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The Electric Guitar:
An electric guitar is a type of guitar that uses pickups to convert the vibration of its steel-cored strings into electrical current, which is then amplified. The signal that comes from the guitar is sometimes electronically altered to achieve various tonal effects prior to being fed into an amplifier, which produces the final sound. The electric guitar was first used in jazz and has also long been used in many other popular styles of music, including almost all genres of rock and roll, country music, blues, ambient (or "new-age"), and even contemporary classical music.
Compared with an acoustic guitar, which has a hollow body, electric guitars make comparatively little audible sound simply by having their strings plucked. Rather, the movement of the string generates (i.e., "induces") a very small electrical current in the magnetic pickups, which are magnets wrapped with coils of very fine wire. That current is then sent via a wire to an amplifier. The current induced is proportional to such factors as the density of the string or the amount of movement over these pickups. That vibration is, in turn, affected by several factors, such as the composition and shape of the body.
Some hybrid electric-acoustic guitars are equipped with additional microphones or piezoelectric pickups (transducers) that sense mechanical vibration from the body. Because in some cases it is desirable to isolate the pickups from the vibrations of the strings, a guitar's magnetic pickups will sometimes be embedded or "potted" in epoxy or wax to prevent the pickup from having a microphonic effect.
Because of their natural inductive qualities, all magnetic pickups tend to pick up ambient and usually unwanted electromagnetic noises. The resulting noise, the so-called "hum", is particularly strong with single-coil pickups, and aggravated by the fact that very few guitars are correctly shielded against electromagnetic interference. The most frequent cause is the strong 50 or 60 Hz component that is inherent in the frequency generation of current within the local power transmission system. As nearly all amplifiers and audio equipment associated with electrical guitars relies on this power, there is in theory little chance of completely eliminating the introduction of unwanted hum.
Double-coil or "humbucker" pickups were invented as a way to reduce or counter the unwanted ambient hum sounds. Humbuckers have two coils of opposite magnetic and electric polarity. This means that electromagnetic noise hitting both coils should cancel itself out. The two coils are wired in phase, so the signal picked up by each coil is added together. This creates the richer, "fatter" tone associated with humbucking pickups.
The optical pickup senses string and body vibrations using LED light.
Some electric guitars have a tremolo arm (sometimes called a whammy bar or a vibrato bar and occasionally abbreviated as trem), a lever attached to the bridge which can slacken or tighten the strings temporarily, changing the pitch, thereby creating a vibrato effect.
Early tremolo systems, such as the Bigsby vibrato tailpiece, tended to be unreliable and cause the guitar to go out of tune quite easily, and also had a limited range. Later Fender designs were better, but Fender held the patent on these, so other companies used Bigsby-style tremolo for many years. With the expiration of the Fender patent on the Stratocaster-style tremolo, various improvements on this type of internal, multi-spring tremolo system are now available.
Floyd Rose introduced one of the first improvements on the vibrato system in many years when in the late 1970s he began to experiment with "locking" nuts and bridges which work to prevent the guitar from tuning even under the most heavy whammy bar acrobatics. Shred guitar performers such as Eddie Van Halen use the tremolo to create dramatic effects, as can be heard in the Van Halen guitar solo "Eruption."
Electric guitars can have necks that vary according to composition as well as shape. The primary metric used to describe a guitar neck is the scale, which is the overall length of the strings from the nut to the bridge. A typical Fender guitar uses a 25.5 inch scale, while Gibson uses a 24.75 inch scale in their Les Paul. The frets are placed proportionally according to the scale length, so the smaller the scale, the tighter the spacing of the frets.
Necks are described as bolt-on, set, or neck-through depending on how they are attached to the body. Set necks are glued to the body in the factory, and are said to have greater sustain. Bolt-on necks were pioneered by Leo Fender to facilitate easy adjustment and replacement of the guitar neck. Neck through instruments extend the neck itself to form the center of the guitar body and are also known for long sustain. While a set neck can be carefully unglued by a skilled Luthier, and a bolt-on neck can simply be unscrewed, a neck-through design is difficult or even impossible to repair, depending on the damage. Historically, the bolt-on style has been more popular for ease of installation and adjustment. Some instruments, such as semi-hollow Jazz/Rockabilly instruments and the Gibson Les Paul series have continued to use set/glued necks. Since bolt-on necks can be easily removed, there is an after-market in replacement bolt-on necks from companies such as Warmoth and Mighty Mite.
The materials used in the manufacture of the neck have great influence over the tone of the instrument. Hardwoods are very much preferred, with maple, ash, and mahogany topping the list. The neck and fingerboard can be made from different materials, such as a maple neck with a rosewood fingerboard. In the 1980s, exotic man-made materials such as graphite began to be used, but are pricey and never really replaced wood in production instruments. Such necks can be retrofitted to existing bolt-on instruments.
