There are so many crazy buzzwords to learn when you first start playing the guitar. Chords, tabs, bends, slurs – it’s a lot to take in.
If you’re a music lover, this guide is going to give you an awesome insight into the technical bits and pieces so you can actually understand the lingo musos use when talking about their gear!
If you’re a guitarist, there are a few terms for the different parts of the guitar you NEED to know when you first start playing no matter what style you are playing, because they will make it easier to learn to play.
Then, there are the terms that are GOOD to know, as they’ll give you a better understanding of the guitar.
Finally, there are the terms that are really just for GUITAR NERDS who love the ins-and-outs of their instrument.
Today, we’re going to focus on what you NEED to know. Here are all the guitar anatomy terms you’ll want to understand no matter whether you’re a metalhead or a guitarist yourself.
A Gibson SG next to a pile of amplifiers.
El ectric Guitar: needs to be plugged in to make much sound. Great for rock, jazz and any genre with a drumkit.
The two most common types are the Strat (Fender Stratocaster) and the Les Paul (Gibson Les Paul). Note that any guitar with these body shapes will be referred to as a Strat or Les Paul in conversation, even though they may not be made by Fender or Gibson.
Acoustic Guitar: makes a sound on its own, but can be amplified for large gigs with a pickup. Great for folk, ballads, classical and solo guitar.
The two most common types of acoustic guitars are nylon string guitars (classical guitars) and steel string guitars. Younger players generally start with nylon strings.
Check out our guide to buying your first guitar here.
Every guitar can be split into 3 parts:
Body: The big part of the guitar that sits on your lap.
Neck: The long thin piece of wood that our fretting hand plays.
Headstock/Head: The piece that sits at the other end of the neck.
Let’s delve a bit deeper:
The body of the guitar is where most of the sound comes from.
On acoustic guitars, this is from the air resonating inside and around the body when we play the strings.
On electric guitars, the same thing happens. but we then use pickups to ‘pick up’ the sound from the strings directly and send that to an amplifier (don’t worry too much about how this works just yet, but it’s to do with magnetic fields and electricity).
The strings are attached to the body on a piece called the bridge. If you play closer to the bridge, you’ll get a brighter, sharper sound. It’s also where you’ll need to attach guitar strings when it’s time to restring your guitar.
Acoustic Guitars will either use ‘nylon strings’ or ‘steel strings’, whilst electric guitars use electric guitar strings (in reality, the strings are made from a variety of metals, but the terms we usually use are nylon, steel and electric).
Other than that, you can usually attach one end of your guitar strap to the bottom of the body (the other will attach to a button on the other side of the body or the headstock, depending on the guitar and strap type). On electric guitars, you’ll also plug in the lead somewhere on the body of the guitar.
Pro Tip: The body of the guitar is the ONLY part of the guitar you should need to actually hold onto. Even though our fretting hand rests on the neck, we don’t need to actually hold it! (doing so will hurt your speed and technique).
Bridge of an electric guitar.
The neck of the guitar is where we place our fingers to change the pitch of strings.
The way this works is actually pretty simple – if you shorten a string by pressing down on it. you make it vibrate faster, which makes the note go higher in pitch.
We use frets (the metal lines that are spaced over the neck) to help us play certain notes on the guitar. For example, if I press my finger on the 1st string just behind the 4th fret, I’m playing a G# note.
Whenever anyone talks about “playing a note on fret x”, what they really mean is playing just behind that fret. If you put your finger on top of the fret, it will sound dead.
So, even though the fret is really the metal part, “put your first finger on fret 1” really means we put it in the first big gap on the neck, as close to the first fret as we can.
Pro Tip: Most guitars have fret markers, or dots, which help you remember certain important frets. Generally, you’ll see markings on the 3rd, 5th, 7th, 9th, 12th (sometimes two dots), 15th, 17th, 19th, 21st and 24th (sometimes two dots) frets, but every guitar is a little different.
Bonus Tip: When we say we’re moving “Up” the fretboard, we really mean closer to the body. Similarly, when we say down a string, we’re usually talking about moving towards the thicker strings. Confusing, but it’s all to do with the pitch!
Up in pitch means we either move to a thinner string or move to a higher fret, whilst down in pitch means we either move to a thicker string or move to a lower fret.
The headstock is where the strings of your guitar are attached, and where we go to tune the guitar.
We do this by turning the tuning keys, which tighten or loosen the string to respectively raise or lower the pitch of each string.
Tuning keys from a nylon string guitar.
If you’re playing in Standard Tuning (which most of us do when we first start learning), you’ll want your strings to be tuned to E-A-D-G-B-E from the thickest to the thinnest string.
Over-tightening the strings can make them snap. Constantly changing the tuning of strings can also make them snap, so in general, it’s good to keep your guitar in one tuning and use the tuning keys for slight adjustments.
We do this using a guitar tuner. Back in the olden days, this was done with an electric tuner that picks up the sound or vibrations of the guitar. Back in the older olden days, it was done with a tuning fork and your ears.
Nowadays, you can use either of those options or just use a tuner app.
There are new toys, gadgets and tools invented every day for us guitarists.
That said, there are a few that you’ll want to understand pretty quickly.
Pick/Plectrum: We use this for picking (playing one string at a time) or strumming (playing multiple strings at a time). It’s not compulsory to use a pick in all styles, as you can also play using your fingers.
Metronome: Tick tock tick tock. That’s the sound a metronome makes, and we use it for practicing rhythm (ie playing along in time to a beat).
You can adjust the speed of a metronome, which is a useful way to adjust the difficulty of a song you’re working on and fine tuning tricky sections.
Amplifier: Vitally important for electric guitarists, an amplifier is a box you plug your electric guitar into. It amplifies the sound, often giving it it’s distinctive sound.
Amps come in all shapes and sizes (you can even get acoustic amps if you want to plug your acoustic guitar in for live gigs), but the basics are: guitar plugs in, sound comes out.
Music Stands: Used for holding sheet music.
Guitar Stands: Come in all shapes and varieties, these stands are for storing your guitar at home. Some guitar stands are designed for specific models (for example, Flying V guitars need special stands).
Footrests/supports/stools: Generally used for classical, these can help raise your leg to make holding the guitar more comfortable. Not really necessary for contemporary players.
From left to right: Bridge pickup, middle pickup, and neck pickup.
What do all the knobs and switches do on my electric guitar?
It’s different for each model, but some of the knobs will control volume (for specific pickups or for all pickups depending on the setup), and one or two will usually control the “tone”.
The switch is usually for selecting which pickups to use. This could be the pickup closest to the neck, the one closest to the bridge or sometimes a combination of pickups.
Without going into the technical details of the tone knob and pickup selectors, just experiment with them and hear the different sounds you can make!
My guitar has an extra X or is missing a Y!
There are so many varieties of guitars out there so that’s bound to happen! If you want fast answers, here’s an easy trick – look on the back of your headstock or inside the soundhole of your guitar and you should see a product number somewhere.
If you google that number and the brand (the brand is usually on the front of the headstock or inside the soundhole), you’ll probably find the spec sheet or instruction manual for the guitar which will explain each part.
How can I remember all of these terms?
Honestly, don’t stress too much. You’ll naturally hear all of these terms in your guitar lessons and from playing with other guitarists, which will help you become familiar with it all. This is a guide to get you started!
If you’d like more detail, check out this comprehensive guitar anatomy list on Wikibooks.
And of course, feel free to get in touch.