How long have you been imagining your fingers running up and down steel strings, flashing at the speed of lightning, as thunder escapes your amp? How many times have you picked up your air guitar and started headbanging to the music you knew you wanted to be performing? Don’t tell me you have never woken from a dream of holding a concert at a stadium in front of thousands of people. We all know it is a lie. We all know that each person has a secret desire to be the rockstar that rocks the world to its very foundation. What I am saying is that everybody wants to be Dave Grohl.
Well, not everybody can.
Only if you understand the intricacies of creating and playing music can you become like the person above. Yet, this post is not for me to teach you about music. It is for me to tell you about a very small, but important detail, of being one type of a rockstar. I would like to tell you about the all powerful axe of thunder and lightning, the deafening and heart ripping, the beautiful and soothing, electric guitar. Well, more like talk about as many electric guitars as possible. This way I can give you a general idea of what the musical instrument is and what you can do with it.
What is an electric guitar?
It might be surprising, but the very first electric guitars were not intended for rock and roll. They were built to help guitars be heard better by crowds among the cacophony of other instruments. Ever since then (the early 1920s I mean) the electric guitars have come a long way. Now, thank the sky, we live in an age when guitars are shredding machines as much as they are part of orchestras. Much more for shredding actually.
So what is an electric guitar? Today, when we talk about electric guitars, most of us think of the solid body electric guitar. These are the most prolific among the several types of electric guitars. They have no projection without being plugged into an amp, are often seen in the hands of a variety of musicians (especially metal and hard rock musicians) and usually have a huge range of sounds they can produce.
The thing is, an electric guitar is not just the famous solid body. There are several types of electric guitars: The Solid Body, Semi-Hollow Body and Hollow Body.
All three guitars are electric and yet all three produce a different sound and feel different when held or played. The hollow body guitar projects even without an amp, even if the projection is slightly dulled. The semi-hollow body guitar does not have powerful projection, but adds a little bit of depth to the sound of the guitar when played with an amp.
There are also other guitars that have electronics on them, yet they cannot be considered electric guitars. Some acoustic guitars have built in tuners and pre-amps, but remain acoustic as their main source of amplification is the body of the guitar.
An electric guitar is one that uses its electronics and an amplified as the main source of sound.
How is it made?
So how are these legendary instruments made? You might be surprised to find out that the process is not that much different from the acoustic guitar. The anatomy is basically identical: the guitar has a body, a neck and a tuning machine. The main difference lies in the details of how the guitar is constructed, as well as the presence of electronics.
The body of the electric guitar is more dense, especially with a solid body. This is because the solid body does not need a body constructed specifically for projection. The result is a smaller, more comfortable to hold guitar, which might be a little heavier and denser than the average acoustic guitar. As mentioned before, there are three electric guitar body styles, the choice of which is entirely up to you.
Each type lends itself better to a specific sound and genre than others. The solid body guitars are more adept at resonating sustain heavy sounds, so are well fitted for hard rock and metal.
Semi-Hollow body guitars have a warmer tone and more detail to their sound, yet they cannot handle sustain as well. This tends to land them in the blues, jazz and pop area. Yet there are many examples of such guitars being used in more heavy sounding genres, using their issues with sustain creatively and to great results.
Hollow body electric guitars are probably ones that are entirely limited in their application. They are much better at amplifying clean sounds, without sustain. This is why you will hear them played by country musicians, pop musicians and some jazz musicians.
Some may make the mistake that because the body of the electric guitar is not as resonant as that of an acoustic, the tonewoods it is made of don’t matter as much. A grave mistake indeed. When thinking of buying an electric guitar you need to consider every aspect of it, since the resulting sound is the sum of these little additions. The tonewood of the guitar is one of the more important aspects. It determines how sturdy the guitar is, how lightweight it is and most importantly, whether the guitar’s sound has certain characteristics.
Some tonewoods might deepen the sound of your guitar, while others may brighten them. Some are friendlier to the sustain and others cannot handle it. Here is a quick guide that’ll give you the general idea:
It is much harder to find Ash as a solid body guitar tonewood these days. It is a relatively rare hardwood, especially compared to Alder, and was replaced by Alder sometime in the 50s and 60s. Yet Ash has a beautiful resonance and a dark color, working extremely well with the warmth of the single coil pickup.
Alder is very popular because of its lightweight and its beautiful grain. You will see it used in many electric guitars. Alder has a very flexible resonance making it the perfect tonewood for a musician who either has yet to decide on their sound, or does not stick to a single genre.
One of the cheapest tonewoods out there, basswood owns this quality to the fact that it is incredibly abundant. Growing all over the US the tonewood is often used to manufacture cheaper guitars and yet possesses none of the cheap qualities laminate tonewoods do. It has a warm tone and is lightweight, yet the softness of the wood might be troubling, since it makes the guitar prone to damage.
Mahogany is a heavy tonewood. You will find this out the very first time you hold a guitar made of mahogany. Yet the heaviness is a worthy tradeoff for what the tonewood gives. Sturdy and rot resistant, the hardwood has a tendency to resonate beautifully with the lower range of tones. The sounds are warm, sometimes even dark and yet the tops are as expressive as they can get. One of the best tonewood options out there.