There are several different neck shapes used on guitars, including what are known as C necks, and V necks. These refer to the cross-sectional shape of the neck (especially near the nut). There are also several sizes of fret wire available, with traditional players often preferring thin frets, and metal shredders liking thick frets. Thin frets are considered better for playing chords, while thick frets allow lead guitarists to bend notes with less effort.
An electric guitar with a neck which folds back called the Foldaxe was designed and built for Chet Atkins by Roger Field (featured in Atkins' book "Me and My Guitars."). Steinberger guitars developed a line of exotic instruments lacking headstocks, with tuning done on the bridge instead.
Sound and effects
An acoustic guitar's sound is largely dependent on the vibration of the guitar's body and the air within it; the sound of an electric guitar is largely dependent on a magnetically induced electrical signal, generated by the vibration of metal strings near sensitive pickups. The signal is then "shaped" on its path to the amplifier by using a range of effect devices or circuits that modify the tone and characteristics of the signal.
In the 1960s, some guitarists began distorting the sound of the instrument by increasing the gain, or volume, of the preamplifier. This produces a "fuzzy" sound, and when viewed with an oscilloscope the wave forms appear to have had their peaks "clipped" off. This was not actually a new development in the instrument, but rather a shift of aesthetics. This sound was not generally recognized previously as desirable. In the 1960s, the tonal palette of the electric guitar was further modified by introducing an effects box in its signal path. Traditionally built in a small metal chassis with an on/off foot switch, such "stomp boxes" have become as much a part of the instrument for many electric guitarists as the electric guitar itself.
Typical effects include stereo chorus, fuzz, wah-wah and flanging, compression/sustain, delay, reverb, and phase shift.
In 1967, with the release of Little Games, Jimmy Page of The Yardbirds introduced a way of playing the guitar with a violin bow, in the song "Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Sailor". He would produce the sound by running the bow downwards on the strings, while fingering chords. In addition, he would also smack the strings with the bow, making an unusual, brief noise.
In the 1970s, as effects pedals proliferated, their sounds were combined with power-tube distortion at lower, more controlled volumes by using power attenuators such as Tom Scholz' Power Soak as well as re-amplified dummy loads such as Eddie Van Halen's use of a variac, power resistor, post-power-tube effects, and a final solid-state amp driving the guitar speakers. A variac is one approach to power-supply based power attenuation, to make the sound of power-tube distortion more practically available.
By the 1980s and 1990s, digital and software effects became capable of replicating the analog effects used in the past. These new digital effects attempted to model the sound produced by analog effects and tube amps, to varying degrees of quality. There are many free guitar effects computer programs for PCs that can be downloaded from the Internet. By the 2000s, PCs with specially-designed sound cards could be used as digital guitar effects processors. Although digital and software effects offer many advantages, many guitarists still use analog effects.
Some innovations have been made recently in the design of the electric guitar. In 2002, Gibson announced the first digital guitar, which performs analog-to-digital conversion internally. The resulting digital signal is delivered over a standard Ethernet cable, eliminating cable-induced line noise. The guitar also provides independent signal processing for each individual string.
Also, in 2003 amp maker Line 6 released the Variax guitar. It differs in some fundamental ways from conventional solid-body electrics. For example it uses piezoelectric pickups instead of the conventional electromagnetic ones, and has an onboard computer capable of modifying the sound of the guitar to model the sound of many instruments.
The need for an amplified guitar became apparent during the big band era, as jazz orchestras of the 1930s and 1940s increased in size, with larger brass sections. Initially, electric guitars used in jazz consisted primarily of hollow archtop acoustic guitar bodies to which electromagnetic transducers had been attached.
Electric guitars were originally designed by an assortment of luthiers - guitar makers, electronics enthusiasts, and instrument manufacturers, in varying combinations.
Guitar innovator Les Paul experimented with microphones attached to guitars. Some of the earliest electric guitars, then essentially adapted hollow bodied acoustic instruments, used tungsten pickups and were manufactured beginning in 1931 by Electro String Instrument Corporation in Los Santos under the direction of Adolph Rickenbacker and George Beauchamp. Their first design of a hollow body guitar instrument that used tungsten pickups was built by Harry Watson, a craftsman who worked for the Electro String Company. This new guitar which the company called "Rickenbackers" would be the first of its kind.
