Is Guitar A String or Percussion Instrument? (Find Out!)

When you first start out it can be confusing classifying instruments. With guitar you might be wondering is it a string, percussion, or a woodwind instrument?

Guitar is classified clearly as a string instrument even though it shares some similarities with other instrument types. Guitar is not traditionally known as a percussion instrument since it is intended to make sound via vibrating strings.

But why exactly is it classified as a string instrument?

In this article we’ll delve into the reasons behind the guitar’s classification, and also look at the fact that a guitar can be used percussively. We’ll also cover chordophones and electrophones, and look at how guitars fit into those categories also.

guitar orchestral

Why Guitar Is Classified As A String Instrument

The Guitar commonly has six strings, although there are other variations such as 12 string or even 18 strings.

Since they have strings under tension that vibrate when plucked, strummed, or tapped, this places them in the category of stringed instruments.

Stringed instruments all share the common property of having strings that vibrate regardless of the material the strings are made from.

In the case of guitars the strings are normally made from metal composites (steel string acoustics and electric guitars) or nylon (classical guitars).

Why Guitar Is Not Classified As A Percussion Instrument

So exactly what does the term percussion mean?

If we look back in history the word percussion meant: a striking, or a blow. This word eventually became used in music to describe a type of instrument that was hit, tapped, brushed, or struck.

When looking at percussion you might first think of a drum, and yes this was likely one of the first percussion instruments invented.

A guitar’s primary method of playing, and by this we mean the original intended way to play it, is by plucking or brushing the strings to cause them to vibrate. This clearly defines the guitar as a string instrument and not a percussion instrument.

Can Guitar Be Used As a Percussion Instrument?

When you look at a guitar it obviously has some similarities to a drum, in that it has a hollow body.

Although not classified as a percussion instrument, it can certainly be used in a percussive manner by tapping, slapping, or knocking on the body of the guitar.

Like a drum, the body will resonate when struck and the sound will be amplified out through the sound hole.

So to answer that question – yes you can definitely use a guitar for percussion, at least in the case of a hollow-bodied acoustic guitar.

There are many famous players who use percussion in their playing style such as Tommy Emmanuel, Mike Dawes, or the late Michael Hedges.

Check out these videos to see how guitar can be used to great effect as a percussive instrument.

Also take note that it’s not just the body of the guitar that can be used for percussion, but also the strings can be tapped rhythmically to produce sounds that complement the vibrating string sound.

A Quick Look At Musical Instrument Classification

Musical instruments are classified in two different ways, and at first this may seem confusing.

To simplify it:

The first (more modern) way of looking at musical instrument families simplifies the groups but does not define individual instruments very well.

  • This method of classification splits instruments into the four groups of strings, woodwinds, brass, and percussion. This is how instruments are organized in a modern orchestra.

The second (older method) is the Hornbostel-Sachs classification system, which was invented by Erich von Hornbostel and Curt Sachs in 1914.

  • This method groups instruments according to how their sounds are produced and is more accurate and specific in categorizing individual instruments.
    This method is generally preferred by music scholars. 
  • The classifications in this method are chordophone, idiophone, membranophone, aerophone, and electrophone.

Discover more: Is guitar a band or orchestra instrument?

Is The Guitar A Chordophone?

Another category that guitars fall under is Chordophones, which is another term for vibrating string instruments which is part of the Hornbostel-Sachs classification system.

This system further breaks down chordophones into simple and composite chordophones, and the guitar is classified as a composite chordophone since it has a body that resonates as part of the sound generation.

Chordophones are futher broken down into four different instrument types:

  • lutes, zithers, lyres, and harps, with the guitar belonging to the lute family.

These four different instrument types are based on the construction of the instrument, and so instruments that share fundamentally similar construction reside in the same family.

Interestingly although guitar shares the category of being a chordophone with a violin or cello, they fall under different classifications from an orchestral perspective.

Violins are bowed string instruments since the method of playing requires a strung bow, and guitars are in a separate string family category since they are typically played with a plectrum or fingers.

Is Electric Guitar Classified As An Electrophone?

What is an electrophone?

The term ‘electrophone’ is part of the Hornbostel-Sachs classification system that we briefly discussed earlier.

An electrophone is defined as being an instrument for producing sound by means of electric currents and was not present in the original 1914 publication, being added in 1940 by Sachs.

Some instruments included in this category are the theremin, electric organ, and electronic synthesiser, and many sources include the electric guitar in this list.

The electric guitar fits into Sachs’ addition of subcategory 52, which is electrically amplified acoustic instruments.

Obviously when this classification method was invented the electric guitar did not exist, and as we have discussed earlier the guitar clearly fits into the chordophone category.

This is an area of debate as some ethnomusicologists argue that in keeping with the original spirit of the original classification scheme, instruments should remain in categories that describe their primary way of producing sound.

In this case the electric guitar would remain in the chordophone category since it produces sound from vibrating strings.

Is Bass Guitar Classified As A String Instrument?

Bass guitars can be constructed with a hollow body or more commonly for modern popular music have solid bodies and need amplification.

Since all bass guitars produce sound through vibrating strings, this places them in the string family alongside guitars.

Similar to guitars a bass guitar (commonly referred to as simply ‘bass’) can be played in a percussive style to add variety to the sound.

  • Another way that bass has been categorized is as a rhythm instrument.

Why Guitar Is Not Classified As A Woodwind Instrument

Woodwind instruments were traditionally made from wood, but the ‘wind’ part of the name is a giveaway when looking at the nature of all woodwind instruments.

All woodwind instruments are played by blowing air past a small hole or through an arrangement of reeds to produce sound. In modern times these instruments are not always made from wood, often being constructed from metal.

While guitars are mostly made form wood, you certainly don’t blow into them to produce sound, and so by definition cannot be classified as woodwind instruments.

Conclusion

To wrap it all up we have determined that the acoustic guitar, electric guitar, and the bass are all members of the string family, are also classified as chordophones and (currently) electrophones.

Given that electrophones are classified as instruments that primarily produce sound using electricity, it may be more accurate to place electric guitars only be in the chordophone category.

Although a guitar can be played percussively, it is not classified as a percussion instrument since the intended way of playing is by causing the strings to vibrate.

Percussion instruments primarily produce sound via tapping, hitting, slapping, scraping or brushing the surface, and so guitars do not fit in this category.

Woodwind instruments primarily produce sound via air being blown over a small round hole or through a single or double reed, and so guitars do not fit into this category.