How Does an Electric Guitar Work?

Electric Guitar Mechanics

Electric guitar players may wonder precisely how their instrument works. The electric guitar is truly a marvel of modern engineering, allowing the clean sounds used by jazz and classical players to come out of the same instrument as the muscular, noisy workouts of players like Lou Reed and Jimi Hendrix.

Knowing the basics of how an electric guitar works is not only interesting, it's basic and required knowledge for guitar players who wish to create their own sound with custom tweaks to the electronic systems of their guitars.

Difference Between Electric and Acoustic

The primary differences between an electric and acoustic guitar are the pickups, amplification and attendant electronics. Acoustic guitars are designed to be played without any extra equipment, although many acoustic guitar players do plug in using special pickups.

Electric guitars, on the other hand, cannot be played for anyone but the guitarist without using external equipment which includes a speaker or an amplifier.

Electric Guitar Pickups

Electric guitars have pickups, which are electronic devices that capture the sound made by the strings. One of the reasons that nylon strings are not used on electric guitars is because the pickups would not receive the sound from these strings. The metal strings used by electric guitars are picked up by the magnetic pickups, which then send them to an amplification device.

Hollowbody Electrics

Hollowbody electric guitars have properties of both electric and acoustic guitars. They include pickups and metal strings, but the pickups do more than just amplify the vibrations of the strings. The pickups also generate sound from the hollow insides of the guitar's body. These guitars are popular among guitar players in all genres of music, from jazz to heavy metal.

Guitar Cables

The pickups in the electric guitar send the sound through electronics. These are generally found inside guitars on the back underneath a plate, although they can be located other places. These electronics send the sounds to the guitar cable, which in turn sends the information to your amplifier or speaker.

The Amplifier

Your amplifier takes the sound generated by the strings, collected by the pickup, and transmitted through the cable and makes it louder. Amplifiers are just as important as the guitar in producing the sound. You can play clean through an amplifier, or you can crank up the distortion and overdrive. Amps come in two different types - solid state and tube - each with their own sonic qualities.

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Effects Pedals

Between the amplifier and the guitar, many guitar players use effects pedals. These are little boxes with switches (frequently operated by the feet, hence the name "pedal") that alter the sound of your guitar.

You can get effects pedals that make all kinds of changes to the sound of your guitar, such as adding octaves, increasing the compression, and adding any number of other qualities to your guitar sound such as fuzz, distortion and overdrive. These pedals are commonly used in rock, funk and blues to change the quality of a guitar's sound.


Your electric guitar almost certainly has one or more knobs on the body. Typically, there is one knob for every pickup on your guitar as well as another knob for both. The knob specific to a pickup allows you to adjust the tone of the guitar and give it a more treble-heavy or bass-heavy sound as you like. The knob that controls both pickups is for the volume of the overall guitar, a sort of pre-amp for your guitar. Tone knobs are also often used.


Many guitars also have a switch on them that toggles into three positions. Putting the switch in the up position uses only the pickup in the neck position. Putting the switch in the down position uses only the bridge pickup. Setting the switch in the middle allows you to use both pickups at the same time. Most rock guitar players only use the bridge pickup, while jazz and blues musicians often use both.

Your Part

Of course, a guitar is little more than an inert bunch of wood and metal that makes no noise without someone to play it. This is true of even the best electric guitar. In this sense, you are as much a part of how the electric guitar works as the pickups or the amplifier. How you choose to set your guitar up with pedals, amplifiers and pickup mixing is what gives your guitar playing its own individual timbre. An electric guitar offers you a far greater ability to mold the sound of your instrument than an acoustic guitar ever could.

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How Does an Electric Guitar Work?