Fretted Instrument Glossary

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Fretted Instrument Glossary

Written by Paul Race for Creek Don't Rise™
and School Of The Rock™

When you've been around a while, you tend to take things for granted. When I meet up with younger musicians, though, I often discover that some term or cultural touchstone is completely missing from their vocabulary. Or that meanings have changed to the point where communication gets difficult. When I tell a youngster (under 40) that I may need to regrind the nut on my axe, and he starts looking for the exits, it's obvious that we no longer have a shared vocabulary.

I'm sure this glossary will grow with time, but we'll start with basic terms that every banjo, guitar, bass guitar, mandolin, or Appalachian dulcimer player should know. If you come across a term that we've missed or misdescribed, or that has an alternative definition we've left out, please contact us and we'll try - as the Brits say - to get it Guitar and Banjo part chart.sorted.

We'll start with a graphic that shows the basic parts of guitars and banjos (sorry, other players; I don't have a graphic for you yet, but you should be able to "connect the dots" between your instruments and the instruments shown). If you want to see it bigger, click on the picture.


Arch-top - A nickname for an arch-top guitar, unless you're sitting with a bunch of mandolin players, in which it's a nickname for an arch-top mandolin.

Axe - A nickname for whatever your principle or favorite instrument is.


Banjitar - A nickname for six-string banjo, usually derogatory, based on the assumption that such things are only purchased by guitar players who want to play the banjo without learning how to play the banjo. Ironically, even some vendors use this term for their products - if this is what they call their six-string banjos, that is a huge indicator that they don't understand the history, strength, or uses of the instrument.

Banjo - Any of a family of instruments with a neck and strings that stretch across a bridge that rests on a vellum or synthetic goatskin head. Modern banjos have tuning pegs and most have frets. Strings range from four to twelve, with four, five and six-string banjos being the most common.

Bluegrass - A musical style that added flatted thirds, fifths, and sevenths to traditional "Scot-Irish" Appalachian music, giving it a "bluesy" sound. As Bluegrass players became more adept at playing this style, the tempos often sped up as well, leading Pete Seeger to call Bluegrass "Folk music on overdrive." Though invented by mandolin player Bill Monroe, adding the "blues notes" had a more dramatic effect on banjo styles than on any other instrument.

Bluegrass Banjo - When banjo player Earl Scruggs attempted to add Bluegrass' "blues notes" to his playing style, he figured out a picking pattern that would allow him to integrate those notes with lightning-fast speed. Scruggs essentially abandoned strumming and depended on picking with his thumb, forefinger and middle finger exclusively - a style that is also called "three-finger picking." Because he was no longer strumming, the more volume and sustain he could get out of his instrument the better. For that reason, pro Bluegrass banjo players ever since have demanded resonators and tone rings on their banjos. You can play three-finger picking styles on a backless banjo, but it won't quite sound like "Bluegrass."

Body - The large part of a fretted instrument that amplifies the sound from the bridge. Sometimes the term refers to the back and sides - for example, a guitar advertisment might mention a "solid cedar top and mahogany body."

Bracing - Structures under the face of the guitar that are designed to strengthen the face - especially around the bridge area - without deadening the sound unnecessarily.

Bridge - A strip of hardwood or some other hard substance that the strings cross on the face of the instrument. On mandolin, banjos, violins, and upright basses, the bridge can be moved to adjust the intonation of the instrument. On most guitars today, the bridge is attached to the face, although moveable bridges were common on flattop guitars a century ago.

Bridge Pin - On many instruments like dreadnought guitars which have the bridge attached to the face, a bridge pin is used to hold the end of the string in place. You put the "ball" end of the string down through the hole, push the bridge pin in lightly, pull string up until it stops coming, then push the bridge pin in hard to secure the end of the string. If you do it wrong, the bridge pin catches the end of the pin and pulls the string back down as you push it in. Then when you start to tune the string, it pulls the bridge pin back up. If it pullse it up all at once, it might shoot it across the room as the ball end of the string whips around into your face. So do it right. And wear glasses or safety glasses regardless.


Cedar - A fine-grained coniferous wood that is traditionally used for the top of classical guitars. It is generally considered too soft to use on steel-string guitars without special bracing. That said, if you come across a name-brand steel-string guitar that advertises a solid cedar top, you can assume they have braced it properly. By the way, many laminated guitars are advertised as "cedar-topped," when all they have is a razor-thin veneer of cedar on top of the maple or plywood that makes up most of the face. Look for "Solid Cedar" top or some such wording.

