Acoustic vs Acoustic-Electric Guitar (Which is Best?)


Be it instruments, amplifiers, effects pedals, and whatnot, you have heard of many battles of the music industry.

One of such legendary battles is acoustic vs the acoustic-electric guitar.

This is where a beginner would be confused about choosing between both guitars. But worry not, this article has you fully covered.

In this post, you will learn the main difference between the standard acoustic and acoustic-electric guitar. comparing tone, function, and diversity.

Additionally, this post will help you decide which acoustic is the best choice for you. Let’s dive in…

What Is The Difference Between a Regular Acoustic and Electro-Acoustic guitar?

A regular acoustic guitar does not have any electronics that amplify its sound acoustically. Whereas, an acoustic-electric guitar has an electronic pickup offering the option to plug into an acoustic amp, mixer or PA system. Included with an acoustic-electric are EQ/volume controls and a built-in tuner.

Acoustic vs Acoustic-Electric (Comparison Video)

Regular Acoustic Guitar – Overview

The acoustic guitar is the older cousin of the electric guitar that offers the greatest versatility.

It’s a fretted musical instrument that produces sound when you vibrate strings placed above a hollow chamber on the guitar’s body.

The vibrations travel through the air, which means no electrical amplification is required, thanks to its sound chamber that produces amplification and tone.

Technically, a standard acoustic and electro-acoustic are still both acoustic guitars because they both still produce sound acoustically. 

The difference is the standard acoustic sound cannot be modified as there are no electronics and somewhat limits the sound as you cannot add effects or change the acoustics tone. 

Furthermore, a standard acoustic is limited to its volume potential without an onboard pickup, which is where an electro-acoustic will come into play.

Hence, why acoustic players who regularly perform live opt for the electro-acoustic.

Whereas, bedroom players who are not frequent gigging musicians and are not keen on the tone plugged electro-acoustic tone tend to opt for a regular acoustic guitar.

However, there are ways to amplify a regular acoustic guitar for live use if you continue reading below.

Can You Amplify a Standard Acoustic Guitar?

Yes, of course, just because a standard acoustic guitar does not have an integrated-onboard pickup, doesn’t mean you cannot amplify its sound for live use. Here’s how…

1. Position a Microphone Close to The Soundhole 

The most common way of amplifying and recording a standard acoustic without any electronics is by positioning a microphone close to the soundhole.

This is by far the most traditional method of recording standard acoustic guitars as this technique captures the most natural and authentic sound compared to an onboard pickup.

For using this method live, the microphone would be positioned close to the soundhole and hooked up to a PA system.

The downside to this method is that you are limited to the number of effects available to you.

Secondly, positioning a microphone can be tedious because the type of microphone, position, and angle of the mic will impact your live sound.

Therefore some degree of knowledge of microphone placement will be needed. And for this reason, this method of amplifying a standard acoustic is maybe not ideal for players who are new to playing live.    

2. Install a Pickup

The first way would be simply by fitting an onboard pickup to your prized acoustic.

There are multiple options for acoustic pickups being either a piezo, transducer, soundhole, or microphone pickup.

Each type of pickup has its difference in tonal qualities and range in price. Furthermore, some acoustic pickups like a piezo pickup are more difficult and time-consuming to install as it requires drilling modifications to your acoustic.

Whereas, microphone pickups simply clip on to your soundhole or inside the chamber without requiring any modification to your prized guitar.

However, all acoustic guitars are not universal in size so that various pickups will fit perfectly on some acoustic soundholes, and others will not.

Therefore, you have to do your research before purchasing an acoustic pickup so it fit snug on your acoustic.

Acoustic-Electric Guitar – Overview

An acoustic-electric also known as an ‘electro-acoustic guitar’ is identical to a regular acoustic.

The difference is that an electric-acoustic guitar is fitted with a pickup and a preamp (typically with EQ and volume controls). Whereas a regular acoustic does not have these electronics.

The pickup is what converts the sound into an electronic signal to be amplified by the preamp.

Electro-acoustics come in all variations typical of the standard acoustic being: dreadnought, parlor, jumbo, classical, etc. The only difference is there is an onboard electronic pickup with EQ controls and a built-in tuner.

The combination of preamp and pickup allows you to amplify your sound using an acoustic amp, mixer, PA system for live performances.

It will enable the option to record your acoustic directly with an audio capturing device such as an audio interface.

And for this reason, the electro-acoustic is preferred for live performances with the convenience of simply plugging in and playing.

