One instrument, so many differences. Unlike most musical instruments, electric guitars don’t have some unique, ultimate form. These pieces of wood are characterized by a pretty high level of multiformity and that is one of the reasons why electric guitars are so amazing. Electric guitar types can be classified in so many ways. It’s not only about the shape or finish, or other aesthetic aspects.
Through its history, which lasts for a full century, builders and designers came up with various kinds of design solutions. Therefore, we can classify these instruments by using different criteria. Some of the things that come to mind first are body styles, wood types, neck construction, bridge types, pickups etc.
All these things have a significant impact on the final product, in terms of the sound, play-ability, ergonomics, aesthetics etc. In this article, you will find various kinds of classifications, which will help you understand why electric guitars come in such a variety of forms.
Electric Guitar Styles – Body Styles
The most notable and probably most important difference in classifying electric guitar types is the body style. Basically, there are three main types – hollow body, semi-hollow body and solid body. Each one is characterized by a notably different design approach and each one features pretty distinctive tonal characteristic, as well as distinctive aesthetics.
1. Hollow Body Type Guitars
Hollow body are the first electric guitars that ever appeared. At the time, guitars were becoming an integral part of a jazz orchestra and the main issue was to deal with super-loud brass and percussion instruments. Therefore, hollow body guitars look very similar to acoustic guitars. They are direct successors, so it’s no wonder they sound pretty acoustic-like.
As its name says, these guitars feature hollow body, which is the key reason why this type provides so natural tone. It is predominately used by jazz guitar payers, mainly because of its tonal characteristics. Its warm tone is perfect for clean sounds, but its huge hollow body won’t deal that good with the hi-gain tone, as it has a lot of feedback potential.
Therefore, you won’t see too many rock players with such instruments in their hands, though there are some exceptions. For example, Joe Perry from Aerosmith uses one of these, a model called Gretsch White Falcon.
On the other side, jazz, blues, rockabilly and similar styles work perfectly with this one.
2. Solid Body Type Guitars
Solid body guitars are by far the most popular these days. These are made of a solid piece of wood, which has many benefits, both in terms of sound and practicality. Compared to hollow-body guitars, these are much simpler and cheaper to make. Furthermore, they are a much better fit for modern music genres, especially those with tons of gain. Simply, a solid body construction ensures much better sustain and deals with the feedback significantly better.
Although first solid body designs appeared way back in the 1920s, first serial production models came decades later. The goal was to offer something more affordable, something for the wider range of buyers. These days, there are all kinds of shapes and designs, but original models from Fender and Gibson are still the main reference for most of us.
Those would be the three key models for the history of solid body electric guitars – Fender Telecaster, Fender Stratocaster, and Gibson Les Paul.
2.1 Fender Telecaster
The Telecaster is the first mass-produced solid-body guitar. The prototype was presented in 1949, as Fender Esquire, while the production model came just a year later. It was initially called the Broadcaster but later renamed to the Telecaster, due to legal issues.
This guitar is rather simple. The overall design is pretty rudimental, while the shape resembles old Hawaiian guitars. It usually comes with two pickups and delivers super-bright tone, which works perfectly for the country, blues, rock and similar styles. It is most famous for its bridge position tone, colloquially known as the twang.
2.2 Gibson Les Paul
Soon after the telecaster made a breakthrough, other manufacturers started to work on solid body-guitars as well. Gibson was already a highly-renowned company, known for a whole range of amazing hollow-body models. Designed by the famous jazz guitarist Les Paul, this model features completely opposite design characteristics compared to the Telecaster.
Different wood, different neck construction, and pickups are just some of the reasons why these two types are so different in terms of sound. Unlike the Tele, the Les Paul sounds warm. It is mostly associated with classic and hard rock music styles, but the fact is that it can be used for any style, including jazz and other genres that are usually covered by hollow-body guitars.
Still, rock guitarists are those who made this model famous. Some of the notable names are Gary Moore, Jimmy Page, Slash, Peter Green, Billy Gibbons and others.
2.3 Fender Stratocaster
The Stratocaster is probably the most popular guitar shape in the world and there are several good reasons for that. It was launched in 1954 as a kind of upgrade of the original Telecaster. It came with a more attractive look, better ergonomics, new bridge design, different pickup configuration and more.
