Woods & Body Types
There are many kinds of electric-guitar bodies. These days, most of them are solid-bodies, which are guitars carved out of a solid piece of wood, or sometimes several pieces that are laminated together. A Fender Telecaster, for example, is usually just a single piece of ash or alder wood, with a maple neck that is bolted on to the body. This simple use of hardwoods contributes to the bright sound these guitars are famous for, especially when combined with single-coil pickups. Basswood, a beefy-sounding wood often used with "super-Strat" guitars (i.e., Strat-style bodies with humbuckers, tremolos, and 22- or 24-fret
Neck & Fingerboard
Necks and fingerboards are as different and varied as bodies. With rare exception, necks are made out of mahogany or maple. However, some necks have a very rounded back and are somewhat "fat" feeling, while others can have a V-shape in the back that fits into the palm of your hand. See what fits your hand and your technique best.
Fingerboards typically come in three wood types. Maple is a hardwood and is usually lacquered, creating a hard, slick surface to fret on, which many players prefer. Rosewood is softer to the touch with a warmer tone. Ebony is a premium wood found on high-end guitars, and is often preferred by pro players for its silky, fast feel.
Fret ranges go from 21 frets on old-style Stratocasters and Telecasters to 22 frets on most guitars to 24 frets on fast instruments stylized for hard rock playing.
Alder: Alder is used predominantly for bodies because it is readily available, light weight and has a full even tone. Alder's natural color is light reddish tan with little or no distinct grain lines. Its closed grain makes the wood easy to work with and finish. Alder has been one of the main woods for Fender bodies since the beginning. It was primarily used for solid color paints but was also used with 3-color Sunburst or Tobacco burst finishes. Because of its proven tonal characteristics and lower price, Alder is very popular.
Ash: There are two different types of ash, Northern Hard Ash and Southern Soft, or Swamp Ash.
Northern Hard Ash: This is a very hard and heavy wood. A body will weigh 6 lbs. and up. With its density, the tone is very bright. Its color is tan, but also tends to have heart wood of pink to brown tints. The grain is open, very much like Oak. This wood is also very difficult to finish because of it's open grain.
Swamp Ash or Southern Soft is a prized wood for many reasons. This is the wood many 50's and 60's Fenders were made of. It is easily distinguishable from Northern Ash by weight and in it's lighter appearance. The weight of this wood varies greatly, but the lighter bodies are the most sought after, anywhere between 3 1/2 to 5 pounds per body. This wood sings, offering an even balance across the entire spectrum of brightness and warmth. The grain is open and also difficult to finish but well worth the trouble, a beautiful choice for clear finishes. Swamp Ash is the more popular wood.
Basswood: This is very light in weight, bodies usually weigh four pounds or less. The color is white, but often has green mineral streaks throughout. This is a closed-grain wood, but quite soft, it can absorb a lot of finish. This is not a durable wood and not used for clear finishes, but because of it's dark warm tone is still a fine selection.
Mahogany: Honduran Mahogany, is the same wood used in many fine solid and hollow body guitars. This is an excellent wood with good musical properties, covering the gamut from Blues to Jazz, the tone is warm full and sweet with good sustain. Mahogany varies in body weight averaging 5 lbs. or more for a solid body. The grain is open yet easy to fill. The wood varies in appearance from very plain to a beautiful array of ribbons, a good wood for clear finishes.
Maple: There are two types of maple, Northern Hard (Hard Rock Maple) and Western Soft (Big leaf Maple). Hard Maple is the same wood used for necks. It is very dense, and weighs quite a bit. The grain is closed and easy to finish. The sound of Maple is very bright with a lot of bite. It looks good in any style finish. Western Soft Maple is another wood like Alder that grows in and around in Washington State. It is usually much lighter and softer than Hard Maple, but is a little more towards reddish brown in color. Its sound is characterized by good bite and attack, bright, but not brittle like hard Maple. Quilted bodies are western Big leaf Maple.
Walnut: Walnut is not quite as heavy as maple, it has a similar sound though not as bright. Walnut is very beautiful with open grain. Oil finishes can look wonderfully rich on this wood when applied properly.
Koa: This very beautiful wood indigenous to Hawaii. Weight varies somewhat from medium to heavy, a good wood for basses and in combination with other woods to create hollow body guitars. Koa has a warm sound similar to mahogany, but a little brighter. Like Walnut, this wood may be oiled or sprayed clear either way this wood is gorgeous.
