What new skills do you need going from acoustic guitar to electric?
April 20, 2018 9:35 PM   Subscribe

For someone who has played acoustic guitar for a long time but is new to electric guitar, what new skills need to be learned that are specific to the electric guitar?

I have a partial list, but would like to add to it:

* Left/Right Hand mute technique because of greater sustain
* More careful finger placement to avoid bending lighter strings out of tune

What else should go on that list? I'd be interested in "maintenance knowledge" (like if there are differences in how to change strings or how to tune or stuff like that) as well as musical techniques.
posted by straight to Media & Arts (11 answers total) 5 users marked this as a favorite
*String Changing- In my opinion, string changes on a Tele, Strat or Les Paul/stop tailpiece-style bridge are relatively easier than mucking about with bridge pins or classical string knot-tying. On the other hand, if you're changing strings on a guitar equipped with a Bigsby or Floyd Rose system (shudder) it can be a bit more of a hassle.
*Humidity- While humidification is important for all guitars, I'd be less concerned about keeping a solid-body electric in low humidity than an acoustic.
*Tuning- About the same as acoustic, though if your guitar has a tremolo (it's really vibrato, but I bow to the ignorance of the crowd) system, keep in mind that tuning one string can affect the entire guitar. It's usually best to detune below the desired pitch and then tighten until you hit the target frequency.

Other stuff:
*Tone Perception- On an electric, you can position yourself relative to your amp and get a good idea how you'll sound to others. With an acoustic, you're hearing the instrument from above and slightly behind, and it can be surprisingly different to how it would sound from in front of the instrument/performer. Imagine if you were slightly above and behind your amp when playing electric- even a slight difference in position can make a big difference. In my case, an audience member would probably find my acoustic tone to be slightly louder and brighter than it sounds to my ears.
*Callous shrinkage- If I go a few weeks without/rarely playing acoustic, I find that my fingertips get wimpy. If I then go back and play extensively on the acoustic (especially rhythm playing), my tips are noticeably sore. If you do a lot of bending on the electric it might compensate slightly, but there's nothing like open-position Am, C, and D chords held for long periods to really toughen those tips.

Good luck!
posted by EKStickland at 9:53 PM on April 20, 2018 [2 favorites]

Experiment to learn how harmonics, volume, gain, distortion, and any effects all interact—what's in your stack (pedals, amp, amp voicing and settings) significantly affects the sound. You start to get a feel after a while for settings that work well for your particular style of playing. Also, your guitar may have selectors for choosing pickups, which you should also experiment with, and differing pickup placement on various guitars will make a difference as to whether a given guitar is more chimey, more twangy, more bass-heavy, etc. All of the above, in combination with body style (hollow-body or archtop, semi-hollow-body, solid, etc.), string thickness/style, and picking style, will determine much of the sound of the guitar. I feel like the overall sound of electric guitars varies much more than the sound of acoustic guitars, just given all the factors that go in to their construction and the fact that the output is dependent on amps and pedals (and that's not even getting into things like size of frets, neck style, tuners, etc.).

Learning how to bend notes while maintaining sustain during soloing, getting all the settings right to make it sound good, etc. is an art that could occupy you for quite a bit of time in itself. Also experiment with picking and non-picking styles; I learned to play acoustic first, and I hate picks, so I play electric in a rhythm guitar style, finger-picking and using my fingernails to strum. There are definitely a lot of picking styles to try out on electric guitar that wouldn't be possible and/or don't provide as interesting results on acoustic.

Also, be aware of environmental factors that can affect your sound—things like mains hum, poor shielding on cords, loose connections, and interference can be issues you'll need to learn to troubleshoot. If these types of things are problems, you can look into cavity shielding, humbucker pickups, noise-gate pedals, etc. Also, consider installing strap locks in place of your guitar's existing strap buttons, if you've never used them before. They remove a lot of the annoyance of fiddling with slipping guitar straps.

