Guitar Parts (lesson)
When you first pick up a guitar and start looking at the forums of GMC there are a bewildering variety of terms and word in use that might make little sense. In this lesson we are going to fix that by taking a brief tour of the various parts that make up a guitar, some different guitar types and a little info about adjustments you can make to your guitar.
Lets jump straight in and look at a typical electric guitar and figure out what all the parts are for and what they are called. This guitar is a Fender Stratocaster and has similar features to a lot of electric guitars.
Tuning Pegs - (also known as Machine Heads) these are used to tune your guitar. On a properly setup guitar you would turn these clockwise to raise the pitch and anti-clockwise to lower it.
String Tree - the string tree is there to prevent the strings from pulling up out of the nut. Some guitars angle the head backwards so no string trees are needed, but this is harder to build so cheaper guitars particularly will have string trees.
Head - The head (or headstock) is the name for the piece of wood from the nut upwards, and exists really to locate the tuning mechanisms.
Nut - This is a piece if plastic or metal that has grooves for all the strings to go through. It acts as an anchor for the strings vibrations, but allows the string to move through it to allow tuning.
Frets - Frets are metal inserts into the neck, they are slightly raised. When you play the guitar, in order to change the pitch of the notes on a particular string, you would press down in between 2 frets. The string is then pressed onto the higher fret which acts as a stop for the string, shortening it and making it play a higher note.
Neck - The neck is the name for the piece of wood that holds the frets, from the body of the guitar at one end, up to the nut at the other.
Fretboard - (or fingerboard) is the name for the combination of the top part of the neck and the frets. It is the place where all the fingering happens, and is usually laid out as 22 or 24 frets. 24 Frets is 2 complete octaves (octaves will be explained in a later lesson). The layout of the frets is according to mathematical rules calculated to make the pitches between frets even - for that reason, the distance between each fret is slightly less, and by the time you get to the higher frets, they are pretty close together. A good knowledge of the fretboard, and what note each fret position on each string represents is something to strive for as a guitarist.
Strap Button - The strap button is a metal protrusion that you hook your strap onto so you can play whilst standing. There are two - the one shown, and another on the bottom of the guitar.
Scratch Plate (Pick Guard) - the scratch plate is usually a piece of plastic. It exists to cover up some of the electronics of the guitar and to protect the finish of the guitar from over enthusiastic pick movements.
Pickups - one of the most important parts of an electric guitar, the pickups exist to convert the vibrations of the string into an electrical signal. There are various types of pickup of which more later. Having more than one pickup gives the guitar greater versatility because you get s different sound depending where exactly on the string you place the pick up. Nearer to the neck gives a fuller more bass heavy sound, nearer to the bridge gives you a more trebly and cutting sound.
Tremolo - the tremolo mechanism consists of a movable arm and a pivot point for the bridge. Moving the tremolo arm will raise or lower the pitch of all the strings at once, and is used to give a vibrato type of effect. In fact, the word tremolo here is a complete misnomer as tremolo refers to a change in volume, but the name has stuck. The type shown here is a simple tremolo, and these often have problems with tuning. A more complex locking tremolo (often called a Floyd Rose or FR for short, after the company that made them popular) is fitted to some guitars, especially guitars intended for shredding where extreme tremolo action is far more common.
Selector Switch - the selector switch changes which of the 3 pickups is active. Most guitars with 3 pickups have a 5 way selector switch allowing you to make two pickups active at a time to blend the tone.
Volume Knob - Controls the overall output level of the guitar. Some guitars have just one volume control, others might have one volume control for each pickup.
Tone Knobs - Controls the treble and bass output of the guitar. The effectiveness of tone controls varies across guitars, some make little difference. Some guitars will have one overall tone control, others will have multiple controls.
Output Jack - This is where the electrical output of the guitar appears. Take a jack lead, plug one end in here, and the other end into your amplifier.
Bridge - The bridge overall is the mechanism that holds the strings in place at the bottom of the guitar. A little more complex than the nut, it allows a couple of different types of adjustment.
Saddles - The saddles are what stops the string vibrating at the bridge end. Similar in function to a nut, but on electric guitars, there is one saddle per string as opposed to the nut which is a single piece of plastic for all strings. The saddles can be directly adjusted to change the height of the string over the fretboard.
