Looking for your first electric guitar can be an overwhelming experience. You walk into the guitar store and there are so many options it can make your head spin.
There’s different shapes, colors, designs, and styles. Where do you begin?
This guide will help give you an understanding of the type of electric guitars that are available before you stroll into your local music store.
That way, you’ll come equipped with enough knowledge that you can feel confident pulling an electric guitar off the wall and trying out a tune.
The Different Types of Electric Guitars
Electric Guitar Pickups
One of the first things to know about an electric guitar is what a pickup is. A guitar pickup is a transducer — or in other words, it converts one type of energy into another type of energy. In the case of an electric guitar, the pickup converts the vibrations of the strings into an electrical signal.
The pickup is located directly under the strings and once it converts the vibration from the strings into electricity, it goes through an amp and out the speaker so others can hear.
The guitar pickup is made up of magnetic rods wrapped in a coil of wire. There are six magnets, one for each string of the guitar. In some cases, the pickup may have metal rods instead of magnetic ones, and the magnet will be placed underneath the rods.
Every electric guitar has a pickup, but not all are the same. Some guitars have one pickup while others have two, or three, or four. What kind of pickup and how many there are has to do with what kind of sound you want to produce with your guitar.
There are three main types of electric guitar pickups and they are:
- Single coils
- Humbuckers (dual coils)
Although there are variations of each of these types of pickups, these are the main ones available.
What is a Single Coil Pickup?
The single coil pickup was the first one to be invented and used. The electric guitar single coil pickup was used as early as the 1930s. During the big band era, guitarists were competing against the loud sound of a large brass section and needed a way to amplify the sound. To solve this problem, they invented the electric guitar using pickups.
The single coil pickups are made up of six magnetic rods. In some cases, a thin magnetic strip is inserted beneath the metal rods instead. The single coil pickup is often thought to sound bright but can produce an unintended “humming sound” caused by interference.
Another attribute of the single coil pickup is clear note definition from each string. This pickup is often used for blues, classic rock, and country.
What is a Humbucker Pickup?
The humbucker pickup, also known as the humbucking or the dual coil pickup, was invented to cancel the “hum” produced by the single coil pickup. In other words it “bucks the hum.”
The humbucker uses two coils instead of one like the single coil pickup. The second coil helps eliminate unwanted sounds made from stray magnetic fields. The man credited with discovering this method was Armand R. Knoblaugh, an engineer from Ohio. He patented his design for the dual coil pickup in 1938.
A humbucker pickup is known as having a darker, fuller, louder sound than the single coil pickup.
What is a P-90 Pickup?
P-90 pickups are another version of the single-coil pickup. Though it could be categorized along with other single pickups, this one is very different in look and sound.
The P-90 pickup was first introduced in 1946 and was invented by a Gibson design engineer named Walter Fuller. This pickup is known for its clarity and crisp tone and also for being thick and warm. It might best be described as a middle ground between a traditional single coil pickup and a humbucker.
These pickups are quite versatile and could work well for blues, jazz, indie, country, rock, and punk music.
Active vs Passive Electric Guitar Pickups
Other terms you may come across with pickups are “active” or “passive.” Most guitars you use will have a passive pickup, but there are some that have active ones. Here’s what you need to know about these types of pickups.
A passive pickup has been around for the longest, and it’s as we described above. It uses a coil of wire to work with a magnet to create an electric signal. When a string is plucked or strummed, an electrical current passes through the wires.
An active pickup has a similar setup to the passive one in the sense that it uses a wire and a magnet as a transducer. However, the wire isn’t wrapped as many times as its passive counterpart.
In order for the active pickup to produce a strong enough output to be heard, it needs something to boost the signal. In most cases, this is a 9V battery.
One of the main appeals of the active pickup is the fewer metal coils lead to less noise interference. Some believe this also provides more accurate intonation. Active pickups would be most popular with hard rock or heavy metal musicians.
Here’s a video that demonstrates the difference between active vs passive pickups:
Electric Guitar Body Styles
The next thing you need to consider about guitar types is the body style. Here we’re talking less about the shape of the guitar, and more about the way it’s constructed.
Back before the electric guitar was invented, acoustic guitars were king. These guitars had a hollow body that amplified the sound of vibrating strings. So instead of using pickups and an amp, all the sound was contained within the structure of the instrument.
The electric guitar emits sound using pickups and an amplifier, which means the hollow body of the guitar wasn’t necessary for producing sound, although in some cases it’s still used. Today, there are three types of electric guitars.
- Solid body
- Semi-hollow body
- Hollow body
Solid Body Electric Guitar
The solid body electric guitar is the most common style. As you might expect from the name, these guitars are solid wood the whole way through. They rely solely on the electric pickups to amplify the sound of the strings.
Solid body guitars are usually the most resistant to feedback so they can be played louder. They also have better sustain than their hollow-bodied sisters, which means the notes from the guitar resonate longer.
