There are many types of electric guitars available today, but most are based on just a few basic styles that have been around for many years. In this article we look at the main types of electric guitars and explain their strengths and weaknesses.
Electric guitars are versatile instruments: most can be used to play any style of popular music. However, some instruments are more suited to certain playing styles than others. Fashion can also dictate which guitar a player might use.
In the broadest sense, the two main types of electric guitar are solid-bodied guitars and semi-acoustic guitars. The differences between these two types of electric guitar are explained below.
Within these two categories there are many other variations. We look at the most common of these further down the page. We’ll also look at the slightly more specialized archtop and electro-acoustic guitars.
- In the market for a guitar? Check out the Best Cheap Electric Guitars of 2016, or take a look at the Best Electric Guitar Under $500.
- Planning to teach yourself? Check out the Best Beginner Guitar Books.
- If you’re thinking about learning the guitar, our Guitar Basics articles provide a complete beginner’s guide to the instrument.
Types Of Electric Guitars – Solid Body
As the name implies, solid body electric guitars don’t have any kind of resonating chamber. Their bodies are made of solid wood. Any holes or chambers in the body are there only to house the electronics and hardware.
Solid body guitars are the most common types of electric guitars. If you want an all-purpose electric guitar that can be used in a wide range of musical situations, then a solid-bodied guitar should be top of your list.
Solid body electric guitars rely on the quality of the wood and of their components to get their individual sound. They are far more resistant to unwanted feedback than hollow-bodied instruments.
Below are some of the most popular examples:
Solid-Body Guitar – Stratocaster
The Fender Stratocaster (often shortened to ‘Strat’) is perhaps the most famous of all types of electric guitar. It features distinctive cutaway ‘horns’ that allow players to access the higher frets. The back of its body is contoured for comfort.
In their standard configuration, Stratocasters have three single-coil pickups* and a tremolo bar*, but many other combinations exist. The Stratocaster is a much-copied design, and imitations range in quality from ‘cheap and nasty’ to being as good as, if not better than, the real thing.
* Pickups are the rows of magnets that ‘pick up’ the vibration of the strings and turn in into electrical current.
* A tremolo bar is a metal bar that is attached to a spring-loaded bridge (the Strat in the picture above has one). When pushed down or pulled up, it lowers and raises the pitch of the strings respectively. It can produce a range of effects, ranging from gentle vibrato to aggressive ‘dives’.
Fender themselves make Stratocasters in a range of quality levels. Their USA-made models are extremely well made, high-spec. instruments. The quality of Fender’s less-expensive models can be variable, but in general a Fender Strat will be a good purchase.
Guitars by other makers that are similar in shape and configuration to the original instruments may also be referred to (unofficially) as ‘Stratocasters’. Fender’s own ‘Squier’ range gives beginners a cheaper route to owning a Fender-made guitar.
The Stratocaster is a versatile instrument, and can be used to play all sorts of music, from country to heavy metal. Some rock and metal players prefer humbucking pickups for a ‘chunkier’ sound, and Fender cater for this with some models.
Strat-style guitars that feature powerful pickups and locking tremolo systems, etc., are often called ‘Super-Strats’. The high output pickups will overdrive an amp more easily, and a locking tremolo will hold its tuning better than a standard tremolo system. For these reasons ‘superstrats’ are often used by rock and metal players.
A Stratocaster – or a ‘Stratocaster-style’ guitar – is a good choice if you want a guitar that will serve you well whatever kind of music you want to play.
Famous Stratocaster users:
Notable Stratocaster users include: Jimi Hendrix, Eric Clapton, David Gilmour, Stevie Ray Vaughan, Mark Knopfler and Yngwie Malmsteen.
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Types Of Electric Guitars : Telecaster
The Fender Telecaster (or ‘Tele’) is another instantly recognizable guitar, and one which is also highly imitated. It has a simpler design than the Stratocaster, with a single cutaway, two single coil pickups, and no tremolo bar.
Telecasters are known for their ‘thin’, ‘biting’ sound.
The Telecaster used to be mainly associated with country music but is now used in many other styles. It has recently become very popular with alternative and ‘indie’ musicians.
The sound and feel of a Tele is not particularly suitable for playing heavier rock and metal styles (although there are exceptions to any rule). If you like the shape of a Tele, but want to play heavy music, many companies (including Fender) offer ‘souped-up’ versions.
The full range of Fender and Squire electric guitars can be viewed at the official Fender site: Fender Guitars.
Famous Telecaster users:
Notable Tele users include: Graham Coxon, Jonny Greenwood, Andy Summers, Bruce Springsteen, Jeff Beck and Keith Richards.
Types Of Electric Guitars : Les Paul
The Les Paul is a heavyweight guitar with a feel all of its own. The Gibson Les Paul was first produced in the 1950’s with two P-90 single-coil pickups and the distinctive single-cutaway shape. Towards the end of the decade the double humbucker configuration of today was introduced. This is now the standard configuration for the instrument.
Much loved by ‘bluesier’ heavy rock players, Les Paul-style guitars are known for a thick sound and lots of sustain. Considerably more expensive than their Fender counterparts, Gibsons are a less popular choice for beginner guitarists. However, Gibson’s ‘Epiphone’ brand make good-quality ‘entry-level’ versions of Gibson’s well-known models.
