When it comes to the electric guitar, players have a wide variety of pickup and wood options, but there are only three basic configurations available:
Full hollow bodied guitars– preferred by jazzers and some country musicians for their warm, fat tones, but they are prone to feedback at higher volume levels and often lack the sustain and high-frequency response needed to cut through vocals, bass, drums and keyboards within rock and R & B groups
Solid body guitars – The iconic Gibson Les Paul, Fender Telecaster, and Stratocaster are almost ubiquitous for rock and most other styles of contemporary music and deliver feedback suppression with searing tones at high volume
Semi-Hollow guitars – With the neck attached to a solid center block to which the pickups, bridge, and tailpiece might be mounted, the semi-hollow electric guitar has a back and top that are hollow within, allowing a resonance akin to that of a full hollow body but with better sustain and feedback suppression – a versatile combination that has made the semi-hollow electric guitar a favorite among musicians in all genres of music, from rock, blues, jazz, R& B, country, and pop, as well as ethnic music styles throughout the globe.
In over 35 years of performing, recording, dealing, and doing professional setups on guitars, I have had the good fortune to play a wide variety of semi-hollow electric guitars, among scores of others.
While there are certainly gems that are no longer commercially available, such as the Hamer Artist, or models that are specialized, like the Rickenbacker 360-12, this article will give an informed overview of the choices available today as well as any pertinent differences.
Choosing a Guitar
While there are several other manufacturers who also offer semi hollow body models, such as Reverend, Godin, Gretsch, Peavey, as well as other Gibson models, such as the P-90 equipped Blueshawk and ES Les Paul Special, Ive tried to keep the comparisons between “apples and apples.” My criteria were semi-hollow bodied humbucking pickup-equipped guitars and some sonic references based on artists who use them.
Since playing comfort, sound preference, and cosmetic appearances are all completely subjective elements, choosing the best semi hollow body guitar follows the same protocols for evaluation that one would normally have with any instrument at the end of the day.
Will this guitar work with me to make me play better and inspire me to do new things? Can I afford it? Is it a one trick pony or can I get a lot of different sounds from it? Will it work with my other gear?
After hours of testing and research, here's the final competition.
|The hollow chambers of the guitar between the maple top and bottom give a wooden resonance that is well suited for jazz and blues||Out of stock|
|The maple body sandwich construction of the ES-335 and comes with Alnico Pro pickups and Grover Rotomatic tuners||$429.00|
|Gorgeously flamed maple bodies, abalone block markers, ebony fingerboards, gold hardware||$999.99|
|Offer much of the Super 58’s throaty voice but without the Tri Sound options||$499.99|
|Has a center post rather that a full center block which offers additional resonance and warmth of tone||$1,167.04|
|Made entirely of laminated mahogany which is more midrangey and less bright than maple, which is a harder tonewood||Check on Amazon|
|Has the bullet truss rod headstock access, which was an improvement over the need to remove the neck for warp prevention adjustments||$899.99|
|Almost identical to its Fender cousin||$449.99|
|Capable of all types of expression thanks to the tremolo and luxuriously easy to play neck||$1,679.00|
In 1958, Gibson released the first semi-hollow body electric guitar: the ES-335. Designed with a wooden sustain block sandwiched between a maple top and back, the ES-335 is an amazingly versatile instrument that has been played by countless artists of all musical genres over the years.
The ES-335 and its sisters – the 345 and 355 (same design with more ornate appointments, like gold plating, inlays and stereo wiring) have turned up in the hands of Chuck Berry, Keith Richards, Eric Clapton, Freddie King, Alex Lifeson, B.B. King, Dave Grohl, Paul Simon, Warren Haynes, Vince Gill and Keith Urban, to name a few, both on records and on stage.
Studio ace Larry Carlton became known as “Mr. 335” as a result of his distinctive ES-335 into overdriven Fender, Mesa and Dumble amps on classic records by Steely Dan and others.
With a double cutaway, twin “F” hole design that has since become a classic, the ES-335 combines the warmth of a hollow body with the sustain and edge of a Les Paul solid body. Equipped with Classic 57 humbucking pickups, the ES-335 has a 24.75” bound neck and nickel chrome hardware, with either Kluson or Grover tuners.
The Gibson Tune-O-Matic bridge and stop tailpiece are mounted into the sustain block from the top, which gives the ES-335 its Les Paul type rock sounds and feedback resistance at high volumes. The hollow chambers of the guitar between the maple top and bottom give a wooden resonance that is well suited for jazz and blues.
An infinite number of tonal colors can be obtained just from the 2 pickups and their respective tone and volume controls.
The ES-335 Studio model, which has an unbound neck and only a Master Volume and Tone, can be had for less money (almost $1500 less) but at a sacrifice of sound tweaking capability.
Similar to other iconic guitars of the 1950’s like the Fender Telecaster and Stratocaster, the Gibson ES-335’s design has been practically unaltered since its origin in 1958, which is a testament to the genius of Ted McCarty, who was also responsible for Gibson’s Flying V, Firebird and Explorer models.
It is a design that has been copied by almost every other guitar manufacturer of semi-hollow guitars, as it was the first. On the plus side, the sound is instantly recognizable and is a joy to play.
On the con side, with a Out of stock price, the ES-335 is a considerable investment and might be beyond the means of most musicians.View on Sam AshView on Amazon
As Epiphone has been owned by Gibson since the 1960’s, the company has had a number of prized guitars under their own label in addition to serving as the import line for Gibson’s classic models from Korea, China, and Indonesia. The Beatles are probably the best known players of the Epiphone Casino, which, although it resembles the ES-335, is actually a fully hollow bodied thinline guitar.
