At first glance, classical guitars seem just like acoustic guitars. After all, they are essentially a wooden box, shaped like a guitar body as you would see on an acoustic guitar. This is quite different from solid body electric guitars. But even hollow electric guitars aren’t as big as classical and acoustic guitars. There are also semi-acoustic models for both.
So then, what is the difference? Why are they different? After all, as we’ve established, they both seem acoustic. And, yes, they are. But as you’ll see, there are differences despite the fact that technically speaking, classical guitars are acoustic guitars. Simply put, classical guitars are all acoustic, but not all acoustic guitars are classical guitars. Classical guitar vs Acoustic guitar, here’s what you need to know.
Classical Guitar vs Acoustic Guitar- How and Why They’re Different
The differences lie in their purposes. For this reason, they are built a little differently, the strings are different, and in some cases, the sizes differ.
From the outset, you’ll notice that the strings are different. Classical guitars all have nylon strings. Acoustic guitars, a.k.a, steel-string guitars, as you may have derived from the second name, have steel strings.
What’s more is that these strings aren’t interchangeable. Guitar strings work with tension. Steel strings require more tension, and acoustic guitars are designed to facilitate this. If you put nylon strings on a steel-string guitar, they’ll just break. And if you had to put steel strings on a nylon-string guitar, you could cause some damage since these guitars are built to produce less tension.
Another point is that on a true classical guitar (as in a nylon-string guitar in the traditional classic guitar style), the strings don’t have the little balls on the ends. Rather, these strings are knotted in place through the bridge. With steel strings, you’ll see the little balls at the end that are inserted into the slot on the bridge and held in place by bridge pins.
It’s worth a mention here that you do find nylon string guitars that are strung the way steel string guitars are, but these aren’t considered true classical guitars. Rather, they’re designed for steel-string players who want to play nylon-string guitars, but not classical guitar per se. Although, certainly, many steel-string guitarists do play classical guitar on them. You’ll even see that the width of the neck is different to that of a true classical guitar.
Another point to mention is that you’ll find 12-string steel-string guitars. 12-string classical guitars are very rare. This is because classical guitars are meant to be played fingerstyle and 12-string classical guitars aren’t really traditional. Steel-string acoustics are built for that and strumming, depending on the size of the body.
12-string guitars make the guitar sound even fuller and add harmonies. Great for strumming. It’s also for this reason that you don’t really find many 12-string guitars with smaller guitar bodies. You’ll find 12-string concert guitars, but 12-string parlor guitars are very, very rare.
Classical guitars have wider necks than acoustic guitars and the strings are further apart. This is so that notes can easily be played. Of course, you can pick on a steel-string. Many fingerstyle guitarists use steel string guitars, and the type of music they play generally sounds better on a steel-string. They’re also easy to use a pick with.
It’s not that you can’t use a pick with a classical guitar. I say, if it sounds good, do whatever you want on your guitar. But classical guitars will accommodate even guitarists with bigger hands and thicker fingers. Playing with your fingers on a classical guitar is easy, because they’re designed for this purpose. Now, of course, if you have smaller hands, or you’re used to a steel-string guitar, you may not find it so. But those of you with meaty hands that prefer to pluck the strings with your fingers, may find it far easier on a classical guitar.
A full size classical guitar generally has a big body. You can find half size and ¾ sized classical guitars. These are generally meant for children, or for smaller adults, and make good travel guitars. The body is big so that the sound is full and resonates beautifully. With classical guitar, you want a resonant tone with good lows, mids, and highs. By this I mean, you want to hear the low notes, the middle notes, and the high notes.
