It is probably the most popular instrument of the modern era, and easily the coolest. The guitar has seen unprecedented growth and renovation over the last hundred years not seen since the introduction of the piano in Italy during the early 18th century. What was once seen as a “hand-violin” way back in 17th century Europe and nothing more than a fun diversion of the common man (unlike the prestigious orchestral instruments) is now the go-to instrument for future musicians deciding on their first foray. With the introduction of the electric guitar, the boundaries were pushed even further, introducing amplifiers, effects and studio techniques that were never imaginable decades prior, eclipsing the previous amount of tones and sounds possible on a single instrument.
Most of us know about how effects pedals, amp settings and pickups have a great deal of influence in determining the sound of a guitar, but what several new to the instrument sometimes fail to realize is that the body type is just as important . Being an electric instrument, it is an honest mistake for newcomers to make the assumption that the sound is determined exclusively by the electrical components along with the de-facto importance of a tuned guitar. Although one need only experience an instrument with terrible or old wiring to feel the true worth of solid electrical components, there is another side of the guitar that seems to be overlooked by those selecting their very first axe, and just like the perfect beer (for our older musicians out there anyways), it’s all about the body!
Unlike strings, pickups, internal wiring, etc. which can all be replaced and upgraded at a fraction of the cost of the entire instrument, the body pretty much IS the guitar, the foundation for which everything else is built upon, and not only that, it is responsible for much of the end tone and sound of the guitar as much as the pickups, and even more so depending on the type of body. Read on as we breakdown the different electric guitar body types to give you a better understanding on how each ultimately affects the sound of the instrument. While some might go into selecting their first guitar simply by the “look,” those searching for their perfect instrument should listen to what the ladies have been saying all along; it’s not always about the looks, it’s the inside that counts … but a good looking guitar sure is hard to turn down!
Out of all of the different body variations, the solid body guitar type is among the most popular, although it didn’t start out that way. When Les Paul first came up with his eventual legendary guitar that bears his name in 1943, Gibson decided to keep the prototype on the back burner as the company did not believe that the solid body design (still new at the time during the ‘40s) would be successful. Five years after the creation of the prototype Les Paul, it was finally released to compete with Fender’s increasingly popular and “unique” solid body creation, the Fender Broadcaster, which would later become the Fender Telecaster. A few years later in 1954, Fender released the Stratocaster to compete with the increasingly popular Les Paul, and the rest, as they say, is rock and roll history.
Being a solid body, these guitars rely heavily on their pickups for much of their sound and tone, making them popular choices for those looking for a “controllable” sound with wide tonal capabilities, as the pickups are almost completely unaffected by the body, unlike other designs that are dead-locked so to speak with the inherent attributes of their body. Along with increased control, the prevalence of feedback is also much lower on a solid body, making them perfect for music requiring fully upped amps. Solid body guitars are great choices for those new to guitars along with those looking to play a wide range of styles as loud as they want.
These guitars originate from the 1930s and were very popular among jazz musicians for their duality as a practice guitar when unplugged and an electric when amplified. They were first created as a means to produce a guitar that was able to be amplified through electric currents and out through a speaker in order to keep up with the higher dynamics of large orchestras and jazz bands, essentially creating the first electric guitar. The design was based off of the traditional arch top guitars (now known as full hollow) which were the norm for jazz musicians at the time, although the body is not as thick. The first commercial semi hollow body was released by Gibson in 1936 and known as the ES-150. The guitar became instantly popular with the jazz scene and is still regard the body type as a staple of the genre.
Much like their solid body brethren, semi hollow bodies (the “semi” in “semi-hollow” refers to its semi-acoustic nature, not the body, which is fully hollow) are similar in depth and rely on pickups for their tone and sound, but unlike solid bodies, the pickups convert both the string and body vibrations (caused by the hollow insides) into the electrical output signal. This creates a tone that many describe as warm and rich, used heavily in both ‘50s rock and roll and jazz for its clean signature sound. The main drawback to the body type is its propensity for feedback when played at loud volumes, making it a less popular option for big stage hard rock bands that came afterwards.
These are essentially the link between the acoustic guitar and the electric guitar, and not just because you can play these unplugged and sound just as loud as an acoustic. When the full hollow body guitar was first designed, it was known as an archtop guitar due to its unique design. The design is often credited to Orville Gibson as a means of creating a superior sounding acoustic guitar compared to those being made at the time. He succeeded by creating the body out of a single piece of wood that got rid of inside braces, blocks, bridges and splices, all of which are attributed to diminished tone and volume. They became very popular with the jazz scene for its louder sound and rich tone. The archtop became so popular that it became the basis when designing the first electric guitar, the semi hollow body.
Nowadays almost all full hollow body guitars are electric, although several pre-semi hollow guitars were retroactively fitted with pickups. These guitars are currently popular with both rockabilly and jazz music due to their signature twangy sound and warm tones which is due in part to the resonation of sound in the large arched body as well as the pickups used in its design. Much like semi-hollow guitars, hollow bodies are prone to feedback and are generally not popular for loud music, although with modern effects and technology, the propensity has been reduced.
Other Notable Guitar Bodies
The Chambered guitar body
There are the true “semi-hollow” body guitars in that they are not fully hollowed and are much closer in design to that of the solid body. The consist of hollowed chambers inside a solid body design but structured in a way that the hollowed areas do not interfere with critical parts such as the bridge and string anchor point on the solid body. The marked differences between these and a standard solid body are reduced weight and a slight semi-hollow body tone.
The Acoustic Electric Guitar
Essentially, this is your basic acoustic guitar which eventually took advantage of growing pickup and mic technology. When the electric guitar was first invented, pickups were the key in delivering an electrical signal that can be translated by an amplifier. The problem with using these electric guitar pickups on an acoustic instrument was the unavoidable issue of feedback and “wolf tones.” Wolf tones occur when the note that is struck has the same frequency as the natural resonation in the body of the acoustic instrument which creates a sound similar to two of the same notes being struck at once. Although that may theoretically sound interesting and nice to some, the wolf tone oscillates back and forth, thus giving the sound an unwanted flat/sharp overtone which as we all know doesn’t sound nice at all. The eventual introduction of the piezoelectric sensor pickup took care of this problem, as well as the incorporation of condenser mics as a pickup alternative to acoustic-electric guitars.
The Guitar Body Makes the Man
There you have it. Every one of these guitars is a solid choice for an instrument and with today’s technology the negative aspects of each can be reduced better than ever, although it should be noted that it is impossible to perfectly recreate some of the naturally inherent tones of certain body types. Although there are no rules set in stone as to which genres HAVE to use which body type, hard rockers tend to lean more towards the solid body for its superior control of feedback and tone versatility while country and jazz aficionados swear by the twang and rich tone of the semi and full hollow. Either way, each one of these body types is more than ready to rock!