The woods and designs that shaped some of our most prized guitars and the terms we use to describe them.
From Cream-era Clapton and his Gibson ES-335 to Wes Montgomery and his Gibson L5, big, beautiful F-hole guitars have played a pivotal role in the sound of pop, country, blues and jazz. In this edition of Guitar Notes we’ll take a look at the construction methods used on hollow and partially hollow electric guitars and the terms used to describe them.
Carved archtop guitars are fully hollow and similar in construction to a violin or high-end mandolin. In fact, Gibson still produces these guitars in the same part of the factory that builds their legendary Gibson mandolins. The top and back are carved from a solid piece of wood and are often pitch-matched to make the instrument as lively as possible.
These instruments commonly have floating pickups and controls. By mounting the pickup in the neck and placing volume and tone knobs on the pickguard where they float, the vibration of the solid top is is unrestricted.
Common wood choices include a solid spruce top, solid figured maple back and sides, figured maple neck and an ebony fretboard. The bridge on these guitars is not attached to the top, but instead is held down by string tension. The Gibson Custom L5 and Gibson Citation are classic examples of this guitar type.
The Gibson Custom Citation hollowbody with its spectacular woods and workmanship is among the finest archtops I’ve ever played.
There are also many smaller luthiers that build these guitars including D’Angelico. These guitar are loud acoustically and tend to have a sparkling high end snap due to the solid spruce top. They have an overall big and mellow tone especially when played with the thumb.
As more and more players plugged in, guitar manufacturers shifted their focus from acoustic properties to pickups, feedback-resistance and overall cost. The Gibson ES 175 is a classic hollowbody model made famous by jazz players like Jim Hall, Joe Pass, Pat Metheny and more. Many Gretsch guitars including the 6120 share this construction as well. Unlike the archtop guitars, hollowbody electrics are made from laminated wood (essentially high-end plywood).
Maple laminate tops, backs and sides are the norm, but you will sometimes see mahogany backs and sides and Gibson often uses a maple/poplar/maple laminate “sandwich.” In addition to being stronger and cheaper, laminate wood is easier to bend and work with. The arched tops and backs on these guitars are pressed using plates and require no carving.
Gibson presses the arched contours into their bodies during the actual lamination process! Another advantage of laminate hollowbody guitars is counter-intuitive: the reduced resonance of laminate woods helps minimize the feedback loop between guitar and amp making higher volumes possible.
Unlike carved archtops, hollowbodies have their pickups bolted to the top with regular pickup rings and standard knob placement. The bridge is usually held down by string tension and not fixed to the top. This type of guitar may also have a Bigsby vibrato.
The Gibson Historic 1959 ES175D is a classic jazz box built with the original presses used in 1959.
The Gretsch Custom Shop Falcon ‘55 Relic is just one of the great Gretsch hollowbodies!
The semi hollow design was introduced to further resist feedback as bands grew ever louder. Semi hollowbody guitars are typically made with maple or maple/poplar/maple laminate for the top, back and sides, and have a solid center block that extends from the end of the neck and extends beneath the pickups and bridge to the end pin of the guitar body. The pickups are bolted to the top and the bridge is mounted to the body on a semi hollow guitar.
Having a solid piece of wood under the pickups and bridge along with a thinner body make this type of guitar ideal for high-volume playing. The versatile Gibson ES-335 is undoubtedly the most famous semi hollowbody guitar, having been used in many different musical genres.
The Gibson ES-335 semi hollow handles high volume without feedback thanks to a center block.
Using this newly developed process, Gibson is now able to bend solid wood tops into carved shapes. It’s similar to the way the company uses plates in creating hollowbody-guitar laminations. There are several benefits; most notably, it yields three tops out of the same wood thickness the builder would need to hand-carve a top. Also, grain pattern is not disrupted when the top is bent instead of carved. These instruments have floating pickups and controls with the bridge held in place by string tension.
The Gibson Custom Solid Formed Archtop features solid, arched woods with no carving involved.
Which guitar is right for you?
Buy a carved archtop if you will be playing in intimate settings and/or play with your fingers/thumb. These guitars work nicely in solo guitar and duo settings.
Buy a hollowbody if you want that big mellow sound with a bit less feedback in bigger venues. These guitars work beautifully in jazz combos and big bands as well as rockabilly, country, blues bands and more!
Buy a semi hollowbody if you’re looking for a guitar that has a nice jazz tone but can take volume levels on par with a solidbody guitar. These guitars make a great choice for all jazz applications as well as heavy blues and rock.
If you lack the funds for a carved archtop, consider a press-formed archtop; it will have similar tone and features but at a lower price tag.
There you have it. There are lots of guitars to choose from in these different configurations. Musician’s Friend Private Reserve has a wonderful collection of jazz guitars and we can audition them all to find the best one for you.
Until next time...keep playing!
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Visit www.privatereserveguitars.com or contact Derek White directly at 866-926-1923. He can get you the absolute lowest price on your dream guitar. Connect with Private Reserve Guitars on Facebook and Instagram.
Brian Baggett is Video Presenter for Musician’s Friend Private Reserve Guitars. He curates the Private Reserve guitar collection on video, visits guitar factories and works closely with luthiers and signature artists to gain insight into the greatest guitars being built today. He is also a professional guitarist playing every Wednesday and Saturday night at The Green Lady Lounge in Kansas City. A former jazz guitar professor, Brian continues to teach guitar lessons and has a book and DVD titled Keys To Unlocking the Fretboard. Find Brian on Facebook and twitter.