Acoustic guitars come in a variety of sizes, and you may notice a slight variation in the body shape too. Some are bigger than classical guitars. Here they are from smallest to biggest:
- Parlor guitars
- Concert guitars
- Grand concert guitars
- Auditorium guitars
- Grand auditorium guitars
- Grand symphony guitars
- Dreadnought guitars
- Grand orchestra guitars
- Jumbo guitars
In all of these, you’ll generally find ¾ guitars, and sometimes even half sizes. The first four sizes on this list lend themselves to fingerstyle. But you’ll find that the concert, grand concert, and auditorium guitars can sound pretty good when strummed too. The rest on the list work well for both and have volume on their side as well as good resonance and a full tonal palette.
Preamps and Pickups
Nylon strings don’t have metal in them, and so magnetic pickups don’t work for classical guitars, unlike steel string guitars. If you need to install a pickup, a piezoelectric pickup with a condenser mic will work best. Semi-acoustic classical guitars have preamps designed specifically to pick up the nylon strings. Most often they are piezoelectric pickups under the saddle.
As opposed to nylon strings, steel string guitars will work fine with the majority of pickups. You have more variety when it comes to selecting a pickup to install. There are also plenty of semi-acoustic steel string guitars out there.
Classical Guitar Buying Guide
As mentioned before, not all nylon-string guitars are classical guitars. If you want an authentic classical guitar experience, make sure that the guitar has a wide nut. The guitars on this list are built according to classical guitar standards. The only caveat here is that a few have truss rods, which isn’t traditional. Classical guitars typically have higher action and if you want to lower it, the nut and bridge need to be filed down.
Cordoba Esteso SP Classical Guitar
Cordoba is one of the trusted brands of true classical guitars. This particular model pays homage to Domingo Esteso, a renowned Spanish luthier. The rosette is unique in that it’s designed specially for the Esteso SP. The top is solid European spruce, the back and sides are pau ferro, and the neck is mahogany with an ebony fretboard. These tonewoods paired with the 1931 Esteso 5 fan bracing gives you a beautiful, rich, full sounding guitar with uncluttered harmonics. Most people are happy with the tone and quality of the build.
Get the Cordoba Esteso SP at Sweetwater.
Washburn Classical C64SCE Guitar
If you’re looking for an affordable semi-acoustic classical guitar with a cutaway body, here you go. The C64SCE has a solid spruce top with mahogany back and sides. The neck is mahogany with an engineered rosewood fretboard. These tonewoods together with the sitka spruce scalloped X bracing give you a classical guitar with a warm, full sound with good projection. The Fishman Classica pickup is great for when you need to be heard on stage, plus, the built-in tuner is oh so convenient. Most people feel this guitar is worth far more than the modest price tag.
Get the Washburn C64SCE at Sweetwater.
Alhambra 1 C HT Classical Guitar
Alhambra is another brand you can trust when it comes to classical guitars. While this guitar has side dots that help steel-string players and students out, it’s built true to classical guitar standards in Spain. The top is solid cedar and the back and sides are mahogany. The neck is mahogany (Spanish heel neck joint) with an Indian rosewood fretboard. It’s a guitar with a resonant, full sound and excellent dynamics. This is a classical guitar that works for more than just classical music, sounding good for jazz and flamenco too.
Get the Alhambra 1 C HT at Sweetwater.
Yamaha CG122MSH Classical Guitar
Another brand that classical guitar experts will point to with confidence is Yamaha. The CG122MSH is from their student range. It’s an affordable guitar if you want to try classical guitar. The top is solid spruce, the body and sides are nato, and the neck is nato with a rosewood fretboard. With regard to the action, this is built true to a classical guitar with no truss rod. If you need the action lowered, you may need to take it to a luthier. Sound wise, this guitar has a warm punchy tone and decent volume. Most people feel that this guitar sounds good.
Yamaha CG122MCH Classical Guitar
If you want the same type of Yamaha, but with more complexity and lows to the tone, the solid cedar top version is a good option. It’s the same in all other aspects, just a different tonewood for a different tone overall.
Alvarez AC65 Artist 65 Classical Guitar
The Artist 65 combines a sold Western red cedar top, African mahogany back, sides, and neck, Indian laurel fretboard with Spanish fan bracing to give you a resonant guitar with a rich, full tone. The neck has the traditional Spanish heel neck joint, and overall, the guitar looks very traditional. All this at an affordable price.
