Guitar terms you need to know

Guitar terminology can sound like a different language when you’re first starting out! Here is a list of terms you’ll need to know. 


Action – Guitar action is the height of the guitar strings over the fretboard. Guitar action is important to pay attention to – if it’s too high, the guitar will be hard to play. If it’s too low, you’ll hear strings buzzing. A common mistake first-time guitar players make is not checking the action.

Alternate Picking – A picking technique that uses alternating downward and upward strokes. If you use alternate picking on a single string, it can be referred to as “tremolo picking”.

Alternate Tunings – There’s standard tuning (EADGBE) and there’s alternate tunings. Alternate tunings involve tuning your guitar in other ways. This can make it easier to play some riffs or power chords, and also change how chords sound. Check out this guide to alternate things here.

Amplifier – Also known as an amp, an amplifier is an electronic device that amplifies the sound of your guitar. It works by strengthening the electrical signal of your instrument’s pickups and produces that sound through a loudspeaker.

Arrangement – A musical adaptation of a piece of music. For example, artists performing a cover song might switch up the rhythm, key, or other aspects of the song to create a unique arrangement.

Arpeggio – Arpeggios are when the notes of a chord are played individually, one after the other, instead of at the same time.

Barre ChordA barre chord is a chord that you play by pressing down multiple strings across the fretboard with one finger (creating a “bar” across the neck). Barre chords are used to play chords outside of the restrictions of the guitar’s open strings – F and B are some examples.

Beat – In music theory, a “beat” is a basic unit of time. If you were tapping your feet to a song, the “beat” would be each time you tap.

Bend – “Bending” a guitar string means pushing it across or over the fretboard so that the string gets tighter and the pitch gets higher. It’s a technique that’s frequently used in lots of genres of music.

Body – The guitar’s “body” is the part that contains the soundbox or pickups. There are different types of guitar bodies, and they can be made of different woods including rosewood, maple or walnut, which impacts their sound.

BPM – “Beats per minute”. The BPM tells you how fast a song is – the higher the BPM, the faster the song.
Bridge – A device that supports the guitar strings and transmits the strings’ vibration to another part of the instrument.

Bridge Pins – Bridge pins are used to anchor the strings to the bridge.

Capo – A capo is a small device that clamps onto the fretboard of a guitar to effectively shorten the strings, raising the pitch of the instrument. This allows you to play songs with open chords that you’d normally have to play with barre chords.

Chord – A chord is three or more notes played simultaneously. Chords are the building blocks to playing songs.

Chorus – Chorus is a type of effect that splits your guitar’s signal into multiple voices and slightly changes them, creating an effect that sounds like a choir of voices.

Cutaway – A cutaway is a part of the upper guitar body that’s indented near the neck, allowing easier access to the top frets. Different guitar designs have different styles of cutaways (or none at all).

Effects Pedal – An effects pedal is an electronic device that changes the sound of your instrument. Common types of effects pedals include distortion or overdrive pedals, compressors, “wah-wah” pedals, and reverb.

Fingerstyle – Fingerstyle means plucking the strings of your instrument directly with your fingers, rather than with a pick.

Fret – Frets are the strips of metal embedded along a guitar’s fretboard (found on the guitar neck). By holding the strings tightly against the fret, the vibrating length of the string changes, creating a specific note. Fretting can be a noun or a verb, meaning playing a note using a fret.

Fretboard – The part of the guitar where the finger presses the strings down (against the frets) to vary the pitch. It can also be known as the fingerboard.

Hammer-on – Hammer-ons are when you pick a note and “hammer” a second finger onto the same string on another fret to get a second note, without strumming a second time.

Harmonics – Harmonics are the overtones that are produced every time you play a note, however, you’ll rarely hear them over the fundamental note. A way to hear the overtones is by playing “pinch harmonics”.

Headstock – The headstock is the top of a guitar where the tuning pegs are kept.

Interval – An interval is the distance between the root note and another note on the fretboard. It’s the musical distance between two notes.

Intonation – Intonation means pitch accuracy – the extent to which the notes are in tune rather than being flat or sharp.

Inversion – An inversion is a chord where a different note than the root of the chord is the bottom note of the chord. It stays the same chord as the root position, but has a different voicing.

Key – The key of a piece of music is the scale, or group of pitches that makes up the song. A key can be in “major” or “minor” mode.

Lead Guitar – Lead guitar is the guitar part that plays the melody, licks, and riffs, rather than the chords.

Lick – A “lick” is a quick musical phrase played over a chord progressions. Licks are embellishments to a song.
Modulate – When you change keys within a composition.

Neck – The guitar’s neck includes the frets, fretboard, tuners, headstock, and truss rod. It’s the thinner piece of wood connected to the guitar body.

