A Fender CD-140S dreadnought. Note the broad waist and wide lower bout.
You see it all the time when shopping for an acoustic guitar—terms such as “dreadnought,” “concert,” “jumbo,” “parlor,” “auditorium,” etc.
These names aren’t merely marketing-speak; they are long-established conventions for specific flat-top steel-string acoustic guitar body shapes and sizes (some of which date back more than a century) common to all instrument makers. These names, shapes and sizes are all useful in determining whether you want a larger guitar or a smaller one; a louder one or a softer one; one that’s better for finger-style playing or one that’s better for flat-picking.
Generally speaking, deeper bodies add greater resonance and more resounding bass; shallower bodies have more projection and focus, with better bass-to-treble balance. Also, most of these styles can include a cutaway—either rounded (Venetian) or sharp (Florentine)—that provides unimpeded access to the higher frets.
Here are several body styles, from smallest to largest, with general dimensions that vary somewhat among manufacturers:
- Parlor. A slender, small-bodied old-world guitar design popular around the turn of the 20th century, often with a slotted headstock, rounded shoulders, no pickguard and a neck that joins the body at the 12th fret. You’re not likely to run across parlor guitars in stock at your local retailer, but they are nonetheless currently enjoying slightly resurgent popularity. General dimensions: 18¼” or less long, 4” deep, 9½” or less upper body width, 13¼” or less lower body width.
- Concert. Dating to around 1854 and the standard size around the time of the U.S. Civil War and for many years thereafter. Its bright, trebly sounding design gradually gave way to larger, more bass-heavy guitars, although the style has enjoyed a recent resurgence. General dimensions: 18” long, 4¼” deep, 10” upper body width, 13½” lower body width.
- Grand Concert. Introduced in 1877; smallest of the major styles and derived directly from the classical guitar, with a shallow body and rounded shoulders; one of the quietest designs. It’s diminutive size makes it well suited to younger or smaller players, and it’s excellent for finger-style playing. General dimensions: 18” long, 4” deep, 10” upper body width, 14” lower body width.
- Auditorium. Also referred to as “orchestra,” the auditorium style was introduced in the early 1920s and was one of the largest guitars through the end of that decade. Now a medium-size guitar with a thinner waist than a dreadnought and a broad upper bout with flatter shoulders, it produces a big sound and good treble-bass balance that make it great for finger-style playing. General dimensions: 19” long, 4” deep, 11¼” upper body width, 15” lower body width.
- Dreadnought. Introduced under this name in 1931, although its direct ancestors date to circa 1916. Currently the most popular style and the guitar for flat-picking and bluegrass, with a deep body, broad waist and a relatively small upper bout. A large guitar named for the large dreadnought warships of the early and middle 20th century. Tremendous projection and booming bass. General dimensions: 20” long, 4” deep, 11½” upper body width, 15” lower body width.
- Grand Auditorium. Similar to a grand concert, but wider and sometimes deeper; with very balanced tone and great volume and dynamic range. General dimensions: 20” long, 4” deep, 11” upper body width, 16” lower body width.
- Jumbo. A big guitar, proportioned similar to a grand auditorium and having a lot of resonant space for great volume, sustain and deep dreadnought-like tone. Often considered the quintessential “cowboy” guitar. General dimensions: 20” long, 4” deep, over 11” upper body width, over 16” lower body width.
A Fender CJ-290SCE jumbo acoustic with a Venetian cutaway. Its large body is much more rounded than the dreadnought style.
Despite its modern punk pedigree, Fender’s Tim Armstrong Hellcat Acoustic is actually a concert guitar—a pre-Civil War body size and shape.