Vocabulary – Part 10

Gain: An adjustment to the input signal amplitude made before sending the signal through to the rest of the component. This helps to establish a strong enough signal for the rest of the component to manipulate properly. For example, the pre-amp stage in a mixer or guitar amp will generally have a gain control. There are two important considerations when manipulating the gain. First, the higher the gain, the higher the noise floor. That is, even a small amount of noise will get amplified along with the desired signal and since there is an overall upper bound, you are left with a smaller useful dynamic range. Second, it is easy to raise the gain and cause clipping in the rest of the component. In analog components, having the gain high enough to start clipping results in an often pleasing “overdriven” sound. Overdriving the pre-amp on a tube-based amplifier has given a lot of rock and roll it’s signature sound. That said, outside of blues and rock guitar a clean sound is often preferred. In digital components, clipping is generally far from pleasing, even on guitar signals.

Volume: An adjustment to the output amplitude just before a signal leaves the component. Used to ensure the level is appropriate for the next step in the signal chain. In components that push the signal to speakers, this is the adjustment that has the most direct effect on the level of the sound from the speakers.

Level: Also known as the sound pressure level, or SPL, this is the amount of air being moved by sound waves. It is generally measured in decibels.

Loudness: A term used to describe the perception of the sound. Basically, humans do not hear all frequencies that are at the same level as being just as loud as one another. Very generally speaking, lower frequencies need to be at a higher level to be perceived as the same volume as a higher frequency. However, human loudness perception it is not a smooth curve. Typically, there are a couple of “humps”. The first is at around 400-500 Hz. The second is sharper and is at around 4000-5000 Hz.

Syncopation: Syncopation occurs when the emphasis of a measure or phrase is moved off of the beat. An example would be modern dance music, which emphasizes the up-beats of each measure. Another example would be a drum fill that is predominately not on the actual beats of a measure. This emphasis shift is very common in music, often used to break monotony or throw in “a little something extra” into a song to help make a part or section stand out or really pop. More interesting is that the same rhythm can be played either syncopated or not, providing a different sound for each version.

The Guitar Wheel: This is a nifty tool to learn chords, relative keys, and other music theory, both for guitar specifically and for music in general.

String Selection: There are many considerations to think about when selecting strings for your Guitar and/or Bass. There are many types of guitars which utilize different types of strings. For example, an acoustic guitar has different considerations than an electric and even within acoustics there are different types (Concert and Grand Concert, Auditorium and Grand Auditorium, Dreadnought, Jumbo, Travel and Mini-Acoustics, classical, etc.) for which there are different string considerations. For our purpose we’ll focus on electric guitar and Bass. Even though there are still different types of electrics the common considerations are:

  • Gauge: (or Thickness) – For both electric bass and guitar there are five main string gauge classifications: Extra Super light, Super Light, Light, Medium, and Heavy for guitars; Ultra Light, Light, Medium, Heavy, and Extra Heavy for bass. The actual gauge of each is measured in thousands of an inch (e.g.: .038) and vary between manufacturers so do look at the actual sizes when you buy. Generally speaking, the lighter the gauge the easier the string is to play (needs less force to push on it), easier to bend, and are less tension on the guitar neck. They also present a brighter sound but have less sustain and volume than heavier strings. The heavier gauges take more force to play (more pressure to push), are harder to bend, and are more tension on the neck than lighter strings. However, they present more volume and sustain than lighter strings and provide a more pounding/driving sound – especially for bass. Some folks prefer to use lighter gauges on the higher strings (first, second, and third or E, B, and G) and heavier on the lower strings (fourth, fifth, and sixth or D, A, and E) to take advantage of the benefits of both. Manufacturers offer combination sets.
  • Material: Common materials for electrics are steel, nickel, nickel-plated, stainless steel, chrome, titanium, cobalt, and bronze. Steel and bronze are supposed to present a brighter sound with steel being a bit more crunchy and bronze being a little more on the cleaner side. Nickel is supposed to relay more warmth as is chrome although is has less resonance than nickel. Stainless obviously is more corrosion resistant with a crisper sound and Titanium should be stronger and present a brighter sound. Cobalt presents a brighter tone and is supposed to have better pickup response.
  • Winding type: There are three types of windings – Roundwound, Halfround, and Flatwound. Roundwound strings, or rounds are classic and are identifiable by the “ridges” on them. They are supposed to provide more sustain and bite but are the least forgiving with noise when finger sliding. Halfround strings are smoother feeling and present a richer tone but less attack than rounds. Flatwound strings are smooth to the touch, are less responsive overall, and provide a warmer smoother sound with less finger squeak. It is worth noting that on guitar, the high E and B strings are generally not wound, while the G string will be wound or not depending on the manufacturer, gauge, and other considerations. Bass strings are generally always wound.
  • Scale Length: This is the distance from the nut to the bridge and varies between manufacturer and guitar. Example scale lengths are the Fender 25-1/2 and Gibson 24-3/4. There are different qualities (E.g.: richer, warmer, stronger, more/less tension etc.) advertised for the different string lengths. However, for this string discussion the important thing to ensure is that you buy strings that match the scale length of your guitar.
  • Coated or Uncoated: Uncoated strings are just that. They are the materials listed above with no coating (not counting the nickel plated – that’s a different type of “coating” than this category) and have the qualities and characteristics mentioned above. Coated strings offer many advantages. They are less prone to grime build up so it takes longer for the effects of that build up to affect the sound. The last longer (read: need to replace less often!). Typically the coating is some kind of polymer. Colored coatings are also available. Thicker-coated strings are also better for fretless guitars and basses in that they are less harsh on the fingerboard but have the potential to affect the sound more than a thinner coated string. Coated strings also reduce finger squeak.


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