All these novelties made Stratocaster extremely versatile, so it’s no wonder that most of the iconic signature sounds came out from this piece of wood. The secret lays in the fact that this guitar works amazing with all kinds of amps and effects, so it’s no wonder it covers pretty much any kind of music style.
The list of famous musicians that played or still play this model is almost endless. Of course, it starts with Jimi Hendrix and goes on with some of the most important names of the electric guitar, such as Eric Clapton, Stevie Ray Vaughn, Eric Johnson, Yngwie Malmsteen, Ritchie Blackmore, Mark Knopfler etc.
2.4 Super Strat
All three mentioned models date from almost seven decades ago. Through all these years, we have seen various kinds of upgrades and modifications, particularly on the Stratocaster. From a vintage instrument that if rich of mid-range and bright tones, this instrument evolved into something modern, something that fits much better all those genres that are characterized by hi-gain tones.
Basically, there are two main modifications that guitarists used to make on standard Stratocaster models. The first one is a pickup change. Instead of original single coils, super strats usually feature humbuckers or hi-output single coils. Another common modification is a new-generation tremolo system, usually a Floyd Rose, which allows significantly more bridge movement.
One of the first companies that started to make serial production super strats is Ibanez, with its famous RG series. These days, super strats are probably the most popular type of guitars. Some of the famous players that should be mentioned are Steve Vai, Eddie Van Halen, John Petrucci, Dave Murray etc.
3. Semi-Hollow Body Guitars
Many guitar players appreciate the versatility and semi-hollow body guitars really shine in this aspect. Practically, these models take a bit from both worlds. Usually, these guitars feature two hollow chambers on both sides of the body, while the central part features a solid wood block. Such design keeps the tone warm, but also brings some characteristics that are typical for solid body guitars, particularly better sustain and less feedback.
This is what makes them so versatile, so it’s no wonder that these guitars are used in all kinds of music genres. Besides jazz, a semi-hollow body electric guitar works perfectly for blues, rock and even some heavier gain sounds. Some of the famous guitarists that play on such guitars are jazz and fusion legends like John Scofield, Lary Carlton, Eric Johnson etc.
Electric Guitar Wood Types
There are many reasons why electric guitars sound so different, but the wood choice is definitely the most important. Manufacturers use various kinds of wood in making electric guitars. Each type has different tonal characteristics, no matter if it is used for the body, neck or fingerboard. For each part of the guitar, there is a group of wood types that are commonly used.
4. Guitar Body Wood Types
There are several types of wood that are commonly used for the body electric guitar. Some of them are Alder, Ash, Mahogany, Basswood, Korina, Maple etc.
4.1 Alder Wood Body Guitars
The first one that comes to mind is Alder. It has a lot of strong points and it is generally one of the most balanced types, not just in terms of tone, but in physical aspect as well. First of all, it offers a great tone balance. There is plenty of mid-range, while low tones also sound amazing. High tones aren’t that impressive, but usually sound pretty decent. Also, it delivers a pretty decent amount of sustain. In terms of physical characteristics, this is a mid-heavy wood. Aesthetics are definitely its weakest point as the color is usually light brown and doesn’t look spectacular at all. Therefore, a non-translucent finish is required. Most Fender guitars have Alder body, including Stratocaster and Telecaster models.
4.2 Ash Wood Body Guitars
Original Fender models were made from ash and many of them still are. This includes various Strat and Tele models, as well as numerous guitars from other manufacturers. There are several types of Ash, but the Swamp Ash is particularly good, mainly because it is both lightweight and resonates amazingly. Another strong point is an amazing look, so guitars made of Ash usually feature translucent finish, in order to accentuate its beautiful texture. When it comes to tone, it seems perfect for vintage styles. Lows are pretty tight, highs are very nice, while mid tones are spectacular. The sustain is decent as well.
4.3 Mahogany Wood Body Guitars
Along with Alder, Mahogany is the most common ingredient of electric guitars. However, it delivers completely opposite sound characteristics, so it’s no wonder that most Gibson guitars are made of it. Its weight can vary, but it is usually quite heavy. It is both used in single and multi-wood bodies, in both cases because of its great tonal characteristics. Speaking of the tone, Mahogany is pretty balanced. Mids definitely shine, while lows are generally good but can be muddy sometimes. Highs are usually blurred, but the fact is that many guitarists actually like them very much. All in all, the tone is warm and has plenty of sustain.
