If you’ve ever wandered into a guitar store or overheard two or more guitarists in conversation, you can be forgiven for thinking they lapse, from time to time, into a foreign language. Talk of pots, pups, axes, and shredding may seem alien to the uninitiated, but these are slang for guitar with which most guitarists will eventually need to become familiar.
Beginner guitar player need not worry; you can learn to play very well without ever knowing that a “pup” is slang for a guitar pickup. Over time, though, these terms will likely become a part of your guitar vocabulary.
So, without further ado, here are a few of the most common slang words used to describe guitars, guitar parts, guitar sounds, and guitar techniques.
Slang Words For Guitar
“Well, I walk these streets, a loaded six-string on my back…,” thus begins the final verse of Bon Jovi’s “Wanted Dead or Alive.” Referring to the guitar as a six-string has become everyday slang.
Twelve-string guitars and, more recently, seven-string guitars have become very popular; the six-string guitar is still the most popular, though, and the instrument standard.
Axe (Or Ax)
A popular slang term for the electric guitar, “Ax,” or “Axe,” was initially used to describe the Jazz saxophone. It may have been because of the rhyme (sax, ax,) or it may have been because of the swinging motions many sax-men made while playing.
Whatever the origin of the term, it soon became applicable to the jazz trumpet as well. After being used by jazz musicians, later on, guitarists began referring to their guitars as axes too, and this time the phrase stuck.
A relatively recent Christmas Album featuring guitar remakes of holiday standards was titled “Merry Axemas.”
Generally speaking, there are three types of guitar: hollow body (acoustic), solid body (most electrics), and semi-hollow body.
The semi-hollow body guitar, a beautiful instrument a bit larger than the standard solid-body electric guitar, boasts violin style f-holes. These playable works of art are occasionally referred to as “jazz boxes.”
As popular as the jazz box is among players in that genre, it was probably Chuck Berry who brought the semi-hollow body guitar to the attention of popular music fans everywhere.
Sometimes, slang words hit the nail right on the head and need little explanation. A “Frankenstein,” as the name would suggest, refers to a guitar cobbled together from the unearthed lifeless remains of dead guitars. Okay, so the slang isn’t that perfect, but it does mean a guitar built from parts of others.
Indeed, this has been going on since electric guitars have been around, but the most popular Frankenstein guitar belonged to the late Eddie Van Halen. Friends of his would refer to his beaten, taped together, souped-up axes as “Frankensteins.” His most famous was the red and white model.
While “Frankenstein” as a proper noun refers to Eddie’s original axe, The Frankenstrat or Frankie, a “Frankenstein” can be any guitar that has been heavily modified to the extent that more than one fundamental part has been switched out.
Slang Describing Guitar Sounds
A “dirty” guitar sound refers to a distorted or overdriven sound with lots of feedback. This can be accomplished by raising the gain on the amplifier until the sound becomes “dirty.” Now this slang word is most common in rock music.
Today, countless effects pedals and modeling processers are designed to engineer perfectly dirty sound. Rumor has it The Kinks kicked holes in their guitar amplifiers to produce the distortion that became part of their signature sound.
A “clean” guitar sound is free of effects or any natural distortion or overdrive. A “clean” guitar should mimic, as closely as is possible, the sound of an acoustic guitar.
“Fuzz” is a particular kind of distortion that relies not so much on overdrive as on a severely clipped soundwave. Jimi Hendrix relied heavily on “fuzz,” as did the Rolling Stones and countless others.
Drop tunings such as “dropped D” and “dropped C” aren’t actually guitar slang words, but they come up enough in conversation among guitarists and can be confusing to the uninitiated.
“Dropped D” tuning is when the low “E” string is tuned down to a “D”. “Dropped C” tuning means every string, but the low “E” is tuned one whole tone down from standard tuning, and the low “E” is dropped two whole tones.
Slang Related To Guitar Techniques
Some slang words have become so popular they can barely be called slang. The term riff is one example. However, the proper term for a riff is actually an “ostinato.”
