Perhaps one of the most common questions I get from students (and parents of prospective students) is whether they should start out learning guitar on an acoustic or an electric. The whole acoustic vs electric guitar debates has many different elements to it, and there is no one definite and universal answer. Both can be good options, so ultimately, it all depends on each unique situation! Just like none of us look exactly the same, no two people start their guitar adventure with quite the same needs and/or ambitions. I will say that I own and play both, and regularly do both electric and acoustic gigs on a professional level, depending on what is required of me on that specific gig. So let’s look at some of the different aspects and elements of each type of guitar, and which one will be most closely related to what you’re looking for.
Table Of Contents
Who’s your inspiration?
Here’s one of the first metrics I use, again keeping in mind that this is what I’ve advised students to consider over the years, and what seems to yield good results for them. Basically it comes down to this. If you’re inspired to pick up the guitar because you’ve seen some amazing guitar player do unspeakable things on an electric guitar, then start with an electric guitar. This is how I got seriously into guitar, after a Queen video came on the TV and I saw Brian May (to this day possibly my biggest guitar idol) play a beautiful face-melting solo.
If you want to create soundscapes using multiple effects such as delays, reverbs, pitch shifters (think Radiohead, U2), then perhaps an electric guitar is the best option (people do use acoustic guitar for this as well so it’s definitely possible, just might present a few more limitations if you choose to do it live). More of the stripped down, singer songwriter type? An acoustic might just be the answer you’re looking for. Ultimately it will all come down to what’s going to serve you best at this point in your journey.
Differences in sound and functionality
If you want to play any genre of music where the guitar needs to be significantly overdriven/distorted, chances are you’re better off with an electric guitar. In short, an electric guitar is generally going to give you a wider range of tonal options due to the fact that you can plug into multiple different types of effects. Again there are acoustic guitarists doing this (see John Butler), but the signal from the acoustic guitar tends to colour the effects quite a bit, so what you get in the end is a blend of the acoustic sound with the effects on top, rather than a pure, ‘wet’ signal with effects in it (if this is the kind of sound you want then it might be an interesting option for you to investigate).
This is why for all of my gigs where I’m required to play with drums, bass, keyboards etc, and to play various songs across multiple genres (aka need different effects), I pretty much always use one of my electric guitars.
On the other hand, if you’re inspired by one of the hundreds of mindblowing fingerstyle acoustic guitarists on YouTube (read : Tommy Emmanuel or CandyRat records), then by all means pick up an acoustic guitar. If you’re thinking of writing songs and accompanying yourself solo at open mic nights etc, then maybe an acoustic guitar would give you more richness and fullness when it comes to playing rhythm, allowing chords to ring out and resonate. You can also use the guitar body itself for different percussive elements.
That said, I have seen quite a few singer songwriters accompany themselves solo on electric guitar… it’s definitely possible and can sound fantastic, it would just a little bit more difficult to get that ‘percussive’ feel off of it due to the differences in the way these guitars are built. For this reason, whenever I play duo gigs where I’m accompanying a singer, I always use my acoustic guitar, since it allows me to be the harmony (chords) and also the percussion (there are ways of doing this which you will learn along your guitar journey).
Another added benefit of buying an acoustic guitar is that because it sounds louder than an electric guitar, you don’t need an amplifier for it if you want to practice, and it will still sounds great. Naturally you can also practice/play electric unamplified, but unless it’s a hollow body electric guitar it won’t sound nearly as good is it does amplified. So if you want a guitar that you can just pick up and play wherever you are and have it sound rich and full, an acoustic guitar is definitely a good choice.
If you want to play your acoustic guitar in a live setting, you’ll generally need a pickup on an acoustic guitar which will allow you to plug into an amplifier or (more usually) a PA system… many guitars come with a pickup already installed, although you can easily have one installed seperately by a guitar technician. This is what I did back when I bought my Washburn D10S, which comes without a pickup (I got a fantastic B-Band pickup installed and the thing was singing). So you will be able to amplify yourself regardless of the type of guitar you get… it’s more about the type of sound you want coming out of whatever amplification system it is that you’re using.
However it an acoustic guitar will generally not cut though a louder band or ensemble as well as an electric guitar would, due to the different types of resonant frequencies that these instruments produce. This is not to say that an acoustic guitar when properly amplified cannot be used with drums, bass etc… but it might be a bit trickier to get it to sound right both on stage as well as to the people in the audience.
