Your guide through the electric guitar jargon jungle.
By Dan Day
Musician’s Friend Senior Staff Writer
You’re likely reading this because you’re shopping for your first electric guitar, or buying one for someone else. Or maybe you’ve been playing and shopping for guitars a long time but are a little hazy on certain terms. Seasoned musicians and guitar makers use unique language and jargon as a shorthand that can leave you feeling bewildered.
With this in mind,I recently went through one of the recent Musician’s Friend catalogs and highlighted terms that I thought might need definition, clarification, or more explanation. Read on to raise your guitar IQ with a glossary you can really use.
AXE: Slang for musical instrument, it probably originated with jazz musicians, especially saxophone players (sax, axe, get it?). Rock musicians started using the term for guitars, even acoustic guitars, in the ’60s.
PICKUP: The electrical device on an electric guitar that acts as a transducer. In other words, it converts the vibrational energy of guitar string into electrical impulses. “Pup” is a shorthand term for pickup.
COIL: The part of a pickup that has electrical wire wound around a bobbin to form a coil of wiring. The number of turns of wire affects the output of the pickup. High-output pickups used in heavy rock styles are typically have more windings.
SINGLE-COIL: Single-coil pickups produce a bright, cutting tone rich in higher harmonics. The simplest versions—still found on many guitars and preferred by many players—produce an audible 60-cycle hum when in the presence of certain types of lights, transformers, and other electrical fields.
HUMBUCKER: The humbucking pickup has two wound coils next to each other that are wired in reverse polarity. This eliminates or reduces most electrical hum that single-coil pickups are prone to. Sometimes abbreviated as “‘’buckers,” they generally produce warmer, “rounder” tones than single-coils and tend to emphasize midrange harmonics for a sound often described as “throaty.”
COIL-SPLITTING: Produces a single-coil tone from a humbucker pickup by routing the electrical signal from only one of its coils. Sometimes confused with coil-tapping, which takes the output of a pickup from a different location on the pickup’s winding to produce a different tone.
ALNICO MAGNET: Alloy of aluminum, nickel, and cobalt. Used for magnets in pickups. Alnico 2 produces a sweet, traditional tone, while Alnico 5 (also called Alnico V) produces a brighter, hotter tone.
CERAMIC MAGNET: Used in guitar pickups to produce a hotter output than alnico magnets due to their stronger magnetic field.
FRETBOARD RADIUS: The measure of the curvature of the top of the fretboard from edge to edge is often incorrectly referred to as the “neck radius.” The lower the radius the greater the fretboard curve, allowing more comfortable chording. A 7-1/2 “ radius is considered quite curved whereas a higher radius, such as 10", is flatter, which allows extreme string bending without the note “fretting out” as can happen with a more curved radius. A compound-radius fretboard curves more dramatically at the nut for easy chording and flattens out as it approaches the neck for low-action bends without fretting out. (By the way, the terms fretboard and fingerboard are used interchangeably.)
SCALE LENGTH: The measured distance of the vibrating string length between the nut and the saddle. The 25-1/2" scale length found, for example, on the Fender Stratocaster was taken originally from the standard scale length for steel string acoustic guitars. This scale length provides high tension and thus a more trebly sound. Since it’s slightly more difficult to play guitars of this scale, it is common for guitarists to use lighter strings on 25-1/2"-scale instruments. The shorter 24-3/4" scale on guitars like the Gibson Les Paul promotes easier string bending and is somewhat easier for players with smaller hands..
VIBRATO/TREMOLO: The two terms are used interchangeably when referring to a guitar bridge that allows the guitarist to move the pitch of the strings down and up. Vibrato is a musical term referring to a player oscillating the pitch of the note being played (or sung); this controlled wavering is a means of creating individual expression. Tremolo is another name for vibrato tailpiece. In guitar talk, tremolo more correctly refers to the effect where volume continually increases and decreases at a set rate. Whammy bar is a slang term for a vibrato tailpiece.
FLOYD ROSE TREM/FLOYD ROSE TREMOLO: Vibrato tailpiece design that locks down the guitar string both at the bridge and at the nut. This prevents the active string length from changing and keeps the guitar in tune no matter how vigorously the whammy bar is used. One tradeoff with a double-locking trem system is that it takes a little longer to change strings.
APPOINTMENTS: The visual aspects of a guitar's body, neck, and headstock that enhance the guitar's look and value. Appointments include binding, inlays, and hardware.
BINDING: Decorative appointments that cover the join of the body and the top or the join of the fretboard and the neck. Ply refers to the number of layers in the binding, e.g., 3-ply or 7-ply.
INLAYS: Designs on the fretboard, headstock, or body of a guitar. Typically the inlay design is carved into the wood, then filled with one of many materials, such as mother-of-pearl, metal, horn, abalone (a mollusk with an ear-shaped shell lined with mother-of-pearl), or plastic. Basic inlays, such as pearl dots, are used to mark positions on the fretboard. More elaborate inlays are created mostly for aesthetic reasons.
BEVELED: Square edges on a guitar body, pickup, or other surface that have been reduced to sloping edges. Beveled edges are both more attractive and comfortable when slung next to guitarist’s body.