The earliest documented use of the electric guitar in performance was during October 1932 in Wichita, Kansas by guitarist and bandleader Gage Brewer who had obtained two instruments directly from George Beauchamp of Los Angeles, California. Brewer publicized them in an article appearing in the Wichita Beacon, October 2, 1932 and through a Halloween performance later that month.
The first recording of an electric guitar was by jazz guitarist George Barnes who recorded two songs in Chicago on March 1st, 1938: Sweetheart Land and It's a Low-Down Dirty Shame. Many historians incorrectly attribute the first recording to Eddie Durham, but his recording with the Kansas City Five was not until 15 days later. Durham introduced the instrument to a young Charlie Christian, who made the instrument famous in his brief life and is generally known as the first electric guitarist and a major influence on jazz guitarists for decades thereafter.
The version of the instrument that is best known today is the solid body electric guitar, a guitar made of solid wood, without resonating airspaces within it. Rickenbacher, later spelled Rickenbacker, did, however, offer a cast aluminum electric steel guitar, nicknamed The Frying Pan or The Pancake Guitar, beginning in 1931. This guitar is reported to have sounded quite modern and aggressive when tested by vintage guitar researcher John Teagle. The company Audiovox built and may have offered an electric solid-body as early as the mid-1930s.
Another early solid body electric guitar was designed and built by musician and inventor Les Paul in the early 1940s, working after hours in the Epiphone Guitar factory. His log guitar (so called because it consisted of a simple 4x4 wood post with a neck attached to it and homemade pickups and hardware, with two detachable Swedish hollow body halves attached to the sides for appearance only) was patented and is often considered to be the first of its kind, although it shares nothing in design or hardware with the solid body "Les Paul" model sold by Gibson.
In about 1945, Richard D. Bourgerie, who worked through World War II at Howard Radio Company making electronic equipment for the American military, made an electric guitar pickup and amplifier for professional guitar player George Barnes. Mr. Barnes showed the result to Les Paul, who then arranged for Mr. Bourgerie to have one made for him.
How Electric Guitars Work
From a popular culture standpoint, the electric guitar is one of the most important inventions of the 20th century. More than any other instrument, it defines the tone and character of rock and roll music. But when the electric guitar first hit the scene in the 1930s, few people saw its potential. It took quite a while for the instrument to find its place in American music.
Despite the slow start, the electric guitar did find its place. It has inspired and defined entirely new types of music. The electric guitar remains the most prominent instrument in rock music, and the most famous instrument ever to come out of the United States.
In this article, you will learn exactly how the guitar itself works, and we will also discuss the system that the guitar and the amp create together. Working in combination, the guitar and the amp can produce an amazing variety of sounds.
If you have ever compared an electric guitar to an acoustic guitar, you know that they have several important things in common. Both acoustic and electric guitars have six strings, they both tune those strings with tuning pegs and they both have frets on a long neck. Down at the body end is where the major differences are found.
Some electric guitars have a hollow or semi-hollow body with the resonating cavity found in an acoustic guitar, but the most popular electric guitars have solid bodies. The sound is produced by magnetic pickups and controlled by several knobs. If you pluck a string on an electric guitar that is not plugged in, the sound is barely audible. Without a soundboard and a hollow body, there is nothing to amplify the string's vibrations. See How Acoustic Guitars Work for details.
Electric Guitar Pickups
To produce sound, an electric guitar senses the vibrations of the strings electronically and routes an electronic signal to an amplifier and speaker. The sensing occurs in a magnetic pickup mounted under the strings on the guitar's body.
This pickup consists of a bar magnet wrapped with as many as 7,000 turns of fine wire. If you have read How Electromagnets Work, then you know that coils and magnets can turn electrical energy into motion. In the same way, they can turn motion into electrical energy. In the case of an electric guitar, the vibrating steel strings produce a corresponding vibration in the magnet's magnetic field and therefore a vibrating current in the coil.
There are many different types of pickups. For example, some pickups extend a single magnet bar under all six strings. Others have a separate polepiece for each string. Some pickups use screws for polepieces so that the height of each polepiece can be adjusted. The closer the polepiece is to the string, the stronger the signal. The pickup's coil sends its signals through a very simple circuit on most guitars.
The upper variable resistor adjusts the tone. The resistor (typically 500 kilo-ohms max) and capacitor (0.02 microfarads) form a simple low-pass filter. The filter cuts out higher frequencies. By adjusting the resistor you control the frequencies that get cut out. The second resistor (typically 500 kilo-ohms max) controls the amplitude (volume) of the signal that reaches the jack. From the jack, the signal runs to an amplifier, which drives a speaker.
Many electric guitars have two or three different pickups located at different points on the body. Each pickup will have a distinctive sound, and multiple pickups can be paired, either in-phase or out, to produce additional variations.
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