Classical Guitar vs Acoustic Guitar: What’s the difference?

Classical guitar vs acoustic guitar: What's the difference?

A common question among many prospective guitarists is “what’s the difference between classical and acoustic guitar?

This is a loaded question with a long history of distinctions to consider, but I’d like to highlight some of the key differences when talking about classical versus acoustic guitar.

Ultimately, the goal is to better understand these differences and help you make the decision of which style guitar is right for you!

Please feel free to jump ahead to any section:

What are the key differences between acoustic and classical guitar?

Acoustic Guitar vs. classical guitar: Summary of Differences
1. Classical Guitar Strings vs. Acoustic Guitar Strings
2. Guitar Anatomical Differences
3. Differences in Guitar Tonality (timbre)
4. Differences in Guitar Playing Styles

Acoustic Guitar vs. Classical Guitar: Summary of Differences

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

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

Can classical guitar be played as an acoustic guitar and vice-versa? You bet! Check out my blog post here for more info.

1. Classical Guitar Strings vs Acoustic Guitar Strings

Perhaps one of the most immediate and obvious differences when examining classical and acoustic guitars is the type of strings used.

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.

Steel string guitars can be described as having a bright, twangy sound, whereas classical guitars are described as having a mellow, resonant sound.

Nylon String Classical Guitar

Nylon string guitar example close up
Nylon string classical guitar, identifiable by the three nylon treble strings and three bass nylon strings wound with wire.

Steel String Acoustic Guitar

steel string acoustic guitar example close up
Steel string guitar, notice the two thinner treble strings

Guitar String History

Classical guitars predate steel string acoustic guitars, and have an extensive family tree derived from the Spanish vihuela and gittern of the 15th and 16th centuries.

Today, people consider a ‘modern classical guitar’ one that follows the innovative and revolutionary designs of the 19th-century Spanish luthier Antonio Torres Jurado.

All modern guitar models found today (classical and acoustic) are derived from the Torres models.

Famous guitar luthier Antonio Torres Jurado
Antonio Torres Jurado

Prior to the introduction of steel strings in the early 1900s by C.F. Martin & Company and the invention of nylon guitar strings in 1947 by Albert Augustine Strings, ‘gut’ or ‘catgut’ was the most commonly used string material (read more on catgut here).

However, once the new and improved steel and nylon string materials became available most players moved away from using catgut strings entirely.

The rising popularity of steel strings in the early 1900s can be credited to their creators at C.F. Martin & Company. The new steel string material paved the way for other changes and experiments with guitar anatomy, and led to the production of various steel-string guitar models that are known today (flat top, archtop, double-O, twelve-string, dreadnought, and many more).

Steel-string guitars were further popularized by infamous guitar luthiers such as Gibson, and Taylor. Most folk, acoustic rock, and jazz guitarists prefer the sound and quick response playability of steel string guitars, though steel-string guitars typically require more tension (finger/hand strength) when pressing strings onto the fretboard.

Example of a Torres guitar, played by renowned guitarist and composer Andrew York

2. Classical Guitar vs. Acoustic Guitar: Anatomical Differences

Guitar Neck (Guitar Nut) Width: Thick or Thin, Wide or Narrow?

If there’s one other main distinction to be aware of between classical and acoustic guitars, it’s the fact that classical guitars tend to have a thicker neck than steel string acoustic guitars, meaning the distance between strings is also greater.

If you have medium to large sized hands, a wider guitar neck can feel more comfortable. You will feel the space between the strings helpful for both the right and the left hand fingers, as there’s less chance for interference or accidentally touching multiple strings at once.

Conversely, if you have relatively small hands then you may feel that a standard body classical guitar is too difficult to play with the wide stretches that are sometimes necessary between frets and strings.

Lastly, classical guitars tend to have a flatter back of the neck, whereas acoustic guitars have a more rounded back. This accommodates the different playing styles between the two in relation to the left hand thumb (see section on playing style differences below).

What is ‘guitar nut width’ and where is the nut?

Guitar neck width is usually measured where the neck meets the ‘nut’ of the guitar. The guitar nut is a small piece of hard material that supports the strings near the headstock. Guitar nuts are usually made of ebony, plastic, or (less commonly) ivory material.

Classical Guitar nut width example. Where is the guitar nut? The Guitar nut is a material that holds the strings in place where the neck meets the headstock.
Guitar nut, the material that holds the strings in place where the neck meets the headstock

How wide are we talking? According to Yamaha, who makes both steel string and classical guitars, a Yamaha standard classical nut has a width of 52 mm (about 2.05 inches), whereas the standard steel string model has nut a width of 42 mm (about 1.65 inches). This approximately 1 cm width difference.

