When you’re new to the world of guitars, hollow might seem like an unusual descriptor. What could it mean? Aren’t guitars supposed to be solid? How does a hollowbody differ from a semi-hollowbody? It’s fine, we’ve all been there. That’s why we’re giving you this brief rundown of hollowbody and semi-hollowbody guitars. In just ten minutes, you’ll know all you need to know, and maybe a little more.
This might come as a surprise, but you’re probably more familiar with the hollowbody than you think. Maybe you’ve heard it being called a semi-acoustic guitar or thinline. Then there are the less common (and imprecise) terms – archtop electric, electro-acoustic, jazz box, and chambered body. Even if that doesn’t jog your memory, its sound will. Since it popped up in the 1930s, the hollowbody has dominated the musical scene. Same goes for the semi-hollowbody. Everyone from The Beatles to Jack White has had their turn. Who could forget blues royalty B.B. King’s semi-hollow “Lucille”?
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With so many enthusiasts across all genres, it’s clear that hollows and semi-hollows have firmly carved out a space for themselves. Even as companies churn out solidbody after solidbody, a huge amount of R&D goes into propelling semi-acoustic evolutions. You’re probably thinking there must be something special about these guitars, and you’re 100% right. But what? Well, why not let this guide to hollowbody and semi-hollowbody guitars fill you in!
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Can’t have a profile without some historical perspective, and the hollowbody stretches all the way back to the golden age of jazz. Big bands were swinging. Ensembles wanted guitars that wouldn’t be drowned out in the furore. Although pickups existed, amplifying the acoustics of the day was still a tricky task. Rickenbacker’s George Buchamp stepped up to the plate with the Electro-Spanish Ken Roberts. This laminate mahogany concert-style acoustic was the company’s debut signature model. It was a true pioneer in the electric guitar field.
Not long after, Gibson entered the fray with its own ES-150. Guy Hart had previously engineered a bar-style pickup for the company’s lap steel models, which meant that they had the means to electrify the guitar. And boy, did the public love the ES-150. Its loud, clear sound could keep up with the brassiest of horns. Just as importantly, the immensely popular guitarist Charlie Christian owned one, and went out of his way to champion it. Fun fact: Gibson would go on to develop pickups that were named after him.
By the early 1940s, the hollowbody electric was the guitar to be. Not only was the jazz set enamoured with it, but other genres had begun to adopt it. However, the semi-hollowbody was just getting started. Les Paul’s “The Log”, built in 1939, was the first one to emerge. It gained its moniker from the 4×4 plank that made up its midline. Though heftier than a typical hollowbody, the robust centre block ensured that it didn’t have the harsh screechiness that Les Paul hated. It was a pioneer in the field. And like many pioneers, it was also ahead of its time. Gibson, who Les Paul had presented it to, showed the guitar the proverbial door.
They would change their minds in 1950, when Fender’s first solid body electric hit the market. The Broadcaster was game-changing, and Gibson realised they had to do something drastic if they wanted to compete. Ted McCarty remembered The Log and used it as a prototype. Cue the ES-335, which fused the hollowbody’s warmth and resonance with the solidbody’s feedback resistance. 16 years later, The Log finally had its day in the sun, albeit in a reinvented form. Gibson’s ES-335 was now a cultural phenomenon. Musicians flocked to it, and more brands began to come up with their semi-hollow models. From then on, hollows and semi-hollows have been here to stay.
To really understand the difference between hollowbodies and semi-hollowbodies, it’s important to view them as two separate styles. Each has its own distinctive characteristics, be it in construction and sound. We’ll show you!
Some people erroneously believe that a hollowbody is just an acoustic, but with pickups thrown into the mix. While hollowbodies do veer closer to acoustic guitar construction than semi-hollowbodies, there’s more to it than that. A hollowbody doesn’t have that solid or chambered block of wood running through the centre of its body. As a result, you’ll usually find pickups fastened to the top of the body. And yes, the hollowbody is lighter than a solidbody.
Besides this defining feature, hollowbodies are every bit as diverse as any other guitar. You may spot a few trends. Vibrato tailpieces, adjustable bridges, and necks that append to the body at a higher fret than their acoustic counterparts. Many hollowbodies have arched tops, as opposed to the acoustic’s flat top. This is normally accompanied by the absence of the standard round soundhole in the guitar’s middle. Instead, F-holes, or similarly narrow-cut soundholes take their place. But then again, some guitars end up avoiding any sort of soundhole.
