The hollow body guitar and its semi-hollow evolution are still as popular as ever, outliving many of the fast musical fads from the last few decades. How do they still attract the attention of guitarists around the world for use in a widespread pool of genres? And what good is a hollow electric guitar, anyway? Here’s a very brief synopsis:
- 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 be retired any time soon. Part of the attraction is down to the old school aesthetic, but they’re genuinely practical guitars, too.
Hollow Body Guitars
The hollow body guitar was created in the 1930s to compete for loudness in large jazz bands and orchestras. Most of us are no doubt familiar with the popular archtop shape and iconic F-hole design. 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.
It garnered success as a jazz instrument because of its clean, warm tones. 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 high volumes or gain. It is highly susceptible to feedback, although many guitarists have learned to use it in their favour. Legendary players George Benson and Chet Atkins favoured the clarity and warm sound, which also works nicely with slide techniques. Renowned alternative and prog rock guitarists Geordie Walker of Killing Joke and Steve Howe from Yes use them for sustained notes and ambient sections.
No doubt the more popular choice of the two, semi-hollow guitars have one defining feature that sets them apart from their older relative.
A semi-hollow guitar has a wooden centre block to mount its pickups, unlike a completely ‘hollow’ body. This eliminates the blustery feedback of a fully hollow guitar. Therefore, most semi-hollows are naturally geared towards music requiring overdrive or distortion and are equipped with hotter alnico pickups. BB King was one of the early players to popularise the guitar, 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.
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.
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