Acquiring your first electric guitar is a rite of passage for any aspiring musician. It’s a moment that you’ll never forget. For many players, the journey begins by experimenting with an old, classical acoustic. Perhaps one passed down from an older sibling or family member who briefly dabbled in music. But for those lucky ones, the journey starts with the electrifying sound of an electric guitar.
That was my own experience. My first electric guitar was a used, sunburst Fender Squire. I was instantly seduced. Looking back, I realize that I didn’t have about the parts of the electric guitar.
In this article, we’ll explore all the electric guitar parts you need to know, demystifying the mechanics and electronics that make this instrument so powerful. Whether you’re a beginner or an experienced player, I guarantee you’ll learn something new. So, grab your guitar, and let’s dive in!
Labeled parts of an electric guitar
Here is an electric guitar labeled with all of the different parts
The headstock of a guitar often adorned with a brand’s signature and a decorative design, serves a functional purpose beyond aesthetics. It is important to note that the angle at which the strings pass the nut plays a critical role in the guitar’s intonation. There are two common designs: the 3+3 and the 6-in-line. Fender uses the 6-in-line design, in which the tuners sit below the nut, requiring a downward force on the strings. This design is also known as a “flat-made” headstock. This design prevents the headstock from touching the ground when the guitar is in its case or lying flat, reducing the risk of breaks. In contrast, the Gibson-style 3+3 design raises the guitar’s body when it is laid flat, making headstock breaks more common and costly to repair.
The guitar tuning pegs, also known as machine heads, located at the top of the guitar’s headstock are used to adjust the tension on the strings and change the pitch. There are two types: traditional or non-locking, which is adjusted manually, and locking, which has a mechanism that holds the string in place once it is tuned. Both types can be found in open-gear or sealed-gear formats, with open-gear allowing for easier maintenance, while sealed-gear requires less maintenance. Robotic tuners, which pitch and turn without human intervention, are an option but not yet advanced enough for professional use and are more of a gimmick. Ultimately, the choice between the two types of tuning pegs is a matter of personal preference, as they both do a great job.
Need help getting started tuning your electric guitar? Check out my complete guide on the topic.
A truss rod is a steel tool that helps maintain the proper shape of the neck by adjusting the forward curvature, and it runs inside the neck under the fingerboard. Many modern truss rods have adjustable nuts on one or both ends that can be tightened or loosened to change the tension. It may be tempting to adjust a guitar’s truss rod when the action is high and the strings sit too high above the fretboard, but this should only be done by a professional. The truss rod was first patented by Thaddeus McHugh of Gibson in 1921, but similar concepts can be found in patents dating back to 1908.
While often forgotten, the nut of a guitar is a crucial part of the guitar in terms of playability, intonation, and overall feel. Often, when purchasing a new guitar, the nut needs to be adjusted as it may come set too high from the factory. This is done purposely, as every guitarist has a sweet spot when it comes to string height. I like mine pretty low, not buzzing on the fretboard, but if it is set too high, complicated riffs are much harder to play. While traditionally made from bone, modern nuts now come in various materials such as plastic, graphite, and even brass, which some guitarists claim enhances sustain.
As the name suggests, a fretboard is the part of the guitar where the frets are located, on which the strings are pressed down to create different notes. Guitar fretboards are typically made from various woods, such as rosewood, ebony, and maple.
Rosewood is a popular choice because it is dense and durable, which makes it a good material for withstanding the wear and tear of playing. It also has a rich, dark color that looks great on most guitars. Ebony is another popular choice for guitar fretboards. It is even denser than rosewood, It also has a very dark color, almost black, and is often used on high-end guitars. Maple is less common, it has a lighter color and a lovely grain pattern. It’s also a hardwood, so it’s durable.
I personally love the way maple ages. It gets a beautiful patina that reflects the hard work put into playing, something less visible in dark woods. Some fretboards like that of Rickenbacker guitars actually have a clear varnish on them, making them very smooth to play. These days, traditional woods used to make fretboards are becoming rare and expensive, and manufacturers are transitioning to less well-known woods such as Pau Ferro, Padauk, and Wenge.
Your fretboard is the part of the guitar that gets the dirtiest as you touch it the most with your sweaty and oily fingers, so make sure to keep your fretboard clean.
The frets on a guitar are the thin metal strips that run perpendicular to the strings on the fingerboard. They are typically made of nickel or stainless steel and create different pitches when the strings press against them. The number of frets on a guitar varies depending on the model, but most have between 20 and 24 frets. The position of the frets on the fingerboard is what determines the pitch of the notes when a string is pressed against them.
Most electric guitars have six strings, and each string has a different thickness (which is referred to as the string gauge). Thicker strings have a lower frequency sound, and thinner strings have a higher frequency.
As a guitar player, I know the type of strings you choose can significantly affect sound and playability. Different players have their own preferences, and it can take some experimentation to find the right strings for you. For example, nickel-plated steel strings may be a good option if you’re looking for a bright and twangy sound. If you want a warmer and smoother tone, pure nickel strings may be a better choice. And if you’re looking for a balance of brightness and warmth, you may prefer stainless steel strings.