Pro Tip: Do you feel like your classical guitar neck is too wide for your hands? Try putting a capo on the 2nd fret or above. This will help decrease the space between frets.

Guitar Body Shape Differences

As mentioned in the guitar string history section above, C.F. Martin & Company began experimenting with the guitar body shape and construction in the early 1900s.

The ‘dreadnought’ body style became the popular standard for steel string acoustic guitars. Dreadnought guitars are larger, heavier, and generally louder than classical guitar models.

Acoustic guitar vs classical guitar: what's the difference? guitar body shape comparison

Pickguard vs Golpeador:

You’ll notice the steel string acoustic guitar has a redish-brown shape on the right side of the sound hole. This is called a “pickguard”, and acts as a plastic shield that protects the wood where the player’s guitar pick tends to hit.

Flamenco guitars on the other hand don’t have a pickguard, but rather a plastic shield known as a golpeador that protects the wood from finger nail taps.

The term ‘golpe’ means ‘to hit’, and refers to a flamenco technique where guitarists use their ring finger (or occasionally thumb) to strike the body of the guitar. For more info on flamenco guitar, check out my page on the topic.

Classical guitars have neither a pickguard or a golpeador, so play with caution!

Fretboard (fingerboard) markers:

Steel string guitars usually have dots along the top of the guitar neck as well as on the fretboard (sometimes referred to as fingerboard) itself as seen in the example above. Steel string acoustic guitars typically have markers on the 3rd, 5th, 7th, 9th, 12th, and (sometimes) the 15th fret.

Classical guitars typically don’t have any fret markers at all. If they do, they may only include the dots on the top of the guitar neck but not on the surface of the fretboard itself.

Pro Tip: If your classical or flamenco guitar doesn’t have any dots, I recommend you dab some whiteout on the frets of your choice, or use a small strip of masking tip. I personally like to place markers on the 5th, 7th, 9th, and 12th frets.

Acoustic & Classical Guitar Bridge Differences

Somewhat related to the strings topic, acoustic and classical guitar bridges are also different. Acoustic guitars use bridge pens to secure the steel string in carved holes, whereas classical guitar strings are tied to the bridge.

Difference between acoustic and classical guitar bridge. Acoustic guitars have bridge pens but classical guitars tie the strings to the bridge.

The structural differences in the bridge also means that the process for changing strings is quite different for acoustic and classical guitars. Generally speaking, changing strings on a steel string is faster and easier than the meticulous weaving techniques required for classical guitars.

Headstock and Tuning Pegs:

Classical guitar tuning pegs are very different than steel string acoustic guitar tuning pegs. Classical guitar pegs incorporate plastic and metal materials, whereas acoustic guitars utilize metal only.

As you can see from the image below, the way the strings are wound and the angle of the tuning pegs is also a point of differentiation:

What's the difference between acoustic and classical guitar tuning pegs? Acoustic guitar and classical guitar tuning peg comparison.

Flat vs Radiused Fretboard Shape:

In addition to the fretboard markers, the shape of classical and acoustic guitar fretboards is also different. Classical guitars often have a flat fretboard whereas acoustic guitars have a slightly curved (or ‘radiused’) fretboard shape:

Acoustic guitar vs classical guitar neck and fretboard differences. Comparing acoustic guitar radiused fretboard and rounder neck to classical guitar flatter neck and flat fingerboard shape

So what’s the difference between a radiused and flat fretboard? Acoustic and electric guitar players feel the slight curve is easier and more comfortable for playing chords. Classical players tend to prefer the flatter neck with respect to playing bar chords, bending notes, or securely playing hammer-on/pull-offs.

Pro Tip: Make sure you get a capo that is designed to accommodate not only the back curve of the neck, but also the fretboard radius. You will probably get a buzz or have difficulty securing an acoustic guitar capo on a classical guitar.
• Classical guitar capo recommendation: G7th Performance 2
• Radius fretboard capo recommendation: G7th Performance 3 (with adaptive radius technology)
• You can learn more about G7th capos in my exclusive interview with the founders here.

For more info on how to determine the radius of your guitar neck, check out this article by Music Store Live.

3. Classical Guitar Vs. Acoustic Guitar: Differences in Tonality and Sound (timbre)

Timbre

The term ‘timbre‘ refers to the quality of sound–the tonality–of an instrument or sound. Timbre is a loaded term but one way to think about it is to consider Louie Armstrong’s voice. Can you hear it in your head? The special quality and uniqueness of his sound is the timbre.

