The acoustic guitar was invented way before electronics ever became part of the equation. Moreover, back in the day, the guitar was just another instrument on the back rows of the traveling band rather than the spotlight-favorite it’s today.
A lot has happened to music, and a lot has happened to acoustic guitars.
Yes, from Robert Johnson to Ed Sheeran, the guitar just grew and demanded more lights aiming at the protagonist. And so, options started multiplying by the hundreds and I’m sure you went online to choose your dream axe and were overwhelmed by the options.
So, here we are, I am about to help you make a decision that will change your life forever. Read on, as I make the differences and similarities between acoustic and acoustic-electric guitars perfectly clear.
You’re on your way to the guitar of your dreams, keep on reading!
Table of Contents
- What is an Acoustic Guitar?
- What is an Acoustic-Electric Guitar?
- Can I Turn My Acoustic into an Acoustic-Electric?
- Can I Play My Acoustic Electric Unplugged?
- Revolutionary Approaches
- Mini Buying-Guide
- Which One is Best for You?
What is an Acoustic Guitar?
An acoustic guitar is a musical instrument with a hollow body that requires no external amplification to project the sound. In other words, the body of the guitar acts as a resonance box that can amplify the sound of the strings naturally.
What is an Acoustic-Electric Guitar?
An acoustic-electric guitar shares the same description above with added pickup(s) that can transform the vibration of the strings into an electrical current that travels through a cable to an amplification source.
This definition means that, although the resonance box is present, the guitar features a connection for external amplification.
- Sound – The sound of an acoustic and an acoustic-electric guitar is exactly the same when both are unplugged.
- Shape – Most acoustic-electric guitars follow the same shape patterns that acoustics do. Nevertheless, read on because we listed a couple of groundbreaking exceptions below.
- Versatility – Although you can play all the songs you want with both guitars unplugged, being able to plug your guitar on any occasion makes acoustic-electric guitars more versatile.
- Sounds – While I know most guitar players, like me, associate the acoustic guitar with pure, unaltered, clean, and beautiful organic tones, not all players play it like that. With the addition of pickups, you can process the sound of the guitar to transform it into anything else. Below, we’ll explore some ground-breaking inventions.
Can I Turn My Acoustic into an Acoustic-Electric?
Now that you’re aware of differences and similarities, let’s pretend you just open up a closet at your grandma’s house and suddenly find a rusty old six-stringer that once belonged to your late grandfather. Your grandma decides to gift it to you and, before you know it, you’re walking home with an acoustic guitar.
Are there any ways to cross that bridge that divides electric and acoustic-electric guitars? Well, the answer is yes, and we’re going to go over each way from the simplest to the most complex.
The easiest, least invasive way to transform an acoustic into an acoustic-electric is by installing a magnetic pickup in the soundhole of the guitar. A magnetic pickup is a coil-wounded magnet that picks up the vibration of the strings; therefore, this example is only valid for steel-string guitars.
Piezo pickups are the most common built-in acoustic-electric pickups in the market by far. Yes, 90% of the acoustic-electric guitars you’ll be offered have these. They are simply oscillating tiny crystals that turn string vibration into electric current and that are always installed in your guitar’s bridge.
Some brands feature models with a hybrid approach, meaning a piezo pickup for the bridge and a condenser microphone inside the guitar’s body. This way, while the piezo pickup covers the midrange and the high frequencies, you can add low end from the microphone blending the two.
A great example is the Fishman Matrix Ellipse Blend.
Suggested Pickup Brands
- LR Baggs
- Seymour Duncan
Can I Play My Acoustic Electric Unplugged?
This is a question I’ve been asked more times than I would like to say I did. Nevertheless, it is a common doubt, especially for beginners. The answer is absolutely yes!
Furthermore, as we said before, the fact that you can play your acoustic-electric unplugged as well as plugged-in makes this category the most versatile of the two.
Finally, since most modifications needed to install a pickup are minimal, you should be playing a very expensive guitar or have a truly fine ear to tell the difference between a guitar with a pickup installed and one without it when you hear it unplugged.
Size Does Matter When Unplugged
This is something that happened to me personally. I’m the happy owner of a Martin D15M; my pride and joy. It’s made of solid mahogany, and thus, it projects a beautiful low-end into the world. I did many shows with it unplugged supporting my voice and I was enjoying it grandly.
The moment I installed a piezo pickup in it, though, all the low-end just magically disappeared. Boy was I disappointed!
But what’s the point of the story? Well, that plugged in with a piezo pickup, most guitars sound similar. On the other hand, when you play them unplugged, it all depends on wood vibration and sound projection.
