An acoustic guitar is a guitar that uses only acoustic means to transmit the strings’ vibrational energy to the air in order to make a sound. Acoustic means not electric or using electric impulses (see Electric guitar). The sound waves of an acoustic guitar are directed through the body of the guitar creating a sound. This typically involves the use of a sound board and a sound box to strengthen the vibrations of the strings.
The main source of sound in an acoustic guitar is the string, which is plucked with the finger or with a plectrum. The string vibrates at a necessary frequency and also create many harmonics at various different frequencies. The frequencies produced can depend on string length, mass, and tension. The string causes the soundboard and sound box to vibrate, and as these have their own resonances at certain frequencies, they amplify some string harmonics more strongly than others, hence affecting the timbre produced by the instrument.
The acoustic guitar’s soundboard, or top, also has a strong effect on the loudness of the guitar. No amplification actually occurs in this process, because no external energy is added to increase the loudness of the sound (as would be the case with an electronic amplifier). All the energy is provided by the plucking of the string. But without a soundboard, the string would just “cut” through the air without actually moving it much. The soundboard increases the surface of the vibrating area in a process called mechanical impedance matching. The soundboard can move the air much more easily than the string alone, because it is large and flat. This increases the entire system’s energy transfer efficiency, and a much louder sound is emitted.
In addition, the acoustic guitar has a hollow body and an additional coupling and resonance effect increases the efficiency of energy transmission in lower frequencies. The air in a guitar’s cavity resonates with the vibrational modes of the string and soundboard. At low frequencies, which depend on the size of the box, the chamber acts like a Helmholtz resonator, increasing or decreasing the volume of the sound again depending on whether the air in the box is moving in phase or out of phase with the strings. When in phase, the sound is increased by about 3 decibels and when in opposing phase, it is decreased about 3 decibels. As a Helmholtz resonator, the air at the opening is vibrating in or out of phase with the air in the box and in or out of phase with the strings. These resonance interactions attenuate or amplify the sound at different frequencies, boosting or damping various harmonic tones. Ultimately, the cavity air vibrations couple to the outside air through the sound hole, though some[which?] variants of the acoustic guitar omit this hole, or have f holes, like a violin family instrument (a trait found in some electric guitars such as the ES-335 and Lucille models from Gibson). This coupling is most efficient because here the impedance matching is perfect: it is air pushing air.
There are therefore several sound coupling modes in an acoustic guitar: string to soundboard, soundboard to cavity air, and both soundboard and cavity air, to outside air. The back of the guitar will also vibrate to a lesser extent, driven by the air in the cavity. The function of the entire acoustic system is twofold: to color the sound through the generation and amplification of harmonics, and to maximize the coupling of this energy to the surrounding air — which is ultimately what we perceive as loudness of the produced sound. Improved coupling, however, comes at the expense of decay time, since now the string’s energy is more efficiently transmitted. An unamplified guitar (one with no soundboard at all) would have a low volume, but the strings would vibrate much longer, like a tuning fork.
All these complex air coupling interactions, along with the resonant properties of the panels themselves, are a key reason that different guitars will have different tonal qualities. The sound is a complex mixture of harmonics that give the guitar its distinctive sound.