The electric guitar is a very versatile instrument; by using the guitar's own controls, the controls on the amplifier and separate electronic effects, the player can create a large variety of sounds.
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Electric Guitar Sound
Electric guitars, when plugged straight into an amplifier without any effects, produce a sound that is similar to that of an acoustic guitar, but smoother, without the acoustic ‘sparkle’ and with less dynamic range. This ‘clean’ sound is fine for many situations, and plenty of guitarists (particularly jazz players) do not use any other sounds. However, most guitarists rely on effects to alter the basic clean sound. The two most common guitar effects are distortion and reverb. Both of these effects are usually present on an amplifier, and can also be produced by effects pedals / processors, etc..
Guitar Effects Pedals & Other Guitar Effects
Effects pedals are small units with foot pedals that allow the guitarist to turn the unit on and off without having to take his or her hands from the guitar whilst playing. There is a wide range of effects available, from distortion (see below) through to pitch-shifters, all of which change the sound of the guitar to greater or lesser degree. In a basic configuration, the guitar lead is plugged into the input of the pedal and another lead is plugged between the output of the pedal and the input of the amplifier.
Effects also come in 'rack mount' form. These are designed to fit into a standard 19" studio rack unit, and the inputs and outputs are usually located on the back of the unit. Rack mount effects are often more sophisticated than effects pedals, and are more suited to use in a recording studio than in a live situation.
Common Guitar Effects - Distortion
Distortion (also called overdrive and fuzz) is basically a way of simulating what happens to the sound if the amp is turned up loud enough to cause the speaker and / or circuitry to distort the sound. This happened naturally in early guitar amps, and became a sound that guitarists sought to encourage rather than to avoid. Nowadays, most amps have a means of creating an overdriven/distorted sound without having to turn them up to their full volume. Many effects pedals and processors are also available that will create this sound in various degrees. Some heavy metal guitarists don't ever turn the distortion off!
Common Guitar Effects - Reverb
Reverb effects recreate the way sound echoes and reflects around spaces, for example if one was to clap in a cathedral, it would take some time for the sound to completely fade away. What you hear after the initial clap is the reverberation, and this is the sound that reverb effects attempt to emulate. The most common reverb effects type is hall reverb, which, as the name suggests, makes the guitar sound as if it is being played in a hall. Many reverb units have parameters that can be changed, allowing the player to experiment with various types and lengths of reverb. Generally, a bit of reverb is very flattering to a guitar's natural sound.
Guitar amplifiers come in many shapes, sizes and prices. They come either as all-in-one units known as ‘combos’, with amplifier and speakers combined, or as ‘stacks’, where the amplifier (or head) and speakers are separate. Speaker cabinets are referred to as 1x12, 4x12, etc., denoting the number and size of speakers contained within. Amps can either use transistor (solid state) or valve technology, or a mixture of the two. It is generally acknowledged that valve (or tube) amps give a warmer, more pleasant sound. They are also louder; a 30W valve amp will be far louder than a 30W transistor amp. However, valve amps are generally more expensive, and are not as reliable, because the tubes get very hot in use and are liable to fail in time, although they are usually easily replaced.
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A recent development is the appearance of modelling amplifiers, which electronically replicate the characteristics of many different classic amplifiers.
Anything other than a very basic amp will have two (or more) channels. This allows the player to set up, for example, a quiet sound for accompaniment playing and a louder sound for lead playing, or a clean sound and a distorted sound. Channels can be selected with a footswitch that plugs into the amp. Amps often have an effects send utility, allowing the player to plug in effects pedals / processors after the amp has distorted the sound. This means that the unwanted noise (hiss) that can be produced by the pedals ism’t amplified to noticeable levels. Amplifiers usually have some tone and equalisation settings, for use in shaping the guitar’s sound in addition to the guitar’s own tone and pickup settings.
This is the last article in the beginner guitar series. We hope that you have learned something about the instrument, and that you have been inspired to take up the guitar.