Guitars – whether they are acoustic or electric – are played similarly. However they do have differences, technologically speaking. If you’re wondering, “how does an electric guitar work?” then you’re in the right place. In this article, we will explore some of the key functions of how electric guitars work while providing a comparison to its acoustic counter-part.
You can’t go too far talking about electric guitars without mentioning companies like Gibson, Fender, PRS, Ibanez, etc. The most iconic of these guitars (arguably) are Stratocasters, Telecasters, Les Pauls, and Gibson Hollowbodies. In the following sections, we will talk about different parts of the electric guitar and their purposes.
Most electric guitars have a solid wood body, which is one of the key differences between electric and acoustic instruments. Woods range from mahogany, alder, swamp ash to more exotic woods. Acoustic guitars are typically made from either cedar or spruce. Electric guitars are heavier than acoustic guitars. Some would say that the heavier an electric guitar, the more resonance or “body” the sound of the guitar. Les Pauls are known for having a full-tone but are also heavy. In fact, some weigh as much as 10-12 lbs!
Acoustic guitars usually come in a natural finish, meaning no paint was used on the guitar. Electric guitars usually are painted a certain color, and have an additional wood on top of the initial wood the instrument is made from. For instance, a lot of modern electric guitars have a flame maple or quilt maple top, which adds to their beauty and tone.
The acoustic guitar started off using gut strings. Yes, you read that right. Animal guts. We then moved to nylon strings. Nylon is a type of plastic that works well and has been used for 400 years!
Enter the electric guitar. Now, we’ve got guitars with steel-strings. With steel-strings, we get much more durability, longevity, and a different tone that has much more twang and brightness. Granted there are acoustic guitars with steel-strings and electrics with nylon, it is just not as common.
Having steel strings has a few advantages. Steel strings are much easier to “bend”. This technique revolutionized the instrument and really makes it very unique. Steel strings also play a role in HOW the guitar sounds and how the guitar can be heard through an amp. More on that in a bit.
Ok, this one is big. Pickups are magnets that are screwed into the body of the guitar that “pick up” the steel strings’ vibrations; turning them into sound and energy that come out of an amplifier. It’s like a microphone for the strings. Without pickups, the strings would not be projected into the amplifier. It could be answered that pickups are at the heart of answering the question, “how does an electric guitar work?”
There are different kinds of pickups. The 3 most common are: single coils, humbuckers (double coil), and P90s. Each of these has a different characteristic and transmits the sound to the amplifier differently. Since sound is subjective, it’s up to the listener or musician (that’s you!) to decide what you prefer.
On a traditional acoustic guitar (classical), the neck is a bit wider than electric guitar necks. There’s a good reason for this: classical guitars are meant to be finger-picked. The wide neck allows players to be a bit more accurate with their fingerpicking.
Electric guitars typically have thinner necks because they are usually played with guitar picks. This helps with picking speed and accuracy since the music style is very different.
The fingerboard is made of the same wood. The most common wood choices are maple, rosewood, or ebony. Acoustic guitars usually have either rosewood or ebony, whereas an electric guitar would have either rosewood, ebony, or maple. Acoustic guitars also top off at 12 frets, whereas the electric can go as high as 24. That’s double the notes!
This is because the electric guitar expanded on the range of notes to play really high-pitched guitar solos. The acoustic guitar is typically used to strum chords or play lower sounding arpeggios.
The whammy bar is not found on acoustic guitars, and is only found on some electric guitars. A whammy bar is located on the body of the guitar and can move the string pitch up or down much like a bend but a different effect.
Some whammy bars are more complex than others. Floyd Rose is a company that must be mentioned when talking about whammy bars. Floyd Rose took whammy bars to the next-level and because of that, guitar players like Eddie Van Halen were able to really change what listeners can aurally perceive on the guitar.
The Best Way to Find Out How An Electric Guitar Works is… to Play One Yourself!
Simply reading about electric guitars is really not enough to answer the question, “how does an electric guitar work?” And you won’t get a true answer without actually playing one.
Some of the best things to do as a musician are done through self-discovery. Hopefully, you have a better understanding as to what to expect when shopping for your first electric guitar. Or the tools to simply understand a guitar you already have.