The violin family of instruments has remained nearly unchanged for over 300 years and has used a standard set of measurements and materials. But the steel-string guitar comes in various shapes and sizes, and model names vary from brand to brand. So, I’ll clarify some of the ambiguity by discussing a few iconic guitar models that have set the industry standard and reference some models by other manufacturers.
Modern guitar models and sizes evolved in the early 20th century. Then, players required more volume as venues changed from parlors to clubs and bars. As a result, guitar makers responded by producing larger and deeper guitars that led to the development of the dreadnought and jumbo models.
Today, volume is not a problem for players who use acoustic pickups and other forms of amplification. But, each size offers players something special. And many guitar players, by nature, aren’t satisfied with any instrument. We guitarists want the ‘right’ instrument. Or, at least, the ‘right now’ guitar.
This article will cover the basics of guitar models and sizes while offering a little bit of acoustic guitar history. The goal is to provide you with essential knowledge of the different guitar models and their features.
Bottom Line Up Front
Understanding the breakdown of guitar models and sizes is a little tricky. The most popular models are divided into 4 categories:
- The Big Guys: Full-size (Dreadnoughts and Jumbos)
- The Goldilocks, Just-Right: Mid-size (Auditoriums and Concerts)
- Small: Compact-size (Parlors)
- Even Smaller: Travel-size (Littles, Babies, and Minis)
All of the models and sizes are good guitars. But, there is something special that each model excels at. Understanding your needs is more important than knowing all the different models available. Also, there’s no substitute for playing each model to find the size that works best for you.
For instance, maybe you like the look of a jumbo but are a fingerpicker; a concert or compact will perform better for you. Or, perhaps you want to strum songs on a parlor guitar with your rock band; well, you’ll struggle to hear yourself. My best advice is to find a local guitar store and take each model for a test drive. Your first priority should be to find something comfortable.
I’ll tell you a quick story: I purchased a Baby Taylor for my godson when he was 5 or 6. I didn’t think much of it, I was only looking for a small-size guitar, and I only strummed a few chords on the instrument before finalizing the sale. My only concerns were the action and tuning issues. And the guitar played fine.
A few months later, I was visiting, and I sat with my godson to give him a few pointers. I started playing the guitar, and—I’m ashamed to admit this—I regretted not keeping it for myself. In the end, I’m glad that he has it, and 12 years later, he’s considering going to college for music.
Below is a chart if you want to bypass all the details and simply understand the models and sizes.
|D Series, M-36, J-40
|J Series, SJ, Dove, Hummingbird
|G-45 & L-45
|G-00 & L-00
|Baby, GS Mini
Here’s the bottom line:
- Dreadnought: this big-body guitar produces a big sound with a rich, low-end, and warm mids. Perfect for strumming chords, accompanying a voice, and leading campfire singalongs.
- Auditorium and Concert: smaller than the dreadnought and perfect for players who want a smooth, balanced guitar sound. The Grand Auditorium and Grand Concert have a cutaway. I find these to be great all-around guitars, especially for live playing. And, if you’re not sure what to get, go to a guitar store and try out this model.
- Parlor: This small-bodied guitar lacks volume but has a particular sound that’s midrange-focused. I like this for fingerpicking and fingerstyle playing (think classical, folk blues, etc.). The low end is toned down, making chord strumming sound weak. The bonus is that this is a travel-friendly guitar. But, I suggest that you play this one first. You’ll know in 10 seconds if it’s for you.
The Martin Dreadnought
The Martin dreadnought is the world’s most identifiable acoustic guitar. This iconic guitar has set the benchmark and is arguably the most copied guitar by other manufacturers.
Martin unveiled the dreadnought in 1916. This large-bodied, 12-fret guitar had a broad waist. The guitar was initially produced for Ditson, a well-known music publisher. It was built to handle steel strings and used a fan-bracing pattern. In 1921, the bracing system was switched to the X-bracing system.
In 1930, the Ditson company was sold, and, in 1931, Martin debuted the D-18 and D-28 Dreadnought Models under its own name. But, the dreadnought had weak sales. Then in 1934, Martin shortened the body and gave the guitar’s shoulders a squared-off look.
