Introducing the Learning Guitar Series. Over the next few months, our friend and guitar teacher extraordinaire Haley Powers will teach you how to take your guitar playing to the next level. From locking down a practice routine to nailing an acoustic cover, Haley has you covered.
Sometimes, not knowing the right guitar terms when you’re a beginner can shake your confidence and make you feel like less of a legitimate musician. The truth is: there’s always going to be new words, pieces of gear, and lingo that you don’t know. But learning some key terms helps to quickly communicate with other musicians, so you can be in sync and make the best music possible.
Below, I’ve put together an Urban Dictionary-style glossary list of guitar vocabulary that I see most frequently. Keep in mind that no one knows everything, and if you’ve even strummed your Orangewood once, you’re already a real musician (imposter syndrome can be so real).
Part of the fun of music is that there’s always something new to learn, and no matter where you’re in your journey, that’s not anything to be ashamed of. So let’s jump right into it! Here are all the guitar terms that every beginner should know.
ACOUSTIC GUITAR PARTS AND ANATOMY
Neck: e.g. “Do you prefer a maple or a rosewood neck?”
The guitar neck comes out from the rest of the guitar and is the base of the fretboard. It can be made from a multitude of wood types, for example, each Orangewood Guitar lists the style of neck (like Standard C, etc.) indicated. This is important to pay attention to because certain neck types may feel better and easier to play for you than others.
Fretboard: e.g. “I need to polish up my fretboard.”
The fretboard is on the neck and is where your fingers push down on the strings to play different chords and melodies. The frets are the horizontal dividers that separate notes from each other.
Headstock: e.g. “I love the shape of the headstock on that guitar.”
The headstock is at the very end of the neck and houses all the tuning pegs. It’s important to have a strong/stable headstock because it needs to be able to support the pull of all the strings or your guitar will go out of tune easily.
Tuning Pegs: e.g. “My tuning peg isn’t tightening my string like it should.”
A tuning peg is rooted on the neck and is what tightens or loosens the string for tuning your guitar. Whenever you change the strings on your guitar, you’ll wind the string around the tuning peg, making sure it stays in place.
Sound Hole: e.g. “I dropped my pick in my sound hole and it won’t come out.”
A sound hole is specific to acoustic instruments and it’s the opening on the body of the guitar that allows for sound to reverberate on its own. Though sound also comes out through the rest of the body’s surface area, the sound hole allows the sound to travel freely out of the guitar, producing a beautiful acoustic sound.
Bridge: e.g. "Strum a bit closer to the bridge for a different tone.”
The bridge holds and anchors the strings at the opposite end of the guitar from the neck. It helps carry the sound vibrations of the strings to the rest of the guitar.
Bridge Pins: e.g.“Take out the bridge pin to change your strings.”
Bridge pins are a part of the bridge and are what holds the string in the bridge. They can be made from a variety of materials and can be taken out and put back on the guitar for string changing. Learn more about how to change your strings.
String Gauge: e.g. “I only play with a really light string gauge because it makes playing easier.”
The string gauge tells you how thick a string is. The lighter the string gauge, the easier it is to play, but some people prefer thicker strings because they have a different tone. The guitar is strung heavier to lighter from your low E to high E string. You’ll notice your Orangewood Guitar will come with Medium Light gauge strings, which is a great place to start.
Tonewood: e.g. “Do you like the Morgan Mahogany Live or Morgan Spruce Live better?”
You might notice each Orangewood guitar also lists the name of the wood used. Besides just looking pretty, each wood produces a certain sound that has a slightly different tone than another wood type. Spruce, mahogany, and Pau Ferro are some common ones you’ll see in Orangewood Guitars.
Truss Rod: e.g. “I need to adjust my truss rod so my action isn’t too high.”
A truss rod is an adjustable metal rod embedded in the guitar neck that allows you to adjust how much curvature or bow is in the neck. Learn more about adjusting your truss rod.
Action: e.g. “You might need to get your guitar set up because the action is so high.”
Action refers to the space between the strings and the neck. If the action is too high, it makes the strings harder to press down which makes the guitar harder to play. If the action is too low, the strings will make a buzzing sound because they can touch the frets.
Setup: e.g. “I think this guitar would play a lot better if you got a custom setup.”
Getting a setup is basically getting your guitar maintained. When you purchase a new guitar, you have to take it to a luthier to be properly positioned, tuned, and adjusted to ensure playability. Overtime, your guitar needs to be set up again because of changes in humidity, temperature, and usage.
Every Orangewood guitar is professionally set up before shipment (so you can play right out of the box), but after every 6-12 months of play, we recommend taking your guitar to a local music shop for another set up.
Intonation: e.g. “The guitar I picked up from the garage sale had terrible intonation.”
Intonation means how in tune your guitar sounds as you're playing higher up the neck. For example, if you play an open E string and then play an E note on the 12th fret and it sounds out of tune, this might mean your guitar is due for a setup.
Palm Mute: e.g. “For the verses, we're going palm mute.”
