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Working of an Electric guitar:

From a popular culture standpoint, the electric guitar is one of the


most important inventions of the 20th century. More than any other
instrument, it defines the tone and character of rock and roll music.
But when the electric guitar first hit the scene in the 1930s, few
people saw its potential. It took quite a while for the instrument to find
its place in American music.

Despite the slow start, the electric guitar did find its place. It has
inspired and defined entirely new types of music. The electric guitar
remains the most prominent instrument in rock music, and the most
famous instrument ever to come out of the United States.

In this article, you will learn exactly how the guitar itself works, and
we will also discuss the system that the guitar and the amp create
together. Working in combination, the guitar and the amp can
produce an amazing variety of sounds.

If you have ever compared an electric guitar to an acoustic guitar, you


know that they have several important things in common. Both
acoustic and electric guitars have six strings, they both tune those
strings with tuning pegs and they both have frets on a long neck.
Down at the body end is where the major differences are found.
Photo courtesy Gibson Guitars
The Gibson Flying V and classic Les Paul electric guitars

Some electric guitars have a hollow or semi-hollow body with the


resonating cavity found in an acoustic guitar, but the most popular
electric guitars have solid bodies. The sound is produced by
magnetic pickups and controlled by several knobs. If you pluck a
string on an electric guitar that is not plugged in, the sound is barely
audible. Without a soundboard and a hollow body, there is nothing to
amplify the string's vibrations. See How Acoustic Guitars Work for
details.

To produce sound, an electric guitar senses the vibrations of the


strings electronically and routes an electronic signal to an amplifier
and speaker. The sensing occurs in a magnetic pickup mounted
under the strings on the guitar's body. A simple magnetic pickup looks
like this:
A vibrating string cuts through the field of a bar magnet in the
pickup, producing a signal in the pickup's coil.

This pickup consists of a bar magnet wrapped with as many as


7,000 turns of fine wire. If you have read How Electromagnets Work,
then you know that coils and magnets can turn electrical energy into
motion. In the same way, they can turn motion into electrical energy.
In the case of an electric guitar, the vibrating steel strings produce a
corresponding vibration in the magnet's magnetic field and therefore
a vibrating current in the coil.

There are many different types of pickups. For example, some


pickups extend a single magnet bar under all six strings. Others have
a separate polepiece for each string, like this:
Some pickups use screws for polepieces so that the height of each
polepiece can be adjusted. The closer the polepiece is to the string,
the stronger the signal.

The pickup's coil sends its signals through a very simple circuit on
most guitars. The circuit looks something like this:

The upper variable resistor adjusts the tone. The resistor (typically
500 kilo-ohms max) and capacitor (0.02 microfarads) form a simple
low-pass filter. The filter cuts out higher frequencies. By adjusting the
resistor you control the frequencies that get cut out. The second
resistor (typically 500 kilo-ohms max) controls the amplitude
(volume) of the signal that reaches the jack. From the jack, the signal
runs to an amplifier, which drives a speaker.

Photo courtesy Gibson Guitars


The body of this Gibson Gary Moore Signature electric guitar
has multiple pickups.

Many electric guitars have two or three different pickups located at


different points on the body. Each pickup will have a distinctive
sound, and multiple pickups can be paired, either in-phase or out, to
produce additional variations.

Amps and Distortion


Most electric guitars are completely passive. That is, they consume
no power, and you don't have to plug them into a power supply.
(Some do have "active" electronics powered by an onboard battery.)
The vibration of the strings produces a signal in the pickup coil. That
bare, unamplified signal is what comes out of the guitar and into the
amp.
The amp's job is to take the guitar's
signal and make it audible by
boosting it enough to drive a
speaker. The fascinating thing about Photo courtesy Gibson Guitars
an electric guitar amp is that the The Gibson GA-15 amp
amp is actually a part of the
instrument.

The role of an electric guitar amp is


completely different from the amp in
a stereo system. A stereo amp is
meant to be transparent -- its job is
to reproduce and amplify sound with
as little distortion as possible. With Photo courtesy Gibson Guitars

an electric guitar amp, musicians The Gibson GA-30RVS amp

often seek distortion as well as the


option of a "clean" sound. Distortion
results when the signal in an amp's
circuitry is too powerful for that
circuitry. The distortion is actually a
part of the desired sound, and many
amps are designed so that guitarists
can control the level of distortion.

