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The guitar and the piano are two of the most popular instruments which allow multiple notes to be played simultaneously.

The acoustic quality of the two instruments are, of course, different, but that is not the focus of this question.

The design of the two instruments affects what and how music are played. Here are some differences I have in mind:

  • All semitones are treated equally on the guitar. Guitar chords (other than the open chords) can be moved up and down the fretboard without changing the finger shape. This also allows the player to shift the key easily. On the piano, the same chord takes different shapes in different roots due to the presence of black and white keys.

  • Regarding playing multiple notes at the same time, the piano is more flexible than the guitar.

    1. The pianist use ten fingers to play the notes, while the guitarist uses only four (or five if you use the thumb), and at most six notes can be played at the same time (using a bar)

    2. Since you use two hands on the piano, it's easier to play rhythm and melody at the same time.

    3. On a guitar you can only play one note on a string, so the possible voicing of chords is restricted. On the piano you can pretty much play any voicing.

  • Strings on the guitar can be bended, for example, to create a vibrating sound. I'm not aware of an equivalent technique on the piano.

  • The piano has a wider pitch range than the guitar.

Do you agree? What other important differences can you think of? What are the implications of these differences, if any?

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Unlike the other questions with requests for CW, I think this is a perfect example of a good CW question. –  yossarian Jan 25 '11 at 15:15
It looks like I don't have enough reputation to make it a CW. How can we flag it for moderator attention? –  Anonymous Jan 26 '11 at 15:59
The OP can no longer make a question CW. I did flag for moderator attention, but they don't seem to have done it. Oh well. –  yossarian Jan 26 '11 at 16:48
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5 Answers

up vote 8 down vote accepted

All of your points are good; one of the reasons guitar became so popular in western culture in the early days, is because its portable.

So its sort of a travelling minstrels piano. During the late 19th/early20th centuries in America(post emancipation act), there were lots of travelling musicians who couldn't afford a piano; and even if they could, they couldn't have carried one since most of their travelling was done on foot, they would literally play for a couple of meals and a night under a roof. These are the guys that brought us the earliest forms of blues, like the Delta blues; which were basically the old slave work songs Blues'd up (call and response etc).

If you scout around you can find old photos of these guys with the most battered looking old instruments you can imagine.

However you want to look at it (poor mans piano/portable piano), the portability and relative cheapness (guys would knock them together out of bits of random wood), is a major difference which helped start the wheel of popular music/culture rolling.

Another practical one is that the piano has pedals which can help the player control various aspects of the sound (sustain/velocity/etc)

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Some reed organs were extremely portable as well. I don't know if any non-electric units were quite as portable as a guitar, but I've seen pictures of some which could fold to look like an over-sized suitcase. –  supercat Jan 25 '13 at 1:19
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The piano has limited ability at expressiveness (maybe not the right word). With a piano you can control how hard you hit the note and have maybe three pedals. While these all affect the sonic characteristic of a piano (it's overtone series), it's a limited range of affects. Guitar, on the other hand, has you interact directly with the string, providing a much wider range of playing styles (pick, finger pick, scrape, tap, hammer on, pull off, bend, etc.). In this respect, the guitar is closer to a violin than a piano.

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Don't forget piano is shortened from pianoforte. It was being compared to the harpsichord which only has one volume. While the piano can be played at normal volume or "stronger" (louder). So it is all relative. –  Anonymous Jan 27 '11 at 21:22
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Another difference is that the two hands play quite similarly on the piano, but quite differently on the guitar. Guitar hands specialize in rhythm (right hand) and pitch (left hand). I play guitar and it always amazes me how impossible it is to play on a left-handed instrument. My left hand has no rhythm and my right fingers don't go where I want them.

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One thing not mentioned: the guitar is also used to provide percussion by "golpe", a big part of flamenco playing. Many sounds can be produced, depending on where the guitar is hit, and with what part of the hand it is done. I don't recall seeing anyone banging on the piano as part of the music, but can't say it hasn't been done.

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Some things I've noticed:

  • If 'position' playing on a guitar where you assign one finger to each fret in a single position and allow for stretches of one fret with the index and pinky, you have access to two octaves plus a perfect 4th. This is 29 semitones under your fingers or about a third of a piano keyboard in a single position. That's a lot of notes...
  • Piano can get away with more dissonant voicings than a guitar without them sounding too unpleasant - I realise this is subjective (and I have a few theories as to why this may be, mainly concerning range) but I'm yet to meet someone who disagrees.

An implication of the transposing nature of the guitar which I didn't see mentioned is that transposing in semitones is easier on a guitar (just shift the pattern/chord shape(s) up or down a fret), and transposing in a cycle of 4ths/5ths is easier on a piano (just add one accidental at a time). Therefore the guitar would seem to be a more convenient choice of harmony instrument when comping for a vocalist, as singers often need to transpose up or down a semitone depending on their range that day.

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Good points. I'm intrigued by what you said about dissonant voicings on the piano. Can you elaborate a bit? –  netvope Oct 24 '12 at 12:12
At first I agreed with you on the dissonance comment, but after fooling around on my guitar, I think it depends on your ear… what you find pleasant, and also on the quality of the guitar, strings and tuning. I played on two different guitars, and my good one had some pleasant-sounding whole-step dissonances, whereas my dad's old chinese beater sounded terrible. In both cases, the dissonances needed to be on the highest three strings to not sound muddy, but the piano (for me) is the same way. –  Josh Fields Oct 24 '12 at 12:58
I think it probably is subjective. An example that's one of my favourites is to play a minor 2nd, say E & F, which on it's own is very dissonant, but then also play a D in the octave below (or even two octaves below). The resulting chord could be thought of as a Dmin9 (or Dmin(add9) as there's no 7th) and I think it's a truly beautiful sound. That said, this voicing works pretty well on piano and guitar. I think having the ability to space a voicing over several octaves as one can with a piano gives you more leeway with dissonances. Though, as I say, this is subjective. –  Nic the climber Oct 24 '12 at 15:13
Also, listen to some Thelonious Monk and maybe even some Cecil Taylor. Some of their favourite voicings when translated to guitar (where possible) sound much harsher to my ears. Monk particularly loves to grab just the tritone that is the 3rd and b7th of a dominant 7th chord. Hard to do this on a guitar as often as Monk did and pull it off, imo. ... @Josh: I definitely agree it depends on one's ear/personal taste/listening experience. –  Nic the climber Oct 24 '12 at 15:19
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