10 Guitar Terms to Help You Get Your Strum On

If you’re first stepping into the vast world of the electric guitar, you’ll have a steep learning curve ahead of you, and not just notes and chords. There are terms you’ll learn from your Hal Leonard method books, and there are words you won’t find there but still need to know.

Basic Terms

Language acquisition is a natural, largely unconscious process that requires nothing more than continuous exposure to meaningful and understandable input. This process is similar to that of all human beings when they learn their mother tongue in their childhood.

 

1. Barre chord

A barre chord is a movable chord. The term comes from the French word barre, which means “closed off.” The chord is played by laying your left index finger across two or more strings, then using your other three fingers to push other strings down to make a chord. 

 

Because the index finger covers the strings, no open strings get played, so we can move the chord up and down the fretboard. If you know the root note of the barre chord, you can play that same fingering anywhere on the guitar and produce a different chord. This is a very useful chord, but it’s tough for newbies to get the hang of because it’s pretty demanding physically.

2. Power Chord

Like barre chords, power chords often use the index finger in the same manner, but what makes it a power chord is that it uses only the root and the fifth of the chord. It’s widespread in rock music. A great example of the power chord in action is ZZ Top’s classic “La Grange.”

3. Lead vs. Rhythm

When you play rhythm guitar, you play the chords of the song. When the singer sings, the guitars are usually playing rhythm behind him. 

 

Lead guitar involves playing solos. In this clip of Pink Floyd’s “Comfortably Numb,” at about the 2:12 mark, David Gilmour plays lead when he rips into that classic solo. The guitars you hear strummed in the background are playing rhythm guitar behind it.

Guitar Anatomy

While strings, frets, and necks are terms we mostly know without having them explained to us, we need to know other guitar parts and accessories. Here are two of those, and it’s the rare electric guitarist that never uses either one.

4. Whammy Bar

Properly referred to as a tremolo arm, the whammy bar is a small piece of metal attached to the guitar’s bridge. Pushing and pulling the whammy bar allows for manipulating the pitch beyond just pressing the strings down at the frets. 

 

Eddie Van Halen makes excellent use of the whammy bar in his famous solo “Eruption.” When he’s not tapping on the strings with his right hand, you can see him reach for the whammy bar and really work the pitches.

5. Capo

Often used to allow a guitarist to play in a different key, the capo clamps onto the guitar neck and essentially shortens all the strings. This allows you to play a piece in a different key while still playing the chords you know.

 

There are countless styles and varieties of capos out there, and every player has their preferred type, but this Fender capo (available from Amazon.com) is a great starting place for exploring what they are and how they work.

Technique

There are so many different techniques for playing the guitar beyond just strumming it with your pick. Even using a pick is a technique, and there are other ways to make your instrument sing.

6. Hammer-on

A hammer-on is a way to play a note on your guitar without plucking the string. To execute a hammer-on, first, pluck a string while with one finger on a fret. The actual hammering comes when you put another finger down on the same string hard enough to make the new note ring without plucking the string a second time.

7. Pull-off

Pull-offs are the opposite of hammer-ons. If you’ve just done the hammer-on as described above, do it in reverse. Your string is already ringing from either plucking it or hammering onto it. Lift your finger off the fretboard while leaving your other finger in place. The note you plucked will give way to the new note you create when you lift your finger.

 

Slang

Musicians can be an insular group, and a key part of the seemingly impenetrable nature of music is the slang that players use. You may think you know what an axe is, but you won’t find a sharp-bladed tool in very many rehearsal rooms, so here are a few slang words you’ll want to know.

8. Axe

Your axe is your guitar. But “axe” can refer to other instruments, as well. Sax players call their horns axes, and so do bass players. While the term is widespread, there are lots of theories as to how it got started. Most likely, it came about in the 1950s when jazz was king and sax players were gods. Perhaps because “axe” rhymes with “sax,” but we may never know.

9. Riff (or Lick)

A riff or a lick is the electric guitar’s bread and butter. A song’s hook is often the catchiest and most singable line, and the riff is the guitar’s version of it. When aspiring guitarists decide to take up the instrument, it’s often because they heard a riff that caught their ear and made them think, “I want to do THAT.” 

 

The riff usually occurs repeatedly throughout a song. Among the more famous riffs come from David Bowie’s “Rebel Rebel,” the opening riff of Pearl Jam’s “Alive,” and one of the greatest riffs of all time, The Rolling Stones’ “(I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction.”

10. Tab

“Tab” is short for “tablature,” a notation system that shows a guitarist which fingers to use on the strings. Rather than a five-line staff used in traditional music notation, tablature uses six lines, each corresponding to a guitar string. Rather than use note heads, tablature uses a number as a note head, representing the fret on which the note is played.

 

Find a comparison image here to see how tab and standard notation look side by side. 

Wrapping Up

There are far more than just ten terms, but these are ones that every electric guitarist will encounter and should know pretty well. The more you play, and the more you learn, the more terms will come your way. Each time you learn a new one, you’re that much farther along as a player.