Acoustic Guitars
About Acoustic Guitars
Acoustic guitars have a long history - four string guitar-like
instruments were played in Asia Minor and Syria as early as
1400 B.C. Six-string instruments developed in Spain around the
late 1700s to early 1800s, and they are thought to have evolved
into the guitars we play today.
The first guitars were small and narrow, but changes made to
the guitar's interior bracing by the end of the 19th century
allowed designers to produce larger guitars with louder, deeper
tones. Other developments included the use of a variety of
woods and finishes, a reinforced, raised wider neck and
machine tuners in place of the earlier wooden tuning pegs.
Today's acoustic guitars come in a variety of shapes and sizes
with special characteristics developed by individual
manufacturers.
Woods and Construction
Guitar designers have experimented with the use of many
different woods trying to create just the right combination of
tonal quality and sound projection in the instruments they
produce. Here are some examples of the woods used in
modern guitar construction:
Spruce: Most acoustics feature spruce for the soundboard
because it possesses the best balance between strength and
flexibility. It is strong enough to insure structural durability, but
lightweight and flexible enough to project the sound. It is light in
color with a straight grained pattern. Spruce has a wellbalanced tone for both low and high notes. North American
Sitka and European spruce are most commonly used.
Cedar: Also popular for soundboards, the use of cedar creates
a slightly darker sound with an accent on the mid-range. It is
orange in color with a close straight grain. It is the preferred
wood for flamenco style classical guitars.
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Mahogany: Mahogany is a strong, stable wood commonly used
for guitar necks, backs and sides. It is usually dark reddishbrown in color. When used in the body of a guitar it lends a rich,
dark tone. Mahogany is also used for soundboards where it
produces a rich,
bass-enhanced tone.
Koa Wood - A red-toned, fine-grained, and very hard wood, Koa
is native to Hawaii. It is highly figured and beautiful, tending
towards a brilliant tone. Koa is used for soundboards, sides and
backs by many famous guitar makers.
Maple: Maple is sometimes used for the sides and backs of
acoustic guitars. It is very light in color with many variations in
grain and figuring. Because it is a very hard wood, it is often
used for guitar necks. Maple is occasionally used for the
soundboard on laminated top guitars, creating a very brilliant
tone.
Rosewood: Scarce and expensive, rosewood is a prized
material for the back and sides of acoustic guitars. Rosewood is
richly patterned with many shades of browns and reds. Because
it is a very hard wood, it is quite reflective and produces a big,
brilliant tone. It is also commonly used for guitar bridges and
fingerboards. The most desirable rosewood comes from Brazil,
but most sources today are in India and Africa.
Ebony: Ebony is very hard and dense, making it an ideal wood
for fingerboards in finer guitars. It is occasionally used for
bridges as well. Ebony is solid black and very finely grained.
Solid Wood Construction
Today's guitar buyer can choose an instrument made from solid
woods or laminated woods. It's important to consider how these
materials can effect the tone and quality of the guitar.
Most high quality guitars have a solid spruce top (or
soundboard). A solid top guitar produces a richer tone that
improves with age. Some guitars also have solid woods on the
back and sides, but this does not have as much impact on the
guitar's tone as the materials used in the top.
To make a solid top for a guitar, one piece of wood is selected
and then split in half. These two pieces are joined together side-by-side - at the middle of the guitar top - creating a pattern
across the grain in the two pieces of wood. Each piece appears
to be a mirror image of the other. This process is called
"bookmatching."
To determine if a guitar has a solid top, follow the grain lines of
the guitar top to the sound hole. If you can see the grain lines
wrap over the edge of the hole, the guitar has a solid top.
Caring for Solid Woods
Solid woods are susceptible to temperature and humidity
changes and should be handled with care. If the temperature
gets too cold and the air too dry, the wood of the guitar may
shrink and eventually crack. Even though cracks probably won't
affect the tone of the guitar, it should be taken to a qualified
repair technician or luthier for service as soon as possible. By
keeping the guitar in an environment that is about 70 degrees
Fahrenheit and has 35% - 55% relative humidity, your guitar will
stay in great condition for generations to come. A hardshell case
and a humidifier are wise investments for the owner of a solid
top guitar.
