The Age-Old Question: Acoustic or Electric?

Feb 17, 2015

Last week we took a look at some of the “dos” and “do nots” of helping find the proper instrument for your child. With all the ins and outs of picking from the nearly endless selection of musical instruments we weren’t able to go into too much detail, but the basics are fairly universal regardless of which direction your child wants to take. That being said, this week we’re going to continue that discussion, but with a little more focus. Yes, that’s right, we’re going back to that old faithful, that most popular of western instrument, the “coolest” of the cool: the guitar. Sure, not everyone plays guitar (the world’s music would be pretty dull if they did), but it is, without a doubt, one of the most popular instruments for a young, beginner musician. There are a lot of reasons for this; they come in a variety of sizes to accommodate small but growing hands, they are used in a massive selection of different styles and genres, from classical, to swing, to rock, and everything in between, and they are just down right cool. But there is also one further step beyond what we talked about last week; one more detail to decide upon when choosing the guitar as an instrument. The age-old battle: acoustic versus electric.

To start off, let’s dispel an extremely common myth you might hear as you start to consider the acoustic v electric problem. A lot of people will tell you that you should start by learning on an acoustic guitar, because it is harder. At first this may seem contradictory, but there is a little logic to it. The perception is that it is harder to learn on an acoustic guitar because is takes more finger strength to to hold down the strings to form chords. People believe that if they start with acoustic, then electric will be easier later on, after they have mastered some technique. The pervasiveness of this myth is unbelievable. You’ll hear musicians repeat it, you’ll even heard music shop owners repeat it, but in reality, playing guitar well is about control, not strength. The easiest guitar to play is the guitar you are most interested in playing. Which nicely brings me to our first point: pick the kind of guitar you want to play.

If the music you are interested in playing is more folksy, or country, or even bluegrass, you’ll probably want to start with an acoustic guitar. On the other hand, if your interests draw you more to the rock & roll side of the spectrum, consider beginning with an electric guitar. Picking which style of guitar to play based on the music you love to listen to is a great way to start. If you begin by playing the sort of instrument you like, leading towards playing the kinds of music you like, you, or you’re child, will be much more likely to practice often, allowing skill and technique to blossom. But, while your own musical preferences are the most important thing to consider, they are far from the only thing to think about.

There are a few fundamental differences between acoustic and electric guitars that any beginner musician should be aware of. Let’s start with acoustic. The great thing about acoustic guitars is that they can just be picked up and played, pretty much anywhere. Without the need of additional paraphernalia, or needing to be plugged in, acoustic guitars are certainly the more portable of the two options. Grab it, and take it camping, to the beach, or just to a jam session with friends. It’s the greatest in “grab and go” music making. There are also differences in the body of the guitar itself. The wood top of an acoustic guitar needs to vibrate in order to produce any sounds. This means heavier gauged strings, and with them, slightly firmer picking and fingering. Similarly, the body of acoustic guitars is much larger than their electric counterparts, along with a thicker neck to support the tension of the heavier strings.

On the other hand, electric guitars, while a bit more technologically tricky, offer the possibility of a lot more fun options like distortions and effects, and the sound an electric guitar produces is unique all to itself; instantly recognizable, and ultimately seductive. Electric guitars can produce their own siren songs, but with a MIDI adapter they can also sound like a piano, a saxophone, another type of electric guitar, or pretty much anything you want, and that’s not even beginning to talk about the aptly named “wah-wah” pedal, which can make it sound almost like a human voice. These effects are fantastic for more aggressive styles of music like metal and rock. Due to the smaller bodies, thinner neck, and lighter strings, the myth that electric guitars are easier to play has taken shape. The pickups and amplifiers produce the sound, so there is no need for a sound hole, or a vibrating wooden top, and a lighter touch is needed for the strings. Of course, the trade off for these effects is the electricity required to get the most out of them. Electric guitars must be plugged into an amplifier, and both must be turned on in order to play. While you don’t really need to be plugged in and turned on to practice, it does take some of the excitement out of the moment if you’re not. For some people, just the extra effort of plugging in is enough of an excuse not to play, so try to keep that in mind.

It’s also important to point out that you shouldn’t feel like you’re locking yourself into one style or the other for the rest of your life. In reality, most guitarists start with one, but over time gravitate towards the other. Despite the physical differences between acoustic and electric guitars, most of your skills and techniques are easily transferred from one to the other. Motivations for playing may change with age, as well as tastes in music. Over time the skills learned and the desire to play become internalized, and which style of guitar becomes somewhat irrelevant. Eventually, over a lifetime of playing, you will most likely develop skills for both the electric and acoustic guitar. So don’t stress about it so much!