How to : Get to Know Electric Guitar

How to : Get to Know Electric Guitar

How to Choose an Electric Guitar

Who hasn’t dreamed of playing guitar in front of thousands of screaming fans?

Tonewoods: what is that? 

Since the earliest days of music, instruments and woods have had a relationship, and electric guitars are no different. The woods used in electric guitars are often referred to as tonewoods. These are are well known for having desirable tone and sustain when used in musical instruments. The woods listed below are the most commonly used tonewoods for electric guitars:

Common Tone Woods

  • Alder: Light weight with balanced tone. 
  • Ash: Open grain with balanced tone, great for transparent finishes. 
  • Basswood: Light weight and warm sounding, with strong mids. 
  • Korina: Medium to heavy weight wood, very warm sounding, less highs. 
  • Mahogany: Medium to heavy weight, very warm with great sustain. 
  • Maple: Medium to heavy weight, very bright with long sustain. 
  • Poplar: Light weight hardwood, bright and crisp.

Common Neck Woods
Maple: Dense, hard and strong, very bright sounding with great sustain.
Mahogany: Very warm and fat sound.

Three bodies, three different sounds
Electric guitars come in three basic varieties:

  1. Solidbody
  2. Semi-hollow body
  3. Hollowbody

Solidbody guitars have… well, solid wood bodies.
The hollow body guitar is built like an acoustic guitar with a completely hollow inside.
And a semi-hollow body guitar adds a solid center block to a hollow body design.

Guitar pickup

  • Single-coil pickups
A single-coil pickup has only one coil of wire. It may have a single magnet, a single magnet with screws for adjustable pole pieces, or a separate magnet for each string. Regardless of the number and arrangement of magnets, it is still a single coil pickup if it has only one coil of wire.
A coil of wire will “pluck” electromagnetic radiation out of the air, and we are surrounded everywhere by this radiation – most notably the sixty-cycle hum from building wiring, electrical noises from fluorescent lighting, and the most recent source of noise troubling guitarists with single coil pickups: the computer monitor. In short, single-coil pickups are susceptible to hum.
  • The single-coil sound
telecasterSingle-coil pickups have a thin, clean, and transparent sound. Single-coil pickups are common on Fender guitars such as the Stratocaster and Telecaster, two guitars that are very common in rock, country, and pop. Some of the most notable users of the Fender Strat single-coil sound include Jimi Hendrix, Eric Clapton, and Stevie Ray Vaughan. Famous Telecaster players include Bruce Springsteen, Buck Owens, and Johnny Paycheck.
  • Humbucker pickups
As early as 1935, Gibson introduced the first electro-magnetic pickup
In the Seth Lover design a pickup that would not be prone to “humming” in the presence of transformers, rheostats, and other electrical interference.A pickup that utilized two coils to cancel or “buck” the hum, commonly known as “humbuckers.”
A humbucker uses two coils and either two magnets (or sets of magnets), or pole pieces at opposite ends of a single magnet.In a humbucking pickup, the two coils are wound with opposing electrical polarity, but the magnetic polarity for each coil is also reversed, this means simply that each coil carries two signals; the string vibration signal, which is reinforced, producing a thick, meaty sound, and the noise signal, which is cancelled.
  • The double-coil sound

The warm, smooth, double-coil sound of the Gibson Les Paul is a favorite for rock, blues, pop, and jazz. While most of the guitarists mentioned above have played Gibson guitars, the most famous players whose sound is associated with the double-coil “humbucker” sound include Jimmy Page, Joe Perry, John Lennon, BB King, Wes Montgomery, and Chet Atkins.
Many guitars have a combination of single- and double-coil pickups. It’s also common for a double-coil pickup to have a switch that will turn one of the coils off to offer the player a choice between single- and double-coil.

