Acoustic Guitar Shapes Explained (The Ultimate Guide)
The shape of acoustic guitars matters because it has a determinant influence on how they sound and adapt to the body of the guitar player. When an acoustic guitar is bigger, it is louder and more resonant. When it’s smaller, it is more portable and fits better on a guitar player’s lap.
The shapes of acoustic guitars, however, aren’t made at random. There are certain standards that guitar manufacturers must obey to keep up with buyers’ demands. If you’re looking to get a new acoustic guitar or simply want to learn more about this subject, you’ve come to the right place.
Below, I have listed the seven main types of acoustic guitar shapes. Choose the one that fits your needs and preferences the most. Keep in mind that other physical aspects can interfere with a guitar’s sound.
Developed by Martin and popularized by artists such as Woodie Guthrie, Joni Mitchell, and Johnny Cash, dreadnought acoustic guitars are known for their broad body shape that delivers a loud, full tone. Considered to be one of the most versatile and common types of acoustic guitars, dreadnoughts are particularly useful for strumming.
Because they have a sound that fills the room, dreadnought acoustic guitars are perfect for singer-songwriters who enjoy performing alone (although they also work wonders in the context of a band). The dreadnought’s full tone creates a nice “bed” for the vocals, favoring mid-range singers. It has been the favorite choice of bluegrass and folk musicians since the mid-20th century.
Slope shoulder acoustic guitars are similar to dreadnought guitars, but they feature sloped shoulders. The Gibson J-45 is considered to be the most classic example of a slop-shoulder guitar. The shape doesn’t do much for the sound when compared to a standard dreadnought, but slop-shoulder acoustic guitars are believed to deliver a more ’50s sound and are favored by vintage lovers.
Also known as OOO, auditorium acoustic guitars adjust perfectly to a guitar player’s legs and are favored by musicians who enjoy playing with precision. Despite being great for solo gigs, auditorium guitars also fit perfectly in the context of a band or orchestra because of their balance and projection.
Eric Clapton is probably the most famous artist who favored the auditorium body shape. In comparison with other types of acoustic guitars, auditorium guitars are less bassy. This makes them adequate for finger-style players but less fitting for strumming.
Electric-acoustic auditorium guitars are widely available and they’re ideal for multilayered guitar music, such as music made with looper pedals.
While many people put auditorium (OOO) and orchestra (OM) acoustic guitars in the same bag, they are actually not the same. Unless you have a very well-trained ear, there’s a chance you won’t notice the difference in sound between auditorium and orchestra guitars. However, the latter has a slightly thinner body, which makes it lighter and more portable.
Even though the dreadnought is widely regarded as the standard acoustic guitar shape, the parlor is probably the most versatile of the bunch. Parlor acoustic guitars are perfect for beginners and intermediate musicians who spend most of their days traveling, touring, and performing in small venues. Before switching to the dreadnought, Bob Dylan relied on a parlor.
Other examples of major artists who use parlor acoustic guitars include contemporary greats such as Ed Sheeran and John Mayer. Like the dreadnought, parlor guitars have a rich, well-composed tone and make for a great choice for any solo singer-songwriter. The advantage of parlor guitars is that, even though they don’t have as rich of a tone, they are easier to transport and play with.
With their big frets and well-balanced EQ, jumbo acoustic guitars are known for their warm tone and big sound. Generally regarded as the largest of all acoustic guitar shapes, the jumbo has the full-range quality of a dreadnought but it’s not as bassy. Ideal for playing perfect-sounding lush chords (more than rhythm-based strumming), the jumbo guitar is the guitar you want to have with you when you’re performing in a big venue.
Famous examples of artists who favor the jumbo include the likes of Elvis Presley, Noel Gallagher (Oasis), and Buddy Holly—all among the best of all time. George Harrison was also a big jumbo fan.
The main disadvantage of jumbo acoustic guitars is that they can be a hassle to travel with. If portability is one of your main concerns, the jumbo is hardly the best choice.
Easy to carry around and fitting for smaller guitar players, concert acoustic guitars were designed for musicians who favor fingerpicking. Fingerpicking artists tend to dislike bassier tones that can obscure their intricate chord progressions and arpeggios, and that’s why concert guitars are known for their mid-range brightness and crystal-clear trebles.
The lower string tension and articulate tone of concert acoustic guitars are two other factors that make them the ultimate choice for finger-pickers. If strumming is your main thing, though, you may want to look somewhere else.
All guitarists are still waiting for someone to invent a good-sounding acoustic guitar that can fit in their pockets. So far, mini acoustic guitars (also known as travel) are the closest thing in the market. Depending on the price range, mini guitars can sound really good; however, you won’t normally find them in a professional environment.
Mini acoustic guitars are ideal for guitar players who can’t go anywhere without their instrument. They can easily fit in an airplane’s overhead compartment and they’re perfect for entertaining friends and family in small gatherings. It’s the guitar you want to have when all you want to do is play some songs when you’re camping or on vacation.
Including “classical” as an acoustic guitar shape is sort of a cheat. After all, classical acoustic guitars precede the 20th-century definition of standard guitar shapes (mostly an American creation). Most importantly, they’re fundamentally different not because of their shape but because of their strings, which are made of nylon instead of steel.
Classical acoustic guitars are also known as Spanish, so it should come as no surprise to you that these are ideal for playing Flamenco and other types of classical guitar music that features super-fast note interchanges and that wild style of strumming only Latin folk can produce.
Examples of artists who use classical acoustic guitars include guitar greats such as Andrés Segovia, David Russell, John Williams, and Narciso Yepes.
This guide on acoustic guitar shapes is the perfect starting point for learning more about how even slight changes in a guitar’s body can interfere with the way it sounds and adjusts to a guitar player’s body. However, it’s important to test these guitars by yourself before buying one—all while knowing what you’re going to use them for.
A good idea is to go to the music store and ask to play one of each type, so you get to experience by yourself how it sounds and fits on your lap. Depending on your goal, getting an acoustic guitar can be a huge investment, so make sure you’re making the right choice.