No instrument in modern music is as versatile, ubiquitous, or inspiring as the electric guitar. From the blues to metal, it is the foundation of many genres of popular music. Its sound has defined generations of music. Jimi Hendrix, Eddie van Halen, Kurt Cobain, Stevie Ray Vaughn, BB King, Slash and thousands of other musicians have used the electric guitar to convey a musical message and inspire millions. No matter if you play simple power chords or shred face-melting solos, your instrument will give you the power to connect, inspire, and create.
Whether you want to learn to play your favorite songs or create songs of your own, you’ll need to start with the basics. After all, you need to learn to walk before you can run! When you finish this article, you’ll have everything you need to understand the basic mechanics of the electric guitar: its history, how it works, and what it’s made of. Then when it comes time to buy a guitar for yourself, a friend, or family member, you’ll know exactly what it is you’re looking for. Not sure what kind of electric guitar is right for you? No problem. Once you’ve read through this article, check out our guide on Finding the Perfect Guitar to learn how to pick perfect guitar for your budget!
Once you have your guitar, you’ll probably want to start playing as soon as possible. If you’re going to become the best possible guitarist you can be, you’ll need to learn some music theory. Don’t worry: it’s not as complicated you think! Very soon, we’ll publish our Music Theory and Lessons guide so you can get started learning the right way.
Abridged History of the Electric Guitar
The electric guitar was invented because of a simple need to be heard. Imagine yourself in the audience of a club in 1920. Drummers, saxophonists, and horn players arrive on stage and start jamming. If you’ve ever had a neighbor who plays the drums or a brass instrument, you know that they get LOUD. Next, imagine a musician with an acoustic guitar shows up on stage in the middle of all of this noise and starts strumming their heart out. Much to his displeasure, no matter how hard he strums, no one in the audience can hear him. The drums and brass simply drown him out. The guitar needed to be louder.
The first attempt at electric guitars was simply to take an acoustic guitar, mic it up, and play through a speaker. Because of their resonance chambers, acoustic and hollow body guitars generate a lot of feedback and noise when amplified. It’s no use being louder when your audience can’t even make out what you’re playing. There had to be a better way…
Many companies attempted to create an electric guitar and failed. One of the most notable attempts was in 1928 when the Stromberg-Voisinet company built the first commercially available electric guitar and amplifier package. It sold poorly due to its unreliability and substandard tone, and it vanished as quickly as it appeared.
A few years later in 1931, George Beauchamp created the first successful incarnation of the electric guitar. George was a Hawaiian music enthusiast – a genre where guitars were used in both the rhythm and melody section. An instrument in the melody section needs to stand out. It needs to be loud enough to be heard over the rhythm instruments. Beauchamp, together with a guitar manufacturer named Adolph Rickenbacker, created a guitar that would change the world.
With a solid aluminum body (to minimize feedback), a long neck, and the first modern, usable incarnation of the single-coil magnetic pickup, it was a revolution in guitar technology. The guitar was known as the ‘frying pan’ due to its shape, and it was a huge success. Its magnetic pickup turned string vibrations into an electric signal that, when fed into an amplifier, provided a huge boost in volume. No longer was the guitar relegated to being a part of the rhythm section. Beauchamp achieved his goal of creating a guitar that could stand out in even the loudest band of the time.
Other inventors took Beauchamp’s idea and built upon it. Les Paul created “The Log,” a prototype solid wood guitar built by attaching two pickups and a neck to a 4-inch by 4-inch block of solid pine. To make it seem less alien to the musicians of the time, Les Paul attached two halves of a hollow-body guitar to the pine block – a simple cosmetic enhancement. He approached Gibson with the invention, but they laughed at him and rejected what they called his “broomstick guitar”.
After the invention of the Bigsby-Travis guitar in the late ’40s and Leo Fender’s subsequent success with the Broadcaster (eventually renamed to ‘Telecaster’) in 1950, Gibson re-approached Les Paul having realized the error of their ways. Apparently, the solid-body guitar was a hit! Together, they began working on their own solid-body electric guitar. In 1952, the Gibson Les Paul was born. In the coming years, dozens of new guitar models emerged from a multitude of manufacturers, including the Stratocaster, the SG, and the Flying V. Musicians from all over the world continue to use these exact instruments to entertain and inspire.
