PG Explains: Guitars & Strings
What are the different parts of acoustic and electric guitars?
All guitars have essentially the same structure and parts. There is the headstock, which includes tuning machines and the nut; the neck, which includes the fretboard and frets; and the body, which includes the saddle and bridge hardware. Additionally, electric guitars have pickups, volume and tone controls, a pickup selector, and an output jack. Acoustic guitars usually have a round sound hole in the middle of the body, where the pickups sit on an electric.
What are guitar strings and gauges?
Most electric and acoustic guitar strings are made of steel or nickel-wrapped steel, while classical guitars use nylon strings. Gauge refers to the thickness of a string. The higher the gauge, the thicker the string will be. Lower gauge strings sound brighter and lighter in general, while higher gauge strings sound darker and heavier.
How often do I have to change guitar strings?
The rule of thumb is to change strings after 100 hours of playing time. For many players, that will mean roughly three months of use. For others, it’ll be six months—or six weeks. Pay attention to how the new strings feel and sound. When they start losing that mojo and you don’t like the sound or feel, change them.
What are sound holes?
These are the holes carved in the top (and sometimes sides) of acoustic and semi-hollow electric guitars that project the guitar’s sound. On an acoustic, they’re the circle, most often, in the middle of the body. On semihollow electric guitars, they’re long holes that come in various shapes. The most recognizable is the f-shaped hole, like you see on this Gretsch Electromatic.
What are pickups?
Pickups are magnets wrapped in coils of wire that convert the vibration of your strings into an electric signal, which is then sent on to your amplifier. The most common types are single-coil pickups, found on guitars like the Fender Stratocaster, and humbuckers, seen on the Gibson Les Paul. Since pickups’ positions on a guitar’s body give them unique tones, the pickup selector switch on electric guitars lets you choose which pickups you’re hearing.
Are guitars made from one single piece of wood?
No! They’re typically made from a number of different pieces and types of wood, which are glued and/or bolted together.
Are all guitars made of wood?
Not necessarily! Some builders use composite materials and laminates in their lines, or metals, or even Lucite, as in the famed Ampeg Lucite guitars and basses of the 1960s.
Can I do guitar maintenance myself?
There are lots of simple maintenance tasks that players can do themselves, like changing strings, polishing the fretboard, changing action and intonation, and adjusting the truss rod. But it’s best to read up on your specific guitar and how to do each of these tasks first.
Where can I find additional reading on guitar strings?
The following articles on guitar strings, tonewoods, and DIY improvements can be found online at premierguitar.com: “DIY: How to Choose Your Electric Guitar Strings,” “DIY: How to Choose Acoustic Guitar Strings,” “Does String Gauge Really Matter?,” “What Will Replace Classic Tonewoods?,” and “DIY: Seven Ways to Soup Up Your Guitar.”
Could “Eruption” Have Been Conceived on a Teisco?
This ’60s solidbody is exceptionally cool, but knowing it’s the same model Sir Edward started out on makes it much cooler.
Like so many others, I’ve been thinking a lot about the passing of Eddie Van Halen this past month. I’ve also been remembering his popularity in Japan. While Van Halen the band was worshipped there in their early days, Eddie, in particular, was absolutely revered. My best friend in Japan, named Tadashi, is a huge fan, and his most prized possession is a signed ticket stub I got from a local teenager when Van Halen played in my area. Gift giving is a big thing in Japan, and I figured the best gift I could offer Tadashi was that signed stub.
During my last visit to Matsumoto City, we spent a lot of time talking about all the guitars Eddie used over the years. Like so many youngsters in the ’60s and ’70s, Eddie’s very first axe was a Teisco ET-440 (Photo 1). So, for this month’s column, I want to shed a bit of light on both the model and Teisco’s place in the electric guitar explosion at the time. Tip: Search “Van Halen Teisco mom” and you’ll be offered up a nice old photo of a young, beaming Eddie with his mom and guitar.
The introduction of the Teisco ET-440 coincided with the huge jump in worldwide electric guitar sales in the ’60s. The Japan-based Teisco had already been introducing new models every year, and constantly tweaking things like headstock shapes, fretboard inlays, and pickup designs. The ET-400 made its first appearance in a Japanese music trades magazine, where a brand-new Teisco lineup was introduced in June of 1964 (Photo 2). This was the same year Teisco introduced a truly awesome 6-string bass (TB-64), as well as an interesting amp-in-guitar model called the TRG-1.
Still, the guitar with all the bells and whistles was the ET-440. Its body shape featured longer bouts and a few more curves than the older, boxy, and clunkier Teisco models, making the 440 much sleeker. Gone was the sketchy old clamshell tremolo, and in its place was a large floating-plate tremolo that was quite the feat of engineering. When set up properly, it was probably among the first of the old Teisco tremolo units that could actually hold a tune! The ET-440 also featured a nice adjustable bridge.
Photo 2 — photo credit vintaxe.com
Early versions of the ET-440 were sometimes equipped with grey-colored pickups (Photo 3) with rounded S-style edges. And although these pickups sound very good, with a little bit of old Rickenbacker tone in them, they’re sealed and just about impossible to repair. The gray top pickups are really rather rare and help the keen-eyed observer place this model firmly in the 1964-’65 range. Teisco later fitted the ET-440 with square pickups housing square pole pieces. which were found on a number of other Teisco models as well. The first versions of these fabulous pickups were wound hot and in series, and truly sound amazing.
