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A Guitarist's Glossary

Updated on June 28, 2011
What IS this thing?
What IS this thing?

Axe. Capo. '10-gauge' strings. It's customary for any aspiring guitarist to encounter such words and phrases when first starting to play. The goal of this Hub is to give the beginning Axe-smith a handy reference should he or she encounter any unknown terms of guitardom.

For easier searches this glossary is divided into these sections: Audio Equipment, Guitar Gear, Jargon, Musical Terms, Parts, Technique, and anything else I come up with in the future to make it easier for you to find a term. It is not this author’s intention--for now, for least LOL—to be exhaustive, but rather to hit upon the most commonly used terms, providing readers with clear and brief definitions.

I'll be adding guitar-terms after publishing this, so check back from time-to-time for new definitions. Now how's that for shameless self-promotion…

Without further ado, let's begin:


XLR Input - available on some electric-acoustic guitars, this feature allows the guitar to be plugged in directly to a mixer.

Term & definition contributed by Lorne Hemmerling


Acoustic Guitar – a guitar that does not need electronics to be amplified. It amplifies itself via its sound-hole.

Acoustic-Electric Guitar – an acoustic guitar that has electronics within it, allowing it to be amplified through an acoustic amplifier (which is very different than an amplifier for an electric guitar).

Amplifier – a piece of equipment--typically large, but available in various sizes—used to amplify the electric or electric-acoustic guitar. Although there are some brands of amplifiers that are made for both electric and electric-acoustic guitars (such as Rivera), most amplifiers are either for one or the other.

Cable – no, not Optimum Online. The thing you use to plug the guitar into the amp(lifier). Very necessary is an understatement.

Capo – (the object pictured at the top of this Hub) a device that attaches to the guitar neck and covers all six strings at the desired fret. Used most by Folk, Blues, and Country guitarists. There are partial capos also, covering less than six strings, leaving the others open.

Dampener – typically, a headband placed around one of the lower frets of the fretboard so that open string noise is canceled. More sophisticated dampeners can be attached to the guitar’s headstock.

Guitarists Greg Howe, Brett Garsed, and Guthrie Govan are popular modern electric players who use headbands while Stanley Jordan, a veteran dampener, uses the more complex type. In general, guitarists who frequently or solely employ ‘legato technique’ often use dampeners.

Effects Pedal (also see Stomp Box)– an analog or digital floor 'effect' that is stepped on to be turned on or off. An 'effect' enhances the guitarist's sound. A famous type of effects pedal, for example, is the Wah-Wah, made famous by Jimi Hendrix and others. Other common effects pedals are Delay, Chorus, and Flanger.

Electric Guitar – a guitar that utilizes electricity in order to be amplified. Electric guitars, out of necessity, have pick-ups and need to be plugged in to an amplifier via a cable.

Pedal Board - A board, typically custom-built, that houses and secures all the guitarist's favorite pedals. It is not uncommon for a pedal board to have 30 pedals...yes, they can get very heavy.

Term & definition contributed by Gary Hunter

Pick – guitar-slang for plectrum, which is never used (please don’t try to dig up that inflated term in an attempt to be cool). A pick is used by the guitarist to strike the strings. The hand closest to the Bridge of the guitar holds the pick. Verbal example: “I need to try some new picks; these wear down too quickly.”

By the way, If you say to someone that you need a new plectrum they might look at you intently for a brief moment before collapsing on the floor in laughter.

Pick Guard - typically plastic, an partial shield for the body of the guitar intended to protect it from various marks of wear and tear imposed on the instrument by it's owner. Look at Willie Nelson's long-time acoustic guitar and you'll know what I mean. John Mayer's electric, too.

Term & definition donated by Gary Hunter

Rack – A rack full of various digital effects (analog effects usually come as pedals or ‘stomp boxes’) used to enhance the guitarist's sound. Electric guitarists, out of all, are known for elaborate racks.

Rig – guitar amplifier and effects, if any (including a rack).

Example: The real test of any guitarist--especially electric--is how he or she sounds when they're away from their rig.

Solid-State Amplifier – an amplifier that uses a transistor rather than tubes. Much more affordable and lighter than a tube amp, BUT known for a thin-bodied, non-robust sound. Well, like the song says, two outta three aint bad. Aint that so, Meatloaf?

String-Winder – self-explanatory. Prices vary from $1.00 (the plastic ones that look like they came out of a Crayola box) to $30.00 and probably more. Definitely more if it has bling on it.

