Let’s face it, choosing a new acoustic guitar can bring many headaches to decide upon. When it comes to specs, an important aspect is deciding between a cutaway vs. a non-cutaway body design.
While it may seem simple, there’s more to this topic than you might think. Of course, neither of these two designs is “better” or “worse,” and it all comes down to personal preferences.
In this guide, we’ll explore these two main design options closely. By the end of this post, you will fully understand which acoustic design is more your flavor of acoustic. Let’s go…
What is the difference between Cutaway vs. Non-cutaway guitars? A cutaway body design’s primary purpose is to allow a guitar player comfortable access to higher frets for playing higher register notes. However, a non-cutaway guitar includes a full bout design restricting upper fret access. Still, it offers a slightly brassier tone due to a larger body chamber.
Acoustic Cutaway Design – 101
A cutaway is a guitar body design feature that refers to the treble-side indentation in the upper bout. They are design traits found on acoustic guitars and almost all electric guitars.
The idea behind this is to allow easier access to higher frets and enable a more comfortable performance. As for acoustic guitars with cutaways, they almost exclusively come with one cutaway.
But aside from an ergonomic function, they can also have an aesthetic role. There are two main cutaway types – Florentine and Venetian. Florentine is more common and is sharper, while Venetian is rounder. There’s also a “squared-off” cutaway variant, although it’s rare.
Cutaways on guitar-like instruments date back to the 18th century, but as far as regular guitars go, they were introduced in the second half of the 20th century.
Cutaway Guitars – The Differences
Better Higher Fret Access
As already mentioned, the primary purpose of having a cutaway within the body design is to allow much easier access to higher frets on the guitar’s fretboard.
The neck on an acoustic guitar pretty much stops where it meets the body while the fretboard continues after this joint.
However, with guitars that don’t feature any cutaways, it gets a lot harder to actually reach these frets properly and play anything on them.
In some cases, guitar players might even pull out the thumbs of their fretting hands in front to play anything in these higher-fret areas. Without a cutaway design, it is very difficult to play freely and unrestricted without needing to stretch your fingers to reach the higher frets.
However, a cutaway makes things much simpler in this regard. By removing a portion of the body in the upper bout, you get access to these higher frets, which is especially useful for lead players. Especially if your playing style calls for you to play solos and lead lines around the 12th fret.
One of the most common questions that come to mind is how having a cutaway affects the tone?
After all, you’re literally removing a usable part of the body, which primarily serves as a resonance chamber. And as one would expect, this has a small impact on the overall sonic output of the instrument.
Of course, acoustic guitars that have cutaways are far from inferior when it comes to sound quality. However, if you had two guitars with the same overall design, build quality, and materials, but one has a cutaway, you’d notice a slight drop in the bottom-ends of the audible spectrum.
But as acoustic guitars with cutaways are already intended for lead playing, having a guitar that sounds just ever so slightly “thinner” might be advantageous.
At the end of the day, it all comes down to personal preferences, but an acoustic guitar with a cutaway is almost exclusively a better choice for lead players.
Non-Cutaway Guitars – The Differences
Restrictive Upper-Fret Access
When it comes to regular “conventional” acoustic guitars, they have normal full body shapes. Of course, there are many different standard and non-standard variations, although that could be said about cutaway guitars as well.
But what we’re interested in here is that non-cutaway acoustic guitars make a huge impact on the higher fret areas’ performance. It can make it much harder to do anything in these areas, at least by using conventional techniques.
Those who play lead sections on acoustic guitars are usually not in favor of non-cutaway guitars. Sure, it is feasible, but it gets pretty annoying that you need to adapt your playing techniques to play anything there.
Even those who have longer fingers and bigger hands can experience difficulties. Non-cutaway guitars are still used for lead purposes, but not as much as those with a cutaway.
So now we come to the most important aspect of it all – the tone. Depending on who you ask, non-cutaway acoustic guitars may have a slightly ‘fuller and ‘richer’ tone.
The body, which mainly serves a purpose of a resonance chamber, is bigger without a cutaway. This particular formation brings a slight yet noticeable accent in the bottom-ends and just a minor decrease in the higher-ends than guitars with cutaways.
