Joan Jett once said, “My guitar is not a thing. It is an extension of myself. It is who I am.” It might be hard to imagine thinking that about an inanimate object. Then again, the acoustic guitar isn’t exactly an inanimate object, is it? From the wood in its neck to the buzzing you hear when a string rubs against the fretboard, the guitar is kind of a living thing.
Still, it requires someone who can bring it to life. If you want to master your guitar well enough to make it sound alive, then you’ll have to come to know it.
The Parts of an Acoustic Guitar
It doesn’t matter which guitar brand you choose; most will have the same basic parts.
Like any string instrument, the acoustic guitar works on a basic principle: When you make strings vibrate at a certain length, they’ll resonate at predictable frequencies. We associate those frequencies with specific tones, assemble them into scales, and voilá—you have your music.
Of course, that doesn’t tell the full story. To understand everything about the interaction of fingers and strings that can create solos like this, we’ll have to break down the guitar into its constituent parts. (Don’t worry: no guitars were harmed in the writing of this article.)
Acoustic Guitar Strings
The most important piece of the puzzle? The guitar strings. You pick them, you strum them, you manipulate them to produce different notes—without them, there is no sound at all, except for the percussive taps you can make against the wood of the guitar itself. (And, hey—that’s what drums are for.)
Typically, there are six strings on an acoustic. In standard tuning, they’re set to the notes EADGBE, with the highest, or sixth string, appearing at the bottom of a standard right-handed acoustic guitar. If you tune a guitar correctly with standard tuning, the two outer strings will resonate with each other, with one sounding “low” and the other “high.”
You interact with the strings in two places. First, your left hand presses down on the strings between the frets, which locks a string to a specific frequency, producing the desired note.
The other hand either strums, taps, or picks the thick end of the strings to produce the sound. Mastering both is essential if you’re going to use a style like fingerpicking guitar. Just short of playing guitar strings with your teeth—which Jimi Hendrix was prone to do—this is how you will play your guitar.
Acoustic Guitar Bridge
You can’t do much with the strings unless you plant them somewhere. The acoustic guitar bridge connects the saddle—the actual connection with the strings—with the rest of the guitar. The whole contraption goes under the hands, helping to distribute the strings at equal distances, which is essential for both sound and comfort.
Technically, the acoustic guitar bridge doesn’t include the saddle, which is where the strings come in direct contact with the guitar—that’s another piece altogether.
Acoustic Guitar Saddle
Just like the saddle on a horse is where you meet the horse, the saddle sits on top of the bridge to meet the strings. It’s the specific part where the strings get much of their intonation.
There are two key things to know about the saddle. First, the saddle height will have a lot to do with the sound you produce, as will the quality of the saddle itself. And second, while those strings form most of the sound, the resonance of the strings with other interactive parts like the saddle will help change the quality you’re getting every time you pluck a note.
Acoustic Guitar Tuning Pegs
If you’ve ever watched a guitarist warm up, you’ve probably seen them fiddle with those knobs at the end of their guitar. At the same time, they might pluck a string as the pitch goes up and down. What’s going on?
Tightening or loosening the acoustic guitar tuning pegs will rotate the tied ends of the strings and adjust their tightness. The looser the string, the longer its wavelength when you pluck it, which lowers the pitch it creates. The tiger it is, the shorter its wavelength, raising the pitch.
Acoustic Guitar Bridge Pins
What good is an acoustic guitar bridge without something to hold the strings down? In this case, we have the pins, those little nubs that connect the rounded end of each string to the bridge of the guitar.
Because sound travels through this area, you may notice that if a pin isn’t properly connected, it can disrupt your sound. When you have your pins in place, you’ll hopefully never have to think about them again. But when you restring an acoustic guitar, you’ll get reacquainted with them, even if it’s only for a few minutes.
Acoustic Guitar Anatomy
We’ve thrown a lot of terms at you, so this is as good a time as any to step back and zoom out.
Looking at your guitar from a bird’s-eye view, you’ll see two major components: the body and the neck. The guitar body is the main wooden component. This is where the bridge holds the strings down. You’ll typically strum your guitar over the hole in the body, which helps create better acoustics.
Then there’s the neck, which is the long back-end of the string’s extensions, holding them out at the appropriate length. This is where the frets allow you to dial in the specific notes you want to play. Manipulating the strings up here will alter pitch in multiple ways. B.B. King got his familiar “twang” by wiggling his fingers on the frets when he sustained a note.