Now, let’s talk about difficulty of playing, which is something that concerns a lot of people, and which definitely a factor to be considered when answering the ‘acoustic vs electric guitar’ question for yourself. There’s no to ways of going about it… you would generally need a bit more physical effort to play an acoustic guitar as opposed to an electric. There are a few reasons for this, but the main ones are as follows : when compared to an electric guitar, an acoustic guitar generally has a bigger body size, a thicker/fatter neck, heavier gauge strings (in other words thicker) and a higher action (the action is the distance between the strings and the neck itself). All of this often usually means that a bit more finger, wrist and forearm strength is required to get clean, resonant notes.
This is especially the case when playing chords. Now this is not to say that an electric guitar doesn’t require any of this, but generally it tends to be to a lesser degree on an electric. So if you think that you’d like your first guitar to be a bit easier to play on a purely ergonomic level, then perhaps an electric might suit you better.
There might be a flipside to this, although it really shouldn’t be a make or break factor. If you do start learning guitar on an acoustic, the finger strength and dexterity that you develop will always carry over very well if/when you decide to also start playing electric. In fact, and I have seen this happen on quite a few occasions with students, having ‘wrestled’ with an acoustic for a while can give you a distinct advantage when transferring to electric over somebody who started off with the latter, due to the strength that you’ve built.
Some might say that this is a popular myth, but I have seen this be the case time and time again with students that I’ve had in the past. This does not necessarily translate in the opposite direction (going electric to acoustic) when speaking purely in terms of strength, although the control and brain-finger coordination you gain will be there no matter which direction you go in.
On a related note, I often get asked which guitar is best if you have small hands. Now in my opinion, this isn’t nearly as much of an issue as many people seem to think. With dedicated practice, I’ve seen many of my students who had so called ‘smaller hands’ achieve great dexterity and easy of playing on both types of guitars… hand size does matter somewhat, but more important is the flexibility and strength that you can achieve in the tendons and muscles in your hands. Coordination and control are far more important than just brute strength.
But all of these points are merely guidelines. Again, I must stress that I’ve seen many people over the years, students who I’ve personally taught for months and sometimes years, make great progress and become very, very good on both types of instrument. You can learn all the fundamentals of the instrument, the techniques, theory, chords, etc… on either one. At the end of the day, what matters in the whole ‘acoustic vs electric guitar’ debate is not the type of guitar you have, but how much you can enjoy learning it and how much it will allow you to motivate yourself to continuously improve. With all that in mind, I’ve compiled a couple of lists of some of the best guitars for beginners, both electric and acoustic, in the hope that it will help you narrow down your choices and get you on your way to musical joy! And keep in mind that as you evolve as a guitar player, there’s absolutely no reason not to own both 😉
PS : Whenever you buy a new guitar, there is one potential hidden cost that many are not aware of or are not told about. This is the cost of getting the guitar ‘setup’ by a professional guitar technician. What this basically does is get the guitar up to its most playable standard, fixing any minor issues that might exist when the instrument is brand new.
Examples of this could be adjusting the string intonation to make sure the guitar plays in tune across the whole neck, balancing the tension across the guitar to make sure it stays in tune and is easy to play, smoothing out any frets that might be sticking out a bit, etc… It is important to note that this is not always required, and will depend on how well the guitar has come out of the factory and been stored before purchase. I’ve certainly had guitars which have been set up pretty much perfectly from the moment I bought them… but there have also been many other times when a setup was required before the instrument’s true potential could come out. Setups aren’t typically very expensive, and depending on which part of the world you’re in could cost anywhere from $20-$60 and beyond (if more significant tweaks are needed).
Acoustic vs Electric Guitar Checklist
Finally, here’s a summary that will sum up all that we’ve discussed in this ‘acoustic vs electric guitar’ segment, and which will hopefully help you in making a decision for yourself.
- physically easier to play
- can offer more tonal variety when used in conjunction with effects and/or amps, such as overdrive, delay, reverb, etc…
- easier to cut through if played in a louder context
- might be a bit more difficult to use as an accompanying instrument for singers
- needs amplification to achieve its full potential in terms of sound
- can offer more percussive qualities, making it ideal for accompanying solo singers or songwriters
- great for fingerstyle playing due to heavier gauge (thicker strings) and a more resonant quality even when guitar is unplugged (due to the way acoustic guitars are built)
- does not need any amplification for practice (for example if being used at home)
- physically harder to play
- a bit more restricted tonally due to the signal not always blending perfectly with effects
- more difficult to use with louder and/or amplified instruments in a band/ensemble context
If you would like some help on buying a guitar, I have written in detail about some of the best budget-friendly electric and acoustic guitars on the market, so you can compare them side by side.