The world of guitars has a load of trendy words and phrases that ‘people in the know’ use. If you’re new to playing guitar, it’s worth understanding what these terms mean, so that you can nod in agreement next time the guy down your local guitar shop says ‘cool rig bro’.
Here are some of the most popular slang terms you’ll come across, along with explanations.
Slang for Guitars
Ax (or Axe)
Using the term ‘ax’ to describe guitars dates back to 1955 when it was jazz slang for the saxophone. There has been speculation about whether this was because of the rhyme (Sax/Ax), or because of the swinging actions saxophonists tend to do mid-play.
The term then became popular with trumpets – because of the resemblance to an ax – and eventually became a common way to describe a guitar.
Bryan Adams described his guitar as a “six-string” in ‘The Summer of 69’. Although some guitars have twelve strings, and some even have seven, six is the most common number, so people know which instrument you’re referring to when you use this descriptive slang term.
The term ‘jazz box’ is sometimes used to describe semi-hollow body guitars. These guitars have violin-style f-holes, so they are lighter than solid-bodied guitars but can also cause feedback if you’re rocking out with them. They’re not hugely popular amongst rock players, but the likes of Dave Grohl and Chuck Berry have achieved brilliant results from them. As the name suggests, ‘jazz box’ guitars are most commonly used for jazz guitar.
Slang for Guitar Sounds
Ever heard people talk about a “dirty” bass-line or a “filthy” guitar solo? The term simply means an overdriven sound. When the gain control on an amplifier gets turned up, the sound becomes increasingly distorted, or ‘dirty’. There are of course many guitar pedals available to create the same effect. ‘Dirty’ sounds are the norm in rock music, particularly on the heavier side of the scale.
The opposite to dirty sounds are clean sounds. Most songs contain at least some ‘clean’ guitar. This is when the gain on the amplifier is set below the threshold required to produce overdrive. When the electric guitar is clean, it sounds as close to an acoustic guitar as it can get. ‘Clean’ generally means free of any effects at all.
The type of distortion known as ‘fuzz’ could also be described as ‘dirty’. When a guitar sound is described as ‘fuzzy’, it means that it’s being clipped extremely hard, rather than being gently overdriven. Fuzzy sounds are often heard on lead guitar work. Playing rhythm through a fuzz would likely end up incoherent, due to the dramatic noisiness of the effect.
Drop D is a tuning method that’s popular among heavy metal guitarists. As opposed to the standard tuning method, Drop D entails lowering the E string down to a D. This tuning makes it easier to create ‘heavier’ sounds, as you can play lower notes than before. It even makes it possible to play power chords using one finger. Heavy genres such as stoner rock, thrash metal, and doom tend to use Drop D or even lower down-tunings.
Slang for Guitar Techniques
Riffs – otherwise known as ‘ostinatos’ – are short, repetitive sections of music. These often become the theme of songs. Think ‘Smoke on the Water’, or ‘Sunshine of Your Love’; it’s likely that the riff is the first thing that jumps into your head. Popular riffs are usually simple sounding and easy to play, making them a huge part of most beginner guitarists’ learning process.
A lick is quite similar to a riff, as it’s a catchy melody that’s played on the guitar. However, licks don’t need to be repeated. They are often memorable parts of solos or used as intros to songs. Jimi Hendrix’s playing was full of licks, and it’s one of the words you’d use to describe the intro to ‘Purple Haze’, ‘Voodoo Chile’ or ‘Hey Joe’. Licks are usually higher in pitch than riffs, and often include a few more techniques such as bends, slides or hammer-ons.
Shred is a term used to describe very fast, impressive playing. It’s most commonly associated with artists such as Yngwie Malmsteen, Steve Vai and metal guitarists like Dimebag Darrell and Zakk Wylde. The term is thought to originate from the idea that playing so fast and practicing for so long might literally ‘shred’ your fingers.
Slang for Guitar Parts
So, the proper term for this is ‘tremolo’, but that is nowhere near as fun to say as “Whammy Bar”, and a fun tool deserves a fun name! The whammy bar is the metal bit you often see on a Stratocaster, that enables you to lift the bridge a little away from the guitar, and bend the notes downwards! Some whammy bars allow you to bend both ways. Whammy bars can be used for wild vibrato, dive-bomb sounds or for slow, controlled bends.
Some people shorten the word pickups to ‘pups’ to describe the magnetic transducers that pick up the vibrations from the strings and convert them into signals to make an electric guitar sound. If you ever hear somebody in a guitar shop talking about swapping their pups, they’re probably not talking about exchanging pets.
Pots are what many people call the tone and volume knobs on the body of the guitar. The term ‘pots’ can refer to the external plastic, or more commonly to the ‘potentiometers’ themselves. When potentiometers are turned, the electrical resistance of the circuit is altered, which in turn adjusts either your tone or your volume.
Other Guitar Related Slang
Another word guitarists often use is ‘rig’. ‘Rig’ is the term that describes the entirety of a guitarist’s equipment, including instrument, pedals, and amps. Guitarists often talk about “adding equipment to their rig,” or ask other guitarists what their ‘rig’ consists of. If you’re interested in the rigs that different guitarists use, check out our growing collection of gear guides here.
So, we’ve covered some of the most frequent guitar-related slang terms, but there are plenty more. Be sure to check out our guitar anatomy article for a glossary of all the parts of the guitar (acoustic and electric).