Size Matters: A Guide To Acoustic Guitar Body Styles
By Mason Hoberg
Photo by Larry Jacobson
If you’ve ever been into a large instrument retailer, odds are you’ve noticed that guitars come in a wide variety of shapes and sizes. There’s everything from the colossal classic Gibson design, the “Jumbo”, to the smaller guitars that look like overgrown ukuleles.
And I don’t know about you, but when I was first starting out the different styles of acoustic guitars baffled me. I had a hard time wrapping my head around why you’d ever need anything outside of a dreadnought. I mean, the body style of an acoustic guitar can’t make that much of difference, right?
Well, it turns out I was wrong. Among the intricacies of designing and building a guitar, the body shape is arguably the most influential on the final tone of the instrument. So if you’ve always wanted to learn the difference between guitar body styles, you’ve come to the right place. This piece will give you a rundown on the most common body shapes for acoustic guitars, as well as listing the pros and cons of each.
Though they’ve gained a lot of notoriety in recent years, I'm not going to dive deep into travel guitars here. They come in too many different designs to really list the pros and cons of each in this article. If you want, you can
I’m also not going to get into tenor guitars, because they’re an entirely different instrument.
Regardless, there really isn’t any hard and fast rule for what constitutes the dimensions of an acoustic guitar. It’s really up to the manufacturer’s preference, which can make separating the different models a bit confusing. Some company’s might market a guitar as a parlor guitar, when in reality it’s closer to a OO (the next size up).
Parlor/O and the OO
If you’ve ever seen a picture of an old Delta-blues guitarist, odds are they were using a parlor guitar. It’s hard to do much more than speculate as to the reason why, but I have a few different theories.
First off, most traveling blues guitarists in that era were incredibly poor. So they needed a guitar that was cheap enough for them to afford. In all honesty, this right here was probably 90% of the reason why these musicians chose parlor guitars.
However, there are also a few things that make parlor (or O depending on who you ask) guitars incredibly well suited to that type of music.
For instance, have you ever thought about how your acoustic guitar actually works? For the longest time I thought that the sound that the strings made was captured by my soundhole; bouncing around inside the guitar, and then bouncing out again. But that doesn’t really make much sense, does it?
Interestingly, the bridge is what does most of the heavy lifting. It almost acts like a vibrating focal point, transferring all of the energy from the strings inside the guitar. The body of the instrument itself performs a similar job.
So how does this relate towards parlor guitars? Well, an acoustic instrument doesn’t reach its full sonic potential until it has enough energy to do so. You can see this in action really easily on a bigger acoustic guitar like a dreadnought. If you strike the strings softly not only is your guitar quieter, it’s has a much weaker tone and frequency response.
Since the parlor guitar is so small, it reaches its full sonic potential much easier than a bigger guitar. So if you’re a finger-style player you’ll get a much better tone with less effort.
The next size up from a parlor guitar, the OO shares a lot of similar features. In all honesty, the only real difference from the parlor guitar is that you get a tad more bass at the expense of some mid-range and treble. You also have to play a bit harder in order to get all the tone the guitar has to offer.
These two guitars are sharing a spot because of how wide the designation of “parlor” guitar is. There isn’t really a set size for a parlor guitar, and the designation can easily include everything up to a OOO body size depending on how the company chooses to market the instrument.
Why It’s Worth Checking Out: Every major guitar manufacturer has a parlor guitar. However, I honestly believe that Breedlove has the best handle on building this type of body style to its full potential. The Passport has a crystal clear voice, great electronics, and despite its small size it sounds like a huge instrument.
The OOO/OM guitar body styles are kind of where you start to see a more “dreadnought-esque” voicing start to appear. These types of guitar are generally similar in volume to a dreadnought, but geared a bit more towards treble and mid-range frequencies.
Even though the OM is a bit bigger than a OOO, both of these body styles are perfect for musicians who want easy access to very usable flat-picking and finger-picking tones.