Even today in 2018, the Stratocaster and the Les Paul are two of the most popular electric guitar models. You’ll find them in the hands of guitarists playing everything from ambient to country to heavy metal. While not much has changed about the guitar itself in the past 60 years, prices have dropped, making the instrument accessible to all. New sounds have emerged due to new technology. High-gain amplifiers, Floyd Rose tremolos, amp modelers, effects pedals, and more have opened up new paths of creativity for modern guitarists.
Types of Electric Guitars
Solid-body electrics are by far the most common type of guitar you’ll come across. Solid-bodies have no sound holes or resonating chambers. Because there aren’t any sound holes, the amount of ambient noise the guitar creates when unplugged is pretty minimal. However, because there aren’t any resonating chambers, noise and feedback are minimal when you eventually plug-in to an amplifier. Solid-body guitars like the PRS SE Standard 24 generally have a strong treble presence and are very versatile, but tend to weigh a bit more than their semi-hollow and hollow counterparts.
Semi-hollow (sometimes ‘semi-acoustic’) electric guitars have a couple of smaller sound holes carved into them. Sound holes tend to lessen the harshness of the treble frequencies of the guitar, creating a ‘warmer’ sound. This mellower sound is perfect for jazz but can sound great in any genre. If you remember from earlier in the article, resonating chambers can create feedback and noise in your guitar playing. To avoid this, most modern semi-hollow guitars are constructed with a central block of wood that keeps feedback to a minimum while still taking advantage of the resonating chambers. This makes semi-hollow guitars like the Gibson ES-335 suitable for almost any genre except extremely heavy music. Famous guitarists of multiple genres and generations have used semi-hollow body guitars in their playing, including Dave Grohl, Eric Clapton, and John Lennon.
Hollow body guitars like the Epiphone Casino have a full-size resonating chamber, which gives the instrument a warm, clean tone perfect for jazz. Because of their susceptibility to feedback, they can make for a fun rock guitar for more advanced players. If you’re not careful with hollow body guitars, however, you could drown in feedback and distortion! It’s best to avoid these types of guitars as a beginner.
Don’t confuse hollow body electric guitars with acoustic guitars. While they project similarly to an acoustic guitar when unplugged, hollow body electrics are meant to be amplified and have a different tonal character due to their construction and pickups. You may have come across the term ‘acoustic-electric.’ Acoustic-electric guitars are just regular acoustic guitars with an added pickup. The tonal differences between a hollow-body electric and an acoustic/acoustic-electric are quite noticeable, so don’t think you can swap one out for the other!
Next, let’s check out what a modern electric guitar looks like and what each part is responsible for.
Parts of the Electric Guitar
The electric guitar may seem complicated at first glance, but it’s pretty intuitive once you spend some time getting to know it. Just remember that your guitar is a little bit like you: it has a body, neck, and head! Let’s look at each of these parts in detail, starting from the head and working our way down. Note that not every electric guitar looks exactly like the one in the picture above. Don’t worry! We’ll cover these differences in detail below.
The head (sometimes known as ‘headstock’) of the electric guitar can come in many shapes. On the head, you’ll find tuners, which you’ll use to change the pitch of your guitar strings. Because staying in tune is so important, high-quality tuners are necessary. You don’t want to go out of tune halfway through a song! If you’ve ever picked up a guitar, strummed it, and felt it sounded “wrong”, then chances are it was out of tune. On some guitars, you’ll find locking tuners. Locking tuners lock the string into place and make your guitar less susceptible to going out of tune – a worthwhile upgrade. Depending on the shape of the head, your tuners may be in a row like they are on the Strat above, or 3 to a side like on a Les Paul.
On the head of some guitars, you’ll also find string trees. String trees help keep certain strings of the guitar in place. String trees also help to increase sustain, allowing the notes you play to ring out for longer. The need for string trees comes down to the design of the headstock of the guitar, so not all guitars will have or even need them. The headstock above has a string tree above the Squier logo.
