When most people think about electric guitars, chances are they’re thinking rock ‘n’ roll. However, stringed instrumentalists had been attempting to amplify violins and banjos since the 1910s using internally mounted telephone transducers — and indeed, the first electrically amplified guitar was designed in 1931 by George Beauchamp of the National Guitar Corporation. Charlie Christian’s 1936 Gibson ES-150 was heard on landmark recordings with Benny Goodman and Lester Young, influencing other jazz guitarists to follow suit. Clearly, the electric guitar is not a product of rock ‘n’ roll; rather, it was driven by the need for guitarists to be heard over the drums and horn sections of big bands.
In attempting to amplify acoustic guitars, inventors and musicians alike soon discovered an issue that is still problematic for many of today’s acoustic guitarists — feedback. Hence, the evolution of solid body electric guitars, spearheaded by Vivi-Tone in 1934. Rickenbacker followed up by distributing the Electro Spanish in 1935 (Electro Spanish later being shortened to ES by Gibson for their line of hollow body and semi-hollow electric guitars), and the Slingerland Songster 401 was introduced in 1936. But some guitarists — mainly jazz and blues musicians — came to miss the warm, full-bodied tone that can only be generated by the free-space resonance of tops and backs made from quality tonewoods. And so it is that we also have the hybrid design of semi-hollow body electric guitars.
No doubt many of you thought that the very first electric guitar was Les Paul’s legendary “Log.” Well, regardless of who was responsible for its invention and evolution, electric guitarists throughout the world are truly grateful for the ability to amplify their instruments, as are their audiences. This capability to connect to dedicated guitar amps along with the use of distortion and guitar effects has spawned entirely new genres of music. Pickup types and configurations, as well as specialized switching options and tone controls also help generate different sounds. But when you break it down to the basics, there are really only three types of electric guitars in existence to this day, excluding acoustic-electrics - the aforementioned Hollow Body, Semi-Hollow Body, and Solid Body varieties.
As might be expected, this category first consisted of arch top acoustic guitars fitted with a rather primitive pickup. And in fact, the first mass-produced guitar pickup was actually made for a lap steel guitar. But the only real qualification for a guitar to be considered a hollow body is that it can’t have a block of wood running through the body — and there now exists a variety of thin-bodied guitars with flat tops and cutaways that fall into this category. Likewise, modern hollow body guitars are fitted with all types of pickups as standard equipment; such as humbucker, single-coil, and even piezo-electric; as well as a variety of volume, tone, and switching controls.
To further illustrate just how versatile today’s hollow body electrics can be, consider their use in a wide variety of music genres — from the Smooth Jazz of George Benson; to the ethereal Fusion of Pat Metheny; to the blistering Rock and Roll of Aerosmith’s Joe Perry. Ted Nugent made a career out of just barely harnessing the excess feedback produced by his Gibson Byrdland (an early predecessor to the more-modern Gibson ES-Series Hollow Body Guitars) through highly-overdriven amplifiers, most notably his Fender Guitar Amps and Peavey Instrument Amps. And believe it or not, that ultra-raunchy guitar track on Revolution by The Beatles was recorded by John Lennon playing his hollow body Epiphone Casino plugged directly into the console and cranked up to eleven! However, when all is said and done, hollow body electric guitars are primarily the tools of jazz and blues musicians due to their warm, full-bodied tone.
Hollow body guitars were the only widely-available option for guitarists who wanted to go electric until 1952, when Gibson introduced the solid body Les Paul model. But certain players — mainly jazz and blues artists — still yearned for the warmer, mellower tone of a hollow body; but one that could be played at high volume without excessive feedback. Enter the Gibson ES-335, which featured a solid wood block running through the center of the guitar’s body, and hollow winged sides with f-holes. This model would quickly go on to become the gold standard in the Gibson ES-Series Semi-Hollow Body Guitar line. It was a combination that allowed for greater sustain and less feedback at high volumes as compared to standard hollow body guitars, but with a mellower tone due to the acoustic resonance of its hollow sides.
