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’.
The most important thing to keep in mind is that when people refer to an ‘acoustic’ guitar, they’re probably talking about a “steel string acoustic” guitar with strings made of metal. This is different from classical and flamenco guitars, which use nylon strings. Nylon strings have a silky, smooth, plastic-like feel.
While it’s possible to use a classical guitar to play songs that you usually hear played on a steel string guitar, there’s some important distinctions between the two.
Below is a list of some of the key differences between classical and acoustic guitars. Please note these are only general statements, and you can likely find exceptions to every case:
Important Differences Between Classical Guitar and Steel-string Guitar:
- Uses nylon strings
- Thicker (wider) guitar 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
- Often don’t have fret markers
- Uses steel strings (metal)
- Thinner (narrower) guitar 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
- Typically has fret markers on the top of the neck and sometimes the fretboard
Ultimately, if you hear someone strumming or finger picking a popular song you enjoy on steel string acoustic guitar, you can play it on a classical guitar. 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 music or flamenco guitar, I highly recommend that you use a nylon string guitar rather than a steel string acoustic guitar. Doing so guarantees that you’ll be able to play the techniques properly and project the right tone.
Acoustic-electric hybrid (crossover) guitars
What if you want to amplify your acoustic instrument? You’re in luck, because acoustic-electric hybrid guitar models do exist! People also refer to these as crossover guitar models.
Acoustic guitar pickups are also an option, however they don’t play nicely with classical (nylon string) models.
Looking for a classical-electric hybrid guitar? Here’s the ones I recommend:
Choosing steel string acoustic or classical
So how do you decide whether to play a nylon classical guitar or steel string acoustic? It all comes down to what type of music you’d like to play, and which tone quality you prefer!
You can learn even more about the differences between classical and acoustic guitar here.