Thus, an all-solid mahogany dreadnought guitar should always sound fuller and bigger than a parlor, or even a concert guitar.
So, size and wood combination matter more when you play your guitar unplugged, even if it’s acoustic-electric.
Oh, and the story has a happy ending since I bought a Fishman Ellipse Matrix Blend to add some of the lows to the resulting sound and my guitar is now amazing across the board again.
Although 90% of the market follows the traditional distinction between acoustic and acoustic-electric, some brands decided to erase that line with revolutionary approaches.
Let’s take a look at the most important three in recent times:
The Yamaha Silent
Released in 2001, the Yamaha Silent is the skeleton of the instrument I know and love, but the playability of my best acoustic. I was rambling about how piezo pickups take nothing of the natural vibration of the guitar’s body and this guitar is the confirmation of that.
Yes, you need to either plug your headphones in or plug it into an amplifier to hear the well-defined, expensive-sounding piezo-acoustic sound that can fool the most seasoned of players.
To this day, Yamaha manufactures and distributes these instruments around the world to huge acclaim. Furthermore, the line evolved adding other classic instruments like silent cellos or violins as well as pianos.
Originally released in 1993 and never out of production since then, the Godin Multiac meant a huge step forward for acoustic players at the time.
This semi-acoustic guitar with a heavily chambered body and nylon or steel strings is capable of some pristine acoustic guitar tones. It also has a built-in transducer with a 13-pin connector that’s great for a Roland GR synth for example.
Finally, all EQ settings and MIDI banks can be operated from the body of the guitar.
Fender Acoustasonic Series
Perhaps the most ground-breaking release of the past 5 years, Fender’s Acoustasonic Series is the ultimate acoustic-electric guitar offering the player a virtually endless combination of sounds, both, plugged and unplugged.
But that’s not all, since the company managed to release this guitar in three of the most iconic guitar shapes the brand’s ever released that play and feel like an electric.
You can check this Fender video of the Acoustasonic Telecaster for a full feature run.
Is There a Massive Price Difference?
Since the platform for both guitars is virtually the same, we could talk about a price difference, especially in entry-level models, because the electronics are an add-on.
That being said, as you move up to higher-priced models, the price difference diminishes and, sometimes, disappears. This is because the priciest acoustics are better appreciated with a condenser microphone in front of them.
In other words, installing a piezo pickup to a priceless pre-war Martin is close to a felony that, instead of making it more expensive, makes it drastically cheaper.
What Acoustic Guitar Brand Do You Suggest Buying?
The answer to this question depends very much on the budget. Yet, let’s try to break it down into three tiers:
- Jasmine (by Takamine)
- Martin (Mexican-made)
- Taylor (Mexican-made)
Should I Also Get an Amp?
This is another question I get quite frequently with regard to this topic. My answer is usually: “how often are you playing with other people?” and then I add “do you play with any pedals?”
If the answer to the first question is that you play with people very often, I would say buy one if you can afford it. That way, you’ll learn to get your sound out of it and your guitar tone will be the same regardless of where you are and who you play with.
On the other hand, if the answer is no, then don’t get one, you’ll be able to plug into the PA system of most venues, rehearsal rooms, and such.
Moving on to the second question, if you play with pedals, then buying an amp is paramount to hearing them do their thing. You can also buy an interface and plug the guitar straight into the computer, but in either case, if you have pedals, you need an amplification source.
On the other hand, if you only play clean, there’s no need for an amp or an interface yet.
Do I Need a Gig Bag or a Hardshell Case?
This is another great question to ask before buying your guitar. I would say that if you plan to take your guitar on the road a lot, you need the best protection it can get, AKA, a hardshell case.
On the other hand, if it’s going to be just something to protect your guitar from dust and particles flying around, then a gig bag will do.
There is a third option worth mentioning, the new generation of ultra-strong gig bag brands like MONO have been putting out into the market.
Which One is Best for You?
You Should Buy an Acoustic Guitar If:
- It’s your first guitar (you’re an absolute beginner)
- You don’t play out often
- You have a tight budget
- You’ll be playing unplugged 100% of the time
You Should Buy an Acoustic-Electric Guitar If:
- You are a looping artist
- You’re often gigging, busking, or playing with other people
- You’ll plug it into effects pedals
The best option between an acoustic or an acoustic-electric will be the guitar that inspires you to play the most. This means thinking of your next guitar as a part of your growth as a guitarist; therefore, if your dream is to play on the stage, then buy the guitar that will propel you in that direction.