Acoustic vs Acoustic Electric Guitars: What’s the Difference?


If you’re in the market for a an acoustic guitar, you may have also come across some electro-acoustic (aka acoustic electric) guitars and be wondering which is right for you. In this article, I’ll be going through all the differences between standard acoustic guitars and acoustic electric models so you can choose the best option.

The Quick Answer

The main difference between an electro-acoustic guitar and a standard acoustic guitar, is that electro-acoustics have a pickup which allows you to plug them into an amplifier to increase the volume and change the tone. Acoustic-electric and acoustic guitars sound the same when unplugged.

Acoustic-Electric Guitars Can Be Amplified Easily

The difference between acoustic-electric models and acoustic guitars, is that acoustic-electric guitars have a pickup (similar to an electric guitar). This allows you to plug it into an amplifier, which will take the sound from the pickup and play it through a speaker. Acoustic-electric guitars are great for gigging because you can increase the volume of the guitar easily, making it perfect for on stage.

Can You Amplify a Standard Acoustic Guitar?

It is possible to amplify a standard acoustic guitar as well though, by using a microphone, clip-on pickup, wireless preamp, or install a pickup which allows you to turn an acoustic guitar into an electro-acoustic guitar.

  • Using a microphone: position the microphone close to the sound hole on the acoustic guitar to increase the volume. The microphone also needs to be connected to an external speaker.
  • Clip-on pickup: also known as microphone pickups, are very cheap to install and don’t involve drilling any holes or making modifications. Check out this Monoprice Clip On Acoustic Guitar Pickup from Amazon.
  • Wireless preamp: these simply stick onto your acoustic guitar and wireless connect to a receiver which should be plugged into a PA system. E.g. UFO07 which works with Belcat receivers.
  • Install a pickup: this is a good option however it is time-consuming, reasonably expensive and requires you to drill and modify your acoustic guitar. Piezo pickups are recommended for this as they are one of the least susceptible to feedback.

Sound Differences When Amplified

So what do they sound like? Well, first let’s talk about what they sound like when they are amplified. For the purpose of this, we are comparing acoustic-electric guitars plugged into an amp, and acoustic guitars with a microphone placed in front of the sound hole.

An acoustic guitar positioned in front of a microphone generally has richer tone than an electro-acoustic guitar plugged into an amplifier.

This is because the microphone can easily pick up the full range of frequencies produced by the acoustic guitar. However, electric-acoustic pickups pick up a more limited range of frequencies. This often causes electro-acoustic guitars to sound a bit thinner and weaker when amplified.

Sound Modifications Can be Made with Electro-Acoustics

One of the advantages of plugging an electro-acoustic guitar into a amp, is that it gives you more control over the tone. You’ll usually be able to control the following settings on an acoustic amp:

  • Bass: refers to the low-end frequencies.
  • Mids: refers to mid-range frequencies. More mid range produces more depth.
  • Treble: refers to high-end frequencies. More treble produces a sharper and brighter tone.
  • EQ: allows you to control the emphasis on the treble compared to the bass. A high EQ setting will place more emphasis on treble, and a low EQ setting will have more bass.
  • Presence: this adds more life and character to the tone to avoid it sounding flat.
  • Reverb: this helps to produce a natural echo, which can be helpful when making an electro-acoustic guitar sound more like a standard acoustic.

Of course with a standard acoustic guitar, you won’t get to alter any of these settings and you’ll essentially be stuck with whatever tone your acoustic guitar produces naturally, if you choose to try and amplify it with a microphone.

Sound Differences When Unplugged

Acoustic and electro-acoustic guitars will sound the same when they are unplugged. The size, shape and wood used on the guitars will affect the tone, but the existence of the pickup on an electric acoustic guitar will not change the tone when it is unplugged.

Electric Acoustics Sound Different When Plugged and Unplugged

The tone of an electro-acoustic guitar is different when it is played unplugged to when it is plugged into an amp. This is because the pickup is being utilised when it is plugged in, and it is not capable of amplifying all the frequencies produced, so the tone will usually sound thinner and flatter.

So don’t make the mistake of trying an acoustic-electric unplugged, and expecting it to sound the exact same, just louder, when using an amp. Make sure you try it plugged and unplugged in the store, to check you enjoy the sound of both.

Price Differences

Acoustic-electric guitars are typically more expensive than standard acoustic guitars. Elecro-acoustic guitars usually start at around $120-150 whilst entry-level acoustic guitars usually cost around $60-100. You will also need an amp for an electro-acoustic guitar, which will cost upwards of $75.

So expect to be paying on average around $75 extra for an acoustic-electric guitar, compared to a standard acoustic guitar. Plus you will need to get an amp costing usually at least $75 and a connection cable costing roughly $20. This makes entry level electro-acoustic setups around $170 compared to a standard acoustic guitar.

Freedom to Move Around on Stage

So we know that you can increase the volume of a standard acoustic guitar for performing by using a microphone, so what’s the point in getting an electric-acoustic model if you’re going to be gigging?

Well the main advantage, is that you can move around freely with an electro-acoustic guitar without losing the amplification. When you use an acoustic guitar in front of a microphone, you must stay in the same place, otherwise you’ll lose the volume.

Size Differences

Standard acoustic and electro-acoustic guitars are usually the same size. However, when you use an acoustic guitar, the size and shape definitely dictate the tone, but with electro-acoustic guitars, if you purchase a smaller model, it will still sound fine.

Acoustic guitars rely heavily on the shape and size of the body to dictate how loud and full the sound is. Electro-acoustic guitars instead rely on the pickup to dictate the volume and the amp to shape the tone when they are plugged in.

So if you find a standard acoustic guitar too large and uncomfortable to hold, then choosing a small electro-acoustic guitar can help you to achieve a good quality acoustic tone, but without the discomfort.

Pros and Cons

Let’s take a look at the pros and cons of each guitar type to help you decide which is suitable for you.

Pros and Cons of a Standard Acoustic Guitar

Pros of Standard AcousticCons of Standard Acoustic
Produces a warm, rich and natural toneMore inconvenient when performing live
Can be adapted to be plugged into an ampRequires extra modification or a microphone to be amplified
Cheapest optionCannot modify the tone
No extra equipment requiredCannot use a loop pedal
Pros and cons of a standard acoustic guitar

Pros and Cons of an Electro-Acoustic Guitar

Pros of Electro-AcousticCons of Electro-Acoustic
More versatileMore expensive
Easy to modify the toneThinner, weaker tone when plugged in
Convenient for busking and performing on-stageExtra equipment required
Easy to use with a loop pedalNo need for modification
Pros and cons of an electric-acoustic guitar

Which Should You Choose?

It can be hard to decide between an electro-acoustic, and an acoustic guitar, so here are some points to keep in mind to make the choice easier.

Choose a Standard Acoustic Guitar If:

  • It is your first guitar
  • You won’t be performing on stage often
  • You are looking for a low-budget option
  • You don’t have storage space for an amp
  • You will be playing unplugged more often

Choose an Acoustic-Electric Guitar If:

  • You will be performing on-stage or busking frequently
  • You want more control over effects and the tone
  • You need to be able to use a loop pedal

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Heather

Hey, I'm Heather. I started playing an electric guitar when I was given a Squier Strat for my birthday around 15 years ago. I now own an acoustic guitar and several electric guitars including my personal favourite, a PRS SE Custom 24.

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