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It’s difficult to overstate the versatility of the electric guitar. Like acoustic guitars, the electric guitar’s structure largely determines its tone. This includes its shape, the materials used to create it, its strings, and the way in which these strings are positioned on the neck of the guitar. On top of the elements that electric guitars share with their acoustic brethren, electrics guitars come in a myriad of forms that are based upon three distinct styles. Each style generates a distinct tone.
The first is the hollow body, or archtop, guitar. These guitars are known as hollow bodies because, like acoustics, the body of the guitar is hollow. These were among the first electric guitars ever created, and share many other aesthetic features with the acoustic guitar. There are several fundamental differences, however. First and foremost, archtop guitars have a convex or arched top (hence the name), two violin-style “f-holes” on either side of the bridge, and one or more pickups. This type of guitar, when not distorted, generates a very warm tone that is more popular in jazz than rock. However, as any electric guitar can be altered to generate a new tone, many archtops are outfitted with mechanisms to increase the guitar’s tremolo, thereby creating the “twangy” tone that is common in rockabilly and country music.
The second is the solid body guitar. This is what most people envision when they think of an electric guitar. Unlike the archtop, the solid body guitar does not have a cavity in which the sounds of the vibrating strings can resonate, nor does it have a convex top. The pickups capture only the vibrations of the strings, turn them into a electric signal, and then shoot this signal through a series of wires and cords, which may be routed through pedals that can distort or alter the sound in a massive variety of ways, and then on to the amplifier.
The final type of electric guitar is the semi-hollow body. The semi-hollow body guitar looks very similar to the archtop guitar, but it is thinner. This is because the semi-hollow does not rely solely on the resonance of the guitar in order to create its sound. The semi-hollow has a long piece of wood that runs through the center of the body, which cuts back on much of the resonance created by using an archtop, thereby generating a sound that is akin to both the solid body and hollow body, but unique in its own right. Its tone is richer than the former, but punchier than the latter.
What is common to all electric guitars is that a change in pickup will result in a change of tone. Most electric guitars will be outfitted with at least two pickups—one close to the bridge and one close to the neck. The closer a pickup is to the neck, the warmer and fatter the sound will be. The closer a pickup is to the bridge, the brighter the tone will be. Guitarists can adjust the pickups using the knobs and switches on the guitar in order to find just the right tone while on stage, allowing them to find the perfect tone for each song, or even for each part of any given song.
Further variations can be made once the signal leaves the guitar and begins on its path to the amplifier. It can be rerouted through one or more pedals that further shape the sound, thereby allowing the guitarist to add all of the colorings and effects that his or her heart desires.
Given the myriad modifications that can be made to any one of these three types of guitar, as well as the nearly infinite number of alterations that can be made to the signal, the electric guitar is one of the most, if not the most, versatile instruments available to any musician.