Buying a guitar: Electric Guitar Varieties
Prepared by Alan Humm
One class of hollow body electrics is the archtop that I discussed earlier under
steel-string guitars with a pick up attached. The famous Gibson ES-150
is such a bird and was Gibson's first entry into the dedicated electric
guitar field. It is still in production and still popular in some
circles. As I mentioned, if you expect these 'enhanced' acoustic
instruments to have a decent acoustic sound, you do need to be concerned
about the number and placement of the pickups, but I will refer you back
to that section before repeating myself.
Feedback is when the sound coming from the amplifier comes back and
enhances the vibration of your guitar, and especially your strings.
This, in turn, makes your signal get louder, which makes it happen more,
and it keeps on going. Controlled feedback can be nice because it makes
your guitar get really long sustain. When it gets uncontrolled (most of
the time) the frequencies that feedback inhabits most are not the notes
you thought you were playing, or wanted; they tend to be high-pitched
and irritating, and everyone in the room complains. It can be
controlled, but the easiest way is not to use a hollow guitar.
Ibanez Semi-hollow Body Guitar.
Most electric guitars in this category are actually called 'semi-hollow'
body guitars. From the front they look the same, but once you get
sideways you notice that they are a lot thinner. The insides are usually
more heavily braced than a standard acoustic as well. The reason for
this that any time you put a pickup on a regular acoustic guitar, you
invite feedback once you plug it in and start to amplify it.1
Thin guitars don't have as much acoustic response, and so this is less
likely to happen. That can also be improved in your favor if your guitar
top is thick and unresponsive.
Nevertheless even the small acoustic response affects your sound and
some players distinctly prefer it. However, you do need to be aware that
feedback will be more of a problem with even a semi-hollow body than it
will with a solid-body electric.
Fender Coronado with a floating bridge.
If you are going the semi-hollow route, one thing you need to look for
is the bridge. There are two primary types. Older models, following the
pattern of the viols on which the archtop guitars were modeled, attached
the strings through a tail-piece, like this 1967 Fender Coronado II. The
bridge floats free under the strings. This is good for an acoustic
archtop. On an electric it is both pointless and irritating. I used to
own this same guitar and was constantly knocking the bridge out of
place. Each time that happened I had to reset the bridge, which is
Gibson ES-399 with a fixed bridge.
The tendency in modern thin-line instruments is to use the kinds of
bridges you have probably seen on lots of Epiphones and Gibsons. The
bridge itself is bolted to the guitar body, and the tailpiece is too. If
you are looking for a semi-hollow guitar, I highly recommend picking one
up that is built like this, unless there are other overriding factors.
See under solid body guitars for a discussion of vibrato (whammy) bars.
ESP LTD Solid Body Guitar.
What makes one solid-body guitar better than another? If it is an older
guitar, the pickups come into play. This is not so much the case any
more unless you are buying at the really low end. There are still taste
differences, though, as I mentioned earlier. Dual coil, humbucker style
pickups will give you slightly stronger mid-range. Single coil ones
generally do better with the high end. But there are still differences.
Check the other things I mentioned in the pickup section above.
Of course, not everyone goes for the lighter gauge, or not as much so.
Jazz players, in particular, often prefer the tone and feel of a heaver
string, and also have a tendency to look for the cleanest pickups. This
also is a function of how much, in your preferred playing style, you end
up bending strings. Obviously the lighter ones bend more easily.
Modern electrics are virtually all that way. If you are shopping for
vintage instruments that you actually want to play (as opposed to simply
hanging them on the wall), however, this is something to be aware of.
Tonepros Tune-o-matic Tailpiece/bridge Set.
Action is generally closer on electrics than it should be on acoustic
guitars, and string gauge is usually lighter. This is because, being
amplified, the strings don't need to drive the whole body into vibrating
in order to get a good sound.2 But good intonation is
essential, acoustic or electric. Most electrics have the advantage that
the bridges can be adjusted to ensure exactly that. This is a very good
thing, not only because it makes them easier to set up, but because
these things can change if you use a different gauge string than was on
the guitar when it was last set up. If you have a choice, go for the
adjustable bridge option.3
EVH Lighter Model Solid Body Guitar.
Much more variation exists in modern guitars on the weight of the
instrument. There are two edges on this sword. The most obvious one is
feel; you are the best judge of that. If you expect to be 'playing out'
and standing holding it on a strap for a couple to four hours, you might
want to consider how your back will feel at the end of the evening.
Still, there is another side to 'feel.' Some players would say that a
heavier instrument gives them a sense of substance that, at least at
some level, improves their playing. They don't want to have the
impression that they are trying to keep the instrument from floating
away. Where you stand on this continuum is completely up to you, but
before investing in, say, a Les Paul, which is probably heavier than
your two-year-old, consider borrowing one from a friend and do a back
stress-test in a close to real-world setting.
The PRS (Studio) will be heavier on both shoulders and wallet.
There is another issue on which not everyone agrees. A number of players
argue that heavier guitars sustain better, which makes a little
intuitive sense but ends up not cutting it from a physics perspective.
