The acoustic guitar has become an iconic instrument in modern music, from its overwhelming presence in country and folk music to its prominent role in rock. It is an instrument that can be played with both delicacy and force, a versatility belied by its seemingly simple structure. For the purposes of this article, we’ll focus on how to play the standard, steel-string acoustic guitar. Classical guitars, which use nylon strings, create a softer sound and are really used for a different type of music. Learning acoustic guitar is easy and once you get started it’s quite fun!
An acoustic guitar can be played in either a sitting or standing position. Either way, a strap can be connected to the bottom end of the guitar, slung over the left shoulder and attached the side of the body, near the neck, or around the top of the neck, at the nut. When used in a sitting position, the curve in the guitar’s body generally rests on the player’s right knee.
While classical guitars are played by fingerpicking alone, acoustic guitars can either be plucked by fingers or strummed by a pick — with each method creating its own unique sound and feel.
Fingerpicking an acoustic guitar, which is done with the thumb and first three fingers on the right hand, can be used to play several individual notes on nonadjacent strings very quickly and in any pattern. The guitar pick, for all its benefits, simply cannot replicate the sound made by four different fingers plucking four different strings, be it simultaneously or in a pattern of individual notes.
It is with a pick, though, that an acoustic guitar can be used to create is trademark sound: a strummed chord. It’s not enough, though, so simply strum a chord — which is accomplished by strumming multiple strings fretted by the left hand. The choice of a strumming pattern sets the tone for a song. There are a seemingly infinite number of possible strumming patterns that can be used when playing an acoustic guitar, each of which can be combined with a different rhythm and tempo to create subtle differences in tone and mood.
The mood of an acoustic song can also be affected by the way the strings are played. Strings can be plucked or strummed softly for a quiet sound or with more force for a louder, more aggressive sound. Varying the force with which a chord is strummed within a certain strumming pattern, as well, expands the creative possibilities of the instrument even more. For example, even a simple strumming pattern that alternates downward and upward strums can be made to sound very different simply by giving more force to either the down strums or the up strums.
Acoustic guitars, while known for their intimacy, can still be played in large settings, such as concerts. Pickups are available that attach to the guitar over the hole in the body, allowing the sound to be played through an amplifier. There are also acoustic-electric guitars, which maintain the acoustic sound but contain electronics that can be connected directly to the amplifier.