Home > Uncategorized > Scientifically Speaking: The Heart and Body of an Electric Guitar

Scientifically Speaking: The Heart and Body of an Electric Guitar

"Theres a bad moon on the rise…"

The original topic for my Scientifically Speaking essay was going to be about electric guitars and music but I scrapped the idea and pursued something else. However, Professor Myers asked me not to abandon the idea, so I decided to turn the essay into a series of blog posts.

No instrument is more iconic in American music than the electric guitar. The electric guitar, though simple compared to other electric instruments such as synthesizers, is a scientific wonder. Before the advent of the amplifier, everyone knew of the potential of the guitar as a lead instrument, but it was considered a background instrument in bands because it was not loud enough to be heard over the upright bass, the brass, the saxophones, and the pianos.

Electric guitars are technological marvels. Most guitars, including electric guitars are crafted out of wood. The characteristics of the wood highly influence the tone of the instrument. For example, a Gibson Les Paul built of mahogany and maple will have a warm, mellow tone; whereas a Fender Telecaster built of denser woods such as ash or alder would have a bright twang that is characteristic of country music. Solid pieces of wood on more expensive guitars are known to be more dynamic than plywood or laminates. However, some people will argue that wood does not influence the sound of guitars. It’s a long debate that will not be covered here.

The pickups on an electric guitar are also scientific marvels. They are often considered to be the “heart” of the guitar. Without the magnetic pickup, the guitar would never have became a lead instrument in bands. It allows for the detection and amplification of vibrations of the steel strings. The basic design has stayed the same since its development by Loyd Loar in the 1920s. Some guitarists don’t care what kind of pickups are in their guitars, deeming them “merely a magnet wrapped in wire”. Others spend thousands of dollars every year attempting to find the best pickup combination for their guitars.

There are single coil pickups that are both raw and sweet, yet able to cut through a mix as if it was a rapier. DEMO

There are humbuckers or dual coil pickups that negates the sixty cycle hum characteristic of single coil pickups and adds its own blunt force personality to the mix. DEMO

P-90 pickups are commonly known as the “slut of pickups” since they can sound as sweet as regular single coils, but can get dirty and raw when you want them to. They’re technically a form of single coil pickup, however, they are wound until they are about as thick as a humbucker pickup. DEMO 

There are active electromagnetic generator pickups, more commonly known as EMGs that sound sterile to some, but aggressive and vivacious to others. DEMO

Fender Musical Instruments Corporation recently invented the unconventional tribucker pickup that consists of three rail magnets that gives off a clean, thin sound; despite the belief that it is an even more aggressive version of the humbucker pickup. DEMO

Kramer Guitars is the home of an even more unconventional pickup model, the quad rail. It is essentially two humbucker pickups crammed together into the size of a single humbucker pickup. In theory, it gives the guitar a very brutal sound, perfect for high gain, modern metal. However, many guitarists have found it to be too muddy for standard use. DEMO (Skip to 00:56)

Piezo-pickups are perhaps the best pickups available for those who want to to reproduce the natural sound of the strings. They’re used to give electric guitars acoustic sounds and doubling as an instrument for recording acoustic parts. DEMO (In my opinion, this is the most sublime demo on the post)

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