Sitting in the sunset twiddling with your guitar one evening, you must have asked yourself the question that has once come into the mind of every guitar player:
Why are guitars shaped the way they are?
Well, where we can’t transcend in time to the 16th century to find the answer, we can certainly seek help from some facts and speculations!
It is believed that the guitar shape was made by man, for man, and thus was supposed to imitate a woman’s body shape for added aesthetic appeal. However, some experts debunk this statement and credit the unique shape to various practical factors like tradition, comfort, sound quality, and control.
Which of these statements is valid for a guitar’s shape? Let’s find out in this comprehensive article where I’ll be diving deeply into the topic!
In this post we'll cover:
- 1 Why are guitars, in general, shaped the way they are?
- 2 Why are electric guitars shaped the way they are?
- 3 Why are acoustic guitars shaped the way they are?
- 4 Why are acoustic guitars shaped differently?
- 5 Conclusion
Why are guitars, in general, shaped the way they are?
From a general perspective, the consistent shape of the guitar is explained in three ways, all continuing the arguments that I just mentioned at the start; the somehow romanticized one, the convenience-based one and the rather scientific one.
Let’s have a look at all of the possible arguments in detail.
The guitar is shaped after a woman
Do you know that early guitars find their origins in 16-century Spain? Or if you do, do you know that the guitar is still known in Spain as “la guitarra”?
Interestingly, the pronoun “la” in Spanish precedes feminine nouns, whereas the pronoun “le” masculine nouns.
The common concept is that the difference between “la” and “le” diminished as the word transcended the language barrier and got translated to English, thus converging both words under the same pronoun, “the.” And that’s how it became “The guitar.”
Another argument about the guitar’s body shape imitating a woman is the terminologies used to describe its parts like the guitar head, guitar neck, guitar body, etc.
Moreover, the body is also evenly divided into an upper bout, a waist, and a lower bout.
But this argument doesn’t seem quite strong as the other terminologies have nothing to do with human anatomy. Nevertheless, it’s interesting to look into it, no?
Convenience of playing
And now comes the most uninteresting and less exciting but more credible perspective about guitar shape; it’s all physics and tradition.
As a matter of fact, the current guitar shape is considered more of an epitome of convenience.
This means the specific curved shape only continued because of its easy playability and is preferred by guitar enthusiasts.
The curves on the sides of the guitar body make it easy to rest the guitar on your knee and reach your arm over it.
Everyone who has ever held a guitar to their body, ready to play, will notice how ergo-dynamic it feels. Like it was made for our bodies!
Even though the shape was altered from time to time, new designs simply did not pique the interest of guitar lovers.
Interestingly, even dreadnought guitars suffered from this traditional obsession in the starting days.
However, they somehow survived the backlash and became popular among bluegrass musicians after some ups and downs.
A more scientific approach to guitar body shape would be the physics involved in playing the instrument.
According to nerd science, a classical guitar string, for example, resists about 60 kilos of tension regularly, which can even increase if the strings are steel-made.
Keeping this into account, the guitar bodies and waist are designed to give maximum resistance to the warping that could happen as a consequence of this tension.
Additionally, even the slightest alteration in a guitar shape can affect the sound quality.
Thus, manufacturers tried to avoid altering the basic structure of guitar bodies because it wasn’t desirable, or in some cases, even practical.
Which explanation regarding guitar shape is correct? Maybe all of them, or maybe just one? You can pick your favorite next time you are tuning your guitar.
Why are electric guitars shaped the way they are?
If someone asked me that question out of the blue, my first response would be: which shape are you talking about?
Because let’s get it straight, there are perhaps more shapes to an electric guitar than there are chords you can get out of it.
If we examine this question from a general perspective, then no matter which shape you are talking about, it must corroborate a specific set of guitar rules, including:
- A fretboard and a body with a consistent configuration.
- Be comfortable to play in every position, whether you are sitting or standing.
- Have a curvature or an angle on the lower side so that it sits perfectly on your leg and doesn’t slide.
- Have a single cutaway at the lower side of the electric guitar that provides access to upper frets, unlike the acoustic guitar.
On the one hand, where acoustic guitars were supposed to resonate and amplify the string vibrations solely through their unique and hollow design, electric guitars took birth after introducing microphonic pickups.
It enhanced the sound amplification to a level beyond the traditional hollow-shaped acoustics.
However, even without having any particular need, the same shape with an internal cavity and sound holes still continued until replaced by the f-holes.
Just for a fact-check, the f-holes were previously only limited to instruments like cello and violin.
As the electric guitar shape transitioned from one form to another, it eventually stopped at the solid body guitars in 1950, with a shape that resembled acoustic guitars.
Fender was the first brand to introduce the concept with their ‘Fender Broadcaster’.
The reason was quite natural; no other guitar shape would provide as much comfort to the player as the shape of an acoustic one.
And thus, it was mandatory for the classic guitar body shape to persist.
