9V power source. The regular magnetic bar-shaped pickups are situated under the strings at the soundhole. The small electret condenser microphone is installed inside the guitar. Some models have nice features such as on-board chromatic tuners and adjustable mid-range frequency controls.
If you’re able to crank the amp where you live and don’t mind dishing out a bit more money, an electric-acoustic guitar might be a great first option. If you don’t mind the extra technicalities and accessories, they also allow you to be performance-ready with more versatility if you decide to play in front of people.
Electric-acoustic guitars may start out pricier than non-electric acoustics. A quality starter electro-acoustic guitar can run anywhere from $230 to over $700. On the budget end currently priced at $330, the Fender CD-60SCE is an excellent beginner acoustic-electric choice. The bundle also includes a durable hard case, strap, strings, picks, a handy instructional DVD, and a polishing cloth.
If your budget is a bit higher, the Yamaha FSX830C is a premium acoustic-electric guitar that sounds great and is very easy to play. Priced currently at $500, this guitar features a solid Sitka spruce top that creates a well-balanced, bright tone, top-notch electronics, and overall is excellent value for the price.
String Options for Electro-Acoustic Guitar
The electro-acoustic guitars feature under-saddle piezo pickups. Similar to electric guitars, the mechanical string energy is converted to an electrical signal with an on-board preamp. Piezo pickups are nonmagnetic so ordinary acoustic guitar or classical guitar strings will work well. Some electro-acoustic models feature magnetic or microphone pickups in addition to piezo pickups.
The DR Zebra set is designed for acoustic-electric hybrids with piezo bridge pickups or magnetic pickups. The GHS WB-L strings sound great and are a light gauge wound with “Alloy 52” to help resist corrosion in humid climates.
It is clear many differences exist between electric and acoustic guitars, including their design and components, ease of use, portability, and more. Some beginner players may highly value playability and sound effects and so opt for an electric guitar, while others may find portability and simplicity absolutely key to their purchase and lean towards an acoustic.
No matter the pros and cons of both guitars, it is much more intrinsically motivating to play the type of guitar and music that interests you. Ask yourself questions such as, what type of guitar do I envision playing, given my musical interests? What type of guitar and music most inspires me? Which professional musicians do I look up to and want to emulate on my journey?
In all likelihood, the decision between electric and acoustic is probably not as binary as you might think. In time and once I was thoroughly bitten by the guitar bug, I found my collection of guitars growing across both the electric and acoustic realm as my skills, motivation, inspiration, and drive evolved.