Electric Guitars are mainly used for playing Rock, Jazz, blues and pop music. Unlike acoustic guitars, electric guitars can make very little sound on their own. Playing the metal strings makes the pickups beneath the strings generate electric sound signals.
These signals first go to volume and tone controls and then to an amplifier and loudspeaker. These control knobs determine the loudness and kind of sound produced while, high voltage amplifiers are responsible for the desired levels of loudness and bass. They produce high metallic volume with a long decay.
In this article, we will discuss different types of electric guitars available in the market and their salient features.
Difference With Acoustic Guitars
Unlike, the case of acoustic guitars, electric guitar design does not need a deep acoustic chamber to produce the required volume and resonance. Hence, we can have thin bodied and contoured electric guitars.
Due to this, majority of electric guitars are solid body or semi-hollow type. Only notable exception being, archtop electric guitars with hollow bodies to make use of acoustic resonance.
Second difference lies in the size of the strings. The strings used in electric guitar are thinner than acoustic ones. Other differences are discussed in detail in our article on Acoustic Vs Electric Guitars.
Introduction - Types Of Electric Guitars
Gibson and Fender are two brands synonymous with this type of instrument. Initial designs created by them are either still employed today or are inspiration for development of new designs. Many new companies have made their names in the market, with designs, which are basically variations of the original. Their products are still identified by the original names, given by these two companies.
As discussed in our article on types of acoustic guitars, guitars made of wood with six strings are the most commonly used. Same applies for electric guitars also.
Wooden Body Electric Guitars With Six Strings
As indicated above, electric guitars have solid, semi-hollow or hollow bodies. We shall start our discussion with the most common type, the solid body electric guitar.
Solid Body Electric Guitars
Solid body guitars, as the name suggests, are made from solid wood. Only reason that some holes and chambers exist in their body is to house the electronics and hardware. These type of guitars have more sustain and resistance to feedback in comparison to other types. This quality makes them fit to play genres such as Rock and Metal which rely on more distortion .
The output of solid body guitars depends on variety of factors such as
- Type of wood used for construction
- Type, number and quality of the pickups used and other hardware.
- The scale length
- Shape of the bodies and neck
Five of the most popular body styles for the category are
- Stratocaster (Fender)
- Superstrat Guitars
- Telecaster (Fender)
- Les Paul (Gibson)
- SG (Gibson)
Let us look at some of the salient features of the above styles beginning with Stratocaster.
Stratocaster (Fender) Guitar
Fender Stratocaster (called Strat in short), is the most famous and instantly recognizable electric guitar. It has two distinctive cutaway horns, allowing access even for the thumb, to the higher frets while playing. It has a contoured back, designed to provide comfort.
Though, it is more associated with blues / rock and roll, it is good to play virtually all styles of music including country, pop, folk, soul. R & B to name a few.
The Strat was first introduced by Leo Fender in 1954 and became an instant hit with most professional musicians. Two of the iconic players of Strat were Jimi Hendrix and Eric Clapton. Other famous users include David Gilmour, Stevie Ray Vaughan and Mark Knopfler.
Standard configuration of Stratocaster has three single coil pickups and a tremolo bridge / bar. Many variations to this standard configuration exist.
Pickups are rows of magnet placed perpendicularly to the strings of electric guitar. These magnets produce magnetic field around the strings and the coil of wire. When metal strings vibrate, they cause the fields to vary in strength, producing varying electric current in the coil. The guitar’s internal circuitry delivers this current signal to the amplifier.
In earlier times, the pickups were passive. Now,
- Active pickups, with capabilities to boost the signal and
- Built in Equalizers to shape the tone, at the source itself are available.
Tremolo bar is attached to a spring loaded bridge. This allows the players to change the pitch of single notes or chords. When pushed down, the tremolo bar lowers the pitch of the strings and raises it when pulled up.
Lot of imitations of Fender Stratocaster designs are available ranging from bad to extremely good versions. Guitars, similar in shape and configuration to Fender Strats are also commonly referred to as Stratocasters. Strats from Fender are also available in two price ranges
- Squier Range: Budget guitars suitable for beginners.
- Fender Range: Premium models suited for intermediate or advanced players.
