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Electric Guitars

The electric guitar is a relative newcomer to the world of musical instruments, and yet, in it's relatively short existence, has made an immense impact on both modern music and popular culture.

In essence, an electric guitar is a type of guitar that uses electronic pickups to convert the vibration of steel-cored strings into an electrical current that can then be passed through an amplifier and speaker. The ability to alter this electrical signal and produce a wide range of sounds is part of the instruments appeal, allowing it to be adapted to many different genres and styles of music.

A brief history of the electric guitar

The need for louder and more powerful instruments started back in the 19th century as demand for musical performances increased. Larger audiences and concert settings meant that most traditional instruments were no longer capable of producing a large enough sound. The invention of steel strings and subsequent new designs to incorporate this new technology lead to vast improvements, but by the early 20th century guitar makers were looking to electricity as a solution.

The roots of the electric guitar can be traced back to the 1920s. The growing popularity of public dances and the advent of the music recording industry necessitated greater volumes than were currently possible. Guitar makers and electronics enthusiasts began working together to find a solution.

The early electric guitars that began to appear in the early 1930s were primarily acoustic guitars fitted with electromagnetic transducers. These guitars, due to their hollow design, amplified not only the vibration of the strings from plucking, but also the vibration caused by the resonance of the wooden body. This jumbled signal could produce a 'muddy' sound and cause unwanted feedback. It soon became apparent that a solid body design would be the best way to overcome this problem.

One of the first solid body electric guitars was created by Les Paul, but it was Leo Fender brought the instrument to the world's attention. The Fender Broadcaster (later renamed the Fender Telecaster) is widely regarded as the first commercially successful electric guitar. Solid body electric guitars, in one form or another, had been in circulation since around 1932 onwards but had made little impact on the market. Soon after the launch of the Telecaster the Gibson Les Paul model arrived on the scene as a competitor. Over sixty years later both models are still played by musicians the world over.

Buyers guide to electric guitars

With many different guitar styles and designs to choose from, selecting a guitar can seem like a very daunting process. The desired look and appearance of a guitar is often down to personal taste, but aesthetics aside, there are a few handy points it is useful to know.

Solid body or hollow body?

Think of an electric guitar and generally a solid body design will spring to mind. Crafted from solid wood, solid body electric guitars are considered to produce a clean signal and pure tone as the electronic pickups respond to the vibrations of the strings only.

A hollow body electric guitar is often similar in appearance to a solid body electric guitar, the main difference is that the body is hollow, or in the case of a semi-hollow body guitar, features hollow chambers or sound holes. The pickups on a hollow body guitar convert a mixture of string and body vibrations to create a sound different to that of a solid body guitar. Warmer and fuller with greater resonance and sustain, the sound of a hollow or semi-hollow body guitar is regarded by some enthusiasts as being superior to that of a solid body guitar

Which pickups?

It is common for electric guitars to feature single-coil or humbucking pickups, or in some cases, a mixture of both.

Guitar pickups are essentially magnets wrapped with very fine coils of wire. As mentioned previously, movement of the guitars strings induces a small current in the pickups, this current is then sent to the amplifier before emerging from the speaker as sound.

Single-coil pickups are noted for their clear and precise sound making them a good pickup for musical styles such as rock, blues, country and pop. This style pickup, due to the design, is susceptible to hum and interference.

A humbucking or humbucker pickup features two coils placed side by side and wired in such a way that they cancel out any hum (hence the term humbucker). The sound produced by these pickups is warmer and less pronounced than the sound produced by a single-coil pickup, but it has a higher output, creating a more powerful signal. Due to this, the humbucker pickup has traditionally found favour with musicians playing high-output styles of music such as rock and metal, although these are not hard and fast rules.


It may not be a point to take into much consideration for the first time buyer, but the materials from which an electric guitar is crafted, in particular the wood, make a significant impact on the overall sound of the instrument. Common woods used in the construction of electric guitars are: basswood, alder, mahogany, hard ash, maple and rosewood.

The differing densities and hardness of these woods effects the weight and overall sound of the finished guitar, these qualities may be worth taking into consideration depending on the overall sound you wish to achieve. Hard ash is a durable wood that produces a bright tone while mahogany produces a full, warm sound. Maple and Alder also produces a bright tone and warm sound respectively, basswood is lighter and more fragile than the other woods but is desirable for the warm bass sound that it produces.

The necks of electric guitars are usually finished in maple or rosewood. A rosewood neck is considered to have warmer, mellow sound while a maple neck is said to be brighter and more percussive.

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