Technically, electric guitars don’t need electricity. However, the amplifiers that allow them to produce louder sounds do. Electric guitars don’t have resonators such as the hollow body we often find in acoustic guitars. Instead, they have pickups that send signals from the strings to amplifiers which are powered by electricity. Amplifiers then convert these signals into soundwaves.
Of all the instruments out there, perhaps the most popular in today’s time is the electric guitar. This has been used by countless bands and popularized some of the rock and roll icons we know today. From Slash to Jimi Hendrix to John Mayer, the electric guitar is a staple in the music industry.
Ironically, an electric guitar does not need to be plugged into an electric socket. Nonetheless, we all know that electricity is still needed to maximize the potential of this instrument. How does this happen? What does electricity do to an electric guitar? How exactly does an electric guitar work?
We’ll answer all of these questions for you in this article.
Why Does an Electric Guitar Need Electricity?
So, why does an electric guitar need electricity in the first place? We see acoustic guitars sounding just fine even if you don’t plug them in. Why is it different from electric guitars?
Well, the main difference between an acoustic and an electric guitar is that the former is hollow while the latter is solid. Since an acoustic guitar has a hollow body, the vibrations from the strings are amplified acoustically through the body, hence the name acoustic guitar.
This means an acoustic guitar does not require artificial or electrical amplification. Its body does it naturally.
On the other hand, electric guitars are solid. That’s why they’re significantly slimmer and thinner than acoustic guitars. However, this means that there’s no hollow body that allows for the natural amplification of sound.
For an electric guitar to do this, it needs the collaboration of a few components and electricity. To help you understand that better, we’ll talk about how an electric guitar works in the selection below and what is the function of electricity in its entire process.
How Does an Electric Guitar Work?
To learn how an electric guitar works and the importance of electricity in this process, we need to dissect the most important parts of this instrument and its functions. Having said that, here’s a brief explanation of the inner workings of an electric guitar.
The strings in an electric guitar work in pretty much the same way as an acoustic guitar. A set also consists of six strings, and you pluck or strum them to create vibrations. These strings are connected to the head where the tuning pegs are. While these strings may create sounds when you play them unplugged, the sounds are too soft that you might be the only one who hears them.
Instead of a hollow body to amplify the sound, electric guitars use pickups. The main purpose of this component is to “pick up” the vibrations from the strings, hence the name. The pickups are located at the center of the guitar’s body and convert the strings’ vibrations into electrical signals.
Depending on the type and model of the guitar, the pickups may vary in shape and number. Some guitars have three oval pickups, while others have two or four rectangular pickups. Different types of pickups also have different features and purposes.
Some pickups are more sensitive in picking up lower frequencies or bass notes, while others are better at picking up higher frequencies or treble notes.
Below the pickups and beside the volume knobs is the pickup selector. It looks like a switch, and it often has three modes. On one end is the bass mode, and opposite it is treble. You can also set it in the middle, which allows both modes to function.
The primary purpose of the pickup selector is to choose which pickups are active. As we have mentioned, electric guitars use different types of pickups for picking up different frequencies. You can choose which frequencies the guitar picks up and produces by switching one of the pickups on or off.
Ergo, if you set the pickup selector on the treble, the bass pickups would deactivate, preventing the guitar from picking up lower frequency sounds. If you set it on bass, the opposite happens.
After the pickups have gathered the strings’ vibrations and converted them into electrical signals, the guitar then needs to deliver this to an amplifier. This is made possible through the output jack.
This component is located near the pickup selector and volume knobs. You need to plug a cable into the output jack and connect it to the amplifier for the guitar to function properly.
Here comes one of the most important parts of playing an electric guitar—the amplifier. We’ll try to explain this as simply as we can. Basically, the amplifier is what you plug into an electric socket, which means it is the part that receives the electricity and not the electric guitar per se. The amplifier is also the component that receives the electrical signals from the electric guitar.
So, once the amplifier receives the input from the guitar, it amplifies the signals through the electricity from the socket. This means that the amplifiers make the signals more powerful before converting them into sound waves.
Most amplifiers have built-in speakers. After the amplifier turns the electrical signals into sound waves, it delivers them to the different drivers in the built-in speakers. Low-frequency sounds are sent to the subwoofers, while high-frequency sounds are sent to the tweeters.
On the other hand, some amplifiers may also work solely as converters that transform signals into sound waves and also as components that power up these signals through electricity. This means that the user would then have to connect speakers to the amplifier to produce sounds.
Why Use an Electric Guitar if It Needs More Components and Preparation?
We get it. Sometimes, it’s a huge hassle preparing an electric guitar, considering how many cables and components you need just for it to produce sounds. Why not just stick to acoustic guitars, right? All you have to do is pluck the strings and allow the body to function as a resonator to amplify the sound.
Well, there are two general reasons why electric guitars excel in the music industry compared to acoustic guitars.
The first reason is amplification. An acoustic guitar is great when you’re playing in a room full of listeners. They’d probably hear you just fine. However, this is not the case when you’re in front of 30,000 people. The acoustics of the place wouldn’t just be too great for the acoustic guitar to work.
So, we need an electric guitar. Because of how it functions, you can deliver the signals from the electric guitar to a speaker that’s hundreds of feet away, allowing people from further areas to hear them.
You can do this with acoustic guitars, too, by installing pickups onto them. However, there’s another reason why an electric guitar would still be better.
The next reason why electric guitars are better than acoustic guitars, in some sense, is the sound effects that you can use on them. Instead of plugging the output jack directly into the amplifier, you can use soundboards or effects pedals that modify the guitar’s sounds.
This allows the guitar to be more versatile and produce sounds that an acoustic guitar just wouldn’t be able to.
For the takeaway, electric guitars don’t need electricity per se. It is the amplifiers that need them. By converting vibrations into electrical signals, and electrical signals into sound waves, the electric guitar became one of the most used instruments in the music industry.
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.