Acoustic vs. Electric Instruments: The Endless Debate

Ah, the age old question, which is better, acoustic or electric instruments? This argument resembles a few ongoing debates in today’s culture: digital vs. analog technology, MP3s vs. vinyl, The Beatles vs. The Rolling Stones, etc., etc., etc.. Like all of these, this argument will never be resolved, and the fun is in the debating!

The actual question that’s being asked here is: natural sound, or artificial? Or even better, what do we want to accomplish with the music we make?

Although acoustic instruments were the only option for the vast majority of human history, and electric instruments only really started to gain popularity in the 1930s, it’s clear that powered music making has taken hold of our creativity, and acoustics’ dominance has been tested. But today both electric and acoustic instruments coexists together, often even in the same band!

The question of acoustic vs. electric is a common one, especially among people deciding on their very first instrument, but if you came for an easy answer, I’m afraid you’re going to leave disappointed. See, we’re not going to try to talk about which sounds better, or try to reach a definitive verdict for all time. Rather, we’re going to point out the unique features of each, sort of like a pros and cons list.

Requirements for Playing

When it comes to most comparisons of acoustic and electric instruments, they’re usually fairly evenly matched. That is no so for this particular area. In fact, with an acoustic instrument, all you need to play is the instrument itself, and any required accessories, like a guitar pick, or a spare reed for a woodwind. With electric instruments, on the other hand, you’ll need the instrument, the usual accessories, and a power supply. And that’s just the basics! If you’re playing an electric guitar, or other string instrument, you’ll also probably need an amplifier. What this all boils down to is that, for the most part, electric instruments can be much less portable.

Of course, it’s important to point out that this can vary a lot depending on the instrument itself. For example, an electric keyboard is far more portable than even the smallest acoustic piano.

Versatility

Since the dawn of human music, we’ve been trying to expand the new sorts of sounds we could create. Over the millennia, we did a pretty darn good job making some amazing sounds using the natural materials we’ve had available to us. But, even the most inventive instrument makers found that natural materials can only create so many unique sounds, and each individual instrument has a limited acoustic range.

Everything changed with the addition of electricity and electronics.

Completely ignoring the physical limitation that acoustic instruments have, electronic instruments are capable of an incredible variety of sounds. Even the most inexpensive electronic keyboard can practically play every part in the band! These instruments can often even be plugged directly into a computer for recording and audio manipulation later.

That being said, when it comes right down to it, even the biggest fans of electronic instruments will admit that the sound can feel hollow if not used properly. So, if you want a tried and true sound that you can rely on to sound great, acoustic is the road to take. But if you want to explore as many different sounds as possible with a single instrument, go with electric.

Feel/Mood

One of the most important aspects of music is mood. In fact, some might argue that’s the whole magic of music: if you are skilled with your instrument, you can actually manipulate the way your listeners feel. And different instruments can have different emotional impacts. Acoustic instruments have a distinctly natural sound and feel. And I do mean that literally; you can actually feel the vibrations of the instrument through your body. With an electric instrument, you might still get those waves of vibrations, but they usually come from the amplifier or speaker, which just isn’t the same experience.

Acoustic tends to be more mellow and intimate in nature, while electric is bigger, and sometimes even takes on a “larger-than-life” aspect. Think about what you want to feel, and what you want your audience to feel when you perform.

Image

Let’s not lie to ourselves: music is often about much more than just the music itself. What I mean is, for a lot of people, being a musician means more than simply playing music; it’s also often about “image,” and about the kind of person you are when you perform.

If you ask most musicians why they prefer either the acoustic or electric version of their chosen instrument, they’ll likely give you a long list of factual and logical arguments. But in actuality, you may find that most of them made their final decision based on their style.

Acoustic instruments have a nobility to them, and can feel regal, sophisticated, and timeless. Electric instruments feel new, exciting, and somewhat rebellious. Of course, not everything fits into these nice and neat little boxes: in today’s world of music there are orchestras performing with electric instruments, and thrash-metal bands rocking out with acoustics.

That being said, there is still some truth to these ideas. When choosing your own instrument, you need to keep in mind the sort of musician you want to be. Unless you want to try something completely different, if you’re in a garage band, you probably want to stick to electric instruments. On the other hand, if you want to play classical music, or with an orchestra, the softer, lighter feel of an acoustic instrument is usually the way to go.

Making the Choice

In the end, there really is no one right or wrong answer. Just like with The Beatles vs. The Rolling Stones, it all comes down to a matter of personal tastes. What really matters, much more than the acoustic vs. electric argument, is whether or not you like the instrument you’ve chosen. Even someone who finds they have a lot of natural talent for the electric guitar won’t be as happy, and won’t make their very best music, if what they really wanted to play was an acoustic guitar. It takes a lot of time and effort to master any instrument; make sure you’re choosing the instrument that you like to play, and will bring you the most joy.

After all, the easiest instrument to learn is the one you want to play!