Talk Box - an effects unit that allows the guitarist to modify the original signal of the electric or electric-acoustic guitar by speaking or singing into the hose part of the unit. The guitarist's verbalizations combine with the original signal and produce one of the most unique sounds in guitardom.

More specifically, the sound produced by using a talk box is very close to a wah-wah. In fact, the sound could be said to be a 'talking wah'. The talk box is often confused with a non-guitar effect, the vocoder. Guitarists Peter Frampton, Joe Walsh, and Jeff Beck are known for their use of the talk box.

Term & definition contributed by Gary Hunter

Tube – an essential part for a tube amplifier.

Tube Amplifier – a thing that uses tubes. Just kidding, even though it’s true. But seriously, don’t you hate when dictionaries do what I just did? And they do it all the time.

A tube amplifier, as opposed to a solid-state amp, is known for its warmth, as well as its much higher price and extra weight.

Tuner – Not the ones on the headstock, but the one that is separate from the guitar. Verbal example: “I misplaced my tuner last night after having JD on the rocks.” During rehearsal and before a performance it is good for all instruments to tune up using one of these. If not you (and your band) may not be asked back.

Wah-Wah Pedal - a very popular effects pedal that allows the guitarist to dramatically control his or her tone. After being turned on, when the pedal is "up" the guitar's tone has the most bass; when "down" it has the most treble and clarity.

Guitarists known for their use of wah-wah are Jimi Hendrix, Johnny "Guitar" Watson, Joe Satriani and Steve Vai, and--more recently--Slash and Zakk Wylde among others. Wah is typically employed in rock, blues, and heavy metal genres.


Action – the height of the strings from the fretboard. Too high and it’s hard to play. Too low and the strings buzz away.

Arch-Top - also known as a 'jazz box', this was the guitar of the late 1940s and 50s. Archtops are known for their super-low action and huge bodies (and even larger price-tags). Benedetto, Gibson, and many other brands are available. Arch-tops are still in vogue today, particularly among jazz guitarists.

The term 'arch-top' is also used for guitars with a non-flat top, such as the Gibson Les Paul and most Paul Reed Smith (PRS) models.

Definition augmented by John Russchen

Axe – guitar. Verbal example: “Sweet axe, dude.” Realize you are getting complimented regarding your instrument and not necessarily your playing.

Bridge-Hand – the hand holding the pick and doing the strumming. For left-handed players this is the left hand. Gotcha thinkin’ there a little bit, huh…

Fret-Hand – the hand on the guitar fretboard. For right-handed players this is the left hand.

Hollow Body - an electric guitar with a hollow body, such as an Archtop or 'jazz box'. The bodies of such guitars tend to be larger than solid-body guitars.

Term & definition contributed by Gary Hunter

Neck-Through Body - a guitar, such as the (lovely) Fender Showmaster where the body and neck of the guitar are the same piece of wood. Carvin, PRS, Jackson, and many other brands offer neck-through-body designs.

Term & definition contributed by Gary Hunter

Pick – guitar-slang for plectrum (now you know). A pick is used by the guitarist to strike the strings. The hand closest to the Bridge of the guitar holds the pick. Verbal example: “Do people actually use those large, brightly-colored, triangular picks?”

Rack – an effects rack. What’s that? A rack full of various digital effects (analog effects usually come as pedals or ‘stomp boxes’) used to enhance the guitarist's sound. Electric guitarists, out of all, are known for elaborate racks.

Rig – guitar amplifier and effects, if any (including a rack). Verbal example: “I’m having problems with my rig after last night's gig was rained out.” Uh oh.

Semi-Hollow Body - smaller and lighter than a hollow body guitar. Perhaps the best example is Gibson's ES335, made famous by guitarists BB King and Larry Carlton, among many other fine players.

Term & definition contributed by Gary Hunter

Solid-Body - the smallest of the electric guitar family, Gibson's Les Paul model and Fender's Stratocaster being the most famous examples. These types of guitars depend more on electric amplification than Hollow and Semi-Hollows. In other words, when a solid-body is not amplified don't expect much, sound-wise.

Term & definition contributed by Gary Hunter

Stomp-Box - an effects pedal. Verbal example: "Sir, I stomped on my stomp-box and it wouldn't turn on. Then I jumped on it and am afraid its broken. I believe I'm in a bit of a bind."

String-Guage - the thickness of a guitar string, measured in thousandths of an inch. For example, a "pack of 9s" or "9-guage' strings" are strings starting with a high E string that is 0.009 inches in diameter. Verbal example: "I'm switching to '10s'. '9s' just aren't holding up under my ferocious strumming."

