Far more than merely cosmetic, the shape and size has an influence on the dynamic range, volume, and projection of an acoustic guitar. But how does size affect playability? It’s often said that smaller guitars are easier to play, but is this really the case, and if so why?
While I hate to say it depends, the truth is what makes one guitar size easier to play than another “depends” on a number of individual factors including physical size, personal preference, and playing style.
With this in mind, in the following article, we’re going to first explain what a small guitar is, why for some they are easier to play and discuss the main differences between standard and smaller guitars that influence playability.
But if you are looking for a quick summary:
Smaller guitars are more ergonomic to play, especially for smaller individuals. The tighter waist also provides greater balance for the guitar when seated. Smaller guitars also feature shorter scale lengths which reduce tension on the strings allowing easier fretting (although forming chords can be more difficult for larger hands).
For a more detailed explanation continue reading.
What do you mean small?
In days gone by all acoustic guitars were small, at least compared to the range available today. While Antonio Torres Jurado standardized the first acoustic guitar back in 1850. It wasn’t until 1916 that C.F. Martin developed the larger dreadnought body style.
And while small guitars have since enjoyed a surge in popularity, the best-selling acoustic guitar body style to this day remains the dreadnought.
For the purpose of this article, I’d consider dreadnoughts and jumbos as large guitars, and OOO’s aka auditoriums (the next smallest), as medium.
Anything of a smaller dimension than this would therefore be considered small and includes:
- Mini e.g. ½ and ¾ size children’s guitars and travel guitars
- Parlor guitars
- Concert guitars (O)
- Grand Concert guitars (OO)
And, just to complicate things further, several manufacturers produce mini dreadnought-sized guitars. For example, Taylor makes a Baby Dreadnought (The BT-1 “Big Baby’) and there are several Mini Jumbos also available from brands such as Washburn and Cort.
Comparing Apples to Oranges
One of the more confusing things about guitar body sizes is the nomenclature used. For example, ½ and ¾ size guitars, are not actually ½ or ¾ the size of a standard acoustic guitar (in terms of overall length or scale length)
And despite almost all acoustic guitars being based on CF Martin’s iconic designs, Martin and Co. use different terminology to describe their models. For example, from the Martin lineup, the nearest equivalent to a Parlor guitar is the ‘O’ while the ‘OO’ is closest to the size of a concert acoustic guitar.
What makes a guitar playable?
Ok, so we’ve defined what a small guitar is, what makes small acoustic guitars easier to play?
Below are the components that affect playability the most.
The dimensions of the body affect how comfortable the guitar is to play. As you can imagine bulkier acoustic guitars with greater depth are less ergonomic in terms of encirclement of the arms when playing.
While not as much of a problem for those of us with long arms, they are usually less comfortable to play for those with less reach.
Small guitars also have tighter waists making them better suited to playing seated, as the accentuated waist helps balance the guitar on the guitarist’s leg when playing seated.
If you’ve played a dreadnought while seated, I’m sure you have experienced the feel of the guitar slipping due to the shallower waist sliding around on your leg.
The neck is the interface of the guitar, and as a result, the neck specifications play a huge role in terms of playability and include:
Neck profile refers to the shape and depth of the neck (e.g. if we took a cross-section of the neck) and is very important in terms of how our hands wrap around and access the frets.
The neck profile has to balance comfort with strength e.g. a very thin neck may not handle the string tension placed upon it over time, however, a shallower neck profile will be easier for those with small hands to play.
Neck profiles also taper e.g. the neck will typically be thicker closer to the body.
You will usually find 1/2 and 3/4 size guitars made for children use shallow neck profiles e.g. thin C to accommodate a child’s smaller handspan.
However, this isn’t always the case with small guitars, and many parlor guitars, for example, vary in terms of neck profile or feature quite ‘beefy’ necks.
If you are interested in learning more about how neck profile affects playability, click here to watch this informative video from Martin Guitars.
Scale length refers to the distance between the saddle and the nut.
You can read more about how scale length is measured here, but in simple terms the longer the strings are the more tension required for the strings to be tuned to pitch. This makes fretting notes a little easier on short-scale guitars, which the majority of small guitars are.
This also relates to neck profile e.g. a shorter scale length, due to less tension being placed on the guitar, doesn’t have quite the same requirements with regard to withstanding the tension placed on the neck from the strings.
While all this sounds great, a shorter scale length also means the frets are narrower. While this is a benefit for those with smaller hands when stretching out difficult chord shapes, if you have large hands, you will almost certainly find the fretboard feels cramped.
String spacing refers to the distance between your low E and high E string which determines the space between the individual strings. The spacing of the strings is determined by the nut width of your guitar and the individual nut slots which then taper out to the saddle of the guitar.
Nut width has more of an influence on the fretting hand, so a smaller nut width may make the fretboard feel narrower when gripping chords for those with large hands, and again easier for those with small hands.
While the string spacing tapers between the nut and saddle, the width at the saddle largely determines the spacing for your picking hand which can obviously affect the accuracy of your picking.
While string spacing mostly comes down to personal preference, fingerstyle players and those with larger hands may benefit from a wider string spacing and find this more comfortable and easier to play without hitting the other strings.
Final Thoughts: The Tradeoff
Of course, your preferences will be dependent on the style of music you play and the sacrifices you are willing to make in terms of volume, projection, and bass response verse comfort.
The tighter waist seen on small acoustic guitars results in less surface area for the top to vibrate beneath the soundhole, which is where most of the resonant energy is generated. When smaller areas of the soundboard vibrate a higher frequency response is usually the result.
This is why small guitars are usually associated with fngerpicking. Along with the tighter waist, small guitars often feature a shorter scale length and many offer wider than standard string spacing to accommodate playing with the fingers.
Alternatively, dreadnoughts possess greater volume (this was the intention of the design) and are most suitable for strumming. The shallow waist provides greater bass response and allows the guitar to have a stronger presence.
So, if playing as part of a band a dreadnought is going to have a lot more presence when strumming and be a better fit when playing accompanied.
So, while the information above is focused on the direct impact of the size of the guitar in terms of playability, indirectly many other facts also come into play, meaning you should use the information above as a guide and then be sure to test as many guitars as you can yourself before committing to buying.