Have fun!
posted by limeonaire at 10:39 PM on April 20, 2018 [2 favorites]

String bending is an entirely different thing on electric where there is more sustain and lighter strings.
This video where a YouTube guitarist plays some familiar Pink Floyd licks really blew my mind, and I've been playing electric for years. Somehow I listened to Wish You Here hundreds of times without processing how Dave Gilmour was making those sounds, i.e. by bending 2, 3, 4 semitones on high frets of high strings. I'd always thought he used a bottleneck or a whammy bar, but it's all bending.

Talking of whammy bars, tremelo arm technique is another thing unique to electric.
posted by w0mbat at 10:41 PM on April 20, 2018

Also: chord shapes! There are lots of things you can get away with on an electric guitar (power chords, alternate chord voicings, etc.) that would be entirely unexciting on an acoustic guitar. Definitely work on learning new and interesting chord variations from songs you might not otherwise have been able to reproduce—the subtleties really come out on electric, especially with distortion, creating a lovely new oil slick of overtones on chords that otherwise might be familiar.
posted by limeonaire at 10:44 PM on April 20, 2018 [1 favorite]

Have a think about what string gauges you want to use: there are all kinds of gauge and alloy combinations these days, and depending on the style(s) you play, you might want something different from plain ol' Slinkys.

Technique: string bending, muting the lower strings for voicings on the higher ones and vice versa. Picking position in relation to the pickups.
posted by holgate at 8:03 AM on April 21, 2018 [1 favorite]

Especially if you're playing with a lot of distortion, it's a weird mind shift from playing to get the most sound and sustain, to using your hands so much to stop all that sound from happening by itself!
posted by bongo_x at 11:34 AM on April 21, 2018

strumming is kind of more from the wrist than from the elbow
posted by thelonius at 4:57 AM on April 22, 2018

Under "maintenance knowledge":

Virtually all electrics have at least some ability to raise or lower the bridge and to adjust the string saddles forward & back (i.e. closer to the nut or not), so you can make some changes to the action and intonation easier than on most acoustics. Lots of us DIY this, it's not particularly hard, but you can certainly pay someone to do this. Making these adjustments is usually a standard part of paying for a "setup."

You can also usually make some adjustments to pickup height, which can affect the amplified tone of the guitar. Plus pickups are (relatively) easily replaceable, especially if you've got some basic soldering skills, and you can make some fairly significant changes to the sound of the guitar by changing pickups.

Under "skills":

Strong second for limonaire's points about considering the guitar as part of a whole system including pedals & amplifiers, and about the effectiveness of different chord shapes.

Not necessarily a "need" (but nice to have in your toolkit) is using the pickup selector switch and volume and tone controls to fine-tune or alter the sound, plus a variety of techniques that use these controls while you're playing ("volume swells" just as one example.)
posted by soundguy99 at 8:58 AM on April 22, 2018 [1 favorite]

My favorite thing to do when I first started playing electric guitar was the "squeal" you get by touching/brushing your thumb (strumming hand) on the string as you strike it with a pick, causing some harmonic to sound instead of the actual tuned note. I don't know what it's called, but it's in every metal solo from the 90's. You can do it on acoustic, but it doesn't have the same ring to it, pun intended.
posted by Pig Tail Orchestra at 6:51 AM on April 23, 2018

Especially if you're playing with a lot of distortion, it's a weird mind shift from playing to get the most sound and sustain, to using your hands so much to stop all that sound from happening by itself!

Heh. All those years of playing my acoustic with lots of palm muting to keep from bothering my wife or waking the kids are totally paying off now.
posted by straight at 12:15 AM on April 24, 2018 [2 favorites]

....the "squeal" you get by touching/brushing your thumb (strumming hand) on the string as you strike it with a pick, causing some harmonic to sound instead of the actual tuned note. I don't know what it's called

usually called a "pinch harmonic"
posted by thelonius at 4:29 AM on April 25, 2018 [1 favorite]

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