Physics of an Acoustic Guitar

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Physics of an Acoustic Guitar

I have been watching my husband play the guitar in a band for five years and he has made it look so easy to make such beautiful music. Most guitar players have progressed with the technology of electric guitars, but when my husband picks up an acoustic guitar and starts to play a song for just me, I hear his love for me in the sounds that he produces. Imagine my surprise when a physics class conveyed to me that there was much more to his playing than I had imagined.

The sound that a guitar makes is easily recognizable to many people because the physics of the acoustic guitar is mostly universal. The noticeable distinctions are the result of various wavelengths and the harmonics that are created by the sounds of the strings on the guitar. The different sizes, tension, and lengths of the strings control these wavelengths. Even by the various guitar body compositions affect the sounds that we hear.

An acoustic guitar has 6 strings that are attached to the top, called the head, and continue down the neck of the guitar to a plate on the body, called the bridge. One end of the string lays on a raised bar on the head of the guitar, called a nut, and the other end lays on a raised bar on the bridge of the guitar, called a saddle.1 Strumming a string on the guitar, either with a pick or with your fingers, causes it to vibrate. These vibrations are waves and they “travel in both directions along the string and reflect back and forth from the fixed ends.”2 As the waves pass through each other from end to end, they create the different harmonics or overtones that are unique to the sound of the guitar.

A node is present on a wave when the string is in its original position. Therefore, where the ...

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... Harcourt College Publishers, Orlando, 2001, p. 366.

6 Marshall Brain, “How Acoustic Guitars Work,” Howstuffworks, March 18, 2003, <http://people.howtuffworks.com/guitar.html> (1998-2003).

7 Kelly Hensley, Manager and Lead Guitar Player for Ace High Band, Interview by author, April 4, 2003.

8 Sam Hokin, “The Guitar,” The Physics of Everyday Stuff, by Sam Hokin, March 18, 2003, <http://www.bsharp.org/physics/stuff/guitar.html> (February 6, 2002).

9 Kelly Hensley, Manager and Lead Guitar Player for Ace High Band, Interview by author, April 4, 2003.

10 Marshall Brain, “How Acoustic Guitars Work,” Howstuffworks, March 18, 2003, <http://people.howtuffworks.com/guitar.html> (1998-2003).

11 Joe Wolfe, “How does a guitar work?” Research in Guitar Acoustics, March 24, 2003, <http://newt.phys.unsw.edu.au/music/guitar/intro_engl.html> (1997-2002).

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