Have you ever seen an electric guitar with two thin holes, shaped like the letter “f”, above and below the strings? If so, you may be wondering what it’s used for and how it’s different from a regular electric guitar. What you’re thinking of is called a hollow body guitar, and in this article, we’ll explain exactly what it is, go over its history, and talk about a few things to keep in mind when you’re playing it.
Let’s take a look!
What Is a Hollow Body Guitar?
A hollow body guitar is an acoustic-electric guitar (sometimes called semi-acoustic), meaning it can be played with or without an amplifier. As the name implies, it’s hollow on the inside, so when you pick or strum the strings, their vibration is amplified inside the body and sound is released through the f-holes, the two openings that resemble the letter “f.” It also has built-in pickups, so it can play just like an electric guitar when plugged into an amplifier.
Hollow body guitars are known for their warm, clean tone that’s similar to the sound produced by fully acoustic guitars. They’re also incredibly versatile, since you can play them just about anywhere on their own or take them to the stage to play with electric amplification.
Hollow Body Guitar Origin
The history of this guitar really begins with the archtop guitar. At the turn of the 20th century, guitar maker Orville Gibson created an acoustic guitar that had a curved top and back. By 1922, Lloyd Loar, who was employed by the Gibson company, elaborated on the archtop design and added f-holes.
Both the arched design and the f-holes are believed to have been borrowed from the violin and allowed the guitars to produce more volume than their flat top, round soundhole counterparts. This made the archtop guitar a popular choice among jazz musicians, who could now have a better chance of being heard when playing with band members.
By the 1930s, guitar manufacturers started using pickups to convert string vibrations into electrical signals. Following the success of the first electrically amplified steel guitar, Gibson added a pickup to its most popular archtop, creating the first instrument that we now know as the hollow body guitar.
This was a game-changer for jazz musicians—they could now play solo lines and be clearly heard, even when playing alongside brass instruments.
However, playing an amplified hollow guitar at a high volume produced a lot of feedback. This led to the realization that perhaps electric guitars had to be treated as completely different instruments from acoustic guitars. Thus, the solid body electric guitar was born.
In a sense, it was a stepping stone on our way to developing solid body electric guitars, which have completely revolutionized the way music is played and recorded today. However, hollow body guitars still have their place in the music world and, to this day, are cherished for their warm tone and versatility, especially among jazz musicians.
The Difference Between Hollow and Semi-Hollow Guitar
In an effort to combat the feedback issue, guitar makers looked for a way to create something halfway between a hollow body and a solid body electric guitar. Thus, they came up with a semi-hollow body guitar.
This iteration is hollow above and below the strings and still features the classic f-holes, but it has a solid piece of wood in the middle, underneath the strings and the pickups. This helps reduce feedback while still maintaining its acoustic properties and warm tone.
Types of Music That Use Hollow Body Guitar
The hollow body guitar sound lends itself perfectly to country, blues, rockabilly, and jazz music. In fact, it was jazz musicians who popularized the instrument when it was first created. Even before electric amplification, archtop guitars were often referred to as “jazz boxes.”
That being said, you can use a hollow body guitar to play just about any type of music. The only exception would be hard rock or metal, which often involve lots of distortion and would cause too much feedback. A semi-hollow or a solid body electric guitar would be a better choice for these genres.
How to Play a Hollow Body Guitar
The great thing about hollow body guitars is that they can be played with or without amplification.
If you’re simply playing or practicing scales by yourself in your room, forego the amplifier and enjoy the warm, natural tones of the guitar. When you’re performing or recording, you can plug it in.
Keep in mind that hollow body guitars are highly susceptible to feedback—that painfully screeching noise that happens when someone holding a microphone comes near the same speaker that the microphone is plugged into.
In the case of hollow body guitars, the feedback is acoustic. This means that the sound from the amplifier resonates within the body of the guitar, which causes the strings to vibrate, which sends a signal to the pickup, which causes the amplifier to produce even more sound, and so on.
To keep this from happening, try any of the following:
- Stand further away from the amp
- Play at a lower volume
- Play with a lower gain and avoid using distortion
- Use a noise gate on your amp
- Stuff the inside of the guitar with foam
- Cover the f-holes with special plugs
If the style of music you play calls for high gain and lots of distortion or overdrive, consider getting a solid body electric guitar instead. It will save you the hassle and make sure your audience doesn’t experience any unpleasant feedback.
Try a Hollow Body Guitar for Yourself
The best way to decide whether a hollow body guitar is for you is to try it out. You’ll notice that the guitar feels and plays differently than any other acoustic or electric guitar you’ve tried. You might also enjoy the complexity of the tone it produces.
If you’re seriously considering it, be sure to rent, borrow, or try it out at your local music store before buying one. You might just fall in love!
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