Chops - Your level of skill on your primary instrument. When a guitar player says, "I've been working on my chops," you expect him to get more notes right than he did last week.

Clawhammer - A kind of 5-string banjo picking in which individual notes are plucked downward with the back of the fingernail, and the fifth string is played by the thumb. Because multiple strings ring at the same time, clawhammer players usually choose backless banjos to cut down a little on the sustain.


Drum Head - On a banjo, the round material, usually mylar, that sits under the bridge and which amplifies the sound of the strings. These used to be made of real animal skin, with hair scraped off, cut thin and processed like traditional vellum. Nowadays, the vast majority are identical in content with snare drum heads, although a few like Fiberskyn, are made of synthetic materials that better emulate the sound and appearance of the traditional skin heads.


End Pin - A peg located on the end of a guitar, mandolin, or electric bass body for attaching straps. On those instruments they are actually screwing into a structural component called a "block" that is pretty solid - so when you see Johnny Cash walking around with his guitar flipped over his back and hanging only by the end pin, that's totally possible. Classicals typically don't have end pins since you are expected to play them sitting down. Banjos don't usually have them either. If you install an aftermarket pickup on a flattop, you can use an output jack that replaces the end pin. That's much safer than a jack sticking out somewhere else where the wood isn't as thick.


F-Hole A kind of sound hole that is shaped like a lower-case Italian F, like the holes in the face of a violin. F-holes were introduced to Arch-top guitars by Lloyd Loar when he was working for Gibson. They kept the big-bodied archtops from being too boomy. On a violin F-holes actually affect the sound - vibrating air around the edges add that extra "sizzle" that helps keep a violin from sounding like a musical saw. F-hole mandolins also are alleged to have a brighter sound and slightly less sustain than round-hole mandolins, but I'm not sure that rule is anywhere near to 100%.

Face - Also called "top" - the part of the instrument on which the bridge rests. The face should be relatively free to vibrate; but it also must be rigid enough to support the bridge without warping or breaking. For that reason, better guitars tend to have have "solid tops" made of fine-grained spruce or cedar, as well as carefully designed "bracing" that supports the bridge area without making the top too rigid.

Five-String - Short for "five-string banjo." In Bluegrass circles to date, that's the only kind of banjo. So one person can say, "I play six-string," and someone else can say "I play five-string," and everybody in the "circle" knows exactly what both pickers mean.

Flattop - An informal name for steel-stringed guitars whose top is relatively flat. That name emerged back when arch top guitars were also very popular. To youngsters who've never seen, much less played an arch top acoustic guitar, the name probably seems redundant. A century ago, most "flattops" were about the size we would call "parlor" or "concert" guitars today. Nowadays most "flattop" guitars you see in the music store are "dreadnoughts."

Frailing - A kind of five-string banjo playing that traditionally included picking melody and bass notes upward with the forefinger or middle finger, strumming the banjo's strings downward with the back of the fingernails, and picking the fifth (drone) string with the thumb, usually in that order. During the Folk Revival, five-string players used this more than any other style. Modern frailers usually choose backless banjos, because banjos with too much sustain tend to sound "muddy" with this style picking. Some modern clawhammer players call what they do "frailing."

Frailing Scoop - A dip in a banjo's fretboard near the pot that allows players to strum over the neck of the banjo instead of over the head. It's not authentic, or even necessary for any kind of traditional banjo playing, but some folks seem to like it and it doesn't seem to hurt the banjo either.

Fret - A bar or special wire that runs perpendicular to the neck of an instrument to divide the fretboard into notes. To "fret" a string means to push down on the string behind the fret, so that you force the string onto the fret. No part of the hand you fret with should touch the string between the fret and the bridge.

Fretboard - Also called "fingerboard," a hardwood plank that runs the length of the neck holding the frets. Because the strings rubbing against the fretboard cause wear and tear, fretboards are usually made of very hard tropical woods like rosewood.

Friction Peg - A kind of tuning peg that relies on a tight fit to hold its tuning, as many violin tuners still do today. Originally, all fretted instruments used friction pegs. On some cheap five-string banjos, a friction peg was retained for the fifth string, even after the rest went to geared pegs.


Gitfiddle - A nickname for a guitar, usually used for humor purposes by the guitar player himself or herself.

Gitjo - A derogatory name for a six-string banjo. Also see "banjitar."


Harp - A nickname for a harmonica unless you're playing traditional Irish music; then it might be an actual harp.

Head - On most fretted instruments, the place where the tuning pegs are attached. For right-handed instrumentalists, the head usually sticks out to the left of the fingerboard. Sometimes banjo players use the term "head" to refer to the "drum head" that stretches aross the front of the banjo, but you can usually tell from the context which "head" they're talking about.