FIGURE OR FIGURING: Distinctive grain patterns found in certain guitar tonewoods. The carved maple top on many guitars, such as Les Pauls from 1958 through 1960, are valued for their highly figured patterns, referred to as "flamed" or "flametops."
KILL SWITCH: Switch that completely cuts off signal from all pickups. Some guitarists like to engage/disengage the kill switch rapidly to produce a Morse code or "strobing" effect.
LIMITED EDITION: A guitar with a unique set of features produced in limited quantities. Many times, the serial number is hand-stamped on the back of the neck to indicate where in the limited series that particular guitar was produced, a feature sought by collectors to enhance the guitar's value.
BOLT-ON NECK: A neck that is attached into a fitted slot in the body by means of three or four screws running through the back of the body and into the back of the neck. This method of attaching necks was critical in the development of the solidbody electric guitar because it reduced production costs, making electric guitars more affordable. A bolt-on neck can be replaced, adjusted, or repaired with far less skilled labor than is required for other neck types.
NECK-THROUGH: A guitar built around a single column of wood that extends from the tip of the headstock through to the strap button at the tail. This column can either be a single piece or several pieces of wood laminated together side by side. The "wings" of body wood are glued onto the sides of this central column of wood. Neck-through bodies produce maximum sustain and have the huge advantage of no large heel where the neck meets the body, thus providing the easiest access to the higher register frets. Neck-through guitars are more expensive to manufacture than bolt-on necks.
QUARTERSAWN: Wood cut on the radius of the tree so the rings are perpendicular to the surface of the plank—as opposed to flat sawn wood. Highly sought-after for stringed instrument necks and fretboards, quartersawn wood helps ensure the neck remains stable—and the sound unchanged—for the life of the guitar.
NECK SHAPE (also NECK PROFILE, CONTOUR or CARVE): Fender uses the letters V, C, and U as analogies to describe the neck profile on the back of their guitar and bass guitar necks. Necks described using these letters will correspond roughly (although not quite as exaggeratedly) to the visual appearance of these letters.Other manufacturer’s use similar ways to suggest neck profile differences. The V-shaped necks come in two different versions, a "soft" V and a "hard" V. The soft V shape is a bit rounded off, whereas the hard V is somewhat more pointed. The C-shaped neck, the most common shape, refers to several profiles. These are the "oval" and the modern "flat oval" as in the modern C-shaped neck on many current Strat models. The flat oval modern C-shaped neck is slightly thinner from the fretboard to the bottom of the neck than the traditional, thicker '60s C-shaped necks. Many people, however, simply use the letter C when referring generally to these oval shapes. The U-shaped neck is chunky and rounded with high shoulders, as seen in the exaggerated letter U. There is no doubt that it is easier to understand the application of these terms to the necks when you put your hands on them and get the feel; however, the use of these letters is pretty accurate in describing the shape of the back of Fender necks. (Adapted from Fender's website with their permission.)
'50S NECK: The rounded neck found on most Gibson electric solidbody guitars until about 1960. Collectors demand the rounded neck to keep reissues historically accurate. Some players, such as those with larger hands, also prefer the solid feel and resistance—and extra resonance—of a beefier, rounded neck.
'60S NECK: Flatter, slimmer neck than the '50s neck. Also called "slim- tapered" neck. Many players, but not all, prefer a slim versus rounded neck.
SUNBURST: A type of finish found on many acoustic and electric guitars where the outer portion of the body usually has a reddish-brown shade that transitions from orange and yellow toward the center of the guitar. "Sunburst" is also the unofficial name of Les Paul guitars produced from 1958 to 1960 (also referred to as the "Les Paul Standard," not to be confused with the current Les Paul Standard series.)
SATIN FINISH: No gloss or shiny look. Gives the guitar neck a faster, smoother feel.
TRANSPARENT COLORS (TRANS): A thin lacquer finish that lets the natural wood grain of the guitar's top show through.
FRET SIZE: Determined by how high and wide the fret wire is. Low frets, while easy on the fingers, can make it hard to bend string. High frets result in a higher action. Narrow frets tend to wear faster; wider frets tend to wear longer. Frets that are high and narrow are very popular.
JUMBO FRETS: Also called wide frets or super-size. Refers to width and height of the fret wire. Preferred by some lead players who do lots of string bending. The higher fret wires give the player more room on the fingerboard to bend strings.
SEMI-HOLLOWBODY: An electric guitar, such as the Gibson ES-335, with a solid block of wood running through the center of the guitar. A semi-hollowbody has the tonal characteristics of a hollowbody electric, but is more feedback-resistant due to the center block. They typically have a thinner body than hollowbody electric guitars.
"PATENT APPLIED FOR": Stamped on early versions of the humbucker. It was the sound of these pickups on the "Sunburst" Les Paul from '58 through '60—especially when played through a Marshall amp—that produced the creamy sustain and warm distortion featured on many classic blues and rock recordings in the late '60s. PAF is the shorthand term that was claimed as a trademark name by DiMarzio Inc.
Want to know more? Our Electric Guitar Buying Guide will get you up to speed.