Beginner’s Guide to Guitar Specs: Basic Terms and Definitions
Guitar Specs 101
Guitars are awesome. From the refined power of a Gibson Les Paul, to the natural perfection of a Martin D-28, guitars are simply beautiful things.
As a beginner you probably already know that guitars are amazing. If you didn’t, you may instead be thinking of becoming a drummer or some other horrible thing. But what you may not know is why. What makes one guitar so great, and another a step beneath?
The guitar world is awash with terms and definitions that describe each guitar’s specs. When you are first starting out you might find yourself a little overwhelmed. What’s the difference between a set-neck and a neck-through design? What makes humbuckers different from single-coil pickups? Why should you care what kind of wood your guitar is made from?
This article is intended as a basic primer for newbies who are struggling to understand the terms they read about on a guitar’s spec sheet. I’ve attempted to explain things in simple, easy to understand terminology so you can better grasp the differences between instruments, and decide which attributes are more desirable for your specific situation.
The best guitar brands in the world got to the top through excellence and innovation. By the time you get to end of this article you’ll have the knowledge necessary to appreciate their instruments with a more discerning eye.
Electric Guitar Bodies
It all starts with the guitar body. Electric guitars come in a few different types of body styles. The most basic kind of solid-body guitar is cut from a flat slab of wood called a body blank. High-end guitars may utilize one solid piece of wood, where other guitars often feature two or more pieces of the same wood species glued together.
A good example of the classic solid-body guitar design is the Fender Stratocaster. Though they are contoured, Strats are basically flat on the top and the back.
Another style of solid-body electric guitar is the carved top. While their backs are flat their tops have a slight rounded arch to them.
Both flat-top and carved top guitars may feature a top which is made from a different type of wood than the rest of the body. For example, the Gibson Les Paul has a mahogany body, but the top is a maple cap glued onto the mahogany.
As you’ll see when we get into tonewoods a little later, there are sonic reasons guitar companies choose to pair certain woods together. But the cosmetic impact of a specialized top is not to be discounted. A translucent finish over a flame or quilted-maple top can look absolutely gorgeous.
Understanding the different types of electric guitars can help you make the best choice for your playing style and goals. Carved-top guitars are regarded as somewhat more elegant than the typical solid-body, and often incorporate more refined appointments. However, in reality there are good and bad examples of both styles.
Acoustic Guitar Bodies
Like electric guitars, the way an acoustic guitar is built is a big deal. Acoustic guitar bodies have a few basic components. The top, back and sides may be made from the same wood, or different species. In budget guitars some or all of these parts may be made of wood laminates instead of solid woods in order to cut down on cost and still give you a quality instrument.
The inside of the acoustic guitar has bracing. This is simply the wood structure within the guitar that helps it keep its form, stay sturdy and produce good sound. Guitar players debate which kind of bracing is best, but as a newbie it is not something to be especially concerned about.
The art of creating an acoustic guitar is a more tricky procedure than building a solid-body electric, and involves some complicated processes we don’t need to get into here. What you do need to understand is the difference between styles of acoustic guitar bodies. Some basics include:
- Dreadnought-style: Offers tremendous projection and low-end. These were first created by Martin almost a hundred years ago to give guitar players a bigger sound onstage.
- Folk-style: Smaller with more defined curves. They don’t have the projection of a dreadnought but you may find them more comfortable, particularly if you are a smaller person.
- Jumbo-style: These are very big and you’ll get great projection as with a dreadnought. Because the body is more curved expect a different tonal spectrum.
The guitars discussed above are all steel-string guitars, but as a beginner you may also want to consider a classical-style acoustic. These guitars have smaller bodies like folk-style guitars, and wide, flat fingerboards. They are also strung with nylon strings instead of steel, which are easier on the fingers and produce a more mellow sound.
Hollow and Semi-Hollow Electric Guitars
Hollow-body electric guitars are built in a similar fashion as acoustic guitars, except of course they include pickups like an electric guitar. The first electric guitars were hollow-body instruments, as you can imagine acoustic guitarists first experimented with adding pickups to their guitars.
Companies like Epiphone and Gibson led the innovation of the first electric guitars designed for use on bandstands with orchestras and big bands. These evolved to what we have today: beautiful arched-top hollow-body guitars that sound great for jazz, country, blues or rockabilly.
Most newbie don’t consider starting off on a hollow-body electric, but you may consider a semi-hollow guitar. These guitars are designed with a solid central wood block, flanked by two hollow “wings”. A good example of a semi-hollow body guitar is the Epiphone Dot, which is based on Gibson’s original ES designs.
- Note: Hollow and semi-hollow guitar designs are not the same as chambered-body guitars. Chambered-body guitars are solid-body guitars where the body has air pockets created inside by strategically routing the body during construction. These pockets may be small or large. Chambering may be done to reduce weight, to slightly alter the sound of the instrument, or both.