As far as design goes, some hollowbodies can veer as thin as solidbody electrics. Sure, earlier models were archtop acoustics with Charlie Christian pickups added on, ala the Gibson L-50. Hefty guitars with chunky, V-shaped necks. Naturally, sleeker versions soon followed. Single and double-cut shapes with narrower necks, such as the Epiphone Casino. These days, the choice of playing feel is left to the players. You can either go for a reconstructed classic, or modernised makes that combine fast-playing necks, contemporary hardware, and trim bodies.
In all honesty, a guitar’s tone has rarely been ascribed to a single feature. Construction, hardware, and tonewoods will all have a huge impact on what the end result sounds like. However, some generalised qualities are present in most hollowbodies.
For starters, the hollowbody’s midrange tends to be more focused and resonant than that of an acoustic. As befitting its origin, it’s also a lot more adept at piercing through an ensemble’s mix of sound. Assuming it’s fully plugged in, of course. Amusingly, the hollowbody is often deemed a practice guitar, due to its “quietness” factor when played unplugged. It doesn’t ring out as much as an acoustic would, while also being more audible than a solidbody.
Compared to a solidbody, the hollowbody’s sound is warmer and rounder, especially in the lower end. Highs can be pretty crystal clear, but will rarely reach the solidbody’s glassy heights. Occasionally, low-tension string jangle may slip in if you’re not compensating for it with your playing technique. Feedback is another thing to watch out for, especially at higher volumes and gain levels.
If you remember our little history lesson, the semi-hollowbody was built to compete directly with the solidbody. Hence the relatively similar dimensions. Nipped-in waist, rarely more than 3 inches in depth, and lightweight. But it’s the centre block that truly defines this guitar and separates it from the hollowbody. Depending on the brand and model, there exists an abundance of styles. Older models used to take a hollowbody and screw in a 2×4 plank. Nowadays, manufacturers simply cut the centre block from the blank at the same time as the guitar’s back.
Like we said earlier, there’s no one standard way to incorporate the centre block. Sometimes, it extends through the guitar’s entire body length. It could also be focused solely under the bridge area. Other times, designers segment the blocks to enhance the guitar’s tone. It’s become a highly individualised attribute. Just like the hollowbody, semi-hollows come in a variety of makes. Traditional semi-hollows with wide, flat fretboards and curvaceous bottoms. And then there are the refashioned versions that mimic solidbody playability without sacrificing resonance.
One contentious issue that gets academics going is the labelling of chambered guitars. Namely, can we call them semi-hollow? Well, it depends on your perspective. The chambered guitar has wood routed in it to create spaces within the wood. Sort of like air pockets. There are many reasons for chambering a guitar, and many, many degrees of chambers. Some chambered guitars could be solidbodies, save for a few square inches. Others might be almost completely hollow. So, semi-hollow or chambered? We’ll leave that up to you.
This is what it boils down to. The semi-hollow’s centre block isn’t just there for laughs and giggles. It does the important work of suppressing feedback. You’ll recall that hollowbodies are prone to feedback issues. Well, that’s not a thing you’ll have to worry about with the semi-hollow. Even at peak volume and gain, that centre block mitigates sympathetic vibrations. If you can’t resist a heaping dose of overdrive, distortion, or fuzz, this is a godsend. No more fighting to mute your guitar every time your fingers leave the fretboard.
Lack of feedback notwithstanding, it’s hard to pin down a semi-hollow’s sound without looking at all the supplementary factors involved. Each guitar is different. Some produce tones indistinguishable from solidbodies, while others could effortlessly blend into a hollowbody medley. Again, it’s down to the construction, hardware, yadda yadda.
But if we have to generalise, a semi-hollowbody follows in the hollowbody’s footsteps in many ways. It’s not as resonant as an acoustic, yet still remains louder than the solidbody. When you’re dialling it up, semi-hollows have a sharper, more defined tone than hollowbodies. It’s the feedback-eliminating centre block that does the trick. Because of this, you’re also more likely to see fiery alnico pickups accompanying semi-hollows into the soundscape.
Retro though they may be, hollows and semi-hollows have a place in the guitar compendium for a reason. Call it timeless versatility, old-school audio nostalgia, or vintage aesthetics. It doesn’t matter, because these guitars aren’t going anywhere soon. Besides, that elusive appeal is part of the charm. And that, friends, makes hollowbodies and semi-hollowbodies so much cooler.
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Think you’re down to grab your very own hollow or semi-hollow? Find out for yourself at any of our Swee Lee stores. Or practice your ice-breakers on our online selection first. You know, just in case. But drop your particulars in our mailing list too. We want to send more fantastic opportunities your way!
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