What is true is that resonant bodies (usually the lighter ones) will
give you a some more high end, while heavier ones do a little better on
midrange. It is also true that harder surface woods (maple, ebony) will
improve your high end over, say, mahogany, which is softer and less
sound reflective. If this sounds a little like the difference between
dual coil vs. single coil pickups, I guess you have been paying
attention. So if you really want that high end, pick up single coils on
a light guitar with a hard sound-reflective surface. If you strongly
prefer mids, go for dual coil on a heavy, but softer wood instrument.
Nevertheless, if you are looking at a piezo-electric setup, body
resonance is definitely something you want.
Bold-on Neck from a Fender Stratocaster.
Attached neck on a Gibson SG.
Smooth transition with Carvin neck-through-body.
One thing which may have more effect on your playing is how the neck is
attached. There are two major categories, and one sub-category. Most
Fender guitars and their ubiquitous imitators use bolt-on necks. If you
play up the neck a lot you will find yourself running into the point
where the neck attaches to the body. Most guitarists don't have a
problem with this, and it does have the advantage that if you need to
replace the neck for some reason, it is extremely simple process. In
contrast, Gibson and its imitators tend to attach their necks, although,
as you can see from the picture, as the neck hits the body there is a
clear change in thickness, so the difference in feel between this and
the bolt-on is not dramatic. The third option, which is really a
variation on the second approach is to smooth this transition. This is
usually associated with what are called "neck through body" guitars.
Some do not seem appreciably different in feel, although this approach
does provide a stronger neck-to-body connection. Some however, like the
Carvin in this image, do provide a smooth transition between neck and
This will not be an option for you, in all probability, if you are using
a semi-hollow instrument. The reason is that Floyd Rose vibratos run
clean through the body of the instrument in a way that would be tricky
with a semi-hollow. I did not say impossible, though, just tricky.
Normandy Archtop with Bigsby Vibrato.
Schecter Hellraiser with Floyd Rose Vibrato.
Something you might, or might not, want on your guitar is a vibrato bar.
These are sometimes called "whammy" bars, which may be a more
descriptive name. Actually, you've been hearing vibrato for years on
instruments with no special devices attached. You get normal vibrato by
moving the fingers of your left hand on the strings (side to side, back
and forth, in circles-each has its own special sound), or rocking your
right palm on the bridge. If that is all you want, you won't like the
bar. I made good and sure there was one on my first decent electric
Later on, I unscrewed it and just stuck it in my case, since I used it
so little. But sometimes, when you want that whammy sound, nothing else
will quite get you there. Smooth whammy was popular with a lot of beach
music in the 60s, but one of my favorite subtle uses is in Bruce
Cockburn's "Cry of
a tiny babe." Any vibrato bar will give you that sound. The king of
vibrato in the sixties was the Bixby pictured on the left above. For the
other end of the spectrum, though, listen to Eddie Van Halen's "Eruption." For
that you are going to need a high-end modern vibrato, probably a Floyd Rose or something licensed by
them (on the right above).4 One of the problems with vibratos
much of the time is that they get you out of tune. This shouldn't be
surprising since you are intentionally at least partially detuning the
guitar when you use them. The Floyd Rose approach ties your strings down
before you mess with the tension, so that more often than not it comes
back when you release. It also gives you a lot more note shifting
distance. You can go all the way down to completely loose, or up until
your strings break (they are not paying me, honest). This is how Van
Halen is getting that sound, but if you just want some occasional wobbly
guitar, it probably is not worth the extra expense, although they do
stay in tune nicely. There is a whole lot more on vibrato bars in the
article on the subject, including some more recordings.
Taylor T5 Hybrid Guitar.
Hybrid guitars are designed to allow the performer to have some of both
worlds (acoustic and electric sounds). They generally do this with a
body designed have some resonance and use a piezo pickup, often in
conjunction with a standard magnetic one. The piezo gives an acoustic
sound while the magnetic pickup provides the electric. Some sort of
switching allows the performer to use either one or both, just as in
other dual pickup systems.
Ovation VXT Hybrid Guitar.
No surprise, a semi-hollow guitar can be setup this way, particularly if
it is constructed with resonant woods. The Taylor in the picture above
is obviously based on the semi-hollow, although it is not arched. In
this case the f-holes allow the top to breathe which helps its acoustic
qualities, but they are not essential (as with the Ovation in the next
But the term 'hybrid' is something of a catch-phrase that picks up a lot
more varieties of guitar. Any time you have an acoustic (of any
variety) that has a built in piezo, or any other kind of pickup, you
will see it called a 'hybrid' by its manufacturers. At the other end of
the spectrum PRS (Paul Reed Smith) makes several straight up
solid-bodies that happen to have peizos, as well as their usual
magnetic pickups. They call these 'hybrid,' too. The first group will
allow you to amplify, but you will not get that full electric sound. The
second group will not have a problem with that, but their piezo sound
will not have much acoustic quality (which is not to say that they would
not be useful, if that is the sound you want).