However, in any shape or form, this doesn’t make non-cutaway acoustic guitars sonically superior compared to ones with a cutaway. They just produce a different tone. Of course, things can change with different use of materials.
With this said, many players have stated that the difference is barely noticeable, if noticeable at all. In the end, the question of tone quality won’t play that much of a role if you were to choose between a cutaway and a non-cutaway acoustic guitar.
The Original Design
But according to many guitar players, the regular non-cutaway acoustic guitar comes with one significant advantage – it’s much more aesthetically pleasing than cutaway designs.
Of course, this comes down to personal preferences, but the good old full-body shape is still the most popular. With this kind of body comes not only better symmetry, but it also provides a “canvas” for additional artwork that can fit the front side of the body.
Although it’s kind of a subjective matter, many have put design ahead of functionality and sonic properties.
After all, acoustic guitars are not that often used as lead instruments. And if they are, you usually don’t go up to higher fret areas that often. So the full body shape remains popular due to its attractiveness.
Does a Cutaway Guitar Affect the Tone?
And now we get to the heart of the matter. Does a cutaway design affect the tone? After all, you have a larger body, and it gives more room for the instrument to resonate.
If you want the most straightforward answer, then yes, it does affect the tone. However, the main question is whether the difference between the same guitar model with a cutaway and without one would be noticeable enough.
Sure, the higher volume chamber body can result in an overall richer tone. But in almost all cases, there’s barely any noticeable difference. (Watch this video below to make up your own mind.)
Cutaway vs Non-Cutaway Tone Comparison Video
Some players argue that you can hear a difference, and some players state you can’t. Therefore, this debate is primarily based on personal opinion as the guitar community can’t decide on a concrete answer.
You need to remove much more of the body to have a substantial difference in tone quality. And even then, with the right use of materials and build qualities, you can get a great tone out of the instrument, even if it comes with an unusual design.
Finally, a drop in the bottom-ends with a cutaway guitar can always be compensated. It can be done either by fiddling with EQ by adding more bass (if it has electronics) or by using different microphones and other techniques.
As a side note, we have an awesome buying guide on the best multi-effects pedals for acoustic guitars. These multi-effects can vastly improve your tone for live shows. (View this post here)
How to Choose Between Both
But in the end, you’ll have to choose between one of these two options. So let’s first see what player should get a cutaway guitar and which should get a non-cutaway.
Why Choose a Cutaway?
This kind of instrument is mainly intended for lead players, predominantly those who prefer to go way up and reach those higher notes. We’re talking about guitarists who mainly play above the 5th fret and who need more space above the 12th fret.
Of course, there are differences in cutaway designs, but this mainly comes down to personal preferences and playing styles. But no matter the design, acoustic guitars with cutaways will always be the best choice for lead-orientated players.
Why Choose a Non-Cutaway?
So who should choose a non-cutaway guitar then? Well, the main target group of players here are those who are mainly strummers and who love to play in the open position. Yes, it can also serve as a lead instrument. Just bear in mind that it will be much harder to access higher frets.
Another advantage, as we already explained, is a slightly richer tone, mainly in the bottom-ends. This is what you should bear in mind if you prefer to have all the sonic qualities above ergonomic qualities.
Keep In Mind…
Finally, it’s essential to know that you should choose primarily according to your needs and not by aesthetics.
Sure, having a pretty-looking instrument is all fine, but at the end of the day, you’ll be spending a lot of time playing this instrument, and it needs to sound great and be comfortable.
Should Beginners Choose Cutaway or Non-Cutaway?
If you’re a beginner looking for your first or one of the first guitars, then we’d say that you shouldn’t be too concerned about this issue. In fact, there’s hardly any chance you’ll notice any practical differences.
The reason is as a beginner, you will be more focused on learning simple chords and simple riffs closer to the headstock of the guitar. I’m pretty sure you will not be attempting difficult chords past the 7th fret (except Barr and power chords.)
Therefore, I would say a cutaway guitar is not outright essential for beginners. A beginner lacks the experience to grasp what specs are best for their needs and playing style.