Open Chord – An open chord is a chord that is played with one or more strings not fingered and playing openly.

Open String – An open string is a guitar string that’s played without putting your hand on any of the frets.

Palm Muting – Palm muting is a guitar technique in which the side of the picking hand is placed against the guitar strings as they’re plucked, creating a “dampening” effect. It produces a muted sound.

Pedal – Guitar effect pedals are also known as “stomp-boxes”. They alter the tone or sound of your guitar with various effects.

Pentatonic Scale – A pentatonic scale has five notes per octave (pent) versus the seven notes per octave of the major or minor scale. Pentatonic scales can be major or minor, and are crucial to learn for most blues and rock music, as well as for learning to improvise.

Pick or Plectrum – Guitar picks (or plectra) are small objects used to pluck individual notes or strum chords of a guitar. Check out this guide to learn about different types of picks.

Picking – The group of hand and finger techniques that a guitar player uses to make the strings vibrate, creating notes.

Pickups – A mechanism located on the guitar that captures the vibrations of the strings and converts them to an electric signal. The signal is then amplified through an amplifier to produce musical sounds.

P I M A – these letters represent the Spanish names for the fingers of the right hand: pulgar (thumb), indice (index), medio (middle), and anular (ring). They are used to indicate fingerings in classical music.

Pinch Harmonics – You know the “squealies” you sometimes hear during guitar solos? They’re created using pinch harmonics. Playing a string harmonic isolates the overtone of the string, creating a sound much higher than it would normally produce. Check out this guide to learn more about pinch harmonics and how to create them.

Power Chord – A power chord is made of two different notes – a root (1st) and a 5th note. It will be written with a 5 next to it (i.e. A5, C5, etc.) Check out this guide for tips on using power chords.

Pull-off – A pull-off is like a hammer-on, but backwards. If you’ve done a hammer-on with your finger on a second fret, pull that finger off, lightly pulling on the string as you do it and letting the note ring out.

Reverb – Reverb, short for “reverberation”, happens when soundwaves reflect off of surfaces in a room causing the soundwave reflections to hit your ear closely, so you can’t tell them apart. Effect pedals can create reverb for your guitar.

Riff – When referring to guitar, a riff is a short, memorable musical phrase which is memorable and creates energy and excitement. A riff is often the main hook of a song and is repeated throughout the song.

Root note – The root note is the first note of a chord (on guitar, it’s usually the lowest-sounding note). The root note defines the key of a chord.

Rhythm Guitar – A guitar part that consists of the chords of the song.

Scale Length – The scale length of your guitar is defined as the measure of distance between a guitar’s nut and its bridge. The “nut” is at the top of the neck, near the headstock, and the bridge is the device that supports the string below the neck. Check out this guide on scale length.

Setup – Adjusting a variety of guitar physical characteris to optimize the sound and can include changes to the action, bridge, and neck truss rod.

Slide – Slide guitar is a style of playing guitar often used in blues music. It involves playing guitar while using a hard object against the strings, creating vibrato effects.

Sustain – Sustain on a guitar refers to how long the guitar strings vibrate after you pluck them. This phenomenon can be enhanced with an effects pedal.

Standard Tuning – The typical tuning of a string instrument. For a guitar, standard tuning is E A D G B E.

Strap – A piece of material that holds the guitar onto your body. This makes it easier to focus on playing, as well as protecting your instrument from drops.

Strings – Made of metal, nylon, or other materials, strings on a guitar vibrate to create sounds.

Strumming – Strumming is playing a guitar’s strings by moving your fingers lightly over them.

Tablature – Also known as “TABs”, tablature is a way of notating music that shows you which notes are being played on which string. It’s great for beginner guitarists to learn music quickly and easily.

Tapping – Guitar tapping is a method of playing that involves using your fingertips from your picking hand to hammer-on and pull off strings in the same way you would use your fretting hand.

Tempo – The speed of a piece of music.

Toggle Switch – On a guitar, the toggle switch controls which pickups convert the vibrations of the strings into electric signals. This allows the guitar to produce different sounds depending on which position the toggle switch is in.

Transcription – The process of arranging a piece of music for guitar.

Triad – A set of three notes that can be stacked in thirds.

Tremolo – Tremolo can either refer to an effect that creates a change in volume or the “tremolo arm” on a guitar, which creates a vibrato effect (varying pitch).

Truss Rod – The truss rod in a guitar is a steel bar or rod that stabilizes the neck. It’s located below the fingerboard.

Tune – It’s of critical importance that your guitar is in tune – meaning that all of the strings are in the correct pitch for the tuning you’re playing in. Check out this guide to tuning your guitar like a rockstar.

