A Brief Guide To Popular Acoustic Guitar Shapes
For us here at Guitar Head, walking into a guitar dealer evokes much the same feelings a kid might experience when entering a sweet shop – excitement, hunger, and an uncontrollable urge to try and buy EVERYTHING in sight! Most children are sensibly prevented from doing this by their parents, whilst we’re also sensibly prevented from doing this by our bank managers. Spoilsports…
And you tend to notice a huge similarity in body styles and shapes when glancing around the electric guitar section. This isn’t much of a surprise – trailblazers like Fender and Gibson really did a superb job when developing their earliest instruments, and other manufacturers have pretty much followed their lead ever since. See our “Brief Guide To Popular Guitar Models" article to learn more about five of the real icons.
But this similarity in shape and style is probably even more apparent if you take a walk around the acoustic guitar section; instruments ranging from budget beginner models all the way up to seriously expensive toys by Taylor and Collings tend to stay within a range of very familiar physical outlines.
So what are these shapes and styles called, and where did they come from? Here’s a brief guide…
Nylon-stringed classical and flamenco instruments (collectively best described as ‘Spanish’) were the first ‘real’ guitars that modern players would recognise. And whilst their evolution was a fairly organic process that happened throughout Europe during the nineteenth century, it was Antonio De Torres who was most responsible for developing the body shape and internal ‘fanned’ strutting that became a standard for guitars in Spain and beyond. Since we’re all still playing these instruments 200 years later, it’s fair to say he did a superb job.
Steel-string ‘Concert’ guitars
The advent of steel strings around 1900 was a massive leap forward in music technology. Acoustic guitars could now sound a LOT louder, finally being able to compete with banjos, fiddles and wind instruments. But they also needed to be stronger in order to take the extra string tension. Fortunately, the Martin guitar company had (quite accidentally) already nailed this issue with their X-brace beneath the soundboard, originally designed some 40 years previously as a cheaper alternative to the standard classical guitar fan-strutting.
This construction technique was used on all their standard ‘Concert’ guitar sizes, ranging from ‘00’ (roughly the same as a Spanish guitar) down to the smaller ‘0’ models, and up through ‘000’ (as used by Eric Clapton) to ‘0M’ (orchestra model). These body size names have now become fairly generic amongst guitar makers.
Undoubtedly the most popular acoustic guitar shape ever, the Dreadnought was also a Martin innovation (and, weirdly, was named after a British battleship!) Originally designed in 1916, and refined through models such as the D18 (as used by Elvis), D28 (as used by Joni Mitchell), D35 (as used by Johnny Cash) and ‘luxury’ D45 (Neil Young’s main guitar), this body style is distinctly wide-waisted and square-shouldered compared with traditional Spanish or concert instrument shapes, substantially enlarging the sound box for a much more bass-heavy tone that was perfect for vocal accompaniment.
Popularity for the Dreadnought grew throughout the 20th century, particularly with country, folk and bluegrass players, and other manufacturers soon responded with their own iconic instruments – Gibson’s J45 and Dove are two notable examples. And you’d be incredibly hard-pushed to find a contemporary guitar manufacturer that doesn’t have a Dreadnought in their model line-up…
Whilst a Dreadnought produces an impressive low-end tone, the Super Jumbo guitar remains king of the acoustic bass sound. These guitars simply feature concert style bodies that are very, VERY big – significantly larger than even OM scale instruments. Gibson were the makers to pioneer this style in 1937 with their SJ200 (later renamed the J200), which was squarely aimed at country musicians. And as with Dreadnoughts, the term ‘SJ’ has become generic, with various manufacturers around the world producing these beasts.
‘Ovation’ is the name of a guitar company rather than a guitar body description, and their instruments do appear fairly standard-looking – at least from the front. But turn one over and you encounter a one-piece parabolic ‘bowl’ back and sides constructed from a specially patented fibreglass, designed to provide enhanced volume and projection compared with the ubiquitous Dreadnought. A perfect example of what happens when 1960s helicopter designers decide to build a guitar!
The level of innovation didn’t stop with the bowl-back either. Ovations usually feature noticeably thinner necks than most acoustics, cleverly engineered from wooden laminates and aluminium, and some models introduced tops constructed from carbon-fibre/birch veneers. But the true game-changer was the inclusion of transducer pickups, allowing a truly ‘acoustic’ tone to be easily amplified for the first time.
The original Selmer Maccaferri was a bit of an oddball even by the standards of 1930s Paris. Designed by luthier Mario Maccaferri for the Selmer company, this almost flat-top acoustic (there is a slight curve in the wood on the front) features a large-ish cutaway body design, slotted headstock, an incredibly wide moveable bridge, and a choice of two very unique sound holes in the front – either a large D-shape (the “grande bouche”, or “big mouth”) or a small oval (the “petite bouche”, or “small mouth”).
Both were designed to be very loud, allowing the guitarist to be heard over other instruments in ensembles, with the oval-hole models providing a particularly cutting sound. And both became the favoured tool of guitar legend Django Reinhardt, cementing the Maccaferri’s overwhelming popularity with gypsy jazz players ever since. Even though Selmer’s production of these instruments was limited, and had ceased by 1952, Maccaferri style guitars (yet another term that’s become generic) have since been built by everyone from budget Asian manufacturers to some of the most highly regarded guitar luthiers in the world.
Wrapping it up
So there you have it – hopefully a simple enough introduction to the wealth of choice available in the acoustic guitar world, proving that there truly is something to fit everyone. I’m off for a strum on my 000, so until next time……Peace out!