Term & definition contributed by Gary Hunter

Whammy Bar (see Vibrato Bar) - axe-slinger slang for the Vibrato Bar (often erroneously called the Tremolo Bar).


Body – the largest part of the guitar, upon which the Bridge is placed.

Bridge – the part of the guitar where the strings ‘end’ (or begin, depending on how you see it) and very close to where strumming takes place. Bridges are typically metal on electric guitars and wooden on acoustic guitars.

Fret – a metal strip that goes across the fingerboard. Technically, guitarists always playbehind the frets; never on them. Frets are typically cut from a single piece of fretwire.

Fretboard or Fingerboard – the top of the Neck of the guitar where all the action is (pun intended for those who get it).

Headstock – the “top” of the guitar where the tuners and tuning pegs are located.

Neck – Should be self-explanatory. This is where chords and scales are made (technically, they are played by the bridge-hand).

Nut - the part of the guitar, just below the headstock, where the fretboard begins. In other words on most guitars the nut is the “zero fret” even though, technically, it is not a fret.

Pick-Ups (sometimes referred to as “pups”, especially in online forums) – the part, on an electric or acoustic-electric guitar, that rests directly under the strings. Typically, electric guitars have two or three pick-ups, the height of which can be adjusted (this is the distance from the strings).

Sound-Hole – the part of the acoustic guitar that serves as natural amplification. The sound-hole is in the body of the instrument.

Tone Knob - one of the natural effects available on most electric guitars, this control allows the guitarist to change the tone of one or more pick-ups. The pick-up can be made to sound more 'watery' or 'trebly' with this natural effect.

Tremolo Bar (see Tremolo, Vibrato, and Vibrato Bar) - incorrectly named (see definition for Tremolo), the right name for this natural effect available on some electric guitars is Vibrato Bar. It is a metal lever attached the guitar's bridge, allowing the guitarist to alter the pitch of any note on any string. A common brand of vibrato bar bridge, made famous by Edward Van Halen, is the Floyd Rose system.

Term & definition contributed by Lila Karash

Tuners – the parts, on the guitar’s headstock, where the strings ‘end’ (or begin, depending on how you see it). The tuning pegs, connected to the tuners, are used for manual tune up of the instrument. String Winders are available if you’re just not up to doing it yourself.

Tuning Pegs – Just turn and tune. Which is the right direction? This depends on the type and brand of guitar you have and what type of headstock is on it. In other words, trial and error, baby. The golden rule: turn a little at a time so the strings don’t go POP.

Vibrato Bar - often wrongly called a tremolo bar. A metal lever attached the bridge of an electric guitar, allowing the guitarist to alter the pitch of any note on any string. A common brand of vibrato bar bridge, made famous by Edward Van Halen, is the Floyd Rose system.

Volume Knob - a natural effect available on all electric guitars, the purpose of which is self-explanatory. The guitarist can create many sounds with the volume knob, including the imitation of a violin or cello, for example, by picking a note with the volume down, immediately increasing the volume with the bridge-hand pinky (little finger), and repeating this process for other notes.

MUSICAL TERMS (including Scales and Chords)

Aeolian Mode - the sixth mode, or relative minor of the Major scale. If, for example, the Major scale is C (C D E F G A B), the relative minor / Aeolian mode is A minor (A B C D E F G). The Aeolian mode is also a scale, namely, the Natural Minor Scale.

For the purpose of fluency it is also good to compare modes to scales while keeping the same root note. For example, with C as the tonic (root note) the notes of the Aeolian mode / minor scale are: C D Eb F G Ab Bb.

Diatonic Scale (see Major scale) - Perhaps better and more simply termed the "Major scale", this is the seven-note scale upon which Western Harmony is traditionally based. 'Diatonic' means two tonics (dia is Greek for two), and refers to the tonic as well as the note that begins the relative minor scale. For example, the 'two tonics' of the C Major scale are: C and A (as the latter is the start-note for the relative minor scale, A minor).

The problem with this title is that many scales are diatonic. Let's look at the C Major Pentatonic scale, for example: C D E G A. The two tonics of that scale are C and A. A minor Pentatonic is the relative minor scale to this scale. Another example is E Melodic minor: E F# G A B C# D#. The relative major to that scale is G Lydian #5: G A B C# D# E F#.

Dorian Mode - the second mode of the Major scale. For example, if the Major scale is C (C D E F G A B), the Dorian mode begins on D (D E F G A B C).

Since it has a minor 3rd (b3), Dorian is best compared to the Minor scale (same as the Natural Minor scale). In this light, dorian is seen as a minor scale with a natural 6th. For example, with C as the tonic (root note) the notes of the Dorian mode are: C D Eb F G A Bb.

