If you have played an electric guitar before and know how it’s tuned, you can move on to the next section. But right now, we are digging into the core of what an electric guitar is.
If you take a look at 98% of electric guitars, you will notice that they all have some set parts. From the body and neck to the tuners, pickups and strings, everything makes a difference to your sound. But don’t worry, because aside from the body and neck, every other part of the guitar has some level of customisation after purchase. This means that you can fine-tune it to fit your sound, anytime you need to.
The Basics - Electric Guitar
Let’s break down exactly what makes up a guitar, so that you know what we’ll be talking about throughout the rest of this guide.
As you’ve seen, the guitars in the image above have 6 strings, which is standard for an electric guitar. Normally tuned EADGBe (from low to high – thick string to thin string), the guitar has been designed to fit within the confines of a band with a bassist, drummer and vocalist. While it can be wonderful on its own, in a band setup it really comes to life.
Now, just because these guitars have 6 strings, it doesn’t mean all guitars do. And just because EADGBe is the standard tuning, it also doesn’t mean that everyone tunes to that. The joy of the guitar world is that there are no boundaries. There are extended range guitars now available with 7, 8 and even 9 strings, and some people that tune their guitars as low as a bass. It’s safe to say that you have options. The great thing about the electric guitar is that although the instrument may get more complicated from a playing perspective, the fundamentals of the instrument stay the same.
This is an important part of choosing the right guitar. While pickups, electronics, tuners, bridges and pretty much anything else can be changed at any time, you are normally stuck with the body and neck. So making sure that you get something that hits the trifecta of looking, feeling and sounding great for you is vital to getting the right guitar.
Here we have a brief rundown of some of the most commonly used materials and an idea of what they should sound and feel like. If you want a truly in-depth look at the different tonewoods, check out our tonewood guide!
Now, when looking at the body woods, you have a wide range of different options. If you look hard enough, you will be able to find a guitar made out of almost any wood possible. There are, however, a few select choices that will appear over and over again in your searches.
|Mahogany||Gibson, PRS, Schecter, ESP, and many others brands use Mahogany to form the bodies of most of their guitar designs. Some use it for the neck as well, so you get a warm but balanced tone all-round. Commonly used on guitars made for blues, rock and metal, Mahogany is heavy and well-wearing, with a warmer overall sound without being unbalanced.|
|Alder||This is probably the most neutral of the tonewoods commonly used in guitar construction. It is neither too bright nor too warm, making it a great choice for guitarists who want a versatile guitar that can do a bit of everything. If you have played a Fender Stratocaster or Telecaster, then you have most likely played a guitar with an Alder body.|
|Ash||Depending on the type of Ash being used, you will either have an Alder-like neutral tone or something a little bit brighter. If you’ve played a Fender guitar that isn’t made out of Alder, it’s most likely going to be made of Ash. This balanced tone makes it a great choice for those that want a jack-of-all-trades instrument, suitable for many genres.|
|Maple||Although Maple is not often used for guitar bodies, it is very commonly found on its own or as part of a 3ply Maple/Poplar/Maple build on a semi-hollow or hollow-body guitar. It suits these larger guitars as it has a very bright sound that stops the hollow designs from sounding too muddy.|
|Basswood||This is a wood that is always debated heavily online. Due to its lightweight and cheap cost, a lot of people think that it’s a poor-quality tonewood. That’s far from the truth however, with multiple companies and artists making guitars to take advantage of its bright and lightweight nature. Normally used on guitars designed for shredders and beginners guitars, Basswood is quite unique yet divisive.|
|Korina||Although you don’t see Korina as much anymore, at one point it was set to become the future of the electric guitar. It’s lighter in weight than Mahogany but with more low-end and high-end. Sometimes called a ‘super-Mahogany’, if you like the tonal qualities of Mahogany then you’ll love Korina.|
If you’ve been looking at guitars, you have might have already started to drift to a particular body style. This could be due to looks, feel or tone, but everyone has their type. Some will prefer Les Pauls while others will be after Strats, PRS, Teles, or many others. Maybe something offset like Duesenberg or Reverend?
Finding the right body shape for you can be tough, as it needs to hit the trifecta of tone looks, feel and sounds. If it looks great but is made in the wrong way or with the wrong materials, you won’t be able to get the sound you're looking for. If it plays like a dream but you don’t like the look, you may not feel motivated to play it that much. This is the real struggle of being a guitar player...
Hollow-body, semi-hollow or solid-body?
Taking it right back to the basics, there are three different types of guitar body construction - solid, semi-hollow and hollow. This will be one of the most important choices for getting your tone, as it really does affect the sound of your guitar.
Normally, full hollow-body guitars are used by jazz players and some blues players. This is because the large open body not only creates a large amount of low-end, but it will feedback nicely when used with a decent amount of drive.
The semi-hollow takes off from where the full hollow-body gets used, and is commonly used in everything from blues to hard rock. Depending on the guitar and amp setup, all of the resonance and feedback issues of a full hollow-body should be gone. This means that you can layer up a fair amount of gain before getting any serious issues.
Finally, we have solid-body guitars. This is what you will see a majority of guitarists using, from soft rock and blues all the way up to soaring death metal. These guitars have next to no feedback issues, and deliver a tight sound with a fast attack. This means that it works much better for most styles where you don’t want the large resonant low-end of the hollow guitar.
Now, which one suits you? That’s completely up to you and what you want to play. The softer the style, the more open to hollow-bodies you can be. If you want to play with overdrive doing shredding leads, then a solid-body is 100% the way you want to go.
