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When I was in Brazil, I learned to use the word violão to refer to an acoustic guitar, and guitarra to refer to an electric guitar.

However, according to Priberam, guitarra has the following definition:

  1. [Música] Instrumento de cordas dedilhadas, com um braço dividido em semitons por filetes de metal. (Na guitarra eléctrica, os sons são captados por micros e ampliados.)

This seems to suggest that guitarra has both an acoustic and an electric version.

And violão:

Viola grande, com seis cordas, das quais três são bordões.

Which leads to viola:

Instrumento musical análogo à guitarra, mas de sons mais baixos e com a caixa em forma de 8; banza.

This directly contrasts a viola (a small violão) to a guitarra (presumably an acoustic one).

Google doesn't clear up any confusion as a search for violão shows images of acoustic guitars, and guitarra shows both acoustic and electric guitars.

Clearly all of these words relate to various stringed instruments, where the strings may be plucked and/or played with a bow. But what, specifically, do these words refer to regionally?

My best guess is that the vocabulary I learned is specific to Brazil, and that in Portugal the vocabulary may be somewhat different.

What do these words (violão and guitarra) refer to in Brazil and in Portugal (or any other regions of note)? What is the best way to refer to the instruments represented by the English words "guitar" and "electric guitar" (and for that matter, "violin") in these regions?

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I have a Brazilian friend who plays the “violão.” Tried to entice him to come here and leave and answer, but to no use. So I’ll do my best with what he told me and my own research.

In theory guitarra is a very broad term that includes the violão. See Aulete or Michaelis, which are more detailed than Priberam. But in common usage it’s not so. Your best guess is correct. Basically in Brasil guitarra is an electric guitar, and violão an acoustic guitar; musically-educated people, as my friend, will tell between violão acústico (‘acoustic guitar’), with metallic strings, and violão cássico (‘classic guitar’), with nylon strings. In Portugal; everything is guitarraguitarra elétrica, guitarra acústica, guitarra clássica.

The reason guitarra in Google Images returns both electric and acoustic guitars is that it mixes results from Brazil and Portugal. Select “Brazil” in advanced search for guitarra, and about everything you get is electric guitars.

Now there’s a little twist. In Portugal, the classic and, I think, acoustic guitars are also known as viola, especially in the context of fado and other traditional Portuguese music, where it will be played alongside the the unmistakably pear-shaped guitarra portuguesa (Wikipedia), pictured below on the right-hand side. Listen to the guys if you like.

enter image description here Listen to this duo playing, left, “violão” (Brasil) or “guitarra” or “viola” (Portugal) and, right, “guitarra portuguesa”.

The detailed Wikipédia article on guitarra says that in Cabo Verde many musicians will call the classic guitar violão, and the acoustic guitar viola, but that laymen will use viola for everything.

But thechically viola (Michaelis) can be either of two very different instruments. One is like a violin, but larger and with lower and deeper sounds. See Wkipédia. It is viola in English too (Wikipedia). The other is like a small “violão”, and is popular in Brazilian and Portuguese rural music. It comes in many regional varieties, usually with their own individual names, such as viola caipira or viola beirã. See See “violas portuguesas” in Wikipédia, and images of “violas brasileiras”. You can see here Fred Maciel explaining the difference between “violão” and “viola caipira.” And listen to this Dupla Sertaneja, pictured below, playing a “moda de viola antiga”:

enter image description here Dupla Sertaneja playing a “moda de viola antiga”, with “violão” (left) and “viola” (right).

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a brazilian here.

I can't answer you about how it works in Portugal, but I can assure you that you can call an "acoustic guitar" as 'violão'. As for 'guitarra', anyone here will think about an 'electric guitar'.

You should know that there's something we call 'violão elétrico', which is similar to an "acoustic guitar" with a plug to use in the sound hubs, but without an actual acoustic sound, only electric. But it 'feels' like an acoustic guitar. And there's the 'violão eletroacústico' which is the actual 'acoustic guitar' with the plug for sound hub.

Hope this can help :)

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