This debate resembles the one concerning digital versus analog technology, or CD vs. vinyl, The Beatles vs. The Stones etc. It will never be resolved and the whole fun lies in debating. The main question we ask ourselves here is: natural sound or the artificial one? Or, better yet, what do we want to achieve with the music we make? Here, the idea is not to talk about which sound is better, or to reach a definite verdict, but simply to point out some features of one and the other – do something like the pro’s and con’s list. Also, one might say that the debate concerning whether the electric guitar is better than the acoustic one is completely useless. Besides, this is not the only instrument that has its acoustic and electric version – all string instruments also have their electric counterparts, not to mention drums, pianos etc.
Acoustic instruments are mostly associated with classical music, something intellectual, elite, and, perhaps to some, even boring. Since the electric instruments were created thanks to electricity, musicians living before it was invented didn’t have the luxury of plugging their instruments in. So the question of acoustic vs. electric is mostly about conventions. We are used to listening to classical music being played on acoustic instruments, and this is why they sound softer and more “sophisticated”. But this is something that can be used nicely when it comes to popular music. Just think about how many bands use strings when performing live. On the other hand electric instruments are cool. They are rock’n’roll, and everything sounds way more hot when played on them – think of Vanessa Mae for instance. Not to mention all those rock guitarists, waving their electric guitars near the crotch area, showing their masculinity and virility. You never saw Tommy Emmanuel do that. It’s all about the image.
To put it simply, electric instruments give you more possibilities. There is an endless number of effects that you can use to make your instrument sound different, or even not sound like itself anymore. The synthesizers made a real revolution in this area, enabling you to hit a button and have it sound like any other instrument. With the acoustic ones, you have far less possibilities, which is why (among other reasons), the already-mentioned classical composers concentrated on making new melodies, inventing new harmonies, creating and then destroying tonality etc. And they did it all with a limited number of instruments. Also, the common understanding is that acoustic instruments are natural, made out of wood and metal (or cat’s guts and horse hair, if you live in the 18th century), that is, out of materials that can be found in nature, and later be transformed into an instrument. But, their volume is limited by the very nature of the material they are made of. The electric instrument sounds artificial, and that is, some say, the sound of our times dominated by machines and technology. It can also be as loud as your amplifier would allow, but it can’t be heard without electricity. You can play an acoustic violin in the dark for as long as you like. But there are many interesting intersections of the two that shed a new light to the matter, like the industrially produced instruments already mentioned. For instance, what happens when you put a microphone on an acoustic instrument, like Tommy Emmanuel does? The mic enables him to transform the sound of the classical guitar in ways that are not possible without electronics. Same goes for the cellos of Apocalyptica. How do we call the modified sound of the acoustic instrument? And in which category do we put them? Also, how do we talk about jazz musicians, playing electric guitars with technique that resembles the one used by the acoustic guitarists, and not using a lot of effects? It all comes down to the question of taste, occasion, and musical message.