Guitar Basics
Chapter 1
Guitar Basics
In This Chapter
▶ Identifying the different parts of the guitar
▶ Understanding how the guitar works
ll guitars — whether painted purple with airbrushed skulls and lightning bolts or finished in a natural-wood pattern with a fine French
lacquer — share certain physical characteristics that make them behave
like guitars and not violins or tubas. If you’re confused about the difference
between a headstock and a pickup or you’re wondering which end of the
guitar to hold under your chin, this chapter is for you.
We describe the differences among the various parts of the guitar and tell
you what those parts do. We also tell you how to hold the instrument and
why the guitar sounds the way it does. And, in case you took us seriously,
you don’t hold the guitar under your chin — unless, of course, you’re Jimi
The Parts and Workings of a Guitar
Guitars come in two basic flavors: acoustic and electric. From a hardware
standpoint, electric guitars have more components and doohickeys than
acoustic guitars. Guitar makers generally agree, however, that making an
acoustic guitar is harder than making an electric guitar. That’s why, pound
for pound, acoustic guitars cost just as much or more than their electric
counterparts. (When you’re ready to go guitar or guitar accessory shopping,
you can check out Chapters 16 or 17, respectively.) But both types follow the
same basic approach to such principles as neck construction and string tension. That’s why both acoustic and electric guitars have similar shapes and
features, despite a sometimes radical difference in tone production (unless, of
course, you think that Segovia and Metallica are indistinguishable). Figures 1-1
and 1-2 show the various parts of acoustic and electric guitars.
Part I: So You Wanna Play Guitar
Figure 1-1:
guitar with
its major
Photograph courtesy of Taylor Guitars
The following list tells you the functions of the various parts of a guitar:
✓ Back (acoustic only): The part of the body that holds the sides in place;
made of two or three pieces of wood.
✓ Bar (electric only): A metal rod attached to the bridge that varies the
string tension by tilting the bridge back and forth. Also called the tremolo bar, whammy bar, vibrato bar, and wang bar.
✓ Body: The box that provides an anchor for the neck and bridge and
creates the playing surface for the right hand. On an acoustic, the body
includes the amplifying sound chamber that produces the guitar’s tone.
On an electric, it consists of the housing for the bridge assembly and
electronics (pickups as well as volume and tone controls).
✓ Bridge: The metal (electric) or wooden (acoustic) plate that anchors the
strings to the body.
✓ Bridge pins (acoustic only): Plastic or wooden dowels that insert
through bridge holes and hold the strings securely to the bridge.
✓ End pin: A post where the rear end of the strap connects. On acousticelectrics (acoustic guitars with built-in pickups and electronics), the pin
often doubles as the output jack where you plug in.
Chapter 1: Guitar Basics
Figure 1-2:
electric guitar with its
major parts
Photograph courtesy of PRS Guitars
✓ Fingerboard: A flat, planklike piece of wood that sits atop the neck,
where you place your left-hand fingers to produce notes and chords.
The fingerboard is also known as the fretboard, because the frets are
embedded in it.
✓ Frets: (1) Thin metal wires or bars running perpendicular to the strings
that shorten the effective vibrating length of a string, enabling it to produce different pitches. (2) A verb describing worry, as in “He frets about
how many little parts are on his guitar.”
✓ Headstock: The section that holds the tuning machines (hardware
assembly) and provides a place for the manufacturer to display its logo.
Not to be confused with “Woodstock,” the section of New York that provided a place for the ’60s generation to display its music.
✓ Neck: The long, clublike wooden piece that connects the headstock to
the body.
✓ Nut: A grooved sliver of stiff nylon or other synthetic substance that
stops the strings from vibrating beyond the neck. The strings pass
through the grooves on their way to the tuning machines in the headstock. The nut is one of the two points at which the vibrating area of the
string ends. (The other is the bridge.)
✓ Output jack (electric only): The insertion point for the cord that connects the guitar to an amplifier or other electronic device.
Part I: So You Wanna Play Guitar
✓ Pickup selector (electric only): A switch that determines which pickups
are currently active.
✓ Pickups (electric only): Barlike magnets that create the electrical current, which the amplifier converts into musical sound.
✓ Saddle: For acoustic, a thin plastic strip that sits inside a slot in the
bridge; for electric, separate metal pieces that provide the contact point
for the strings and the bridge.
✓ Sides (acoustic only): Separate curved wooden pieces on the body that
join the top to the back.
✓ Strap pin: Metal post where the front, or top, end of the strap connects.
(Note: Not all acoustics have a strap pin. If the guitar is missing one, tie
the top of the strap around the headstock.)
✓ Strings: The six metal (for electric and steel-string acoustic guitars) or
nylon (for classical guitars) wires that, drawn taut, produce the notes
of the guitar. Although not strictly part of the actual guitar (you attach
and remove them at will on top of the guitar), strings are an integral part
of the whole system, and a guitar’s entire design and structure revolves
around making the strings ring out with a joyful noise. (See Chapter 18
for info on changing strings.)
✓ Top: The face of the guitar. On an acoustic, this piece is also the sounding board, which produces almost all the guitar’s acoustic qualities. On
an electric, the top is merely a cosmetic or decorative cap that overlays
the rest of the body material.
✓ Tuning machines: Geared mechanisms that raise and lower the tension
of the strings, drawing them to different pitches. The string wraps tightly
around a post that sticks out through the top, or face, of the headstock.
