What Is A Folk Guitar? The Sounds of Tradition

Have you ever found yourself tapping your feet to the catchy tunes of folk music? Mesmerized by the raw, soulful sounds of an acoustic guitar? Folk music has a magical quality that transcends time and culture, weaving stories and emotions into its melodies.

At the heart of this enchanting genre lies the versatile and powerful folk guitar. While it may be true that there isn’t a specific category, a good deal of acoustics have become synonymous with the genre.

Playing a crucial role in its development and continuing popularity. So then, what is a folk guitar?

In this Killer Rig article, we’ll take you through the world of folk music. Exploring the fascinating history and characteristics of acoustic guitars favored by the musicians who love it.

What is a Folk Guitar?

A folk guitar is often characterized by a warm sounding acoustic. There are many acoustic guitars made for folk, but not one design specifically made for the genre.

Classical guitar can also be used as they have a warmer tone that is created by the nylon strings.

Some guitars are made of all mahogany wood for a warmer sound, even with steel strings. These are normally the instrument of choice as they have the right tone for folk music.

History of Guitars in Folk Music

Investigating the role of acoustic guitars in folk music history not only enhances our comprehension of their significance within this genre. It also uncovers a vibrant mosaic of stories and emotions that these instruments have helped articulate and convey.

Origins of Acoustic Guitars

The acoustic guitar, with its roots dating back to the Renaissance, has been a constant companion to folk music throughout the centuries.

Originating from the classical guitar, the modern acoustic evolved into various styles, each with its own construction and sound. 

As folk music and its traditions spread across continents, the acoustic guitar became an essential part of the genre. Capturing the essence of diverse cultures and stories through its strings.

Development of Folk Music

Folk music, often characterized by its simplicity and storytelling nature, has been an integral part of human history.

Serving as a medium to share tales of love, hardship, and daily life. The acoustic guitar’s versatile nature made it an ideal instrument for this purpose. 

As folk music evolved, so did the guitars used by musicians, with many adapting their instruments to better suit the genre’s sound. 

The intimate connection between acoustic guitars and folk music allowed for the birth of various regional styles, such as American folk, Celtic, and Flamenco. Each with its special guitar techniques and tunings.

Prominent Folk Musicians and Their Guitars

Throughout history, folk music has been graced by iconic musicians who have left their mark on the genre. Easily shaping its future with their styles and guitar choices.

For instance, Woody Guthrie, often considered the father of American folk, was known for playing a Martin 000-18.

On the other hand, Bob Dylan, another legendary folk artist, favored the Gibson J-45 and Martin D-28. Similarly, Joni Mitchell, renowned for her innovative guitar tunings and songwriting, often played a variety of acoustic guitars, including the Martin D-28. 

These musicians, among many others, have contributed to the rich legacy of folk music and inspired countless individuals to pick up an acoustic guitar and share their stories.

Yamaha FG850 Acoustic Folk Guitar.

Characteristics of a Folk Guitar

Understanding what makes a guitar suitable for folk music requires an exploration of the features that define these instruments.

Size and Shape

The size and shape of a guitar’s body can greatly influence its tone and playability. In the realm of folk music, there are three body types that are especially popular.

Dreadnought guitars, with their large and broad-shouldered design, offer a powerful, balanced sound that suits various playing styles. This makes them a common choice among folk musicians.

Parlor guitars, on the other hand, are smaller and more compact. They are known for their warm, intimate sound that works well for fingerpicking and delicate strumming.

Lastly, jumbo guitars, with their large bodies and rounded shoulders. They produce a loud, resonant sound that is ideal for solo performances or for cutting through the mix when playing with other instruments.

Tonewood Selection

The choice of tonewoods plays a significant role in determining a guitar’s sound. Making it an essential factor for folk musicians. Mahogany, for example, is known for its warm, balanced tone and strong midrange. 

Rosewood, known for its rich, multifaceted sound and superb resonance, is frequently utilized in the construction of guitar backs and sides, lending the instrument a deep, robust tone.

It’s also used for the top of certain guitar models, underscoring its widespread use in guitar manufacturing.

Spruce tops, on the other hand, are popular due to their bright, clear sound and strong projection. This makes them suitable for both fingerpicking and strumming styles.

Playability and String Type

Folk guitarists require instruments that are comfortable to play and provide the desired tonal characteristics. String type and setup are crucial factors to consider. Most folk guitarists prefer steel-string guitars for their bright, crisp sound and versatility.

These guitars often have narrower necks, making them comfortable for playing chords and intricate fingerpicking patterns.

Although less common in folk music, nylon-string guitars have a warmer, mellower sound and wider necks. They can be suitable for certain folk styles, such as Flamenco or Brazilian music.

The distance between the strings (spacing) and the height from the fretboard (action) can also affect playability and comfort. So folk guitarists may prefer a setup tailored to their playing style, whether it’s fingerpicking or strumming.

Taylor GS Mini Mahogany for Folk Music.

Popular Folk Guitar Brands

Choosing the right guitar for folk music often involves exploring various brands and models. Primarily, to find the one that best suits your preferences and playing style.

Martin Guitars

Established in 1833, Martin is a leading guitar manufacturer known for its high-quality craftsmanship and exceptional acoustic instruments. Many folk musicians have gravitated towards Martin guitars for their rich, warm tone and reliable performance. 

