An essential skill for any beginner is to understand what all the parts of the guitar are called.
Firstly. because as a student of the guitar, it’s good to know your instrument.
Secondly, over the course of your playing career, you’re going to need to take your guitar 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’, or ‘your action needs lowering’, you’ll know what they’re talking about.
In this essential guide to guitar anatomy, we explain the terminology for each type of guitar (acoustic and electric) and what all the different parts are.
Here’s what we’ll cover:
- Electric and Acoustic Guitars (Common Parts)
- Electric Guitar Anatomy
- Acoustic Guitar Anatomy
Electric and Acoustic Guitars (Common Parts)
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 of the guitar, especially on acoustics.
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. The difference in shape and size of a headstock is a good indication of the type and manufacturer of the guitar. For example, the much-loved Stratocaster all come with the same 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
There are quite a few names for these, as you can see. They are attached to and protrude from the headstock of the guitar 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 that 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 electric guitars.
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 are called 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 on a guitar 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 are reference points, which help you to navigate around the fretboard. Fret markers are found on frets 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 material called pearloid is used, especially on Gibson guitars and 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 are available designed to tighten or loosen the truss rod. This tightening and loosening will alter the curvature of the neck.
The scratch plate 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 scratch plate is used to cover exposed electrics of the instrument and to help house and protect the pickups. On electrics, these plates are 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.
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 of the guitar, we will hear a much warmer tone, due to the placement of the pickup and 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
Soundboards are the top piece of wood of the body of an acoustic guitar. 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.
Two examples of this are spruce, which provides crisp high ends and lots of volume; and mahogany, which has a warmer tone and lends itself to softer sounds. A master luthier can spend hours shaving tiny pieces of wood off a soundboard until they get it to the desired tone they are looking for.
Soundholes are the circular hole that can be found on the soundboard. Their 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.