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How Does an Electric Guitar Work? An Inside Look at the Instrument

November 7, 2022

How Does an Electric Guitar Work? An Inside Look at the Instrument

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.

The electric guitar is one of the most popular instruments in the world, but have you ever wondered how it works? In this blog post, we’ll take a look at the inner workings of the electric guitar to see what makes this instrument so special.

Is Electric Guitar Easier Than Guitar?

There’s no simple answer to the question of whether electric guitar is easier than acoustic guitar. It depends on a variety of factors, including the player’s level of experience, their natural ability, and the type of music they want to play. For example:

  • Beginners might find it easier to learn the basics on an electric guitar because the strings are usually spread further apart than on an acoustic guitar. This can make it easier to form chords and get a good sound. 
  • However, electric guitars can be more difficult to control because they require an amp and pedals, which can add a lot of complexity. 
  • In addition, many experienced players find that they prefer the sound of an acoustic guitar for certain types of music. 

Ultimately, it’s up to the individual player to decide which type of guitar is right for them.

Ready to get started? Sign up for electric guitar lessons today – and check out the video below to get an idea of all the benefits of doing so:

How Does an Electric Guitar Produce Sound?

When you pluck the strings of an electric guitar, the vibration is transferred to the pickups. 

These are essentially coils of wire that sit under the strings and convert the mechanical energy of the string into an electrical signal. This signal is then sent to an amplifier, where it is boosted before being sent to the speaker. The speaker uses this electrical signal to create vibrations in the air, which we perceive as sound.

Electric guitars can produce a wide range of sounds, depending on the type of pickups used and the settings on the amplifier. 

For example, a guitar with single-coil pickups and a clean amplifier settings will produce a bright, twangy sound. A guitar with humbucker pickups and distortion settings on the amplifier will produce a heavier, more aggressive sound. Ultimately, it is up to the player to experiment with different combinations of pickups and amplifier settings to find their own unique sound.

Do Electric Guitars Need to Be Plugged In?

The electric guitar is a relatively new invention, first appearing in the early 1900s. 

Unlike acoustic guitars, which rely on vibrations from the strings to create sound, electric guitars rely on pickups to capture the vibrations of the strings and convert them into electrical signals. These signals are then amplified through an amplifier, resulting in the characteristic sound of an electric guitar. 

Because they require an external power source, many people assume that electric guitars must be plugged into an amplifier in order to make sound. 

However, this is not strictly true. 

While plugging into an amplifier will result in a louder and richer sound, electric guitars can also be played without an amplifier. In fact, some guitarists prefer the sound of an unamplified electric guitar, as it can be more gentle and mellow. Ultimately, whether or not to plug in an electric guitar is a matter of personal preference.

How Does an Electric Acoustic Guitar Work? Body Basics

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.

How Does an Acoustic Guitar Work? Basics of Strings

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.

How Does an Electric Guitar Pickup Work?

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.

What About the Neck?

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.

Whammy Bar/Tremolo

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.

How Does an Electric Guitar Pedal Work?

From Jimi Hendrix’s feedback-drenched solos to the Chili Peppers’ funky rhythms, electric guitar pedals have been responsible for some of the most iconic sounds in rock history. 

But how do these devices actually work? At its most basic, an electric guitar pedal is a box that contains electronic circuitry capable of altering the signal from an electric guitar. 

By connecting the pedal in between the guitar and the amplifier, the guitarist can effectively change the sound of their instrument. The specific effect produced by a pedal depends on the type of circuitry inside the box, but common effects include delay, reverb, chorus, and distortion. pedals can also be chained together to create more complex sounds. 

Ultimately, whether it’s used to create searing solos or laid-back grooves, an electric guitar pedal is a powerful tool that can help a musician shape their sound in unique and interesting ways.

How Does an Electric Guitar Amplifier Work?

An electric guitar amplifier is a device that takes the signal from an electric guitar and amplifies it so that it can be heard through speakers. 

The amplifier consists of a preamplifier, power amplifier, and speaker. The preamplifier amplifies the signal from the guitar pickup and sends it to the power amplifier. The power amplifier then increases the voltage of the signal and sends it to the speaker. The speaker converts the electrical signal into sound waves, which are then sent out into the room.

Electric guitar amplifiers are available in a variety of sizes and styles, from small practice amps to large, powerful rigs used by professional musicians. The type of amplifier that is right for you will depend on your budget, the style of music you play, and your personal preferences. 

For example, if you are a rock guitarist who plays in a band, you will need a different amplifier than a jazz guitarist who plays solo. Likewise, if you are just starting out, you may want to purchase a small practice amp before investing in a larger one. Whatever your needs, there is an electric guitar amplifier that is perfect for you.

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.

Electric guitars are amazing instruments that use a combination of magnets and electricity to create sound. By understanding how pickups work, we can see why different types of electric guitars often have such distinct sounds. 

Whether you’re a fan of Stratocasters or Les Pauls, there’s no denying that electric guitars are some of the coolest instruments around! Ask your guitar teacher for tips on how to find the best electric guitar for your needs – and start jamming today! 

Jorge Salas is a versatile musician who has worked alongside some of the industry's top performers. His collaborative work and solo work has reached many audiences throughout the world. Aside from recording in many studios, writing, and performing, he is also an accomplished educator with 6 years experience in public school and 2 years experience in private school. Jorge has also authored his latest book titled "Modern Guitar Workbook" available on Amazon.

Jorge Salas