For acoustic guitars, we have dreadnaught, auditorium, classical, jumbo, mini, grand concert, arch top, parlor (then there are new shapes coming from Taylor) Even if I count the whole orchestra family string instruments, there are just violin, viola, cello, and bass. Guitar still wins in variety (I haven't even included bass guitar).

If I factor in electric guitar, the number of choices is mind boggling for most people; scale length, body shape, pickups, # of strings, bridge etc...

So why does only guitar have this unique property or feature? It's not like piano or violin not as popular as guitar. In fact, piano is top 1 when it comes to popularity. Violin trails behind guitar a little bit. One may argue that piano lacks portability, violin lacks accompaniment ability. Shouldn't the market innovate and address all those problems? In the early days, guitar had trouble projecting its volume in a band. So people invented amplifiers to address the problem.

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    There is a huge variety of electronic keyboard instruments (elecric pianos, synthesizers, keytars, MIDI keyboards...) and also real ones: pianos, upright pianos, harpsichords, organs, clavichords, accordions... and they differ much more in terms of how sound is produced in comparison to guitars. Question why there are so many guitar types is interesting, but I'm not sure if the comparison to other instruments is well based. Apr 15, 2021 at 21:42
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    (with a wink): 1) Piano and violin are perfect instruments; Guitar is not; 2) Guitarists can't make up their minds.
    – Aaron
    Apr 15, 2021 at 21:54
  • I suppose that if you asked an early classical guitarist about a Gibson Flying V, they might not recognize it as a guitar at all: "No, no no, a real guitar must have a hollow body." It's also possible that the inventors of early pianos might insist that a Steinway D is a horrible metal-filled monstrosity that lacks the singing tone of a "real piano." My point is that sometimes a word is just a word. Apr 15, 2021 at 22:00
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    @Aaron Violins are almost perfect, they just need geared tuners ;) music.stackexchange.com/questions/73323 Apr 15, 2021 at 22:04

6 Answers 6


From what you're asking, I believe you are making an assumption only based on your field of knowledge (guitars).

As a percussionist, I could say the same for guitars, as that's not my field, and to my eyes and ears almost all guitars are the same: sometimes they have slightly different shapes or colors of their bodies, that's it.
But I wouldn't, as I know that I know almost nothing about guitars, and that in reality almost any instrument has some amount of variety.

Another aspect that shows flaws about your assumption is that the guitar is technically a very simple instrument (which makes it easier to create variations), and is almost a "class" more than an instrument per se.

Also, consider that the above "simplicity" and the fact that guitars have been widely used in popular music both contributed to the development of variations.

If we consider instruments based on their "class" (not only their family), we can find similar variations, though:

  • pipe organs: almost any traditional pipe organ is completely unique;
  • drumsets: not only they are modular instruments, but each manufacturer has dozens of sets that are drastically different from each other, varying in size of shells, number, type and tone of elements;
  • talking about percussions, there are dozens of types of cymbals of various size, sound and shape (and sometimes they are not even regular circles);

Going higher in the "class" concept, we can consider stringed keyboards: besides piano and fortepiano we have all the family of plucked keyboards (harpsichords like clavichord, spinet, virginal, etc). That grouping is not that different from your grouping of guitars, and even each one of those instrument has some amount of variety, including the piano: grand pianos have different sizes and ranges (the Bösendorfer Imperial extends to a full lower octave, counting 97 keys), and there are upright pianos that have smaller bodies and range, like those often seen in living rooms of american movies and tv shows, which are smaller and sometimes have a narrower range. And that's even ignoring some "custom" pianos that had limited production (such as the infamous left-handed piano, or both Klavin's creation, the huge Modell 370 and the Una Corda popularized by Nils Frahm).

Wind instruments, which are a bit more physics-specific (how the sound is generated) and somehow technically advanced, have their varieties also. While the variations are mostly based on their extension and reference key, there are actually different versions for most of them.
Take for instance the clarinet family, which lists all "standard" clarinets (the common Bb, Eb and bass clarinets), along with all their many tunings and other more rare cases (bassets).
The harp family contains the common concert harp (which has at least 47 strings) and the folk/celtic harp along many others, varying in size, number of strings, tuning systems.
Other cases: there are 9 types of saxophone; there are 8 basic types of trumpets (based on the tuning), but also variations on their construction; the oboe family actually includes 6 instruments; there are thousands of completely different synthesizers; etc.

Then there's the point of clarifying "how" an instrument is different from another. While some instruments are more generic (a "broader class") like guitar, others have a range which is narrower, and for various reasons:

  • the complexity of its construction (which is also part of its sound);
  • the uniqueness and popolarity of its sound (which means that there's more interest in having a specific sound, like the piano);
  • the age in which the instrument has evolved and its repertoire (consider that classical music has also created a standardization of instruments, and since that repertoire is still played and popular, there's little interest in evolving instruments that are typical of that music);
  • the price: guitars are generally way more cheaper and simpler to build than pianos, so experimenting with new ideas and actually being able to "release" a new "model" of guitar that has some market is much easier than trying to do the same with a piano;

But don't get confused by that "narrow" range: it's just a matter of perspective. In fact, each instrument, to those who know and play it, is sometimes drastically different from another one of the same type, even the simpler ones.
Even triangles, which are among the most simple instruments ever: a percussionist can spend hours deciding what triangle to buy. They are all metal, they are all triangular. But they are all different to us.

