The Anatomy of a Guitar
Guitars are one of the most popular instruments in the world, and for a number of reasons. They’re relatively inexpensive (especially when compared to something like a grand piano), they look cool, and, while they're difficult to master, they're easy to learn. They’re also quite simple in terms of construction, but have you ever wondered what all the parts of a guitar are called, or what they do?
Maybe you haven’t, but if you have, this article is for you.
We’re going to break down the anatomy of a guitar, look at its component parts, and detail what each bit is called as well as what function it serves.
The body is, as the name suggests, the body of the guitar. The most obvious function of the body is to hold everything together as most of the components in a guitar are attached to it, or attached to something else that is attached to it.
The body also sets the tone of the guitar in more ways than one. Firstly; the look. The shape and colour of a guitar body are most of what defines the appearance of the instrument. The exact same components can be transplanted from a Les Paul body to an Explorer body and completely change the perception of the instrument.
Of course, the other way in which the body sets the tone for the instrument is, quite literally, the tone. Different woods produce different sounds. The difference are often subtle, but guitar manufacturers use specific woods for specific guitars for a reason.
Visually, the neck is the long thin bit that extends out from the body. Some “out-there” guitar designs may feature interesting variations on the neck, but generally speaking they all look pretty much the same.
The purpose of the neck is to provide a space for the guitar scale. It is radiused for player comfort, and the only real options you tend to get are how thick the neck is, what wood it is made from, and what kind of finish it has. Thinner necks tend to suit players with smaller hands, for example, and different finishes allow for varying levels of ease when moving ones hand up and down the neck.
The neck can be made of different kinds of wood, though this is largely superficial. As long as the neck is strong enough to withstand the tension of the strings, it doesn’t really matter what it’s made of.
Speaking of which…
The Truss Rod
The truss rod is set into the neck itself. It is a metal rod that can be adjusted to bend either upward or downward, forcing the neck itself to bend in the same direction. This is used to compensate for neck bow (bending upward toward the strings) or relief (away from the strings) and is crucial in setting up a guitar.
Though there are some definite limits—such as adjusting the rod to get rid of string buzz when they are too close to the frets—the precise adjustments required depends entirely on the player and what they find comfortable.
The Frets and Fretboard
The fretboard is a relatively thin piece of wood that is bonded to the top of the neck, and provides a surface with which to press the strings against. The wood is often chosen with visual appeal in mind, and is often radiused.
The frets themselves are small metal bars that lay across the fretboard at measured positions that correspond with the scale of the guitar. The frets make playing a guitar easier than it would otherwise be, as “fretting” a string is much easier than playing accurately on a fretless guitar (which is also an option).
At the other end of the neck to the body, you will find the headstock. This is probably the second most significant visual factor of a guitar after the body itself. The headstock is often shaped in a particular way that varies from manufacturer to manufacturer, and will typically bear the logo or branding of that manufacturer. Many headstocks are instantly recognisable and serve as an identifying mark. One example of this is the Gibson/Epiphone brands, which both produce the same models of guitar save for the headstock.
The headstock isn’t all about looks, however. Functionally it serves as the base for the machine heads, or tuners.
The tuners, as the name suggests, are for tuning the strings. They typically consist of a turnable peg which rotates a small cylinder through which the end of the guitar string is fed. When tightened, the tuner tensions the string, changing the pitch at which it plays.
Back at the other end of the guitar, the bridge serves as a counterpart to the tuners. Unlike the tuners, however, the bridge is static, though some models may feature a tremolo system which allows the player to achieve a tremolo effect by applying pressure to the bridge assembly via a "whammy bar", temporarily adding extra tension to the strings.
The saddle, or saddles, sit in front the bridge and serve as the start of the guitar’s scale length. The strings must be tensioned between two solid objects in order to maintain a tune and be playable, and the saddle serves as one of those points. Depending the guitar, the saddles may be adjustable in order to allow a fine tuning of the string pitch, also known as intonation.
I did say the strings had to be tensioned over two points, and the nut is that other point. Sitting at the end of the fretboard where the neck becomes the headstock, the nut is a small block of material with grooves notched into it for the strings to sit in.
Like the body, the material chosen for the nut can make a difference to the kind of tone the guitar produces. Inexpensive guitars tend to use plastic nuts, but bone and ebony are also common nut materials.
In certain guitars, such as electric or electro-acoustic guitar, there are a number of electronic components that allow for the sound of the instrument to be captured and output through an audio jack rather than being entirely reliant on an external microphone. The electronics involved will often consist of—at the very least—a magnetic pickup for capturing the sound of the strings, some volume/tone controls, and an output jack.
Some guitars have much more in this regard, such as extra pickups, more control over the sound with tone dials, and even built in tuning tools, whereas other guitars (acoustic for example) may have no electronics at all.
A pick guard, or scratch plate, is a piece of sacrificial material—often plastic—that is fixed to the body of the guitar below the strings at the picking hand position. This serves to protect the finish of the guitar from being scratched and scuffed as a result of the player’s strumming hand catching the body on down strokes.
The sound hole is a feature found on acoustic guitars, and is typically (though not always) a circular hole underneath the strings at the picking hand position. Acoustic instruments work by allowing the sound of the picked or strummed strings to resonate inside the hollow body of the guitar, and the sound hole allows that sound out.
- Strap buttons or pins are usually located at the rear of the body and, in most cases, at the upper front edge of the body, though they are also placed at the join of the body/neck on some models. These allow a player to attach a strap to the guitar so that it can be comfortably played standing up. Some acoustic guitars do not use a forward strap pin, instead looping the strap around the neck at the headstock end.
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© 2016 John Bullock