5 Things About Hollow, Semi-Acoustic, and Chambered Electric Guitars

August 16, 2012

Gibson ES-150 Gretsch 6120
Other than Hawaiian lap-steels, the first really successful electric guitars had fully hollow bodies, but the format has evolved so rapidly—and in so many directions— that there are many different types of guitars today claiming hollow or semi-hollow status. Plenty make a virtue of it, advertising their airspace with f-holes, but more often these days, unseen acoustic pockets, or “chambers,” are used either to enhance tone and resonance, or simply to reduce a guitar’s weight.
As with the first production electric guitar from a major maker, Gibson’s ES-150 of 1936, the hollowbody electric has often been seen as the jazz guitar, but it’s capable of much more. These can be either essentially an amplified archtop acoustic with a floating pickup attached, or a hollowbody archtop capable of some acoustic tone, but intended mainly for electric performance. The latter typically features pickups mounted into the wood of the top, as on a Gibson ES-175 or Gretsch 6120. Either type tends to be warm, round, rich and deep-voiced, with plenty of air in the tone. Guitars of this type produce the archetypal jazz voice, but were also prominent in the birth of rock and roll.
The term “archtop electric” can be misleading, because fully hollow electrics come in a range of depths and sizes, and can sound very different as a result. Thinline models, pioneered by Gibson in the 1950s, are entirely acoustic in the sense that they have no solid wood in their centers, but are shallower in depth than traditional jazzboxes. These include the ES-350T and Byrdland of 1955 (see Chuck Berry, Ted Nugent) and, later, the ES-330 and Epiphone Casino (Grant Green, The Beatles). As used on a Telecaster with f-holes, however, the title is a misnomer, as these weren’t any thinner than standard solid Teles, and actually belong to category #5.
Gibson ES-350T Gibson ES-335 Gretsch Duo Jet
Gibson pops up once again as an innovator in the field, for introducing the first production semi-acoustic electric guitar, the ES-335, in 1958. Rather than some halfway house on the way from the acoustic archtop electric to the solidbody, the “semi” was a bid to give traditionalists the benefits of the solidbody in a package more familiar to archtop players, and was virtually an overnight success. Classics of the type have a solid center block with an arched top and back made from pressed laminated woods. As a result, their sonic performance is very much a marriage of the two—something of a scooped, airy acoustic depth with a solidbody’s presence, attack, and sustain.
Hollow pockets are incorporated within the bodies of other electric guitars either as accidents of design, as tone enhancers, or simply to reduce weight. Think Gretsch Duo Jet, Nik Huber Redwood, Tom Anderson Hollow Drop Top, or contemporary Gibson Les Paul Standard. Most are constructed by routing out solid wood rather than assembling thinner wood stocks in an acoustic or semiacoustic framework. While our examples keep their chambers hidden, others such as Fender’s Thinline Telecaster or Koll’s Duo Glide include an f-hole to shout it loud and proud. Chambered electrics are the most solidbody-like of the bunch, tonally, but usually offer enhanced openness and breathiness in the midrange.
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