Put the two major components together and you have two elements: strumming or picking with one hand, and determining the notes with your other hand.
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Acoustic Guitar Headstock
In line with the other bodily terms for an acoustic guitar, headstock refers to the wooden base at the other end of the strings. Here you’ll find the tuning pegs, which is an essential element for setting your guitar into tune.
Acoustic Guitar Neck
You can’t change your string’s notes unless you have something to press them against. The acoustic guitar neck is where a lot of the action happens. It’s where soloists like David Gilmour and B.B. King probably look when they’re playing, making sure that each finger is manipulating the strings with precision.
Acoustic Guitar Nut
You may rarely notice the acoustic guitar nut. However, it plays a pivotal role: It’s essentially the first fret and locks in the sound of your guitar’s tuning. If you don’t press your finger down on any of the strings, the nut (and your tuning) determines which note you hear. This sound is the string’s default note and is the lowest note any string can play, given its tuning.
Acoustic Guitar Fretboard
Think of an acoustic fretboard as keys on a piano. The fretboard only forms a small part of the overall appearance, but it’s where you do all the work to make the notes you want to hear.
When you press a string at a specific point on the fretboard, you shorten the length of the string and bring the pitch up a half-step. For instance, E becomes F. A becomes A#. As you might imagine, this is where most of your practice as a guitarist will take place, and it’s where the music gets made.
Acoustic Guitar Body
An acoustic body is the main section of wood at the bottom, thinning out the most at its waist. The waist allows you to hold the guitar and keep everything in position. Everything from the bridge to the connecting fretboard essentially flows from the shape of the body.
Acoustic Guitar Rosette
The big hole in the center of the body, the sound hole, is also an opportunity to decorate your acoustic guitar. Here is where you’ll often find rosette patterns used to give your guitar a distinctive look.
Acoustic Guitar Sound Hole
An acoustic guitar with strings played against a block of wood isn’t so interesting. That’s why the sound hole opens up a space for the string’s vibrations to reverberate through the air, giving the guitar its natural and open sound.
Acoustic Guitar Fingerboard
The fretboard and fingerboard are often referred to interchangeably. An acoustic guitar’s frets are those lines you see across the middle of the neck. A fingerboard is also a fretboard, but a fingerboard can also be fretless, without those lines, as it is with a fretless bass. Typically, with both electric guitars and acoustic guitars, you’ll have frets.
Acoustic Guitar First Fret
On an acoustic guitar, you’ll count frets from the top to the bottom—the headstock to the sound hole. That means if you’re playing the very first fret from the top, you’re indeed playing the first fret. The higher the fret number, the higher the pitch you’re playing.
Acoustic Guitar Capstan
Notice that little plate where the tuning pegs meet the wood of the guitar’s headstock? That’s your capstan. This piece of the guitar should be fixed in place for a steady, consistent tone and easy tuning.
Acoustic Guitar First String
Just as every fret has a name, so does every string. On your guitar, the first string is the highest one—and the one furthest from your eyes as you play. Work your way up these strings for second, third, fourth, and fifth strings, until you arrive at the lowest, or the sixth string.
Acoustic Guitar Position Markers
See those dots along the fretboard? Those are acoustic guitar position markers. Think of them as a map to guide you in the right places—so you can find the third fret, fifth fret, and other key points along the fretboard at a quick glance.
Acoustic Guitar Upper Bout
The guitar body is broken into three sections: the upper bout, the waist, and the lower bout. The two bouts are where the guitar becomes widest. This makes it easy to rest the guitar on your thigh as you play, which is why you’ll see so many acoustic shows where the acoustic guitarist remains seated.
Acoustic Guitar Waist
The middle portion of the guitar is narrower—kind of like a waist in a suit or a dress. This is the waist of the guitar’s body, which allows for seated comfort, as you can see in the picture above.
Acoustic Guitar Lower Bout
The bottom of the guitar doesn’t have much practical use, but it is important for giving more volume to the acoustic chamber, and for comfort. The acoustic guitar’s lower bout is the widest part of the guitar, and you can find it at almost the very bottom of the body.
Making an Acoustic Guitar More Than the Sum of Its Parts
There you have it! You now know the entire anatomy of an acoustic guitar. Some parts are more important than others, but for creating that distinctive, reverberating sound, they’re all a necessary piece of the puzzle.
The next question is: How are you going to learn to use them? Maybe it’s time to pick up some acoustic guitar lessons for beginners.
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