Stratocaster is a versatile instrument and a great choice if you want to play different types of music.
Superstrat guitars were modeled after Stratocaster and have the same body style. But, the output from the guitar is very different.
Fender created its popular models, Stratocaster and telecaster, with modularity as an important concept. If any part, suffered an irreparable damage, idea was to replace them. But, this feature has been used creatively by modern players to create new variations by modifying these modular parts. These variations are suitable for playing different style of music,
Super Strat guitar is a result of the above phenomenon. Eddie Van Halen is credited with doing modifications to Strat, which led to a guitar with Superstrat characteristics.
Some of these modifications include
- Having more powerful high output pickups to overdrive the amplifier easily. Use of humbucking pickups and active electronic pickups is now very common in these guitars.
- A locking type tremolo system. The system is capable of holding the tuning better than the standard one. These commonly have Floyd Rose tremolos, allowing greater range of movement.
- Thinner necks, larger frets with flatter fretboards.
- Other hardware up gradations.
Higher output by the pickups results in higher distortion making them more suitable for genres like metal and hard rock.
Notable players for these type of guitars include Eddie Van Halen, Dave Murray and Steve Vai.
Fender telecaster, also known as Tele, was introduced before the Stratocaster and has a classical and timeless look. It is another highly recognizable and imitated guitars, though less in comparison with Strat.
It has single cutaway, two single coil pickups, does not have any tremolo bar or the contoured body. In place of tremolo bridge, these guitars had, what became popular known as an ashtray bridge, having three saddles .
Known for its pure, thinner and biting sound, it is particularly good for playing indie and country music. It is now used for playing various types of music and is one of the few solid body guitars used for jazz. It’s sound is not particularly suitable for playing rock and metal type of music.
Like Stratocaster guitars, Tele are also available in two price ranges, the Squier range and the Fender.
Famous telecaster users - Graham Coxon, Bruce Springsteen, Jonny Greenwood, Jeff Beck, Andy Summers, and Keith Richards.
Gibson Les Paul Guitar
Common perception about the Gibson Les Paul guitar is of the second most well-known guitar in the world. It was the signature model of the great guitarist, Les Paul and became famous due to its versatility and craftsmanship.
Original design of Gibson Les Paul in 1950’s, had two single coil pickups with one distinctive cutaway. Double humbucker arrangement, replaced the single coil pickups by 1960. This arrangement is even employed today.
These guitars have a thicker and warmer sound with high sustain, due to mahogany body and double humbucker pickups. This makes them suitable for harder Rock & Roll genres. They have much wider neck in comparison to most guitars.
The guitar as a mahogany body, on which a thin layer of maple is added to give its signature archtop shape. Mahogany is a softer wood with mellower tone and many tonal variants. Guitar uses Tune-O-Matic bridge with stop bar tailpiece.
They are much expensive in comparison to the Fenders and hence, not a common choice with beginners. Their less expensive budget line, suitable for beginners is known as Epiphone. Similar to, other electric guitars, many imitations of Les Paul type guitars by other companies are commonly available.
Many notable players of Gibson Les Paul guitars are Jimmy Page of Led Zeppelin fame, Slash, Zakk Wilde, Gary Moore and Peter Green.
Gibson SG is to Gibson, what telecaster is to Fender’s, their second most famous guitar. SG stands for Solid guitar. At one time in early 1960’s, the instruments produced were also referred to as Les Paul SG’s.
It is much lighter in weight and thinner than Gibson Les Paul but has two cutaways and horns with much longer neck. New to its longer neck, it may sometimes feel not as balanced when used with a strap.
Like Les Paul, they have two humbucker pickups. Each of these pickups have a separate volume and tone control knobs
Double cutaway body with higher fret access makes it suitable for guitarists making use of slides. SG has flat top as compared to the arch top of the Les Paul. This results in price of SG being much lower in comparison between the two.
However, there is not much difference in terms of quality of sound as the wood used and the pickup arrangement is essentially the same. It is a simple, versatile, playable design which is a good fit for playing rock and metal.
Some of the famous guitarists who used SG are Frank Zappa, Tony Iommi, Angus Young of AC / DC, Pete Townsend and Eric Clapton. Eric Clapton also used Strat.
