If you’ve been playing guitar for a while now, you’ve probably already begun to wonder about some of the subtle, yet important differences between guitar models. You may have found yourself thinking, “What is the functional difference between maple and rosewood fretboards? Will the type of finish used on my guitar affect how it ages? What is the point of locking tuners?”
Amongst all those inquiries, you will surely come to the ultimate premise underlying them: “Does this really matter? Will it really have an effect on the sound of my guitar and how I play?”
Well, when it comes to whether a guitar’s body is solid or hollow, the answer is unequivocally yes. While “scholars” (a.k.a. anonymous gearheads on message boards) can argue about whether or not many spec variations have an effect on your tone or playing, there is no doubt that the solidity of the guitar’s body does indeed modify your sound in a real way.
If you need proof of this, grab an acoustic guitar and a solid body electric guitar. Without connecting them to electronics, play a few chords on both. You’ll notice a significant difference, with the acoustic having a deep, hollow ringing sound that you can basically feel, and the electric being thinner, twangier, and less resonant. These two guitars have markedly different sound qualities, mostly because of the density of their bodies. You also wind up playing them differently because of the difference in size, build, and how they feel and react.
The difference between an acoustic and an unplugged electric is an extreme example to illustrate how the body of a guitar creates sound and playability distinctions. And while the principle is sound (pun intended) an acoustic guitar is a bit different than an electric hollow body, which is really what we’re talking about here. On an acoustic, the soundhole amplifies the tone, whereas a hollow body electric absorbs that acoustic resonance through the pickups. While many acoustics do indeed feature electronics so they can be louder, they’re not necessary to achieve the desired sound.
So with that understanding, let’s put acoustics to the side and focus on electric guitars with hollow bodies. There are a few variations on hollow body guitars, with different types suited to different players and styles of music. It’s important to distinguish between them so you know what would best suit you.
Hollow Body: True hollow bodies are guitars with completely hollow bodies, i.e. nothing inside them. The full and complete hollow body electric guitar is like an acoustic without a soundhole and it has a profound effect on the tone of the guitar. The pickups on the face of the guitar capture the resonance of the strings reverberating with the hollow inside of the body. However, since the pickups are not shielded underneath by anything, they are highly susceptible to feedback, and thus don’t work well with distorted tones.
Hollow bodies are also consistently on the larger side – obviously, because they need space between the back, sides, and top. These guitars are often referred to as “jazz boxes” since they’re commonly used for jazz and are, well, boxy. If you’re into very open, natural tone, and more subdued genres of music, a hollow body might be a good option for you.
Semi-Hollow: Guitars that are semi-hollow only have a portion of their body hollowed out, like the top of the guitar (i.e. the area above the strings when you’re holding it in playing position). You can tell what area is hollow because usually there’s a swirly-looking cutout—called an “F-hole,” above the hollow part(s). Some semi-hollows have most of their body hollowed out, but maintain a solid centerblock to house the pickups and bridge mount.
That brings us to the gray area.
Hollow body guitars with centerblocks are sometimes referred to as semi-hollow and sometimes referred to as hollow, depending on who you’re talking to. The most accurate way to denote it would be to indicate it’s semi-hollow or that it’s “hollow with a centerblock.”
Some people (and manufacturers) forego accuracy or don’t realize this mildly confusing nuance. But it’s important to be sure of before you decide on a guitar.
If you want to impress your friends, go to a local guitar dealer, pick up a hollow body, and ask “Is this guitar truly hollow? Or is there a centerblock?”
Now, with that out of the way…
There are unique qualities to each brand and model of hollow/semi-hollow guitar. Because of these differences, you as an individual player might be better off with one variety of these guitars over another. So, let’s take a look at some famous brands and their trusted hollow bodies, as well as some signature artists’ hollow models, to understand their specific attributes.
Fender has been at the forefront of guitar making since they released the Telecaster in the early ’50s. They followed with the Stratocaster shortly thereafter, beginning their ascent to electric guitar supremacy. While Fender more commonly makes solid body electrics, they have strayed into semi-hollow territory a number of times, with great success.
In 1972, the now-iconic version of the Thinline Telecaster was introduced, featuring a single F-hole, extended pickguard, and Fender Wide-Range humbuckers. The combination created a beautiful natural tone to add to the already endearing Tele-twang.
Fender currently produces a remake of the ’72 Thinline, as well as a Thinline Deluxe model, and an American Elite model. Jim Adkins of Jimmy Eat World even teamed up with Fender to create the JA-90 Thinline Telecaster, which features dual Seymour Duncan P-90’s and a vintage style Adjusto-Matic bridge with anchored tailpiece.
But it’s not just the Tele that’s received the semi-hollow treatment from Fender.
While the Stratocaster is almost universally recognized as a solid body, there is one pretty prominent guitarist who thought it wise to hollow it out a little—Eric Johnson. As one of the most impressive blues-rock guitarists of the last century, Eric Johnson loved the combination of natural, semi-hollow tone, and unmatched Strat playability enough to have Fender make him an Eric Johnson Signature Stratocaster Thinline model. Unquestionably, that guitar plays great and sounds incredible.
Gibson ES Series
As one of the quintessential hollow body guitars, Gibson’s ES models (short for “Electric Spanish”) have withstood the test of time. Introduced in 1936, these guitars advanced the guitar world with the capability to play at higher volumes, while maintaining classic guitar tone. Shortly thereafter, these guitars would wind up in the hands of some of the greats.