So, the variety is actually just perception, and mostly depends on how that variety is considered.


I think the impression you have comes from the fact you are looking at orchestra instruments. Orchestras need to be somewhat standardized, which allows them to perform a large variety of compositions. If every orchestra used completely different instruments, each of them would need to re-arrange compositions, while composers would never had an idea how their compositions would be performed.

Even if orchestra instruments are used outside of orchestra, the standards set by the orchestra have influence on what is popular.

Guitar is not an orchestra instrument. (Yes, concerts for classical guitar and orchestra do exist, but even classical guitarists much more often perform solo or in small ensembles). If we speak of electric guitars: they are primarily used in bands which perform their own composition or arrangements. This allows for much more individual expression, and sets much less formal boundaries. But if you have a cover band, you would probably select instruments that are not too far from what is used by the original, covered band. Similarly, a session guitarist typically wouldn't bring a low tuned 8-string guitar to accompany a jazz singer.


How do you even count variety? Most guitars of some usefulness come in model lines. Most violins of some usefulness are individually built. Many Stradivarius instruments are so unique that they have a name of their own. If you try getting violin/viola strings you'll find that good strings come in a number of lengths because the instruments come in a variety of sizes as well. A violin bridge will always need fitting to the curvature of the top because there is no standard curvature. Similar for sound posts.

Of course the violin family comes from the viol family with lots of variation in there as well (similar to how guitars are descended from lutes of which there are much more diverse sound-relevant(!) forms than of guitars. Check out a theorbo!).

There is no standard range/disposition for accordions, particularly not for their bass side. My own instrument has a main keyboard range from A2 to Bb7 in LMMM arrangement (3 slightly offset reeds for a complex tremolo effect at nominal pitch and one reed an octave lower). Russian bayans are E2 to G7 in LMMH arrangement. Basically every country with a chromatic button accordion tradition has their own specific instrument range and sound.

Piano accordions tend to run a meagre somewhat standardised range of F3–A6. The "standard bass" has anywhere from 4 to 7 reeds, all of them starting at some non-standardised pitch depending on manufacturer and instrument size.

There are typically somewhere from 2 to 7 bass registers, sometimes more (I happen to have 168 different ones but then this is a special-built instrument).

And there is no such thing as a "standard" church organ, either.


It doesn't.

We should set aside electric versus acoustic right from the start. For one, with electric instruments the question is going to be what is the actual instrument? Electronic effects all they way up to the "instrument" becoming an electronic input device cloud the picture. And while there are electric guitars, there are electronic violins too. Both can be inputs for synthesizers.

Bowed instruments like the violin and cello have much more articulation/expressive/tone possibilities. You might listen to some modern/avant garde music for solo instruments to get an idea of all the sounds that can be made.

If you want to identify a most tonal variety instrument, I would say probably the voice.

In part you are talking about variety of guitar construction rather than actual tone. There certainly are lots of shapes, but a lot of that is purely aesthetic. The actual differences in tone are pretty subtle and something for connoisseurs.

To be fair, if steel string and gut/nylon string guitars are to be treated as one instrument, then violins should be grouped with viols and other related instruments like baryton as one instrument type. The violins are far more common, but the other instruments exist.

Most people will probably not hear the subtle differences between instrument variations, but the performers and connoisseurs will. If the violins and string family of instruments all sounds the same to you, you could just reverse the position and say all guitars sound basically the same.


In part, it's an accident of history: the platonic ideal of the violin was created in the 16th and 17th century, and while there may be newer ideas, the players want instruments that look like what what was always made.

The guitar, however, was in a recognizable place by the way early 1800s, but while it worked for some purposes, it was not loud enough for ensemble playing. Some of the changes it went through include:

  • Steel strings for more volume
  • X-braces to support the tension from steel strings
  • Two separate ways to "cut away" parts of the body for higher fretboard access
  • Increased body sizes for more volume
  • Narrower neck for easier chording
  • Banjo resonator with guitar strings for more volume
  • Metal resonator cones for more volume
  • Arched tops and back for more volume
  • Magnetic pickups to allow an external speaker, for more volume
  • Solid bodies to control feedback from the increased volume
  • And so on

Thing is, for these steps, there are music styles created and surviving that rely on that version of the instrument. Classical guitar is done with nylon strings and a smaller body. Bluegrass guitar is typically done with large-bodied flattops. There is no single context where the instrument is most notably used, so there is no ideal form that will cover the use for most players.

And then there's the commercial aspects. Because there is no one guitar, especially in the electric guitar realm, makers want guitars that are identifiable to them, and players want guitars that are identifiable to them, which encourages variety. It is common to say that guitars are tools, but because you wear them, unlike most instruments you could name, they're also wardrobe. A punk player might play a beaten-up inexpensive cast-off, covered in stickers like the player's jacket is covered in buttons. A roots player might play a relic'd copy of an old instrument, because that makes it look like they're part of the tradition and their instrument and the music it makes is old and established. And because style and fashion, this encourages non-functional variation. A blue guitar doesn't play differently just because it's blue.


It doesn't. I'm sure that collection of guitars has nowhere near the amount of shape/tone variety provided by a MIDI keyboard with emulation of the same sound cards that DOSBox supports.

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