4.5 Basswood Body Guitars
This is one of the most popular types of wood in the guitar industry today. The main reason is that is affordable, so most budget and many mid-level guitars feature basswood body. However, this wood has much more to offer than just low production costs. After all, can be found in some hi-end models as well. Its tone is pretty balanced. Some would say flat, but the fact is that mid-range tones are quite massive and decently breathable. Combined with quality pickups, it can provide excellent dynamics and great definition. Physically, this wood is relatively soft and the greatest benefit is its lightweight. On the other side, it doesn’t look particularly attractive, so manufacturers prefer the non-transparent finish.
4.6 Maple Wood Body Guitars
Maple is heavy and extremely hard wood, which is used for both bodies and necks of guitars. It is rarely used for single-piece bodies, but rather in combination with other wood. The most common combination is with Mahogany. Some pieces of Maple can look amazing, so it is usually used for the top of the body. In terms of the tone, Maple is clean and very bright, with very tight lows.
4.7 Korina Wood Guitars
Korina is a quite exotic wood, some kind of Mahogany and you won’t find it in too many guitars. This wood was most popular in the 50s and 60s, with models like Gibson Flying V and Explorer. What makes this wood so great is a warm and balanced tone, with amazing clarity. Also, it ensures tons of sustain. It is heavy, while grain usually looks pretty nice, so aesthetics are pretty amazing as well.
4.8 Single and Multi-Wood Bodies
Some guitar bodies are made of just one of these wood types, while others rather combine two or (rarely) more of them. Single-wood guitar bodies are more common. For example, Fender and other Strat/Tele-like guitars usually feature bodies that are made of only one type of wood. That could be Alder or Ash, while Super Strats are often made of Basswood. On the other side, many Gibson and other Les Paul-like guitars combine two wood types. In most cases, it is a combination of Mahogany and Maple. Most of the body is Mahogany, while Maple used for the top of the body and usually comes carved or with some other aesthetical upgrades.
Besides aesthetic benefits, such combination also delivers a pretty unique tone, which takes a bit from both worlds. Mahogany is generally known for warm and smooth tones, while Mapple adds a bit of clarity and definition.
5. Guitar Neck Wood Types
5.1 Maple Neck Guitars
This is the most common type of neck wood in use. The reason is not just great to tone, but excellent physical characteristics as well. Maple is extremely strong and doesn’t suffer from environmental changes as some other wood types do. As I’ve already mentioned the tone is very bright, with plenty of sustain.
5.2 Mahogany Neck Guitars
Mahogany is usually associated with Gibson and other Les Paul-like guitars. When it comes to tonal characteristics, it is completely opposite to Maple. It is warm and absorbs a lot of string vibrations. Therefore, the tone seems a little bit compressed, which make the tone pretty fat. A big drawback is that finishing requires much more work, due to wood’s typical large pores.
5.3 Rosewood Neck Guitars
Although predominately used for fretboards, Rosewood can sometimes be used for whole necks. In this case, the tone becomes even warmer, with amazing mids and lows. On the other side, things aren’t that great with high notes. Also, Rosewood is great for those who don’t like varnished necks.
5.4 Wenge Neck Guitars
Wenge is amazingly well-balanced tonal wood, which is strong in all frequency ranges. Mids are amazing, as well as lows, while highs are pretty decent as well. Lows are pretty warm, while highs can also sound amazing, especially in a combination with a rosewood fretboard. It is heavy and pretty hard. Bass necks are also usually made of this wood. It’s quite easy to recognize it, as it comes with a pretty unique texture and usually features no finish.
6. Fretboard Wood Types
6.1 Rosewood Fretboard
Rosewood is by far the most popular fretboard material for guitars. The main reason lays in the fact that it is affordable and offers a pretty balanced tone. Speaking of the tone, it is pretty clean and with decent sustain. It also ensures amazing clarity, while the wood is pretty oily by itself, so it feels pretty nice under fingers.
6.2 Maple Fretboard
Maple is another very popular material for fretboards. Guitar makers love this wood because it is at the same extremely hard and easy to work with. Tonewise, it is extremely bright, with a lot of high overtones and great dynamics. Also, it is significantly lighter than rosewood.
