Whether you’ve been picking away at an acoustic guitar for years or have never even touched a six-string before, choosing your very first electric guitar is always an exciting experience. In this piece, I am going to detail what elements affect the sound of an electric and how to understand what the most important elements of a spec sheet actually mean. In a pair of related pieces (linked below), I am going to walk you through some popular guitars currently on the market.
There are lots of little variables that come with every guitar, both acoustic and electric, and just about all of them have some sort of effect on the way the total package is going to sound. Things like what kind of wood your fretboard is made of may seem subtle, but sometimes they can make the difference between a guitar you love and a guitar that you’re pretty much indifferent to. In this section, we’re going to go over some of those variables.
Scale length is one of the biggest factors in determining the way a guitar will sound. Scale length is the distance between where the strings on a guitar feed into the bridge on one end of the guitar, and where they feed out through the nut on the other end of the guitar. A longer scale length means more tension on the strings, which results in a sharper, more-piercing tone, while a shorter scale length means less tension on the strings resulting in a ticker and richer guitar tone.
Fender brand guitars run longer on scale length with a typical scale length of 25.5″, while Gibson brand guitars are usually on the shorter end with a typical scale length of 24.75″. Paul Reed Smith guitars split the difference with a scale of 25” even, which makes them a good middle-ground option between the two extremes of Gibson and Fender. Other popular brands that typically use the longer length of 25.5″ include Ibanez, Jackson, Kramer, while Gretsch guitars often use a scale length slightly shorter than even Gibsons, at 24.6″.
Body wood refers to the kind of wood that the body of the guitar is made of. This is not necessarily the same kind of wood that will be used on the neck and fretboard. A wide variety of different kinds of woods are used for the bodies of electric guitars, and they all sound a little bit different, but the woods that are by far most commonly used for electrics are alder, swamp ash, and mahogany.
Swamp ash gives electric guitars an extremely bright, in your face tone while mahogany provides a darker, more introspective tone. Alder-bodied guitars sound somewhere in between swamp ash and mahogany guitars, although they lean towards sounds like swamp ash. Gibson electric guitars tend to use mahogany while Fenders tend to use either swamp ash or alder.
Other body woods that you may encounter include Walnut, Basswood, Maple, Koa, and Korina, and there’s more out there than even all those! Each body wood has its own distinctive sound, so if a guitar that you have your eye on is made of a more uncommon wood then it’s definitely worth it to do some research into the nuances of that specific wood to make sure that it’ll provide the right guitar tone for you.
Fretboard wood is just what it sounds like: the kind of wood that your fretboard is made of. The fretboard is the piece of wood placed on top of the guitar neck, and onto which the frets are carved. Fretboard wood may not make as dramatic a difference in your sound as your guitar’s body wood, but it is an important and often overlooked factor as well. The most commonly used fretboard woods are rosewood, maple, and ebony.
Rosewood fretboards have a warm sound without too much high-end, which makes them a solid choice if you’re interested in beefing out the tone of an otherwise overly brittle-sounding guitar. By contrast, maple fretboards are very bright with lots of high-end and be a great finishing touch if you’re looking for a guitar than leans into its treble frequencies. Ebony fretboards sound similar to maple fretboard but with a punchier, more in-your-face tone which, along with their jet black color, makes them a popular choice among metal guitarists. Most guitar brands offer a variety of fretboard options, making no one brand synonymous with any particular variety.
Pickups are those rectangular things on the body of your guitar right under the strings. Although a technical difference prevents them from formally being called microphones, they are in practice a very similar sort of device. The pickups capture that sound your guitar strings make when you strum them unplugged, then sound that sound to your amplifier, thus making the rich, creamy electric guitar sound we all know and love.
The three most common types of pickups are single-coils, humbuckers, and P-90s, with single-coils and humbuckers being the two more common varieties. Humbuckers produce a big, fat, and smooth sound that is great for both rich, mellower tones as well as for putting on lots of distortion. Single-coil pickups are essentially a humbucker pickup cut in half, and they produce a jangly, piercing sound that is often described as chime-like. P-90 pickups produce a highly-distinctive raw and dirty tone that makes them popular among blues, rock and roll, and punk guitarists.
Although some electric guitars out there only have one pickup, the vast majority of them will have either two or three. Some will have a mix of different types of pickups and some will have multiples of the same type of pickups, but the pickup nearer to the bridge will catch most of your guitar’s treble-end while the pickup nearest to the neck will catch most of the bass end. If your guitar has a third pickup, then this pickup will most likely be placed in between to previously mentioned pickups and will project a tone that falls somewhere between the two extremes. You can then switch between different pickup configurations, allowing for a variety of tones. The more pickups your guitar has, then the more combinations you’ll be able to experiment with.
Single-coil pickups are most commonly identified with Fender guitars, although guitars can be found sporting humbuckers as well. Gibson guitars primarily use humbuckers, but also often utilize P90s, while PRS guitars use humbuckers just about exclusively. Most other notable brands will offer a variety of pickup options throughout their products, although humbuckers remain the most common pickup currently on the market.
While there are other details that can affect your guitar, these are in my opinion all of the main ones. The information above should help guide you through understanding the spec sheet of a guitar that you may be interested in purchasing.
A pair of related blogs detailing some great guitars currently on the market from the two key electric guitar companies are now up!
Click here for a run-through of Fender guitars.
Click here for a run-through of Gibson guitars.