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Types of Electric Guitars: A Guide to Different Styles

Types of Electric Guitars

There are a lot of different guitars out there. Any guitarist who walks into a guitar shop is greeted with walls upon walls of different types of electric guitars—Strats, Teles, Les Pauls, full hollow bodies, semi-hollow bodies, and more. But where’d they all come from? How’d they come about? And what makes them different?

In today’s article, we’re going to answer all those questions and more as we follow the history of electric guitar design throughout the years. 

The Types of Electric Guitars

It’s important to note that not every single guitar will get mentioned here. There are countless manufacturers with various models, and it would take years to compile them all. 

Instead, we’ll focus on the more general styles/types of guitar. So for example, Flying Vs, Explorers, and SGs will be lumped together with Les Pauls since they share the same fundamental features and design. 

Also, there are lots of guitars out there that don’t neatly fit into a single category. Are thinline Telecaster semi-hollows, teles, or both? Is Telecaster deluxe a Tele or a Les Paul? It doesn’t really matter, so don’t get too focused on which category a guitar is in. These are just general categories, and guitars can have a variety of features and design queues that make them unique. 

With that out of the way, let’s start at the beginning. 

Hollow Body Guitar

Full Hollow Body

The first electric guitars came about in the 1930s. Technically the first electric guitars were instruments like the Rickenbacker Frying Pan, but the first “proper” electric guitars as we think of them today were fully hollow guitars. 

At the time, big bands were popular and guitarists needed to cut through the mix. On top of that, audiences were getting bigger. So guitarists needed a lot more volume, and fully acoustic guitars just weren’t enough. 

The solution was the invention of the guitar pickup. Early pickups were fairly crude and simple compared to pickups of today, but they were enough to let guitarists amplify their sound and be heard. 

In the modern day, full hollow guitars have their pros and cons. Feedback is the most common issue, as full hollow guitars make feedback difficult to control. They are also typically on the large side, which many don’t like. But full hollow guitars also have a very deep and warm sound you can only get from them. 

Telecaster guitar

Telecaster

In 1951, Leo Fender debuted the Telecaster to cater to the needs of swing and dance bands of the time. The Telecaster sported a solid wood body, a bolt on neck, two single coil pickups, and a pickup switch plus tone and volume control. 

This was a huge change from the hollow bodies players were using prior. Telecaster pickups had their own unique sound and character, ranging from bright and twangy to warm and jazzy. They weren’t prone to feedback like full hollow bodies. Telecasters were durable workhorses that could be beat up night after night with few issues. And if something went wrong, parts were cheap, readily available, and easy to replace yourself. 

Telecasters quickly became the guitar at the time, and they forever changed the electric guitar. To this day, Telecasters are one of the most common guitars. Fender and numerous other manufacturers make various Tele-style guitars with all sorts of different options, catering to every need you could think of.

Les Paul Guitar

Les Paul

With Fender knocking it out of the park with the Telecaster, Gibson knew they needed to compete. And in 1952, they released the Gibson Les Paul. Again, this was a guitar that would forever change the guitar world. 

The Les Paul was Gibson’s first solid body guitar, and it included a number of features and design queues that set it apart from the Telecaster. It had two P-90 pickups which were distinctly different from what the Tele offered, as well as a shorter scale length and a tone and volume control for each pickup. 

It didn’t take long for the Les Paul to catch on, just like the Telecaster. In the years following, Gibson’s PAF humbucking pickups were introduced and became a standard for Les Pauls. And in later years, Gibson introduced a few other guitars that, while looking different than Les Pauls, are functionally the same thing—the Flying V, the Explorer, and the SG.

Today, Les Paul and Les Paul style guitars are still incredibly common. The double humbucker with two tone and volume knob set-up can be seen on countless new guitars, and it’s a design that’s not going anywhere either. 

Fender Stratocaster Guitar

Stratocaster

Just like Gibson wanted to compete with the Telecaster, Fender wanted to compete with the Les Paul. So Leo Fender and company went to the drawing board in 1952, and they emerged with the Fender Stratocaster in 1954. 

When the Stratocaster hit the market, it was a huge success. It came with three single coil pickups, a five way switch, two tone knobs and one for volume, a double cutaway, contoured back, and an improved vibrato system. That combined with the workhorse nature of Fender’s instruments made for an instant classic. 

I don’t think it needs to be said that the Strat is a popular design. Nearly every manufacturer makes a Strat style guitar, and so many players start out on a cheap Squier or knock-off Strat. There are a near limitless number of Strats to choose from, and it’s still one the most common guitar designs.  

