Physics of Electric Guitars

Physics of Electric Guitars

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Electric guitars play a very important role in today's music. Without it, we would be stuck with the acoustic guitar, which has limited volume, and a narrow range of sounds it can produce. Understanding just exactly how the electric guitar works isn't as intuitive as with the acoustic. With this website, I attempt to brighten the knowledge people have on the physics behind the electric guitar, since one cannot appreciate something, truly, until he knows how it works.

The Acoustic guitar, originating from Spain, has been around since the 1500s. It wasn't till the 1920's with the advent of swing and big band music that musicians needed louder instruments. The acoustic guitar, even with steel strings, was simply too quiet.

At this time, Los Angeles musicians, George Beauchamp and John Dopyera started working on figuring out how to make the acoustic guitar louder. After a few failures, Dopyera came up with the idea to put aluminum disks onto the body of the acoustic guitar. These disks would then resonate and increase the volume about 3 to 5 times. In 1927, the two founded the National String Instrument Co., which patented this resonator design. Due to internal problems, Dopyera fired Beauchamp in 1930 and then eventually even sold the company, patenting the resonator with his brother under a new company named "Dobro".

Beauchamp, a bit unhappy about being fired, set out to figure out a different way to increase the volume of the guitar. Even before, as early as 1925, he had been experimenting with phonograph needles and produced a single string electric guitar that would "pick up" the vibration in the string and turn it into sound. He then started experimenting with ways to pick-up the vibration of all 6 strings, each string seperately. After months of experimentation he and Paul Barth developed a working pick-up made of 2 horse-shoe magnets and 6 coils of wire with electric current running through them.

With this new pick-up, Beauchamp had Harry Watson carve a body for his first electric guitar. They called this the "Frying Pan" due to its similar shape. This was the first guitar fitted with an electric pick-up.

Around the same time, Llyod Loar, acoustical engineer for Gibson, had started marketing a new Spanish style acoustic electric guitar. Loar, famous for the mandolin, headed the subdivision of Gibson responsible for producing these guitars, named Vivi-Tone. This guitar actually failed, but had left the idea that acoustic guitars with electric pickups were the way to go for Gibson.

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These guitars were not without fault, however. The hollow body vibrations would also be picked up and amplified, causing unwanted noise, feedback, and distortion. Les Paul, a prominent Jazz musician, realized that using a solid body would be the way to avoid this. Using 2 pick-ups, similar to Beauchamps, fastened to a 4" x 4" piece of pine, he was able to make the base for the guitar, which gave it the name "the log". Then he attached two guitar shaped halves to make it look like a guitar. He took this idea to Gibson, but due to previous failures with solid body guitars, and their success with their new acoustic electric guitars, they declined his offer.

At this same time, Leo Fender had been working on a similar solid body electric guitar. Fender owned a radio repair shop and started loaning out his invention to musicians as early as 1943. In 1949, he started marketing the guitar as the "Esquire" which became the first successful solid body electric guitar. This model was then later renamed to "Broadcaster" and then finally to "Telecaster". The Fender Telecaster is a model still produced and sold by Fender.

In 1952, knowing of the Fender guitar's success, Gibson reconsidered Les Paul's "log" and even let him use his name for the model. This guitar set the industry standard for electric guitars and became one of the most sought after guitars of today, often selling for tens of thousands of dollars.

The idea of how the electric guitar works is very similar to phonographs and many other audio devices that have been around since the early 1900s if not the late 1800s. The idea is that a magnetic field is disturbed by something, be it the vibration of a string or the rough shape of the vinyl album, which is then translated by some device into sound.

The laws of physics governing electric currents and magnetic fields are not easilly summed up, but knowing just a few is enough to understand how it all works.

When a string is plucked, the string oscillates. The oscillations then affect the flux of the magnetic field produced by the pick-up. Flux can be summed up as the amount of flow through a surface or region. So, therefore, the amount of flux, or flow of magnetic attractions are disturbed. Faraday's law states that when there is a change in the flux of a magnetic field, an electric field is produced. The oscillation of the string continually changes the flux of the magnetic field, therefore creating different patterns of electric fields which produce the current that flows through the wire to the amplifier, which then produces a sound wave with the frequency proportional to the current.

The actual current in a wire doesnt just flow in one direction, it actually flows in both, backwards and forwards. Current that comes from most normal wall outlets is alternating current. The name implies exactly that, the current alternates in direction. The oscillation in the string directly effects the rate at which the current alternates.

The purpose of the pickup is to create an electric current from the mechanical vibration of the steel guitar strings.

A coil is wound around a permanent magnet, and the string passes through the magnetic field that is generated. The disturbance from the oscillation of the string changes the flux, or strength, of the magnetic field. This change in flux then creates an electric current that moves through the coil of wire and finally to the amplifier.