Musicians may also take advantage


of feedback loops between the amp
and the guitar. If the sound coming Photo courtesy Gibson Guitars
The Gibson GA-30RVH amp
out of the amp and speaker is loud
enough, it can cause the guitar's strings to vibrate. The musician can
hit a note with the guitar, and the amp will cause that string to
continue vibrating indefinitely. Both of these concepts -- amp
distortion and feedback -- are unique to the electric guitar.

You can hear the effects of distortion in these three examples:

• Electric guitar without distortion - Gibson ES-175 guitar with


'57 Classic Humbucker pickups
• Electric guitar with mild distortion - Les Paul Custom guitar
with 490R and 498T pickups
• Electric guitar with heavy distortion - Gibson SG '61 Reissue
guitar with '57 Classic Humbucker pickups

A typical amp has at least three parts:

• A pre-amp
• A power amplifier
• A speaker

Some amps also include effects and reverb circuits between the
pre-amp and the power amplifier.

The job of the pre-amp is to boost the guitar's signal enough so that
it can actually drive the power amplifier stage. Because an electric
guitar is passive, its signal does not have enough power to drive the
power amp directly.

One of the interesting things about many electric guitar amplifiers is


the use of vacuum tubes. Vacuum tubes have distortion patterns
and characteristics that are known and loved by many musicians.
These musicians seek out tube amps with specific tubes and specific
amplifier circuits (for example, Class A versus Class AB amplifiers)
to get the exact sound they are looking for.

Electric Guitar History


Engineers began experimenting with electrically powered
instruments, such as music boxes and player pianos, in the 1800s.
But the first attempts at an amplified instrument did not come until the
development of electrical amplification by the radio industry in the
1920s.
One of the earliest innovators was Lloyd
Loar, an engineer at Gibson Guitar
Company. In 1924, Loar developed an
electric pickup for the viola and the string
bass. In Loar's pickup design, the strings
passed vibrations through the bridge to the
magnet and coil, which registered those
vibrations and passed the electric signal on
to an amplifier. The first commercially
advertised electric guitar, made by the Photos courtesy Gibson Guitars
Peter Townsend and the
Stromberg-Voisinet company in 1928, PeteTownsend Signature SG
utilized a similar pickup, with vibrations guitar from Gibson
being picked up from the soundboard.

The goal of these early innovators was to amplify the natural sound of
the guitar, but the signal was too weak. It was only when engineers
utilized a more direct pickup system, in which the electromagnet
registered string vibration from the strings themselves, that the
modern electric guitar became a reality. The first commercially
successful model, the so-called "Frying Pan," was developed and
marketed by George Beauchamp and Adolph Rickenbacker in
1932.
Diagram from Gibson's original pickup patent, 1937

The Rickenbacker "Frying Pan" was an electric Hawaiian model,


played flat in the lap, and it caught on immediately with Hawaiian-
style guitarists. The standard or "Spanish" style electric guitar,
however, sounded so different from an acoustic guitar that it was slow
to be accepted. The first artist to develop a playing style unique to the
electric guitar was Charlie Christian (in 1939). At the same time, a few
individuals began experimenting with a new kind of electric guitar,
using the same pickup as earlier designs but mounting the pickup on
a solid block of wood. Les Paul, who was already a well-known
acoustic guitarist, built such a guitar on a 4-by-4 piece of pine and
nicknamed it "The Log." Leo Fender, a former radio repairman,
introduced a mass-produced solid-body electric guitar in 1950, and
Gibson introduced a model endorsed by Les Paul himself in 1952.
The solid-body guitars didn't have the feedback problems that
characterized hollow-body electric guitars, and they had greater
sustain.

In the 1950s and 1960s, rock stars secured Gibson and Paul's
designs, as well as Fender's famous Stratocaster, a permanent
place in American culture. Since then, every generation has found a
surprising new way of making the instrument sing. By all accounts, its
potential is limitless.