Semi-Hollow vs Hollow Body Guitars: What’s The Difference?

Two classic designs, one major difference. Let’s explore what makes each guitar unique.

Cian Hodge

Cian Hodge

The hollow body guitar and its semi-hollow successor are still as popular as ever, outliving countless fast musical fads over the last few decades. But makes both types of guitar unique? And what good is a hollow electric guitar, anyway? Here’s a very brief overview:

  • Hollow body guitars are primarily used in jazz and blues
  • They produce clear, soft tones
  • Semi-hollow body guitars utilise a centre block of wood
  • They are able to deal with increased gain
  • Semi-hollow guitars suit rock and other modern genres

These two retro designs certainly have their place in amongst contemporary music and they’re not about to retire any time soon. Part of the attraction is down to the old school aesthetic, but they produce very specific sounds you’ll need in your arsenal, too.

semi-hollow Epiphone

Hollow Body Guitars

Hollow body electric guitars were first created in the 1930s in an attempt to compete for loudness in large jazz bands and orchestras. The archtop shape and iconic F-hole design are instantly recognisable features of a hollow body. You could say this style of guitar is very much “of its time”. It utilises a large open body, high string action and old school, low output pickups.

This is successful as a jazz instrument because of its clean, smooth tones. It also adds a little grit when played through a loud valve amp. A hollow body’s dynamics resemble those of an electro-acoustic in many ways, but they sound smooth like a regular electric guitar in contrast to an acoustic’s jangly characteristics.

The hollow body falls short, however, when you apply much higher volumes or gain. It is highly susceptible to feedback, although many guitarists have learned to use it in their favour. Take Gary Clark Jr, for example: He often uses hollow bodied Epiphone Casinos live to get a gritty Blues Rock tone, using his guitar volume to intricately control the feedback from the amp.

Legendary players such as George Benson and Chet Atkins favoured their warmth, which also works nicely when using slide techniques. Renowned alternative guitarists Geordie Walker of Killing Joke and Steve Howe from Yes use hollow body guitars to sustain notes and breath life into ambient sections.

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Semi-Hollow Guitars

F-Hole

No doubt the more popular choice of the two nowadays, semi-hollow guitars have one defining feature that sets them apart from their older relative.

Semi-hollow electric guitars feature a wooden centre block to mount pickups. This eliminates the blustery feedback of a fully hollow guitar. Therefore, most semi-hollows are better equipped for music requiring overdrive or distortion. B.B. King was one of the first players to bring it into the mainstream with his famous “Lucille” Gibson ES-355, and pretty much everyone since has been inspired by his fiery blues sound.

Commonly associated (yet not defining) aspects of a semi-hollow guitar also include the thinline body, single F-hole and fixed stopbar or Bigsby bridge. Essentially these are sleeker and more ergonomic. Perfect for all-action live guitarists or players after a balance between contemporary and classic design. One example of this would be Foo Fighters frontman Dave Grohl, who never strays far from his Pelham Blue Gibson for those huge stadium rock tones.

There are certain players who are synonymous with semi-hollow guitars: Chuck Berry, Eric Clapton, Noel Gallagher – but perhaps none more so than Jazz fusion legend, Larry Carlton, dubbed “Mr. 335”. He’s rarely seen without his trusty ES-335. In 2020, he teamed up with Sire, to produce his own signature range of guitars, including a semi-hollow at an affordable price. With his name on it, there can be no greater seal of approval.

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Thinline Guitars

Fender Limited Edition ’70s Vintera Thinline Telecaster

If there’s a story to be told about electric guitars, it’s bound to feature Fender at some point. A relatively modern addition to the semi-hollow pantheon was Fender’s introduction of the Thinline Telecaster in 1969. This combines the smaller and more rugged body shape of the Telecaster with the weight reduction and more open sound of a semi-hollow. In most cases Thinline Teles are fitted with rich, full sounding wide-range humbuckers, which adds to the smooth warmth associated with semi-hollows, as opposed to the bright, twangy single-coil pickups on a standard Tele.

Because of it’s smaller body, it is even more resistant to feedback than a big-bodied semi-hollow, allowing it to flourish in any musical context, from warm, ambient cleans to gnarley rock and high-gain.

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Popular Hollow Body Brands

Gibson is by far and away the largest semi-hollow guitar manufacturer, with ranks of ES guitars in their current line-up and continually popular historical models. The ES-335 is synonymous with semi-hollows, as well as the smaller traditional ES-339. If you’re after a bit more edge, the ES-235 will serve you well as a stylish single-cut. However, Gibson are rolling back on their hollow body instruments and leave that up to offshoot company Epiphone with the affordable Casino.

Elsewhere, you’ll find Ibanez making the AF and AFC hollow series, as well as Gretsch’s selection of G542 models. Other well-known companies specialising in hollow-body guitars include D’Angelico, PRS and Duesenberg.

Both Fender and their more affordable sister company, Squier, offer a range of Thinline Teles. Other brands such as G&L, Chapman, EastCoast and Hansen also offer a take on the semi-hollow T-Style.

If you enjoyed this read, check out more of our Learn articles!

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Cian Hodge
Cian Hodge
Cian is a writer for the Andertons team. He shares his birthday with Muse frontman Matt Bellamy and believes he will one day reach the same level of stardom. Cian is a big metal fan so naturally loves Bare Knuckle pickups and pointy guitars.

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