Palm-muting (or just muting) is a strumming technique where rather than letting the strings ring out, you keep your palm over the strings to dampen the sound a little. You want to create a balance between being able to hear what chord you're playing while still muting the strings (this can be tricky as a beginner).
Hammer-on: e.g. “This solo uses a lot of hammer-ons in it.”
A hammer-on is a fretting-hand technique where you quickly place your finger down on the string without picking again, causing a note to sound. This is used to go from a lower note to a higher note.
Pull-off: e.g. “The lick is easier than it sounds and is just a lot of pull-offs.”
A pull-off is the opposite of a hammer-on where rather than placing your fretting hand finger on a string, you're taking it off a string. In this case, you're going from a higher note to a lower note.
Bend: e.g. “Bend up a half step.”
A bend is a fretting hand technique where you push the string up or pull it down close to the fretboard to make the string tighter and raise the pitch of the string. For bigger bends, you’ll want to use three fingers to get more power and accuracy, and you usually aim to hit a specific note a fret to a few frets up. Bending is a deceptively difficult technique when you're starting because it takes a lot of muscle memory and strength to reach the exact note you're wanting to bend (or it sounds out of tune).
Slide: e.g. “Slide up to the 5th fret.”
Sliding is another fretting hand technique where you pull your fingers up or down a string in a sliding motion to create a distinct sound.
Barre Chord: e.g. “My hand hurts from playing all these barre chords.”
A barre chord is a way of making a chord where you press your index finger down covering an entire fret and then make a chord shape higher. It allows you to make different chords up the neck without changing the shape of your fingers.
Open Chord: e.g. “I love the sound of open chords on acoustic.”
An open chord is a chord shape that uses the open strings for the notes in the chords. Open chords sound full and allow for a ringing of the strings which sounds especially pretty on acoustic guitar.
Finger Style: e.g. “I’m taking a finger style class to learn how to improve my right hand.”
Finger style is a way of playing where rather than using a pick, you use your fingertips or nails. Typically finger style is more challenging and requires a lot of control for your rhythm hand.
Strumming: e.g. “I love the strumming pattern on this song.”
Strumming is a rhythm hand technique where you sweep your pick or thumb down multiple strings at once, which allows them to all ring out together.
Alternate Picking: e.g. “Try alternate picking that lick so you can play it faster.”
Alternate picking is a technique where every other note you pick down and then up. This technique allows you to pick notes faster by allowing you to be more efficient.
Tab: e.g. “Do you have tabs for that?”
A phrase you may hear all too often! Tabs, or tablature, is a way of charting music that indicates the fingering notes rather than the music pitches. For guitar, each line indicates a guitar string and the number shows you the fret. It can be really helpful to show you exactly how to play a solo or part if you're having trouble learning a part by ear.
REHEARSAL & LIVE PERFORMANCE
Going Direct: e.g.“Will the bass be going in direct or mic’d?”
This means that the guitar (usually acoustic) or bass is being plugged straight into the soundboard/interface, rather than miking an amp/cab. You can still use a pedalboard and be going direct.
Trashcan: e.g. “Let’s end the show with a trashcan ending.”
I have zero clue how this term came about, but it just means go crazy at the end of a song. Usually, the drums will be doing something all over the place, and now is your time to pull out your tapping licks!
Ears: e.g. “Are you going to be using ears.”
While yes we're all using our ears to play, this phrase refers to using “in-ears headphones” during a show or wedges as a monitor.
Feedback: e.g. “My mic is causing some serious feedback!”
Feedback is the loud high pitched sound you get when a mic picks up sound from a speaker and creates a sound loop.
Washy: e.g. “For this song I’m thinking an overdrive washy guitar sound.”
I wouldn’t consider washy a technical term (I haven’t yet seen a wash knob on a pedal!) but it refers to an ambient and ethereal sounding guitar.
Muddy: e.g. “My tone is sounding a bit muddy today and I’m unhappy with it.”
Muddy is typically a negative term meaning your guitar sound is not standing out in the mix, and a lot of times it’s a result of too much drive, reverb, or delay.
Digital vs Analog: e.g. “I just got done with a 2-hour argument about why analog is better than digital.”
This refers to if a piece of gear is computerized (digital) or mechanical (analog). Neither is better, but they have different sounds. Analog gear is like the vinyl record of the gear world.
Wet/Dry Mix:e.g. “Turn the wet mix up a bit for this part.”
A wet/dry signal is talking about how much effect you hear versus the actual sound of your instrument. If you have your wet mix up high, you have more effect and you won’t hear as much of your true instrument sound and vice versa.
Thanks for reading! Some words might vary when speaking with musicians of a different generation or genre. Keeping your ears open and having a “no shame in learning” attitude is the best thing you can do, and remember that there is a place for you in the guitar world.
Haley is a guitar player, blogger, and guitar teacher based out of Nashville, TN. When she's not playing or writing, you can find her in line at her favorite breakfast taco shop, taking her dog hiking at the nearest waterfall, or binging Outer Banks with her hubby.