Semi-Hollow Guitar

Semi-Hollow Body

By the late 50s, hollow body guitars had fallen out of fashion. With Strats, Teles, and Les Pauls on the market, hollow bodies were left by the wayside. But the folks at Gibson had an idea—what if you could get the dark and warm tone of a hollow body, but without the feedback issue?

The result was the Gibson 335, introduced in 1958. In terms of pick-ups, electronics, the neck, etc, the 335 is nearly identical to the Les Paul. However, its semi hollow body is what sets it apart. 

Instead of being fully hollow or fully solid, the 335 featured a solid block running through the middle of the body with two hollow wings. This helped increase the unamplified volume and provide a more hollow body-esque tone while minimizing feedback. 

Gibson’s semi hollow design has since become a staple in the guitar industry. There are countless companies making similar models, from Ibanez to PRS. On top of that, manufacturers have also applied semi-hollow principles to Strats, Teles, and more. 

Fender Jazzmaster Guitar

Jazzmaster and Other Offsets

The last big change to the guitar world of the 1950s was the Jazzmaster which was introduced in 1958. Fender originally intended to appeal to jazz players (as the name suggests) with a more expensive sibling of the Strat. However, jazzers ignored the Jazzmaster and they became beloved by surfrockers instead. 

Jazzmasters at the time featured an offset body designed for comfort, two custom Jazzmaster pickups that provided a warmer tone with single coil clarity (plus hum canceling in the middle position), a volume and tone control, a tremolo arm, and roller controls for rhythm and lead circuits. 

While they didn’t become a massive success at the time, Jazzmasters earned their place in the guitar world throughout the decades. They had become undesirable by the 80s, and countless artists like Sonic Youth bought them cheap and made them icons for alternative music. 

These days, offsets seem more popular than ever. Fender has various offset models like the Jaguar which are variations on the Jazzmaster. And many manufacturers big and small make Jazzmaster-esque guitars. 

Super strat guitar

Super Strat

The 80s were a big decade for the guitar, and with that came a few new guitar styles. The most successful guitar style to come out of the 80s is undeniably the Super Strat. The Super Strat is arguably the defining guitar of the decade, and it’s an incredibly popular design to this very day. 

With hard rock and heavy metal booming in the 80s, guitarists needed instruments that better suited their needs. Lots of players were using Strats, but they just weren’t quite what they needed.

The most important figure in the history of the Super Strat is Eddie Van Halen. He liked the Strat body and vibrato design, but he wanted a beefier tone. So he put a PAF in the bridge slot, thus creating the iconic Frankenstrat. That inspired countless others to further modify the Strat and cement the Super Strat as an important design. 

There are a few things that separate a regular Strat from a Super Strat, though Super Strats can vary from one to another. There isn’t a precise definition, but here are some of the common features: HSH or HSS pickup configuration, 24 fret fretboard, vibrato (often a Floyd Rose), thin necks, and locking tuners. 

Jackson was the first company to start manufacturing Super Strats, starting with their Soloist model in 1981. But soon after, nearly everyone was making a super strat. And today, Super Strats are just if not more common than regular Strats.

Headless Guitar

Headless

Last but not least are headless guitars. While these aren’t as common, even today with their recent resurgence, they still are a unique and distinct guitar design. 

Their origins go back to the 1800s, but headless guitars as we think of them today come from the 80s. Ned Steinberger, a furniture designer at the time, was asked by Stuart Spector to help design a guitar. Steinberger was focused on ergonomics and neck dive, and the result was the modern headless guitar. 

As the name implies, headless guitars lack a head. There is no headstock, and the tuners are located behind the bridge instead. Headless guitars can have an array of pickup configurations and features, but being headless is what sets them apart. 

Headless guitars had a brief moment of popularity in the 80s thanks to various players like Eddie Van Halen, Sting, and Geddy Lee. However, the “back to basics” ethos of the 90s didn’t leave much space for headless guitars, and they quickly died out. 

Over the years though, headless guitars have built a cult following. Metal players in particular are fond of headless guitars, and big companies like Ibanez are now making headless guitars en masse. Though it took a while, headless guitars are finally getting recognized as a unique and inventive guitar design that can stand with the greats.

A Sea of Choice

It’s easy to get overwhelmed by the sheer volume of different guitars available. From vintage style Telecasters to futuristic headless guitars, there is a sea of choice for guitarists. No matter what your needs are, there’s a guitar out there that suits you perfectly. 

Hopefully this article has given you a better understanding of the different types of guitars, what they do, and what sets them apart from each other. At the end of the day though, we always recommend experimenting. Go to your local guitar shop and play a bunch of guitars. Find what works for you. And when you find the right one, don’t forget to throw on a set of fresh Stringjoys!

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