Types of Guitars and Their Musical Domains
D. L. Stieg

There are two basic types of guitars (acoustic and electric), and four most common types. Together with the approximate date of their invention, the most common types are the nylon string acoustic guitar (1780), the steel string acoustic guitar (1890), the hollow body electric guitar (1930), and the solid body electric guitar (1948). In theory at least, any type of guitar can be used to play any style of guitar music. But in practice, each type of guitar is used more or less exclusively only for specific styles of music. In addition, the lines of distinction between the various and many possible styles of guitar music tend to be tightly drawn and mutually exclusive, especially among those who specialize in any one particular style.

The nylon string acoustic guitar is also called the classical guitar or the Spanish guitar. Prior to the introduction of nylon strings around the middle of the 20th century, these instruments were strung with gut strings. Although the 6-string classical guitar was not developed until near the end of the 18th century, it was preceded by 4-string and 5-string variants of the instrument dating back several centuries earlier (the two lowest pitched strings were the last to be added). During this early period in the guitar’s history, the instrument became increasingly popular across most of Europe among folk musicians and classically trained musicians alike, and was played either by strumming the strings with a plectrum (pick), or by plucking them with the fingers. The classical guitar tradition, which is based almost entirely on plucking the strings, emerged early on in the 19th century, and had evolved for the most part into its modern day form by the turn of the 20th century. The flamenco guitar tradition, which is based on either plucking the strings or strumming them with the fingers, was well established and was already becoming popularized by the middle of the 19th century.

Classical guitar and flamenco guitar music are still played more or less exclusively on the nylon string acoustic guitar, and these are the only styles of music that are normally associated with this type of guitar. But despite this connection, the classical and flamenco traditions could not be further apart from one another in a number of important respects. Classical guitar is an academic tradition, and the focus of most guitar programs in colleges and universities. The classical guitar tradition is based on the study of music and on the use of staff notation, and the classical guitarist’s art is not easily developed, as it normally takes years of disciplined practice to achieve an advanced level of skill. Flamenco, on the other hand, is an art form consisting mainly of music and dance that was developed by gypsies, whose social status in 19th century Europe was very far removed from that of academics and classical musicians. Flamenco guitar music is generally of a more energetic and less reserved character than classical guitar music, and is no less technically challenging. Yet in spite of its complexity, flamenco guitar music evolved by means of an oral learning tradition (learning by imitating), and largely without recourse to the use of musical notation. Flamenco today is a highly regarded if not widely known style of guitar music, and flamenco guitarists, like classical guitarists, tend to regard their craft as the one true style of play on the guitar.

The same is true, although probably to a somewhat lesser extent, of proponents of the many possible styles of play on the steel string acoustic guitar. Steel strings came into gradual use beginning around the middle of the 19th century, even though instruments specifically designed for steel strings were not developed until the last decade of the century. Prior to the development of archtop and flattop steel string guitars, steel strings were used on instruments designed for gut strings, and the steel strings over time often exerted a greater force than the instrument could withstand. This accounted for the early demise of a great many classical guitars before 1890, and the tradition of cross-stringing (using steel strings on a guitar designed for gut strings) continued well into the 20th century. The steel strings were preferred for their affordability, since gut strings were prohibitively expensive, and for the fact that they gave the guitar’s voice greater volume, clarity, and brightness.

The enhanced effect of the steel strings allowed folk guitarists to develop subtler patterns of play, and gave rise to the development of many new styles of play on the guitar, including bluegrass, blues, jazz, and ragtime. The steel string guitar was neither widely owned nor widely popularized until beginning in the 1930’s, but by mid-century had become the instrument of choice for virtually all acoustic guitarists besides classical and flamenco guitarists. Since that time, a great many talented steel string acoustic guitarists have developed crossover styles of play in which elements from various musical genres are freely combined. Nevertheless, it can safely be said that the many possible specific styles of play on the steel string guitar (including folk, traditional, classical, bluegrass, acoustic blues, folk rock, and acoustic jazz) tend to be somewhat mutually exclusive. The steel string guitar today is probably the most widely owned of the four types of guitars, and is definitely the most widely owned if the 25 and under demographic is excluded, since younger guitarists have a clear preference for electric guitars.

The electric guitar was developed in 1930, and was originally a modified archtop steel string guitar in which the depth of the soundbox was reduced by about half, and in which a set of electronic pick-ups that produced the amplified sound was mounted on the top of the instrument beneath the strings. In contemporary hollow body electric guitars, which have a very mellow acoustic-electric characteristic sound, the depth of the soundbox is only about one fourth that of an acoustic guitar, and two sets of pick-ups are normally used. Shortly after its invention, the hollow body electric guitar was seized upon by jazz musicians, since the amplification gave them more of a fighting chance in matching the volume of the horns in jazz ensembles. A specific jazz style of play had already started to emerge, beginning with the Dixieland jazz bands that flourished around the turn of the 20th century, but the introduction of the electric guitar greatly accelerated the development of the jazz guitar tradition.

Jazz guitar today is a highly developed and challenging style of music that is played mainly on the hollow body electric guitar, which while it is preferred by some blues and rock guitarists, is not widely used for any other musical genres besides jazz. The jazz guitar tradition is somewhat unique among the many and various guitar traditions. On the one hand, the jazz tradition evolved by means of the oral learning tradition, and is of course integrally related to the world of jazz, which has always been something of a world apart. But on the other hand, jazz guitar has gained some measure of acceptance as an academic discipline, and is the focus of guitar programs in a number of colleges and universities. Either way, it is jazz, and it is unique.

The solid body electric guitar has a far less resonant sound than any of the three other types of guitars, since the sound is produced entirely electronically (hence the solid body). It was invented in 1948, but was already being widely popularized in the early 1960’s with the emergence of the rock music genre. Since that time, a great many specific styles and sub-genres of rock music based on the solid body electric guitar have been developed. As with specific styles of play on the steel string acoustic guitar, the sub-genres of rock music tend to be mutually exclusive, although many accomplished rock guitarists prefer an eclectic style of play that draws upon diverse musical resources. The solid body electric guitar is also the instrument of choice for many country guitarists (especially lead guitarists) and blues guitarists. Ironically, even though the solid body electric guitar sounds less like a guitar than the other three types of guitars, its sound is the most immediately recognizable among the four types. This is mainly attributable to the fact that the sound of a solid body electric guitar, properly amplified and distorted, is piercing and penetrating, and therefore ideally suited for use in television and radio commercials.