Whereas to amplify a regular acoustic, you would position an external microphone close to the soundhole hooked up to a PA system, which does offer less in terms of flexibility.

Can You Play an Electric-Acoustic Like a Regular Acoustic?

The simple answer is yes; there’s a common misconception that electro-acoustics are better used when plugged in, but this is not the case.

The truth is an electro-acoustic function the same way as a regular acoustic using the body’s chamber and soundhole as a source of amplification.

And because of this, electro-acoustic sounds identical to a regular acoustic guitar when unplugged, because they both have equal designs and functions.

They both use the chamber as a soundbox to amplify its natural sound. And because of this, they both sound identical when unplugged.

I must admit, having the electronic pickup does offer more in terms of flexibility for conveniently plugging in and adding outboard effects.

However, the tone of a plugged electro-acoustic does have its drawbacks (which I will get to later in this post.)

If you find the tone of a plugged-in electro-acoustic is not to your taste, you can amplify and record your electro-acoustic by positioning a microphone close to the soundhole and not utilize the onboard pickup.

Why Electro-Acoustics Are More Versatile

Electro-acoustic guitars are way more versatile when it comes to sounds, thanks to its external amp, which is an opportunity to expand your sound further.

You have the option to tweak your amps EQ and the guitars EQ for extra tone sculpting ability and change the tone of your acoustic.

Furthermore, the built-in tuner is convenient for quick tuning tweaks without requiring a tuner pedal, which saves you a bit of money.   

Because of the electronic amplification, you can modify an electro-acoustic tone further with effect pedals such as reverb, chorus delay, or a digital multi-effect pedal.

The ability to add effects to your acoustic expands your range of sounds massively, allowing you to create different and personal tone touches to get your perfect acoustic sound.

Furthermore, players can add a looper pedal in the signal chain, which is a dealbreaker to some acoustic players who play live.

In case you didn’t know, a looper pedal records phrases of your playing so you can loop guitar sections to play over the top. Why is this cool?

It means you can create songs, add percussion, and create looped melodies and have endless fun.

Obviously, an electro-acoustic has the option to add effects to your signal chain, whereas a regular acoustic without a pickup cannot modify its tone. 

How Does an Electro-Acoustic Sound Plugged-In?

Many beginners make a common mistake when buying an electro-acoustic.

They assume that an electro-acoustic played through an amplifier will sound the same as it is unplugged, just a louder version that they can control… this is simply not true!

An electro-acoustic guitar through an amplifier will not sound the same as you hear it unplugged.

For example, a regular acoustic guitar’s sound played unplugged sounds lush, boomy, and rich in a range of frequencies.

On the other hand, the tone of an electro-acoustic through an amp, PA system, and audio interface is often described as: ‘tinny,’ ‘unnatural,’ and ‘flat.’

It’s not terrible and unusable because many performing players still prefer the electro-acoustic for live performances.

The reason it sounds less natural is that the onboard pickup of an electro-acoustic cannot capture the full spectrum of frequencies which are amplified through the soundhole.

To understand my point here is a great comparison video below between an acoustic recorded with a microphone and recorded direct using the onboard pickup.

Tone Comparison: Microphone vs Onboard Pickup

Essentially, an electro-acoustic struggle to capture and amplify the natural and organic sound that comes from its soundhole.

And for this reason, many famous acoustic songs have been recorded with a microphone close to the soundhole because it captures the ‘organic,’ ‘natural,’ and the pure sound of an acoustic as you would typically hear it.     

So for all the versatility of an electro-acoustic when it comes to tone modification, you are not getting the full and natural acoustic sound when plugged into an amp.

On the other hand, multi-effects and acoustic preamps can enhance the direct tone of an electro-acoustic aiming to improve and magnify the natural sound of your acoustic for live applications.

But overall, for the full tonal experience, an electric acoustic does have its drawbacks when it comes to how it sounds when plugged in, so keep this in mind when purchasing one.

Pros and Cons of Acoustic-Electric Guitar

Pros
  • Convenient sound amplification and projection
  • More sound and tone options compared to a standard acoustic
  • Can add effects and heavily modify your signal
  • Can move around when you play live
  • Can be played unplugged and used as a traditional acoustic
  • Great for busking and live performances
Cons
  • Loss of originality – Electro-acoustic guitar does not replicate the organic and authentic sound of an acoustic guitar when plugged in
  • Cost slightly more than standard acoustics
  • Need an acoustic amplifier to plug-in which increases the upfront cost

How to Decide Between Both

Let me quickly jot down all the factors that will help you decide whether you should play an Acoustic or Electro-acoustic guitar based on your circumstances.

