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 kinds of electric guitar and examine their strengths and weaknesses.
Types Of Electric Guitars: Introduction
Electric guitars are versatile, and relatively simple, instruments; most can be used to play any style of rock, pop or jazz music. That said, some guitars are more suited to playing certain styles than others.
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 main categories are many further 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 (and find out why the latter isn’t really a ‘true’ electric guitar).
- In the market for a guitar? Check out the Best Cheap Electric Guitars, or take a look at the Best Electric Guitar Under $500.
- Planning to teach yourself to play guitar? Check out the Best Beginner Guitar Books, or take a look at JamPlay online lessons.
- 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 Guitars
As the name implies, a solid body electric guitar lacks any kind of resonating chamber. Its body is made of solid wood. Any holes or chambers in the body exist purely to house the guitar’s electronics and hardware. (A semi-acoustic guitar, as we’ll find further down the page, has a hollow chamber within its body.)
Solid body guitars are the most common type of electric guitar. 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 at the top of your list.
The main advantage of a solid-bodied electric guitar over other types of electric guitars is that it is less prone to feedback. Solid-bodied guitars are also generally more resistant to knocks and bumps, and less ‘temperamental’ than semi-acoustics.
Solid body electric guitars get their individual sounds from a combination of factors, including: the type of wood out of which they are constructed, the type and quality of their pickups and other hardware, their scale length (the length of the vibrating part of the strings), and the shape of their bodies and necks.
* Pickups are rows of magnets that sit perpendicular to the stings on the body of the guitar. They ‘pick up’ the vibration of the strings and turn in into an electrical signal. The type of pickups a guitar is fitted with is one of the biggest factors in its individual sound.
Below is a list of the most popular types of solid-bodied guitar.
Stratocasters and Stratocaster-Style Guitars
The Fender Stratocaster (or ‘Strat’) is perhaps the most famous of all types of electric guitar. It features distinctive cutaway ‘horns’ that allow the player to access the higher frets. The back of its body is contoured for comfort.
In the standard configuration, Stratocasters have three single-coil pickups and a tremolo bar*, but many other combinations exist. The Stratocaster is a much-copied design, with imitations ranging in quality from ‘cheap and nasty’ to ‘better than the real thing’.
* A tremolo bar is a metal bar that is attached to a spring-loaded bridge (the Stratocaster 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, and are equipped with high-quality hardware. The quality of Fender’s less-expensive models can be variable, but in general a Fender Strat will be a good purchase.
Guitars made by other manufacturers that are similar in shape and configuration to the Fender Stratocaster 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 anything from country to heavy metal. Some rock and metal players prefer humbucker pickups for a ‘chunkier’ sound, and Fender themselves cater for this with some models.
A Stratocaster – or a ‘Stratocaster-style’ guitar – is a great choice if you want a guitar that will serve you well whatever type 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.
Stratocaster-style guitars that are equipped with powerful pickups, locking tremolo systems and other upgraded hardware are known as ‘Super-Strats‘. They are often more aggressively-styled than standard Stratocasters.
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.
If you wish to play rock or metal, then a superstrat is a good choice.
Types Of Electric Guitars : Telecaster
The Fender Telecaster (or ‘Tele’) is another instantly recognizable guitar, and like the Stratocaster it is also highly imitated. It design is simpler than that of a Stratocaster, featuring a single cutaway, two single coil pickups, and lacking a tremolo bar and contoured body.
The Telecaster is known for its ‘pure’, ‘biting’ sound. It used to be mainly associated with country music but is now used in many other styles, including alternative and ‘indie’ rock. It’s also one of the few solid body guitars that is seen being used by jazz guitarists.
In general, the sound and feel of a Tele is not particularly suitable for playing heavier rock and metal styles. If you like the shape of a Tele, but want to play heavy music, then 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 electric 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’ rock players, Les Paul-style guitars are known for their thick sound and high sustain.
Gibsons are considerably more usually expensive than their Fender counterparts. For this reason, Gibson instruments are a less common choice for beginner guitarists.
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. In its standard configuration it is equipped with neck and bridge humbucker pickups, both of which have their own 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!)
You can find out more about all of Gibson’s guitars at their website: 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 have hollow bodies in which sound can resonate. This gives them a warmer, more dynamically-responsive sound than solid-bodied instruments.
Semi-acoustic guitars are still reliant on an amplifier, and don’t produce a usable sound by themselves when played acoustically.
Despite this, their amplified sound usually sounds more ‘acoustic’ than solid-body guitars. This responsiveness may explain why they are favored by blues and jazz guitarists.
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 favored by these musicians strongly increases the chance of feedback.
Their propensity to feedback can make semi-acoustic guitars a challenge to use in a live situation. Many semis have solid blocks inside their bodies which helps combat feedback to some degree.
Types Of Semi-Acoustic Guitars: 335
A photogenic guitar, the Gibson ES-335 mixes hollow and solid body types, having a solid block running up the center of the inside of the instrument. The ES-335 is a long-time favorite of electric blues and fusion players, and is growing in popularity in other fields such as indie rock (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
This distinctive Rickenbacker semi-acoustic guitar was used extensively in the sixties. Today, while not as popular as Fender and Gibson models, the 330 still has a fair amount of users. It is known for its jangly, bright sound and is popular with 60s-influenced guitar bands.
Types Of Electric Guitars : Archtop
Archtop guitars are hollow-bodied semi-acoustic guitars that are similar in size to acoustic guitars.
The top and back of an archtop guitar are ‘arched’ like those of a violin, and are traditionally carved out of a single piece of wood. Less-expensive models are constructed using heat-pressed laminates. (The term ‘less-expensive’ is relative; archtop guitars are among the most expensive of all electric guitars.)
Most arch tops are fully hollow-bodied and are very prone to feedback.
Early archtops were played acoustically. 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 and have less sustain than solid-bodied instruments. They are very popular among jazz guitarists, and for this reason are sometimes referred to as ‘jazz-boxes’.
- You can find out more about jazz guitars on this page: The Best Guitars For Jazz
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 expensive, but hold their value well. 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 that are equipped with pickups. Electro-acoustic guitars can be played either acoustically or with an amp. They are often paired with specially-designed acoustic amps, which are better-suited to their sound.
Electro-acoustic guitars have a very different feel than ‘true’ electric guitars, having higher actions, wider fretboards and fewer accessible frets. They are usually set up for use with heavier-gauge strings with wound third strings. They are also highly prone to feedback and are generally unusable if overdriven.
Electro-acoustic guitars are used by singer-songwriters, folk guitarists and fingerstyle guitarists. Rock guitarists may use them when an acoustic sound is required, but generally they are unsuitable for anything other than this purpose.
Electric guitars are highly-versatile instruments. If you’re not entirely sure where your playing career is headed, then our advice is to pick a Strat-style, solid-bodied guitar in a ‘sensible’ color.
This will give you a guitar that can do pretty much anything – and one which you won’t be embarrassed to get out of its case if and when you get out of the ‘death metal’ phase!