Guitars are widely popular instruments, though have you ever wondered how guitars are made? In modern manufacturing, guitars go through a step-by-step process, including choosing the right materials and putting them through automated mass production.
While modern guitars still require a careful, step-by-step process for production, the mode of production has changed quite a bit. As of now, many large manufacturers utilize 3D machine production to manufacture guitars.
To better understand how modern guitars are made, we must first take a small step back in history to look at the introduction of the first guitars.
Headstock, Nut, Tuners, String Post, Neck, Fretboard. Body, Bridge, Sound Hole, Pick Guard, Bridge Pins, Strap Buttons
Headstock, Nut, Tuners, String Post, Neck, Fretboard. Body, Bridge, Pickups, Pickup Selector, Volume & Tone Controls, Input Jack, Strap Buttons, Tremolo Bar
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Single-Wood Construction (Typically)
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Martin, Taylor, Yamaha, Guild, Gibson, Collings
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1. Original Guitar Production
Before mass production, the earliest guitars use careful crafting at the hands of luthiers. The practice of hand-building guitars was prevalent up until the 18th century when the industrial revolution rolled along.
In fact, many believe that the original production of guitars or guitar-like instruments dates thousands of users ago.
Luthiers would make careful decisions about which types of woods they would use on their guitars before arranging multiple pieces, including the back, neck, body, frets, bridge, and strings, into one final instrument.
The typical production of a pre-18th century guitar took many weeks of complicated labor and typically required over 15 tools, including table saws, clamps, blades, sandpaper, and more.
The Pieces of An Acoustic Guitar
- The Body
(Credit – Wood To Works)
Most guitar bodies are made with wood, as wood resonates better than most other materials out there. The vibration of the wood on the body when you play the strings is what creates the tone. Most acoustic guitar bodies utilize a lighter wood on the top and a heavier wood on the bottom, while electric guitars often use a solid, single type of wood.
Guitars made with single, solid pieces have far more consistent tones and are typically more expensive. Cheaper guitars usually spawn from laminates, which include thinner sheets of wood glued to one another. While there are many great laminate guitars available, they usually can’t match the tone of solid-body wood guitars.
- The Neck –
(Credit – Wood To Works)
Guitars necks use wood as well. The wood for the neck is typically the same as the wood on the body, though that is not always the case. Fretboards, which are glued to the neck, usually use maple or rosewood. The actual frets use softer and more durable metals, such as nickel or steel.
Necks can be glued or bolted to the guitar body, though some solid-bodied guitars have a neck-through design. A neck-through system utilizes the same wood from the bridge to the headstock.
- The Truss Rod –
A truss rod is a piece of metal that runs through the neck. Guitarists use truss rods to manipulate the curvature of the neck.
- The Pickups –
(Credit – Making Music Mag)
Both acoustic and electric guitar may use pickups to carry the sound electronically. Pickups work in conjunction with jacks, cables, and amps to amplify the sound. They utilize a few different components, including magnets and electronic copper wire coils. However, there are hundreds of different types of pickups on the market.
- The Bridge –
The bridge transfers the vibration of the strings to the soundboard when using an acoustic guitar. Bridges are usually made with wood and use saddles, typically made out of bone or ivory, to give the strings support.
- The Nut –
Nuts sit at the headstock side of the fretboard and hold the strings in place with small cut grooves. Nuts can either be made with a grooved piece of bone or steel, though many other hard materials do the job as well.
- The Headstock –
Most guitars have a headstock on the very top. Headstocks are where the tuners sit. You will often see brand logos for the manufacture placed on the headstock as well. The headstock itself uses wood. Tuners usually use metal material, especially electric guitars. However, on acoustic guitar, you might find ivory or plastic.
Some guitar models do not have headstocks, as the tuners sit near the bottom of the guitar.
2. Current Acoustic Guitar Production
Before guitars move into production, “luthiers” must select the type of wood they want to use.
When it comes to the back and sides of most acoustic guitars, expensive guitars typically use Brazilian Rosewood or East Indian Rosewood. In cheaper instruments, you might find ash, maple, mahogany, or alder. When it comes to the neck of the guitar, you can expect to find maple or mahogany.
The type of wood that a guitar uses can have a significant impact on the overall sound, which is why musicians often prioritize the kind of wood a guitar is made out of when selecting their instrument.
Once the woods for the particular guitar have been chosen, the shape of the guitar is cut with the top and back. The cut of the guitar depends on the desired shape and manufacturer, though the figure-eight design is one of the most popular. Manufacturers will then cut the soundhole at the top of the instrument.
(Credit – Guitar Niche)
They must steam the sides of the guitar so that the wood is malleable before bending it into shape and letting it dry. Once the wood is completely dry, the pieces are glued together.
A manufacturer may use a cutter to shape the neck of the guitar, though many high-end guitars are hand-cut. Once the neck is carved, a fingerboard is attached to the instrument. The last things on the guitar include the frets and tuners.
Tuners, frets, and pickups are usually made out of various plastics and metals. These types of materials perform far better compared to wood thanks to the fact that they are strong and handle machining well.
Once the guitar has all of the necessary components in order, the finishing process begins. All layers of the guitar receive a nitrocellulose polyurethane cover. This cover ensures damage protection for the guitar, though it also adds a unique sound quality as well.