Standard Acoustic

  • Total beginner buying your first guitar and not at the stage of gigging yet
  • Want to buy a more affordable guitar 
  • Don’t want to pay extra for an amplifier and effects
  • You want to record your acoustic using the soundhole instead of the onboard pickup 
  • Total beginner buying your first guitar and not at the stage of gigging yet
  • Want to buy a more affordable guitar 
  • Don’t want to pay extra for an amplifier and lead
  • You want to record your acoustic using the soundhole instead of the onboard pickup 
  • You don’t like the plugged in electro-acoustic tone and prefer soundhole recording 

Acoustic Electric

  • Frequent gigging musician or have desires to gig or busk in the future
  • You don’t mind the plugged-in tone on an electro-acoustic
  • Love using effects and tweaking sounds
  • Like to move around when you play live
  • Want to use a looper pedal with your acoustic
  • You want to buy an acoustic multi-effect pedal or preamp to improve the plugged-in tone
  • You want to build a live pedalboard around your acoustic
  • Want more flexibility and options with your instrument
  • Don’t mind paying a bit extra for the choice of the onboard pickup even if you don’t use it often

Non-Cutaway vs Cutaway

The last piece in the puzzle is deciding whether to buy your acoustic with a cutaway or one without. 

Allow me to solve this mystery!

Three things are needed to be considered before opting either;

  • How much you want to reach the upper frets
  • Your preference in tones
  • How will you use the guitar

Reaching the Upper Frets

If you are a keen lead player and like to play in the upper frets, get a guitar with a cutaway – it will be easier for you to access those frets.

Although cutaway guitars are known to lack a slight amount of resonance, this is due to the slight decrease in wood to make room for the cutaway.

Whereas, on the other hand, if you are kind of a rhythm guitarist and don’t tend to use the upper frets and want maximum tone and resonance, then a guitar without a cutaway would be the better option for you.

At the end of the day, it comes down to tastes and personal preferences.

Tone Preferences

Within the world of guitar, there are debates; one such discussion is that the guitar without a cutaway gives a fuller sound.

To my ear… yes, this is the case.

So, once you don’t need the upper frets, like a full-sounding guitar, then getting the one without a cutaway is the best option.

It doesn’t mean that you’ll definitely want that fuller sound – some guitarists prefer the sound of a cutaway guitar. So, make sure that accessing the upper frets isn’t the only reason to get a cutaway guitar.

The Sound Difference

If the guitar lacks a cutaway, it tends to offer better bass and volume, and an overall fuller sound.

While a guitar with a cutaway offers a more treble-heavy sound, you can produce a slightly brighter sound with that, all being equal.

Now, you decide – for some, a cutaway guitar produces a balanced sound. While for others, the sound with a cutaway is too loud.

Regardless, neither is better than the other, choosing a cutaway or non-cutaway boils down to your required access to the upper frets and the tone you prefer. 

Related Questions

Can you plug an acoustic guitar into an electric guitar amp?

Yes, you can plug an electric acoustic into an electric guitar amp. However, electric guitar amps are designed to color the tone and add distortion. Whereas, acoustic guitar amps are designed to produce a transparent signal and enhance the full spectrum of frequencies of an acoustic guitar. 

Do electro acoustics sound well unplugged?

Yes, all the Electro-acoustic guitars function perfectly, without electricity, because the pickups, which actually work as transmitters, provide the signal for the amplifiers that are built into the instrument. So you can play electro-acoustic guitars unplugged but cannot modify their sound.

Can you amplify a regular acoustic guitar?

Yes, you can amplify an acoustic guitar, for that matter, you need to convert its acoustic sound into an electrical signal, via microphone or a pickup. Mics are ideal for quiet settings, but for playing loud gigs, you need pickups and/or some other instruments like transducers, preamp, a DI (direct input) box, etc.

Final Thoughts

Both, despite the differences, Acoustic and Electro-acoustic guitars are amazing instruments, serving their purposes; no matter which one you go with, both will allow you to create something spectacular. I hope you are now familiar with the similarities and differences between Acoustic and Electro-acoustic guitars and enjoyed the post.

Adam

Adam is the founder and author of Tone Topics and dedicated to providing the best guitar content for like-minded gear nerds. Please enjoy all the content on the site and support us by sharing these posts with other people. It would really help us out!

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