It’s more important for a beginner to get past the beginner stage on a quality and reliable guitar whether it’s a cutaway or not.
On the other hand, an acoustic guitar with a cutaway can be interesting to enthusiastic young beginners. By allowing easier access to higher frets, it gives them a new way to explore and experiment with higher frets.
In the end, it’s also important to know that there’s usually no difference in price between the two variants. Quite often, the same guitar model comes in two variants, and they cost the same. It’s the build quality, materials, and other factors that can impact the price.
Checklist for Buying an Acoustic Guitar
One of the main things to know when buying a guitar is the tone. Steel-string acoustic guitars are made from different tonewoods (sometimes composite materials) and feature different design traits. In the end, it all impacts their sonic output.
So it’s always the best idea for you to try out these guitars, or at least hear a demo of it online. But before that, you’ll need to know what you’re aiming for. Do you want it to sound darker, smoother, brighter, or balanced?
If we’re talking about regular full-sized acoustic guitar, there are still some divisions when it comes to body size and shape. Although scale lengths are roughly the same, we can make a distinction between three body size categories:
- Small: Parlor, 0, 00
- Medium: 000, OM, Grand Concert
- Large: Dreadnaught, Grand Auditorium, Jumbo
The body size doesn’t only impact the tone, but the level of comfort while playing. There’s also the aesthetic aspect which may matter to some.
Just like with any other instruments, guitars are made out of different tonewoods. For acoustic guitars, the top board of the body is made of one type of wood, while the back and sides from another. There are also guitars with all components made from the same type of wood.
Most common materials include mahogany, spruce, sapele, maple, cedar, and rosewood. It can also be laminated or solid wood, with the latter one being more valuable and expensive.
Another important factor is playability, or how the guitar feels in your hands.
You shouldn’t be feeling any discomfort while playing, whether it’s on the body or the neck. If the action is too high, it will be difficult to fret notes. The neck should fully smooth in the palm of the hand and feel good for your hands.
An acoustic guitar is a relatively quiet instrument. However, it’s important to find one that resonates enough to be heard in the settings that you need. These days, a lot of guitars come with electronics and piezo pickups, which allow you to plug into a PA system.
Your guitar needs to stay in tune for sustained playing periods. The tuning stability of a guitar is an indication of its build quality. Acoustic guitars priced lower than $150 typically have bad tuning stability due to design, cheap materials, and bad quality control.
For this purpose, you’ll either need to do research of reviews for a particular model or own it for some time to know how reliable it is based on other players’ experiences.
Before buying your acoustic guitar, you’ll need to set the budget first. Luckily, there are some great affordable acoustic guitars to choose from nowadays.
However, when buying your first acoustic guitar as a beginner, I always recommended spending as much money as you can afford.
This ensures you acquire quality and reliable instrument that will not serve up any problems and is easy to play. Here is a range of price ranges and what to expect for your money.
$100 – Avoid acoustics around this price range. Typically, they have cheap woods and materials, poorly put together, difficult to play, bad tuning stability, and no quality control.
Although the price is attractive, dirt-cheap acoustics should be avoided at all costs. The crucial reason is they are more difficult to play, leading to a beginner quitting prematurely.
$250 – $700 – At this price range, you are getting a quality instrument with competent quality control in all areas of the instrument. You will also be getting an instrument from a reliable brand such as Fender, Epiphone, Tanglewood, Yamaha, etc. I recommend this price range for beginners and intermediate players.
$800+ – This is the beginning of the pro-level instrument price range. This spectrum is ideal for professional or experienced musicians. You will be getting an instrument with high-end materials and specifications.
Finally, you can buy either a new or used guitar. However, with so many great and yet reasonably-priced guitars these days, we’d recommend that you buy a new one.
However, if you are going to buy used, ensure you fully inspect the guitar before parting with your cash. You don’t want any unexpected surprises.
Thanks For Reading
If you enjoyed this post, check out our related post acoustic vs acoustic-electric. It’s our ultimate buying guide between choosing from an acoustic vs electro-acoustic. (you can view this post here)