There’s a simplicity in the sound of an acoustic guitar. The twangy highs, booming lows, and perfect mids. A well-played flat-top acoustic is sonic sincerity. I love to play acoustic. I love the sound and the pinch on my fingertips as I press down on the heavy strings. I adore the smell of the wood and the vibrations against my chest. It’s a visceral feeling. I also love rock music that prominently features acoustic guitar.
Throughout rock and roll history, there have been true masters of the acoustic guitar. The most versatile have been able to blend the sweetest acoustic tones with the most snarling hard-edge riffs. Jimmy Page comes to mind. Think of the many Led Zeppelin masterpieces that ranged from melodic acoustic to straight ahead rock and roll.
Stairway to Heaven is the most obvious example and is still to this day, over fifty years later, a true masterpiece. But there are many more examples of his that demonstrate a brilliant ability to interplay between balladic acoustic and in your face screaming rock guitars.
From their first album, Babe I’m Gonna Leave You, combines medieval sounding finger-style acoustic, heavy duty strumming, and acoustic lead guitar plus Robert Johnson inspired lyrics, beautifully sung by Robert Plant, complemented by the steady rhythm section of Jones and Bonham. It is truly remarkable that these guys were in their early twenties when they wrote and recorded this incredible album! This is in my opinion is their most blues inspired album – listen to old Delta Blues, especially Robert Johnson and you’ll hear what I mean.
Ramble On from their second album, is shorter but is very similar in that it features some really good acoustic work, brilliant slide work, really good heavy rock guitar and one of my favourite bass lines of all time, courtesy of John-Paul Jones.
Steve Howe of another great British band, Yes, was also a master at blending beautiful acoustic and rock guitar. The most iconic example being Roundabout from their Fragile album.
Rik Emmett, the virtuoso guitarist from the Canadian rock band Triumph also displayed his versatility, especially in their outstanding hit from the early eighties, Magic Power. Another Canadian band, The Tragically Hip had a number of songs that prominently featured an acoustic guitar, ranging from soft and melodic to straight ahead rock and roll, within the same song. They were also brilliant at writing acoustic ballads, such as Wheat Kings, Scared, Fiddler’s Green, and Ahead By a Century. While we’re on a Canadian inspired theme, Rush had a number of songs that also had this type of sonic range, including Closer to the Heart, Trees, and many of the songs rom their masterpiece recording, 2112.
Several great acoustic rock guitar classics came from Neil Young – Old Man will forever be one of my favourite songs. Crosby, Still, and Nash (and sometimes Young) created some of the greatest rock acoustic classics I’ve ever heard. Joni Mitchell, Creedence Clearwater Rival, and Bob Dylan, also had several acoustic flavored songs. John Mellencamp with Pink Houses, Small Town, and R.O.C.K. in the USA, to name a few, showed how an acoustic guitar can be front and center of great pop music, as did Tom Petty with Free Fallin’.
In the early nineties, The Black Crowes had a huge acoustic hit with their beautiful song that explored the struggles of substance abuse, She Talks to Angels. Extreme, a band from Boston, had enormous success with More Than Words, an acoustic gem courtesy of Nuno Bettencourt. Eric Clapton’s acoustic version of Layla is simply breath-taking.
Bon Jovi’s Richie Sambora dazzled us with his acoustic prowess in songs such as Blaze of Glory and their power pop opus, Wanted Dead or Alive. Heart’s Nancy Wilson blew us away with her acoustic mastery on the intro to Crazy on You. Perhaps the most remarkable combination of acoustic and electric rock guitar mastery and versatility came from Randy Rhoads with his work in Ozzy Osbourne’s Diary of a Madman. More recent examples of acoustic flavored music can be found in the music of Ed Sheeran, Taylor Swift, Kenny Chesney, Brad Paisley, and countless other country stars.
When I write my own music, I almost always include an acoustic guitar track. It’s just the way I like to write music because I like the melodic layer that one or more acoustic guitar tracks add to a song. Here is an example of a song I wrote.
I could go on forever listing examples of acoustic songs or blended acoustic-electric songs. The point is, the acoustic guitar is a beautiful and wonderous instrument. The kind we are most used to hearing in pop, rock, and country is the steel string flat-top, which owes its origins to C.F. Martin, a German immigrant to the United States. Martin was a luthier who designed an instrument that had enough volume and projection to be played in a band setting. His original designs, from its shape to its construction is still common today. Martin guitars are still made over 150 years later, and are some of the most sought after in the world. They invented one of the more common styles of acoustic guitars, the dreadnought.
To anybody starting out playing guitar, I highly recommend learning on acoustic first before venturing into playing electric. But where to begin? The sizes, shapes, and styles of acoustics available today present a dizzying conundrum to the uninitiated. I’ve done quite a lot of research lately on the topic so let me break down what I know. Hopefully this will make your choices easier to make.