Once finished, the neck is bolted and glue onto the body, and the strings are attached.
Alternative Guitar Manufacturing Materials
Because luthiers are no longer confined to putting guitars together using wood, many have begun experimenting with various alternatives, such as aluminum, carbon fiber, and more.
(Credit – Reverb)
Aluminum is an incredibly popular alternative to wood guitars. With low weight and high strength, it is a desirable alternative for guitarists all over the world. Companies such as Normandy Guitars and Alumisonic use aluminum to manufacture high-end instruments.
In the case of aluminum, the material is easy to machine and strong enough to withstand string tensions, all the while remaining lightweight and easy to travel with. We’ve seen some companies experiment with aluminum necks as well, though they tend to go out of tune after a short period of time due to aluminum’s high degree of thermal expansion.
(Credit – Emerald Guitars)
Carbon Fiber is another popular alternative for guitar necks and bodies. Guitar manufacturers use new technology to take advantage of the strength and weight characteristics of carbon fiber for guitars. Plus, carbon fiber is one of the most cost-effective materials around.
One of the most popular manufacturers of carbon fiber guitars on the market is Rainsong.
Sending The Finished Guitar Off
Once a guitar is finished, the manufacturer will send it off to distribution, where it will be shipped to their guitar shop of choice or to a personal customer.
As you can see, the process of building guitars goes quite in-depth. The funny thing is, this article only scratches the surface of what it takes to manufacture a guitar. Ask any professional luthier, and they will tell you about the immense care that goes into choosing the materials, storing the materials, putting the materials together, etc.
As we move into the future of guitar manufacturing, we will likely see the increased popularity of three-dimensional modeling. With new 3D machinery, manufacturers will be able to experiment with different designs, cutting out limitations that we have experienced in building guitars for hundreds of years.
3. Automated Guitar Production
Guitar manufacturing has changed quite a bit since the middle ages, and many manufacturers have adopted the use of PC modeling programs to manufacture 3D components with mass production. This process is far more streamlined and is the reason why companies are able to produce hundreds of guitars in a short period.
Solidworks is one of the most popular CAD programs for designing guitar parts. One of the most popular manufacturing platforms is MasterCAM.
With both CAD and CAM in conjunction, companies have the ability to go beyond your most basic guitar bodies. They can create fretboards, neck, and various other guitar parts.
Of course, even with machine assembly and testing, the final checks of guitars use experienced human hands.
(Credit – Alex Bishop Guitars)
4. Popular Guitar Wood Choices
When it comes to the neck of the guitar, it is best to use soft types of wood or strongly fibered wood. Mahogany, compared to other woods, is one of the most popular neck choices for strength and durability. When it comes to the fingerboard, manufacturers often use stronger wood, such as ebony, as it is high in strength and density. Manufacturers often use ebony on the bridge as well.
The body of the guitar may use a combination of northern and southern woods. The top is a bit more important than the back of the guitar, as it must carry excellent resonant qualities so that the guitar can be heard. Spruce has very resonant attributes, which makes it an ideal choice for acoustic guitar tops.
Spruce typically grows in regions like North America and Germany. For the sides and back, we often see woods like Mahogany or Rosewood, which can be found in South American, Southeast Asian, and African regions.
If you have ever encountered a colorful guitar, such as one that is painted blue, red, or pink, you are likely looking at a maple guitar. The reason for this is that maple is very easy to paint.
5. How Are Electric Guitars Made
The electric guitar manufacturing process is very similar to that of the acoustic guitar, though it includes the addition of hardware and electronics that are not present on most acoustic guitars.
The very last steps in the electric guitar manufacturing process typically include setting the neck, placing the pickguard, installing a vibrato system (if any), installing the tuners, installing strap bottoms, and nut/bridge/fret dress setup. Once the body and neck have been assembled, it becomes time for the hardware and electronics installation.
The hardware placed onto the body of the guitar includes the pickguard, the pickguard shield, pickup cover, pickup compression spring, pickup selector switch, lever knob, tone knob, volume knob, ceramic capacitor, tone and volume potentiometers, and the output plug assembly.
On the bridge, you will find the vibrato block, base plate, bridge bar, compression springs, bridge cover, set scews, tension spring, rear cover plate, lever assembly, and tremolo tension spring holder.
As you can see, the assembly of an electric guitar requires a bit more thought.
Once all of the hardware is installed, builders will add pots, pickups, jack plates, and toggle switches. An adjuster will notch the nut and tailpiece, add strings to the guitar, and check for any pitch or intonation problems while adjusting the bridge if necessary Additionally, you would check this article on What is Guitar Intonation and how to improve it.
Once the installation of all of these parts is finished, manufacturers will move into the cleaning process, meaning the removal of dirt and smudges, the installation of backplates, and the polishing of nickel, gold, or chrome hardware.
Lastly, the guitar undergoes a final polish and buff before the final inspection pre-distribution.
Tyler Connaghan is a producer, composer, and engineer based in Los Angeles, CA. He studied music for two years at the University of Southern California before landing a job at Killingsworth Recording Company, where he currently produces music for television and film.