Guitar Terminology - The Basics

Guitar terminology, now there's a topic that we all seem to know something about. But, I have found that sometimes people get confused about what a certain part is, or what it does. I've been told that there are 150 different parts that work in harmony to make up the typical guitar. There's no way we could discuss all the little intricacies but, I have found some descriptions of parts that are most common. The next time you are talking "shop" with your buddies or teacher, you will have a grasp on things. 

To make this a little easier let's divide the guitar into 3 sections: the body, the the neck and the headstock.

The Body
On an acoustic guitar, a body is made of a top, a back, and sides, while on an electric guitar the body is usually one or more pieces of solid wood. Whether hollow or solid, the body is the guitar's central point, tying together all the parts. A hybrid design called a semi-solid guitar has a block of wood running through a hollow body, so the guitar gets some of the best tone characteristics of both solid and hollow construction.

Some guitars may have a Cutaway Body.
A cutaway is a part of the body that's been removed so it's easier to reach the fingerboard's top notes. Most electric guitars have at least one cutaway. Some have two (one on each side of the neck). Acoustic guitars don't feature cutaways as often as electric guitars, since cutting away from the body affects its tone, plus the body is so deep, from front to back, that it often doesn't make it much easier to play high on the neck.

On the body you will see some of the following parts.

Located on the body of the guitar, the bridge separates the playing part of the strings from the anchor part. Some bridges anchor the strings, while others let them pass over before they hook up to a part called a tailpiece. On electric guitars, small, movable bridge parts called saddles support each string, setting its height, spacing from adjacent strings, and how well it stays in tune with the others. On acoustic guitars, there's usually one saddle, made of bone or a hard synthetic material, that's shaped to set the strings' heights, spacing, and tuning accuracy. In addition, an acoustic guitar's strings fasten to the bridge and transmit their vibrations directly to the instrument's top, which changes the vibrations to sound.

Output jack
This looks like a headphone jack that you find on the front of a stereo. It has a diameter of 1/4", and lets you plug in the "phone jack" on the end of a cable that takes the signal to an amplifier.

Also called a "scratch plate" by some, this is a piece of plastic or metal that's usually attached to the body of a guitar on the treble side of the strings. It protects the top of a guitar from being scratched by your nails or by a guitar pick. Sometimes, the pickups are mounted to the pickguard. A pickguard can be stylish, too, coming in all sorts of colors, shapes, and combinations of different plastics molded together to look like retro Formica tables or tortoiseshell.

These are bars you see under the strings of an electric guitar that sense the vibrations of the strings and send them to an amplifier as electrical signals. Single-coil pickups employ one coil of wire wound around a magnet to translate the string's vibrations into electrical signals. Using two coils in a pickup makes it a humbucker: It's called a humbucker because the way it's made reduces hum and noise while creating different tones. Some guitars can have just single-coil pickups, just humbuckers, or both.

Piezo Transducer
On many acoustic guitars and some electrics, a type of pressure-sensitive pickup called a piezoelectric transducer is built into the bridge. This type of pickup doesn't rely on magnetism, and instead senses extremely small changes in pressure as a string vibrates. An electronic circuit connected to the piezo transducer amplifies the tiny signal and sends it to an amplifier or mixer. Oh, yeah: It's called a transducer mostly because manufacturers didn't want to confuse people by calling it a pickup. What's a transducer? It's something that takes one kind of energy (like vibrations or pressure) and converts it to another form of energy (like electricity).

On electric guitars, small, movable bridge parts called saddles support each string, setting its height, spacing from adjacent strings, and how well it stays in tune with the others. On acoustic guitars, there's usually one saddle for all of the strings, made of bone or a hard synthetic material, that's shaped to set the strings' heights, spacing, and tuning accuracy.

When an electric guitar has more than one pickup, there's usually a switch, called a selector, that lets you select each of them separately, or two or more in combination.

See that big round or oval hole on an acoustic guitar? It's the soundhole, and a lot of sound passes out of it. If you're familiar with a subwoofer, you'll find something similar. Soundholes can be round, oval, or other shapes (some are like the f-shaped holes on violins, cellos, and basses). The size of the soundhole, in combination with the size of an acoustic guitar's interior, can really make a difference in the tone. Some electric guitars have soundholes, and although they can affect the tone, they're usually cosmetic, just looking good.

Strap buttons
Small but mighty, these pieces of metal or hard wood are placed on guitars at two points so that you can attach a strap. Depending on where they are placed, they can provide perfect balance so that when you take both hands off the guitar, the neck doesn't fall toward the floor. If you think you might go a little crazy on stage, consider getting a strap locking system that'll keep your guitar from flying off unexpectedly.

Heavier strings are harder on acoustic guitars, they can be made of steel wound with bronze, or they can be made of nylon. On electric guitars, the strings are made of steel, often with nickel windings to bend but produce a stronger sound. They also stay in tune better than thinner ones. Both steel and nickel are attracted to magnets. The magnetic pickups underneath these strings sense their vibrations and send tiny electrical signals to an amplifier.

