I received a question from Jamie Baxley via the AllExperts website a while ago, asking me for advice about choosing an electric guitar. This is quite a wide-ranging subject and so I decided to write a series of articles here covering the hardware side of things.
First off, I suppose we'd better look at the various types of guitar that there are out there. Here I'm going to concentrate on what are technically known as 'Spanish' guitars (that is, guitars that are played with the face of the guitar facing away from you, as opposed to 'lap' guitars which are played lying flat on your lap). Becuase of their prevalence, whenever you hear the word 'guitar' what you are most likely to be talking about is a Spanish guitar.
These are fairly broad categories, but in general you might expect to encounter:
Classical guitars are acoustic instruments. That is to say, they rely on their hollow body to naturally amplify the sound of the strings (as opposed to an electric guitar which uses pickups and an amplifier to make itself heard). The strings on a classical guitar are usually made of nylon, and the fingerboard has a flat profile.
As it's name suggests, the classical guitar is generally used for classical music. However, it is occaisonally used for other styles, for example in jazz, for the softness of tone from the nylon strings.
Almost without exception, classical guitars are played with the fingers, rather than with any sort for pick or plectrum.
This type of guitar is visually very similar to a classical guitar, but there are a number of significant differences which set it apart.
Firstly, the strings are made of steel rather than nylon and so this type of guitar has a brighter sound than its classical cousin. Also, the fingerboard has a slightly curved profile.
A feature which you may see on some steel-string acoustic guitars is a scratchplate; a piece of plastic on the top of the guitar intended to protect the finish against scratches, etc.
This type of guitar is used for a wide range of musical styles, including folk, country, blues and rock. Depending on the musical style, a steel-string acoustic guitar may be played fingerstyle or with a plectrum.
A solid-bodied electric guitar is significantly different from its acoustic counterparts. Because the body is solid, there is no natural amplification and volume is provided by means of some electronics.
Electric guitars are equipped with one or more electromagnatic devices called pickups. When the strings (always made of steel or steel-based alloy) are plucked, their vibration disrupts the magnetic field around the pickups and this, in turn, creates an electrical signal. This signal goes into an amplifier which converts the signal to sound via a speaker.
Because there is an electronic element here, electric guitars can produce a very wide range of sounds. Different types of pickup can produce different sounds (fat, bright, etc.) and various devices, such as effects pedals, can be used between the guitar and the amplifier to change the sound more radically.
Electric guitars are used a lot in rock and pop music, and they also have a significant presence in other musical genres including blues and country.
The neck on an electic guitar has a curved profile, and electric guitars often include pieces of hardware not encountered on acoustic instruments, such as a tremelo for changing the pitch of the strings whilst playing. Electric guitars are very often played with a plectrum, although there a number of very notable exponents of the electric guitar who play fingerstyle.
A type of hybrid-guitar often used in jazz and rock & roll music. A semi-acoustic guitar is essentially an electric guitar with a hollow body. It's sound is a combination of the natural acoustic tone plus the amplified sound which comes from the pickups.
Not to be confused with semi-acoustic guitars, electro-acoustics are steel-string acoustic guitars with some form of pickup. These guitars often use a piezo pickup (which is stimulated by vibration) rather than magnetic pickups, and so have a more natural acoustic-like sound. However, because of the pickup, they can be amplified easily.
There are a number of variations on the formats mentioned here. For example:
As the name suggests, 12 strings rather than the usual 6. The lower 4 strings are paired with strings an octave higher. The upper 4 strings are paired with strings with the same pitch. The 12 string has a brighter more bell-like sound than a 6-string. These usually appear in acoustic form, but electric 12-strings are also available - sometimes as double-neck instruments (effectively a 6-string and a 12-string sharing the same body).
Tuned an octave lower than a regular guitar. 4 strings is the norm, although basses with 5 or 6 strings are not uncommon.
A modern style of electric guitar, featuring an additional low string (usually B below bottom E). Much loved by hard rock guitarists for their heavy sound.
A guitar body/neck with very sophisticated electronics allowing the guitar to be used to control a synthesiser. Virtually any sound is possible from these instruments as the guitar is simply acting as a controller for the synth (instead of a keyboard).
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