Laminated Wood Construction
Today, quality solid woods have become scarce and costly to
use so many manufacturers now make guitars from laminated
woods. Although there may be a loss in tonal quality when using
multiple layers of compressed wood, their use has allowed the
industry to make well-built guitars at a lower cost.
Because of this change in construction, a guitar made with
laminated woods does not get better sounding with age and
does not usually maintain the multi-generational longevity
associated with a solid-top guitar. Over time, the layers on a
laminated guitar may separate. This can (in the span of 20 or so
years) make the guitar unplayable.
Now that you know a little more about guitar construction, let's
look at the types of acoustic guitars available today. There are
two basic types - Steel String Acoustic Guitars and Nylon String
Classical Guitars. Each is designed for a specific kind of playing
and musical style.
Steel String Acoustic Guitars
Steel string acoustic guitars are used to play a wide range of
music including blues, country, rock, and folk. They have a "big
sound" that's great for either rhythm or solo performers. They
use steel strings that are made of silk and steel or bronze.
The traditional steel string acoustic (commonly called the folk
guitar) has a large, bell-shaped body. It usually has six strings,
but twelve-string guitars are also popular. Basic components
include a soundboard and hollow body (or soundbox) with an
attached narrow neck across which the strings are stretched.
Plucking or strumming the strings generates the sound. The
vibration of the strings is transferred to the soundboard (the
guitar's top) through the bridge and amplified by the soundbox.
The guitar's top, back and sides are made of different types of
wood, each with unique tonal characteristics. The back and
sides are often made of mahogany or rosewood and the top is
usually spruce or cedar.
Most acoustic guitars have necks made of mahogany with a
fretted fingerboard made of rosewood or ebony. On a steel
string acoustic, the neck is attached to the body at the 14th fret.
Some acoustics feature a "cutaway" body on the treble side
which allows the player to easily reach the higher frets.
See the section on Woods and Construction for more
information.
Because of the tremendous stress created by steel strings
when they are tuned to pitch - about 175 lbs. of tension - the
guitar's neck can bow forward, causing the strings to raise
higher off the neck. This makes playing uncomfortable,
especially for beginners. To counteract this, most steel string
acoustics feature an adjustable truss rod which can straighten
the neck and bring the strings closer to the frets for easier
playing action.
During the dry months of winter, when the guitar's wood may
shrink, the neck has a tendency to "back-bow." This can cause
the strings to vibrate against the metal frets creating "fret buzz."
In this case, loosening the truss rod will allow the neck to return
to the correct position.
EXPLODED DRAWING OF STEEL STRING GUITAR
Machine
Head
Peg Head
Nut
Fingerboard
Top
Frets
Heel
Sound
Hole
Heel Cap
Reinforcements
Neck
Block
Dovetail
Cross Brace
Side
Reinforcements
"X" Brace
Fan Braces
Upper
Bout
Back
Bridge
Plate
Waist
Lower
Bout
Cross
Braces
Butt
Block
Side
or Rib
Tone
Bars
Bridge Saddle
Saddle Slot
Notched
Linings
Butt or
Strap Peg
Bridge
Bridge
Pin
Reinforcing
Strips
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Nylon String Acoustic Guitars
Nylon string guitars are used to play Classical music, Flamenco
and Spanish music and other fingerstyle music forms. Today the
Nylon String Classic is the world's most popular guitar design,
used to play the music of many countries and cultures.
The nylon string guitar is built using the same materials as the
steel string acoustic, with certain noticeable differences. The
classic style guitar has a smaller, more curved body, and the
mahogany neck is wider making it more suitable for playing
without a pick (fingerstyle playing.) The neck is joined to the
body at the 12th fret instead of the 14th like most steel string
acoustics.
The strings, which on earlier guitars were made of gut, are now
made of a much more consistent nylon material. The three
lower-sounding strings are made of nylon strand cores with a
metal wrapping, often silver. Nylon strings create less tension
(75 lbs.) on the guitar neck than steel strings. They are more
mellow sounding and are softer on the player's fingers - making
the classic an excellent choice for many beginners.
The bracing in the classical guitar is much lighter than that of
the folk (steel string) guitar, giving it more resonance and
projection. Steel strings are not recommended for classical
guitars because the higher tension of the steel strings may
cause permanent damage.
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