Like most types of electric guitars, Les Pauls are often imitated by other companies, and many non-Gibson Les Paul-type guitars are available.
Famous Les Paul users:
Notable Les Paul players include: Zakk Wylde, Gary Moore, Jimmy Page, Slash, Buckethead, Peter Green, Steve Hackett.
Types Of Electric Guitars : SG
The SG, with its twin-horn, long-neck design is a lighter guitar than a Les Paul. It has double humbucker pickups with independent tone and volume controls.
The SG’s long neck means that it doesn’t feel quite as ‘balanced’ as other guitars, either when played standing with a strap, or when sitting down. These guitars can take a bit of getting used to. SGs produce a reasonably powerful, thick sound that is suitable for blues and metal.
The SG is a simple but versatile – and very playable – guitar, currently enjoying a wave of popularity with rock and indie players alike.
Famous Gibson SG players:
Notable SG users include Robbie Krieger, Frank Zappa, Angus Young, Tony Iommi and Dave Grohl. (Less notable SG players include the writer of this article!)
Find out more about all of Gibson’s guitars at their site: Gibson Guitars.
Other Popular Types Of Solid-Body Guitars
There are many variations on the solid-body guitar theme. Companies such as Ibanez, Yamaha, PRS, Jackson and many others make solid-bodied guitars. Generally you get what you pay for, but provided you avoid the very cheapest models, and stick with reputable brands (such as those mentioned above) you can spend a relatively small amount of money and get a guitar that will last you long into your playing career.
Some other solid-body electric guitar styles are shown below.
Types Of Electric Guitars : Semi-Acoustic
Semi-acoustic guitars (often shortened to just ‘semis’) have hollow bodies. This gives them a warmer, more dynamically responsive sound than solid-bodied instruments.
Semi-acoustic guitars still rely on an amplifier, and do not produce a usable sound when played acoustically. Despite this, their amplified sound usually sounds more ‘acoustic’ than solid-body guitars. This responsiveness may explain why they are favoured by blues and jazz guitarists.
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Semi-acoustic guitars can be prone to unwanted feedback. This is why it is unusual to see rock and heavy metal players using hollow-bodied guitars: the distorted sound favoured by these musicians increases the chance of feedback.
This propensity to feedback can make semi-acoustic guitars a challenge to use in a live situation. Most semis have solid blocks inside their bodies which helps combat feedback to a greater or lesser degree.
Types Of Electric Guitars : 335
A photogenic guitar, the Gibson ES-335 mixes hollow and solid body types, having a solid block running up the centre of the inside of the instrument. The ES-335 is a long-time favourite of electric blues and fusion players, and is growing in popularity in other fields such as indie (perhaps as much due to its looks as its sound!).
Famous Gibson ES-335 players:
Notable Gibson ES-335 players include: Alvin Lee, Larry Carlton, B.B.King, Roy Orbison, Chuck Berry.
Types Of Electric Guitars : Rickenbacker 330
The distinctive Rickenbacker semi-acoustic guitars were used extensively in the sixties, and today, while not as popular as Fender and Gibson models, still have a fair amount of users. They are known for their jangly, bright sound and are popular with 60s-influenced guitar bands.
Types Of Electric Guitars : Archtop
Archtop guitars are hollow-bodied guitars similar in size to acoustic guitars. Their tops and backs are ‘arched’ like those of a violin, and are traditionally carved out of a single piece of wood. Less-expensive models are sometimes constructed using heat-pressed laminates.
Most arch tops are completely hollow-bodied and are very prone to feedback.
Early archtops were played acoustically, but most of today’s instruments are designed to be played with an amplifier and are considered to be semi-acoustics. Archtop guitars produce a thick, acoustic sound with less sustain than solid-bodied instruments. They are most popular among jazz guitarists, and are sometimes referred to as ‘jazz-boxes’.
Types Of Electric Guitars : Gibson ES-175
One of the most widely used guitars in jazz, the ES-175 is a semi-acoustic, hollow-bodied archtop that comes equipped with two humbucking pickups. The ES-175’s deep body produces the thick, dark sound beloved of jazz guitarists and the thin neck allows for fast chording and soloing. The bridge pickup is capable of producing a less jazzy, thinner sound, and ES-175s can be used in blues and rock.
ES-175s are very expensive, and good-quality alternatives are available from other companies such as Ibanez. The ‘ES’ stands for ‘Electric Spanish’.
Famous Gibson ES-175 players:
Notable Gibson ES-175 players include: Pat Metheny, Steve Howe, Joe Pass, Herb Ellis, Wes Montgomery.
Electro-acoustic guitars are acoustic guitars with pickups. Most can be played acoustically without an amp. They have a very different feel than electric guitars, with higher actions, wider fretboards and less accessibility to higher frets. They are usually set up for use with heavier strings with wound third strings.
Electro-acoustics are used by solo singer-songwriters, fingerstyle players and rock musicians playing acoustic numbers.
Electric guitars are versatile instruments. If you’re not entirely sure where your playing career is headed, pick a Strat-style solid-bodied guitar in a ‘sensible’ colour, and you’ll have an instrument that can do pretty much anything – and one which you won’t be embarrassed to get out of its case when (and if) you get through the ‘death metal’ phase!