This is another big part of choosing your next guitar. Just like the bodies, the neck choice comes down to personal preference, but this time is more focused on feel rather than tone. While these can be made out of a bunch of different materials, you’re more likely to be concerned with the size and shape of the neck.
While some necks are small and slim to accommodate players who want to play fast, others are much larger and chunkier so you can dig in for bigger chords. This is all just personal preference, however some people will feel completely out of place with a large neck or a small neck. For example, players like Paul Gilbert and Richie Kotzen, who are both amazing lead players, choose to play guitars with very thick necks that normally wouldn’t be found on a ‘shred’ guitar.
Another large element with choosing a neck comes down to the materials, and the finish. These, again, are down to personal preference, but take a look at the lists below of different neck and fingerboard materials:
- Maple: A light coloured wood commonly used on guitars with slimmer necks, thanks to its smooth surface and rigidity that keeps it stable at all times. Can be found on most Fender guitars.
- Mahogany: A darker coloured wood that doesn’t have much of a visible grain. It’s heavy but not as strong as some other materials, making it the best choice for medium to thick sized necks. Found on most PRS and Gibson guitars.
- Rosewood: An even darker wood that is not used too often, but is loved by a lot of players thanks to its fantastic grain unfinished and smooth feel that players love. Fender, PRS and others sometimes use this on limited run models.
- Bubinga: This is a material you won’t see too often on its own as a guitar neck, but it does get used. Common on bass guitars, Bubinga has an excellent low-end response and is very tough, making it perfect for 7, 8 or even 9 string guitars. Ibanez have used this in the past for some of their larger necked guitars.
- Multi-Ply: Having a multi-ply neck can give you the best of different types of wood. Want a Maple neck but want it to be able to handle heavier strings as well? By adding Bubinga or Walnut stripes through the neck you can not only give it a fuller sound with better low-end response, but also make the neck much stronger. Ibanez love using multi-ply necks and you’ll find this on a lot of their guitars.
- Maple: These offer a bright sound with excellent attack. Most commonly used on Fender-style guitars, Maple works great both lacquered and un-lacquered.
- Rosewood: This is one of the most used fretboard materials. It has a slightly darker tone than other fretboard types and requires a bit more maintenance, but it works amazingly well in workhorse guitars that need to play variety of styles.
- Ebony: This is generally used on two types of electric guitars. Both shred-based lead guitars and traditional Gibson Les Pauls have used this material for years. It has a very smooth action and is quite bright, sitting tonally between maple and rosewood.
- Richlite: This is a material that has been used a lot by Gibson in recent years, which closely mimics Ebony. This is due to the issue of a dwindling supply of Ebony.
When looking at electric guitars, there are three main types of pickups. While there are some oddities in the pickup world that don’t fit into these three categories, they are far and few between.
|Single-coil||Single-coil pickups were the original electric guitar pickups. They are loved for their bright sound, that has appeared on countless records over the years. The one major issue with these pickups is the amount of hum they make. This can heavily interfere with your tone, especially at high volumes.|
|Humbucker||These are probably the most common and popular pickups available, thanks to their versatile nature and silent operation. Like the name suggests, these pickups ‘buck hum’ or in other words get rid of the background noise you have with single-coil pickups. These are great for a wide range of styles, from blues, rock, jazz and more.|
|P90||Essentially a hot single-coil pickup, the P-90 has a very different build to the standard single-coil. The main tonal difference comes from the mid-range, where the P90 is much more pronounced|
You will nearly always have at least a pickup next to the bridge, and another one next to the neck. Sometimes, however, you will get a different combination like 3 pickups (bridge, middle, neck) or just a single pickup in the bridge position. Again, people use different pickups for different things, so while someone may play their rhythm sections on the middle pickup and lead on the neck, others may work the other way around.
There are a surprising amount of electronics options when it comes to guitars. Unlike bass, you are unlikely to find active (powered) electronics if you don’t have powered pickups, as quite often the extra control is not needed. Even without these however, the controls available to you give you a great range of tones. What you will find on guitars, however, are things like coil splits, coil taps, phase inverters, TBX controls, mid-boost circuits and more. Nearly all of these circuits can be run completely passively, so there is no need for any external power source. Here are some of the more common controls you will find on a range of electric guitars and what they do.
- Volume: Change the volume level of your pickup(s).
- Tone: High-end cut; extremely useful in blues and jazz-style playing.
- Coil Split/Tap: Changes the wiring of a humbucking pickup to make it sound more like a single-coil.
- Mid-Boost: This added control adds volume and mid-range to your tone, letting your sound pop more during solos.
- Killswitch: A button or switch that kills the signal to your guitar, giving you a staccato effect (e.g. 'Jordan' by Buckethead).
In summary, there are so many different options with electric guitar that sometimes finding what is right for you is a challenge. A thing to remember is that apart from the neck and body, on a lot of guitars everything else can be changed and modified further down the line.
So, if you can find a guitar that feels great and resonates how you want, but maybe doesn’t have the right tone or output level, you can change that with updated electronics at a later date. Another thing to note is that while all guitars have the style they are made for, they are never limited to just that.
For example, there are a lot of heavy metal artists that use guitars from typically "not metal" brands like Fender, and there are blues and rock artists that use hardware typically associated with metal. This means that you should just keep your mind open! While the sound in your head may be bluesy, the hardware that gets you to your sound may not be typically used by those who inspire you.