Get the Alvarez Artist 65 at Sweetwater.
Alvarez AC65CE Artist 65 Classical Acoustic-Electric Guitar
If you like the Artist 65, but want a semi-acoustic version, here you go. Other than the addition of LR Baggs StagePro preamp, the specifications for this guitar are all the same. The preamp features a 3-band EQ and notch filter to tweak your sound, as well as a built-in tuner.
Get the Artist 65 Acoustic-Electric Guitar at Sweetwater.
Washburn C5 Classical Guitar
For a more unique look among classical guitars, the Washburn C5 ticks the box, and it’s dirt cheap. While it’s aimed at students, this guitar holds up far beyond the beginner stage. The top is spruce, the back and sides are catalpa, and the neck is mahogany with an engineered rosewood fretboard. This along with the quatersawn sitka spruce scalloped bracing makes for a dynamic, resonant, warm sounding guitar. Most people feel this guitar is worth more than they paid for it.
Get the Washburn C5 at Sweetwater.
Yamaha CGX102 Classical Acoustic-electric Guitar
Joining the rest of the Yamaha classical guitar range aimed at students, the CGX102 is also built for live performance thanks to the addition of the System 68N preamp. The preamp also has a built-in tuner. The top is spruce with nato back and sides. The nato and mahogany neck features a rosewood fretboard. Overall, this guitar has a smooth, full, resonant tone. Many feel that this guitar sounds just as good as classical guitars double the price.
Get the Yamaha CGX102 Acoustic-Electric Guitar at Sweetwater.
Yamaha CGS103AII 3/4-Scale Classical Guitar
For younger players or more petite guitarists who struggle a bit with a full scale classical guitar, Yamaha offers this ¾ scale classical guitar. With a scale length of 23-inches, it’s also suitable for use as a travel guitar. The top is spruce, the back, sides, and neck are nato, and the fretboard is rosewood. Most people feel like this little guitar has a beautiful tone and that the build quality is very good.
Get the Yamaha CGS103AII 3/4-Scale Classical Guitar at Sweetwater.
Steel String Acoustic Buying Guide
When it comes to steel-string acoustics, they’re a dime a dozen. It’s easy to find one that suits your preferences and your pocket. While semi-acoustic guitars are technically not quite acoustic guitars by nature of having preamps in them, I’ve included a few as they are acoustic, just with electronics added. They will still sound like acoustics even when plugged in. I’ve also included 12-string guitars.
Gretsch G9500 Jim Dandy Guitar
For those who prefer fingerstyle playing and guitar with a smaller body, the G9500 Jim Dandy is a parlor guitar. You also need to like the 50s era style. In terms of what this guitar delivers, there is still a decent amount of bass that comes through despite the small body, making for a full-toned guitar. The body is basswood with X-bracing, the neck is nato, the fretboard is walnut. Overall, people like the more vintage look and tone of this guitar.
Taylor Swift Baby Taylor Guitar
If you love Taylor guitars, and love Taylor Swift, but want a travel size guitar, here you go. This guitar features the beautiful “Love Love Love” Taylor Swift motif and signature around the sound hole. The top is spruce with sapele back and sides. The neck is sapele with an ebony fretboard. Most people feel the guitar sounds great and is beautiful and perfect as a travel guitar or for kids.
Oscar Schmidt OG10CE Cutaway Guitar (Left-Hand)
If you’re left-handed and looking for an affordable semi-acoustic, the OG10CE is a good option. This is a concert guitar, so okay for strumming, great for finger picking. The top is spruce and the neck, back, and sides are mahogany. The preamp includes a 3-band EQ, notch filter, and tuner. You can find this guitar in transparent black, white, or natural.
