Be sure to take the Lesson 1 Quiz and the end of this lesson to test your knowledge.
1) Instrument Familiarity
In this section we will review guitar anatomy, guitar strings & standard tuning, and navigating the guitar fretboard.
The content will focus on primarily on electric guitars. I will also include links to YouTube videos for further explanations.
The guitar body is the most stylish part of the guitar, and it is where the ‘sound comes from’. Guitar bodies can be made from a variety of different woods including mahogany, alder, maple, walnut and other exotic woods. Different woods have different tonal and resonance qualities. The body has a few components we will look at: the bridge & tailpiece, electronics (pickups, knobs and output jack), the pick guard and strap buttons.
Bridge & Tailpiece
The bridge and tailpiece are where the strings mount to the body of the guitar. The bridge’s purpose is to set the string action (rise of the strings above the fretboard/neck), and for adjusting the intonation (pitch accuracy) of the guitar strings. Some guitars are equipped with separate bridge and tailpieces; others use a combination bridge and tailpiece; and further yet, some guitars are only equipped with a tailpiece which acts like a bridge, but has limited or no intonation capability. Some guitars are also equipped with a tremolo system which integrates into the bridge and tailpieces. Tremolo systems (video) allow the pitch of the strings to be ‘bent’ in order to produce pitch fluctuations sounds. Bridges commonly are equipped with individual pieces called saddles which are used to adjust the intonation of each string. Some bridges rely on the saddles to control the action of the strings as well.
Electric guitar electronics consist of pickups, and circuitry.
Pickups (or Pups for short) are electromagnets which convert the vibrations of the guitar strings, into electrical audio impulses. Inside of pickups are magnets and copper wire windings. Guitar pickups differ primarily in what type of magnets are used, and the copper winding configuration. They produce different tonal qualities based on those specifications. There are a variety of guitar pickups (video) but the two most common are single coil or humbuckers. It is most common for electric guitars to be equipped with 2 or 3 pickups. The pup closest to the neck is called the Neck Position pickup; the pup closest to the bridge is called the Bridge Position pickup; a middle pup is called–you guessed it–the Middle Position pickup. Pickups closer to the bridge have a more treble-y (sharper, brighter) sound quality, whereas pickups closer to the neck have a more bass-y (smoother, darker) quality.
Electric guitar circuitry typically consists of four components: a pickup selector switch, potentiometers/knobs, wiring and the output jack. A pickup selector switch is used to allow the guitarist to switch between which pickup–or combination of pickups–they want to use. This gives some versatility in the tones that can be produced. A two pickup configuration guitar is commonly equipped with a 3-way pickup selector switch, whereas a three pickup configuration is usually equipped with a 5-way pickup selector switch. Potentiometers are used to shape the tonal quality or volume of the guitar signal. They are operated by rotating knobs which adjust the guitar volume and tone. Lastly, wiring ties it all together and ultimately leads to the output jack. The output jack is where you ‘plug in’, and connect the guitar to an external audio device (i.e. effects pedals or amplifier). We will get into guitar effects and amplifiers in a future lesson.
The pickguard has two purposes; the first purpose is to protect the guitar body from scratches caused by guitar picking and strumming, and the second is cosmetic. Pickguards tend to be replaceable, and are often stylish and add character or a unique look.
Guitar necks are also made from a variety of woods. In some cases multiple woods are used to provide a particular tonal quality, compositional strength or aesthetic. The neck of the guitar is attached to the guitar body. Some guitars have a ‘bolt-on’ neck–which is when the neck is attached to the guitar by screws–and some guitars have a fixed (a.k.a. set) neck which is glued to the body. Bolt-on necks afford some additional flexibility, in that they can be changed or upgraded. The guitar neck contains two main components: the fretboard and the truss rod.
The fretboard is a piece of wood which runs the length of the guitar neck on the front facing side. It is how desired notes and chords are selected–by fretting (placing you fingers on the fretboard). In a horizontal arrangement along the fretboard, frets (durable metal wires) separate the neck into sections. Fretboards typically include markers (called inlays) which mark the locations of frets at known intervals–most commonly the 3rd, 5th, 7th, 9th, 12th, 15th, 17th, 19th and 21st frets. The inlays help the guitarist navigate and recognize their position (hand placement) on the neck quickly. The length of the guitar neck (a.k.a. scale) determines how many frets a guitar will have. Most guitars have 21 to 22 frets, but 24 frets are fairly common on modern style guitars.
The Truss Rod
The truss rod is a metal rod which lies beneath the fretboard, inside of a channel of the neck. Guitar necks have a slight bend, which is necessary for proper playability. Over time the neck can warp do to string tension, weathering and atmosphere. Truss rod adjustment (video) can be performed to make corrections to the bend radius (a.k.a. relief) of the guitar neck, but should only be done if necessary, and done with care. Incorrect adjustment can permanently damage a guitar neck if done incorrectly.
