The two most common types of acoustic guitar are the steel-string guitar and the classical guitar. The classical guitar, also known as the Spanish guitar, usually uses nylon strings. Steel-string guitars originated in the United States and are also referred to as western guitar and folk guitar. Steel-string guitars sound louder and brighter than classical guitars, which have a warmer, mellower sound. Steel-string models usually have larger bodies and narrower necks, and they often have a pickguard to protect the body against scratches by picks and fingernails. Most acoustic guitars have six strings, but there are also 12-string versions. When an acoustic guitar is hooked up to an amplifier, it is referred to as acoustic/electric. Some acoustic/electric guitars incorporate a cutaway design, which makes it easier for electric guitar players to cross over to acoustic.

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Unlike many string instruments which use a bow to create a sound, guitars are played by plucking or strumming the strings on the instrument, which vibrate to create a sound. Chords are played when the guitarist holds their fingers down on more than one individual string to change its length, which in turn changes the frequency of the vibration created - in other words, it creates a different note. Performers often use guitar tabs, rather than sheet music, when learning music: this acts as a kind of 'map' to teach guitarists where to put their fingers on the strings.