Initially, ES models were picked up by jazz guitarists because, well, there really wasn’t too much else to compete with jazz at the time. Those early ES models were fully hollow, which remains a suitable build for jazz guitarists. But when blues went electric, the ES line expanded into semi-hollow models with the addition of a centerblock, and was one of the first guitars to accommodate these pre-rock rock stars.
Since then, Gibson ES guitars have gained fame in all areas of music. Many ES models fall within the Sam Ash Guitars of Distinction series, due to their high-quality build and price point. While the ES-335 is perhaps the most well-known of the ES family and still sells well to this day, Gibson has never stopped innovating. In 2007, they released the ES-339, a scaled-down version of the infamous 335, making it more manageable for many to play. Gibson also recently revealed the ES-235, a bold combination of the Les Paul and ES-125 models, boasting increased versatility coupled with semi-hollow tone.
Many artists across many genres have picked up a Gibson ES model and found their sound. Dave Grohl of the Foo Fighters had a signature ES-335. The late, great Chris Cornell also had a signature ES model, which is set to be produced again. And, of course, Gibson continues to make BB King’s renowned signature “Lucille” model for the legendary bluesman.
Ibanez is great at taking the best aspects of a guitar build, boiling it down to necessities, and bringing it to market at an affordable price. They make great looking and great playing guitars which span price points and musical styles. Their hollow bodies include both true hollows and those with a centerblock.
The Ibanez AS line holds some of their most popular hollow body guitars. The AS models are built with a large lower bout, dual humbucker pickups mounted into a sustain block for solid tone, and the capability to play with a little extra overdrive on your sound. The AF, by contrast, is a fully-hollow jazz box, with beautiful, classic style. This model sports a large, hollow body, with a single cutaway, and angled pickguard to protect its fine finish. Each AF boasts a special tailpiece suited to the model and its individual series.
Of the many Ibanez artists, the hollow body realm has some of the most long-standing. Pat Metheny, an American jazz legend, has been with the brand for 40 some-odd years. He has a few Ibanez signature models to his name, including the PM2 and PM200. These classic jazz boxes have some great signature specs, giving them a unique stylistic aesthetic. Similarly, George Benson’s been with Ibanez for four decades or so. His uniquely soulful jazz aura is aided by his signature instruments, including the GB10, LGB30 and LGB300, which all boast a really trendy tailpiece.
PRS hasn’t been around as long as many of its competitors, but they rose to the top of the class real quick. Starting in 1985, PRS began producing axes that played, sounded, and looked top-quality. Quickly, professional musicians and famous guitar players were found with a PRS in hand. The mahogany and maple body wood combination, along with a set-neck, created an instrument with excellent sound and strong reverberation. The elegant and powerful tone of PRS models is felt even stronger in their semi-hollow guitars.
The popular Custom 22 Semi-Hollow is an all-around excellent guitar. It can unleash killer rock sound, with a hint of natural resonance, which immediately gets you hooked. It’s available in the affordable SE line and the American made S2 line. Similarly, PRS makes a Singlecut Semi-Hollow guitar. That guitar was commandeered and customized by Zach Myers of Shinedown to create the PRS SE Zach Myers Semi-Hollow model. If a semi-hollow can keep up with Zach’s hard rock playing, there’s little it can’t undertake.
At the top of the PRS game are the Core, Private Stock, and Wood library hollow guitars. These include the Hollowbody II Piezo, McCarty 594 Hollowbody II, and Hollowbody 12-string. Despite their names, these guitars have a center block, so they’re not truly hollow. Nonetheless, they’re designed to play like the best solid body electrics, while capturing incredible and beautiful resonance. These unique and limited guitars are often featured in the Sam Ash Guitars of Distinction collection.
One of the oldest and most well-known guitar makers around, Gretsch has been crafting impeccable instruments for over a century. Beginning humbly in Brooklyn, Gretsch would produce its first branded guitar in 1926 and their first hollow body electric in 1939. The family owned and operated company would go on to establish flawless craftsmanship and beautiful finishes on their hollow body guitars, in a way that many believe to be unsurpassed.
Over 100 years after their inception, Gretsch is still forging on, with tons of great hollow bodies to choose from. They have established a standard in hollow body tone, and are often the go-to guitar for jazz players and rockabilly artists alike. Gretsch has affordable options like the Streamliner Hollow and Streamliner Centerblock guitars. They also have mid-range options, like the Electromatic Double Cut with Bigsby. Of course, Gretsch still has plenty of high-end hollow bodies for those with a more refined taste. Sam Ash’s Guitars of Distinction collection is stocked with Player’s Edition Jets, for instance.
Over the years, many a famous player has picked up a Gretsch. The Chet Atkins Country Gentleman was introduced at NAMM 1957. It was produced for a number of years before Gretsch no longer featured Chet as a signature artist, though he rejoined the brand again in 2007.
George Harrison was spotted playing a Gretsch on the Ed Sullivan show in 1964, but it would be years until he would have his own signature model.
Not surprisingly, Brian Setzer also became a signature Gretsch artist in 1993. Setzer’s style and musicality lend itself perfectly to the sound and aesthetic of Gretsch hollow body guitars.
Wait, so why a hollow body again?
These guitars have discernable differences in sound and feel from solid bodies. And different sounds and feels inspire creative exploration and new ways of playing. Thus, adding a new variety of instrument to your line up is a catalyst to becoming a more proficient and fulfilled guitar player.
But really, they just sound great.