Electric Shock!! – Learning the Electric Guitar
The electric guitar has become one of the most instantly recognizable, as well as one of the most versatile, instruments in modern music since it was first developed in the 1930s. It is little wonder so many people want to learn to play it – it’s such an exciting and expressive instrument, and is suited to almost any style of music. In this article I’ll discuss what makes it so versatile, how it differs from acoustic and classical guitars, and look at some of the techniques that have become a staple part of electric guitar playing.
Electric guitars differ from acoustics in a number of ways. The first and most obvious is that whereas acoustic guitars have hollow bodies, electrics usually have solid bodies. This is because electric guitars use pickups to produce their sound, so they don’t need to have a big resonant cavity, or sound box, like acoustics do. This leads to some much slimmer and sleeker designs, which is no doubt part of the electric guitar’s mass appeal. Electric guitars also sound different to acoustics; because of the fact they have to be amplified, their sound can be shaped and modified by all manner of effects to produce some very unique sounds. They also normally have much lighter strings than acoustic guitars, as well as more frets, and easier access to the high end of the neck. Because of this, the electric guitar is ideally suited to playing solos and lead parts, and over the years many new techniques of playing it have been developed. If you want to learn electric guitar properly, these techniques will need to be mastered.
Electric guitars produce very little volume on their own, nowhere near enough to be heard on a stage. To get around this, they use magnetic pickups which convert the vibrations of the strings into an electrical current. This is passed, via a jack lead, to an amplifier, which converts this signal back into sound, at a much louder volume. Amplifiers come in many different types and sizes, from small practice amps, to powerful stage amps with separate speaker cabinets for playing large venues. The sound of the guitar can be shaped by the amplifier to produce different tones, from shimmering clean sounds, to full-on heavily distorted rock sounds. The sound of the electric guitar can be further modified by the use of effects racks or pedals. These apply effects, such as reverb, chorus, or delay to create an almost infinite palette of tonal colours. This is one reason the electric guitar is such a versatile instrument, and anyone who wants to be a great player should master the use of effects.
There are many manufacturers of electric guitars, and they all have many different models. They all vary in design, but the body of an electric guitar usually falls into one of two types. Firstly the single-cut design, such as the Gibson Les Paul, which has only one cutaway at the bottom of the guitar, and the double-cut design, like the Fender Stratocaster, which has a second cutaway on the top as well to allow easier access to the highest frets. As for materials, guitars can be made from any number of woods, and this can dramatically affect the tone of the instrument. Generally, lighter softer woods produce a brighter tone, while heavier hard woods produce a warmer, darker sound. The type of pickup used also affects the sound of the instrument. Single coil pickups, as used on many Fender guitars, give a bright, twangy kind of sound, while humbucking pickups, found on most Gibson and many Ibanez models, produce a fuller higher gain sound, more suited to heavy rock music.
The electric guitar can be heard in almost all musical genres, thanks to the diversity of sounds it can produce. However, it is perhaps most closely associated with styles of rock music, where heavy, distorted sounds are favoured, or blues music, where the emphasis is on emotion and expression. Thanks to the electric guitar’s lighter strings, and easier access to the higher frets, it is often used as a lead instrument, playing expressive solos or powerful riffs. It also makes an excellent rhythm, or accompaniment instrument, by strumming or picking chords or arpeggios.
Since the electric guitar was first invented, many innovative players have developed new techniques and playing styles unique to the instrument. Again, this is thanks in part to its lighter strings, and easier playability compared with acoustic and classical guitars. Anyone who is trying to learn electric guitar will need to become familiar with these techniques. They include string-bending, where a note played on one string is bent up with the left hand to produce a higher note, producing a very expressive sound. Another technique to master is using hammer-ons and pull-offs to produce legato. This is achieved by playing a note, then hammering on with another finger of the left hand to play another note without picking it, or playing a note then pulling off – sort of plucking – with left hand to play a lower note, again without picking it. With practice, guitarists can use this technique to play incredibly fast flowing runs. Tapping is an extension of this technique, often used in 80s rock, whereby you tap a note on the fretboard using a finger of the right hand. Again this allows for some very fast playing. Other techniques you might want to look at when you learn electric guitar are fast alternate picking, where notes and scales are picked very fast, and sweep-picking, which uses a sweeping motion of the picking hand to play very fast arpeggios.
I hope that serves as a brief introduction to playing the electric guitar.