We’ve talked about how guitars are made, now let’s get into what they are made from. Tonewoods are a matter of serious debate in guitar message board communities. Some people will tell even tell you tonewoods don’t matter at all. In my opinion they matter a lot, but especially when it comes to electric guitars it is important to realize that there are a wide range of variables coloring your sound.
Here are some of the most common tonewoods you will come across and what they can do for your sound:
- Alder: Snappy and crisp with good midrange. Used in the bodies of guitars like the Stratocaster and Telecaster.
- Mahogany: Deep, rich and resonant. Used frequently in the bodies and necks of electric guitars, and many acoustic guitars utilize it for the neck, back and sides.
- Maple: Tight and crisp with good high-end. Commonly used in necks, fingerboards and tops.
- Rosewood: Warm and sweet, with mellow mids and lows. Typically used in fingerboards, the back and sides of acoustics and acoustic bridges.
- Basswood: Woody, dark and resonant. Used in electric guitar bodies predominantly.
- Spruce: Crisp with good mids and highs. Most often used in acoustic guitar tops.
- Ebony: Tight, crisp sound and a slick feel. Used most typically in electric guitar fingerboards.
Next to the body, the neck is the most important part of the guitar. In fact, in some ways it is even more important. The neck is where everything that’s going on in your head translates into your instrument.
If you were race car driver you’d want a gear box that felt intuitive and precise. If you were a cyclist you’d want a bike that matched your body and transmitted as much of your power to the road as possible. In the same way, as a guitar player you want to gravitate toward necks that have the feel and sound that best translates your playing through your instrument. There is no “best neck shape” as it is different for each player.
That sounds like a lot to think about for a newbie, so for now just realize that there are different choices out there. Some necks are thinner, and some are fatter. Some are wider, and some are narrower.
Different guitar companies call their necks by different designations. Understanding the differences between the necks might mean diving into the details of the guitar manufacturer themselves and figuring out what they are talking about.
Necks are attached to guitar bodies by one of several methods:
- Bolt-on: As the name indicates, the neck fits into a pocket in the guitar body and is simply bolted into place.
- Set neck: Again the neck fits into a pocket in the body, but this time it is glued in place. Set-neck guitars usually have necks that are recessed a bit deeper into the body than bolt-on guitars. They are known for having better sustain than typical bolt-on necks.
- Neck-through: The wood that makes up the neck actually extends the length of the guitar body in a narrow block. The body of the guitar, either a single piece or two sides, is glued onto the block that extends from the neck. Neck-through guitars are generally even better in the sustain category.
Except in the case of classical guitars, guitar necks usually incorporate a truss rod, which is a metal rod that runs the length of the neck and can be adjusted at one end or the other. Turning the truss rod bolt adds curve or bow to the neck, and this is an important part of setting up the guitar correctly.
As a newbie you should leave major adjustments to the pros, but eventually you will learn to work on your guitar and set it up yourself.
How a Bolt-On Fender Neck Attaches to the Guitar Body
The guitar fretboard, or fingerboard, is a slab of wood glued onto the top of the neck where your fingers meet the strings. In some cases, as with one-piece maple necks, the fingerboard may actually be part of the neck itself.
Frets are the individual wires running along the fretboard perpendicular to the strings. Pressing a string down behind a fret effectively shortens the working area of that string, and plucking the string will cause a certain note to ring out. The higher up the fingerboard you fret, the shorter the string and the higher the note.
Fingerboards may extend for any number of frets, but typically they are between twenty and twenty-four frets in length. Twenty-four fret fingerboards are most often found on electric guitars geared toward soloing, as this gives you two full octaves to work with.
- Note: The fretboard repeats itself after the twelfth fret, so the first fret and the thirteenth fret on the same string are the same notes, but one octave apart.
The frets themselves come in different sizes. Some players choose larger “jumbo” frets because they feel they result in better tone, while others will choose their frets based on feel. As a beginner this isn’t anything to lose sleep over. As you progress, you may decide you prefer one type of fret over another.
Scale length is one more factor to be aware of. Simplified, the scale length of a guitar is the distance between the nut and the bridge saddles. Scale length will impact the sound of the guitar as well as the feel. Typically, shorter scale lengths are warmer and easier to play, where longer lengths are brighter and a little stiffer.
While knowing what scale length means is helpful, be aware that these differences are measured in fractions of an inch and matter most to experienced players. As a newbie, don’t let it stop you from choosing a guitar you really like!
For the intents and purposes of this article, here are some basic definitions that can help you understand what you are looking at when it comes to pickups:
- Single Coil: These are the thin pickups you see on guitars like the Stratocaster. They have a brighter sound good for blues, rock and especially country. Depending on their position they can have a mid-range growl, a clucky chicken-pickin sound, or a rounded bell-like tone.
