This article is a general overview of the electric guitar. We cover the woods, acoustic sound, construction, necks and fretboards, pickups and hardware and show you how to purchase and maintain an electric guitar that you’ll love for years to come.
The woods that your guitar is constructed from will give you your tone. For the most part we are dealing with Mahogany, Swamp Ash or Ash, Alder, Maple, with more exotic woods such as Korina. Let’s discuss the two most popular.
Mahogany is a very rich and warm sounding wood. Gibson use this as a tone-wood for their Les Paul and SG models. These guitars also feature a Mahogany neck which further adds to the warmth of the sound. For a clean signal these woods are very smooth, full and jazz-like and have been used by Larry Carlton and Robben Ford for these reasons.
With gain or distortion the woods take on a ‘classic rock’ vibe. Led Zeppelin and AC/DC have helped to make this sound very much part of rock history. It really bites when picked hard and is very smooth when strummed or picked as single notes. A good example of the smooth tone of these woods is the the intro to Guns N’ Roses classic Sweet Child Of Mine, which is played on a Gibson Les Paul on the neck pickup.
Alder is classic Fender tone. It was Fender’s replacement for the more expensive swamp ash but has become a sought after tone wood in its own right. Alder has a ‘snap’ to the tone that can be heard on most of Hendrix’s work. It’s a thin sound that still retains lots of character, and it’s bright and therefore cuts through a mix or live sound with ease.
Clean tones are ‘jangly’ as demonstrated by Mark Knopfler (think Sultans of Swing). These classic tones are still favored by modern artists such as John Mayer. Slight overdrive really adds to the ‘snap’ of the sound. John Mayer has a classic Alder tone.
These woods have been in popular use since the late 50s and are usually what we expect a guitar to sound like. All musical genres have used these two woods over the years and they are now firmly established as the sound of the electric guitar.
Acoustic sound is vital to the overall sound of an electric guitar. Acoustically it should resonate when strummed across all strings and should have a good acoustic volume. Check the body of the instrument when playing it. It should have a lively vibration and this can be checked by hitting the B string and placing your hand directly onto the body. There should be a strong vibration. This indicates that the guitar is alive and will sound good amplified.
This should be the first thing you check, if you don’t like the way it sounds acoustically or it does not have any of the above characteristics then don’t even bother to plug it in. Remember all guitars are not equal regardless of the model or manufacturer.
The best woods available will only sound good if the construction of the instrument is to the highest quality. Neck-to-body joint is paramount, as this is the single most important construction consideration. Look at the point were the neck sits at the body—there should be no visible gaps and should generally look tidy.
The finish of the instrument is also important. Unfinished or natural guitars will resonate more because the wood is free to vibrate, and finishes should be applied as thinly as possible to preserve the characteristics of the tone woods. Go for a thin finish for the best sound. Also, ‘thick finishes’ have been used in the past to hide a particularly bad looking piece of wood, sunburst guitars generally use better wood than solid colored guitars simply because you can see the wood through the finish.
Necks and Fretboards
Modern guitar construction gives us a choice of through or bolt-on necks. The through neck is glued into place (without bolts) and generally aids the access to the higher frets due to the smoothness of the neck joint. There is some contention as to whether or not the through neck aids tone and sustain. Many believe it does, and others believe a bolt-on neck gives a crisper sound. Use your ears to decide.
The radius of the neck is important. It will determine the comfort of the instrument and should be a primary consideration when buying your guitar. Make sure you can play chords and single notes with ease and also check string bending and vibrato. Check the edge of the fretboard . Do the strings sit too close to the edge for you? Are the strings easy to push off the board?
Fret-wire is important for the overall playing and feel. Common sizes are small, medium and jumbo. It’s easier to fret a note with a bigger fret-wire. Fret-wire is made from nickel or stainless steel, the latter having a much longer lifespan.
Common fretboard woods are Rosewood, Maple and Ebony. Rosewood adds a warmth to the tone. Maple adds a clean crisp edge and Ebony is somewhere in the middle of the two. Not too bright, not too warm—a very nice compromise.
Scale length is a personal choice. A smaller scale length allows you to use thicker strings—the belief is that the more string vibrating over the pickups the thicker the sound. Use your ears and decide for yourself.
Popular pickup choices are Humbuckers, Single Coils and P90s. Humbuckers have a ‘big’ sound that cancels hum due to construction. Rock players favor these as they react well with distortion and remain ‘tight and focused’ with a big sound. You can coil tap humbuckers to create a single coil type of sound. This is usually done with a ‘tap-switch’.
Single coils are weaker in comparison but offer a sound all of their own. They can sound ‘nasty’ in a good way. They are also great for that classic "blues " sound. A downfall of the single-coil is that they are not hum-canceling and can be noisy especially under fluorescent lighting. Modern single coils such as the DiMarzio Crusier have hum-canceling features so noise is not so much of an issue.
The P90 is an overgrown single coil so it falls right in the middle of the two sounds.
Pickups are a personal choice. A good way to utilize the available sounds is to go for a guitar with a mixture of pick-ups. For instance, neck and middle single-coil and bridge humbucker. Coupled with a 5-way selector switch this will give a wide choice of sound options covering all musical styles.
A guitar is fitted with various hardware parts. In general they consist of a bridge, volume, tone controls and machine heads.
Bridge types are fixed, tremolo and floating tremolo systems. In the early 80s floating tremolos were a big part of rock guitar, the tremolo literally floated in the recess of the guitar allowing you to raise and lower pitch with the bar, these allowed some crazy sounds to be made that became a trademark of early 80s rock. The downfall of this system was they were high maintenance and became feared by guitar technicians. The floating trem is currently out of vogue and seen as a little over the top but again your own needs should govern your own choice. Beware that guitar techs will charge more to set these systems up as they require more time to find the optimum position for the floating tremolo.
The classic Fender tremolo bridge can also float if required but tuning stability is seriously compromised if this option is favored. Usually Fender bridges are set against the body so that pitch can only be lowered.
Many players believe that a fixed bridge is the best overall option for tone. Because of its solid to-body construction it really resonates against the tone wood of the body and tone appears ‘thicker’. Many classic Gibson guitars are built on this premise.
Machine heads control the amount of tension on your strings and are used to bring the guitar into tune after careful adjustment of each one. ‘Locking’ machine heads hold the string in place firmly and aid tuning stability, an ideal companion for the classic Fender tremolo bridge system.
A guitar owner should take care to ensure their instrument is kept well maintained. This will prolong the life of the guitar as well as ensure that it sounds its best at all times.
Complete sets of strings should be changed regularly to keep tone at an optimum. The amount of time between string changes will vary from player to player depending on how long they play for. Don’t wait for your strings to break before changing them.
At some point in the guitar’s life you will want to get a professional luthier to service it. This will include fret dressing, truss rod adjustments and general repairs. This will further extend the life of your instrument as well as keeping its resale value.
Ultimately your guitar is a personal choice. It must fit your needs in terms of sound and playability, feel good and inspire you to play and practice.
I hope you have enjoyed this guide to electric guitars and it serves as food for thought.