A solid body guitar can be made into practically any shape. That’s why you’ll sometimes see some funkier designs with this model.
Semi-Hollow Body Electric Guitar
A semi-hollow body electric guitar merges the solid body guitar with the hollow body guitar taking some of the advantages of both in one instrument.
The semi-hollow guitar has two sections that are hollowed out on each side of the center of the body. The rest of the body is solid. The removal of part of the wood makes it easier and lighter to carry than a solid body guitar.
Though they have a bit less sustain than the solid body guitars, they are similar in tone. The hollowed-out portion does make it more likely to have feedback, but still less than the hollow-bodied guitars.
Hollow Body Electric Guitar
The hollow body electric guitar has a more acoustic sound that’s warm and rich in tonality. Since it’s hollow, it’s much lighter than the solid body guitar. It can also be played without being plugged in since the hollowed-out portion will amplify the sound of the strings.
The hollow body guitar creates a more classic guitar sound and is also used as a jazz guitar. Unfortunately, even when played at a medium volume there’s a high chance of feedback.
What Are the Main Types of Electric Guitars
Now that you have a better understanding of the components of an electric guitar, let’s get down to the main types of electric guitars. These are the guitars you can expect to come across when you’re perusing your local guitar shop or scrolling through a selection online.
Telecaster Electric Guitar
The Telecaster is *the* classic electric guitar, introduced by Fender in 1951. This electric guitar has a single-cutaway and two single coil pickups. The sound could be described as twangy and bright making it a good choice for country or jazz music. It has also been used for alternative and indie, but it’s an unlikely candidate for hard rock or heavy metal.
Famous guitarists who have used the Telecaster guitar are:
- Buck Owens
- Eric Clapton
- Jimmy Page
- B. King
- Jonny Greenwood
- Muddy Waters
- Waylon Jennings
- Merle Haggard
- Brad Paisley
Stratocaster Electric Guitar
A few years later in 1954, Fender came out with another solid bodied electric guitar called the Stratocaster — often referred to simply as a strat. This guitar was made to be an upgrade from the Telecaster, but turned out to be an entirely new and different sounding guitar that attracted a different group of guitar players.
The Stratocaster features a double cutaway design that makes it easier to reach the highest frets. Most Stratocasters bodies are made from either Alder or Ash, with the neck being made from rosewood or maple. The Stratocaster also uses a single coil pickup, but it has three instead of two like the Telecaster. Some Stratocasters come with two single coil pickups and a humbucker or two humbuckers.
Unlike the Telecaster, the Stratocaster has something called a “tremolo system.” This can also be called a “whammy bar” “tremolo bar” and a “vibrato bar.” The purpose of a tremolo is to temporarily change the pitch of the instrument by changing the tension of the strings.
Some people describe the Stratocaster as having a mid-range “quack.” The quack is desirable to players, and can be produced when the guitar settings are put in a specific arrangement.
A notable advantage to the Stratocaster is its versatility. It’s well known for being a blues guitar, but it’s also good for rock, country, pop, folk, soul, and R&B.
Famous guitarists who rocked the strat are:
- Buddy Holly
- Jeff Beck
- Eric Clapton
- George Harrison
- Jimi Hendrix
- Eric Johnson
- Rory Gallagher
- David Gilmour
- Nile Rogers
Les Paul Electric Guitar
The Les Paul guitar was produced by the Gibson Company in the early 1950s. The musician Lester William Polfus, better known as Les Paul, first approached Gibson Company with the idea for a solid bodied electric guitar in the 1940s.
Gibson passed on the idea and even ridiculed him for it. Some reports say they called it “a broomstick with a pickup.” They did produce a few on his request but refused to put their name to it.
After 1951 when Fender’s Telecaster started to take off, Gibson rethought their original assumptions and decided to move forward with the solid-bodied Les Paul designed guitar. The first Les Paul was put to market in 1952, but Gibson and Les Paul continued to make modifications to improve the design for years.
The first Les Paul electric guitars came equipped with P-90 single coil pickups, but later versions were set up humbuckers. The Les Paul guitar has a single cutaway and a solid body made of mahogany with a maple top.
These guitars are known for their incredible sustain, versatility, and signature growl. Les Pauls have been used in many different genres including jazz, country, rock, reggae, and punk rock.
Famous guitarists who have used the Les Paul include:
- Les Paul
- Jimmy Page
- Billy Gibbons
- Bob Marley
- Steve Clark
- Randy Rhoads
- Zakk Wylde
- Eric Clapton
- Pete Townshend
Offset Electric Guitars
When you’re talking about an “offset” electric guitar, you’re largely talking about the shape of the body. In this case, it’s exactly as described. The body is offset, meaning it’s asymmetrical.
This look is a very different look than the classic strat or telecaster style. These were designed to be more comfortable when the player was in a seated position, but they also give it a fun and interesting look.
The first offset guitar was made by Fender in the 1950s. The original model was the Duo-Sonic, but shortly after they introduced the Mustang and the full-sized Jazzmaster. The offset guitars are diverse coming with different features, but they all have the signature body design.
