In the previous blog we looked at brass instruments. This blog looks at guitar instruments.
In this blog I’ll write about anything that is plucked or strummed to make its sound, so while I will of course include the guitar, I’ll also include other instruments that fall into this category.
Classical Guitar - Also known as the Spanish guitar. The body is hollow and has a sound hole. Strings (of which there are six) are nylon with the lowest three strings wrapped in fine wire. There are 19 frets. Used in flamenco music. Has a mellow tone and is played with the fingers.
Acoustic Guitar - Hollow body and a sound hole. Steel strings (six of them) with the lowest three wrapped in wire. There are between 18 and 20 frets. Used in folk and pop music. Has a bright tone and can be played using fingers or a pick/plectrum.
12-stringed Guitar - Hollow body and a sound hole. Steel strings (12 of them (shocker!)). Each note is doubled to give a richer, full-bodied sound. Used a lot in folk music. Played using fingers or a pick/plectrum.
Electric Guitar - Solid body. No sound hole. Steel strings (6) with the lowest three wrapped in wire. Will have volume and tone controls. You will also have anything from one to five pickups. A pick up is a device that detects the vibrations created by the strings. This vibration is then converted into a sound which is reproduced through the amplifier. The pickups will be placed at strategic points on the body of the guitar and each pickup will have its own tonal quality. The tones can be selected using a switch on the guitar. A patch lead is used to connect the guitar to an amplifier. You can also connect a patch lead to an effects pedal (overdrive, chorus, distortion are the common ones), the pedal then connects to the amplifier. The effects pedal can be switched on or off by pushing the button with your foot. An electric guitar will have 22 frets as standard, though some are made with only 21. You can play with fingers or a plectrum.
Electro-Acoustic Guitar - An acoustic guitar (see above) that can be plugged into an amplifier to make it louder. Unlike the electric guitar which needs to be plugged into an amp to be heard, the electro-acoustic will play without an amp. You can play with fingers or a plectrum.
All standard six-stringed guitars use the same standard tuning.
From low to high the notes are E, A, D, G, B, E.
Tuning is done with tuning pegs that are on the neck of the instrument.
The low strings are nearest your head, with high strings being nearer your feet.
Most guitars have frets. A fret = a semitone.
There are fretless guitars but they are quite rare.
Guitar music can be written in TAB (tablature) which uses lines representing the strings (the lowest line being the lowest string) and numbers on the lines which tell you which fret to play.
A guitar can play a melody (picking) or strum chords. They can also fingerpick chords to arpeggiate them.
To create a legato effect a guitarist will hammer-on or pull-off.
Hammer-on means that a note is played by putting a finger down on a fret after an initial note has been played.
Pulling-off means that a finger is lifted after an initial note is played.
Bass Guitar - Solid body, no sound hole. Four strings (as standard). The strings are thick ranging from 1.14mm for the high string and 2.67mm for the low. The tuning is the same as the lowest four strings of the guitar (that is E-A-D-G). Again pickups are used to amplify the instrument using a patch lead to connect the instrument to an amplifier. The neck of a bass guitar is longer and the frets are wider. This is due to the thickness of the strings needing to be longer to produce the required notes. Usually the bass is picked using fingers, but occasionally you’ll see someone using a pick. As a rule, chords aren’t played on a bass guitar (but that’s not to say it can’t or doesn’t happen).
A quick word about amplifiers….if you go into a music shop and ask for an amplifier what you are most likely going to be shown is actually called a combo. This means that it is an amplifier and loudspeaker combined. It is useful to remember this term.
Other “Guitar” Type Instruments
Ukulele - When the Spaniards landed on Hawaii, the Hawaiian people saw the classical guitars the Spanish had and made their own instruments based on them. They are smaller and only have four strings. The tuning is (from top to bottom) G - C - E - A. All the notes are Middle C and above. The strings are nylon.
Banjo - If you’ve seen The Muppet Movie and remember the song “Rainbow Connection” you’ll have seen a banjo as Kermit plays one. They have a round body with a thin membrane stretched across the frame, this creates a resonator. There are four full-length strings on a banjo and one shorter string (starting at fret 5). This shorter string is known as the thumb string or drone string. The standard tuning is from low note (nearest your face) to high (nearest your feet) G4 - C3 - G3 - B3 - D4 (4 being around middle C and 3 being an octave lower). The strings are metal. The banjo is used a lot in bluegrass as well as some jazz.
Mandolin - A typical mandolin has 8 strings, made up of four pairs. Famously used by Vivaldi in his concerti for lute (another stringed “guitar” like instrument) and mandolin. The tuning is the same as the violin (which doesn’t help here but is worth remembering), in that the notes are tuned a perfect fifth apart (G3, D4, A4, E5). Strings are metal.
Without going into detail here are some other instruments played in a similar way: