Whether you’re just getting to know your guitar or have loads of experience as a guitarist and want to teach someone new, it’s good to be familiar with all the key parts of your instrument by name!
Today, we’ll go over all the key parts of acoustic and electric guitars so that you can get thoroughly acquainted with the purpose of each one.
What are the parts of an acoustic guitar?
Let’s start by learning about all the key parts of an acoustic guitar, since it has many core elements in common with its electric counterpart.
1 . Headstock
The headstock is also sometimes called a “peghead.” This component is located at the very top of the guitar’s neck and serves as a platform for the tuning machines. The headstock is important since it provides a lot of the structural integrity needed for the tuning machines to do their job once a guitarist is done tuning their instrument.
Headstocks come in all kinds of shapes and sizes: sometimes there are cutouts for the tuning machines, and sometimes the tuning machines rest on the top or side of the headstock.
2. Tuning Machines
The tuning machines are also commonly referred to as “machine heads” or “tuners” and, as that last name would suggest, they’re used to tune the strings of the guitar. The tuning machines can be further broken down into smaller parts:
The tuning peg is the part that you grab to twist the capstan, or cylinder, to which it’s attached. This cylinder has a hole in it that the guitar string is pulled through so that it can wrap around the cylinder–that way, when you twist the tuning peg, you’re adjusting the tension of the guitar string. As a result, you’re adjusting the pitch of the sound that the guitar string makes when you pick it.
Worm gears also play their part in the tuning machine by keeping the cylinders from moving unless you’re adjusting the tuning peg. This function preserves the tune and allows for you to tune the guitar more finely.
The nut is the small piece of material–usually hard plastic, brass, or bone–that rests perpendicularly to the headstock and neck of the guitar. The nut might be small and anything but eye-catching, but it serves a very important purpose. It keeps the strings of the guitar evenly spaced and lifted to the correct height above the fingerboard.
The guitar’s nut also helps to “smooth out” the curve of the strings from the fretboard to the tuning machines, easing away some of the sharp bends and friction that would otherwise put added wear and tear on your strings. Not to mention: If the nut weren’t there, your strings would scrape and buzz against the neck of the guitar and create a horrible sound!
4. Neck and Fretboard
Fun fact: all fretboards are fingerboards, but not all fingerboards are fretboards! A fingerboard with frets on it (more about those in a minute) is a fretboard, where you press the strings down to create specific notes when you pick.
The neck of the guitar is the thicker piece of wood behind the fretboard that supports it, featuring a skillfully-crafted curve that’s engineered to resist the tension of the guitar strings and preserve the tune.
The frets are those metal bars on the fingerboard that qualify it as a fretboard! Fret bars are usually made of brass and are placed at precise intervals along the fretboard to create clean notes when you press the strings against them. This is why people say that you “fret” a note or chord on the guitar while you play it.
Some guitars also have useful little dots on the side of the neck that help you tell where commonly-used frets are at a quick glance. These dots are commonly located next to the third, fifth, seventh, fifteenth, seventeenth, and nineteenth frets.
6. Upper Bout
The “Upper Bout” of the guitar refers to the portion of the body that juts out on either side above the center of the guitar. Another way to look at it is to think of the Upper Bout as the part of the guitar’s body that’s nearest to the base of the neck. This is also the level of the guitar’s body where you’ll find the soundhole.
The Upper Bout is where you’ll find the guitar’s Cutaway, if it has one–many do not. Guitarists are sometimes divided on how the Cutaway, or lack thereof, affects the guitar’s sound. However, many musicians agree that guitars without cutaways have a deeper resonance than those that do have them.
Anyway, you can think of the guitar’s Upper Bout as its shoulders . . .
7. Lower Bout
. . . And, you can think of the guitar’s Lower Bout as its hips! The Lower Bout is also the height on the guitar’s body where you’ll find the strings ending at the bridge.
By the way: These parts of the guitar are called the “bouts” after the archaic English word “bought,” which means “a turning or bending”. So, the names of the guitar’s Upper and Lower Bouts actually directly reference their shapes.
The guitar’s pickguard, or “scratchplate,” is aptly named since it’s there in order to protect the guitar’s body and finish against errant pick strikes. Even the most skilled guitarists can get so immersed in the music that they would run the risk of damaging their guitar’s body if the pickguard weren’t there.
The pickguard isn’t always left as a purely practical element, either, and can come in all kinds of different designs. But the common denominator between them all is that they’re crafted from a hard material that can withstand plenty of wear–usually laminated plastic.
9. Bridge and Saddle
Remember the Lower Bout of the guitar, and how it frames the spot on the guitar’s face where the bridge is mounted? That bridge serves to anchor the guitar strings firmly in place and transfer their vibration to the body of the guitar. In other words, it serves as the guitar’s soundboard: In acoustic guitars, this is how each note you play is amplified. The bridge carries the sound from the strings to echo throughout the guitar’s body, adding richness and projection as each note reverberates.
In steel string guitars, the bridge is also fitted with bridge pins that keep each string right where it needs to be. Classical guitars, which often sport strings crafted from nylon, may not have bridge pins–they’re likely to rely on a tie block instead.
The saddle closely resembles the nut in appearance, often made from the same or similar material and mirroring the nut’s long, thin shape. The saddle sits atop the bridge, not only transferring sound from the strings to the soundboard but raising the strings to the desired height as well. Together, the saddle and nut determine the guitar’s “action,” or how far down you must press a string in order to fret a note.
So, with all the parts that work together to transfer the sound of the guitar strings through the soundboard to get amplified by the hollow body of the guitar, you may be wondering how the notes reach your ears without sounding muffled. The answer: The guitar’s soundhole!
