An essential skill for beginners is to understand what all the parts of the guitar are called.
Firstly. because it’s good to know your instrument.
Secondly, over the course of your playing career, you’re going to need to take your six-string to an expert to have it looked at. If you understand the terminology we cover in this article, when the technician at your local music shop says ‘your truss rod needs adjusting’ you’ll know what they’re talking about.
In this article, we explain the terminology for both acoustic and electric guitar parts, and the parts common to both.
Here’s what we’ll cover:
- Guitar Parts Common to Both
- Electric Guitar Anatomy
- Acoustic Guitar Anatomy
Guitar Parts Common to Both
The body is the main bulk of the instrument. As the thing that everything else is attached to, it’s arguably the most important component and plays a large role in the overall tone, especially on acoustics. The type of wood used effects the sound greatly too, depending on the choice of tone wood and whether it’s solid body or laminate. For example, spruce provides crisp high ends and lots of volume; while mahogany has a warmer tone and lends itself to softer sounds.
The headstock, as the name implies, is at the top. Headstocks vary in shape and size but they all serve one vital purpose: to be the base for the tuning pegs. Headstock shapes vary from manufacturer to manufacturer. For example, the much-loved Stratocaster comes with a distinctively shaped headstock that makes them instantly recognizable. You also find the brands decals (i.e. logo) on most headstocks.
Machine Heads / Tuners / Tuning Heads / Tuning Pegs / Gear Heads
As you can see, these go by a few names. They are attached to and protrude from the headstock and are used to raise or lower the pitch of the strings by tightening or loosening them. The arrangement of tuning pegs varies from model to model. Some types of acoustic have three on top of the headstock and three on the bottom. Electrics such as Les Pauls and Les Paul Copies take also this form, but often tuning pegs are arranged in a row of 6 on the top side of the headstock, as you see on the Stratocaster.
The strings pass through the nut. The nut ensures the strings are aligned correctly with the tuning pegs, and enables exact string spacing. Individual grooves are cut into the nut for the strings to sit in. The nut is found near the headstock and can be made from a variety of different materials. Plastic and corian are commonly used, but some high-end models use bone.
The neck is the long piece of wood that attaches the headstock to the body. The neck is not to be confused with the fretboard. The fretboard is a separate piece of wood that is glued to the flat side of the neck. Necks can be glued to the body – called a set neck – or bolted on. Most acoustics are glued, but bolted on necks are common on electrics.
Fretboard / Fingerboard
The fretboard is a piece of wood glued to the flat side of the neck and is where you access all the musical notes. Fretboards are commonly made from hardwoods such as rosewood, maple, and ebony, and house the frets and fret markers.
On the fretboard are thin metal strips running width ways across the face of it. These metal strips go by the name of ‘fret-wires’. The space between these fret-wires is a fret. When we press a string down into one of these frets, we alter the length of the string. This alters the pitch at which the string vibrates. The number of frets can range from 19 all the way up to 27.
Fret markers are the little dots on the face of a fretboard, and sometimes on the side of the neck. These reference points help you navigate around the fretboard. Fret numbering usually goes at fret 3, 5, 7, 9 and 12. Fret 12 often has two markers, to indicate that you have reached the octave of the open string. The position markers go all the way up the fretboard.
Often the fretboard will have inlays that also help to navigate around. Some high-end vintage guitars use mother-of-pearl, but often a cheaper material called pearloid is used, especially on Gibson and Les Paul Copies.
The truss rod is a steel rod that is embedded in a specially cut groove on the inside of the neck. The purpose of the truss rod is twofold: to help strengthen the neck against the immense amount of force exerted upon it by the strings, and to adjust the curvature of the neck which is vital for a properly set-up guitar.
The truss can be accessed via the top or bottom of the neck, and special tools can be bought to tighten or loosen the truss rod. This tightening and loosening will alter the curvature of the neck.
The scratchplate (or ‘pick guard’) is a piece of plastic glued to the body to help protect from pick scrapes. Scrapes, over time, can damage the finish of your beloved instrument. On some electrics, the scratchplate is used to cover exposed electrics of the instrument and to help house and protect the pickups. On electrics, the plate is attached to the body by a number of small screws.
Bridge & Saddle
The bridge and saddle are intrinsically linked due to the saddle sitting within the bridge. Towards the bottom of the guitar is the bridge which holds your strings on and the saddle which allows fine adjustments to their placement. This is where the height of the strings can be adjusted.
Have you heard people talking about action? A higher action will make an acoustic harder to play but increase tonal quality. Lower actions make it easier to play but decreases tonal quality.
Acoustic bridges are usually wooden, with a plastic saddle that can easily be removed. Some acoustics may use a bone saddle. The bridge and saddle of electrics are usually made of metal. The strings sit in their own individual saddles, which can be adjusted independently of the other strings.
End Pin / Strap Button / Attachment Button
The small metal knob that you attach your guitar strap to (if you use one) has a few names: end pin, strap button, or attachment button.
Electric Guitar Anatomy
We’ll now look at components found only on electrics.
A pickup is a magnet wrapped in copper wire that picks up the vibration of a plucked string through the disturbance in the electromagnetic field. This is known as magnetic flux. This disturbance is converted to an electrical current through the copper wire, then sent to an amplifier so it can be heard. There are many different types of pickups but the two most common are single-coils and humbuckers.
A pickup’s location determines the characteristics of the tone. For example, if we choose to select the pickup closest to the bridge we will get a brighter tone, due to the relative tension of the strings above the pickup at that point. If we choose the pickup closer to the neck, we will hear a much warmer tone, due to the difference in the tension of the strings at that point. The pickup selector switch lets you choose which pickups to play through according to the tone you’re going after.
Volume & Tone Controls
Volume and tone controls are connected to the pickups, and twisting them up or down will either increase or decrease the volume, or overall tonal color of your ax. The tone controls can take your sound from bright and clear, to dark and muddy.
The whammy bar is attached to the bridge. When pressed down, it lowers the pitch of the stings by reducing the tension. When the whammy bar is rapidly pushed and released it produces a vibrato effect. Sometimes it’s referred to as a vibrato bar, or even a tremolo bar.
Acoustic Guitar Anatomy
We’ll now look at the components found only on acoustics.
Top / Soundboard
The soundboard or ‘top’ is the top piece of wood on an acoustic. They play a critical role in determining the tone and the projection quality of an instrument. When a string is plucked it causes the soundboard to reverberate across its surface. Different materials used for the soundboard produce different tones and volume.
The sound holes is the circular hole that can be found on the soundboard. Its primary function is to help project sound. Sound reverberates across the soundboard, into the guitar, before bouncing to the outside.
Bridge pins are six small, round balls found on the bridge that anchor the strings in place. They may be one of the smaller components found on an acoustic guitar, but their importance cannot be understated. Without pins to hold the string in place, an acoustic would be unplayable.