On electric guitars and some hollowbody "jazz-style" acoustic guitars, this is the end of the line for strings on the body. A tailpiece can be a beefy piece of metal bolted to the body or a thin, lightweight piece that looks like a trapeze. In many modern guitars, the tailpiece is part of the bridge and may include a tremolo for bending notes.

Tone controls
Like the controls on a stereo, tone controls on a guitar let you bring up the brightness or take off the edge. If there's only one knob labeled "tone," it just lets you take off the brightness. If there are controls labeled "treble" and "bass," you can independently add or reduce sharpness or bottom end. Sometimes there's a midrange control, which (you guessed it) raises or lowers the amount of the tone between the bass and treble. Midrange, by the way, is where you'll find the "meat" of the sound, and adjusting it can make a guitar sound boomy, nasal, or thin, depending on its setting.

An acoustic guitar's top is important to its tone and durability. A solid top, meaning one made of a thin piece of spruce, cedar, or other soft wood, produces what many artists believe is the best tone, but it's very sensitive to changes in the weather and it's not very ding-resistant. A laminated top is made of several pieces of wood sandwiched together (like plywood). This stiffer type of top is a lot more durable and less expensive than a solid wood top, and the tone tends to be less rich than a solid top's tone.

Tremolo (Whammy bar)
This type of bridge used on some electric guitars lets you make dive-bombing and warbling sounds with your picking hand. When you press on its arm, a tremolo detunes the strings. The tremolo is often called a vibrato bar, whammy bar, or just a bar.

Volume control
Just like on a stereo system, this adjusts the guitar's volume. However, a guitar can have more than one volume control. Usually, there's a single volume control, even if there are two or more pickups. Some guitars have a separate volume control for each pickup, and may also then have a master volume control that sets the overall loudness of the guitar.

The neck of the guitar:
The neck is the guitar's backbone, a stiff piece of wood or graphite-composite (like the stuff used for many tennis rackets, golf clubs, and fishing poles). It withstands the pull of the strings and gives your hand a place to grab onto and play. It may be glued into a slot in the body, bolted on, or built into the body, passing through its entire length.

The trim that runs along the top and sometimes back of a guitar is called Binding. It can be made of plastic or wood, and can be multiple layers, giving a dressy look, especially to acoustic guitars. It also protects the edge of the guitar from damage from minor hits.

Made of hard woods such as maple, ebony, or rosewood, it's the part of the guitar under the strings that the frets are set into. The fingerboard is often a separate piece glued onto the front of the neck. Dots or other shapes made of pearl, metal, or wood are inlaid into or along the edge of the fingerboard as markers to guide your fingers.

Thin metal strips called frets are inlaid across the fingerboard. When you push down on a string, the fret acts as a contact point, setting the length of the string's vibrating portion and, therefore, the exact note that you hear. There's no "official" number of frets, but most electric guitars have 20 to 24, and acoustic guitars have 18 to 24.

Truss rod
Inside of most necks is something called a truss rod, a steel bar with a screw or nut at one end. By turning the screw or nut, the rod turns, and then pushes the neck forwards or backwards. Strings pull pretty hard against the neck, and it bends up (sort of like an archery bow when the string is tight). As a result, the strings can be pretty high off the fingerboard, making it more difficult to play them. Adjusting the rod can bring the neck back to straightness, so the strings are a bit closer to the fingerboard. The big question is this: Should you do this kind of adjustment yourself? Probably not. It doesn't need to be done very often, and if it does, it's best to leave this to a professional who works on guitars for a living. Why go to a pro? If you tighten the truss rod too much, you can snap it, ruining the guitar's neck.

The Headstock:
The headstock, head or peghead, this part is actually the end of the neck, and on the vast majority of guitars it's where the tuning machines are attached. A few guitars have no headstock, and therefore the strings must be anchored behind the nut and tensioned by tuning machines built into the bridge.

The nut (who knows why it's called that?) is a piece of bone, plastic, or metal that is at the end of the fingerboard, right where the neck and head meet. It has tiny slots or rollers that guide the strings so that they're spaced a uniform distance apart. Only the section of string between the nut and the bridge is important to making a sound.

Tuning machine (machine head)
Each string is attached to a corresponding tuning machine, which is located on the head. The tuning machines, or tuners, can be arranged along one side of the head (all six in a row), or along both sides of the head (three plus three, or four plus two). When you turn a tuner's knob, or key, the string wraps around the machine's shaft, and the string is pulled tight. The tighter a string is, the higher it sounds when you pick it. They're sometimes called machine heads, tuning keys or just "keys."

There are many other parts but these seem to be the main ones that we get questions about the most. If you have a question about a particular part of your guitar, leave a comment about it or email me and we'll get an answer to you. Hit the banner below to go to the Rock House mother site for more tips and tricks.

1 comment:

xaja said...

Can you post reviews too about crafter guitar
Love to see things from fellow artists.
I'm caught between Gibson and Crafter Guitar.