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How to Choose the Best Acoustic-Electric Guitar

How to Choose the Best Acoustic-Electric Guitar

By Brad Tolinski

Whether you are a serious folk musician, a heavy metal shredder, or a pop artist, there will come a time when you’ll want to try an acoustic-electric guitar.

If you’re a folkie, you may need one so you can be heard in the back rows of your local coffeehouse. Any headbanger worth his salt knows there is always at least one song in every metal set that requires an atmospheric “acoustic interlude” (“Nothing Else Matters” by Metallica, anyone?). And where would Taylor Swift be without her bedazzled acoustic-electrics?

So now that you’ve decided you need one, which acoustic-eclectic six-string will work for you? Today, we’ll try to help you answer that question!

What exactly is an acoustic-electric guitar?

An acoustic-electric guitar is an acoustic guitar outfitted with a magnetic or piezoelectric pickup that will allow you to plug in to a guitar amplifier or PA system without the need of a microphone. They are often used in a variety of music genres where the sound of an acoustic guitar is desired but more volume is required, especially during live performances.

What are the benefits of an acoustic-electric guitar?

The advantages are mostly volume and mobility.

In years past, the only way to amplify an acoustic guitar was by putting a microphone in front of the sound hole. Not only did that vastly limit the movement of the player, but it often caused the guitar to howl and feedback.

With an acoustic-electric guitar, it's just a matter of plugging into an amp and turning up the volume. By using a cable, you can now run, jump and emote like Bruce Springsteen on a hot Jersey night. Not only that, but your guitar signal will also be more consistent.

Can you play an acoustic-electric without an amp?

The wonderful thing about an acoustic-electric is you don’t have to use an amp if you don’t want to. Adding a pickup rarely affects the acoustic sound of an instrument—it’s just a nice option to have if you ever find yourself in a situation where you need amplification.

What styles of music are good for playing on acoustic-electric guitars?

The ability to plug in your acoustic guitar will not limit your stylistic choices, but it may expand them. Normally, you wouldn’t expect to see someone play an acoustic guitar in a punk, funk or goth band, but playing an acoustic-electric instrument would allow you to explore those possibilities if you so desired.

What should I look for when purchasing an acoustic-electric guitar?

Without sounding too obvious, you should look for the same thing you look for in any instrument—it should feel great and sound good (in this case, both acoustically and electrically). But don’t assume that just because a guitar sounds good unplugged, it will sound good plugged in. Make sure you run it through an amp or PA system just in case the pickup or electronics are faulty—especially if you are buying a used instrument.  

On a less obvious note, you should ask if your acoustic-electric guitar of choice has a built-in preamp. The foremost function of a preamp is to boost your guitar’s output signal. A pure guitar signal typically sounds anemic, something that is particularly evident when you plug a guitar directly into a PA system or audio interface. Luckily, most acoustic-electric guitars automatically have preamps these days, but it’s still crucial to double check.

Also see if your instrument has any special features. Many acoustic-electric guitars offer some great bells and whistles like built-in tuners, volume and tone knobs, feedback suppressors or equalization filters. Most of the time these items are located where you plug in or on the side where you can easily view them. Any or all of these features can come in handy during live performance.

But buyer beware! Unlike electric guitars, most acoustic-electrics require the use of batteries to power their pickups, preamps and added features. That is not necessarily bad, because the batteries usually last for months. But what can be a problem is where the battery compartment is located. We’ve discovered the hard way that some manufacturers make it almost impossible to access or change batteries by placing them in the deep recesses of the instrument. We’re not sure why they do that, but they do. So, before you purchase your chosen instrument, we beg you to make sure you can easily access and change your 9-volt or AA.

How much does an acoustic-electric guitar cost?

The same rules apply to acoustic-electrics as anything else—usually the more you pay the better the product. That said, there are quite a few terrific options in almost every price category.

Spending between $250 - $350 for a new electric-acoustic guitar should get you something that is well-constructed, sounds decent, and will last a while. The Washburn Festival EA 12 mini-jumbo model ($249), Ibanez AEG1211 thin body profile ($300), Ovation Applause Elite AE4411 ($320) and the beautiful Epiphone Dove Pro ($369) each play well, sound good and look great.

If that is still too rich for your blood, there’s no shame in going on eBay or Reverb and buying a used instrument (we do it all the time). Many times you can find a far more expensive instrument for a fraction of the price, which is always a good thing!

For intermediate guitarists, we recommend trying to chin up to the $500 - $800 range. In some ways, you should be looking for a guitar to settle down with for a very long time, if not for the rest of your life. Here you can find legendary brands like Taylor, Martin and Washburn to choose from. All the above advice applies to intermediate players as they do to beginners...and remember, check where those darned batteries are located!

How do I choose the right amp for my acoustic-electric guitar?

Essentially you want something that makes your guitar sound like a louder and better version of itself. We highly recommend that you use your own guitar when trying out an acoustic amplifier, because using a store guitar can give you “false read.” For example, If the store acoustic has a richer bass sound, it may make the amp sound better than it actually is.

Another thing to consider is whether you want your amp to also handle vocals. If that is the case look for one with a second channel dedicated to an XLR input for a mic. Other desirable features to look for are onboard effects like reverb and delay so your tone can brighten up a dead-sounding room, and perhaps some kind of notch filter to help stop any potential feedback issues.

While we’re on the topic, be sure to check out our 40-watt Spark amp ($299), a new breed of smart amplifier that can deliver hundreds of bright and full-bodied sounds for the acoustic guitar, as well as thousands for electric guitar and bass.

In addition to offering dozens of exciting amp and speaker sounds, and wide ranges of effects, Spark can also access the chords to millions of classic songs so you can play along with them. And Spark’s Smart Jam feature even uses artificial intelligence to learn your style and feel, and then generates authentic bass and drum parts to accompany your original music. Now, strum on that!


Brad Tolinski is perhaps best known for his work as the editor-in-chief of Guitar World Magazine for 25 years. He is also the author of Light and Shade: Conversations with Jimmy Page (Crown); and Play It Loud: An Epic History of the Style, Sound and Revolution of the Electric Guitar (Doubleday), which was the basis for a 2019 guitar-focused exhibition at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City. Most recently he edited the 50th Anniversary Commemorative Issue of CREEM magazine, and his latest book Eruption: Conversations with Eddie Van Halen (Hachette) will be coming out in October 2021.

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