Guitar: Parts & Theory

Instructor: Chris Chouiniere

Chris has taught music and has a master's degree in music education.

Prepare yourself for a lesson on the parts and theory of the guitar, as told by a former punk rocker. Electric, acoustic, and all the ways we can make some noise!

What is the Guitar?

The guitar is a stringed instrument that you play with either your fingers or a pick, and you wear it over your shoulder or lay it on your lap. If it's loud, then it's probably an electric guitar, and if it's not, then it's probably an acoustic guitar. The typical guitar has 6 strings, and I say typical because that's the most common number of string. But guitars do come with 4, 7, 10, 12, or any number of strings you want!

The Parts of the Guitar

Guitar Body
Guitar Body

When you smash your guitar during a rock show the part that hits the stage first is the body. The body is where the bridge and saddle secure and arrange the beginning end of the strings. In fact, if you break a string you'll feed it through the bridge and over the saddle to restring your guitar. The body is also where the sound hole (acoustic guitars) or pickup (electric guitars) amplifies your sound.

Guitar Neck
Guitar Neck

The part that generally snaps when you smash the guitar is the neck. The neck is connected to the body by the heel. On an acoustic guitar the heel is big and glued to the body, whereas on an electric it is simply bolted on.

Neck and Heel
Neck and Heel

The neck is covered in a piece of wood called the fretboard, which has metal wires that divide it into frets. Inside the neck is the truss rod, which keeps the neck straight and aligned. It also helps to set the string action, or the height of the strings off the fretboard.

Guitar Head
Guitar Head

The head or headstock is at the top of the guitar. It's the part that holds the tuning pegs and is where the strings terminate and are wound to adjust tuning. As the strings transition from the neck to the head they pass over the nut, which helps to keep the strings in position. Historically, the nut was made of ivory, and is something that is prone to breaking in lower quality guitars.

There are a few more guitar parts to be familiar with, though most of these I removed from my own guitar because they either got in the way or I didn't like how they looked. The pickguard is on the body, near the sound hole/pickup, and protects the body from getting scratched by your pick. If you've ever seen pictures of Willie Nelson's famous guitar Trigger, it's the part with the gigantic hole worn out.

Trigger, by Paul Familetti

There's the whammy bar, which everyone likes to 'slam' on until they realize it knocks their guitar out of tune and damages the bridge. The whammy bar is attached to the bridge itself, and it allows you to bend the bridge away from the body of the guitar, bending the string to a different pitch. If you're going to be making extensive use of this, make sure to have locking tuners. These are tuning pegs that lock the strings in place, lessening the degree to which they are knocked out of tune by the whammy bar.

I've mentioned pickups a few times without telling you just what they are. Pickups are the pieces on an electric guitar that pick up the vibrations of the string and translate them into electric current. They're made by coiling really thin wire (as thin as human hair!) around a magnet some 20,000 times.

Theory of the Guitar

I realize that theory could mean a lot of things, especially to a musician. We're going to keep it simple and talk about the music theory of a guitar - what makes it work, and how to use it better.

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