This hybrid design proved to be the “happy medium” many guitarists were looking for, and it proved to be most popular with jazz and blues artists. However, it was also better suited for louder, more aggressive tones than a standard hollow body guitar, albeit with less sustain and more feedback potential than a solid body. Ideally, a semi-hollow guitar would produce the warm acoustic resonance of a hollow body, combined with the biting, singing tone of a solid body guitar. However, a compromise is a compromise, and that simply isn’t the reality for many semi-hollow bodies. They also tend to be a bit more expensive on average than solid body guitars due to the use of better tonewoods, more ornate appointments, and challenging construction techniques.
Semi-hollow electrics do have a unique place in the world of electric guitars, and their versatility is preferred by many musicians across all genres. Hence their popularity with many classic and modern-era iconic guitarists such as B.B. King, Chuck Berry, Freddie King, Alvin Lee, Eric Clapton, Larry Carlton, Malcolm Young, Warren Haynes, Dave Grohl and Jack White. If that artist list doesn’t speak to versatility, we don’t know what would!
Versatile, durable, manageable, modifiable. Perhaps not the sexiest of adjectives, but all are true of the solid body electric guitar — and all are very good explanations for its sustained popularity. As this category’s name suggests, solid body electric guitars are made of solid wood, with no resonating chambers in the body. Any holes or chambers are only there to house the hardware and electronics. As such, they are far more resistant to unwanted feedback than hollow-bodied instruments. They can also produce tones that are both bright and fat, with full-bodied sustain. And thanks to the wide variety of pickup types and electronic options available today, they are by far the most versatile, and hence, prevalent of all electric guitar categories.
For many years, two brand names have been synonymous with this type of instrument — Fender and Gibson. Not only were they the first to bring the solid body electric guitar to the masses; their designs (Telecaster, Stratocaster, Les Paul, SG, etc.) and multiple variations thereof are still produced today. Indeed, theirs are the most widely copied of all electric guitar designs. However, there are now many other manufacturers of fine electric guitars who have expanded upon these designs and actually managed to create something new — and in the opinion of many, vastly improved. American Musical Supply carries a huge selection of these innovative brands, including PRS, Ibanez, ESP, Schecter, and many more! That means you’ll be able to find the right finish, build design, and electronic components to get the sound and look you’ve been craving.
Whether you prefer old school or new cool, there’s something for everyone in the world of solid body electric guitars — and the differences between various types of solid body models are extensive. This is primarily due to their solid construction, which (unlike the more delicate and time-consuming process of curving wood sides for hollow body contours) allows for carving virtually any conceivable body shape with relative ease. You’ve no doubt seen many unique and highly-inventive solid body guitar shapes; and very few if any in the hollow and semi-hollow body categories. While all types of electric guitars commonly have six strings, the solid body instruments have most noticeably branched out to include production models with additional strings. 7-string Electric Guitars and 8-String Electric Guitars are used by advancing players primarily in the hard rock, metal, and progressive genres. More strings means an extended range and increased potential for shred-worthy lead lines and sweeping technical passages.
Another factor that facilitates versatility and individuality for solid body guitarists is the multitude of electronics options currently available. Do you prefer humbucking pickups for a quieter, fatter tone; or single coils for a brighter, more percussive sound? How about a piezoelectric pickup under the bridge to emulate an acoustic guitar tone? No need to compromise though, because some manufacturers offer all three wired to switches and/or pull pots for near limitless combinations. And if the manufacturer of your desired model doesn’t offer your specific option, there’s likely a qualified and adventurous guitar tech somewhere near you who can make it happen (albeit outside of the manufacturer’s warranty).
Regardless of your preferred music genre or budget, American Musical Supply has an electric guitar that suits your style in stock or on its way to our 4 strategically-located warehouses. Simply order online or call 1-800-319-9043 and speak with one of our specialists. We’ll not only identify your ideal electric guitar and all of the appropriate guitar accessories — we’ll ship them right to your door!
About the Author - Tom Najarian