Another reason, as we have already discussed in the general answer, was tradition, which was associated with the most basic image people had in mind when they imagined a guitar.
However, once the players were exposed to the new possibilities regarding the guitar body shape, they started embracing it.
And just like that, things took another big turn when Gibson introduced their Flying V and explorer range.
The electric guitar designs got even more experimental with the emergence of metal music.
In fact, that’s the time electric guitars started veering far from anything we know as traditional.
Fast forward to now, we have a myriad of electric guitar body shapes and styles, as these best guitars for metal testify.
Nevertheless, since the critical aspect of any instrument is comfort and playability, the simple acoustic guitar look is there to persist regardless of any sort of experimentation.
Guess what? The allure and desirability of classic guitar are hard to beat!
Why are acoustic guitars shaped the way they are?
Unlike the electric guitars that went through a full-scale evolutionary process to attain the current shape, an acoustic guitar is the most primitive guitar shape.
Or we may also say the most authentic one.
When and how did the acoustic guitar get its shape? That mostly correlates with the functioning of the instrument rather than its history. And that’s why I, too, will try to explain it from the former perspective.
So without any ado, let me explain to you the different parts of an acoustic guitar, their function, and how they work together to produce the sound that we all love.
Plus, how this interesting arrangement could be solely responsible for the present acoustic guitar body shapes:
The body is the largest part of the guitar which controls the overall tone and resonance of the instrument. It can be made from different types of woods that decide how the guitar will sound.
For example, a guitar body made of mahogany will have a much warmer touch to its sound compared to something made from maple, which has a brighter sound.
The neck of the guitar is attached to the body, and it has the function of holding strings in place. It also provides a place for the fretboard on which you place your fingers to play different chords.
The fretboard or neck is also made from wood, and it has a significant role in controlling guitar sound.
Denser neck woods like maple will produce brighter sounds, and woods like mahogany will make a warmer, darker sound.
The head of the guitar holds the pegs and strings. Moreover, it’s also responsible for keeping the strings in tune.
You can make adjustments from here by tinkering with the pegs. There’s one peg for each string on an acoustic guitar.
It rests on the acoustic guitar’s body and holds the strings in place while also transferring the vibrations of the strings to the body.
Last but not least, an acoustic guitar has strings. The strings in all the stringed instruments are responsible for producing sound. These are either made of nylon or steel.
The type of material the strings are made of also controls the guitar tone, along with the guitar’s size.
For example, steel strings are mostly associated with resonating brighter sounds while nylon with warmer ones.
Why are acoustic guitars shaped differently?
Among the many factors that affect how the guitar will sound, its body dimensions are a huge one.
So as long as a manufacturer sticks to the pre-set rules of making a guitar, there’s no limitation as to what shape an acoustic guitar should have.
Thus, we see a lot of variety in acoustic guitars, each design having its own specialty.
Below described are some details about the most common shapes you’ll encounter when you’re out in the wild. So that when you try to get one for yourself, you know what it is bringing to the table:
Among the different shapes of acoustic guitars, the dreadnought guitar has to be the most common one.
It features a very big soundboard with a relatively less curvy shape and a less defined waist than its other counterparts.
Dreadnought guitars are most famous for rock and bluegrass. Moreover, they are also predominantly used for strumming.
So if you are more into fingerstyle, it’d be safe to go for classical guitars. However, if aggressive is your thing, then dreadnought is for you.
Concert guitars are smaller body guitars with a lower bout width of usually 13 1/2 inches.
It has a shape similar to the classical guitar with a relatively larger lower bout.
Due to the smaller soundboard, it produces a more rounded tone with less bass compared to a dreadnought, with more definition.
The design is suited for many music genres and can be used for both fingerstyle and strumming.
It suits players with a light touch.
Grand Auditorium Acoustics
Auditorium guitars sit between dreadnought and concert guitars, with a length of about 15 inches at the lower bout.
With a narrower waist, shape same as the concert guitar but with the lower bout of a dreadnought, it emphasizes balancing volume, easy playability, and tone all at once.
So whether it’s fingerpicking, strumming, or flat-picking, you can do anything with it.
Its design is best suited for players who love to switch between aggressive and light touch during playing.
As the name suggests, jumbo guitar is the largest acoustic guitar shape and can be as big as 17 inches at the lower bout.
They are a great combination of volume and tone with a size almost similar to dreadnaught and a design somewhere closer to the grand auditorium.
It is especially preferred for strumming and is best suited for aggressive players. Just what you would like to have when sitting beside a campfire.
As simple as it might seem, a guitar is a highly complex instrument filled with delicacies, from its neck shape to the body or anything in between, all control how the guitar should sound and in which situations it must be used.
In this article, I tried to explain why a guitar is shaped the way we see it, the logic behind it, and how you can distinguish between different shapes and styles as you buy your first instrument.
Moreover, we also went through some interesting historical facts to explain the evolutionary process involved in obtaining the current shape of an electric guitar.
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