Zebrawood: This wood is very heavy with a very distinctive look, open grained with light and dark brown stripes it is becoming more and more common in the bass and guitar world. Its weight and sound are similar to Walnut depending on the application. It is difficult to find in thick pieces, but it is more commonly available for laminated bodies where it excels. This wood may be oiled or sprayed clear, either way this wood is also very beautiful.
Rosewood: This wood has the heaviest bodies weighing in at over six pounds plus. There are several different species with Indian Rosewood being the favorite. The sound is much warmer than maple, the high end seem to lack a bit only because of the oily nature of the wood. Finishes are difficult to apply because of it's oil content.
Maple: This wood has a bright tone with excellent sustain.
Birdseye Maple: This is the same species tree as plain maple, however, for some unexplainable reason it has a beautiful Birdseye figure, and therefore more expensive. There is a great deal of variation from board to board in the appearance and density of this figure. Because each one is unique, it has it's own distinctive appearance.
Eastern Fiddle back Maple: A highly figured Maple known by its flamed beauty and sweet warm tone. Found in the northeast, it is known for its use in violin construction.
Rosewood: Used most often for fingerboards with Indian Rosewood being the favorite. This is a very stable hardwood, ranging in color from dark purple to various shades of yellow and orange. Its tone is warmer than maple. Rosewood requires no finish, so you can play without it.
Maple: Maple fingerboards maintain the same brightness and twangy tone of the standard Maple neck along with a defined bottom end, a tighter midrange, and a crisp, detailed top end . Plain maple necks have plain Maple fingerboards. Birdseye necks have plain Birdseye fingerboards. Because maple necks are usually lacquered, their feel is that of the finish, not the wood.
Rosewood: Rosewood is an oily wood with open grain. It is also a bit softer than maple. This feature attributes to Rosewood's warmer tone with less top end than maple and enhances note sustain more. Rosewood is the most popular fingerboard available. It ranges in color from very dark and almost black to purples, and orange, all darkening with use.
Ebony: Ebony is the hardest and smoothest, fastest feeling fingerboard wood due to it's tight grain. Ebony's tone is bright and clean, more than maple. It ahs a very glassy and crystalline top end or a lot more definition and tightness in their low end. Its color is generally black, but frequently comes streaked with small chocolate-colored brown and gray lines.
Set, Through, and Bolt-on necks
Bolt-on necks: obviously have the advantage of being replaceable and easier to work on for fret jobs or refinishing and they have their own tone, with more overtone content than set-neck designs. If a bolt-on neck is bolted as tight as possible, very little sustain should be lost compared to a set-in neck or a neck-through design.
Set-neck designs: are great at transferring sustain well and have a lot of fundamental content. However, they also are harder to make correctly, and if the neck is set at the wrong angle, it's going to be tough doing the ‘setup' because the luthier will have to compensate by milling some frets lower than others to compensate. Also, the intonation may be altered and affected adversely as a result.
Neck-through designs: are very solid and have the benefit of lacking the clumsy block that sometimes results from the other designs. Maple neck guitars have an even brighter tone since the pickups reside right on a block of hard rock maple. A disadvantage of neck-through designs is that once you damage the neck, it's very expensive to fix the guitar.
Tone & Pickups
Generally, there are two pickup choices: single-coil or humbuckers. Single-coils have that thinner, "twangy" sound often favored by fans of blues-rock, country, and roots-rock. Humbuckers have a fatter, warmer tone and are often favored by hard-rock/metal players and jazzers. But there are no strict guidelines you can play jazz with single-coils and country with humbuckers.
If you want a funky single-coil tone more like Stevie Ray Vaughan, start with a Strat. You'll also want a Stratocaster if you're trying to emulate Jimi Hendrix (in fact, Fender produces an upside-down Strat if you really want to take the Jimi challenge). If you're more into the fat tones of early Eric Clapton, Carlos Santana, or, say, Soundgarden's Kim Thayil, try a guitar with humbuckers.
One of the main accessories for electric guitars is the tremolo bar or whammy. This bar allows the player to alter pitch by wiggling the bar back and forth. The bar is connected to the bridge, and as it's depressed, the strings start to slack some bars can also be pulled up, which raises the pitch. On old guitars, the tremolo bar was meant to be a soft effect, but thanks to innovators like Jimi Hendrix, Jeff Beck, and Eddie Van Halen, players today can make dramatic changes in pitch, such as Van Halen's legendary "divebomb" sound. This innovation was aided by the development of the locking nut, which locks the strings in place where the fretboard meets the headstock. With a locking nut, you won't go out of tune after a deep, multi-octave divebomb. The tremelo is not, however, an essential item to have on an electric guitar as many of the great electric guitarists do without them and create vibrato with their fingers.