Electric guitars are full of options, with various pickups, bridges, fret sizes, neck radii, tone woods, tuners and so on all having an impact on how an instrument plays and sounds. But stripping things down to the absolute basics, there are three types of electric guitars: solid bodies, hollow bodies and semi-hollow bodies. And they’re ideally suited for different playing approaches.
Here’s a basic introduction to hollow, semi-hollow and solid body guitars, how they work and what each is best at.
• Hollow Body Guitars: Guitars with hollow body construction were the first mass-produced round-neck models built, in the 1930s. Jazzman Charlie Christian was the most-fiery champion of the early hollow body electric, using a Gibson ES-150 — a model first released in 1936 — to record vastly influential sides with Benny Goodman, Lester Young. Buck Clayton and as a leader in his own right. He also used the ES-150 to help invent the art of single-note lead guitar.
The electrified hollow body arch top was created so the guitar could compete with the volume of horns in the big bands of the 1930s. And they’ve evolved considerably since then, growing from fat jazz boxes with necks that meet the body at the 12th fret to nimble, thin-lined instruments with cutaways like the Gibson ES-125 and Epiphone Casino, which are experiencing a renaissance today. From the single blade pickup in Christian’s guitar, modern hollow bodies now sport all types of pickups as standard equipment: humbuckers, single-coils, piezo-electric and so on.
Wes Montgomery, T-Bone Walker, Chuck Berry and John Lennon are among the many players who’ve been closely associated with hollow body Gibson guitars over the decades, with Montgomery and Lennon both having models — the L-5 and Casino, specifically — built in their honor.
Although the hollow bodies of these guitars create a mellow, naturally voiced tone perfect for jazz, vintage country and other styles that require warmth and clarity, they can also snarl. For proof of the latter, check out Lennon’s performances on “Revolution” and “Cold Turkey.” Too much volume or proximity to the amplifier, however, and hollow bodies can howl with feedback unintentionally. And that’s why the semi-hollow body guitar was invented.
• Semi-hollow Body Guitars: The first and most classic semi-hollow body is the Gibson ES-335, which was quickly embraced with Chuck Berry and later sonically reinvented by Freddie King, Alvin Lee, Larry Carlton and a host of others in the ’60s and ’70s, who pushed semi-hollow Electric Spanish models into the ’60s and ’70s with aggressive technique and tones.
Gibson produced only hollow body electrics until 1952, when the first Les Paul solid bodies hit the market. But that still left a gap. Certain players wanted a guitar with the versatility of a Les Paul, but the warmer, mellow tone of a hollow body — albeit one that could be played at high volume. A solid wood block runs through the center of the guitar’s body, allowing greater sustain and less feedback at high volumes than hollow bodies, while the winged side of these guitars’ bodies still provide for a mellow tone thanks to their acoustic resonance.
Berry snapped one up immediately in 1958 and has played the ES-335 or its slightly fancier relatives the ES-345 and ES-355 since then. A few years later the model was embraced by Freddie King. Alvin Lee made history with an ES-345 at Woodstock, speeding through “I’m Going Home,” and Larry Carlton’s incredibly lyrical ES-335 can be heard on great Steely Dan albums including The Royal Scam and near-countless other sessions. Whether equipped with humbuckers or P-90s, semi-hollow body guitars sound sweetly beautiful, but can also grind. Ultimately, however, they remain a middle ground between the electric solid body and the hollow body models.
• Solid Body Guitars: For those looking for a more versatile array of tones blended with the deepest number of volume options and full-blooded sustain, the electric solid body is the right machine. The differences between various types of solid body models are vast — even between an SG, the most popular model Gibson makes, and a Les Paul, Gibson’s six-string flagship. A wide variety of tone woods, including mahogany, maple, alder, spruce, maple and, commonly for the fretboard, rosewood and baked maple, are employed. They are extremely versatile instruments and have been spotted in the hands of players as wide-ranging as Les Paul and Zakk Wylde.
The solid body guitar is a rock ‘n’ roll machine at its core, but appears in all genres of music and is more popular than hollow body or semi-hollow body guitars due to its wider variety of tones and improved volume and feedback characteristics. Some, like the Les Paul, have arched tops like hollow and semi-hollow models. But the majority are flat-bodied, including Gibson Flying Vs, Explorers and SGs, and classic Epiphones, like the Wilshire.
Highly adaptable to virtually any variation of humbucking and single-coil pickups, versatile solid body guitars are ideal for beginners who need a flexible and highly playable instrument that can help them define their musical direction.