Intonation Adjustment - another job of the saddles is to allow adjustment of the intonation. What this really comes down to, is that for mathematical reasons, each string on the guitar needs to be a different length. The intonation adjustment is a screw that lets you move the saddle nearer to or further away from the nut, thus setting the overall length of the part of the string that vibrates.
Truss Rod (not shown) - Most electric guitars have a long metal rod built into the neck that serves two purposes. It stiffens the neck so that whilst under tension it doesn't bow, and it also allows adjustment to make the neck flat in the first place. (Actually, the correct adjustment leaves a tiny amount of curve in the neck for string clearance up and down the neck). Of all of the adjustments described in this lesson, the truss rod is the only one that has the potential to damage your guitar if incorrectly used so be careful - this adjustment is better left to a professional.
The pickups shown in the guitar above are of a particular type called single coil. This was the original type of pickup, and consists of a magnet with a coil of wire wrapped around it. As the string vibrates above the poles of the magnet, it induces a small current in the coil. This current is usually fed into an amplifier where it is made much larger, and drives a speaker to devastating sonic effect. The pickup is one on the more important sonic pieces of a guitar, and you can change the sound of a guitar radically by changing the pickups for a different type. Here is a closeup of a single coil pickup.
One problem with single coil pickups is that they are susceptible to picking up electrical signals such as mains hum.This can be very annoying, so to combat this, in the 1950s Gibson invented the Humbucker pickup - so called because it bucks the hum! In construction it is pretty simple - two single coil pickups are wired together in opposite directions, so that any signal induced in opposite directions (such as the hum) will be canceled out. The real signal is not canceled because it is in the same direction in both pickups. Not only does this dramatically reduce the hum, but owing to the fact that this is two pickups instead of one, the pickup as a whole generates a larger signal. An unintended yet really important side effect of the way Humbuckers work, is that the tone they output is very different to a single coil. Humbuckers sound warm, fat and more bass heavy, whereas single coils sound more treble heavy, and cutting. Humbuckers sometimes have a plate over them that hides the fact that there is a double pickup, but you can usually spot them because they are a lot wider than single coil pickups.
An important part of the sound of any guitar is the type of its pickups - some guitars use a single type, but many mix and match to give more versatility.
Some Popular Guitar Types
Now we have the basics, lets take a quick look at a few popular guitar types and see what they are good for. The first thing to emphasize is that any guitar can really play any type of music, the determining factor is how good the guitarist is. Having said that, various guitars are associated with particular music types, but there will always be exceptions.
Fender Stratocaster: With it bright sounding single coil pickups, the Fender Stratocaster has been used a lot for lead work by people such as Eric Clapton, or a more fusion oriented sound by the likes of Eric Johnson. Also played by David Gilmour of Pink Floyd, it is versatile, but excels at lead or cutting chord work
Fender Telecaster: Similar in concept to the Stratocaster, but with simpler design, the Telecaster with its single coil sound is loved by Country and Western players, yet played just as much by mainstream Rock acts. It has a distinctive twang to its sound, courtesy of its single coil pickups. Played at various times by stars such as George Harrison, Eric Clapton, and even Elvis Presley.
Gibson Les Paul: Marketed as the signature guitar of Les Paul (the guy who invented multitrack recording amongst other achievements), this Les Paul with its deep warm humbucker sound and notable sustain due to its heavy construction saw a resurgence in the 60s when it was picked up by rock acts in this era. Notable Les Paul players are Jimmy Page and Zack Wylde. Les Pauls are also extremely good guitars for playing blues.
Ibanez Jem: The Ibanez Jem is a signature model of Steve Vai, but is representative of Ibanez guitars in general. Featuring a Locking Tremolo, Single Coil and Humbucker pickups in various combinations, these guitars are designed for versatility and playability. Whilst they don't have as distinctive a tone as the models mentioned above, they are versatile instruments, and often held up as archetypal shred guitars, although the truth is that you can shred on any guitar if you have the skill for it.
Of course there are many other guitar types, this is just a small sample, but these are the most often copied models. There is a great market in cheaper versions of these instruments, for instance Squier making Stratocaster copies, and Epiphone making copies of various Gibson guitars. In addition, there are other designs such as the Gibson SG, or Flying V that are popular for specific genres of music, often as much for image reasons as particular sounds.
That's it for this lesson - hopefully now you know which end of a guitar is which and what all the various parts are for!