Acoustic guitars come in many shapes and sizes. The more common dreadnought has square shaped shoulder and louder, more booming sound. The Gibson Jumbo and Super Jumbo (terms also used by their subsidiary, Epiphone) are even louder due their larger shape. But being larger makes them a little more challenging to play. There are other shapes, some called OM for Orchestra Model, typical of Martin Guitars, which tend to have a more rounded shape. Taylor has models called Symphony or Grand Symphony, Concert and Grand Concert. Godin and Norman also use some of those terms.
The best website I’ve seen so far for acoustic guitar shopping is the Seagull Guitars website (a division of the Canadian company Godin), where you can actually shop by body shape and size. I prefer to have a cutaway acoustic, which allows me to reach notes in higher registers, past the fourteenth fret more easily. There are number of excellent guitar manufacturers out there, all of whom have very informative and extremely well-done websites. If you’re new to acoustic guitars, the companies that I would recommend you take an online look at are:
Godin, and its subsidiaries, Norman, Seagull, and Simon & Patrick
Fender – they make acoustic guitars too. Mine is a Fender Kingman
The last three are higher end brands so not a great place for beginners, but really cool to check out and dream about. If I were counseling someone new to acoustic guitars, I would tell them to look at Yamaha, Takamine, and Epiphone first. All have really good entry level models that can be enjoyed for years to come. Godin and its subsidiaries make excellent well-priced guitars, but I wouldn’t consider them entry level by any means.
It’s important to know how guitars are made and have a general idea of their parts and pieces. The top is called the soundbaord and is generally more flexible and thinner to allow it to vibrate and transfer the vibrations of the strings to the body of the guitar. As you strum or pluck the strings, they vibrate against the bridge, through the soundbaord in the form of sound waves, which bounce off the back and sides of the guitar. The back and sides are typically harder and denser wood. The sound waves exit through the soundhole. The neck is usually made of the same material as the back and sides. The length of the neck is measured in scale length – the longer the neck, the louder and more resonant it is, but the harder it is to play.
On top of the neck is what’s known as the fingerboard or fretboard. On a steel string flat top, 14 frets are clear of the body of the guitar. The neck on this type of guitar is also narrower by as much as 1/4″ compared to a classical style guitar. The classical style also only has 12 freely accessible frets past the body of the guitar, and therefore tends to be much shorter. At the end of the fretboard is a piece of plastic or bone called the nut, which has six slots through which the strings pass.
The strings are attached via turn-able posts called capstans located on a block of wood at the end of the neck called the headstock. These posts have tuning machines (I call them tuning knobs) attached to them, which allow you to turn them clockwise or counter-clockwise. This raises the pitch or lowers the pitch of each string, depending on which way you turn the tuning knobs. The strings are attached at the other end on the bridge, using pegs called bridge pins. The tapered piece of plastic on top of the bridge that supports the strings is called the saddle. On many guitars, there is a rather large, oddly shaped piece of plastic called a pick guard directly underneath the soundhole. As the name implies, it protects the surface of the guitar from scratches caused by strumming the guitar.
The choice of styles and shapes of acoustic guitars is overwhelming, even for experienced players. The most important thing to look for is a guitar that you are comfortable playing. It must fit properly in your hands, against your body, and on your lap. If it’s uncomfortable to play and hard to hold, you likely won’t play it very much and your practicing will suffer, which will make your ability to play the guitar decline. With many guitars incorporating pickups for amplification nowadays, having a huge booming body is less important than it used to be – if you plan to play on stage or record. As with all things, amplification comes with varying degrees of quality and typically, the more you pay, the better the quality,
Different guitars have different tone characteristics too. Find one that has pleasing sound to you, that looks nice, and that looks like it’s well made. Check for small details such as the bindings and rosette. These are decorative touches that also help to protect the edges of the body and of the sound hole, respectively. Check that they are smooth and don’t seem to be loose. Also check fret edges to make sure they aren’t sharp because that will end up really annoying you when you play, and will hurt your fretting hand and fingers. Check that the inlays on the fretboard are well set and don’t protrude. Most importantly, look down the neck like you were looking down the barrel of a rifle to make sure it doesn’t bow too much.
Take your time, shop around and talk to salespeople in the music stores you visit. The good stores tend to have the most helpful and knowledgeable sales associates. They are a really good resource for useful and practical information.
Total Guitar, by Terry Burrows, Prospero Books, 2001
Totally Guitar, by Tony Bacon and Dave Hunter, Thunder Bay Press, 2004
Build Your Own Guitar, by Jonathan Kinkead, Quatro Publishing, 2004
Guitar Method, Will Schmid and Greg Kock, Hal Leonard, 2002
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