While the headstock on this initial incarnation of the 440 was first seen in 1964, it went out of style by 1966, and the company switched to a 4+2 configuration. Back in the day, the ET-440 would have totally worked as a solid guitar to learn your chops, but some big mitts were required since almost all the old Teiscos had a truly mammoth deep-V neck. It’s quite a piece of lumber, so I often chuckle when I feel the “modern interpretations” of a ’50s- or ’60s-style neck. Folks, you simply have to try out one of the old Teiscos to get a true feel for a large neck profile.
Teisco’s importing and distribution in the U.S. was handled by Chicago-based W.M.I. (Weiss Musical Instruments). This relationship was a major step for a Japanese guitar company, and the name Teisco soon became almost synonymous with any Japanese electric guitar. Just like Q-tip or Kleenex, Teisco was a bit of a household name, especially for young guitarists growing up in the 1960s. And whether you grew up in Amsterdam or Anaheim, you could probably get your hands on a cool guitar with enough switches and pickups to operate a space-age cockpit. Thousands of youngsters were learning on Japan-built guitars, and Teisco was the king of the times.
So, leave it to Eddie Van Halen to have picked up a Teisco ET-440 from that pivotal era of Japanese electric-guitar history for his first axe. Of course, the frets and action were probably poor, and I can say from experience that if you learned to play on one of these guitars, you really had to earn it. Eddie certainly earned it.
I recall many years ago seeing an auction on eBay for the actual receipt from the sale of Eddie’s ET-440. I didn’t put in a bid and hadn’t really thought about it much until now, but here’s to Eddie Van Halen and his very first guitar!
See and hear this 1964 Teisco ET-440 demoed by Mike Dugan.
Does a Solidbody Bass' Unplugged Tone Matter? Pt. 2
More on why an electric 4-string’s acoustic sound might not predict its plugged-in performance.
In last month's column [“Does a Solidbody's Unplugged Tone Matter?" December 2020], we looked at an experiment that was performed to compare the airborne- and electric-signal tone of a solidbody bass, with and without its body in contact with a box, aka a resonator.
In short, the outcome was that the body/resonator contact had a clearly noticeable influence on the acoustic tone, but close to none for the electric output. Another variation on this experiment is to put the headstock—rather than the body—in touch with the box. Can we expect the same outcome as before?
One obviously huge difference between the body and neck is their cross sections, influencing stiffness and mass, and therefore providing susceptibility for dampening, resonances, and eigenmodes stimulated by the vibrating string. (For more on how eigenmodes work, see “Killing the Bass, Part 1," from the August 2020 issue.) The main parameters influencing a neck's vibrational behavior are—of course—material, shape, and design of the truss rod, or truss rods. (Yes, dear guitarists, there are basses with more than one truss rod.) There is also the act of our hand grabbing the neck, which will both dampen and stiffen the neck.
An old trick to move dead spots up or down in frequency is to add or remove mass at the headstock—the end of its “lever arm." This is known to work on guitars most of the time, but not so well on basses. This is unscientifically spoken and without further proof, but to significantly influence low bass notes requires bigger changes in mass than most would accept as realistic. There is a bit more about this subject in my column “Bass Necks: Adjustability and Resonance," from November 2012.
Fig. 2 — Here's the spectrum of an E chord on an electric guitar recorded via microphone, with black indicating contact with a box and red without. Graphic courtesy of “Physics of the Electric Guitar" by Dr. Manfred Zollner
Back to the experiment: So, if varying the mass at the headstock can shift these resonances, so should its fixation to the box, right?
Fig. 1 shows our experimental setup. Fig. 2 represents the measured signal of a microphone, while Fig. 3 does the same for the measured signal of a pickup. Both diagrams compare neck contact with the box, and without. It's worth noting that the basic signal for the measurements was an E chord played roughly 50 times by an experienced player.
Opposed to last month's experiment with the body contacting the box—where it was hard to even distinguish the curves in the plot of the electric signal—we can now see at least a few differences in two frequency ranges. Although visually noticeable, however, it was reported that even experienced listeners weren't able to say which is which.
Fig. 3 — Here's the spectrum of that E chord recorded with a guitar's pickup, with (black) and without (red) contact to the box. Graphic courtesy of “Physics of the Electric Guitar" by Dr. Manfred Zollner
An explanation for the results of the first experiment with the body/box contact is that there is a flow of vibrations into the body. Otherwise, we wouldn't hear any acoustic difference when contacting the box. But the reflow from the body back into the strings is zero, at least practically, as we can't measure or hear any differences. On the other hand, the softer neck and its vulnerability for resonances and eigenmodes is able to make a small difference due to the added stiffness and coupling when contacting the box.
All these measurements were done with a guitar, so it would be interesting to see whether there would be bigger differences in the electric signal for a bass. Why? Because we have a higher string mass and overall vibrational energy, and a longer scale length.
There are certainly quite a few more constructional details on our instruments that will alter acoustic or primary tone, but with even less likelihood to make it into the electric signal. So, bottom line: Don't rely too much on acoustic tone when you're evaluating an instrument!