There’s no two ways about it: If you’re serious about guitar and bass, at one time or another you’ve been completely stumped by gear jargon. The big problem with this isn’t just that you feel lost or stupid in a conversation with more experienced players. The worst part is that you might end up shelling out hard-earned money on stuff you might not have bought if only you knew better.
When you’re just starting out, the confusion arises from terms road warriors toss around willy-nilly like everyday figures of speech. But it can also be the stuff left unsaid that’s confusing. For instance, how many newbies realize a lot of the nice-looking, reasonably priced acoustic guitars they’re considering buying aren’t made of solid wood? It says “spruce and mahogany” in the description—what gives?
But guess what, it’s no different for more seasoned players, either. Unless you’re an accomplished builder and electronics whiz, even long-timers reach a point where buzzwords, seemingly obvious designations, and/or complicated concepts boiled down to easy-to-digest labels whisk over your head like calculus terms lobbed at a third grader. Proof? Even many bona fide tube-amp snobs couldn’t tell you what truly constitutes a “class A” power section.
All of this complexity and vagueness can make shopping for new gear an overwhelming, stressful proposition—and that’s not even taking into account the fact that language used to describe gear we see for sale in online stores, on eBay, or in classified ads can either accidentally or purposely take advantage of existing ambiguity.
Our aim here is to demystify commonly used terms to help you get the gear you need and want. And the key to this isn’t just knowing the terms—knowing a term doesn’t mean you know how it affects you as a player or shopper. The goal of this article is to put some of the jargon in context. Think of it as an expanded glossary of selected terms, with definitions mixed in with discussion. It’s by no means comprehensive—that would be a truly mammoth undertaking. Instead, we’ve focused on terms that come up most often for the average buyer of guitar and bass gear, and we’ve organized them alphabetically in sections for guitars and basses, effects, and amps.