You’ll encounter a lot of lingo as you’re starting to explore the world of guitars. From tuning pegs to truss rods, and string trees to saddles, understanding the different parts can almost feel like learning a new language.
It might seem daunting at first, but you’ll find that many of these part names are actually fairly intuitive.
As you’re learning to play guitar, you’ll be browsing guitar catalogs, watching tutorial videos, or taking online lessons. Understanding the different parts of a guitar, and what they’re called, will be very helpful in your learning—and guitar-buying—journey. Who knows, maybe you’ll become a luthier one day and learn how to build one of these six-stringed instruments (1)!
In this article, we’ll take a top-to-bottom look at acoustics and electrics to understand the anatomy of a guitar better.
While acoustics, like a Martin, and electrics, like an Epiphone, share many of the same parts, we’ll take a look at each separately to focus on some of their key differences.
Parts of a Guitar
Parts of Acoustic Guitars
Generally speaking, you’ll find that an acoustic guitar offers more uniformity from model to model compared to electric six strings when you consider body styles, components, and features.
Acoustic Guitar Headstock
Starting at the top, the headstock is the end of the neck, where you’ll find the tuners. Acoustic guitars don’t have quite the same variety in terms of headstock shapes, but you’ll find some distinct differences between brands and models.
Most acoustics have a trio of tuners on each side of the headstock, but you’ll find some acoustics with in-line tuners similar to what you see on a Fender Stratocaster headstock.
The other common layout you’ll see can be found on classical guitars. Classical headstocks are often referred to as slotted headstocks, and they’re designed to prevent the nylon classical strings from slipping off of the tuner—or slipping out of tune.
You’ll see some slight differences in tuner terminology. In some cases, you’ll find tuners are also referred to as a tuning key, tuning machine, machine head, tuning post, or tuning peg.
Turning the tuning pegs will adjust the overall tension of your guitar strings and allow you to tune to the proper pitch.
Next, you’ll find the nut. The nut impacts your guitar’s overall playability and tone, one of the more underrated parts. The nut will enable proper string spacing, string height, action, and even string durability. It can also help you eliminate fret buzz.
The most common materials found in nuts include bone, ivory, metal, plastic, ebony, and graphite.
The neck is the part of the instrument you hold in your hand while playing. You’ll see references to different neck shapes such as a V shape, C shape, slim-taper, and oval, to name a few.
There are no wrong answers here, but I’d recommend going to your local music shop and trying a few different neck shapes to see what feels best in your hand.
The fretboard, sometimes called the fingerboard, is the “front” of the neck where you’ll make your chord shapes and play single notes. Acoustic fretboards are often made with rosewood, but you’ll find a variety of different tonewoods on different models.
The frets are the metal wires that separate each position on the fretboard. In between each fret is a position marker, which is sometimes called an inlay.
These fret markers help you find your way along the fretboard and come in a variety of finishes and designs, such as dots, blocks, and some more intricate designs.
As you continue to work your way up the neck, you’ll hit a bump in the road before you reach the body: The heel.
The heel, also known as a neck joint, marks the end of the neck. Depending on the guitar, the heel can take a variety of shapes and either be glued or bolted on.
At last, we’ve reached the body of your instrument. Acoustic guitar bodies consist of a top, sides, and back, and depending on the model, there may be a different type of wood for each section.
In many cases, these are carefully selected tonewoods that provide different tonal benefits. While there are certainly more expensive and sought-after tonewoods, there’s no right or wrong answer here. Try out a few different models and see which one sounds the best to you.
Shapes of the body can dictate how you ultimately strum the guitar.
The trademark hole you see near the center of most acoustics is called the sound hole. The sound hole helps you project the resonance and volume produced while playing an acoustic guitar.
Most acoustic guitars feature a soundhole, but some acoustic electric guitars feature a more contemporary design without a soundhole.
The saddle helps elevate the strings to your preferred height. While most players prefer lower string action, slide players prefer the string action on the higher side.
Once again, it all boils down to what you’re comfortable with, and the saddle can play a big role in your overall playing comfort.
Continuing our ascent up the body, you’ll reach the bridge. Typically constructed from a piece of wood, an acoustic guitar bridge provides the support your strings need to transmit the vibration that’s produced by strumming, plucking, or picking the strings.