The post passes through to the back of the headstock, where gears connect it to a tuning key. Also known as tuners, tuning pegs, tuning keys,
and tuning gears.
✓ Volume and tone controls (electric only): Knobs that vary the loudness
of the guitar’s sound and its bass and treble frequencies.
How Guitars Make Sound
After you can recognize the basic parts of the guitar (see the preceding
section for help), you may also want to understand how those parts work
together to make sound (in case you happen to choose the Parts of a Guitar
category in Jeopardy! or get into a heavy argument with another guitarist
about string vibration and string length). We present this information in the
following sections just so you know why your guitar sounds the way it does,
instead of like a kazoo or an accordion. The important thing to remember is
that a guitar makes the sound, but you make the music.
Chapter 1: Guitar Basics
Strings doing their thing
Any instrument must have some part of it moving in a regular, repeated motion
to produce musical sound (a sustained tone, or pitch). In a guitar, this part is
the vibrating string. A string that you bring to a certain tension and then set in
motion (by a plucking action) produces a predictable sound — for example,
the note A. If you tune a string of your guitar to different tensions, you get different tones. The greater the tension of a string, the higher the pitch.
You couldn’t do very much with a guitar, however, if the only way to change
pitches was to frantically adjust the tension on the strings every time you pluck
a string. So guitarists resort to the other way to change a string’s pitch — by
shortening its effective vibrating length. They do so by fretting — pacing back
and forth and mumbling to themselves. (Just kidding; guitarists never do that
kind of fretting unless they haven’t held their guitars for a couple of days.) In
guitar-speak, fretting refers to pushing the string against the fretboard so the
string vibrates only between the fingered fret (metal wire) and the bridge. This
way, by moving the left hand up and down the neck (toward the bridge and the
nut, respectively), you can change pitches comfortably and easily.
The fact that smaller instruments, such as mandolins and violins, are higher in
pitch than are cellos and basses (and guitars, for that matter) is no accident.
Their pitch is higher because their strings are shorter. The string tension of all
these instruments may be closely related, making them feel somewhat consistent in response to the hands and fingers, but the drastic difference in string
lengths is what results in the wide differences of pitch among them. This principle holds true in animals, too. A Chihuahua has a higher-pitched bark than a
St. Bernard because its strings — er, vocal cords — are much shorter.
Using left and right hands together
The guitar normally requires two hands working together to create music.
If you want to play, say, middle C on the piano, all you do is take your index
finger, position it above the appropriate white key under the piano’s logo,
and drop it down: donnnng. A preschooler can sound just like Elton John if
playing only middle C, because just one finger of one hand, pressing one key,
makes the sound.
The guitar is somewhat different. To play middle C on the guitar, you must
take your left-hand index finger and fret the 2nd string (that is, press it down
to the fingerboard) at the 1st fret. This action, however, doesn’t itself produce a sound. You must then strike or pluck that 2nd string with your right
hand to actually produce the note middle C audibly. Music readers take note:
The guitar sounds an octave lower than its written notes. For example, playing a written, third-space C on the guitar actually produces a middle C.
Part I: So You Wanna Play Guitar
Notes on the neck: Half steps and frets
The smallest interval (unit of musical distance in pitch) of the musical scale
is the half step. On the piano, the alternating white and black keys represent
this interval (as do the places where you find two adjacent white keys with no
black key in between). To proceed by half steps on a keyboard instrument,
you move your finger up or down to the next available key, white or black. On
the guitar, frets — the horizontal metal wires (or bars) that you see embedded in the fretboard, running perpendicular to the strings — represent these
half steps. To go up or down by half steps on a guitar means to move your left
hand one fret at a time, higher or lower on the neck.
Comparing how acoustics and
electrics generate sound
Vibrating strings produce the different tones on a guitar. But you must be
able to hear those tones, or you face one of those if-a-tree-falls-in-a-forest
questions. For an acoustic guitar, that’s no problem, because an acoustic
instrument provides its own amplifier in the form of the hollow sound chamber that boosts its sound . . . well, acoustically.
But an electric guitar makes virtually no acoustic sound at all. (Well, a tiny bit,
like a buzzing mosquito, but nowhere near enough to fill a stadium or anger
your next-door neighbors.) An electric instrument creates its tones entirely
through electronic means. The vibrating string is still the source of the sound,
but a hollow wood chamber isn’t what makes those vibrations audible. Instead,
the vibrations disturb, or modulate, the magnetic field that the pickups — wirewrapped magnets positioned underneath the strings — produce. As the vibrations of the strings modulate the pickup’s magnetic field, the pickup produces
a tiny electric current that exactly reflects that modulation.
Guitars, therefore, make sound by amplifying string vibrations either acoustically (by passing the sound waves through a hollow chamber) or electronically (by amplifying and outputting a current through a speaker). That’s the
physical process anyway. How a guitar produces different sounds — and the
ones that you want it to make — is up to you and how you control the pitches
that those strings produce. Left-hand fretting is what changes these pitches.
Your right-hand motions not only help produce the sound by setting the string
in motion, but they also determine the rhythm (the beat or pulse), tempo (the
speed of the music), and feel (interpretation, style, spin, magic, mojo, je ne
sais quoi, whatever) of those pitches. Put both hand motions together, and
they spell music — make that guitar music.
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