Additional modifications included moving the bridge a couple of frets closer to the neck block and extending the neck to the 14-fret neck (where the neck joins the body). And this is the basic form that the dreadnought has had ever since.
The dreadnought measures 15-5/8 inches across the lower bout, and it has a tapered body (from 4-7/8 inches at the endpin to 3-7/8 at the neck). This guitar has plenty of power, volume, and bass response, and this appealed to early adopters who used the dreadnought in string band music, country, and bluegrass. The guitar is certainly loud enough to compete with fiddles and banjos. It has since found a home in rock, country, gospel, and nearly every style of popular music.
Bluegrass flatpickers are especially fond of this guitar. They favor the clarity that the dreadnought gives to single-note playing, the full-bodied bass runs, and powerful strumming sound. And, for fingerstyle playing, just listen to Michael Hedges, who used a 1971 Martin D-28. But, not everyone has his finger strength and skill.
The Martin Company alone offers many D-sized models, including everything from the entry-level D-X1E ($700) to the D-28 Authentic 1937 ($7500) to the D-42 Special ($12,200) to the D-200 Deluxe ($120K).
Related read: Comprehensive Martin D-28 Review.
Other Dreadnought Makers
Practically every modern acoustic guitar maker offers at least one dreadnought-style model. Bourgeois, Collings, and Santa Cruz are boutique builders that offer finely crafted D-style variations with a range of wood and accouterment options.
While other companies like Guild, Alvarez, Yamaha, and Takamine make affordable variations of the dreadnought-style guitar.
The Gibson Jumbo and J Series
In 1934, Gibson countered the Martin dreadnought with the Jumbo, their version of the big-body guitar. This model influenced other big-bodied models, like the Advanced Jumbo, the J-50 (Gibson’s most influential flattop), the J-45, and many others.
The Jumbo and J-45 have short-scale length fretboards (24.75-inch), while the Advanced Jumbo has a more extended scale, 25.5 inches (slightly more than Martin’s 25.4-inch).
The Jumbo models have dreadnought-sized bodies with round shoulders opposed to Martin’s distinct squared-off design. Gibson also developed the Hummingbird and Dove models to offer the square-shouldered dreadnought style.
The J-45 (or the Workhorse, the affectionate nickname referred to by many singer-songwriters) is a slope-shouldered dreadnought. And these guitars are known for their loudness, tonal balance, and clarity. Also, the slope-shouldered dreadnought design continues to influence other boutique guitar makers.
Gibson J-45 or Martin D-28? Find out here.
Other Jumbo-Style Makers
Companies like Eastman, Taylor, and Collings deliver affordable options, modern twists, and old-school traditions. The choice is yours. But at least know what to look for when it comes to dreadnoughts.
The Martin Orchestra Model (OM/000)
The OM, or orchestra model, may have arrived at the party a little later than the ‘dread,’ but it certainly made an entrance. The OM’s body has a 15-inch-wide lower bout and a body depth that tapers from 4-1/8 inches to 3-1/4 inches, making it a bit smaller than a dreadnought.
In 1929, bandleader Perry Bechtel approached the Martin company requesting a guitar with a longer neck. At that time, every Martin OM was similar to a classical guitar. Each guitar had a neck that joined the body at the 12th fret. So, Martin responded with a 14-fret neck version of the 12-fret 000 size first seen in 1902. To accommodate the new design, they also needed to move the position of the bridge.
In 1934, the same OM body size was separated into two models; the OM and the 000. The main difference is that the OM has a 25.4-inch scale length fretboard, and the 000 has a 24.9-inch scale length fretboard. And both instruments produce rich lows and sparkling highs that deliver an excellent all-around tone for any style of music.
The slight differences in sound can be described as the OM producing excellent response, brilliance, and projection, and the 000 creates a slightly warmer, mellower sound. Plus, the 000, with its shorter scale neck, makes string-bending easier.
My introduction to the OM/000 was through Clapton’s 1992 release, Unplugged. I loved the smaller body size and the balanced tone. Later, I discovered that the OM/000 is considered the Holy Grail by many fingerstyle guitarists. But, the guitar is also a fine instrument for flatpicking styles.
Upon my Clapton deep dive, I learned that Clapton used a 1939 000-42 and a 1966 000-28 for his Unplugged performance and recording. And his Martin 000-28EC signature model has become incredibly popular.
