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.


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