A relatively short, repeating piece of music, a riff is often the first thing that springs to mind when someone thinks of a riff-driven song. The most effective riffs are often simple-sounding and relatively simple to play. Think Nirvana’s “Smells Like Teen Spirit“, or the king of all riffs, Deep Purple’s “Smoke on the Water.”
Because effective riffs are often easy to play, and because they form the backbone of so many famous rock songs, they are a staple for beginner guitar players.
Like a guitar riff, a lick is a short, catchy guitar part. A lick differs from a riff, though, because a lick need not be repeating and is usually played at a higher pitch.
The opening of Jimi Hendrix’s “Purple Haze” and the intro to Eric Clapton’s “Layla” are two examples of highly-effective guitar licks.
Shredding, simply put, is guitar slang used to describe impressively fast playing. A “sweep picking” technique is often employed in “shredding,” but not always. Joe Satriani, Randy Rhoades, Sinister Gates of Avenged Sevenfold, George Lynch of Dokken, and Eddie Van Halen are good examples of guitar “shredders.”
Some websites claim the term “shredding” comes from the idea that playing the guitar so fast can shred the skin of the player’s fingers.
Personally, I’ve always understood shredding to mean shredding the wood off of the neck of the guitar, as is illustrated hysterically in Wierd Al’s video for “Eat It.”
Guitarist Slang For Guitar Parts
The “whammy” bar, used so brilliantly by some and abused terribly by others, is actually called a tremolo bar. A cylindrical metal bar connected to the tremolo bridge, a “whammy” bar allows a guitar player to bend the pitch of their strings up or down. The effects can be dramatic and often overly-so.
The whammy bar can add tons of feeling and flavor to a guitarist’s sound when used correctly. Perhaps the best example of someone who uses the bar brilliantly is the great Jeff Beck, who’s incorporated it into his signature sound.
Not all guitars are outfitted with tremolo bridge systems, and so not all have whammy bars.
Short for potentiometer, “pot,” or “pots” are guitarist slang terms for the volume and tone knobs on the body of an electric guitar. When twisted, the pot alters the electrical resistance of the circuit. As a result, the tone or volume is adjusted.
Jeff Beck, Dave Murray and Adrian Smith from Iron Maiden, and Dave Gilmour are good examples of guitarists who incorporate pot adjustment into their playing with impressive effect.
A “pup,” or “pups,” is guitar slang for a guitar’s pickups. Electric guitars work by using magnetic transducers to pick up vibrations from the strings. These transducers are known as pickups.
Pups come in various types, including single, coil, and humbucker, to name a few. Different pups produce different sounds, so you often hear of guitarists switching them out.
Guitarist Slang For Equipment
A guitarist’s “rig” can refer to one of two things. Most commonly, it means the entirety of a guitarist’s equipment, including guitars, amps, and effects (both rack and pedal.) It can also refer to the equipment a professional guitarist takes on the road at a particular time or uses to record a song.
While some guitarists jealously guard the specifics of their rigs and settings, many players who have developed a distinct signature sound share it with the world. Many even license companies to produce effects and modelers that imitate their sound.
Some guitarists use rigs not only for their signature sound but also for their band.
Other Slang Terms
“Serious case of GAS. I’ve got five more floating around somewhere beside these thirteen guitars”- this is not something that newbie guitar players will usually hear.
Here the G.A.S. acronym stands for Gear Acquisition Syndrome or Guitar Acquisition Syndrome.
In this G.A.S. situation, seasoned guitar players or musicians failed to withstand the enticement of collecting more guitar and music gear. “You can never have too many” – they reasons after buying.
When a band, especially a newer one, plays in a paid event or show where the crowd is too small (less than ten people), it feels more like a rehearsal session than an actual concert. Since the band gets paid for the show, it is ironically called a paid rehearsal.
So, there you have it, a guide to the most popular guitar slang words or phrases you should know. Practice these guitar-related terms and you’re sure to feel less alien around your guitar-playing friends and family. Now, if I could only figure out what in the world my drummer is going on about.