Famous guitarists who chose an offset guitar are:
- Kevin Shields
- Annie Clark
- Kurt Cobain
- Patti Smith
- Elvis Costello
- Robert Smith
Superstrat Electric Guitar
A Superstrat guitar debuted in the 1970s and was meant to be an update to the Stratocaster. The Superstrat’s sound is heavy and harsh and could be called the “hot-rodded” version of the Stratocaster.
The Superstrat has a double-cutaway like the original strat, but the cutaway is much deeper and pointier. The Superstrat often has additional frets and a thinner, wider neck than its predecessors.
While they also have a tremolo system, the Superstrat one can be locked into place and does a better job keeping the instrument in tune. Superstrats usually use humbucker pickups, and some are angled to reduce the harshness of the ceramic magnets in the pickup.
These electric guitars are often the top choice for hard rock and heavy metal guitarists. Guitar brands have leaned into this by making some of the designs with eye catching graphics or wild designs. You might see a Superstrat with flames, zebra print, or bright colors.
Famous players of the Superstrat are:
- Eddie Van Halen
- Dave Murray
- Steve Vai
Gibson SG Electric Guitar
The Gibson “SG” guitar stands for “solid guitar.” This was at one point considered a Les Paul guitar, but today it has a distinct design.
Though the two guitars have many similarities, there are some key differences. Les Pauls and SGs look fairly similar, and they both have double humbuckers. But unlike the Les Paul, the SG has a double cutaway and is typically smaller and much lighter than the Les Paul. The SG also has a brighter more pronounced sound than the Les Paul.
Famous SG players are:
- Eric Clapton
- Pete Townshend
- Angus Young
- Frank Zappa
Semi-Hollow Electric Guitars
Though it was previously mentioned in this guide, semi-hollow body guitars are another major type of electric guitars. These guitars naturally lend themselves to jazz music, but have been used for almost every genre with the exception of hard rock or heavy metal.
Some of the most notable semi-hollow electric guitars are:
- Gibson Electric Spanish Guitars – Comes in a variety of models but you’ll be able to tell that it’s an electric spanish guitar from the “ES” in the title. (*Note that some of the ES lines also include hollow-bodied guitars)
- Epiphone ES Guitars – Different models are available for these as well, but they will have “ES” in the title.
- Fender Starcaster
- Godin Montreal Premiere
Guitarists who enjoyed the semi-hollow electric guitars:
- Eric Clapton (what didn’t he play?)
- B. King
- Otis Rush
- Warren Haynes
Hollow Electric Guitars
These guitars are most often associated with jazz music, but occasionally may be used for rock music. Though most electric guitar musicians choose a solid body guitar because of the risk of noise interference, some choose the hollow guitar because they like the sound of a hollow guitar more.
Some of the best hollow body electric guitars are:
- The Gibson ES Line
- Epiphone Dot 335
- Ibanez AFV75 Artcore
- Epiphone ES-339 PRO
- Ibanez AF55 Artcore
- Epiphone Casino Line
In case you were wondering, the famous guitarists who preferred the sound of a hollow body electric guitar are:
- Chet Atkins
- B. King
- George Benson
- Grant Green
- John Lennon
- George Harrison
- Wes Montgomery
- David Grohl
Acoustic-Electric Guitar (Electro-Acoustic)
An electro-acoustic guitar has similarities to a hollow body electric guitar, but they’re not the same thing. While the hollow body electric guitars often have f-shape openings on the sides of the front plate, the acoustic-electric guitar is built exactly like a normal acoustic guitar and has a center hole right beneath the strings.
An electro-acoustic guitar can be played without electricity, or it can be amplified in three ways: a magnetic pickup, a Piezo pickup, or a built-in microphone.
Some of the best acoustic-electric guitars are:
- Taylor 110e
- Yamaha FGX820C
- Guild Traditional D-55E
- Washburn Festival EA12
What is the Best Electric Guitar For You?
What guitar will work best for you is highly determined by what you want to do with it. Are you interested in jazz? You might like a semi-hollow or hollow-bodied guitar. Hoping to play some death metal? The Superstrat might be in your future. Want to play country or something a little more classic? The Telecaster could be a perfect fit for you.
If you’re not sure, go to the music store and play around with different styles. Borrow your friend’s guitar and practice your favorite riffs. It may take time for you to decide which guitar is the best fit for you, but now you’ll know what you’re talking about when you ask the store clerk to grab you a strat from the wall.
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Eduardo Perez is a multi-instrumentalist with over 20 years of experience playing instruments such as piano, guitar, ukulele, and bass. Having arranged songs and produced music in a recording studio, he has a wealth of knowledge to share about analyzing songs, composing, and producing. Currently pursuing a Bachelor of Arts degree in Interdisciplinary Musical Studies at Berklee College School of Music. Featured on Entrepreneur.com. Subscribe to his YouTube channel, or follow him on Instagram.