For any guitarist, and perhaps especially for an aspiring player, an array of factors come into play when choosing an electric guitar. One of the most fundamental is whether to go with a solidbody electric, or a semi-hollowbody. Each has advantages, and each has characteristics suited to particular styles of music.
History and Background
The first semi-acoustic guitars – or true hollowbody electrics – were produced in the 1930s, in response to a demand for greater volume among players in jazz bands and large orchestras. Gibson’s ES-150 – known as the “Electric Spanish” model – was the pioneering instrument in this category. The ES-150 was essentially an f-hole arch-top guitar fitted with a huge pickup. The ensuing years saw Gibson further perfect the electric hollowbody, as models such as the ES-175 and the acclaimed three pick-up ES-5 were introduced. In 1958, Gibson introduced the first “semi-hollowbody” guitar – the legendary ES-335. The ES-335 had double cutaways, a thinner body and – most importantly – a solid block of wood running through the center of the body, thus creating hollow “wings” on the sides. The primary advantage gained from this design was greater feedback resistance than that of a true hollowbody. Later variations of the ES-335 included the ES-355, which featured stereo wiring that allowed the rhythm and lead pickups to be played through different amps, and the lighter ES-339. As regards solidbodies, as every player knows, these are exemplified by classics like the Les Paul and the SG.
So, which is right for me?
It’s imperative for any aspiring guitarist is to think hard about the type of music he or she predominantly wants to play, whether that style be hard rock, jazz, pop rock, blues or country. Solidbodies, semi-hollowbodies and hollowbodies each possess distinctive characteristics that make them well-suited to each of those styles.
Solidbodies – Solidbodies offer greater sustain than their hollowbody counterparts, and can be amplified at high volume with few worries with regard to feedback issues. Cosmetically, since body resonance plays less of a role in its sound, solidbodies are available in a near-infinite variety of shapes and designs. Also, because they have no resonating chambers, but instead depend almost wholly on amplification, solidbodies are more responsive to the use of effects. Bottom line: For hard rock, metal, punk and other classic rock genres, solidbodies are the guitar of choice.
Semi-hollowbodies – Semi-hollowbodies offer an exceptionally warm tone, as well as pleasing overtones and a woody, resonant sound – in a word, great harmonic richness. With proper amp adjustments, they can also produce a good approximation of the bright, punchy sound of a solidbody. Concerns with unwanted feedback remain an issue, but the use of humbuckers has mitigated those troubles to a large degree. Semi-hollowbodies are lighter in weight, of course, and some players claim they offer greater versatility of sound than solidbodies. And lastly, because they produce a low acoustic pitch when not amplified, semi-hollowbodies are well-suited to guitar practice in places where noise is an issue. Bottom line: Semi-hollowbodies are a great choice for jazz guitarists and rockabilly players, as well as players who gravitate toward early rock and roll and vintage country. Players of power pop – think Big Star, The Raspberries and even Oasis – should take a hard look at semi-hollowbodies as well.
True Hollowbodies – Of the three, these models produce the most acoustic-oriented sound. The downside is that they are also the most susceptible to feedback at mid- to high-volume. Still, the full, round tone of a true hollowbody – and its superb bass response, or bottom end – makes it a favorite to this day among a segment of jazz players. Bottom line: While genuine hollowbodies have a niche following, far and away the majority of contemporary players should limit their consideration to solidbodies and semi-hollowbodies.
Conclusion – Amp settings and effects processors can mitigate some of the inherent differences between hollowbodies and solidbodies, but the characteristics that distinguish one from the other will always apply. In the end, one’s choice of guitar comes down to what feels – and sounds – right to the individual player.
A Look at Four Iconic Semi-Hollowbodies and Solidbodies
ES-335 – One of history’s most important guitars, the ES-335 is archetype of the semi-hollowbody design. From Chuck Berry to Eric Clapton to Alvin Lee and beyond, the ES-335 has been a favorite among legions of legendary players.
ES-339 – A smaller, lighter version of the ES-335, the ES-339 has its own distinctive sound, characterized by a bit more bite than its older brother. The ES-339 is sometimes thought of as the semi-hollowbody for solidbody players.
SG Standard – Introduced in 1961, the SG remains the go-to instrument for legions of rock and rollers. Among those who’ve ascended to great heights using an SG are Pete Townshend, Angus Young, Frank Zappa, Derek Trucks, and Tony Iommi, to name but a few.
Les Paul Standard – Pioneered by the man whose name it bears, the Les Paul has become the standard by which all solidbody electrics are judged. With its rich tone and unparalleled sustain, the Les Paul continues to be one of the most powerful and versatile instruments of all time.