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What Is a Folk Guitar? The Complete 2021 Guide

If you’re thinking, “What is a folk guitar exactly?” then you’ve come to the right post!

There are many misconceptions about what a folk guitar is exactly.

But after playing the guitar since 2003, I think I have a pretty good handle on it.

So what is a folk guitar?

There actually is no hard and fast definition of a folk guitar. But usually, when someone refers to a folk guitar, they are referring to the most commonly used guitar in folk music which is an acoustic or acoustic/electric steel-string guitar.

I’ll discuss this more in the following sections.

Clearing Things Up: What Folk Guitar Actually Means

Even after all these decades of guitars being mainstream, there are still plenty of misconceptions about this instrument. In particular, plenty of musicians and fans believe that each musical style has its specialized guitar models.

Unless we’re talking about classical music in traditional academic circles, this is not the case. I’ve seen jazz guitars used in metal and vice-versa. In short, you’re free to use any guitar with any style of music. As long as you get the tone that you love, it’s all good.

However, there are reasons musicians use specialized guitars in particular genres. Using a folk guitar for folk or country music is no different. We could say the same thing about any genre or subgenre where listeners expect very specific results.

But when we’re talking about folk guitar, there are two things to think about. First is the instrument itself. We’re looking at guitars that give great sonic results for the genre. However, when we’re talking about folk guitar, we’re also referring to the style of playing. Just like with every genre, folk music typically has certain techniques and practices.

Therefore, folk guitar is somewhat of a loose term. But I’ll cover this topic from both perspectives.

Guitars for Folk Music: What You Should Look For

As you may already know, folk is a pretty wide term. With that said, there are plenty of guitars that could come in handy for the genre. But in most cases, we’re talking about steel-string Western-style acoustic guitars.

So let’s start with the tone that you should be aiming for. In my opinion, it’s best that you have a balanced tone. Not too sharp and not too mellow or dark either. For this, I suggest that you go with mid-sized to mid-large-size bodies. So something like the auditorium, grand auditorium, orchestra, or dreadnaught body.

Along with this, you should also consider materials. Mahogany sides and back with a spruce top should do the trick. If you really prefer something mellower, then get an all-mahogany guitar.

If you’re playing without PA and completely acoustic, I’d advise a guitar with a larger body. Something like jumbo or grand jumbo (you can read more about this in my post about guitar sizes). But it will still add more bass, which may not always be favorable.

Certain players also prefer nylon strings. This can be a good solution for some settings. Chet Atkins, for instance, performed country music with nylon-string guitars.

As for electric guitars, hollow-body variants work well. In particular, I’m talking about archtop jazz guitars. A completely clean tone from a hollow-body guitar that has a P90 in the neck can sound really good.

If you’re just strumming along to vocals, then I’d advise a larger acoustic guitar. If you’re mostly doing fingerpicking, then something brighter and mid-sized can get the job done.

Finally, I’d also like to mention resonator guitars. In particular, I’m looking at dobros or wooden-bodied resonators. However, they might be a bit too specific. They can come in handy if you’re gravitating towards blues. And they’re also great for lead playing.

Is Folk Guitar Really a Thing?

But, as I already mentioned, you’re free to use what you like. In fact, there’s no such thing as a folk guitar in terms of specialized instruments. If possible, try testing different guitars. No rules here are set in stone.

However, I advise that you first try the examples that I mentioned. Although there’s no such thing as a folk-only guitar, there are some that would work better in such a setting.

Quite often, the folk guitar is just a synonym for acoustic guitar. This, of course, isn’t the proper way to go about it. But it’s no wonder that the genre is associated with acoustic guitars. After all, it’s the most prominent instrument in there. 

Folk Music Guitar-Playing Styles

And then we come to the playing styles. Folk and folk-rock are, in most cases, pretty straightforward. They’re usually simpler to perform. However, this doesn’t mean that the genre doesn’t require special skills.

Again, folk is a pretty wide term. But folk guitar playing usually relies on fingerpicking and strumming. Although these techniques may sound simple, they can be harder than you might think.

First, strumming patterns are more than just beginner techniques. Second, fingerpicking can get really tricky. Just check out YouTube guitarist Paul Davids gradually scaling up the complexity of his fingerpicking in this video to get a sense of a how fingerpicking complexity can escalate quickly:

But when we mention folk guitar in terms of playing, it’s almost always about fingerpicking. And it’s almost always about acoustic guitars.

If you’re planning to learn fingerpicking techniques, you should first start by positioning your thumb on any of the three bottom strings and other fingers on the top three strings.

With this approach, you’ll be able to play arpeggiated chords more easily. And, above all, you’ll eventually be able to play melodies and chord progressions at the same time.

Folk and Folk-Rock Guitar Players Worth Checking Out

As you can hopefully tell, folk is a broad topic, and it’s hard to define what folk guitar actually means. With this said, there are a few folk guitarists to check out.

There are obvious folk guitar legends like Bob Dylan or Chet Atkins. However, I’d also like to mention Paul Simon, Tommy Emmanuel, Nick Drake, and The Tallest Man on Earth.

Additionally, you may also want to check out Jake Holmes and the original version of Dazed and Confused. Yes, Led Zeppelin’s early doom metal song was originally an acoustic folk-rock tune.  Here’s the song in the embedded player below:

Conclusion

I hope this article has clarified what a folk guitar is!

As usual, feel free to message me in the comments if you have any questions about this or another guitar topic!

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