How Does an Electric Guitar Work?
If you're a musician, no matter how long you've been playing, you may not have ever thought about exactly how your instrument creates its unique sound. While there are classes of instruments, like strings, woodwinds, brass and percussion, each one works a little differently.
Understanding how your electric guitar — or any other instrument — works can be beneficial in achieving the right tone.
Basic Parts of the Electric Guitar
To understand how electric guitars work, you need to understand their basic structure. Electric and acoustic guitars have a lot in common, but electric guitars have unique features that distinguish them from their acoustic counterparts.
Acoustic guitars rely on resonance to make their sound and have nylon or steel strings. Electric guitars often have solid bodies and metal strings, but they can have hollow and semi-hollow bodies, as well. The type of strings is more critical with electric guitars because they're needed to produce the right frequencies. Another unique feature of electric guitars is the whammy bar, which gives the sound a wavering effect.
With an acoustic guitar, you only need your guitar to start playing, as it works on its own exactly like a speaker does. When you have an electric guitar, you need some extra equipment to get the instrument's distinct sound. You need an amplifier and the appropriate cables to get the powerful sound out of the electric guitar. Unlike the acoustic guitar, this setup lets you put a wide variety of effects on your music with the help of effects pedals.
Pickups — the Key to the Electric Guitar's Sound
Arguably one of the most important parts of the electric guitar are the pickups.
The pickups are located on a metal or plastic bar on the body of the guitar, where the strings attach to the body. As the name suggests, this part picks up the vibrations from the strings and turns them into music.
The pickups are made from magnets wrapped in copper wire. These magnets create a field around the pickup, and when you strum or pluck the strings, the pickup reads the changes in that field and turns those vibrations into electric signals. You then need an amplifier and speaker to be able to hear those electric signals as music.
There are a few different types of pickups. Single coil pickups are made with a single magnet, and humbucker pickups are made with two magnets positioned next to each other. In addition to these two types of pickups, this piece can be active or passive. The main distinction between the two is that active pickups have fewer coils of wire and rely on a preamp run by a power source — usually a battery. The type of pickup will affect the guitar's tone.
An easy way to understand an electric guitar's function is that it works the same way the alternator in a car does. When you pluck the strings, the motion of the wire strings occurs in the pickups' magnetic field. The wire moving in the magnetic field generates electricity — which means an electric guitar actually generates electricity. If you were to strum hard enough, theoretically, you could power a toaster, light bulb or another small appliance.
The electric guitar is a complex instrument, especially when you start adding in effects pedals and other equipment. Understanding how your guitar works will help you create the sound you want and also recognize when it isn't working the way it should.