Bridge pins hold in the ball ends of your strings. Not all acoustic models have bridge pins. For example, classical models with nylon strings are typically tied to the bridge.
For acoustic models with an onboard pickup and preamp, you might find an output jack inside the end pin where you attach your strap.
Parts of Electric Guitars
The world of electric guitars offers a myriad of different shapes, sizes, and configurations. While the basic anatomy of electrics is the same as acoustic, electrics will feature different hardware, pickup configurations, and accessories such as the legendary whammy bar.
The good news? You’re almost guaranteed to find a style that you’ll love.
Electric Guitar Headstock
Electric guitar headstocks have many different shapes, styles, and layouts. Looking at the most popular styles, Gibson Les Paul style guitars have three tuners on each side, while Fender style guitars such as Stratocasters and Telecasters typically have all six tuners on the top of the headstock.
Tuners, tuning pegs, and tuning keys
An easy upgrade for new or experienced players is upgrading your tuners. Whether it features locking functionality, higher quality, or a different gear ratio, you can easily upgrade your tuning stability depending on which set of tuning machines you utilize.
Electric guitar nuts are commonly constructed from the same material as acoustic guitars—bone, ivory, metal, plastic, ebony, and graphite.
One difference you’ll find on some metal-style electric models is a locking nut, which helps keep your guitar in tune if you’re dive-bombing with a Floyd Rose whammy bar on a regular basis.
Electric guitars also feature a wide array of neck shapes and sizes. Gibson Les Paul style instruments featured a thick, rounded neck when they were first released in the 1950s and evolved to include a thinner rounded neck, asymmetrical neck, and slim taper neck as the years went on.
Depending on the model, Fenders also have a variety of neck shapes named after the letters of the alphabet their shape resembles, including C, D, and V-shaped necks.
Not all frets are created equal. Depending on the model, some guitars employ medium, medium-jumbo, or jumbo-sized frets. Fret not—while jumbo frets can help you bend notes more easily, fret sizes really come down to preference.
I’d recommend trying a few different types and deciding which fret size is right for you. In some cases, you might not even notice the difference.
Rosewood and maple are the most common tonewoods used on electric guitars. Maple fretboards are known for their bright, snappy sound while rosewood fretboards are generally warmer and slightly darker sounding.
You’ll find some guitars, such as Yngwie Malmsteen’s signature Fender Stratocaster with a scalloped fretboard, where each fret dips inward and creates a U-shape. In theory, scalloped fretboards make bending strings easier by providing a better grip. In practice, however, scalloped fretboards can slow your playing down significantly if you’re not accustomed to it.
First and foremost, guitar position markers, or inlays, serve a very practical purpose — helping you find the correct positioning on the fretboard for notes and chords.
On some electric guitar models, the inlays serve both a practical and aesthetic purpose. Fender is known for their dot inlays, Gibson uses trapezoid and block inlays in many of their guitars and Paul Reed Smith guitars are famous for their “bird” inlays.
Depending on your guitar, the heel can take a variety of shapes. Gibson guitars typically have a set neck design whereas Fender guitars have a bolt-on neck design. A heel composed of a block of wood is known as a Spanish heel.
This is where electric and acoustic guitars really differ: Body shapes. While acoustics typically come in the same few body types (dreadnought, concert, classical, for example), electrics come in a wide variety of shapes and sizes.
Beyond the “traditional” Les Paul, Stratocaster, and Telecaster body types, you’ll find body shapes such as “offsets,” as featured on a Fender Jazzmaster, and more retro-futuristic body styles like the Gibson Explorer or a Parker Fly.
Another difference you’ll find between acoustic and electric guitars is that electrics almost always feature a cutaway. This allows you to reach the highest points of the fretboard without feeling like your fingers are in a gymnastics class.
As its name suggests, the purpose of pickguards is to protect the guitar’s body from scratches that can result from using a guitar pick. Want to make inexpensive and easy customization to your six-string guitar? Swap out your pickguard.
The hollow body and semi-hollow body guitars often feature what’s referred to as an F-hole. F-shaped sound holes essentially allow more sound to project out of the instrument, giving you more volume and resonance when playing unplugged.
