Classical Guitar Versus Acoustic Guitar: Can Classical Guitar be used as Acoustic?

A common question among many prospective guitarists is “can a classical guitar be used to play ‘acoustic guitar’ songs?”. The short answer is YES! A classical guitar is an acoustic guitar. Any instrument that is not played by electric means can broadly be considered ‘acoustic’.

While a classical guitar can be used to play acoustic songs, there are a few distinctions and caveats between classical and acoustic guitars you should be aware of. The type of strings used and anatomy of the instruments, the playing styles, and the general tonality are important points of consideration when talking about classical versus acoustic guitar.

Perhaps the most important thing to keep in mind is that when people refer to ‘acoustic’ guitars, they are likely referring to a “steel string acoustic” guitar with strings made of metal, whereas classical guitars use nylon strings which have a silky, smooth, plastic-like feel.

Here’s a list of some of the key differences between classical and acoustic guitars (please note these are rather subjective generalizations, and of course exceptions can be found to every case):

Important Differences Between Classical Guitar and Steel-string Guitar:

Classical Guitar

  • Uses nylon strings
  • Thicker (wider) Neck
  • Greater distance between strings
  • Less left hand finger pressure needed when pressing on strings
  • Lighter body weight
  • Smaller body
  • Players more often use their finger(s) to strum, fingerpicking is a more common technique
  • Classical guitar has an established pedagogy and repertoire
  • Projects a mellow, soft, harp-like tone

Steel-string Guitar

  • Uses steel strings (metal)
  • Thinner (narrower) Neck
  • Less distance between strings
  • More left hand finger pressure needed when pressing on strings
  • Heavier body weight
  • Larger body
  • Players more often use a pick to strum, fingerpicking is also possible and some players even use steel fingerpicks
  • Steel string guitar is suited for a variety of styles such as folk, acoustic rock, and jazz
  • Projects a bright, metallic, twangy tone
Classical Guitar
Classical guitar example
Klaus Röder Classical Guitar
Acoustic Guitar
Steel string guitar example
Martin 000-28EC Steel String Acoustic Guitar

If there is a popular song or piece of music you really enjoy that sounds like it is being strummed or finger picked on an acoustic guitar, rest assured that you can use a classical guitar to play it. Willie Nelson is one famous acoustic rocker who actually prefers playing nylon string guitars (a Martin N-20 which he named “Trigger”). However when it comes to playing classical or flamenco guitar music, it is highly recommended that you use a classical or flamenco nylon string guitar rather than a steel string acoustic guitar in order to properly play the techniques and project the desired tone.

It’s worth noting that acoustic/electric hybrid guitar models do exist (also known as crossover models), and are preferable for players who want to amplify your acoustic instrument. Acoustic guitar pickups are also an option, however they don’t play nicely with classical (nylon string) models.

When it comes to choosing whether to play a nylon classical guitar or steel string acoustic, it really comes down to what type of music you’d like to play and which timbre (sound and tone quality) you prefer! You can learn even more about the differences between classical and acoustic guitar here.

If you have questions about which model you should play, please contact me and I’ll be happy to help you.

Published by Jonathan Richter

Jonathan is CEO of Winnona Partners, a custom software development company based in Atlanta, GA that specializes in helping small businesses thrive. He's also a classical guitarist, and has studied Chinese language, music and culture extensively. Learn more at https://www.winnonapartners.com

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