Tuning Pegs – Usually located at the guitar’s headstock, tuning pegs are short sticks that are turned to make the strings looser or tighter.

Voicing – Voicing is the expression of a chord based on the order in which the tones are arranged. Playing E minor in the open position will give you a different voicing than E minor in a barre chord position.

Whammy Bar – Another word for a tremolo bar, a whammy bar is a lever attached to the bridge or the tailpiece of an electric guitar. It can be pushed to increase the tension of the strings, creating vibrato and other effects. Try this with the Dimebag Darrell Player Study Course.

How to play pinch harmonics

Pinch harmonics are a great tool to add a little extra flare to your guitar playing. It creates a high pitched “squeal” on an electric guitar. You usually hear pinch harmonics used in heavy rock or metal songs. 

You can hear a good example of pinch harmonics in Van Halen’s “Panama”. Listen for the “squealies”.

What is a pinch harmonic?

When you pluck a guitar string normally, the sound you hear is mostly the fundamental frequency, or the lowest frequency of the soundwave. You’ll also hear overtones, which are frequencies greater than the fundamental frequency. 

Playing a string harmonic isolates the overtone of the string, creating a sound much higher than it would normally produce. 

How do I play a pinch harmonic?

To create a pinch harmonic, the thumb of your picking hand will lightly catch the string after it’s played. 

You’ll need to “pinch” your pick, letting part of your thumb hang out over the top. As you strike the string, let your thumb graze the string, slightly muting it to cause a harmonic. 

When it comes to using pinch harmonics, it’s all about location – find the spot on your guitar’s body where the string harmonics ring out most clearly. On the fretboard, the harmonics ring out most clearly on the third and fifth frets. 

You’ll also want to use a lot of gain on your amplifier to help the note ring out. A tip – using the bridge pickup will help get more squeal out of your guitar! 

Practice combining picking and muting the string in one fluid motion.  It can take some time to get it!


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Other types of harmonics 

Pinch harmonics aren’t the only type of harmonics you can use on a guitar. 

Natural Harmonics – Natural harmonics are created by gently touching the string (rather than using pick) as you pick a fret. Natural harmonics are created using only the picking hand.

Artificial harmonics – This technique involves holding down a note with your fretting hand while using your right hand to create the same “soft touch” to create an open-string harmonic. 

Tapped note – To create this effect, fret the note and use your picking hand to tap the harmonics further down the fretboard. 

If your guitar heroes include Eddie Van Halen, Dimebag Darrell, Steve Vai, and other legendary shredders, learning how to use pinch harmonics is key to getting their sound. 


Slang words meaning “guitar”

The history of the guitar goes back really, really far. 

The first precursor to the guitar, harp-like “lyres” date back to the beginning of recorded time, at least 3000 BCE. Naturally, the guitar has gone through plenty of nicknames over the years and in different areas of the world.  

Here are a couple you may have heard of (or not!) 


This is probably the most well-known guitar slang term. The term originated among jazz musicians in the 1950s. The term started out meaning a saxophone (sax/axe) and eventually became associated with other instruments, including guitars. 


Bryan Adams sang about purchasing his first real six-string in the 1985 song “Summer of ‘69”, but since most guitars have six-strings, we can assume he didn’t come up with the term. 


The “box” part of “guitbox” refers to the body of the guitar. It can mean an acoustic or semi-hollow/hollow body guitar. 


“Guitfiddle” is an old term for guitar. It was mostly used in the Southern United States. 


If you’re in New Zealand, you might hear the term “gat” referring to a guitar. 


Keppi is Finnish slang for “guitar”. It literally translates as “stick”. 

Jazz box 

“Jazz box” refers to a type of electric guitar that was used in big band ensembles through the 1930s. 

How to motivate yourself to practice guitar every day

It’s not just a cliche – practice really does make perfect. The greatest guitar players of all time didn’t just pick up an instrument and start playing – it takes time and effort to get good at guitar. 

When you’re first starting out, it’s natural to get frustrated or not want to practice, but working on your instrument, even a little bit every day, will help you get better at it. 

Ideally, you should be practicing guitar 30 minutes to 90 minutes a day, but that’s not always feasible for people with busy schedules. However, even carving out 10 minutes of time on a busy day to practice will help you build dexterity, knowledge, and skills. 

Here are some tips to motivate yourself to practice. 

Set a goal

Do you want to shred like Eddie Van Halen? Maybe you want to master prog rock like Tosin Abasi of Animals as Leaders or play intense riffs like Tom Morello. Setting yourself a concrete goal (like, “I want to be able to play “Eruption”) will help motivate you to pick up your guitar every day. 


Play songs you like

A lot of guitar teachers start their students off on songs like “Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star” – not exactly riveting material. 

