Why are guitars shaped the way they are? Guitars are shaped the way they are in order to maximize structural integrity, acoustic quality, ergonomics, and balance while playing. Guitars also used to be primarily marketed towards men, so they were built to feel similar to a lady’s figure when cradled on one’s lap!
Structural Integrity and Tension Resistance
“Form follows function,” as the saying goes–and this holds as true for musical instruments as it does for architecture! So, one of the most important aspects of the reasoning behind the average range of guitar shapes is structural resilience.
Anyone who’s stretched a guitar string just a bit too far and seen it snap knows that the guitar strings are under a surprising amount of stress: And that stress is constant, unless you’re removing the guitar’s strings for a cleaning or replacement. For this reason, the guitar’s neck must be crafted from solid wood, with its rounded back serving to increase tension resistance and avoid an instrument’s tragic end. This is especially crucial for guitars that sport more than the usual 6 strings, since each extra string adds a new layer of tension.
The graceful curves of the guitar’s body also help to distribute tension and increase structural integrity. This holds true in terms of string tension and the natural effects that varying humidity and temperature levels will have on the wooden body of the guitar.
Acoustics and Sound Quality
So, the strong neck and arches in a guitar’s shape help to ensure that the instrument won’t break under pressure when subjected to string tension or changing environments–but what about the way it sounds?
The curves of a hollow acoustic guitar body (especially if the guitar features an arched back) absolutely do play a crucial part in shaping the instrument’s unique sound and tone. Each difference in form, curve, body depth, and size will affect how a guitar sounds. Some differences may be highly noticeable, while others are subtle enough that only more experienced musicians recognize them: But rest assured that each unique nuance in the guitar’s shape is there for a reason!
Many people instinctively assume that the tone, projection, and resonance of a guitar are more a result of the instrument’s tonewoods than of its shape. But the shape of a guitar still plays against the effects of different tonewoods, meaning that, for example, you could still get all kinds of varying sounds from differently-shaped mahogany guitars.
It’s also important to note that the effect of the body shape will have much more of a noticeable effect on an acoustic guitar than it’ll have on an electric one. Since the resonance, projection, and tone of an electric guitar are more affected by electrical amplifiers than by its body, the main effect that body shape will have on an electric guitar will relate to its weight. The heavier and more solid the body is, the better sustain and resonance you’ll get, but the rest is pretty much all electric!
Balance While Holding the Guitar
Any well-made guitar is bound to balance itself well when you hold it properly. This reduces the work that you have to do to keep the instrument in place, freeing your body and mind to get expressive and form complex handshapes with ease. Some people claim that the idea of balance playing an important part in the evolution of the guitar’s shape is just speculation, but most experts agree that balance has always been a huge determining factor in guitar craftsmanship.
For acoustic guitars, it’s important for the instrument to balance well on your lap while you hold it–ideally just as well with or without a strap. Balance might seem less critical for solid-body electric guitars, since these are usually played while standing with a shoulder strap–but this isn’t so. Balance is still crucial to a quality electric guitar since you don’t want to constantly readjust your shoulder strap because the headstock’s weight has shifted everything out of place. Ever wonder why your Stratocaster is such a go-to for guitarists? That’s right: Its balance is considered to be among the best! Other delightfully well-crafted guitars include Ibanez guitars, which are known for delighting metalheads and hard-rock guitarists with their slim “fast necks” without throwing off the overall balance of the instrument.
Ergonomics and Accessibility While Playing
Just as balance is important in your ability to hold and play a guitar with ease, so is–you guessed it–the shape itself! The guitar’s graceful shape is designed with comfort in mind, crafted to naturally conform to the musician’s lap, body, and ability to reach the controls of the instrument.
As you might expect, it’s crucial for the average guitar player to be able to reach key components like the tuning pegs so that they can sweeten the sound, and to reach the strings above the sound hole with little trouble so that they can strum and pick effectively.
The width and depth of the guitar’s body affect how easy it is to pick and strum, making it highly important for any guitarist to try out an instrument before purchasing whenever possible to make sure that it’s a good match for their stature. And the length of the guitar’s neck is carefully calculated to strike the ideal blend of balance against the weight of the body, and the ideal proportions for a musician to reach the highest frets and adjust the tuning pegs with ease.
Aesthetics and Visual Appeal
As previously mentioned, guitars used to be almost exclusively geared towards men, and the assumption of the time was that no man would turn down an opportunity to cradle a lady’s figure in their arms! So, the guitar was built partially to mimic the curves of a woman’s waist and hips in order to boost marketability and visual appeal.
Things have diversified since then, so the aesthetic focus of a guitar’s shape usually revolves more around the target audience that would most appreciate its sound style. Most acoustic and classical guitars are built with traditional shapes for a timeless, warm feeling. On the other hand, electric guitars are often built with more angular shapes that may be accentuated to increase visual appeal for many rock and metal fans.
A Skillful Design:
No matter what aspect of a guitar’s design you consider to be the most important, they all come together to make a truly beautiful instrument! The predominant features in why a guitar is shaped the way it is are structural strength, acoustics and sound quality, balance, ergonomics, and aesthetics.
Of course, there’s a complex level of interconnectedness between these traits that makes every guitar unique and allows for all kinds of delicately-nuanced musical styles. Each individual guitarist must try out a variety of models before finding the right fit, but understanding why guitars are shaped the way they are can give a great starting point for which qualities to consider in each one!
Eduardo Perez is a multi-instrumentalist with over 20 years of experience playing instruments such as piano, guitar, ukulele, and bass. Having arranged songs and produced music in a recording studio, he has a wealth of knowledge to share about analyzing songs, composing, and producing. Currently pursuing a Bachelor of Arts degree in Interdisciplinary Musical Studies at Berklee College School of Music. Featured on Entrepreneur.com. Subscribe to his YouTube channel, or follow him on Instagram.