You should also listen to Julian Lage’s World’s Fair if you’re interested in exploring the 000 sound further. In this solo acoustic album, Lage uses a 1939 000-18. And this guitar was the inspiration for his signature Collings OM-1 JL, which sports the same neck profile as the Martin 000-18.
A quick look at the Martin site will display over two dozen different OM/000 models. Everything from their affordable OMC-X1E (currently at $550) to the 000-42 Modern Deluxe ($7,200) with signature models between $3500–$4000.
Other OM Styles
Companies like Collings create OM and 000 variations, while Guild provides competitively priced OM options. Several high-quality boutique companies offer excellent OM-000-inspired variations.
Meanwhile, some companies produce their own body sizes similar to the OM. For example, Taylor’s famous Grand Concert also has a 15-inch lower bout, like a 000, and a short-scale, 24-7/8 inch length, but it shouldn’t be confused with the Martin Grand Concert.
The Taylor GC has rather tight dimensions ideal for an intimate, focused sound that is excellent for fingerstyle playing or mid-focused chord strumming.
The Gibson Super Jumbo and Jumbo
Gibson launched the Super Jumbo (later called the SJ-200 and then the J-200) in 1938. The guitars featured a 17-inch-wide lower bout and a narrow waist with a 4 7/8-inch body depth. Many musicians could look lost behind this guitar.
Then, in 1951, Gibson released a smaller version of the SJ model called the J-185. The J-185 had the same body depth with a 16-inch lower bout, the same shape as the Gibson’s 16-inch archtops.
This bit gets a little confusing, so please bear with me. The Super Jumbo (SJ-200) is known as the “jumbo,” and the J-185 is called the “small jumbo” by many players. I couldn’t find out why, but it is necessary to be able to distinguish the two.
The sound produced by these big boxes is similar, with both providing clear note separation, tight trebles, beefy bass, and scooped mids. The jumbo models are adored by many singer/songwriters, ragtime blues players, and singing cowboys.
Although concert-size and smaller guitar models are more popular these days, many jumbos and small jumbo models are still being made. Gibson, Gretsch, Guild, Yamaha, and other companies offer versions in their various acoustic lines.
Also, other builders, like Lowden, offer their take on the jumbo. The Lowden O (Original) style is primarily known for its headroom and ability to project everything from delicate fingerstyle passages to aggressive strumming with robust bass and chimey overtones. Meanwhile, the 16 1/4-wide Grand Symphony, is Taylor’s biggest model and another notable take on the jumbo.
The Martin M Series
Did you know that Martin made archtops? From 1931 to 1942, Martin tried to appeal to orchestral players and produced many archtop-style guitars. But, the Martin archtop story needs to be sidelined for another time.
Martin converted its unpopular archtop F-series to the flattop M size. In 1977, Martin introduced the M-38 and M-36, new grand auditorium guitars later renamed 0000 for a few years and then reverted to today’s M series. The structure of this body size is equally suited for strumming and fingerstyle playing.
The Martin J Series
The Martin J series uses an M’s body and the depth of a dreadnought. The “J” stands for jumbo, and this model was introduced in 1985. It immediately gained popularity with rhythm players.
J guitars are known for their fat tone, significant volume, and clear separation between the bass and treble frequencies without the boominess produced by dreadnoughts. Currently, Martin offers only one example of each jumbo guitar style—the M-36 and the J-40.
The Goldilocks, Just Right, Midsize Models
Smaller guitars became less fashionable as new and larger models provided players with the volume required to contend with other instruments in the band environment.
But, today, with dramatic improvements in amplification technology, volume issues have generally diminished across the board. So, guitarists have been slowly gravitating to smaller guitars like the 00s.
The Martin 00 (Grand Concert)
The 00 12-fret version has a lower bout that measures 14 1/8 inches, while the 14-fret version measures 14 5/6 inches. Both models have a body depth of 4 1/8 inches. The 00 has a body that closely resembles the classical guitar in size and is also known as the grand concert model.
The 00s typically produce a warm and unmistakable bass response. These guitars work perfectly for fingerstyle and chord strumming. The 00 obviously has a more petite body than the OM or dreadnought but don’t be fooled by its size. The 00 tends to be quite loud.