Make a list of songs that you want to learn by your favorite artists and work your way through them. Don’t be afraid to play them slower than originally recorded to get the hang of it. 

Check out this list of songs for guitar beginners.


Find a course that works for you 

Fret Zealot has hundreds of guitar courses available. You can choose the learning style that works best for you, whether that’s learning the fundamentals of music theory first, or diving right into daily exercises with the Guitar Gym. You get to pick your own curriculum with Fret Zealot, so you’re not stuck just playing the same scales over and over.


Cultivate a positive mindset about guitar 

Above everything else, learning guitar should be FUN – it shouldn’t be a chore! No one gets great at guitar overnight, so don’t be hard on yourself. Take it one note at a time. 


Avoid distractions 

A text message or social media notification can derail you from a great practice session. Set yourself an alarm for 30 minutes (or however long you want to devote to guitar in that session) and mute your notifications until you’re done! You can also minimize distractions by playing at “weird hours” late at night or early in the morning – just use headphones. 

Play with other people 

Playing with other musicians will give you a sense for playing in real time and matching other musicians’ cues. It will motivate you to get better at your craft all around, as well as give you confidence in your abilities. 


Go to live music events 

If you’re feeling blah about picking up your guitar, go check out a local band or open mic night in your town. Watching other musicians play is a great way to regain your motivation. 


Pencil practice into your routine 

Practicing sporadically won’t help you reach your guitar goals in a timely matter. Take a look at your schedule and see what times and days you can realistically put aside to practice – and then stick to that schedule. 


Leave yourself notes 

Leaving inspirational messages or just reminders on Post-It notes where you’ll see them is a helpful tool to remember to practice (and to remember why you want to play guitar). 


The top three mistakes new guitar players make – and how to avoid them

The top three mistakes new guitar players make – and how to avoid them

Every new guitar player is going to make some mistakes in their learning journey. Here are the three most common mistakes – and how you can avoid them! 

Not tuning your guitar or playing with old strings

Your guitar has to be playable for you to really learn how to play. Many first-time guitar players use old guitars that may have belonged to a friend or relative and have been sitting unused for years.

The first step in your guitar journey is getting whatever instrument you’re using into the best condition possible. Get some fresh strings on it and make sure that it’s in tune. 

You should also make sure that the action is good. Action is the distance between the strings and the fretboard. If your action is too high, the strings will be too far from the fretboard, making it difficult to press the strings down. If it’s too low, they will be too close to the fretboard and may not be able to ring out clearly. 

To check the action, hold down the low E string at the first fret and measure the distance from the string and the 7th fret. It should be about 3/32 of an inch, or 2.38mm. If it’s greater than that, it’s too high, and if it’s less than that, it’s too low. 

You should be able to fix the action on a guitar fairly easily using online tutorials, or take it in to your local guitar shop for help.

Not letting each note ring out while playing chords

When you’re learning a chord, make sure to hit each note and let them ring out. That way, you’ll be sure that you’re hitting each note correctly (with no buzzing or muted notes) and you’ll get used to the sound of each chord.

You can play a lot of songs with just a handful of chords.

Not having good posture 

Having good posture will make a huge difference in your guitar learning experience. It can be tempting to hold your guitar facing you at first to better see the fretboard. 

Sit up straight with your spine aligned and make sure that your guitar is upright on your right leg (or left leg if you’re a lefty). Rest your thumb on the back of the guitar neck. Use a guitar strap even if you’re sitting to avoid the guitar slipping.

The best guitar songs for beginners

If you’ve learned a handful of chords and the basics of the guitar scale, you’re ready to play some songs! 

Learning to play an easily recognizable tune – especially for friends and family – will help motivate you to keep going. 

Here are some great songs for guitar beginners: 

Happy Birthday

Let’s start with the absolute basics. “Happy Birthday” might not be the hardest rocking song, but it will come in handy for birthday parties for years to come! 

Smoke on the Water

The iconic riff of this Deep Purple song is one of the first lines most guitar players learn. 

Sweet Home Alabama

Three chords make up the majority of this Lynyrd Skynyrd hit. Just skip past the intro for now!

Back in Black

This is Fret Zealot’s most popular song lesson – for a reason! This lesson will take you step-by-step through the simple power chords you need to play this AC/DC smash hit.

Brown-Eyed Girl

Another three-chord song, “Brown-Eyed Girl” will have people singing along.


You only need a couple of chords to master this beloved Fleetwood Mac hit, and the song lesson will walk you through the strumming pattern step-by-step! It also includes the guitar solo if you’re up for a challenge.

I’m Yours

Mraz’s 2008 hit uses only a handful of chords and a simple strum pattern. It also sounds great played on ukulele.


Useful guitar tips for beginners