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Musicians Insitute Library

Instrument and Equipment Guide

This guide is meant to illuminate and educate readers about the many facets of what makes a guitar feel and sound different from one another. This is to aid students decide what guitar will best suit their needs when checking an instrument out at the libr

Although most guitars share similar sizes, shapes, and construction methods; there are a plethora of individual factors that contribute to the physical playability of a guitar.

The neck of the guitar is one of the most important factors in whether or not a guitar is comfortable for you to play. Each player will have a preference, and there is no best type. However, there are easier to approach kinds of necks for those just beginning, or with smaller hands/fingers.

  • The first factor that makes a neck feel comfortable is the thickness/size of the neck. Vintage guitars and vintage styled guitars typically have a much thicker, rounder feeling as was popular at the time.

While it’s impossible to know if a guitar will be comfortable without playing it first-hand, a good reference to help aid your search is to reference the shape of the guitar neck, and the radius of the neck. Shapes of necks are often described as C-shaped, D-Shaped, U-Shaped, and V-shaped. Individual thickness may vary from brand to brand and model to model, but these terms are used to describe the general shape of the neck contour. The radius of a guitar neck measures the arc and curvature of the fretboard in inches. The lower the number, the more curvature the fretboard will have. Vintage Fender guitars (1950-1980) will typically have a fretboard radius of 7.25”Vintage Gibson guitars of the same time employed a slightly flatter radius of 10”

Nowadays, modern Fender guitars generally uses 9.5” with a thin-C shape neck, Gibson/Epiphone use 12” with a thin-D shape, and PRS uses 10” with neck profiles varying with the model.

In the extreme on either side of the spectrum, Vintage Fender guitars will use a 7.25” (very round) fretboard with a thick U-shaped neck. This draws comparison to these necks feeling like a thick, round baseball bat. And on the other side, Kiesel Guitars typically have a 20” (very flat) fretboard with a thinner, wider D-shaped neck. This leads to the generalization that these types of necks feel thin and wide, like a surfboard.

Body

There is an ongoing debate in the guitar world about whether the species of wood in your guitar changes the tone of the sound. This guide will not go into this debate, however you can read more on the subject at THIS LINK, if you are interested.

  • A crucial thing to keep in mind about a guitar’s body is how heavy the guitar is. If you’re going to play guitar standing up with a strap, you may want to consider the weight of your instrument as to not cause pain and discomfort. As some might say, the best guitar is the one that you can’t stop playing. There are also certain electric guitar bodies that have contour cuts in the body to make them feel more ergonomic and natural. These are all preferences to the individual player.
  • Outside of acoustic guitars, Gibson/Epiphone and PRS are known for having thicker, heavier bodies than Fender. Although this may vary from model to model, what type of wood is used will tell a different story. Ash is (generally) heavier than Alder, and Mahogany is (generally) heavier than both.

Scale Length

The measurement of a guitar’s scale length refers to the distance of the nut to the bridge. The longer this measurement is, the more tension a guitar string will be under. More tension means the player will have to exert more force to grab the note. However, to most people this difference is negligible and only apparent if you’re looking for it. However, if you’ve never played a guitar or if you’re going to play continuously for hours on end, it is certainly something to consider.

I don’t wish to imply that a longer scale length means you have more or less strength in your fingers. It’s just a technical measurement and a minor recommendation. If you have small hands or small fingers, a guitar with a shorter scale length (Fender Jaguar, Duo-Sonic, Mustang etc.) may be more comfortable than a larger guitar (7-Strings, 8-strings, any guitar with ‘extended range’). You may find the space in-between the frets is smaller and more easily accessable.

However, the guitar's scale length may determine some of its tonal choices. For starters, a short scale length means less tension in the strings, and if you want to tune your guitar down to lower tunings, you will have to raise the gauge (size) of your guitar's strings to compensate for this lessening of tension. Otherwise you may find yourself playing with strings that feel like wet spaghetti noodles.

Another harmonic difference is that with shorter scale lengths, the harmonics are more densely packed together. This gives the subtle feeling of slightly more warmth from the tone. There are also many other factors that determine tone, but if you’re trying to perfectly emulate sound from people who use shorter/longer scale length guitars, your best bet is to go with what they did.

Bridges

The bridge is the metal piece at the bottom of the guitar body. This is a core piece of the guitar responsible for holding the strings in place and keeping the tension held through the strings in conjunction with the tuners at the top of the head. All guitars and basses have bridge, whether they are acoustic or electric. 

  • Acoustic guitar/bass bridges are typically glued and mounted to the body and are made of wood with a bone (or synthetic bone) saddle to rest the strings on. The string ends are held down by a series of pegs, and are held in place through friction.
  • Electric guitar bridges are typically made of metal and are split into two groups: Vibrato and Hardtail.
    • Hardtail bridges are fixed in place and do not move, providing more tuning stability and are much less maintenance when setting up your guitar.
    • Vibrato bridges are any type that have a series of springs and bars that allow the entire bridge to move back and forth, which in turn bends all of the strings up and down in pitch. Some of the most common types of vibrato bridges are Floyd rose bridges, Bigsby bridges, and the OEM bridges from brands like Fender and PRS guitars.