The electric guitar has been evolving for almost nine decades, so it’s no wonder that it has evolved in so many different directions.
These days, you can find numerous types of guitars and the most interesting thing is that we can classify them in so many ways.
In this article, we will stick to the most important criteria for classification. Those would be things like body style, wood type, neck construction, and pickup types.
When it comes to body styles, there are three main types of electric guitars – Hollow Body, Semi-Hollow Body and Solid.
The history of the electric guitar starts with the hollow body. Such guitars derived directly from acoustic guitars, so it’s no wonder they look alike very much. They appeared at the time when guitar became an integral part of a jazz orchestra. As the name says, these guitars feature a hollow body. In most cases, they feature two “f” holes, pretty much the same ones you can find on a violin or cello.
Thanks to these wholes, the sound vibrations can enter and resonate inside the body, which is the main reason why hollow-body guitars feature such a natural tone. They are characterized by a warm clean tone, so it’s no wonder that they are mostly used by jazz players. On the other side, these guitars can’t handle too much distortion, because of feedback. Still, they sound good for classic rock genres, rockabilly, blues and similar styles.
Solid-body guitars feature the opposite design characteristics. As the name says, these guitars feature a body that is made of a solid piece of wood. Perfect examples are guitars like Fender Stratocaster and Telecaster, Gibson Les Paul etc.
Compared to hollow-body guitars, these are much easier to make, which makes them cheaper. Therefore, it’s no wonder this is the most popular type of electric guitars. When it comes to sound characteristics, there is no inner body resonance, so they are very quiet if you don’t use the amp. However, a solid body has some important advantages over hollow body guitars from the perspective of someone who plays modern hi-gain tones, as there are no feedback issues, while sustain is much better.
With the right wood and pickup choice, you can even get a great-sounding jazz guitar. Les Paul is a perfect example.
Finally, there are semi-hollow body guitars and you may presume that they are somewhere between the first two types. Visually, they look quite similar to a hollow-body guitar, so a laic probably won’t notice the difference. These guitars combine the two aforementioned designs. There is a hollow chamber on each side of the body, while the center part is made of a solid wood block.
Such design delivers quite versatile tonal characteristics. On one side, you get the warmth of a hollow body guitar, but also a much better sustain and less feedback. Therefore, it’s no wonder that these guitars are used by all kinds of guitar players, no matter the music genre. For example, the Gibson ES-335 is used for literally every style.
Wood type is another thing that has a critical impact on the tone. Various types are used for the body, neck and fingerboard. We will stick to the body wood for now, and the wood types that are most frequently used are Alder, Ash, Mahogany, Basswood, Maple, Corina etc.
Alder is probably the most popular wood that is used for the guitar body. The main reason lays in the fact that alder delivers a well-balanced tone. Mid-range tones are amazing, while lows sound good as well. On the other side, highs aren’t that spectacular but sound decent in most cases. Sustain is also pretty good.
Alder isn’t a particularly hard type of wood, so it’s easy to work with it. However, things like texture and color are not its strong point, so paint and finish are required. Most Strat and Tele guitars are made of alder.
Ash is another popular wood among Fender guitars and their clones. Players like this wood because its very light, but resonates amazingly. In terms of tonal characteristics, this wood isn’t that good in lows, but highs sound much better compared to alder. Mid-range tones sound spectacular. Also, this wood looks amazing, so most ash guitars feature translucent finish.
When it comes to electric guitars, there are two worlds – Fender and Gibson. Other guitars are somewhere between and wood type is the main reason. While Fender guitars are usually made of ash or alder, Gibson guitars are famous for mahogany. As you may presume, these are completely different wood types.
Muddy lows and blurred highs are the main characteristics of this wood, while the tone is extremely warm, which makes it perfect for jazz guitars. On the other side, endless sustain makes this wood perfect for hi-gain genres.
This is an affordable wood, so it’s no wonder that it is the most common among budget guitars. However, it is also used for hi-quality products, particularly for superstrats. This is a quite soft wood, easy to work with. Visually, it doesn’t look particularly good, so a non-translucent finish is required. Soundwise, basswood is very balanced. Some would say that the tone is quite flat, but that can be significantly improved with the right pickups.
Maple is a pretty hard and heavy wood, so it’s no wonder that most guitar necks are made from it. This wood is used for the body as well, particularly for the top of it. In terms of tonal characteristics, it is very bright, with accentuated mids and highs. On the other side, lows are pretty tight.
Another very important aspect of electric guitars is neck construction. There are three main types: set neck, bolt-on and neck-through electric guitars.
The set neck is the oldest method, common for pretty much all string instruments. The neck is fitted into the body and glued. Such a design ensures an excellent connection between neck and body, so you may count on excellent resonance. In practice, this means an extremely rich tone and tons of sustain. Typical examples are Les Paul and hollow-body guitars.
On the other side, bolt-on necks are typical for Strat and Tele types of guitars. In this case, the neck features some kind of a rectangular heel, while the body features the same-shaped body pocket. The neck is fixed with a couple of screws and a metal plate. With such design, you can’t count on any spectacular sustain. On the other side, attack and dynamics are amazing, while the tone is very bright.
Finally, there is a neck-through guitar design. The neck extends to the body, making a central block of the body. The two parts are actually the same piece of wood, while the sides are glued or laminated. As you may presume, sustain is superior, while higher frets are also easier to reach. On the other side, these guitars are more complicated for production, so the price is higher compared to the first two types.
Pickups also play a very important role when it comes to the electric guitar tone. The first type that comes to mind is a single-coil pickup. These pickups are typical for Fender guitars and they are characterized by excellent clarity and bright tone.
On the other side, humbuckers are typical for Gibson guitars, both hollow and solid body guitars. The tone is notably richer and has a higher output. Also, there is no hum that is typical for single coils. These pickups are perfect for jazz, but also for hi-gain tones.
Finally, there are P90 pickups. These are practically single-coil pickups but with much wider coilings, so the tone is richer compared to single coils, but also more articulated compared to humbuckers. P90 pickups were popular in the ‘50s and ‘60s, but many players use them today as well.
These would be some of the most common criteria to classify electric guitars. Keep in mind that there are many other design solutions that have a big impact on the tone and overall playability. Those would be things like neck wood, fingerboard wood, bridge types, fret size and many others.