eli5 What give electric guitar their variety?

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So, my understanding is that the pickup is influenced by the string moving and tells the speaker to make a sound.

So, everything else should be no consequence, besides maybe sophistication of pickup and size of string.

So, why do other things seem to matter? I’m at a loss for a lot of specific examples, but people are always discussing various elements of their guitars and their impact on sound, but I don’t see how anything really impacts sound. Like why all the cutouts, swoops, materials, different saddles and bridges, etc. I’d understand on an acoustic, but on an electric a lot of it seems like it shouldn’t matter.

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11 Answers

Anonymous 0 Comments

Everything matters in making sound

1:1 identical guitars except one is brass and one is wood will have different sounds

Some parts of guitars are purely ornamental or just for show….but some design choices are strictly for modifying the sound

*also many times the sounds are very similar to untrained ears; many people can’t tell the difference between a $200 guitar and a 1000 guitar……but the difference between a $200 guitar and a 3000+ is pretty significant

Anonymous 0 Comments

It’s a whole lot more dynamic than you think. Feel, appearance, and tone are three different attributes, and they can all affect each other.
Tone is created by body material, shape, tail design, and the pickups.

Anonymous 0 Comments

Most of it doesn’t really matter or is at least barely audible and 99,9% of people wouldn’t hear a difference.

How the bridge is constructed and connected does matter a little, as that does affect how quickly the strings lose energy e.g. stop moving. But most of the design for electric guitars is for aesthetics, durability and comfort.

Anonymous 0 Comments

You’re also discounting the impact the amplifier can have on the sound, in addition to any pedal setups or accessories the musician might employ to make their sound.

This all has a huge impact on the final product.

Anonymous 0 Comments

The location of the pickup in relation to the string determines which fundamental is presented the most. This is why switching pick ups have different sounds. More towards the center of the string, the sound will be deeper, richer. More towards the end, it will be brighter, sharper and this has to do with how a guitar string vibrated when plucked. It doesn’t just sway back and forth, a string vibrates in a infinite number of ways, all at the same time.

It will vibrate over the full length, this is the fundamental note. Like the low string, is the E below middle C. This will be the most powerful vibration which is why you hear it.

The string then will vibrate at a 1/2 interval making a note 1 octave above the E, and will be 1/2 power.

The string then will vibrate at a 1/3 interval, this one at 1/4 power.

The string then will vibrate at a 1/4 interval making a note 2 octave above the E and so on, forever, each getting 1/2 as strong.

All these extra vibrations give the sound its timbre, this is like the color of the sound. An E on the flute sounds different than an E on a guitar than an E on a Oboe. Each of these instruments make different intervals which is why they sound different.

So the pickups resides in some spot in which a number of these vibrations all overlap giving that pickup its sound.

When electric, what matters is the kind of pickup, the location of the pickup and if the pickup is powered or not. The other piece can make a difference if say you are going from a stiffer bridge material from a softer one which would change how much the vibration would attenuate, or changing the location of the bridge would change your striking location with the pick and as a result can change some of the vibrations on the string.

To take this a little farther, I know you have heard a solo going on and all of the sudden the solo hits this screaming high note and they hit the tremolo bar and dive it down, or pull it up. What they are doing here is hitting a harmonic, one of the other vibrations on the string. Say you want to hear the 1/8 vibration. This would make a note 3 octaves higher than the note you plucked on the string, but you have all the vibrations from 1 – 1/7 overpowering the sound of the 1/8, so you use your thumb to remove all those other vibrations by touching your thumb 1/8 the length of the string from the bottom. 1/8 vibration means the string is vibrating in 8 pieces, by putting your thumb at the 1/8 point you stop any vibration that is not a multiple of 8 so you only hear the 1/8. You can do this on acoustic as well. Pluck E, then rest your finger at 1 octave above E on the E string, pluck it again and you will hear the Octave E. Move your finger down to 1/4 from the head or bottom, pluck and you will hear 2 octaves above E now as you are filtering out anything not a multiple of 4.

Anonymous 0 Comments

Everything else influences exactly how the string moves, so saddle, bridges, etc. Are important. Also important are the properties of the guitar, like how much tension it is under(and necks can bend leading to badly tuned guitars), or whether pieces vibrate with either the strings or the pickup.