The most common maintenance practice you’ll have to do on your electric guitar is changing the strings. In general, you’ll have to do this every couple of months, but it depends on how often you play. Coated strings can be a good option for players who want a longer string life, but some players find that coated strings can have a slightly muted tone.
Ultimately, the best strings for you will depend on your playing style, the type of guitar you have, and your personal preferences. It’s always good to try out different kinds of strings and see which ones you prefer.
Most electric guitarists will play standing up, so a guitar strap is required. Electric guitars have 2 strap buttons that are used to anchor and secure the strap while playing. These are small metal pieces that screw into the very bottom and top corner of the guitar. Then you simply push the holes in your strap over the strap buttons and you are good to go.
Som guitarists purchase strap locks to further secure their strap. Strap locks prevent your strap from sliding off the strap button and are especially useful if you move around a lot on stage.
Guitar pickups are devices that convert the vibration of a guitar string’s energy into an electrical signal that can be amplified and sent to an amplifier or speaker. The first widely adopted pickup was the “horseshoe pickup,” developed by Rickenbacker in the early 1930s, nicknamed the “frypan,” as it more resembled a frypan than a guitar. It was a magnetic pickup that was installed on the guitar’s soundboard. This pickup was followed by the development of the “single coil pickup” by George Beauchamp and Adolph Rickenbacker in the early 1930s.
The single coil pickup was more efficient and better at amplifying the guitar’s sound. In the 1950s, Gibson developed the first “humbucker” pickup, which used two coils to eliminate unwanted noise. Humbucker pickups are known for their smooth and warm tone, and they are still widely used today. In recent years, advancements in technology have allowed for the development of new types of pickups, such as active pickups, piezo pickups, and more. Today, guitar pickups come in a wide variety of styles and designs, each with unique tonal characteristics.
Tone and volume knobs
There are several knobs and switches on the guitars that can be confusing when you are first starting out, especially because the placement of these controls depends on your guitar’s model.
The tone knob on a guitar is used to adjust the frequency response of the pickups, allowing the player to roll off or boost certain frequencies. This can be used to shape the overall sound of the guitar, making it brighter or darker. The volume knob controls the overall loudness of the sound coming from the guitar. Both knobs are typically located on the body of the guitar, near the pickups.
Pickup selector switch
Most guitars with more than one pickup have a selector switch of some sort, which allows you to select which pickup is active. The bridge pickup is bright with lots of midrange, which is good for solos. The neck pickup is warm and mellow, with more low range frequency, characteristically good for rhythm.
Guitars like the Fender Stratocaster have a 5-way switch for multiple pickup combinations. The Telecaster has a 3-way switch, and the Gibson Les Paul has a 2-way switch labeled as “rhythm” and “lead”. The pickups and selector switch give players a wide range of tonal options to suit their playing style.
The pickguard on an electric guitar serves the functional purpose of protecting the guitar’s finish from scratches and wear caused by strumming or picking. Historically, pickguards were made from tortoiseshell, but with the advent of plastic materials, they are now almost exclusively made from various types of plastic. Without a pickguard, the guitar’s finish would be at risk of damage from regular playing.
Most electric guitars have a cutaway section to allow players easier access to the higher frets on the guitar neck. This design feature allows players to play notes and chords higher up on the neck, which can be difficult to reach with a traditional guitar shape. The cutaway also makes it easier for guitarists to play lead guitar and perform solo runs and melodies.
Guitars have 2 main points where the strings come into contact with the instrument. The nut and the bridge. The bridge can come in a variety of different styles, with the most common being the traditional bridge found on most Fender guitars, where the strings go through the body and over the saddles. Another popular style is the wrap-around bridge, which is commonly used on Gibson guitars. This type of bridge wraps around the body of the guitar and is known for its unique tone and sustain.
The saddles are a bit like the nut on the opposite end of the guitar. They help with guitar intonation. By adjusting the pieces with a screwdriver, you can shorten or lengthen the string. It takes only a few millimeters of adjusting to affect the playability of the guitar. Once again, it’s best to let a professional adjust them.
Tremolo arm, vibrato arm, whammy bar… Many names for the same function. Bigsby was the first successful model in the early 1950s, then Fender adopted them for all Stratocaster models. They all feature a spring-loaded arm of some sort. Using a whammy bar successfully is more difficult than it may seem, but it opens the door to endless soloing possibilities. Before the Floyd Rose Tremolo System, which introduced a locking bridge system, whammy had a bad habit of knocking guitars severely out of tune.
The output jack is a crucial component of a guitar as it serves as the connection point between the guitar and the amplifier. It receives the high-impedance signal from the pickups and transforms it into a low-impedance signal that can be easily transmitted through a 1/4-inch cable to the amplifier. This allows the amplifier to amplify the guitar’s sound and produce the desired output. Additionally, The output jack also enables the guitar player to quickly and easily unplug their guitar from the amplifier when needed without having to disconnect any other cables.
So there you have it. The anatomy of the electric guitar. There are many variations, but they all contain basic design similarities. Ultimately, the style of music you play will determine what kind of guitar you have.
Feel free to reach out to me if you have any more questions about your guitar that need answering. I am always happy to help!