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A semi-acoustic guitar or hollow-body electric is a type of electric guitar that originates from the 1930s. It has both a sound box and one or more electric pickups. This is not the same as an acoustic-electric guitar, which is an acoustic guitar with the addition of pickups or other means of amplification, added by either the manufacturer or the player.
In the 1930s guitar players and manufacturers were attempting to increase the overall volume of the guitar, which had a hard time competing with other instruments, specifically in large orchestras and jazz bands, due to its lack of volume. This created a series of experiments that focused on creating a guitar that could be amplified through electric currents and out through a speaker. In 1936, Gibson attempted to make their first production line of electric guitars. These guitars, known as ES-150’s (Electric Spanish Series) were the first manufactured semi-acoustic guitars.
They were based on a standard production archtop and had f holes on the face of the guitar which functioned as a soundbox. This model was used to resemble the traditional jazz box guitars that were popular at the time. The soundbox on the guitar allowed a limited amount of sound waves to emit from the hollow body of the guitar, which was customary of all full acoustic models before this guitar. The purpose of these guitars, however, was to be able to be amplified from electric sound waves. This was made possible by the Charlie Christian pickup, a magnetic single-coil pickup, which allowed the sound of the guitar to be amplified through electric currents. The clear sound produced by the pickups made the ES series immediately popular with jazz musicians. The first semi-acoustic guitars are often thought of as an evolutionary step in the progression from acoustic guitars to full electric models.
However, the ES-150 was made several years after the first solid body electric guitar, which was made by Rickenbacker. The ES series was merely an experiment by the Gibson company in order to test out the potential success of electric guitars. This experiment proved to be a successful financial venture and is often referred to as the first successful electric guitar. The ES-150 was followed by the ES-250 a year later, in what became a long line of semi acoustics for the Gibson company.
In 1949 Gibson released two new models (The ES-175 and ES-5). These guitars had built-in electric pickups that came standard in their design and can largely be considered as the first fully electric semi-acoustic guitars. Prior models were not built with pickups; rather, they came as attachments. As the production and popularity of solid body electric guitars increased, there was still a market of guitar players who wanted to have the traditional look associated with the semi-acoustic guitars of the 1930s but also wanted the versatility and comfort of new solid body guitars. Several models, including the ES-350T by Gibson, were made in the 1950s to accommodate this growing demand by including a more comfortable version of the archtop model.
These variations were followed by an entirely new type of guitar that featured a block of solid wood between the front and back sections of the guitars cutaway. This guitar was still acoustic but had a smaller open section inside of the guitar which makes less sound waves emit from the f hole sound boxes on the guitar. The variant was first manufactured in 1958 by Gibson and is commonly referred to as a semi-hollow body guitar because of the smaller body of the guitar. Rickenbacker also chose to pursue making semi-acoustic guitars in 1958. When the company changed ownership in 1954, they hired German guitar crafter, Roger Rossmiesl. He developed the 330 series for Rickenbacker, which was a wide semi-acoustic that did not use a traditional f hole. Rather its used a sleeker dash hole on one side of the guitar, the other side had a large pickguard. This model boasted a modern design with a unique Fireglo finish. It quickly became one of Rickenbacker's most popular series and became a strong competitor to Gibson's models.
In addition to the main model variants of the guitar, Gibson made several small changes to the guitar including a laminated top for the ES-175 model and mounted top pickups for general use on all their models, as opposed to Charlie Christian models from the 1930s. While Gibson provided many of the innovations in semi-acoustic guitars from the 1930s to the 1950s, there were also various makes by other companies including a hollow achtop by Gretsch. The 6120 model by Gretsch became very popular as a rockabilly model despite having almost no technical differences from Gibson models. Rickenbacker was also a prominent maker of the semi-hollow body guitar. Gibson, Gretsch, Rickenbacker, and other companies still make semi-acoustic and semi-hollow body guitars, making slight variations on their yearly designs.
The semi-acoustic and semi-hollow body guitars were generally praised for their clean and warm tones. This led to widespread use throughout the jazz communities in the 1930s. As new models came out with sleeker designs, the guitars began to make their way into popular circles. The guitar became used in pop, folk, and blues. The guitars made an extensive amount of feedback when played through an amplifier at a loud level, this made the guitars unpopular for bands playing in large stages who had to play loud enough to fill their venues. As rock became more experimental, towards the late 60s and 70s the guitar became more popular because of its feedback issues which led to "wilder" sounds.
Today, semi-acoustic and semi-hollow body guitars are still popular in jazz, indie rock, and various other genres.[examples needed] Famous guitarists who have used semi acoustic guitars include John Lennon of The Beatles and B.B. King. Semi-acoustic guitars have also been valued as good practice guitars because, when played "unplugged," they are quieter than full acoustic guitars, but more audible than solid-body electric guitars because of their open cavity. This makes the guitar particularly useful when volume is an issue.
Some semi-acoustic models have a fully hollow body (for instance the Gibson ES-175 and Epiphone Casino), others may have a solid center block running the length and depth of the body, called semi hollow body (for instance the Gibson ES-335).
Other guitars are borderline between semi-acoustic and solid body. For example, some Telecaster guitars have chambers built into an otherwise solid body to enrich the sound. This type of instrument can be referred to as a semi-hollow or a chambered body guitar. Exactly where the line is to be drawn between a constructed sound box and a solid wooden body, whose construction also affects the sound according to many players, is not generally agreed. Any of the following can be called semi-acoustic:
- Instruments starting from a solid body "blank" which has been routed out to make a chambered body guitar.
- Instruments with semi-hollow bodies constructed from plates of wood around a solid core, having no soundholes, such as the Gibson Lucille or Brian May Red Special.
- Instruments with a solid core but hollow bouts and soundholes (usually f-holes), such as the Gibson ES-335. In these, the bridge is fixed to a solid block of wood rather than to a sounding board, and the belly vibration is minimised much as in a solid body instrument.
- Thin-bodied archtop guitars, such as the Epiphone Casino. These possess both a sounding board and sound box, but the function of these is purely to modify the sound transmitted to the pickups. Such guitars are still intended purely as electric instruments, and while they do make some sound when the pickups are not used, the tone is weak and not normally considered musically useful.
- Full hollowbody semi-acoustic instruments, often called Jazz guitars, such as the Gibson ES-175; these have a full-size sound box, but are still intended to be played through an amplifier.
The Rickenbacker 330 JG
Some companies that have produced famous semi-acoustic guitars include: Gibson, Gretsch and Rickenbacker. A variety of manufacturers now produce semi-acoustic model guitars: D'Angelico, Epiphone, Ibanez, etc.
- Fully hollow body
- Thinline hollow body (thin body)
- Semi hollow body (with center block)
- Other semi hollow (solid-body with cavities)
- various types
- Archtop guitars. Guitars with a fully hollow or semi-hollow body, with or without pickups.
- Electro-acoustic guitars. Fully acoustic guitars with piezo pickups.
- Hybrid guitars. Guitars with both magnetic and piezo pickups. Can be solid, semi-hollow or hollow bodied.
- Silent guitars. Solid body guitars with a piezo pickups.
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- Martin A. Darryl, Innovation and the Development of the Modern Six-String, The Galpin Society Journal (Vol. 51), 1998.
- Rogers, Dave, 1958 Rickenbacker 330, http://www.premierguitar.com/Magazine/Issue/2009/Aug/1958_Rickenbacker_330.aspx, accessed 11 December 2011.
- Carter, William, The Gibson Guitar Book: Seventy Years of Classic Guitar, New York, NY, Backbeatbooks, 2007.