Half-Step - also known as the interval of a minor 2nd, movement of a half-step is one fret on the guitar in either direction.

Major Scale - the seven-note scale upon which Western Harmony is traditionally based. The Major scale is organized into the following consecutive intervals: whole-step (major 2nd), whole-step, half-step (minor 2nd), whole-step, whole-step, whole-step, and half-step, or W, W, H, W, W, W, H. On the guitar, a half-step is one fret in either direction and a whole-step is two frets in either direction.

The scale degrees for the Major scale are: 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, and 7. For example, in the key of C the notes are: C D E F G A and B.

The Major scale is a parent scale, meaning each note branches off into its own mode, or sub-scale. The tonic--the first note of the scale--is also the starting note for the Ionian mode; the second note of the scale is the starting-note for the Dorian mode; the third note of the scale starts the Phrygian mode; the fourth note starts the Lydian mode; the fifth, Mixolydian; the sixth, Aeolian; and the seventh, Locrian. Because of the tonalities of these modes, they can be easily categorized into major and minor modes:

  • Major modes: Ionian (no alteration), Lydian (#4), and Mixolydian (b7)
  • Minor modes: Aeolian (no alteration), Dorian (natural 6), Phrygian (b2), and Locrian (b2, b5).

The alterations shown are relevant to the category the mode is in (in other words, whether it's major or minor).

Major Pentatonic Scale - a five-note scale that excludes the 4th and 7th of the Major scale (a seven-note scale). The resulting scale degrees are: 1, 2, 3, 5, and 6. In the key of C, for example, this would be: C D E G A.

Term contributed by John Russchen

Minor Pentatonic Scale - a five-note scale that excludes the 2nd and 6th of the minor scale (a seven-note scale). The resulting scale degrees are: 1, b3, 4, 5, and b7. In the key of C, for example, this would be: C Eb F G Bb.

Term contributed by John Russchen

Mixolydian Mode - the fifth mode of the 'diatonic scale'. For example, if the Major scale is C (C D E F G A B), the Mixolydian mode begins on G (G A B C D E F).

Since it has a major 3rd, Mixolydian is best compared to the Major scale. In this light, the mode is seen as a Major scale with a flatted 7th (b7). For example, with C as the tonic (root note) the notes of the Mixolydian mode are: C D E F G A Bb.

Mode - a sub-scale of a parent scale. For example, the dorian mode is the second mode (or sub-scale) of the Major scale.

Octave - an interval of an 8th, resulting in two notes of the same name, with one note being twelve half-steps higher than the other. On a traditionally-tuned guitar it is common for octaves to be played by skipping a string in-between.

In other words, octaves are easily available on the low E and D strings; A and G strings; D and B strings; and G and high E strings. Played in this way, the fret-hand 1st finger commonly plays the lower note.

Parent scale - a scale. However, in the context of modes this title might be a preferred since modes can be seen as being derived from a scale: the parent scale. The diatonic parent scales are Major (the Ionian mode) and minor (the Aeolian mode).

Pitch - the frequency of a note. For example, A440--or concert A--is 440 hz, or 440 cycles per second. The pitch of a note is said to be 'high' or 'low' in relation to another note. A440, for example, is higher then middle C on the piano (the same as the 1st fret, B string on the guitar).

Root Note (see Tonic) - same as the tonic, or the starting note of a scale or mode.

Scale - a fixed set of pitches that remains the same through the range of many octaves. Scales differ from modes in that modes come from scales. Also keep in mind that some modes are scales themselves, such as the Ionian mode (the Major scale) and Aeolian mode (the minor scale).

Sub-scale - a mode.

Tone - the quality of a note, rather than its pitch. A note can said to be 'bassy' and 'round', or the opposite: 'trebly', 'bright' and 'clear'. The guitar is perhaps the most tone-expressive instrument, since it allows the playing of the same note / notes in multiple fretboard positions. Each position offers a different tone for that same note or group of notes.

Tonic (see Root Note) - same as the root note, or the starting note of a scale or mode.

Tremolo (see Tremolo Picking in TECHNIQUES) - rapidly playing many of the same note. On the guitar this technique is known as Tremolo Picking. Bachata and other Spanish styles of guitar, Surf guitar (made famous by guitarist Dick Dale), and newer genres such as Viking Metal all make heavy use of tremolo picking.

Whole-Step - also known as the interval of a Major 2nd, movement of a whole-step is two frets on the guitar in either direction.