Jasmine S35 Acoustic Guitar
Jasmine is a guitar brand owned by Takamine, so the quality is pretty decent. The dreadnought body provides a full tone with good projection and resonance. The S35 natural and rose colors have a spruce top with nato back and sides. The neck is also nato and has a rosewood fretboard. The black and matte sunburst have spruce tops with agathis back and sides, nato necks and rosewood fretboards. The mahogany model has a mahogany top with nato back and sides. The neck is nato and the fretboard is rosewood.
Martin OMJM John Mayer Acoustic-electric Guitar
If you love Martin guitars and John Mayer, check out this Martin John Mayer signature guitar. This is an auditorium orchestra model guitar, meaning it has the auditorium body and a longer scale neck of 25.4-inches. The 20th fret has his signature. The top is solid Engelmann spruce, the back and sides are Indian Rosewood. The neck is Spanish cedar with an ebony fretboard. This along with the hybrid bracing gives this guitar a warm, rich tone. The preamp amplifies this guitar well for the stage. Most people feel this guitar is well worth the price tag.
Get the Martin OMJM John Mayer at Sweetwater.
Yamaha FG820 12-String Acoustic Guitar
If you want an affordable 12-string guitar that’s decent quality, here you go. The dreadnought body is crafted using mahogany for the back and sides and the top is solid spruce. The neck is nato, and depending on what’s on hand at the time of manufacture, you’ll get either a walnut or rosewood fretboard. This with the scalloped bracing ensures excellent projection and clarity, with a full tone. Most people feel that this guitar sounds like triple the price and that the build quality is very high.
Get the Yamaha FG820-12 at Sweetwater.
D’Angelico Premier Fulton LS 12-string Acoustic-electric Guitar
For a 12-string semi-acoustic, the Premier Fulton LS 12-string is dirt cheap. That said, the price belies the quality. Of course, the wood is laminated, but yet it has a rich, deep tone with good projection. The single cutaway body and neck are mahogany, and the fretboard is torrefied merbau. Inside you’ll find scalloped X-bracing. The preamp includes a 3-band EQ and tuner. This guitar is available in mahogany satin, aged mahogany, and satin vintage sunburst. Most people are blown away by the quality and sound of this guitar.
Get the Premier Fulton LS 12-String at Sweetwater.
Luna Gypsy Mahogany 12-string Acoustic Guitar
For those who want a beautiful, whimsical guitar, the Luna Gypsy 12-string is for you. From the pearl moon phases inlays, to the pretty Celtic rosette, this guitar is fit for the dreamers of the world. The dreadnought body and neck are mahogany and the fretboard is black walnut. Most people love the price and feel the guitar is well-made and sounds good.
Get the Gypsy 12-string at Sweetwater.
Fender Tim Armstrong Hellcat 12-string Acoustic-Electric Guitar
If you’re a fan of Rancid and Tim Armstrong, you’ll love the Tim Armstrong Hellcat 12-string. Visually, what sets this guitar apart are the hellcat inlays and the double skull inlays at the 12th fret. It has a slightly smaller body, being a grand concert, so if you struggle with dreadnoughts, here you go. The back and sides are laminated mahogany and the top is solid mahogany. The neck is maple and the fretboard is walnut. The preamp includes a 3-band EQ and tuner. Most people feel this guitar is decent and love the way it looks. ‘
Get the Tim Armstrong Hellcat 12-string at Sweetwater.
Both acoustic and classical guitars are beautiful instruments that are versatile. But they are certainly two different instruments. From the nylon vs steel strings, to the wider neck of the classical guitar, they are designed for different functions. The classical guitar isn’t limited to just classical guitar, it does well in flamenco, jazz, and pop too. Steel-string guitars work well for fingerstyle music or strumming, and are used in genres spanning from folk to rock to jazz to pop.
You may find you prefer one of the other. I myself am a diehard steel-string girl. But if in doubt, there’s nothing wrong with owning both. If it’s one thing a guitarist enjoys, it’s a collection of guitars.