Fender Jazzmaster, Gibson Explorer and Gibson Flying V are other notable electric solid body guitars.
Semi Hollow Electric Guitars
Semi hollow guitars, also known as semi acoustic guitars, have hollow bodies inside them for sound to resonate. This provides warmer and dynamically responsive sounds.
In an unplugged condition, sound levels produced are more than solid body guitars. But these are still low enough to be of any use. Hence, use of an amplifier is mandatory.
In the type of guitars, a wooden central block is added in the center, beneath the pickups, while the outer portions are hollow. This block divides the internal chamber of the guitar into two parts.
This arrangement helps in reduction of feedback issues. At the same time, it provides resonance and maintains the wooden tone of hollow body instruments. There is also an addition of sustain, which means slow decay of sound.
While these guitars are commonly associated with blues and jazz, they can easily be used to play rock. Though reduced due to semi hollow construction, feedback may be an issue at louder volumes or with higher levels of distortion. Increased feedback is also an issue in live situations.
These type of guitars have been best represented by Gibson’s ES (Electric-Spanish) series launched in 1936. Many variants were produced by Gibson itself and by other companies, but all these variations are based on the original design. Gibson ES-335 has been their flagship guitar, favored by electric blues and fusion players.
Famous players for these guitars have been Alvin Lee, Larry Carlton, B. B. King and Chuck Berry.
Hollow Body Or Arch Top Electric Guitars
Arch top or Hollow body guitars, whether electric or acoustic, have similar carved or arched top and back portion. Usually, these are carved out of single piece of wood, but heat pressed laminates are also used to reduce cost.
Hollow body allows the player to take advantage of acoustic features such as resonance and tones. In electric archtop guitars, the sound produced is further amplified. Hence these are also called as semi acoustic guitars.
Hollow guitars have two main body styles:
- Similar to ES 335, where the wooden block in the middle, is not there
- Jazz box style, similar to Gibson ES 175.
Because of their hollow body construction, these guitars are prone to feedback. They produce thick acoustic sounds with less sustain, making them very popular with jazz guitarists. Hence, also referred to as jazz boxes.
ES 175 has two humbucking pickups with deep body and thinner neck. The thin neck arrangement allows for faster cording. This guitar is expensive with good quality alternatives being available from Ibanez.
Notable players - Pat Metheny, Steve Howe
Electric Acoustic Guitars
Electric acoustic guitars also known as Acoustic electric guitars, are different from semi acoustic guitars discussed earlier. These are basically acoustic guitars, which can be played without plugging them to any amplifier and sound as magnificent, as when plugged in.
In terms of look and shape also, they have the sound hole, which is a basic characteristic of any acoustic guitar. However, they have transducers, pickups, built-in mics or sensitive Piezo sensors to pick the sound vibrations. This is then sent to an amplifier, mixer or a recording device. Often, the amplifiers are specifically designed to suit their sound.
The pickups are specially designed to be neutral and provide little or no alteration to organic timber sound.
These are primarily used to play classical and folk music. But they provide the players with more flexibility in effects and styles due to devices connected to them.
Compared to electric guitars,
- they have bigger fretboards,
- lesser fret accessibility and
- heavier strings.
They are prone to feedback issue and are not used in over-driven mode.
7/8 String Guitars
We have so far discussed six string guitars. Seven string guitars, as the name suggests, have one extra string. This is a low string, tuned to a B in most cases. These are very popular with metal guitarists, wanting ultra-low but heavy sound.
These are used today by Dave Weiner, John Petrucci, Jeff Loomis, Steve Smyth, and Steve Vai.
Some of the guitarists like Meshuggah, Dino Cazares and Rusty Cooley went a step further and started using two extra low strings.
In this article we have looked at
- Major types of electric guitars such as Solid body, semi hollow body and hollow body or archtop guitars, Electric Acoustic guitars and 7/8 strings guitars, available in today’s market.
- Differences in their major features / construction and tones of sound produced.
- Essential accessories such as pickups, bridges, tremolo bars etc.
- Type of music genres, each of these guitars are best suited to.
All these factors are very essential to consider, when you are considering to buy your first electric guitar.