What’s the difference in sound or timbre between classical and acoustic guitars?

The type of strings play the most important role in this distinction:

• Classical (nylon) strings produce a soft, mellow, harp-like tone
• Acoustic steel strings produce a bright, metallic, or sometimes twangy tone.

Which timbre sounds better? This is a personal preference! Acoustic rock bands, pop musicians, and country tend to play on steel string acoustics. Classical, Spanish, some Gypsy-jazz, and folk musicians will typically prefer the nylon timbre.

However, it’s not recommended to play classical or flamenco guitar on a steel string acoustic. Similarly, you country songs might sound a bit “strange” or soft if played on a classical guitar.

Is it physically possible to play these styles on each type of instrument? Absolutely! However, you may find the differences in technique and playing style to not suit the vibe–or accurately reproduce the timbre–of your favorite songs unless they’re played on the appropriate instrument.

Pro Tip: you can change the timbre of your instrument drastically depending on the position of your right hand when plucking or strumming the strings:
• Strum or pluck closer to the bridge for a tight and bright sound
• Strum or pluck near the beginning of the sound hole (closer to the bridge side) for a standard, natural, and even sound
• Strum or pluck close to or even over the fretboard to project a mellow, luscious resonance.

Volume

Due to the larger body shape of the steel string acoustic guitars, the volume of sound produced on acoustic guitars is usually louder when compared to classical guitars.

Guitar luthiers have continued to innovate ways to enhance the natural projection of acoustic instruments. Classical and flamenco luthiers such as Manuel Contreras, Jose Ramirez, Robert Ruck, and Mathias Dammann led such innovation in the 20th century with the innovative double tops, “dolble tapa” (slightly different nomenclature, actually meaning double back), resonators, side monitor sound holes, and other guitar construction methodologies.

Note: The type of wood used in construction of a classical or acoustic guitar also profoundly affects both the natural timbre and volume an instrument produces.

4. Classical Guitar Vs Acoustic Guitar: Playing Style Differences

Posture

Classical guitarists will position the guitar body on the left leg. A footstool, guitar cushion, ergonomic guitar support, or guitar lift is used to elevate the guitar to reach the proper angle.

Acoustics guitarists may put the guitar on the left leg as well, but will more often place it on the right leg. The guitar is kept more even, not intentionally elevated as it is for the standard for classical.

How to hold the guitar, classical guitar posture vs acoustic guitar posture comparison.

Some acoustic players also like to stand while playing guitar, and will use a strap to keep the guitar steady. Classical guitarists never stand while playing.

Left Hand Differences

The most significant left hand difference between classical and acoustic guitar playing is the placement of the thumb on the back of the neck.

Classical guitarists keep the thumb low and relatively straight, about midway down the back of the neck.

Acoustic guitarists tend to keep their left hand thumbs resting at the top or above the neck, and will occasionally use it to play bass notes on the 6th string. The rounded neck of the guitar encourages this.

There are many opinions about this difference in left hand thumb playing style, and obviously as a classical/flamenco guitarists my opinion is biased. Suffice it to say, when you play a bar chord you’re already going to need to lower the thumb to support the index finger. Keeping your thumb low will also help you make clearer slurs (hammer ons/pull-offs).

I personally believe there’s many more advantages to keeping the thumb low to balance the hand, strengthen the sound of your notes and chords, and ease the pressure required for your other left hand fingers.

Right Hand Differences

Acoustic and classical guitarists also typically apply different right hand techniques. Classical guitarists fingerpick the strings by plucking them with their right hand thumb, index, middle, and ring fingernails and flesh, whereas acoustic guitar players will often use a plastic pick (plectrum) to strum the strings.

Although most acoustic guitarists prefer to play with a pick, some like to fingerpick as well. Some players will even wear stainless steel fingersyle picks instead of growing out their nails, which is the norm for classical and flamenco guitarists.

Elements of nail care, types of picks, and strumming and hand position tips are all robust topics worthy of their own articles. I’ll continue to update my content and link relevant articles here when they’re posted.

Conclusion

As you can see, there are many factors that differentiate classical guitars from acoustic steel string guitars. Which model is right for you? That depends on the sound you’re going for, style you’d like to play, and of course, how the instrument feels in your hands. I encourage you to try both styles of guitar as each one can create beautiful sounds, and bring endless joy.

I hope you found this article to be helpful, informative, and insightful! Please share this article, and contact me if you have any questions. Thanks for reading and happy playing!

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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