The headstock is technically part of the guitar neck; it sits atop the neck and has its own components. The headstock is also a place where guitar builders add some aesthetic appeal to the instrument. It is often adorned with the guitar builders logo and/or model, and sometimes is finished (wood stain or paint) to match the body. The headstock has the following components: the tuners, the nut, and the truss rod cover.
Tuners are metal tuning keys which adjust the tension (and therefore the pitch) of the guitar strings. Each guitar string connects to its own tuner. Tuners also come in a variety of styles (shapes, sizes, colors, etc.) and configurations (gear ratio, locking features, staggering, etc.). Guitar strings are fed into the pegs of the tuners and the tuner keys are turned to ‘tune’ the strings to the proper pitch.
The nut sits at the top most point of the fretboard / base of the headstock. Its purpose is to act as a guide for the strings. This guide functionality is important for holding the strings in place, and positioning the strings equidistant from each other. It also raises the strings above the fretboard, which in concert with the guitar bridge dictates the string action. Depending on the design of the guitar and the headstock angle, string trees (video) may also be present on the headstock.
Truss Rod Cover
The truss rod cover is simply a cover for the the truss rod access point. It is mostly cosmetic in nature. Some guitars do not have a truss rod cover.
A slight digression here: a truss rod cover can reveal something about the craftsmanship of a guitar. With a truss rod cover being such a trivial thing, if you see a guitar that has a quality, ornate truss rod cover, it’s probably a reasonable sign that the guitar craftsmanship quality is high.
Guitar strings and tuning
Standard guitars are typically equipped with 6 strings. There are also 12 string, 7 string and 8 string guitars (as well as other exotic string configurations), but this lesson will focus on 6 string guitars.
String names and tunings
Strings are numbered by thickness; from thinnest (highest pitch), to thickest (lowest pitch). Looking down at the guitar while holding it, the thickest string is on “top” on the neck, and the thinnest string is on the “bottom”.
In order to help communicate which string(s) are being targeted, strings are be referred to by their number (i.e. 1st string, 2nd string, etc.), or by the note they are tuned to (i.e. the A string, the B string, etc.). Here are the string names from low to high:
The 6th string / the low E string
The 5th string / the A string
The 4th string / the D string
The 3rd string / the G string
The 2nd string / the B string
The 1st string / the high E string
Navigating the Fretboard
Navigating the fretboard is done by thinking of it like a grid. Each string has a wide range of notes that can be played which is determined by where you fret the string on the fretboard. The following fretboard map shows the fretboard from the 1st fret, to the 12 fret.
Use this map as a reference to memorize the notes for each string and fret. Learning about the notes on the fretboard starts getting into the basics of music theory. In order to keep this first lesson fairly basic, I won’t dive into music theory much just yet; but I do want to point out a couple of observations about the fretboard which are important for future lessons.
We now know what each “open” (not being fretted) string is (E, A, D, G, B, E). Notice the string notes on the 12th fret. They are the same notes as the “open” strings. This is what we call an octave. An octave is when you have two of the same musical note, at different pitches. For example, the E note on the 6th string’s 12th fret, is one octave higher than the open 6th string E note. This also means that the fret board eventually repeats as the fretboard goes further up (in fret numbers).
Steps / Tones
The distances between frets are called steps, or tones. Further more, they are broken into two sizes: half-steps (a.k.a. semi-tones), and whole-steps (a.k.a. whole-tones). “Step” and “tone” terminology are interchangeable. A half-step is a distance of 1 fret. A whole-step is a distance of 2 frets.
To help illustrate this, let’s look at the following examples.
Take a look at the A string (5th string). From the (open) A note, to the B note (2nd fret), is one whole-step (two frets) up, and from the B note (2nd fret on the A string) to the C note (3rd fret on the A string), is one half-step (one fret) up.
Now take a look at the B string (2nd string). From the B note, to the C note (1st fret), is one half-step up, and from the C note, to the D note (3rd fret), is one whole-step up.
Last one; look at the D string (4th string). From the G note (5th fret), to the F note, is one whole-step down, and from the F note, to the E note, is one half-step down.
Important Note! We will get into sharp notes (notated as #) and flat notes (notated as b) in a future lesson, but for now notice that all of the notes (A, B, C, D, E, F, G) have a whole-step between them, except for B & C, and E & F.
2) Beginner Guitar Technique
Let’s talk about some basic guitar playing techniques which will help set foundational muscle memory for practice. First I would like to talk about holding the guitar and left hand & right hand positions. This is assuming right handed playing–the right hand picks the strings, and the left hand frets the fretboard.
- Holding the guitar
You are welcome to use a guitar strap, but I would recommend practicing while sitting down. This means you should know how to hold the guitar comfortably. Most guitars have a contour shape which rests nicely on your leg.
- Thumb position
- Pick holding
- Basic Rhythm
3) Introductory Open Chords
- C Major
- A Major
- G Major
- E Major
- D Major
This concludes Lesson #1
Be sure to take the Lesson 1 Quiz and the end of this lesson to test your knowledge of this lesson (sneak preview)