Invented in the 16th century, guitars are a staple instrument of most modern-day music genres and have evolved over time into the music makers we know and love today. For many, the process of transforming raw materials into a fully shaped and functional guitar is a mystery. So how are guitars made?
Before putting things together begins, a guitar is designed. The makers then select the optimal wood and other materials. Finally, they put together the parts and components to create the guitar.
Of course, this is a simplistic version of things. So in this article, we will go deeper in discussing the basics of how guitars are made. We’ll also explore the different parts a guitar needs in order to be played correctly. Plus, we will discuss how the process differs for acoustic versus electric guitars.
The Basics of Making a Guitar
Ok, so let’s begin. When making a guitar, there are three main phases to consider: the design phase, the material selection phase, and the construction phase. Each phases of this process is important in its own right.
Design Phase is How All Guitars Begin
Guitars are not limited to a strict design, shape, or size. In fact, there are many different types of guitars that all produce unique sounds and music when crafted correctly.
The design for the guitar must take into account what type of sound the maker wants the instrument to produce. For instance, a smaller guitar produces a higher sound compared to wider and larger guitars that are traditionally used for musical performances.
As such, precise design is critical for the creation of a guitar. In earlier centuries, guitars would have to be drafted out with pen and pencil to determine exact measurements for construction. Nowadays, guitar designs can certainly still be drafted by hand, but are more commonly designed using computer modeling and engineering programs.
Material Selection Can Change the Quality of a Guitar and Its Sound
The next major phase of guitar construction is choosing the raw materials that will be transformed into the guitar parts. They’ll also obtain the necessary equipment needed to shape and size the wood that will form the body of the guitar.
The wood that is used to make the body in particular should be carefully selected, as it needs to be able to be molded into the shape of the guitar. The wood should have properties that promote tone. Generally, maple or mahogany wood is used for the neck and sides, while Sitka spruce will be used for the outer face of the body.
Aside from wood and a quality wood glue, the remaining materials needed are the pre-constructed components of a guitar, such as the bridge and the strings. These elements are added after the initial construction and molding of the wood for the body and neck.
As for equipment, there are both basic and specialty tools required for the construction of a guitar. Basic tools include devices and machinery that are commonly found in many workshops or households, including:
- Chisels and hand planes
The specialty equipment may not be present in a common workshop not intended for instrument construction. These include specially designed tools to aid in the shaping of the neck, body, and fretboard.
Constructing the Parts of a Guitar
After designing the type of guitar that is desired to be built and gathering the needed materials and equipment, the next phase is the actual construction of the guitar. In this section we will discuss how the main parts of the guitar – the body, neck, and soundboard – are actually created from the wood selected for the instrument.
Body and Sound Hole
The construction of the body and sound hole of a guitar requires the assembly of multiple pieces – the front face (where the sound hole is built in), the back face (which is a replica of the front face minus the sound hole), and the sides. The front and back faces are relatively easy to construct, as they simply need to be cut according to the dimensions and shape desired.
However, the sides of the body are a bit more complex. This is because, while the front and back faces of the guitar are flat, the sides of the body are curved. This requires a precise treatment of the wood to allow it to be bent and molded. Not only this, but there are multiple curves to account for, meaning the wood must be bent in several places.
Wood is typically curved and bent through a process of soaking the wood in warm water and applying heat. This allows for the material to become more malleable compared to its rigid nature when dry. As such, the warm and wet wood can then be bent to the shape needed for the sides of the guitar. It will generally be set and clipped within a mold, as it will need several days to dry. Once completely dry, it will maintain its new shape.
From here, the two faces and the sides must be joined together. This is normally done by using a strong high-grade wood glue. Like when shaping the wood for the sides, clips of some kind will likely be used to keep pressure on the areas that have been glued until they are completely set and dry.
Guitar necks are usually constructed by way of layering wood together. The common type of wood seen used for guitar necks is stable, with a straight and uniform grain.
Within the neck is an important piece of equipment known as a truss rod. Truss rods help to counteract the force given by the strings and, in turn, reinforce the sturdiness and shape of the neck. These rods also allow for the neck of the guitar to be adjusted when slight changes occur to the bend of the neck due to environmental conditions.
While the process of creating a guitar neck is, in theory, rather complex, the music industry has long since found ways in which to achieve production through technology and machinery. Leo Fender, who founded the Fender Electric Instrument Manufacturing Company, is largely credited for using the means of mass production to simplify the guitar making process, according to Britannica.
This shift towards factory and industrial manufacturing of the instruments saw a turn away from the traditional professional wood-working process that had been the means of guitar construction before. Nonetheless, many guitars are still made by hand by woodworkers today, especially when it comes to custom guitars.
The fretboard, also known as the fingerboard, is a part of the neck where the metal frets are placed. These metal frets are what the strings of the guitar will be pressed against and used to make different sounds and produce different notes and chords.
In some cases, the fretboard may be added as part of the neck itself, thus being included in the layers of wood that are used to construct the neck. In other cases, the fretboard will be an additional piece of wood that is attached after the construction of the neck is complete.