Finally, on some guitars, you’ll find a truss rod cover, which is absent on the guitar above. The truss rod cover is a piece of (usually) plastic that covers the truss rod, an adjustable metal rod found inside your guitar neck.
The truss rod affects the neck’s relief, or how curved/bowed your neck is, and therefore affects playability. You can adjust it using a hex wrench, but you generally won’t need to mess with the truss rod yourself. It’s possible you might harm your guitar if you don’t know what you’re doing. If your guitar plays strangely, take it to a local guitar shop.
Just below the head, you’ll find the neck of the guitar. The main part of the neck holds the ‘fretboard’ or ‘fingerboard’ of the guitar, which is where you place the fingers of your left hand to make music.
Necks can come in many different profiles – some thicker, some thinner. A popular neck profile is the ‘C-Shape’, which resembles the letter C when looked at from the side. When you gain experience playing and trying out different kinds of guitars, you’ll learn what type of neck profile you prefer. Even within the same model, neck profiles can differ. The Les Paul alone has dozens of neck profiles! Sometimes you’ll hear people talk about how a certain guitar’s neck is “fast.” This usually means a neck profile that is slim and slick, allowing you to play… fast!
At the very top of the neck, you’ll find the nut. The nut supports the strings and affects both the tone of the guitar and the intonation. Intonation is how accurately the guitar is tuned. The nut can be made of many different materials, such as bone, graphite, plastic or even metal. Because your guitar is set up to play in the factory, you won’t usually need to mess around with the nut. Even small modifications to the nut can dramatically affect how your guitar feels and sounds.
On the fretboard, you’ll find strips of wire called frets. When you press down on a string between two frets, you produce pitch, and through different pitches, music! Colloquially, we also refer to the space between two fret wires as a ‘fret.’ The first fret of the guitar is between the nut and the first strip of fret wire. The second is between the first fret wire and second fret wire, and so on. Frets are usually made of stainless steel and can vary in size between guitars.
Between certain frets, you’ll usually see a fret marker, visible on the guitar above on frets 3, 5, 7, 9, 12, 15, 17, 19, and 21. Count them to make sure! Fret markers are made of plastic, mother of pearl, or abalone – on some guitars they even glow in the dark! They come in many shapes, depending on the guitar. Dots, birds, crosses – the list is endless! Fret markers help you find your way around the fretboard so that you don’t get lost while playing. This becomes especially important once you start playing solos and start moving towards the higher frets.
The number of frets on a guitar differs between models. Commonly, you’ll see guitars with 21, 22, and 24 frets. You can play almost any song with 21 frets. 24 frets are more common for shred-type guitars. 22 is a happy medium and is probably the most common number of frets you’ll encounter.
There are two main ways that guitar necks attach to the body. Some necks are bolted-on to the body of the guitar, like the guitar above. Other guitars have a set neck, where the body and neck are joined and glued together. Generally, bolt-on necks have a brighter, snappier tone than set-neck guitars. The area of the guitar where the neck and body meet is the heel. A large heel can make it slightly more difficult to access the upper frets than a slimmer heel. Be aware of this when you buy your first guitar.
The body of the electric guitar is what gives it its character. Shapes range from Les Paul to Strat and beyond. If you can imagine it, it probably exists! The body houses all the electronics of the guitar. Because it’s the largest part of the guitar, it’s responsible for much of your tone.
The pickups are between the bridge and the neck. Pickups are electronic devices that turn string vibrations into electrical signals. Amplifiers take this signal, make it more powerful, send it to a speaker, and turn it into sound. Pickups can come in a few varieties, such as single-coil pickups (great for jazz and the blues) and humbuckers (popular for rock and metal).
Near the pickups, you’ll find volume and tone knobs, which affect the strength of the signal generated by the pickups and sent to your amp, as well as how bassy or trebly the signal is. Some guitars have knobs that you can push and pull. This activates a feature called ‘coil-splitting’, making it possible to get single-coil sounds from a humbucker pickup! Electric guitars with this feature are very versatile.
