Learning on an Acoustic Guitar vs. an Electric – Does it Matter?

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The answer to the title question is going to be yes, and no! As always, with music and instrument topics, you are going to run into a lot of subjective ideas and tips. But there are pros and cons to learning beginner guitar on an acoustic vs. an electric guitar, and we will take a closer look at what matters and what doesn’t!

Learn on Both an Acoustic and Electric Guitar

If possible, it is best to have both kinds, an electric and acoustic guitar, and even with tight budgets, it is possible. The used marketplace for instruments is flooded, and you can always find decent intermediate guitars. Be careful with new and used guitars that are too cheap, though, as they may be unplayable! Here are specific pointers to look for when getting a guitar.

  • Action
    This is the height of the strings from the fretboard, and because guitars have a slight bow, they will always get higher as we approach the pickups and bridge. It needs to rise some, but not too much; too low will buzz the frets, and too high will be a pain to play. On an acoustic, the bridge is glued, but an electric has more ability to adjust this feature. Make sure your guitar is just right!
  • Intonation
    When you play a fret, it should sound exactly like the note played. If it is slightly sharp or flat, the intonation will be bad, and chords will sound terrible. Again, an electric has more ability to adjust this aspect, while an acoustic will require a luthier. Take a tuner if you must, and check the intonation. Check your guitar now… it may need an adjustment!
  • Solid Top
    For acoustic guitars, the solid wood top is what makes it great; whether you buy new or used, always aim for solid. The wood resonates more and gets even better with age, laminate does not do that. 
  • Pickups
    If you need an electric, you must pay more attention to your single or double coil pickups, the body has been shown to have little effect. And when electric parts are involved, be sure the parts are built well and clean.
  • Strings
    Unless you are a noise musician, you should care about using nice, clean, and even higher-budget strings. Your sound comes from these vibrations; experiment with different kinds for any guitars you own. And make sure the tuners and nut hold them correctly with no friction or detuning problems.

Music Theory Stays the Same as Your Tuning

If the guitars are tuned in standard (or at least the same tuning), the music intervals and chords will all be the same between acoustic and electric guitars. Because the action is lower on the electric guitar, you will play more often on the higher end of the neck, but the guitar scales stay the same. All your music theory, like the Circle of Fifths, Nashville Numbers, barre chords, box patterns, guitar chord chart, and more, will still be the same lesson.

The main difference in your beginner guitar lessons, and whether you choose to play an electric or acoustic guitar, will depend strongly on the type of music you like and what you want to learn. Each genre has its stereotypical kinds and brands.

  • Acoustic Guitar
    These guitars need fat bodies and heavy strings to spread their sound acoustically. They are more suited for those who wish to play folk, country, rockabilly, bluegrass, singer-songwriter styles, and pop in general. These playing methods rely more on rhythm with occasional bass and melody fills. Many acoustic-electric guitars come equipped with pickups now, but that doesn’t change the essential playing style.
  • Electric Guitar
    These can and are often used for the same genres already mentioned, often acoustics and electrics are both used in modern bands. They have thinner necks and lighter gauge strings, yet the electric makes it possible to play heavier and faster genres like rock, metal, punk, funk, progressive, and all the similar styles where guitarists want more power.

Regardless of your genre or your exact guitar brand, learn as many styles as possible. Some like to approach the guitar with a “feeling” method, which is fine, but if you know your Music 101, it will be easier to play riffs of any vibe. That way, it doesn’t matter how you feel; your guitar will emote on its own by the notes and techniques used.

The Pros and Cons of an Acoustic vs. Electric Guitar

If possible, it is best to start on a steel string guitar; for younger players, a softer nylon classical may be more suitable. Either way, it is often a surprise for acoustic guitar players when they feel the action of an electric; it suddenly seems so much easier to play! Steel strings will help strengthen your fingers as guitar playing is a physical exercise.

However, the easier electric guitar action is what makes it so perfect for playing at lightning speed. One trick some guitarists use is to have an old high-action beater guitar that they practice riffs and barre chords on, and then once they move to the electric, it’s a noticeable difference. It is a great way to solidify that muscle memory and encode it in the fingers.

Younger and smaller players may find the sleeker body of the electric to be more accessible. They do have smaller acoustic parlor guitars, but even they still need fat bodies for sound. If size matters, the electric guitar is always more portable and can also take more of a beating. If you drop an acoustic, it has a way better chance of serious damage.

The electric guitar will give you more sonic possibilities, and that includes the ability to play in silence with headphones. An acoustic only has its main sound, and that needs to be amplified by a mic if on a big enough stage. An electric signal allows you to explore effects like distortion, fuzz, chorus, wah, phaser, and so much more. Of course, without all the amps and pedals, you will save money!

If you decide to play only electric, there will be no major consequences. You can still learn all the same genres of music, and they even have pedals and effects that give a more acoustic sound. It is helpful at times as a musician to play different instruments, but you can still be a great guitar player if you stick with one body style.

Whether you have or decide to get an acoustic or electric guitar, they both need a good setup. Always be sure they are intonated with proper action; this can make all the difference in succeeding. And, of course, it takes lots of practice to learn to play the guitar; you need to play it at least every other day. 

As you have seen, it does matter if you learn on an acoustic vs. an electric guitar, at least when it comes to your genre and final sound. If possible, play both, but don’t let having just one hold you back. Master your intervals, scales, chords, and progressions, and any guitar in your hands will sound rather impressive!

By Shawn Leonhardt for Guitar Tricks and 30 Day Singer