The soundhole is the circular cutout on the front of the guitar that serves to let each note out once it’s reverberated and amplified, allowing each sound to reach your ears intact and sweet.
11. Strap Buttons
Strap buttons essentially speak for themselves: These are the sturdy little pegs, usually made of metal, that are mounted on the guitar body. One sits at the top while the other sits at the bottom, and they’re there for you to attach the ends of a guitar strap to. That way, you’ll be able to support the weight of the guitar hands-free, increasing your mobility and freedom to concentrate on making music.
Just a side note: Guitar straps and strap buttons are less crucial for a lot of acoustic guitar players than they are for electric guitar players. While electric guitars are generally played while standing up, a lot of people like to sit down to play their acoustic guitars. However, a shoulder strap might still come in handy for acoustic guitarists who plan to perform on stage.
Here’s a video showing the parts of an acoustic guitar:
Nice! So, what about electric guitars?
Many of the core parts of an electric guitar are essentially the same as what you’ll find in an acoustic guitar. The shapes and proportions may vary since electric guitars amplify their sound very differently, but several key structural components remain the same:
- Tuning Machines
- Neck and Fretboard
- Upper Bout
- Lower Bout
- Bridge and Saddle
- Strap Buttons
These parts are all found on both acoustic and electric guitars, and serve essentially the same purposes in both. Since electric guitars don’t have a soundhole, they require a whole different set of parts to transmute its sounds through an electric amplifier.
The parts that are unique to electric guitars are as follows:
A . Pickups
Think back to the bridge pins commonly found in acoustic guitars, which pick up the vibrations of the strings and transfer them down through the soundboard and into the hollow guitar body to get amplified via reverberation. As you’ve surely noticed, the body of an electric guitar isn’t hollow at all! That means that there’s nowhere for the string’s soundwaves to echo. So, where do they go?
In electric guitars, the pickups begin with a carefully-engineered plastic bobbin that mounts six magnetic, metal bars–one for each guitar string. The plastic bobbin is then wrapped in a coil of enameled wire that winds around these magnetic elements to “pick up” the sound and convert it into an electric signal that eventually travels to an amp. This process is very similar to the internal workings of microphones.
B. Pickup Selector
Most electric guitars have more than one pickup installed. The way the wires are coiled can have a huge effect on how things sound, and most musicians like having options! The pickup selector allows guitarists to switch between pickups to get just the right sound to suit a specific song or mood. Some guitars even allow players to utilize a combination of more than one pickup at once for an extra level of expression.
C. Volume and Tone Knobs
The volume knob is pretty self-explanatory–as long as you’ve remembered to plug your electric guitar into the amp, that is! The volume knob won’t change a thing if you’ve just picked up your electric guitar for a quick strum or two without plugging it in.
Without over-complicating things: The tone knob on your electric guitar serves to increase or decrease the presence of the higher sound frequencies that you create each time you pick a note or chord. So, when you lower the number on your tone knob, you’re dialing down the higher frequencies to create a darker sound that’s ideal for heavier rock and metal music. And, vice versa: When you dial things up to a higher number with your tone knob, you’ll get a much brighter tone that’s better suited for rock leads and jazz guitar.
A side note for performing guitarists: Be careful to balance the treble on your amp with the brightness of your guitar’s tone! If you have both of those elements up too high, you can inadvertently create a piercing tone that can be unpleasant for some members of your audience.
D. Output Jack
The output jack is what allows you to plug your electric guitar into your amp so that you can crank up the volume and get ready to rock. As you already know, acoustic guitars rely on a hollow guitar body that serves as an echo chamber to amplify their sound. But electric guitars transfer the strings’ vibrations through the pickups, through the output jack and cable, and into an electric amplifier. This more high-tech approach to amplification offers you a world of artistic possibilities, depending on which amp you choose to go with your favorite electric guitar!
In acoustic guitars, the bridge and saddle serve to guide the strings and their vibrations to their end goal: Amplification within the hollow body of the guitar. But remember that, in an electric guitar, the sound vibrations are transferred down through the pickups of the guitar instead. So, the strings’ ends serve a different purpose: Instead of carrying the vibrations into the acoustic amplification of the guitar body, the ends of an electric guitar’s strings merely need to be secured.
The tailpiece (or stoptail bridge) of an electric guitar serves to lock the ends of the strings in place and keep them secure so that they can hold up against the tension of tuning. Since there’s no reason to transfer the strings’ vibrations into the body of an electric guitar, the tailpiece is usually a raised metal bar to which the strings are attached, which is then affixed to the front of the guitar.
In short: The tailpiece secures the ends of the electric guitar’s strings so that they can be tuned effectively while delivering sound clearly through the pickups.
If you’re new to the world of guitar playing, don’t worry if it takes you a while to remember all the parts of the guitar! Music is a journey, and familiarizing yourself with the anatomy of your instrument may take some time.
You can still practice and play without knowing the name of each guitar part or understanding how each mechanism works, so don’t sweat it.
But, as you learn and grow, learning more about the makeup of your guitar can help you understand how to bring out the best in its sound, maintain it more effectively, and even play better!
Eduardo Perez is a multi-instrumentalist with over 20 years of experience playing instruments such as piano, guitar, ukulele, and bass. Having arranged songs and produced music in a recording studio, he has a wealth of knowledge to share about analyzing songs, composing, and producing. Currently pursuing a Bachelor of Arts degree in Interdisciplinary Musical Studies at Berklee College School of Music. Featured on Entrepreneur.com. Subscribe to his YouTube channel, or follow him on Instagram.