- Humbucker: These are the rectangular pickups you see on guitars like Les Pauls. They were invented to cancel out the hum prevalent in single coil pickups. They have a thicker sound and are generally hotter than single coil pickups. If you want to play hard rock or heavy metal these are the kinds of pickups you want. However, humbuckers are utilized in just about every other genre as well due to their thick, warm tone.
- Active: Active pickups such as EMGs and similar rely on an onboard battery to boost the pickup’s output. These types of pickups are excellent for hard rock, metal and other forms of extreme music.
- Passive: Passive pickups are simply traditional pickups that are not active. They require no battery or power source aside from what is provided by the guitar circuitry.
- Alnico: Electric guitar pickups are essentially magnets wrapped in wire. The type of magnet used will impact the sound and output of the pickup. Alnico magnets are popular due to their warm, rich sound.
- Ceramic: Ceramic magnets are used in some guitar pickups. They are typically hotter than Alnico.
- Coil tap: Coil taps controls are either switches or a push/pull function of another knob on the guitar’s top. A coil tap "splits" the coils of a humbucking pickup to achieve a single-coil sound. The idea is to have the best of both worlds: a humbucker that will sound like a single coil with the flip of a switch.
- Acoustic-electric pickups and preamps: Acoustic-electric guitars have pickups too, usually mounted within the body of the guitar or on the bridge. Most acoustic-electric instruments also include an onboard preamp. Simplified, the preamp takes the signal from the pickup and translates it into something usable by a power amplifier. Depending on the brand and manufacturer, an acoustic preamp may include a volume or level control, an EQ section, a mechanism for controlling feedback and even a tuner.
- Note: Electric guitars rely on preamps too. However, in their case they rely on the preamp built into the guitar amp itself.
More On Electric Guitar Pickups
- Single Coil vs Humbucker Guitar Pickups
Some new electric guitar players get really confused about pickups, and whether they should go with humbuckers or single coils. If you are on the fence, check out this article.
Bridge and Nut
Guitar strings have two main contact points: the bridge and the nut. The nut is that thin piece with notches cut into it where the strings cross from the fretboard to the guitar headstock. It can be made of all kinds of different materials, from basic synthetic plastic to bone or brass. On beginner and intermediate guitars, typically you will find plastic nuts.
The bridge is at the other end of the string, attached to the guitar body. As you probably guessed, there are all kinds of different bridges. On acoustic guitars they are generally a glued-on piece of rosewood or mahogany featuring individual pins for each string.
On the electric guitar things get more complicated. Some of the more important terms related to electric guitar bridges are:
- Hard tail: A generic term for a non-tremolo type bridge
- Tremolos: The whammy bar! These bridges can be manipulated to alter the tension on the string and cause it to change pitch.
- Double-locking Tremolo: About the most reliable of the whammy bars, these types of bridges lock the strings in place at both the bridge and nut so it will not go out of tune.
- Tune-o-matic-style: These are accompanied by a stop-bar tail-end, and are most often found on carved-top guitars such as Les Pauls.
- String-through-body: This is actually more of build technique than a bridge type. The strings actually go through the bridge, through the body and anchor on the back of the guitar. These types of bridges are excellent for sustain.
Most electric guitar bridges feature numerous adjustments for setting up string height and intonation. The method of adjustment depends on the type of bridge.
Learn More About Electric Guitar Bridges
- Electric Guitar Bridge Types
Choosing an electric guitar with the right type of bridge for your needs is a key part of getting the sound you want from your instrument.
Tuners and Other Hardware
Of course a third main contact point for guitar strings is the tuners. It is important that tuners are solid and stable, with good gear mechanisms that do not slip. While guitars may go out of tune for various reasons, crummy tuners shouldn’t be among them.
For this reason, the tuners are among the first upgrades players consider for their guitars, especially budget models. Some guitar players like to use locking tuners to prevent slippage.
Strap locks are another important piece of aftermarket gear. These are special strap buttons that clip together with your guitar strap. A guitar strap fail can mean major damage to your beloved instrument (and your ego) and strap locks go a long way to making sure that never, ever happens.
Guitar strings come in a bunch of different thicknesses or gauges. Most guitars ship with either 9s or 10, which are both light gauges. However, some players use gauges much heavier than this.
Choosing Your First Guitar
After I post this article I’m sure I will have a Doh! moment where I realize I forgot something important or could have explained something better. Nevertheless, in its current state I hope this post will help you understand a little more about what you are reading on those confusing guitar spec sheets.
As a beginner, should you sweat over whether or not your guitar has a coil tap? Probably not, but you do want to choose a guitar that is in line with your goals, so understating pickups, bridges and even tonewoods is important. This puts you in position to make the best decision possible for your starter or first real guitar, and that means you are a step ahead of most newbies.
Good luck and have fun. If you have any questions, feel free to ask in the comments section below.