A Brief Description of Terms Used In Guitar Playing
By Courtney Pancost
It is said that the forerunner of the guitar, the lute, was created by the Greek god, Apollo. In India, it is believed that the sitar, another stringed instrument from which the guitar is descended, is sacred to the goddess Saraswati.
And one of the most popular tales about the guitar is the story of how it was pressed into service to play a hymn of praise to Jesus Christ at a Christmas Eve mass when the organ of the church broke.
It’s no wonder that the guitar has a history of association with the divine. The range and styles of music that can be played on the classic stringed instrument is incredible.
From the intricate fire and beauty of classical Spanish and flamenco guitar to the down-home country sounds of good finger-pickin’, the guitar is a versatile and beautiful instrument.
Modern-day guitars have a hollow or solid body, a neck with frets, and a tuning mechanism that is called the machine head. They may be acoustic, or electric, and are one of the most popular instruments in the world.
Those technical descriptions, however, can’t begin to express the sheer versatility of such a simple instrument.
Even in the hands of a beginner, the guitar can make lovely music – the best kind of music, the kind, in the words of a guitar teacher, that makes you want to sing along. Learning a few simple chords and finger placements, a few strumming patterns, can allow even a student who has only a few lessons to play literally dozens of popular songs.
The most important piece of the guitar is the face, or top. Its composition, shape and engineering will determine the final sound of the guitar.
The back and sides also make a difference, but not so much, and often, luthiers will choose the wood for the sides and back with an eye to appearance rather than sound quality.
Electric guitars are solid, though they are rarely made of a single solid piece of wood. Instead, most are created of many layers of different kinds of wood laminated together.
This gives the guitar both strength and sound quality that wouldn’t be possible in a single piece of wood. Often, the electric guitar is made of a ‘good sounding’ wood like ash or poplar, with a laminated top of a more attractive wood for appearance.
Even within the broader categories of acoustic and electric there are many variations. Acoustic guitars may have six strings or twelve, the strings may be made of steel, nylon or gut. They may be arranged in pairs or singly or in triplets.
Each of these has a different characteristic sound, from the wah-wah of a steel guitar, to the lush beauty of a flamenco guitar.
Nowhere else will you find the variety of guitars that you find in a typical Mexican mariachi band. A typical mariachi band will include at least three kinds of guitar – a classical guitar, a vihuela and a guitarron, a large guitar that is nearly the size of a cello.
Guitar tablatures are among the most searched for items on the internet. These are a unique form of music notation optimized for the guitar, indicating the strings and frets that are to be played, rather than the notes. It’s a teen rite of passage to learn at least one classic guitar riff from Jeff Beck, Stephen Tyler or Eric Clapton.
Whether you choose to learn just a few chords so that you can play for friends at parties, or find yourself so enchanted with the guitar that you take it up as a lifelong practice, there are few other instruments that will provide you with as much pleasure.