Also, OOO and OM guitars sometimes have different body styles, and sometimes they don’t. An OM guitar always has the more dramatic bend at the soundhole, while a OOO can sport a look more similar to a parlor guitar. Like the rest of these body styles, it’s really up to the discretion of the manufacturer in how they choose to market it.
The term is also muddied a bit by musicians as well. There seems to be a certain sect of guitar players who are very particular about what OOO or OM means, and will be quick to point out when a guitar isn’t a true example of that style. Unfortunately, even they can’t seem to agree on what the “true” specifications of an OOO/OM are.
The main difference between the two different models is scale length. A OOO will have a 24.9’ scale length, while an OM will have a scale length of 25.4’.
Why It’s Worth Checking Out: Throughout the company’s history, Martin has always delivered a very high quality product. The OM-28 natural is no exception, and it’s an excellent example of what this type of body style is capable of. It’s equally responsive to finger-picking and flat-picking, and it has the right voicing to excel at both.
So 90% of guitar players today use dreadnoughts. There isn’t really a good reason for that besides the fact that it’s the body size the majority of musicians are used to.
That’s not to say there’s anything wrong with using a dreadnought, but there’s also not a great reason to use dreadnoughts exclusively. They work well for flat-picking and finger-picking alike, though the guitar does take a lot more effort to play than a parlor or OO sized instrument.
I feel similarly about Grand Auditoriums, even if they do have their differences to dreadnoughts.
So I’ve always called Grand Auditorium guitars “curvy dreadnoughts”. Why? Because the Grand Auditorium body style actually sounds almost identical to a dreadnought.
I think the main difference is that all of the frequencies are a bit “tighter”. It’s almost like a Grand Auditorium sounds like a dreadnought ran through a compressor.
I would describe this guitar body style as a great studio instrument, and something that could function very well live in the right context. The only real problem I’ve run into with the body style is that it fits into the mix beautifully when recording, but it can be a bit tough to EQ it into a live performance.
I find that I have a hard time getting it to “spread” well. When playing rhythm on an acoustic guitar, your main job is to fill out as much space on the bass to mid-range frequency spectrum as you can. So in order to get the guitar set how I want, I have to fiddle with the EQ quite a bit.
Why It’s Worth Checking Out: Full disclosure, I’ve always had a hard time getting Taylors to work for me. Some people can’t play and sing at the same time, some can’t stomach Gibsons, and I can’t get Taylor guitars to sound how I want them to.
So why is the Taylor on here? Well, I honestly think that Taylor makes some of the best modern voiced acoustic guitars on the planet. I have tons of friends who play Taylors, and I’ve always thought that they sounded awesome.
They ring like a bell, they’re made to an incredibly high standard of quality, and they look gorgeous. As far as this guitar in particular, it’s a really solid mid-range entry into the Taylor Grand Auditorium line. Sure, it may not sound as good as an upper line Taylor, but it will knock the socks off of any other similarly price Grand Auditorium.
So for the vast majority of acoustic guitar players, the dreadnought body style is a “plug and play” instrument. Out of everything on this list, the dreadnought is probably the easiest instrument to work with live.
However, in my experience this type of body style can be a bit harder to work with in a solo-performance context. A dreadnought just has a lot of sonic properties, some of which can be a bit hard to control. It has the opposite problem of a Grand Auditorium actually, which is kind of interesting considering how similar the two body styles actually are in other respects.
Why It’s Worth Checking Out: So when every major guitar manufacturer has a dreadnought style acoustic guitar, some of you may be wondering why I chose to discuss a Takamine. Well, the great thing about the majority of Takamine guitars is that they occupy a great niche in live performance settings.
The onboard electronics offer a lot of flexibility, and the overall voicing of the guitar is bold enough to perform well live, yet subtle enough to avoid overpowering the other instruments in the band.
And while every guitar player has their preference, I’m a big fan of the way that Takamine guitars perform in a solo context as well. The GD93CE still has to be EQ’d carefully like any other dreadnought, but I find that the onboard controls as well as the overall tone of the guitar makes it a bit easier than similarly priced models from other manufacturers.
