Solid body, chambered body, semi-acoustic, and full hollow body
The primary difference between each of the four main electric guitar types is in the body. Guitars exist in a continuum from solid body guitars to fully acoustic.
The guitar type continuum goes, in order, like this: Solid body, chambered body, semi-acoustic, hollow body, and then acoustic.
Some acoustic guitars have electronics, but aren't considered electrics. Any acoustic guitar can become an "acoustic-electric" by adding a pickup, making it so the signal can be sent to an amplifier or PA system.
Some electrics are suited more for heavy distortion, and others more for cleaner tones. Some excel at multiple sounds. It depends upon many factors. Electric guitar sounds are complex, with many variables that can be endlessly tinkered with. For many guitarists, it's a fun challenge to be creative coming up with, and searching for, amazing sounds.
Below you will see that the more resonance, and the more like an acoustic guitar an electric guitar is, the better it is for cleaner and lighter sounds. This is a general rule, although there is so much variety and so many options for amplification, effects, pickups, modifications, etc that not everyone uses these guitars exclusively how they’re described below.
Part of the fun and challenge of being an electric guitarist is the endless possibilities for tinkering with the many variables that go into the overall sound. Many guitarists have, in fact, gone insane in the quest for particular tones.
I’ve written this article with intent so beginners will be able to understand it, and will hopefully find this information helpful in determining which type of guitar would best fit whatever style of music you're interested in playing. Those interested in multiple styles may want more than one of the guitar types discussed below.
I use a Fender Stratocaster, and with it I play classic rock, surf rock, punk rock, blues, and reggae. It works perfectly for how I play, along with my Fender amplifier.
I don’t know of a more fun or more enjoyable challenge than being creative with playing music and constantly experimenting with electric guitar equipment. Whatever you decide on, may it provide hours of enjoyment!
Electric guitar type #1: Solid body
Solid body guitars are what most people think of when they think of an electric guitar, and the world’s most popular electric guitars are this type. Examples are the Gibson Les Paul, Fender Stratocaster, and Fender Telecaster.
These have a tight, focused sound with little resonance of the body. The body remains solid and secure and the pickups are mostly sensing the vibrations of the strings, rather than additional vibrations caused by the body. The body of the guitar, what wood it’s made out of, and other factors, do however make a difference.
Solid bodies can be used for almost any style of music, although typically excel more than others at high gain sounds – such as an overdriven amp, or various overdrive or distortion effect pedals. High gain sounds are those typically used in heavy metal, hard rock, punk rock, grunge, and similar.
Solid bodies are often very versatile, and are used for every type of music that is or can be played with an electric guitar. As mentioned in the introduction, many factors influence what a particular guitar does best.
Electric guitar type #2: Chambered body
Chambered body guitars are built with hollow spaces within the body, which is made from one single chunk of wood like solid bodies. Sometimes the spaces are visible from the outside, often as f-shaped sound holes (as in cellos), and other times not. In some cases it can be hard to know an instrument is chambered, such as with the PRS Singlecut.
The chambers can serve one or two purposes. They may simply be there to decrease the weight, so guitarists can more comfortably play while standing for long periods. Or they may be there to add some extra vibration to the body that will be sensed by the pickups. And the chambers could be there for both purposes.
Chambered bodies may be fine with high gain sounds, or if they produce a lot of vibration they may be less suited for this purpose, depending upon the particular instrument, and often excel most for music styles not so heavy, like some forms of classic rock, and also blues, jazz, and reggae.
Electric guitar type #3: Semi-acoustic
Semi-acoustics have a hollow body that typically isn’t much larger than that of a solid body. Although rather than being made from a single piece of wood, these guitars are made from thin sheets of wood that are carefully and expertly glued together.
Semi-acoustics nearly always have an f-shaped sound hole, like a cello has, or sometimes there are two of them. An example of a semi-acoustic is the Gibson ES-335, pictured above.
They intentionally cause string vibration, and tend to excel with lighter and cleaner sounds, such as is heard in blues, jazz, and reggae, and older styles of rock music (like what you might hear on the oldies stations).
Semi-acoustics are sometimes called hollow bodies, although these are not technically the same. See below for full hollow body guitars.
Electric guitar type #4: Full hollow body
Full hollow bodies (also called archtop guitars) have noticeably large bodies, they have the f-shaped sound holes or possibly a circular sound hole in the center of the body (like an acoustic guitar), and like semi-acoustics, they are made from thin sheets of wood expertly glued together.
The top and back of one of these guitars is typically arched rather than flat, the bridge is often movable, and the guitars are typically very audible, like acoustics, when played unplugged.
These guitars produce a lot of resonance, and usually require humbucking pickups to control the sound and to prevent feedback. They are sometimes used for country music, and most often are used for jazz, which nearly always requires a thick and bassy, yet beautiful clean tone. An excellent example is the Gretsch Guitars G100CE.