Today i’m going to talk about the parts of the guitar. It’s good to know what the parts are so you know what to blame your lousy playing on, or what to tell your local repair tech to fix when something actually really does go wrong – and it can be handy to know exactly how these things work so you can exploit it for your own ends.
Okay, on the HEADSTOCK we’ve got TUNING PEGS, also known as MACHINE HEADS. If you look on the back, there are gears, sometimes housed inside casings. As you know, gears can affect rotational speed as well as direction. So by turning the head of the machines (that’s those little gears), the STRING POST winds the string up tighter or looser, which makes the pitch go up or down. The tighter the string is pulled, the higher the pitch. Conversely, if the string is looser, the pitch will be lower.
Where the rotational speed comes into play is this: when you turn that peg several times around, the post only rotates once. This means that it changes pitch slower than the peg is being rotated, which gives you a lot of room to really dial in the perfect pitch for each string.
Some guitars (particularly the ones with six in-line tuners, rather than three + three) have a STRING RETAINER, or string tree, which holds the strings down, closer to the headstock, making the strings travel across the NUT at a slightly sharper angle. This gives the strings better tone and sustain, and probably helps in the volume department too. Headstocks that are already bent back at a sharp angle usually don’t need a string retainer.
The NUT is what determines the length of the string from the bridge. The string mainly only vibrates between the nut and the bridge, and this length, or scale (not to be confused with a musical scale, which is a series of pitches), when combined with the tension on the strings, produced by winding it tight at the MACHINE, is what accounts for the pitch of each open string. Thus, the tighter a string is pulled, the higher the pitch; and the higher up on the neck you fret a note, the higher the pitch also.
The TRUSS ROD ADJUSTMENT is sometimes located on the HEADSTOCK and sometimes down at the end of the neck by the PICKUPs or SOUNDHOLE. This loosens or tightens a metal rod inside the neck, which helps straighten it out. You can also add a little bit of BOWING to the neck to help the strings clear the frets. You generally don’t want very much bowing at all, and you never want it to bow outward, because then the strings will “fret out,” or hit frets before you even put your fingers on them, and you can imagine what kind of trouble that would cause.
Moving past the NUT, if you put your finger on the FRETBOARD, the part of the neck where those little metal strips called FRETS are, you can depress the string so that instead of stopping at the NUT, the string length ends at the fret in front of your finger, which produces a higher pitch, because the length is shortened. Remember, the higher the fret, the shorter the length, the higher the pitch.
To help you visually, FRET markers are embedded in the FRETBOARD. These can be dots or rectangles or “shark’s teeth” or anything fancy or simple. Generally, they are positioned at the 3rd, 5th, 7th, 9th, 12th, 15th, 17th, 19th, and 21st frets (and the 24th, if your guitar has that many frets – most stop at 21 or 22). In other words, every other fret, with an extra fret in between them near the ends and middle of the fretboard, for reason which will make sense when you start playing and learning about music theory. Often the 12th (and 24th) fret(s) will have double markers, because that’s where the octaves of each string are. An octave is basically the same exact note, but played in a higher or lower range. Some necks also have markers on the sides, since we don’t usually tend to play facing the fretboard directly (although it certainly can be done). And some necks have no markers, because the people playing them are so great that they not only don’t need them – they want everyone to know they don’t!
That’s an awful lot of exposition on a part which may or may not exist and has no real bearing on what sounds come out! I’m done with that.
And now, on to the BODY, where all the really cool stuff happens:
Those big nice, round curves are called BOUTS. There’s an UPPER and a LOWER BOUT. Some guitars, particularly electric guitars, have one or two CUTAWAYs, enabling your fingers to reach higher FRETS. This makes the UPPER BOUT resemble HORNS. Thus, the remaining wood at the BOUT where there’s a CUTAWAY is called a HORN. Not the same thing as a musical horn; if you blow on these horns, they won’t make any discernable noise… and you’ll look like a real moron.
Some guitars such as this Stratocaster have a PICKGUARD, or scratch plate, to protect the finish and wood during heavy strumming. Willie Nelson could sure use one.
On an acoustic guitar, you would find a soundhole here, cut into the soundboard, or top of the guitar. The guitar pictured above is a solidbody electric, and has no such devices; however, the vibration of the strings is instead picked up by things conveniently called PICKUPS, which have magnets and a coil of wire inside them, and convert the vibration of the strings to a tiny electrical signal. The guitar in the illustration happens to have three single-coil pickups, a pretty common configuration. Some have less. A few even more. Some electrics have dual-coil, or humbucking pickups, the coils of which are wired out of phase with each other to cancel any noise introduced by stray electrons, which come from electrical outlets and lots of other sources. Single coils can’t usually do that and are generally noticeably noisier. However, Stratocaster pickups are wired out of phase with each other; thus, when you use the PICKUP SELECTOR SWITCH to select either the BRIDGE PICKUP and the MIDDLE, or the NECK PICKUP and the MIDDLE, together they cancel out hum pretty well. (Incidentally, POSITION TWO, BRIDGE AND MIDDLE, produces that classic chimey, bell-like Strat sound that you’ve heard all your life.
From the SWITCH, the signal goes to volume and tone knobs, and then to the OUTPUT JACK, where you plug a cable connected to your amp, or effects, or a mixer.
Alright, enough about that stuff. Back to the strings…
The STRINGS terminate at the BRIDGE. They go over BRIDGE SADDLES (on many guitars, such as the Strat, there are separate saddles for each string, each adjustable for height and length), and stop at the TAILPIECE. On the Strat and many other guitars with FLOATING VIBRATO BRIDGEs, there is no actual separate tailpiece, and the string goes through a heavy metallic tone block underneath the vibrato unit (inside a cavity in the body) and ends inside there. (On an acoustic guitar, the ball end of the string is instead just pushed into little holes which are then secured with pins, while nylon-string guitars are actually wrapped and tied).
As i’ve said, the Strat above has a VIBRATO UNIT. The VIBRATO ARM is the long metal rod which you push down or pull up on to raise or lower the pitch. The way this works is that it loosens the strings when pushing down, or tightens them when pulling up. (Remember that when you tighten the tension on the strings, the pitch rises, and it lowers when you loosen them.) Now, in the back of the guitar, in the VIBRATO CAVITY, springs equalize the tension on the opposite side of the BRIDGE from the tension the strings themselves provide when they’re pulling on the top, thus returning the guitar back to normal pitch (hopefully!) when releasing the vibrato.
Incidentally, the vibrato unit is sometimes called a “whammy bar” (a term having its origins in ’70s – ’80s butt-rock), or the “tremolo,” which is technically incorrect, since tremolo is a modulation in volume, whereas vibrato is a modulation of pitch.
On the back of the guitar, there’s the HEEL, where the neck is bolted on the guitar (glued on acoustics). Then at the center-end of the lower bout and the topmost of the upper bouts are the strap retainers… i’m thinking you can probably pretty much figure that out for yourself.
That’s it for the parts of the guitar. Explore yours and have fun!