Introduction to the Electric Guitar
The electric guitar is easily the most recognized and one of the most versatile instruments in modern music. First developed in 1931, it has become the standard lead instrument for rock and blues, although it is used in all modern forms of music. The classic look and the wide variety of available sounds make the electric guitar one of the most popular instruments for budding musicians. Let’s go over some of the basics of this great instrument.
Style, Manufacture, and Design
Among the numerous differences between electric and acoustic guitars, body type is probably the most obvious and important. Where acoustic guitars have hollow bodies which help to produce their sound, most electric guitars are made with solid bodies. (There are some that are fully hollow or have hollow chambers within, and even some semi-acoustic and electric/acoustic models. These all produce different sounds.) Electric guitars produce their sound with magnetic pickups and the sounds are then amplified. The strings are generally of a lighter gauge, which makes for easier and faster play than on the acoustic. Electrics generally have a slimmer profile than their acoustic counterparts, and the variety of available woods, designs, and finishes are virtually limitless.
Although there are many different designs of electric guitar, there are two particular designs that are widely used. There is the Gibson Les Paul (introduced in 1952), which has one cutaway at the bottom of the guitar, and the Fender Stratocaster (introduced in 1954), which features an extra cutaway on the top of the body for added access to the high notes. These two guitar styles are still extensively used by guitarists of all budgets and playing skills, and are copied by other manufacturers.
The types of wood used to manufacture an electric guitar will strongly affect its tone. A lighter wood will generally produce a brighter tone, whereas a darker or heavier wood will produce a deeper tone. The wood used on fretboards, often mahogany, maple or rosewood, is chosen for its looks and durability.
Pickups and Amplification
As electric guitars are usually solid bodied and can’t resonate loudly, their sound needs to be produced electronically. Electric guitars have pickups, which are composed of magnets and electric coils, to produce the sound being played on the strings. The sound is then carried through a jack and cord to an electric amplifier.
Between the sound control knobs on the guitar to the numerous controls on most amps, a wide variety of sounds can be produced. But that’s only the beginning. The sonic palette can be expanded to almost infinite possibilities with the use of effect pedals.
Many professional electric guitarists customize their sound with the use of effect units. These are usually in the form of pedals or “stomp boxes,” although they can also be mounted on a rack. Some guitarists use only one pedal at a time, while others have numerous pedals lined up in series for different effects. Effect pedals modulate the sounds being produced. Some of the more popular effect pedals include the “wah wah” pedal, envelope shapers, distortion pedals, and delay and reverb pedals. As you get more proficient in your playing, you will probably want to explore this new world of sounds.
Strings and Action
Generally, strings used for an electric guitar are of a lighter gauge than acoustic guitar strings. They do not need to be as thick because the sounds being played are reproduced electronically. Still, they come in a wide variety of gauges to fit your playing style. Lighter strings bend more easily and have a brighter sound, whereas thicker-gauge strings produce a heavier tone. If you don’t know what strings to use, you may want to check out Guitar Player or similar magazines to find out what strings are used by players whose style you wish to emulate. Generally, the strings initially included with your guitar are medium-to-light gauge, and perfectly fine for a start.
“Action” refers to how low the strings are set to the neck. How high or low you want the strings set will be determined by the style of playing you want most to do. When you are starting out, it’s best to have your guitar set up by a professional at a music store or guitar repair shop.
In addition to the myriad sounds that can be produced by your guitar in combination with your amp and effect pedals, there are certain playing techniques that have developed over the last several decades which can increase your sonic palette even more. Let’s review some of the more popular techniques.
String Bending is usually accomplished with lighter-gauge strings.
Tremolo can be accomplished with the “whammy bar” included on many electrics, or by bending the string up and down while playing.
Tapping is accomplished by using both hands on the fretboard. Used widely by 80’s rock bands, and by players like Eddie Van Halen, Frank Zappa and Steve Hackett of Genesis. This technique is also frequently used on electric bass guitar.
Hammer-ons and pull-offs will produce “legato,” or a smooth, silence-free transition between notes. This is achieved by playing a note, then hammering on with another finger of the left hand to play another note without picking it, or playing a note then pulling off, “semi-plucking” with the left hand to play a lower note, again without picking it.
With the wide variety of guitars available, it can seem overwhelming when choosing your own instrument. When you are starting out, you don’t need to lay down $3000 for a signature model. Take a realistic look at your budget. Chances are you will be able to find a model that works. Check out reviews in the trade magazines, particularly Guitar World and Guitar Player. Talk to your guitarist friends. Check out the selection at your local musical instrument store, and talk with the salespeople. They should be able to help you make a good choice based on your playing style and budget.
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