Frets are metal and can be worn down over time due to the strings constantly being pressed down against them. In this scenario, the frets will likely need to either be replaced or re-dressed. Dressing a fret refers to the leveling and polishing of the metal to bring them back to their original form.
There are certain types of frets, such as stainless steel frets, that are more durable may never need to be re-dressed. However, the type of fret generally varies depending on the type of guitar.
Finish or Varnish
One the body, neck, and head of a guitar are complete, they must be coated in a finishing substance, such as a varnish. Finishing are what give guitars their shine and protect the wood from decaying over time. Plus, varnishes and other finishing can help to improve the sturdiness and durability of the guitar as well.
Building the Added Components of the Guitar
There are, of course, additional components to the anatomy of a guitar that are added onto the body and neck after they have been successfully constructed. The main important ones are the strings, the bridge, and the tuning pegs. These components require little to no additional construction labor. Instead, these are parts that must be purchased and installed onto the guitar body.
Guitar strings can be made from a variety of materials including steel, metal, and nylon. The type of string used depends on the type of guitar. To install strings, they must first be attached to the bridge on the body of the guitar below the sound hole. They must be securely tied to the bridge, as this is what keeps them from flying off the guitar when being plucked or strummed.
After being attached to the bridge, the strings must be extended up the length of the neck to then get run through the nut. The nut is a sturdy piece of material that resides where the head meets the rest of the neck. The strings are set inside this piece to keep them properly spaced apart along the length of the neck.
From here, the strings must then be wrapped around the pegs attached to the tuning pegs, which are mounted to the head of the neck. The head of the neck is the furthest end from the body and widens out into a generally rectangular shape.
Strings will typically need to be replaced after about 100 hours of use, which generally translates to around three months of playtime.
Tuning Pegs and Bridge
The tuning pegs are the pieces of metal that are attached to the head of the guitar to which the strings are wrapped around. These pegs allow for the strings to be loosened or tightened, thus changing the overall tune and sound produced.
The head of the guitar will have six holes through which the tuning pegs will be attached. After placing the tuners through the holes, they will generally be tightened down and secured through the use of nuts and washers.
As for the bridge, it will often be a piece of wood but is also sometimes made from plastic or metal. It is attached several inches below the sound hole, although this distance can vary depending on the guitar type.
On the bridge will generally be a second “nut” like the aforementioned one attached in between the neck and the head to help keep the strings in their proper placements. The bridge will also have pegs of some kind for which to wrap and tie the strings around. While the tuning pegs allow for the adjustment of the strings, the pegs on the bridge should stay firmly wound and attached.
The Type of Guitar Affects the Process
When it comes to guitars, there are a wide variety of types, and each of these types can have some differences in the manufacturing process. However, there are two main ways to differentiate guitars – by dividing them into either the acoustic group or the electric group.
Acoustic guitars will follow the general process that has been described above. Interestingly, electric guitars will also follow a similar construction process. The main difference between the two types of guitars is that electric guitars do not tend to have a sound hole or large hollow body, but they do have extra components to make the music generated able to be amplified.
Additional Electric Guitar Components
- Pickup selector: Pickups are what convert the vibrations made by the strings into the electricity and the resulting sound waves that are then played through amps and speakers. There are many different types of pickups that can affect how an electric guitar sounds.
- Volume and tone controls: Being electric allows for the guitar to be more concisely controlled in terms of volume and tone. As such, electric guitars will generally include dials, switches, or buttons that can be used to adjust the output of the guitar.
- Bridge: Electric guitars will generally have a different type of bridge compared to the bridges of acoustic guitars. Electric guitar bridges will almost always be metal instead of wooden and can include extra features such as a whammy bar which can alter the sound of the strings.
- Output jack: Output jacks must be included on any electric guitar. This is where the cords are plugged in to connect the guitar’s output to an amplifier and speakers.
It is important to note that many acoustic guitars can be transformed into electric acoustic guitars by way of adding on the additional electric components. However, the sounds produced by a true electric guitar and an acoustic electric guitar will still be quite different.
The Origins of the First Guitar Ever Made
Guitars belong to the family of instruments known as chordophones – a class of instruments defined as being characterized by the generation of sound through plucking, bowing, or striking stretched strings. While these instruments enjoy widespread popularity in today’s times, they also have a rich history spread out over several centuries.
The guitar is derived from two original instruments that predate written history. These are the oud, thought to have biblical ties to Noah and brought into Spain by the Moors, and the lute, which has Egyptian and Greek origins before being brought to Europe.
These original instruments helped to set the standards to which guitars are constructed today. Namely, that guitars should feature strings to produce sounds, a hollow body to enhance the sound, and a neck designed to alter the notes made by the strings. Thus, we have the foundation of guitar making.
How Are Guitars Made? Final Thoughts
There are many steps and elements that go into the creation of a guitar. While the process can be quite complex, it is a doable project for those without manufacturing facilities. In fact, there are companies out there that offer guitar building kits to allow for players to construct their own instrument.
Understanding the complexities of what goes into the craft of guitar-making gives all the more reason to appreciate and admire the popular instrument.
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