The small magnet and coil of wire are called a Bobbin. There is a bobbin under each string. This way the magnetic fields are seperately concentrated under each string. This eliminates extra unwanted noise and distortion that occurs when simply amplifying and acoustic guitar.

The actual working of the bobbin is quite intricate. The movement of the steel ferromagnetic string inside the magnetic field changes the flux in the bobbin. This change in flux created by the AC current running through the coil of wire is opposite that of the change in flux created by the movement of the string in the magnetic field. The actual movement of the string is what creates the Alternating current rather than a Direct current. The string moves towards and away from the magnet, decreasing and increasing the flux of the magnetic field.

The actual movement of the guitar string isnt simply in the vertical direction (towards and away from the bobbin). The string actually rotates in an elliptical pattern. The string therefore moves both horizontally and vertically. The vertical nature is that the string moves away and towards the bobbin, increasing and decreasing the flux of the magnet. The horizontal nature is that it moves closer to the center of the magnet and further away, also increasing and decreasing the flux of the magnetic field. This results in increasing and decreasing the current two times, which when amplified is twice the frequency of a normal sound wave. The produced signal therefore is much more complex than that of a simple amplified acoustic guitar.

There are many benefits of using electric guitars as opposed to acoustic guitars.

The acoustic guitar has a limited volume, where as the electric guitar can be amplified to be as loud as possible. Acoustic guitars can be amplified as well but that increases the volume of the unwanted noise. Usually, the louder the amplification is on an acoustic guitar, the more chance there is of feedback, which comes across as a loud annoying wail. The signal the electric guitar sends isn't a direct translation of the sound the string makes, but rather is based on the actual mechanical vibration of the string. This eliminates amplifying any random sounds the string or guitar might make.

Electric guitars can also be easilly modified to make sounds never available to the acoustic guitar. The acoustic guitar has its own rich sound, but the range of sounds the electric guitar produces is infinite. Altering the electric signal the guitar sends to the amplifier is easilly done. The sound the pickup produces can also be changed by simply adjusting the position of the pickup underneath the strings. This is why most guitars have more than one pickup, not because more than one is needed to pickup the vibration, but because it allows the guitar player to adjust which pickups are used. A pickup close to the bridge of the guitar produces a much more bright and high pitched metallic sound as opposed to closer to the neck which produces a more bassy and powerful sound. By simply adjusting which pickups are used, a more diverse range of sounds can be created.

Many guitar produced today have a combination of 2 or 3 pickups along with a switch that lets the player control which ones are being used. Most Gibson guitars have 2 pickups, one near the neck and one near the bridge. They each have their own tone and volume adjustment knobs and there is a switch that turns either both or each one on seperately. Fenders on the other hand have 3 pickups with a 5 position switch, with bridge pickup, bridge and center, all three, center and neck, and just neck pickups. Each position has a different tone and sound.

The actual amount of wire coiled around each bobbin also has an effect on the sound that is produced. The actual resistance in the wire can also change and change the amound of amplification needed for each guitar.

The number of things that can alter the sound the pickup produces is uncountable, allowing a vast range of sounds that the electric guitar can produce. Without it, modern music wouldn't be the way it is today.

A single coil pickup, which I have shown on the other pages, is where there is a single coil of wire around a single pole (under each string). This magnetic system also, in addition to producing an electric current, acts as a very efficient antenna. This coil of wire takes radiation out of the air. Radiation is always around us all the time, be it from the 60 cycle AC current in the building wiring, or the noise from fluorescent lights. The single coil pickup will therefor pickup this noise and produce a nasty little hum along with the vibration of the string.

In 1955 a Gibson engineer, Seth Lover, invented the Humbucker pickup. The pickup actually cancels out the hum picked up by single coils. The humbucker has 2 coils and has an additional magnet or set of magnets, or even magnetically charged poles, on opposite ends of a single magnet. The two coils are wound with opposite electrical polarity and the magnetic polarity is also reversed. Each of these coils carries two electric signals, the intentional vibration signal, and the unintentional noise thats picked up. The polarity of the wanted signal is dependent on both the polarity of the magnet and the direction of the winding, whereas the unwanted noise is independent of the magnets and depends only on the direction of the winding. Therefore, the noise signal is cancelled, eliminating the hum.

Most humbuckers are wider than single coils, although there are stacked humbuckers available which look similar to single coil pickups, only taller.

Most fender guitars that come with 3 pickups, actually use the middle pickup as an effective humbucker. The polarity of this middle pickup is opposite that of the neck and bridge pickups.

The most recent development in pickups are the new optical pickups. They actually use a laser that is directed onto the string. When the string moves, the laser can detect the amount of movement and translate it to a current. This completely eliminates all unwanted noise that even magnets have.

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