Maple is the favorite material of many guitar manufacturers. It is on the heavy side in terms of density, and very sturdy. This makes the wood very versatile in terms of how it can be worked – laminate, natural or otherwise. Tonally the wood lends itself beautifully to the higher end of the sounds. A great tonewood, maple has some drawbacks, specifically: being a little on the heavy side.
Alright so you have heard a bunch of talk about tonewoods and construction. Now all you want to know is what the hell are these electronics I keep mentioning. Well, every electric guitar has a combination of a number of things that make it what it is. An pickups, controls and, of course, an amp. Because an electric guitar cannot make sound without one. Might as well count it as part of the electric guitar, right?
Pickups, Amps, Controls
There are two types of pickups a guitar can have. Single-Coil and Humbucker. There might also be other types, but that is for more specific purposes, so I will stick to the more prominent types. The single coil pickup and the humbucker pickup are related. To be more specific, the single coil pickup came first and the humbucker was a step after it.
The single coil pickup has a very specific design which allows the vibration of the steel string to be magnetically picked up and transformed into an electric signal. The single coil is the first pickup ever designed. The single coil guitar has a very warm, twangy sound that feels right at home with pop songs and jazz and even rock and roll. Yet even today this design suffers from the humming strings issue that the initial designs had a problem with. Yet after many years of development and upgrades, the single coil pickups have become much cleaner in sound, with the string hum almost disappearing. Yet, even in the 1960s, the problem was live. Which is why the Humbucker pickup was created.
The humbucker pickups get around the problem of humming strings by using two single coils, instead of one. This allows the strings to sound cleaner, and also results in the sound of the guitar being very different from that of a single coil. Here the sound is “harsher” and much more energetic, coming alive with the sustain that came with the invention of the humbucker. The sustain is what resulted in the creation of hard rock, metal and all the other musical genres you love so much.
The fact that the pickups are electronic means that live tweaking of them is possible. The controls which permit this control the volume, sustain, output and some other aspects of the guitar. Many electric guitars also happen to have several pickups on them at the same time, allowing you to change where the sound is picked up: the bridge, middle or the neck of the instrument. This allows the player to change their sound as they will. Loud, sustain heavy, clear and warm, whatever your ear desires. All electric guitars should have this capability.
Finally, the amp. While technically speaking the amp itself is not part of the electric guitar, I like to think it is. Why? Well try playing an electric guitar without an amp. You won’t hear a sound. Not a single sonically potent note will come from your guitar, without an amp. Which is why I like to say to any electric guitar buyer – be just as picky with your amp! Small, low power amps might be good for room practice, but they will never be enough for a room even with 3 people in it. Invest in a good one if you intend to be performing live in any quality.
What difference does price make?
Many people have asked me “hey man, why can’t I just buy a cheap electric guitar and play it at a huge gig?”. You could if you wanted to. Not that I have a problem. You will though. You see, cheap electric guitars are a hit or a miss. Some of them are great instruments that with a few upgrades will sound just as good as a mid range guitar (never an expensive). Yet the majority of cheap electric guitars are horrible. Plagued with problems such as neck alignment issues, tuning instability and the most horrible: flat sound. In the musical instrument world you will often hear: you get what you pay for. It is true. The cheaper your guitar is, the more likely it is to be (no offense) garbage.
This is not to say there are not some amazing cheap electric guitars out there. I have composed lists and lists of them for your reading pleasure. Remember though: you will always get a better sound out of a more expensive guitar, pickup, amp,etc …
This too stops being true though. At a certain point in expensiveness you get diminishing returns, where the extra dollar simply gets you a better feeling in your gut. You see after about 2000 mark, the guitar becomes less likely to sound better in any meaningful way. This is where the extremely specific sound needs of very specific musicians start being fulfilled. So unless you are some kind of folkish blues player with a penchant for playing in the highest register possible, you are not likely to need to enter this price range.
Accessories – gig bags, straps and picks
Just like any other instrument, the electric guitar needs a set of accessories to function right. I mean, why would you not get yourself a guitar strap. How are you going to look cool performing your solo if you have to be sitting down while you’re doing it? Even Eric Clapton, one of the best guitar players of all time (don’t believe me? He was called a guitar God once upon a time), wore a strap. It’s just good sense. Keeps the guitar safe and comfy, and you looking cool.
Do not forget the pick though! The pick is an intricate part of your playing experience. It will allow you to produce a more powerful sound, bringing out the detail in the tonality of the instrument. The pick will also save you some broken nails and bloodied fingers when strumming, but that is beside the point.
The gig bag is of course instrumental to keeping the instrument safe on the road. It is much more comfortable to carry around an instrument in a bag with a hand than to keep it in your hands at all times. Protection from the elements, most types of collisions and from wear and tear is what these gig bags provide. So get one.
On the road to stardom
Knowing and having all of these things is great. I mean it is a great place to start your road to stardom, and yet it is not enough. The problem with musical instruments is that it takes years to master them and years to become famous for playing them. So start now, the very first day you get your guitar and keep practicing until you are sick of yourself. Then push some more and you will eventually discover yourself at the top of where you wanted to be: the stage, in front of thousands of people, all screaming your and the vocalist’s names.
Have fun and good luck!