Still, the tone is very balanced, the bass level is even, and the treble is full sounding. The 12- and 14-fret versions of the Martin 00 are the guitar-of-choice by fingerstyle blues and ragtime guitarists.
The Gibson L Series
The Gibson L series flattop is different from the L series archtops. The flattops (L-00, L-0, L-1, L-2, etc.) were first introduced in 1926, and they featured a 12-fret version with a 13 1/2-inch wide body and a rounded lower bout. Later versions eventually adopted the 14-fret neck with a 14 3/4-inch lower bout and a 4 5/16-inch body with a narrow upper and square lower bout.
These instruments produce a warm and woody sound that projects nicely. The LG-series Gibsons have a smaller body shape with a 14 1/8-inch lower bout. These LGs are known for producing sweet and balanced tones.
The Martin 00, Gibson L, and LG series of guitars seem to be quite popular as both companies currently offer many variations of these models. Both companies have also updated models for modern players while still offering recreations of iconic models.
These body sizes have also influenced builders to create newer designs. For example, companies like Santa Cruz offer models based on the Martin 00 12-fret size, and Collings created a 00 series modeled after the 14-fret version. Meanwhile, Waterloo and Bourgeois have built models based on Gibson’s L series.
Small Bodies (0 or Concert Model)
The smallest of Martin’s current full-size lineup is the 0, or concert model. This size measures 4 1/4 inches deep with 13 1/2 inches across the lower bout and a 24.9-inch scale length. It certainly is a small size compared to other modern models. But, the 0’s comfortable size and intimate tone has helped it hold its place in Martin’s catalog almost continuously since its introduction in the 1800s.
Single 0s are surprisingly punchy and loud, especially for players used to larger-size guitars. The 0 produces a balanced tone that’s excellent for fingerstyle, recording, and chord accompaniment.
Concert-sized guitars can be found in both 12- and 14-fret versions. Martin currently offers the 0-X1E and 0-18 models in 14-fret versions.
Other Single 0 Makers
Recording King makes a series of very reasonably-priced 12-fret versions of Single 0 guitars. Collings, Huss & Dalton, Preston Thompson, and other boutique companies offer 0s in 12- and 14-fret designs.
Parlor-sized guitars date back to the 19th century. These models are much smaller than what is commonly used today. They featured a compact, narrow-waisted body with short-scale lengths. They were meant to be played in the parlor of a home and primarily by women.
Recently, there has been plenty of growing interest in parlor-size guitars. Many players are drawn to their smaller size, pleasing sound, and clean response. So, new parlor models are being created to fit most budgets.
The Fender CP-60 S and Gretsch’s G9500 Jim Dandy offer budget-conscious versions. While the Santa Cruz PJ and Lowden’s Wee Lowden are modern interpretations with premium quality. Lastly, the Collings created Parlor 1 is also a worthy contender.
Even Smaller Still
If you find the parlor too bulky to take with you, then Martin and Taylor have just the guitars you might be interested in. The Martin Backpacker was built with the outdoor vacationer in mind. Taylor offers the Baby and GS Mini models while Martin counters with the Little Martin.
These mini guitar models are often called “baby” or “travel” guitars. They’ve captured the interest of many players by delivering a more portable instrument than the travel-unfriendly, standard-sized guitars. Although small in size, some of these models produce a very charming tone.
Baby guitars use a shorter scale length and produce less low end. But they deliver plenty of punch in the mid and upper-mid ranges that some players prefer for recording in a travel-friendly package. They probably won’t produce the volume for a jam, but they can hold their own in the studio or performance setting.
Having a hard time picking between Taylor vs Martin guitars? Read our complete Martin vs Taylor brand comparison.
The acoustic guitar has a history that dates back almost 6000 years. It has evolved from a fretless, pear-shaped oud of 3500 BC to six-string works of art. Manufacturers have created a guitar model for every type of player to cover practically any style of music and to fit most budgets.
My goal was to cover the main guitar models, describe the iconic instruments, and provide you with an overview of the most popular models while touching on little bits of history.
I hope you feel armed with the proper amount of information to purchase your first, second, or third acoustic instrument with the confidence that you’re making a well-informed decision. Thanks for reading.
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