No instrument on the planet screams “cool” like the electric guitar. A few basic chords on a loud guitar can send even the most indifferent crowds into a tizzy. It’s also a surprisingly versatile instrument. Some progressive bands use them to add texture to a song with clean tones. Other rock bands play intricate solos that you can hear note-for-note, even over heavy distortion.
While you tend to hear the electric guitar in modern music, it has a rich and sometimes strange history. To increase your appreciation for the instrument and inspire you to hone your skills, let’s take a closer look at electric guitar history.
What is an Electric Guitar?
Electric guitars are stringed instruments that use pickups to convert the vibration of the strings into an electrical signal. These signals are then amplified by a guitar amplifier or speaker.
The “default” sound you get from an electric is known as a clean tone, which is a fancy way to describe how the instrument sounds without any additional effects. You can hear a sample of a clean tone here.
However, many electric guitar players use a variety of effects, including reverb or distortion. While many amplifiers have effects built in, guitarists often use a variety of pedals to get the sound they’re after.
Who Invented the Electric Guitar?
Most people agree that the first example of an electric guitar as we know it today was developed by the Rickenbacker company in 1931. According to Rickenbacker’s website, it was known as the “Frying Pan” and was initially carved out and built entirely by hand.
The Frying Pan wasn’t well-received, especially in its infancy. Not only were people conflicted about whether or not it was a true instrument, the Great Depression made the Frying Pan a completely illogical luxury item for years.
When Was the Electric Guitar Invented?
While the Rickenbacker Frying Pan is the first example of a fully electric guitar, some experts argue that the first “electric” guitar gained notoriety in 1936, when a jazz guitarist named Charlie Christian installed an electronic pickup onto an acoustic guitar.
Much like the fully electric guitar, acoustic-electric guitars are still prevalent in music. They’re especially popular in most live settings, especially those featuring full bands that would otherwise drown out the guitar.
The Difference Between Electric and Acoustic Guitar
While many of the skills required to play the electric guitar translate to an acoustic guitar, there are a few key differences between the two. Here are a few that might impact your experience on each type of guitar, especially if you’re just getting started.
Electric Guitars Have Thinner Bodies Than Acoustic Guitars
Most electric guitars are solid-bodied instruments that are very thin, which makes them easier to hold. Even the thinnest acoustic guitars on the market have large bodies that can be cumbersome to hold in your lap—and even trickier to navigate when you’re standing on a stage.
Electric Guitars Are Difficult (and Sometimes Impossible) to Hear Without Amplification
Can you play an electric guitar without an amplifier? Sure. Many touring musicians do so while they’re on the road, especially while they’re practicing between shows. But if you want to make a crowd go wild, you’ll need at least a basic amplifier to help them hear your tastiest guitar licks. Acoustic-electric guitars are popular in live settings but can be heard by even moderately large crowds without an amplifier in most cases.
Electric Guitars Can Be Easier for Beginners to Learn
Many beginner-level guitar players start on an electric guitar for several reasons. Although acoustic and electric guitars both use metal strings, electric guitars have much thinner strings, which newer musicians find easier to fret on. And as we mentioned before, electric guitars are usually easier to hold, which makes them more inviting for someone who’s just getting started.
The Electric Guitar Anatomy
Electric guitars might be easier to play for beginners, but there are tons of moving parts on the instrument—and many of them require regular maintenance. To help you wrap your mind around what you’re getting yourself into, here’s a brief(ish) breakdown of the most critical parts of an electric guitar.
Electric Guitar Strings
Typically, electric guitars use a standard six string arrangement that is tuned to E, A, G, B, D, E. These strings are usually made out of magnetic metals such as chromium, steel, and nickel. Strings are one of the less expensive components of an electric guitar, which gives you the flexibility to try different brands and find the combination that’s best for your playing style.
Electric Guitar Pickups
The electric guitar’s pickups are electronic components that convert the vibrations of the strings into a small current, which is then sent down the guitar cable and into an amplifier.
