When they first appeared, electric guitars were thought to be just a gimmick. However, it didn’t take long for them to completely take over the mainstream. With that said, not every guitar is the same. Knowing the difference between various electric guitars can be pretty important especially if you are looking to start playing this instrument. Since there is so much information out there which can be quite confusing, we have decided to create a short guide for your convenience. By the time you are done reading this article, you should have a firm grasp on the most important types of electric guitars and how they affect one’s tone.
Solid Body VS Semi Hollow/Hollow Body
Even though semi hollow and hollow body guitars are extremely rare these days, that wasn’t the case back in the early age of electric guitars. A hollow or semi hollow guitar is one whose body isn’t made of solid wood. Instead, you have chambers similar to that of an acoustic guitar, but much smaller. The difference between the semi hollow and hollow guitars is in the size of those chambers.
Aside from being much harder to manufacture or build by hand, these type of guitars also require a higher maintenance. In most cases they come with complicated bridges and tailpieces, all of which need to be fine tuned to perfection.
Semi hollow and hollow guitars are used mostly in Jazz these days. The reason for this is their quite unique sound which incorporates the added gain of an electric instrument with the rather delicate sound profile of an acoustic instrument. With that said, these traits are both a benefit and a flaw depending on which genre of music you are interested in playing.
Here’s a sample of the sound of a hollow body guitar, with a version of Autumn Leaves by Ryan Stewart. Nice!
Up next – solid body guitars. Solid body guitars represent the next level of guitar’s evolution and are the most popular choice today. The very first commercially successful solid body design is said to be Fender’s Telecaster. However that is if we disregard Rickenbacker’s Frying Pan lap steel model from 1930s.
Single Coil Or Humbucker Electronics
Now that we have that classification out of the way, lets talk about something that will actually be of consequence to you specifically. When first entering the world of electric guitars, most newcomers are blissfully unaware that there is a difference between single coil pickups and humbuckers. As a matter of fact, chances are that they don’t even know what these terms mean. Don’t worry, we are going to get that sorted out in a moment.
Single Coil Pickups
Single coils are the oldest type of magnetic pickup used on guitars. The name ‘single coil’ is pretty self explanatory. If you were to take one of these pickups apart, you would find a single coil of wire wrapped around several (depending on the number of strings) permanent magnets. When you strum a cord, or pick a string, that vibration is passes through the magnetic field of the pickup and is ‘picked up’.
There is more to this but since this is not a physics class, lets move on. The main benefit of single coil pickups is their clarity and precision. This is why you mostly see them being used for Blues, Jazz and Rock.
However, keep in mind that single coils aren’t without flaws. For starters, they aren’t too great if you are a fan of heavy distortion. That is not the worst of it either. Single coil pickups suffer from what is called ‘single coil hum’. In essence, a single coil pickup is an antenna that is prone to picking up signals it should but also shouldn’t pick up. This is especially present in affordable single coil pickups and can be extremely annoying.
A humbucker was partially designed to kill the noise and be much less prone to interference than a single coil. What a humbucker does great is meaty tone, especially if you are a fan of heavy distortion.
The fact that even the cheapest humbucker will be quit compared to a mid level single coil tells a lot about why these are so popular. If you are just starting out, we definitely suggest that you look into guitars that have humbuckers on. You will have a much easier time dialing in a good sound and you won’t have to deal with too much noise.
Here’s a great video by Darrell Braun that talks about the difference between single coil vs. humbucker. Check it out.
Active VS Passive
Last but not least, we need to mention active and passive electronics. The difference between these two comes down to whether or not a pickup is using an auxiliary source of power. Most guitars these days are still passive for a variety of reasons. Something like a Fender Stratocaster or a Gibson Les Paul still come out of the factory with passive pickups installed.
So why do active pickups exist?
Somewhere down the road we have figured out that if you infuse the signal with gain on the guitar’s end, before it reaches the amp, that you can get pretty interesting results.
In most cases, the benefits include a clearer, sharper and much more powerful tone that is simply more consistent. This is why guitarists who play metal really like to their active humbuckers. The amount of distortion and gain these can take is impressive.
On the other hand, that doesn’t mean that passive pickups are bad or inferior in any way. Passive pickups are much more expressive and delicate, thus allowing you to be more creative. On top of that, passive pickups are much cheaper, which is definitely a factor when you are just starting out. In the end, these are just different tools for different jobs.
Here’s a great video by Charlie Parra talking about the difference between active and passive pickups. Check it out.
The categories we have listed above are the most important ones you you will run into when choosing an electric guitar. Arguably, there are many more categories and sub categories out there, but those require a much deeper discussion. Either way, with this info you should be able to figure out what to get and what not to get depending on your taste in music and your abilities.