Luthiers have been perfecting the art of guitar making for hundreds of years trying to find the best sound for their instruments. Through several decades of trial and error, experimentation and creativity, the acoustic guitar has certainly come a long way. Today, there are a number of notable body types that have evolved in one way or another from the venerable lute – the de facto ancestor of the acoustic guitar, hence the name luthier. In fact, acoustic guitars are very much still evolving as you read this! So, we all should know by now that there are a lot of things that go into creating the tone of an acoustic guitar. The choice of strings – such as nylon versus steel – is an obvious component as are the tonewoods used in a guitar’s construction. And yet another important factor is the size and body shape. If you’re in the search for a guitar with very specific tone qualities, it might be the most important! Which brings us to today’s article – acoustic guitar body types and their signature sound. Let’s check out why when it comes to an acoustic guitar… size very much matters!
Much like the infamous inconsistency between amp manufacturers in labeling – or mislabeling, rather – the tremolo and vibrato knobs on their rigs, acoustic guitar makers pretty much named their own body types until the modern era. Even then, there really isn’t truly a hard-set standard as far as body types are concerned simply because you can always make something in between these sizes or with a slightly different shape. Sure, nowadays most manufacturers use terms such as Dreadnought or Jumbo to describe their acoustics but these are still generalities. Even today, most musicians usually refer to the sizes of very notable instruments as a base point for comparing. Among these notable guitars used for size reference are those made by Martin – which makes sense since the company pretty much pioneered the modern steel string acoustic guitar. As far as a “normal” sized acoustic goes, most will agree that the 000-Martin fits the bill and the Dreadnaught would easily be considered a large. And of course, a “Mini Martin” would clock in as the small size. Even with all that said, luthiers are getting better at sticking to proven design types – and labeling them as such – which we will check out near the bottom but before we get into those specifics, let’s check out the relationship between a guitar’s size and sound.
How Size Affects Tone
For the sake of comparing the inherent tonal qualities of a guitar as it relates to size, let's keep it simple by sticking with the terms smaller and larger where they pertain. The common accepted view on the impact of size to the tonal qualities of an acoustic guitar will tell you that the smaller the body the more treble response and brightness the instrument will have while the larger you go will give more potential for bass response. Also, most people will expect large guitars to have a pretty “big” sound while they expect the smaller ones to have more diminished tone. Knowing these two qualities of size, you would assume that the bigger body should produce higher volume response as compared to the smaller one, right? Well, not exactly. Interestingly enough, the smaller body sized guitar can achieve some disproportionally and surprisingly loud volumes. Not only that, smaller body types usually have a much more balanced range of bass and treble frequencies as well. This becomes especially important when considering using an acoustic guitar on stage. Without having the extra bass and “woofiness” of the larger body, a smaller guitar will be able to handle feedback a lot better during a live performance. And when take into consideration that in a studio setting it’s much easier to add bass than to remove it, you can safely assume that a smaller guitar will most likely give you a cleaner recording over a larger one.
Several manufacturers simply size their acoustics by comparing them popular models such as these Martin bodies above.
Notable Body Types
It should be noted that this is by no means a complete list but rather the most common types seen.
Parlor: A slender, small-bodied old-world guitar design popular around the turn of the 20th century. This type is often seen with a slotted headstock, rounded shoulders, no pickguard and a neck that joins the body at the 12th fret. You’re not likely to run across parlor guitars in stock at your local retailer but they are nonetheless currently enjoying slightly resurgent popularity. General dimensions: 18¼” or less long, 4” deep, 9½” or less upper body width, 13¼” or less lower body width.
Concert: Dating back to around 1854, this body type became the standard size around the time of the U.S. Civil War and for many years thereafter. Its bright, trebly sounding design gradually gave way to larger, more bass-heavy guitars although the style has enjoyed a recent resurgence. General dimensions: 18” long, 4¼” deep, 10” upper body width, 13½” lower body width.
Grand Concert: Introduced in 1877 and the smallest of the major styles, this body type is derived directly from the classical guitar, with a shallow body and rounded shoulders. It is also known as one of the quietest designs. Its diminutive size makes it well suited for younger or smaller players and is excellent for finger-style playing. General dimensions: 18” long, 4” deep, 10” upper body width, 14” lower body width.
Auditorium: Also referred to as “orchestra,” the auditorium style was introduced in the early 1920s and was one of the largest guitars through the end of that decade. In modern terms, it is generally regarded as a medium-size guitar with a thinner waist than a dreadnought and a broad upper bout with flatter shoulders. It produces a big sound and good treble-bass balance that make it great for finger-style playing. General dimensions: 19” long, 4” deep, 11¼” upper body width, 15” lower body width.
Dreadnought: First introduced under this name in 1931 – although its direct ancestors date back to around 1916 – this body type is currently the most popular style and is especially suited for flat-picking and bluegrass, with a deep body, broad waist and a relatively small upper bout. A large guitar named for the large dreadnought warships of the early and middle 20th century. They offer tremendous projection and booming bass. General dimensions: 20” long, 4” deep, 11½” upper body width, 15” lower body width.
Grand Auditorium: Similar to a grand concert but wider and sometimes deeper body with a very balanced tone. Hallmarks of this body type are great volume and dynamic range. General dimensions: 20” long, 4” deep, 11” upper body width, 16” lower body width.
Jumbo: As its name suggests, this is the largest body size of them all. The Jumbo is proportioned similar to a grand auditorium and has a lot of resonant space for great volume, sustain and a deep dreadnought-like tone. Often considered the quintessential “cowboy” guitar. General dimensions: 20” long, 4” deep, over 11” upper body width, over 16” lower body width.