What is guitar neck ?
The wood used to make guitar neck is an often-debated topic. The issues center on the “hardness,” determined by the tightness of the wood grain, and the weight, a crucial factor in constructing a balanced guitar. Here’s a brief description of some commonly used neck woods:

  • Maple – This was what Leo Fender used on the first solid-body electric (which became known as the Telecaster). Maple is medium hard and medium weight, which worked well without causing the guitar to be neck-heavy. Fender also let the maple serve as the guitar’s fingerboard, too (more about this in a moment).
  • Mahogany – Acoustic guitars have used this as neck material for a long time. It is slightly more “flexible” than maple (and a bit lighter). Its distinctive dark natural color makes a very attractive contrast to a maple or spruce top. Many acoustics also use mahogany for their backs and sides.
  • Rosewood – This tight-grained, heavy wood comes in a number of varieties. One, Brazilian rosewood, is now rare and expensive, the result of overuse and deforestation. Rosewood is also often used for fingerboards due to its smooth, hard surface. Paul Reed Smith builds electrics with rosewood necks and many acoustics have used this wood as well.
  • Pau ferro – This up-and-coming replacement for Brazilian rosewood (the name literally means “iron wood”) is heavy and nonporous, which makes it easy to finish and popular for necks and fingerboards. One important point: Pau ferro can cause allergic reactions in about 15% of the population.
  • Basswood – Considering this wood’s relatively wide grain, which makes it “softer” than others, basswood has found a place in both economy acoustics and in a high-end electric setting. Parker Guitars coats a basswood neck with carbon/epoxy resin to produce an extremely light, incredibly strong result.
The neck joint
The point at which the neck is attached to the guitar’s body.
  1. This is an important process for a couple of reasons. First, the joint must be able to withstand the pressure and stress created when guitar strings are installed and tensioned.
  1. joining the neck to the guitar’s body will affect the tone of the finished instrument.
  • Set (or “set-in”) Neck
This simply means that the neck is glued into place. This method has been used as long as acoustic guitars have existed and is almost always used in acoustic guitar. The set neck is carefully cut to match its mounting point on the guitar body and the two sections are almost always connected with dove-tail joints to maximize the gluing surface and minimize neck wiggle. The Gibson Les Paul models are prime examples of electric guitars with set necks.
  • Bolt-on Neck
This term was applied to Leo Fender’s invention: his guitar neck was attached to the slab body with four wood screws.  Almost all other bolt-on necks are seen on solid-body electrics.
  • Neck Through Body

This approach is limited exclusively to solid-body guitars. The “neck” is actually an integral part of the guitar’s body and extends the entire length of the instrument.
Some players feel that the lower mass of the body wings cuts down on low frequency resonance, creating a bright, thin-sounding guitar.
Neck-through instruments work well in high-volume playing situations that call for definition and clear low end. Some neck-through guitars (Gibson’s Firebird, for example) use a mahogany neckpiece.
This softer wood provides a warmer, rounder tone more characteristic of a set-in, or set-neck, guitar.
The Parker Fly Classic combines a neck-through design with light basswood underneath its carbon/glass “exoskeleton” to provide a lightweight guitar with the feel of much denser, harder woods.

Neck Profiles: A “C,” “U,” or “V?”
Neck profile (the “shape” of the neck) is probably the most personal element of a guitar.
It affects how your hand and fingers “fit” the neck and how easily you can move from fret to fret.
Electric guitar makers have experimented extensively and a variety of profiles have evolved with the preferences of players. Jeff Beck’s favorite Fender Stratocasters had a very fat “C” shape
Similar to the “C” is the oval neck profile. This offers a less pronounced curve at the back and has its followers.
On the other side is the “U” – an almost-rectangular shape that appeared on many Fenders – perhaps best for players with long fingers. And Eric Clapton has favored a “V” neck that provides a comfortable groove down the middle. A variation on this is the “inverted V,” that is thicker on the bass side and thinner on the treble side.

Frets : what is that ?
Most guitar players really don’t give a lot of thought to the frets, though these can influence both tone and playability. Instead, most players will view the frets as an integral part of a guitar’s fingerboard.
 If a guitar has a smooth, playable neck that allows you to bend notes, do hammer-ons and pull-offs, and deliver clean articulations at all positions up and down the neck, it means that the frets have been perfectly matched and properly “dressed” to provide the best overall action.
The bottom line is that frets do matter, but it’s the manufacturer who is best qualified to determine what size and thickness of fret wire matches the fingerboard of their instruments.