Electric Guitar Bridge
To connect the strings to the body, manufacturers use what’s known as a bridge. Not only does the bridge anchor the strings onto the guitar, but some of the more advanced bridges can impact the tone. In some instances, the guitar saddle is also anchored to the bridge.
Electric Guitar Neck
An electric guitar’s neck is critical to the performance and usability of the entire instrument. The fretboard, frets, headstock, tuners, and nut are all mounted to the neck. It’s not a stretch to say that if your neck is out of whack, you’re going to have a tough time making anything resembling music with your guitar.
Electric Guitar Body
The body of any electric guitar plays a vital role in the instrument’s sound. Not only is it where manufacturers mount the electronics and switches, but the tonewood has a significant impact on the overall tone you get. For example, some guitarists prefer cheaper woods like basswood for their warm and full sound. Others turn to mahogany guitars for their versatility and durability.
Electric Guitar Pick Guard
Pickguards are plastic pieces of material that are placed on the bottom of the guitar where musicians tend to scrape the instrument. This serves to protect the instrument from damage or scratches by guitar picks. However, some musicians prefer the sound they get from the guitar without a pickguard—and many others actually take pride in how dinged up their instrument becomes after long tours or recording sessions.
Electric Guitar Tuning Pegs
Tuning pegs serve two purposes. As you can see in the image above, part of the mechanism allows you to mount guitar strings to the end of the instrument. The attached pegs enable you to tighten or loosen each string—and ultimately get it to play the note or pitch you want.
Electric Guitar Headstock
The headstock of the electric guitar is where all of the tuning pegs are installed. This isn’t unique to the electric guitar. You’ll find headstocks on most stringed instruments, including acoustic guitars, violins, and banjos.
Electric Guitar Nuts
There are six indentations on the nut. Not only do these indentations ensure that the strings are spaced properly from each other, the nut determines the height of each string. The height (often referred to as “action”) of each string is a personal preference, but many players prefer the strings to be as close to the fretboard as possible without choking the sound of the instrument.
Electric Guitar Frets
Your electric guitar’s frets are made of thin pieces of metal that run across the fretboard at very specific spacing. Each fret represents one semitone (or half step). For example, when you press the first fret on your bottom E string, you’ll hear an F when you strum.
Electric Guitar Fretboard
The fretboard is a thin piece of material mounted to the front of the electric guitar’s neck. These pieces are usually made of materials like rosewood, maple, or ebony. You’ll typically find ebony fretboards on less expensive guitars—and experienced players tend to be very picky about the type of wood they select for their fretboards.
Electric Guitar Jack
Want to connect your electric guitar to an amplifier? You just need to connect one end of a guitar cable to the output jack on your instrument and the other to an amp. Pretty simple, right?
Electric Guitar Tone Knob
Tone knobs enable you to change the number of high frequencies that your guitar produces. For a crisper sound, many jazz guitarists set their tone knob to 9 or 10. Metal players might want a muddier sound, which requires them to set the tone knob to 3 or 4.
Electric Guitar Volume Knob
Volume knobs determine how loud of a signal your guitar produces. Want a softer sound? Turn the volume knob to a lower number. Want to blow everyone’s ears out? Set the knob to 10.
Pickup Selector Switch
You might have noticed that most of the guitars we’ve showcased here have two to three pickups installed. The pickup selector allows you to turn each pickup on and off. Guitarists are especially likely to use the pickup selector switch when they’ve installed pickups that offer different effects.
The neck joint connects the neck to the body. You’ll find some guitars that are a single piece of wood and don’t require a neck bolt. However, many electric guitars use a metal neck joint to connect the body and the neck.
The fret markers are small circles placed strategically to help players locate where they are. Many electric guitars use reflective fret markers that are easier to see while playing on a dark or dimly lit stage.
Grab Your Guitar
The electric guitar will probably be one of the most popular instruments out there for years to come. Not only is it fun to learn a few chords and put them together to play songs, but we bet that you’ll enjoy maintaining and upgrading each component of your instrument for years to come.
Ready to Play?
Learn Guitar: The Complete Beginner’s Guide