The Martin D-18, for instance, is a classic dreadnought guitar that has been embraced by countless folk artists, including Woody Guthrie.

Another popular choice is the Martin 000-18. A smaller-bodied guitar that offers excellent balance and projection, making it ideal for fingerpicking and intricate playing styles.


Established in 1902, Gibson Guitars has earned a sterling reputation for crafting superior quality acoustic instruments. Their guitars have been the choice of many renowned folk musicians, who are drawn to their special tone and effortless playability.

A particular favorite is the Gibson J-45, often dubbed The Workhorse. This versatile instrument is known for its warm, balanced sound, earning it the admiration of folk icons like Bob Dylan.

Equally notable is the Gibson Hummingbird, renowned for its striking design and robust sound. This model has claimed its spot in the annals of folk music, endorsed by eminent artists such as Keith Richards and Sheryl Crow.


Relatively younger than its counterparts, Taylor Guitars was founded in 1974, but quickly gained recognition for its innovative designs and focus on playability. 

Taylor guitars are known for their bright, articulate sound, making them a popular choice among contemporary folk musicians. The Taylor 814ce, for example, is a versatile guitar with a rich, balanced tone, suitable for a wide range of playing styles. 

For those seeking a more compact option, the Taylor GS Mini offers a big sound in a small package. Making it an excellent choice for traveling musicians and those with smaller hands.

Tips for Choosing the Right Folk Guitar

With so many options available, selecting the perfect folk guitar can feel overwhelming. Here, I’ll offer some tips to help you navigate the process and find the instrument that best aligns with your needs and musical aspirations.

Determine Your Budget

Before diving into the world of folk guitars, it’s essential to establish a budget that you’re comfortable with. Keep in mind that while premium guitars often come at a higher price, there are also more affordable options that still deliver excellent sound and performance.

Researching various price ranges and understanding what features are most important to you will help narrow down your options.

Consider Your Style and Music

Your playing style and the specific folk sub-genres you’re interested in will significantly influence your choice of guitar. For instance, if you’re into fingerpicking, you might prefer a smaller-bodied guitar with a wider string spacing. 

While a larger dreadnought may be more suitable for strumming and singing. Reflect on your favorite artists and their guitar choices to gain inspiration and insight into what type might work best for you.

Comfort and Sound

There’s no substitute for hands-on experience when it comes to choosing a guitar. Visit local music stores and try out various guitar models to gauge their comfort, playability, and sound. 

Pay attention to factors like neck size, body shape, and action, as these can significantly impact your playing experience.

Don’t be afraid to test multiple guitars, even if they fall outside of your initial preferences, as you might discover something unexpected that resonates with you.

Seek Advice from Experienced Musicians

Reaching out to experienced folk musicians or joining local music communities can provide invaluable insights into choosing the right guitar. These individuals can offer recommendations based on their personal experiences. 

They can also guide you towards instruments that have a proven track record within the folk music scene.

Remember that the most important thing is to find a guitar that inspires you to create and share your own stories through the powerful medium of folk music.

Person playing a folk guitar


The enchanting world of folk music and the acoustic guitars that have shaped its rich history are as diverse and captivating as the stories they tell.

I hope this article has provided you with a deeper understanding of the key characteristics and popular models of folk guitars. But also the practical tips to help you find the perfect instrument for your music.

Remember that the most suitable guitar for you is the one that feels comfortable, sounds great, and inspires you to share your own stories and emotions through the timeless language of folk music. 

So go forth and explore the vast array of folk guitars available, and let your creativity flow as you contribute to the enduring legacy of this cherished genre.


Can I use an electric guitar for playing folk music?

Acoustic guitars are typically associated with folk music due to their rich and natural sound. But there’s no rule against using an electric guitar for playing this genre.

Some folk musicians do incorporate electric guitars into their music, creating a fusion of traditional and modern sounds. However, if you’re aiming for a more classic folk sound, an acoustic guitar would be a better fit.

How important is the choice of guitar strings for folk music?

The choice of guitar strings can significantly impact the tone and playability of your instrument. Most folk guitarists prefer steel-string acoustic guitars for their bright, crisp sound and versatility. 

However, if you’re exploring specific sub-genres such as Flamenco or Brazilian music, nylon strings might be more suitable. 

Additionally, the gauge (thickness) of the strings can influence the ease of playing and the sound produced. So, experimenting with different string gauges can help you find the ideal setup for your playing style.

Are there specific techniques or tunings that are popular in folk music?

Folk music encompasses a wide range of styles and techniques, often influenced by regional traditions and individual musicians’ preferences. Some popular techniques in folk guitar playing include fingerpicking, flatpicking, and alternate picking. 

Additionally, alternate tunings such as DADGAD, open D, and G are commonly used in folk music. This is done to achieve certain sounds and facilitate different playing styles. 

Exploring these techniques and tunings can open up new creative possibilities. But also help you develop a special sound within the genre.

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Don East

My name is Don East, I'm the editor for Killer Rig. I've been playing guitar for over 20 years and have designed and manufactured products like guitar amps, effects pedals, and more. Over the years I have played in many bands and have a deep love for quality gear. I am an electrical engineer and have a passion for music gear, and now want to share what I know with the community!