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What's the Big Deal About Chambered Guitars?

March 21, 2013
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HOLLOW AND SEMI-HOLLOW ELECTRIC guitars have been with us since the dawn of rock and roll, but more and more makers are producing “chambered” guitars these days. Chambered guitars appear solid, but have air pockets hidden inside, and, in some circles, the trend has generated negative feedback.

So, from a perspective of tone, is there something inherently “wrong” with adding air space to a guitar that would otherwise pass as a traditional solidbody?

First off, it’s important to realize that chambering is really nothing new. Gretsch’s original Chet Atkins Solidbody and Duo Jet models of the mid ’50s had narrow chambers of air between their mahogany bodies and arched maple tops. These might have been a quirk of the design, but that doesn’t make a ’50s Gretsch “so-called solidbody” any less of a classic.

Fender started routing wood from its Telecaster body in 1968, when stocks of ash were getting heavier, and created the semisolid Thinline model, adding an f-hole to make a virtue of the air space within. The Telecaster Thinline might be the first example of a major maker intentionally removing body wood purely to reduce an instrument’s weight. Such motives might have helped start the negative spin cycle on chambering.

Manufacturers who chamber guitars purely to lighten the load—what’s known as “weight relieving”—occasionally do so without specific consideration to tone. The practice does alter the tone, but in a way that is random, rather than calculated. The upside, though, is that in a world where players have largely turned against butt-heavy guitars, weight relief can turn an 11lb boat anchor into a comfortable 8.5lb instrument.

Still, many traditionalists frowned upon Gibson’s use of weight relief on several Les Paul models—the heft of which was reduced by the “Swiss cheese” method of drilling several large holes spread around the mahogany back. Of course, the same detractors were unlikely to buy a Les Paul that weighed more than 10lbs anyway, so it put the maker in a Catch 22 situation.

Recently, Gibson has carefully rethought its chambering practices, and devised a “modern weight relief” pattern that reduces weight, while also enhancing a guitar’s resonance and sustain. But that storied maker isn’t the first to find sonic benefits in making a solidbody less than solid. Acclaimed Swedish master-builder Johan Gustavsson has long used a carefully thought-out chambering technique— purely for sonic reasons—on his Bluesmaster guitars. The model is inspired by the legendary ’59 Les Paul “burst,” but seeks to take the feel, tone, and response even further. While Gustavsson does build some entirely solid examples, the majority are constructed with a number of narrow chambers (or channels) routed entirely parallel with—and never crossing—the grain of the body wood.

American luthier Michael Tuttle does something similar with some of his guitars, and the practice is seen elsewhere, too. In these cases, careful chambering is done to increase resonance and enhance the guitar’s voice, and is performed by builders who could simply use lighter wood if weight relief was the primary goal. Regardless, some players with notions of what a solidbody should be that are stuck firmly around 1959, still rail against such “secret chambering.”

Whatever you call the practice, the removal of wood from an otherwise solid electric guitar can serve a number of ends. Some might be purely physical, yet still desirable, while others have glorious sonic consequences. What it accomplishes for you really depends on that puzzling conflagration of how it is done, and what you are looking to hear or feel in a guitar.

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