6.3 Ebony Fretboard
Ebony is expensive, but it definitely worths the money. Compared to maple, it offers a significantly richer tone. It is even brighter and it is a perfect choice for those to put a lot of attention on playing dynamics. Compared to rosewood, it is significantly more durable. Works perfectly in combination with mahogany and similar body woods.
7. Guitar Neck Construction Design Types
Another thing that has a critical impact on the sound of the guitar is neck construction. Basically, there are three common designs – set, bolt-on and neck through.
7.1 Set-Neck Guitar
This is a pretty common method, which is used in most stringed instruments, including violins, acoustic guitars etc. The principle is rather simple – the neck is fitted and glued into the body. Such a design provides an excellent connection between the neck and body, which ensures the excellent transfer of resonance. In practice, this means much richer tone compared to bolt-on necks, much better sustain, warm and fat tone. This design is typical for hollow-body and Les Paul-like guitars. In most cases, builders use Mahogany in this case, though some examples with Maple set necks can be found as well.
8.1 Bolt-On Neck Guitar
While the set neck technique is present for ages, the bolt-on method is a relatively new design approach. It appeared along with first Fender models and it is the most common technique in today’s electric guitar industry.
There are several reasons why bolt-on necks are so frequent but the first one that comes to mind is practicality. These necks are much cheaper and simpler for production, while repairs and replacements are much easier compared to set necks.
Basically, there is a rectangular neck heel that fits into the same-shaped body pocket. The neck is fixed to the body with three or four screws and a metal plate. These necks are usually made of maple.
Tonewise, it definitely can’t compete with set necks in terms of sustain. On the other side, the tone is super bright and with an excellent attack. Together with single coils, bolt-on necks make a perfect combination.
8.2 Neck-Though Guitar
This is definitely the most interesting method of making guitars. Practically, the neck extends and goes through the whole body. That extended piece of wood makes a core of the body, while so-called ears or wings are glued or laminated to this central part. Also, complete hardware is mounted on this extended neck part, including pickups, bridge and strings. This ensures perfect resonance flow, so neck-through guitars are superior in all aspects when it comes to tone characteristics.
The overall tone character is similar to set necks, but sustain is significantly longer. Also, these guitars are usually more playable, as high frets are more reachable.
Of course, there are some drawbacks too. One of them is that these guitars are far more complex for production, so the price is usually notably higher. Also, repairs usually become a real nightmare. Ibanez, Parker, Jackson and ESP are some of the manufacturers that have such models in the offer.
Electric Guitar Bridge Types
The bridge is another essential part of electric guitars. It affects our playing more than you would probably imagine. This refers to both tonal characteristics and play-ability. These days, there are numerous patented bridge designs in the offer. However, we can classify them into two main groups. Those would be fixed and tremolo bridges. A fixed bridge is older and it is typical for hollow-body, semi-hollow body and Les Paul- and Telecaster-style guitars.
On the other side, probably the first floating bridge is Bigsby, which is can be found on many hollow and semi-hollow guitar models even today. However, the first functional tremolo system came with the Stratocaster and it is typical for various kinds of Strat-like guitars, though we can find it on some Telecaster models, and even on some hollow-body guitars.
9. Fixed Bridge
The fixed bridge has a couple of obvious advantages. The first one that comes to mind is simplicity. This is very important for beginners, as changing strings with more complex tremolo systems can be a real nightmare. On the other side, fixed-bridge guitars are easy to restring, just like acoustic guitars.
Another important advantage is stability. If the hardware is good, there is no doubt that the guitar will stay in tune for a very long time. Finally, there is the sustain, which is much longer on fixed-bridge guitars. Of course, there are some drawbacks as well. The first one that comes to mind is that your vibrato and similar tricks are limited to your bending only.
Speaking of bending, it is notably harder compared to tremolo and especially Floyd Rose bridges. Although most fixed bridges are generally the same, there are several types of them, usually patented by a certain manufacturer.
Fixed-Bridge Electric Guitar Types
9.1 Tune-O-Matic – Definitely the first one that comes to mind. Typical for Gibson models, as well as for other Les Paul-like guitars. It has several benefits over the original wrap-around bridge, mainly in terms of easier action adjustment, fine tuning etc.