Headstock - Technically, the piece of wood that is the head's main structure. Headstocks can be "slotted" like that of a classical guitar, "plank," (flat and parallel to the fingerboard), like that of a Fender Stratocastor, "scrolled" like that of a violin, or have other shapes.


Irish Banjo - A style of banjo playing that was initially favored by several Irish singing groups during the Folk Revival era. Typically it involves "rapid-fire" flatpicking of a four-string banjo to play mostly a single note a time - melody or arpeggios. In recent "stomp band" adaptations, the banjo almost always plays arpeggios, which means that it can be reasonably imitated by a good banjo fingerpicker, giving room for crossover. In addition, several prominent Irish banjo players double quite well on 5-string, thank you very much. Sometimes they even bring over their flatpicking "chops," to the horror of American three-finger pickers. Guess what - in Ireland, that style predates the popularity of Bluegrass even in the country, so get off your high horse, already.


Laminate - A structural option in which thin plys of wood glued together to make a component. By gluing a razor-thin sheet of some desirable wood on top, manufacturers can make instruments that are, essentially, plywood look a lot like high-end instruments. That said, making the back and sides of a guitar's body out of laminate does not damage the sound nearly as much as using laminate for the top. Also, many of the name-brand laminate-topped guitars manage a tolerable sound with new strings, which makes them useful as "starter" or "beach" guitars. So "laminate" isn't "the devil." It just isn't as good as "solid."


Neck - A long wooden bar that separates the head and body and supports the fretboard on guitars, mandolins, banjos, basses, and similar instruments.

Nut - A hard material (such as bone, ivory, or hard plastic) that the strings cross as they run from the head to the fingerboard. On almost all fretted instruments, the nut has notches to separate the strings the correct amount. On most fretted instruments, the nut determines the height of the strings over the lower frets so the slots have to be cut accurately to avoid either fret-buzz or unplayable action. On some fretted instruments, including some Appalachian dulcimers and electric guitars, the nut is adjacent to a "zero fret" that actually determines the height of the strings near the lower frets.

Nylon Strings - Instrument strings intended to substitute for catgut strings on classical guitars and sometimes on other instruments. Generally the thinest strings are nylon filament (similar to fishing line), and the thickest strings are made with a core of silk or some other medium wrapped in fine wire. "Nylon strings" have a more mellow sound than steel strings, and they are easier to play, but they are not as loud, and they are apt to start sounding "dead" much sooner than steel strings


Pick Guard - A plastic shield that is fastened to a guitar or mandolin under the assumption that the owner owner will strum the instrument so hard and have so little control over where the pick goes that the shield is needed to protect the face of the instrument. What is really frightening is that they're apparently right. I don't have - or need - pick guards on any of my good guitars, and whenever I lend one of them to a friend for a song or two mid-gig or mid-party, it comes back with a whole new set of scratches on the face that I know I didn't put there. What's that about? That said, pick guards are most often seen on steel-string flat-tops and archtops and never on classicals.

Planetary Tuner - A kind of geared tuning peg that is straight (as opposed to most geared tuning pegs, which are round.) They are used to provide a more authentic appearance on four-and five-string banjos and on some Applachian dulcimers. Planetary tuners are considered a prerequisite for any "high-end" Bluegrass banjo, since at least one well-known Bluegrass banjo solo requires them.

Plectrum Banjo - A four-string banjo with a relatively long neck, favored by players of Dixieland and related Jazz styles. One popular style consists of strumming chords that are structured so that the melody note is played on the highest string - which means that the player needs all the frets he can get. Technically "plectrum" is an old name for "flat pick," the device usually used to strum the strings.

Plywood - A kind of lumber made by gluing thin sheets ("plys") of wood together.

Pot - The body of a banjo, traditionally made of wood with multiple layers for strength, like a drum "shell." Some low to mid-priced banjos are made with cast aluminum pots. A few modern banjos use a kind of ceramic.


Resonator - A bowl-shaped piece, usually made of wood, that attaches to the back of a banjo. Resonators are designed to reflect the sound from the back of the banjo's drum head around the pot and out toward the audience, increasing the volume. Some designs work better than others, but all sound louder than letting the sound from the back of the drum head get absorbed by the player's belly. Professional Bluegrass banjo players require resonators and tone rings on their banjos, but players of other styles, especially frailers and clawhammer players, prefer banjos without resonators.

Rim - Another name for the banjo pot.

