It’s the 2016 A to Z Blog Challenge, so I thought I’d focus on one of my favourite subjects: Guitars. Care to join me?
Necks, Nuts, and Nylons
Lucky you – a three-fer!
Actually, this is my sneaky way of discussing guitar anatomy. I promise I’ll try to make it a little fun.
For all the differences between electric and acoustic guitars, they really aren’t so very different in terms of the pieces that comprise them.
Starting from the top of the guitar, we have the headstock and tuning machines. As I mentioned earlier, the headstock provides one of the two anchor points needed to secure the strings, and also provide a place to mount the tuning machines, which is essential for ensuring the strings are tuned accurately. Believe me, there is nothing worse than an out of tune guitar. Unless, of course, it’s an out of tune mandolin, but we won’t go there today.
Next comes the nut, a thin piece of plastic, brass, bone, or some other medium-hard material. The nut is grooved to ensure the strings are evenly and consistently spaced along the fretboard. The nut is one of the two places that helps the strings to vibrate. If not for the nut, the strings would just “thunk” against the wood of the fretboard and headstock. Believe me, when you lose a chunk out of your nut, you know it. Your wonderful midnight wine Stratocaster turns into an extremely expensive and completely impractical paperweight.
The fretboard or fingerboard, comes next. Typically, the fretboard is made of a different kind of wood from the rest of the guitar neck. The fretboard takes a lot of abuse (tapping, string bending, metal slides, oil, dirt, sweat, blood, tears), so the wood is a typically a little harder than the wood use in making the rest of the guitar, particularly acoustic guitars. On classical and flamenco guitars, the addition of this harder wood helps stabilize the neck against the torque of the strings.
As you might expect, the fretboard is divided by frets, pieces of metal that span the width of the neck. The divisions come at very specific intervals so that when you place your fingers behind the frets, the pitch changes in predictable and standard ways. The fretboard, nut and headstock taken together are referred to as the neck of the guitar.
If you ever want your mind blown, check out Yngwie Malmsteen’s guitar. He has what is called a “scallop necked” guitar in which the wood behind the frets is scooped out. I can’t imagine the finger control needed to be able to hold a string at the right tension for the right pitch without anything to press against. Think sitting down without benefit of a chair.Oh, and if you happen to notice dots or parallelogram inlays between the fret bars, there’s no big mystery there. These are position markers and they help guitarists maintain their orientation while they’re playing. Consider them “mile markers” or “landmarks” along the neck.
Below the neck is the body of the guitar, and here is where acoustic and electric guitars start to differ significantly. Electric guitars are typically solid wood, with spaces gouged out to accommodate the pickups, saddle and bridge along with the other nobs and switches that go along with an electric guitar. Acoustic guitars are hollow and much, much lighter than their electric cousins. Both have “waists” – that area where the guitar body curves in towards the middle.
Electric guitars have pickups – those finger-wide bar-like structures that run underneath the strings. This is how an electric guitar gets its sound. The pickups translate the string vibrations into an electrical signal which then gets transferred to an amplifier. Voila! Rock superstardom awaits.
An acoustic guitar produces its sound in a similar way, except the string vibrations get transferred to the top of the guitar, called the face. The top of the guitar vibrates, and since the body is hollow, it acts like an echo chamber, producing the tones we hear. BUT, acoustic guitars can also be fitted with pickups for live performance or recording purposes, or really any time the guitar needs to be amplified. Those pickups are usually mounted inside the guitar body and against the underside of the top.
Regardless of how the sound is produced, the strings still have to pass over a saddle. It’s roughly analogous to the nut at the top end of the guitar. Acoustic guitar saddles are made of one piece of bone, plastic, brass, or some other medium-hard material, similar to the nut. Unlike the nut, however, the saddle isn’t grooved. The second anchor point for the strings, corresponding to the tuning machines on the headstock, is the bridge. Most acoustic guitars will use bridge pins (they kind of look like belaying pins to me) to anchor the end of the strings to the guitar but on some models – usually classical or flamenco guitars – the strings are tied to the bridge. On an electric guitar, each individual string has its own saddle, made of metal, before passing over the bridge.
Oh, you thought I forgot about the nylons, huh? Okay, smarty. Strings come in two very broad flavours: steel and nylon. Most acoustics and all electrics use steel strings but classical and flamenco guitars use nylon. Back in the day, the strings were made of gut, but we are so much more evolved than that now. The only guts needed for playing a guitar these days is the intestinal fortitude to endure the discomfort while the callouses on your fingertips are forming.
That’s it. Go. Play. Have fun.