As most guitars have two or three pickups, you’ll also find a pickup selector close by to let you choose a single pickup or a combination of pickups for different sounds. Depending on the number of pickups on the guitar, the selector might have 3, 5, or even 7 settings. You can select just the neck pickup (the pickup closest to the neck, which has a more bass-heavy sound), just the bridge pickup (the pickup nearest the bridge, which has a brighter sound), or some combination. As you play and experiment, you’ll begin to hear the different sounds they produce and intuitively select which pickup you need for the music you’re playing.
On some guitars, you’ll also find a ‘pickguard’ on the body, surrounding the pickups. This piece of plastic protects the body of the guitar from your pick and keeps it scratch-free. If you don’t like how it looks, some guitars allow you to remove it.
Next, you’ll notice the bridge of the guitar. The bridge is where the strings are anchored to the body. There are two main types of bridges for electric guitars: stop-tail (also known as ‘hardtail’) or tremolo (as seen on the guitar at the top of the section).
If your guitar doesn’t come with a whammy/tremolo bar, it’s probably a stoptail bridge. This is the type of bridge common on Les Paul guitars. A stoptail tends to stay in tune better than most other types of bridges due to the lack of moving parts.
If your guitar comes with a whammy (or tremolo) bar, it has a tremolo bridge. By pressing down or pulling up on the bar, the bridge moves up or down. As a result, the strings temporarily get shorter or longer, and so the pitch changes. You can get some cool effects this way! There are three main types of tremolo bridges: the non-locking Fender style bridge (a good general purpose tremolo bridge), the Bigsby style bridge (usually found in jazz and blues guitars), and the double-locking Floyd Rose type bridge (traditionally found on guitars meant for more extreme types of music, like hard rock and metal).
Regardless of the style of bridge, you’ll find that they all have saddles. Saddles adjust the action of your guitar – how high the strings are from the fretboard. Some players enjoy low action for fast shredding. Others enjoy a medium action. Depending on how low the action is, you might hear buzzing when you play. Buzzing usually means you need to adjust your saddles. Too high of an action and your guitar becomes difficult to play.
Saddles can move up and down to adjust the action, as well as forward and back to adjust the intonation, or how accurately the guitar is in tune. Because there are so many variables when it comes to adjusting your guitar, most guitarists go to a local guitar shop for a proper setup.
You’ll notice the strap buttons on either side of your guitar’s body. This is where you will mount your guitar strap, allowing you to play standing up. Most players who need extra security end up replacing the strap buttons with strap locks. Strap locks lock the guitar strap to the body and keep the strap and guitar from separating.
Finally, your guitar needs a place to plug into your amplifier. The output jack is where you’ll plug in your 1/4″ instrument cable. On some guitars, the jack is on the edge of the body. On others, the output jack is mounted by the volume and tone knobs.
Now that we’ve covered electric guitars from top to bottom, there is one more thing to consider. The distance between the nut and the bridge will differ between guitar models. This distance is the ‘scale length’. Commonly, scale lengths are between 23 and 26 inches, which is comfortable for the majority of people. A shorter scale length means the strings aren’t as tight, so bending is a little easier. A short scale length also means that the frets are closer together, meaning you don’t have to stretch as far to reach from one fret to another. This might be advantageous for those with smaller hands.
Over your guitar career, you’ll try out many different guitars and eventually come to find the perfect guitar for yourself. If you’re reading this guide, you’re probably still a beginner. If you don’t know what to look for when buying a guitar, don’t worry! In our conclusion, we’ll link to our guide to help you find the perfect guitar.
Congratulations! You’re now an expert in the parts and history of the electric guitar! You now know about the invention of the electric guitar, as well as terminology that is common among guitarists. Guitar spec sheets should no longer be a mystery to you. When you hear a friend say “scale length” or “3-way pickup selector”, you’ll know instantly what they mean.
Now, you’re ready to buy a guitar of your own. Take a look at our guide to Find the Perfect Guitar and start your journey into music. If you prefer to skip straight to our recommendations, check out our list of Best Beginner Guitars.