Alternate Picking - known also as 'up and down' picking, this bridge-hand technique allows for more rapid playing than strict down-picking. Guitarists Al DiMeola, John McLaughlin, Pat Martino, Yngwie Malmsteen, Vinnie Moore, Steve Morse, and John Petrucci--among others--are known for their prowess at alternate picking.

Barre – playing more than one note on the same fret with the same finger. Chords with barred notes are called barre chords.

Barre-Roll (also see Reverse Barre-Roll) - playing more than one note on the same fret with the same finger, BUT rolling from one string to the next so that each note stops before the other begins. Barre-rolls are always from lower strings to higher strings.

Down-Picking - a bridge-hand technique where only downward pickstrokes are used to strike the strings. Because of the wrist angle on the bridge-hand, down-strokes sound slightly different than upstrokes. This makes it appropriate, at times, for the guitarist to employ down-picking rather than alternate picking even if he or she is familiar with both. Therefore, alternate picking should not be seen as a substitute for down-picking since they are different techniques and result in different sounds.

Hammer-on - striking a string on the desired fret by using a finger of the fret-hand (the bridge-hand is not needed to play the note). Traditionally, a hammer-on occurs immediately after a picked or plucked note. Consecutive hammer-ons are where one, two, or even three notes are sounded in the manner described above.

Term contributed by John Russchen

Hammer-on 'from nowhere' - coined by Edward Van Halen. Unlike traditional hammer-ons, a hammer-on from nowhere has no previously plucked / picked note.

Harmonic (also called a flageolet) - a bell-like sound available at different locations on any guitar string. Natural harmonics are the series of harmonics available on each open string. The most prominent natural harmonics are found at the twelfth fret, or the string's halfway point. The next loudest set of natural harmonics is found at the seventh fret. The fifth fret and nineteenth frets also offer natural harmonics, as do other frets.

Flageolet definition contributed by John Russchen

To play a natural harmonic the guitarist needs to place any fret-hand finger above the metal fret at the desired position, but not press down. The finger is then removed when the 'bell-like' sound of the natural harmonic is heard. Natural harmonics are equally employed by guitarists of all styles.

Natural Harmonic - see Harmonic (above)

Pinch Harmonic – a technique where an artificial harmonic is executed by pinching the string with the bridge-hand thumb and forefinger / pick at the precise location on the string where the harmonic resides. This location changes, of course, depending on the position of the fretted note. By the way, open strings can be pinched as well. Just make sure you ask ahead of time.

Pull-off - the 'opposite' of a hammer-on and frequently used with it: after a note is picked / plucked, any finger of the fret-hand may be used to sound the next note on the same string by pulling on that string. Like hammer-ons, pull-offs can be consecutive so that up to three notes at a time may be played this way.

Term contributed by John Russchen

Right-Hand Tapping - technically a bridge-hand hammer-on, this technique was made famous--but not invented--by Edward Van Halen. A bridge-hand finger, typically the index or second, is used to tap a note on the fretboard. Ace Frehley and the late Frank Zappa are among other pre-Van Halen guitarists known for this technique.

Today it is not uncommon to see players use their bridge-hand index, second, and third fingers to execute complex "right"-hand tapping patterns. Some players, such as Stanley Jordan, Jeff Watson and TJ Helmerich, use all digits of the bridge-hand (except the thumb) in their use of this technique.

Term contributed by John Russchen

Strum – a (typically) quick drag of the pick across all or most of the strings (typically at least three) in a downward and upward motion. In ballads strums can be slow. Also, a pick is not needed to strum.

Sweep – a fluid motion, usually executed with a pick, where the strings are struck consecutively downward or upward. I say "usually" because the late, great Wes Montgomery would use this technique occasionally.

Verbal example: “I am proud to inform you, my dear students, that my sweeps excel all of yours in accuracy, speed, and creativity.”

Tremolo Picking (see Tremolo) - a bridge-hand technique where the same note is picked rapidly. This technique can be randomized or quantized (where a set number of repetitions is played per beat). For non-Classical players, tremolo picking can be done by rapid alternate picking.


Open String - any string played at the nut of the guitar, or any string of the guitar played without the fret-hand on the neck. This includes the use of a capo since that device changes the position of the nut.

Position - the placement of the guitarist's first finger at any given moment in time determines the fretboard position he or she is in. Playing positions on the guitar are notated with a Roman Numeral, particularly in written music for Classical guitar.

By the way, feel free to add any terms I’ve missed. Even better if you provide a definition, for which I’ll be sure to give you credit for after adding it.



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