Body style: which one ?
When sustain, loud amplification and lots of effects are required, solidbody guitars are a good choice. Semihollow body guitars are useful when the more of the acoustic sound of the guitar with high levels of amplification are needed. Hollowbody, or “jazz” guitars, provide the acoustic sound of the guitar but can be prone to feedback at high levels of amplification.

Number of Frets
Most electric guitars come with 22 frets, however, if you like to play in the high register, a 24-fret neck will give you the full octave above the twelfth fret.

With electrics, the type of finish does not affect sound as much as it does on acoustics, but you needn’t worry about it in either case. Guitar makers take this into account when they build the instrument.

There are two main types of bridges for guitars; tremolo bridge and stoptail bridge. The tremolo bridge (or whammy bar) allows you to “dive” or bend all the strings at once, (good for Metal styles) but they can throw strings out of tune. The stoptail bridge is more stable as far as tuning is concerned and because it is fixed into the body, some players feel that it provides more sustain than the tremolo bridge, which “floats” above the body.

Most guitars have two pickups, one close to the neck, which provides a thicker sound, and one close to the bridge, which produces a more treble “twangy” sound. A 3-position switch allows you to choose between pickups or blend them. Some guitars have a five-position switch, which blends the pickups and changes their phase relationship to produce “glassy” tones. A third, or middle pickup is also available on some guitars for more sound blending options.

Tuning machines / ‘’machine head’’
The type of tuning machine your guitar has is very important. This is what allows you to fine tune and hold pitch. Enclosed machine heads resist rust and airborne corrosives, and therefore don’t require as much maintenance or replacement as open tuning machines.

Electric guitars come with two types of bridges that connect the strings to the body. The fixed bridge is, well ... fixed. The other style is the floating bridge which is spring mounted. This allows a "whammy bar" to be attached to cause a wobble in the tone when pressed rapidly. The floating bridge does have maintenance headaches since it has moving parts, it will have to be adjusted periodically (or have the springs replaced), and it may also require more frequent guitar tuning. While it’s fun being able to act like Eddie Van Halen and make the fun effects with the whammy bar, we recommend the fixed bridge for beginners to remove a potential maintenance headache.

Music stores are the friendliest of retail environments because most people working there are passionate about music.  Don’t be afraid to find a staffer and let them know you are a first-time guitar buyer.  You’ll impress them with already thinking through the criteria listed above and being prepared.

Have someone (either a friend that’s with you or a store’s staff member) play a selection of guitars for you so you can hear how it sounds.  And make sure you handle each of the guitars yourself and feel how it fits in your hands, that your strumming arm can easily reach around the body, and it snuggles onto your thigh.  For a first guitar, you really don’t need to stress over the types of wood it’s made from.  Solid wood tends to be better than laminate material (which are layers of wood glued together that may absorb the sounds and likely won’t last as long), but laminates are used to keep the costs down.
If it sounds good, feels good, and fits your price range … then it’s a winner! carefully look down the neck to ensure it’s perfectly straight, any warping is bad; inspect the body for dings, cracks, or imperfections in the finish; run your finger down both sides of the neck to ensure the frets (the metal bars that run across the neck) are perfectly flush with the edge of the neck.  They should not stick out beyond the neck, nor should they be shorter than the width of the neck.

Do NOT buy a damaged guitar, it’s not worth the headaches!
Ask an experienced guitar player (friend or staff) if the “action” feels right to them.  This refers to how high off the fret board the strings are set.  If it’s too high, it makes it difficult to press the strings all the way to the fret board, too low and you’ll get a rattling sound every time you play.  Most stores tend to err on the too high side because it’s harder (or sometimes impossible) to later adjust it higher.

Also, ask the store to put on a new set of high-quality strings (medium grade is best for beginners) and tune it.  You don’t know how many other people have abused the strings as they tried out the guitar.

The shape and color of the guitar is mostly personal style.  Get something you’ll be proud to have on your lap and you’ll be more likely to play it!

If you spend time in a retail store, and the staff was helpful finding the right guitar for you, please support that store and buy from them.  If you find the same guitar much cheaper elsewhere, let them know and see if they can come close to matching a legitimate competitive price.  It is good to have the store as a future resource to help with accessories or needed adjustments.

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  • South East Asia Musician
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