Ring - On a banjo, the Tension Ring


Scalloped Bracing - A kind of bracing in which the back edge of the braces is shaved thin in certain areas. Done right, this makes the top more resiliant (louder) without significantly reducing the effectiveness of the bracing.

Scruggs Picking - See "Bluegrass banjo."

Six-String - A nickname for a typical flat-top guitar, be it parlor or dreadnought. This name became popular when 12-strings were more common than they are today. Not to be confused with "six-string banjo" which is an entirely different instrument.

Six-String Banjo - A banjo that has six strings, none of which are usually drone strings. Popular in the early 1900s as a jazz instrument, it was revived in the 1980s, using the same tuning as six-string guitar. Unfortunately some manufacturers have been promoting it as a quick-and-dirty way to change any third-rate guitar player into a real boy, er, a real banjo player. Six-string banjos cannot play most bluegrass solos, and most of them sound nasty when you try to treat them as guitars, but they are real, historical, banjos with unique strengths and uses.

Sound Hole - An opening in the face of a wood-bodied instrument that allows some of the sound from the back of the face to exit through the front and add volume.

Spruce - A tight-grained coniferous wood that is preferred for steel-string guitars. Sitka Spruce comes from the American northwest (although the species has been spread to Europe and even New Zealand. Its regular growth pattern makes it especially useful for guitar faces. By the way, many laminated guitars are advertised as "spruce-topped," when all they have is a razor-thin veneer of spruce on top of the maple or other undesirable wood that makes up most of the face. If they say "Solid Spruce," that's good. If they say "Solid Sitka Spruce," that's better. If they say "Grade A Solid Sitka Spruce," that's even better, and so on.

Steel Strings - Strings made with steel. The lighter strings are usually just steel wire, and the heavier strings have a steel core that is wound with fine wire. The "wrapping" wire may be made of or coated with some other metal, such as bronze or nickel. Electric guitars require strings with some steel composition. String - The filament that you pluck or strum to sound a fretted instrument. Most instruments used "catgut" (processed sheep intestine) until a little over ago, when steel strings became reliable enough to replace them. Today, "nylon strings" (sets made with nylon on the light strings and some medium like silk, wrapped with wire on the lower strings) substitute for catgut strings on classical guitars and some other instruments.


Tailpiece - On instruments with moveable bridges like banjo, mandolin, and archtop guitar, the tailpiece attached to the end of the instrument and holds one end of the string. A century ago, many "flat-top" guitars (what we would call parlor guitars today) also had tailpieces, but as bracing improved, most flat-tops abandoned them.

Tenor Banjo - A four-string banjo that has a number of different tunings and uses. Generally banjos that are called "tenor" have shorter necks than "plectrum banjos" but that's hardly universal. Traditional tenor banjo tuning for Dixieland and related styles is the same as a viola. In some musical communities, mandolin players double on tenor banjo, tuning it an octave lower than their mandolin. This is also referred to as "Irish" tuning, as it's favored by many Celtic banjo players.

Tenor Guitar - A four-string guitar typically tuned like a tenor banjo. Back when tenor banjo was more popular than guitar, tenor guitars were made to help banjo players double on guitar. Originally they were full-sized, full-featured instruments. Today, many "baby" and "travel" guitars are being given four strings and called "tenor guitars." If the scale length isn't at least 21 3/4, that's not an accurate description. For more information, click here.

Tension Ring - On a banjo, a metal circle that covers the edges of the drum head. The Brackets hook over it and pull it down to apply tension to the drum head.

Three-Finger Picking - A kind of fingerpicking that uses the thumb and the first to fingers. This includes a number of guitar picking patterns. On banjo, "three-finger-picking" generally refers to a technique popularized by Earl Scruggs. For more information, see "Bluegrass banjo."

Tone Ring - A ring of metal, usually plated brass, that goes between the drum head and wooden pot of Bluegrass banjos. Tone rings help keep the vibrations of the drum head from being deadened by the wooden pot. On some banjos, the tone ring is designed to reflect higher frequences back toward the front of the banjo. Tone rings add sustain as well as volume, and professional Bluegrass banjo players require them on their banjos.

Tuners - See "Tuning Pegs."

Tuning Pegs - Also called "tuners," the devices you turn to tighten or loosen strings to raise and lower pitch respective. Originally, fretted instruments' tuning pegs were one-piece "friction" pegs like violins have today. But most fretted instrument have geared pegs today. As a rule the better tuning pegs are enclosed so the gears aren't exposed.


Zero Fret - A fret that is directly adjacent to the nut so it sets the height of the strings over the lower frets.

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Paul Race

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