Understanding the parts and the workings of your instrument is essential if you want to be viewed as a professionally-minded musician. The guitar is an instrument that combines elements of woodwork, electronics and the physics of a stretched string. It’s much easier to communicate with other professionals if you know what the parts of your instrument are called and if you understand the terminology.
It’s also important that your guitar is set up properly, with all the fine adjustments taken care of. This is a job that your local music shop will do for you. It typically cost £40 plus a new set of strings, takes a couple of days, and will only need to be done once every year. It’s well worth it.
The fretting system of a guitar or electric bass is carefully calculated. Frets are placed on the neck by using a fret rule, which means that the correct note is produced when the string is fretted at that point. If the intonation of your guitar isn’t adjusted correctly, then most of that careful calculation becomes meaningless and you’ll find that, although your guitar is in tune when you check the open strings, chords will sound more and more out of tune as you move higher up the neck. If you want to check your intonation, tune your guitar with an electric tuner, play an F Major bar chord at the first fret – now play the same chord at the 13th fret. If it sounds out of tune then it’s likely that your intonation isn’t set correctly.
The ‘action’ of your guitar is a descriptions of how close the strings are to the neck. A high action makes the strings difficult to press down, and a very low action can make the strings ‘buzz’ against the frets, which is known as ‘fret buzz’. There are a number of reason why the action of a guitar can become poor, most of which are easily corrected. These include the neck angle, the neck curve and the saddle height. Adjustment of any of these will affect the adjustment of the others so it’s best carried out by an experienced guitar technician.
The electrical system of a guitar works passively, or at a very low voltage if you have an active system. This means that your guitar itself will not electrocute you. There are things that can go wrong elsewhere that can cause serious damage, but they will be caused by other fault equipment. The system consists of pickups, which detect the sound of the strings, potentiometers – usually called ‘pots’, which are visible on the guitar as the rotary controls for volume, tone and blend. These can sometimes come loose and you should deal with the problem straight away as it can lead to bigger issues. Sometimes there are toggle switches which select pickups or change other settings and, on Fender guitars for example, there will usually be a pickup selector switch. This will be either 3-position or 5-position, and allows you to select different pickup combinations. There’s also a jack socket. This is where you plug in your cable – these can go wrong because they get used so often.
The rotary controls and switches on an electric guitar can become noisy and ‘scratchy’. This is because they need cleaning, or sometimes replacing. Your local guitar shop will be able to get this done for you, and it won’t cost you a fortune.
Possibly the most confusing thing about string sets is the way that the gauges (pronounced gayges, not gawges) are described. Because the modern guitar has american roots, the string sizes are measured in inches, but of course every string is smaller than an inch so they’re measured in metric parts of an inch – brilliant!
As well as its ‘open’ note, each string also has a number to describe it, it always starts with the thinnest string, which is number 1.
The top (that’s the thinnest) E string in a typical set of Ernie Ball Super Slinkys, or Rotosound R9s, D’Addario EXL120s, is 0.009 of an inch thick. That’s why people refer these sets as ‘a set of nines’. The top E of a set of Ernie Ball Regular Slinkys is 0.010 of an inch – so the set is known as ‘a set of tens’.
and a slightly ‘heavier’ gauge…
A set of 10s
1st string E – 0.010 4th string D – 0.026
2nd string B – 0.013 5th string A – 0.036
3rd string G – 0.017 6th string E – 0.046
Using a heavier string set will make the instrument feel different when you’re playing. Even if you only change from 9s to 10s the strings will feel tighter and more difficult to bend. On a standard tuned guitar, this is purely a matter of personal choice but if you use dropped tunings, then you will need to consider a heavier set as the strings may be too loose and ‘flappy’. It’s also worth noting that, changing string gauge can affect the overall setup of your guitar. If you use a guitar with a floating them system, Ibanez RG series for example, your tremolo system will become imbalanced and not work properly. You’ll need to get it set up for the new gauge string set.
Acoustic Guitar strings
The gauges for acoustic guitar strings follow mostly the same logic but with one main difference, they’re made from different metals and are usually gold in colour. There are phosphor-bronze sets, which give a warm tone, and 80/20 bronze sets which are brighter in sound. Acoustic guitar sets tend to start from the heavier 10-gauge sizes too – so whilst a typical set of electric strings would be 9s, a typical set for acoustic would be 10s.
There are also 12-string sets available for 12-string acoustic guitars. These guitars use a standard string set each string is paired with a duplicate. The additional string is the same for the 1st and 2nd, and a string tuned to the higher octave for the 3rd, 4th, 5th and 6th strings. These guitars give an unmistakeable sound that you’ll hear on many recordings.
The best – the absolute best, way to learn about all this stuff is to hang around with other musicians, those who’ve been doing it for a while. Talking to a musician who’s been playing for 30 years will open up a mine of information that you can tap into for free. The best place to do this is your local music shop. Much of the information that you find on online forums is utter tripe, and talking to real players is a million times more valuable.