Humbucking pickups are designed to “buck” the hum associated with single-coil pickups by using two coils to eliminate buzz and increase overall output. While there is no hard and fast rule, humbuckers are generally seen as a better option if you like to play with a lot of distortion.
The most common types of pickups are single coil and humbuckers. You’ll find single-coil pickups in most Fender Stratocasters and Telecasters, and while single coils give you exceptional character and clarity, they’re also susceptible to 60-cycle hum (aka buzz).
Pickup selector switch
Whether your guitar has two or three pickups, the pickup selector switch allows you to toggle between the different pickups on your guitar — or select a combination of the pickups. For example, while Fender Stratocasters have three pickups, the pickup selector switch has five options.
Remember: When you see references to a Bridge pickup or a Neck pickup, they’re referring to the pickup closest to the neck or bridge respectively.
Pretty self-explanatory, but the volume knob controls the overall volume of your guitar. Some players like to use the volume knob to dynamically change their tone from overdriven to clean—without using pedals or switching amp channels.
Want to mellow out a bright-sounding pickup without changing your amp settings? Use your tone control to add a darker texture to your tone.
Among electric six strings, you’ll find a variety of different saddle options depending on the guitar model. 3-saddle and 6-saddle configurations are the most common configurations. Overall, saddles allow you to adjust your string height and intonation.
Another electric guitar feature that varies wildly from model to model is the bridge. From tune-o-matic to Wilkinson to synchronized tremolo bridges for guitars with a tremolo arm, there is a bridge for every application to help keep your guitar strings in tune and intonation solid.
The tailpiece is the last stop for strings on your guitar, holding your strings securely in place, and depending on the material, the tailpiece can also impact your tone. For instance, a heavier tailpiece can add sustain and make the instrument sound more resonant.
If your guitar has a Bigsby tailpiece and vibrato arm, you’ll find greater sustain, but it might come at the cost of tuning stability depending on how much you use the Bigsby. For players who prefer not to use a vibrato arm, a hardtail tailpiece can give you greater tuning stability.
Last but not least, the output jack is where you will run an instrument cable from your guitar to your amplifier. The jack socket is typically found lower on the front of the guitar body or on the bottom, depending on the guitar. The jack is typically pretty standard, and you likely will not need to think about it often, if at all, unless it breaks for some reason.
What part of the guitar amplifies your sound?
The pickups on your guitar convert the vibration from your strings into electricity and, in turn, the amplified sound when you plug into a guitar amp. Some guitars have multiple pickups that give you different tonal options for different situations.
For example, players often use the neck pickup for darker, warmer rhythm sounds, whereas you might want the brighter tones from a bridge pickup for solos.
What part of the guitar controls your tuning?
The easy answer is your tuning posts — where you tune your individual strings. However, you’ll find that there are a number of factors that impact your overall tuning and intonation, such as the guitar nut, saddles, bridge, and tailpiece.
If you’re having a hard time keeping your guitar in tune, I always recommend taking your guitar to a local technician or guitar shop for a setup.
What are the dots in between the frets called?
These are your position markers, also called inlays. While certain guitars have ornamental inlays (2), they serve a very practical purpose: Helping you find the correct position on the fretboard for notes and chords.
Now You Know All The Parts of a Guitar
Looking at guitar retailer magazines and websites can be overwhelming when you’re trying to pick the right guitar (with the right components). If you’re new to guitars and want to get a better idea of how to translate these spec sheets into actual performance, I highly recommend going to your local guitar shop to try some different models before deciding what to buy.
At the end of the day, the biggest influence on a guitar’s tone is your hands and how you play them. I’ve purchased a $2,500 Gibson ES-335 and a $250 Epiphone Casino, and I found that the Casino was actually a better fit for me based on what—and how—I play.
Always try before you buy, and you might be surprised by what you find. In my experience, the journey to finding your tone is half the fun.
- Gabriel Granillo, “How a Luthier from Uzbekistan Makes Some of Portland’s Most Beloved Guitars” as published here: https://www.pdxmonthly.com/news-and-city-life/2022/01/portland-luthier-peter-tsiorba-guitar-maker
- “The story of PRS Inlays,” as published here https://prsguitars.com/blog/post/the_story_of_the_prs_bird_inlays