But beyond that,  you’re right in that the shape of the body shouldn’t influence the sound. It will influence how easy it is to hold or sit with it though. 

Also, things like the type of pickups and their positioning and the electronics inside of the guitar also matter.

Anonymous 0 Comments

The density of the wood matters a lot. Maple and other woods change the sound. Some resonate more some a brighter. The pickups matter as well as the windings and magnets of them. There are different string gauges that matter. There are different materials that are used for strings as well. The style of the guitarist matters as well, finger picking or whatever they choose. In acoustic guitars the location of the braces can change the tone. The amp matters. The pedals matter. The tuning matters.

Anonymous 0 Comments

The body has almost no effect on the sound of an electric guitar. What matters is the type of pickups, location relative to the string, strings and the amp/effects.

You can watch a guy play a guitar with no body at all and it sounds the exact same: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=n02tImce3AE

Anonymous 0 Comments

>sophistication of pickup

This is a big one for electrics. A pickup is just a magnet with copper wire wrapped around it, but the type of magnet and the way the wire is wrapped can have a noticeable effect on the sound. Also, the way the pickups are connected to each other has an effect. (This gets into technical stuff about signals being “in phase” or “out of phase.”)

The wood of an electric is important due to some more complicated physics stuff about vibrations. When you pluck the string, the wood vibrates a bit. This vibration can help the plucked string to vibrate longer and with more dynamics, So if you hit the string with different levels of force, a good piece of wood will respond and vibrate accordingly. (If you tend to hit the strings hard, you might want a piece of wood that doesn’t vibrate too much.)

The way the strings are attached to the guitar body is also important. This is where the technology of the bridge (the place where the strings attach to the body) comes into play. There are many different kinds of bridges.

Wood is porous, and even the same kind of wood from two different trees is slightly different, so no two guitars are ever exactly the same. And many guitars are made of two or more different kinds of wood. The famous Gibson Les Paul, for example, is made from a piece of mahogany and a piece of maple glued together. But two different Les Pauls, made from different trees, will still tend to respond differently depending on how you play them.

There’s no one right combination of ingredients to make a perfect guitar. Much of it depends on how the player likes to play. Some players hit hard, some don’t, so it’s a long process to find the right guitar for you. This is why most pro guitar players have a lot of different guitars because they all make different sounds when played. But one guitarist’s guitars may sound completely different when played by another guitarist because they attack the strings differently.

Alternatively, a guitarist will sometimes be lucky enough to find a guitar that suits them perfectly, and that’s basically the only guitar you ever see them play. (See Willie Nelson’s “Trigger,” Eddie Van Halen’s “Frankenstein,” or Brian May’s “Red Special.”)

Anonymous 0 Comments

>So, my understanding is that the pickup is influenced by the string moving and tells the speaker to make a sound.

>So, everything else should be no consequence, besides maybe sophistication of pickup and size of string.

Well, no, because other things have an effect on how the string moves.

Just as an example, the sustain of an electric guitar has practically nothing to do with the pickups. That all comes down to the construction of the guitar and how well it can keep the energy from you picking the string “in the system” so to speak.

Any way the vibrations in the string can leave the string is going to affect how the string continues to vibrate… which will affect the sound.

>people are always discussing various elements of their guitars and their impact on sound

And they’re usually overstating whatever effect those things have. I’m sure they believe some little thing makes a huge difference, but IME they can’t pick out those differences in a blind test. For example, if you had two Fender strats loaded up with the same pickups, everything was the same, except one had an alder body and one had a basswood body, I sincerely doubt anyone could tell *the* difference. They may hear *a* difference, but they couldn’t reliably peg which was which.

The pickups are the single biggest factor, that’s for sure. I’d wager that the pickups and electronics are about 75% of the sound. Everything else collectively adds up to *something*, but none of them are individually anywhere close to influencing the sound as much as the pickups.

Just a couple years ago I had a client who basically ruined their favorite guitar (a lawsuit Ibanez Les Paul from the 70’s). It was a great sounding guitar. They recorded with it a lot. After destroying it, they had me pull the pickups out and put them in a fairly inexpensive “Firefly” brand LP. The difference in sound was almost negligible.