The Short Answer…
A folk guitar is essentially a steel stringed acoustic guitar.
One might presume that a “folk guitar” is the type of guitar used to play folk music. This is not only an over simplification but it’s inaccurate as well. In fact, although acoustic instruments do dominate the genre, any type of guitar may be used to play folk music. Even Bob Dylan has at times performed using an electric guitar!
The Long Answer
In a practical sense, the term “folk guitar” is more about size and shape of the guitar and retail marketing than it is about a style or genre of music. Today’s manufactures and retailers have designated certain of their acoustic guitar models as being “folk guitars”. These guitars (which are patterned after CF Martin & Co.’s early designs) are usually midsized and have steel strings but may alternatively be strung with nylon strings.
*It’s important to note that you should not use steel strings on any guitar that was designed to be used with nylon strings as this could damage your guitar!
History and Design
Today’s “folk guitars” are basically updated versions of CF Martin’s OO, 000 and OM Guitars which were first introduced in the late 1920’s and early 1930s.
In the 1960s “folk guitars” gained recognition due to their popular use by many of the premiere folk music artists of the day such as Bob Dylan, Paul Stookey of Peter, Paul & Mary and Joan Baezs.
Alternative Guitar Types
Acoustic guitars are commonly constructed in several different body types. In general, the guitar’s soundbox can be thought of as composed of two connected chambers: the upper bouts and lower bouts (a bout being the rounded corner of an instrument body), which meet at the waist, or the narrowest part of the body face near the soundhole. The proportion and overall size of these two parts helps determine the overall tonal balance and “native sound” of a particular body style – the larger the body, the louder the volume.
The “00″, “Double-Oh” or “Grand Concert“ body type is the major body style most directly derived from the classical guitar. It has the thinnest soundbox and the smallest overall size of the major styles, making it very comfortable to play but also one of the quietest. Its smaller size makes it suitable for younger or smaller-framed players. These guitars are commonly called “parlor steels” as they are well-suited to smaller rooms. Martin‘s 00-xxx series and Taylor‘s x12 series are common examples.
The “Grand Auditorium“ guitar, sometimes called a “000″ or “Triple-Oh”, is very similar in design to the Grand Concert, but slightly wider and deeper. Many 000-style guitars also have a convex back panel to increase the volume of space in the soundbox without making the soundbox deeper at the edges, which would affect comfort and playability. The result is a very balanced tone, comparable to the 00 but with greater volume and dynamic range and slightly more low-end response, without sacrificing the ergonomics of the classical style, making these body styles very popular. Eric Clapton‘s signature Martin guitar, for example, is of this style. Martin’s 000-xxx series and Taylor’s x14 series are well-known examples of the Grand Auditorium style.
The “Dreadnought“, currently the most common body type, incorporates a deeper soundbox, but a smaller and less-pronounced upper bout (the area of the soundbox between the waist and neck) than most styles, giving a somewhat wedge-shaped appearance – hence its name, relating to a class of warship. The dreadnought style was designed by Martin Guitars to produce a deeper sound than “classic”-style guitars, with very present bass fundamentals. This body style’s combination of a small profile with a deep sound has made it immensely popular, and it has since been copied by virtually every major steel-string luthier. Martin‘s “D” series such as the D-28 are classic examples of the dreadnought.
The “Jumbo“ body type is bigger again than a Grand Auditorium but similarly proportioned, and is generally designed to provide a deeper tone, similar to a dreadnought (the body style was designed by Gibson to compete with the dreadnought) but with maximum resonant space for greater volume and sustain. This comes at the expense of being oversized, with a very deep sounding box, and thus somewhat more difficult to play. The foremost example of this style is the Gibson J-200, but like the dreadnought, most guitar manufacturers have at least one jumbo model.
Some of today’s most popular brand names in “folk guitars” are Martin, Gibson, Fender, Alvarez, Yamaha, Luna and Seagull. Of course there are many others but don’t be overwhelmed by the choices. You can narrow your search by answering a few of the questions below.
Before you Buy
Before you buy a guitar, whether it is for yourself, a friend, relative etc., here are some important points to consider in your quest to find the right guitar for the right person.
Who is it for? A child or adult, male or female, beginner or experienced etc.
If the guitar is for a young child (5-9 years old) you should look at what is known as a standard size guitar or a ¾ size guitar both of which are suitable for a young child. Also, a guitar with nylon string will be easier to play because nylon strings have less tension making it easier to press down the guitar strings. Keep in mind though that a nylon string guitar generally sounds better for fingerpicking while a steel string guitar usually sounds better for strumming.
If the guitar is for an adult there are about four different sizes to choose from as explained in the ”Alternative Guitar Types” section above. If the adult is female or has a petite body type he or she would likely be comfortable playing on a Grand Concert, Grand Auditorium or certain other models which have been designated by their manufacturer as a “folk guitar”. If the adult has a large frame or big fingers they would probably prefer a Dreadnought or Jumbo body type.
When shopping for a new guitar, In addition to choosing the appropriate guitar size you should also think about whether the guitar is for a beginner or experienced player in which case the price becomes a major factor. Entry level guitars depending on their size and quality are usually in the $100 to $275 price range. Guitars for experienced players start at about $300 and can go into the Thousands for professional use. A price point of around $500 will be of satisfactory quality and suit the needs of most non-professional guitar players.