9.2 Telecaster Style – Typical for Telecasters. It has a couple of differences compared to the tune-o-matic bridge and one of them is that saddles are adjustable. However, there are just three saddles, so you can only adjust strings in pairs, which can be tricky sometimes.
9.3 Hardtail – these are pretty common on Stratocaster models that don’t feature tremolo bridge. The biggest upgrade over Telecaster’s bridge is that there are six saddles, so you can adjust each string separately.
9.4 Evertune Bridge – This is something relatively new on the market, so there aren’t many stock guitars with such bridge on it. At the first look, it looks like a typical hardtail bridge, but the catch is in the fact that there are springs behind each saddle, which allow them to move. The obvious benefit is easier bending, while the guitar stays in tune much longer.
10. Tremolo Bridge
Unlike the fixed bridge, tremolo floats, which allows you to raise or lower the pitch of strings. In practice, this means much more creative potential, as you can do much more than regular bending. When it comes to weak points, it takes more time to restring the guitar and requires a lot of fine-tuning and setup. Two most common types are Fender Tremolo and Floyd Rose.
10.1 Fender Tremolo – It is an integral part of the Stratocaster, the first tremolo system in the guitar industry. Its design is relatively simple, as the bottom side of the bridge has an extension that goes through the body and which is attached to springs, which resist the pull of the strings. The only drawback of this design is that can only lower the pitch of strings.
10.2 Floyd Rose – It came with super strats. It is based on the original Fender Tremolo system, though it comes with significant upgrades in several aspects. This resulted in a much longer travel of the bridge, and in both directions. Also, tuning issues have been solved thanks to a double-locking design.
I won’t waste words in explaining what this bridge can do, just check players like Eddie Van Halen, Steve Vai, Joe Satriani and others.
11. Electric Guitar Pickup Types
Pickups are another factor that significantly determines the tone and another criterion to classify electric guitar types. There are three main types – single coils, humbuckers and P90s.
11.1 Single Coil Pickups
This is the original pickup design. Before the 50s, all electric guitar types featured them. These days, they usually refer to Fender models, though others use them as well. Single coils are generally very bright and have a lot of response. They are the main reason for Telecaster’s legendary “twang” tones and Stratocaster’s famous 2 and 4 positions. They work best for clean and lower gain tones, though modern hi-output pickups are used for heavy rock and metal styles as well.
The biggest drawback is that they make too much noise, though modern “noiseless” pickups deal with this issue relatively good.
While designing first humbuckers, Seth Lover probably wasn’t aware of all the benefits that this design will bring in the future. His main intention was to reduce the noise or “hum” of single coil pickups. Therefore, he came up with an interesting design solution that includes two coils that are opposing each other, in order to “buck” the “hum”, as they used to say at the time.
The new design reduced the noise, but side effects were significantly more important, as humbuckers have completely different tonal characteristics. They have higher output, as well as richer and warmer sound. Today, humbuckers work perfect on jazz guitars, as well as for all kinds of hi-gain styles on solid body axes.
P90 pickups are typical for Gibson guitars. These pickups were introduced in the mid-’40s and have been used for various kinds of hollow and semi-hollow guitars. However, this design gained today’s popularity in the early ’50s, with the introduction of the ‘52 Les Paul Gold Top.
This is practically a single coil pickup. However, it features pretty wide coilings, which provides a significantly different tone compared to typical single coil pickups. The tone is warmer and “bigger”, so many see it as a halfway from single coils to humbuckers.
Depending on the guitar, it may come with different housings. The two most common shapes are “soap bar”, where mounting screws are placed within the housing, and “dog ears”, where screws are placed on the side. Despite different shapes, things are pretty much inside these housings.
Passive and Active Pickups
Most pickups on famous guitar models are passive. Active pickups are more common on bass guitars, though can be found on electric guitars as well. Jazz players started to use them first, in order to get a warmer and more balanced clean tone. These days, active pickups are predominately used for metal and other hi-gain styles, mainly because of a higher output that enhances drive tones even more.
The thing with these pickups is that they use a battery-powered circuit to get higher output. This results in a hotter tone that is well-balanced across the wide frequency range. The main problem with such design is that these pickups alter the signal from guitar to amp. In practice, this means they could be great for specific tones. On the other side, they are not a good solution for those who tend to have a wide arsenal of clean and gain sounds.