So the guitar has an interesting history. Parlor guitars were the flavor of the moment for a pretty substantial time, only to be replaced by dreadnoughts when guitar players started needing extra volume to compete with big band instruments. This also led to archtops and resonator guitars, both of which have their own pros and cons.
Generally, a guitar larger than a dreadnought is used as a supporting instrument in a band context. They sport a deliciously deep bass response, though in most examples of the design the instruments have a less focused treble and mid-range response.
Round Shoulder Dreadnought
The round shoulder dreadnought is actually very similar to your average dreadnought. It doesn’t have that much more volume, but it does have a slightly deeper bass response. Aside from that however, there honestly isn’t a significant difference.
Why It’s Worth Checking Out: Alvarez is like the Epiphone for Yairi’s Gibson, in that it’s a budget minding subsidiary. For those of you who aren’t aware, Yairi is an Asian guitar maker who has arguably made instruments that rival any American or British example past or present.
And as far as Alvarez goes, I’ve had one knocking around my ever expanding roster of instruments for years and I’ve always had great results with it. I would describe the voicing for the Alvarez brand as emphasizing mid-range and treble, and sporting a relatively conservative bass response. So when paired with the round shoulder dreadnought body shape, you should get a guitar that performs very well across the majority of the frequency range.
Designed as a custom instrument in 1937 for the actor/musician Ray Whitely, the Gibson Super Jumbo (sometimes referred to as the SJ-200 or advanced jumbo) is the biggest acoustic guitar that you’re likely to come across.
Generally, I find that this type of body style has a staggering amount of breadth in its response. Super Jumbo-type bodies don’t have a very deep or focused sound in my experience. However, in a live performance or studio context this body style is unmatched in its ability to fill out a song.
Considering that Gibson invented the body style, I think putting anything else on this list except for a J-200 would be a crying shame.
Apart from that, what else can be said about this guitar that hasn’t already been said? The guitar features the subtle yet soulful voicing that Gibson is known for, as well as an incredibly beautiful design. The guitar is topped with Sitka spruce, and sports solid Easter curly maple back and sides. The J-200 also has a few modern appointments in the form of a set of Grover Rotomatic tuning pegs as well as a Fishman Ellipse Aura electronics package.
Which Is Right For You?
Well, that’s kind of an interesting question actually. Generally speaking, bigger guitars are more suited towards playing with a pick while smaller guitars are voiced more towards finger-style work. But that’s a boring answer, and it’s a very narrow minded way of viewing the different types of instruments.
For instance, I primarily play finger-style guitar and I’ve used a variety of both dreadnoughts and parlor guitars as well as everything in between. I like the extra bass I can get out of the dreadnought, and I generally use it for more mellow songs. The parlor guitar comes out when I want something a bit more lively.
And as far as flat-picking goes, I’ve yet to have bad results with either end of the spectrum. I find that my parlor cuts through the mix in an interesting way, while my dreadnought does a great job of supporting what the other musicians in the band are doing.
So which body type is right for you? The only correct answer to that question is whatever type you like. Bigger guitars are louder, harder to play, and a bit bassier, but they can work in just about any context provided they’re being played by a good musician. Smaller guitars are more oriented towards treble and mid-range frequencies, but if they’re layered into the mix correctly they can work wonders on beefing up your song.
When selecting an acoustic guitar, knowing the differences between different body styles is an incredibly valuable asset in selecting the right instrument for your needs. So while there are of course novelty and one off instruments that may not have been covered here, the information on this article should give you everything you need to make an informed decision.
Side note: If you were curious as to why I didn’t cover resonators or archtops it’s because those two types of guitar really need articles of their own in order to explain them well. If you’d like to learn more about those, feel free to head down to the Equipboard forum. The community is made up of musicians like you and me, and they’ll be more than happy to answer any question you may have!