For budget minded players, the Epiphone Dot (named for its Dot markers in tribute to the original 1958 ES-335 model) is a worthy consideration that delivers much of the ES-335 sound and vibe at a fraction of the cost.
Primarily built in the Epiphone Qingdao factory, the Epiphone Dot shares the maple body sandwich construction of the ES-335 and comes with Alnico Pro pickups and Grover Rotomatic tuners. While its sound lacks the complexity of its namesake when played directly into an amp, the Dot plays great and when used with pedals, one would be hard pressed to identify any sonic differences on a cursory listening.
While its sound lacks the complexity of its namesake when played directly into an amp, the Dot plays great and when used with pedals, one would be hard pressed to identify any sonic differences on a cursory listening.
For even tighter budgets, the Dot Studio, which has open coil humbucking pickups and single tone and volume knobs, goes for $349.00. It has lots of guitar bang for the buck and if buying used, the Korean models from before 2005 are often from the Samick or Peerless factories, which are highly regarded and may hold better resale value.
For players looking for a better cosmetic choice of pearl inlays and gold hardware, the Epiphone Sheraton II ($699.00), which counts U2’s The Edge, Noel Gallagher and Kings of Leon’s Matthew Followhill among its fans, is also worth a look.View on Sam AshView on Amazon
Hoshino Gakki of Japan has made guitars since after World War II, marketed under a number of brand names, but in Europe under the Greco name and as Ibanez in the USA.
After capturing a sizable market presence for their excellent Gibson and Fender copies in the 1970s that players such as Tom Petty and Paul Stanley of Kiss used onstage, a lawsuit over copyright infringement filed by Gibson launched Ibanez’s foray into original designs, that have created new innovations and thousands of players.
In addition to their huge loyal following in the heavy metal and rock arenas, Ibanez has developed an unusually strong presence among jazz guitarists, acoustic players and bassists as well. Since then, their signature models by George Benson, Pat Metheny, Paul Stanley, Bob Weir, Ani DeFranco, Herman Li, and of course, Steve Vai and Joe Satriani have become top sellers.
For several decades, the Ibanez Artist and Artstar (AS) series have offered guitars on par with and arguably, superior to US models. While the Ibanez Artist solid body offered one of the first true alternatives to the Les Paul in the mid-1970s and gained the endorsement of the then red-hot Steve Miller, the Ibanez Artist AS200 and AS100 semi-hollow models quietly made their own sterling reputation.
With gorgeously flamed maple bodies, abalone block markers, ebony fingerboards, gold hardware, and some Ibanez innovations, such as their slotted Quik Change tailpiece, ABR-1 bridge, Velve Tune machine heads, sure grip knobs, and buttery sounding Super 58 Tri-Sound pickups, they posed serious challenges to the supremacy of the ES-335.
While delivering a comparable profile and feel to the ES-335, the AS sound, courtesy of the Ibanez Tri Sound design, gives players a choice of single coil mode, series, or parallel mode, something previously available during the 1970s only as a custom wiring scheme by companies like Alembic and practically unheard of as standard equipment in an affordable professional quality guitar.
The AS semi-hollow series has garnered thousands of fans in the last several decades, but perhaps its best known proponent is jazz guitarist John Scofield, whose signature Ibanez model is based on the stock AS200 he has played for over 20 years.
The current AS153 series is the vintage sunburst model and is practically identical to the original, except that it is made in China rather than in Japan to keep costs under control. At $999.99 this is a fabulous bargain for someone seeking the semi hollow mojo apart from the Gibson standard.
The Japanese made AS200 is still available as part of the Ibanez Prestige series, and priced about 115% higher, which is still cheaper than a new ES-335 and a better value in the eyes of many of its legion of fans.View on Sam Ash
Ironically, while Ibanez made its breakthrough in the Western markets on the strength of its copies of classic Gibson and Fender models, it now finds itself making copies of its own popular designs, made in less labor expensive nations like China or Indonesia. The Ibanez Artcore ASV10 is a good example.
Sporting a similar maple body construction, the ASV10 also has abalone markers and sure grip knobs, but chrome rather than gold plated hardware, including a Quik Change tailpiece and ABR-1 bridge, but otherwise, more conventional Ibanez tuners and a rosewood fingerboard.
The Ibanez Classic Elite pickups offer much of the Super 58’s throaty voice but without the Tri Sound options.
The Artcore ASV10 is a viable low cost alternative to the Epiphone Dot for semi hollow players who prefer the Ibanez feel and sound over that of Gibson or Epiphone.View on Sam AshView on Amazon
Acknowledged by many as perhaps the archtop luthier counterpart to violin maker Antonio Stradivari, John D’angelico built his guitars in New York City and set a standard of artistic craftsmanship excellence that is still considered to be the pinnacle by today’s top luthiers, such as Robert Benedetto, John Buscarino and John Monteleone, among others.
Roughly 5 years ago, the D’angelico name was purchased and licensed for a new line of high-quality guitars imported from Korea with a custom shop based in New York. Led by Steve Pisani, the new D’angelico company offers fully hollow jazz models featuring many of the attributes of the top classic archtop models created by John D’angelico, as well as semi-hollow single and double cutaway designs.
These new models have found favor with a number of artists, including Susan Tedeschi, Bob Weir, Warren Haynes, Brad Whitford, Kurt Rosenwinkel, and many others.
Unlike their double cutaway model, the D’angelico EXL-SS is a single cutaway laminated flame maple bodied semi-hollow model that is available with either a stop tailpiece or the signature D’angelico stairstep trapeze tailpiece.
The latter has a center post rather that a full center block which offers additional resonance and warmth of tone. High output Kent Armstrong humbucking pickups, mother of pearl block markers and headstock inlays, and gold plated Grover Imperial Super Rotomatic tuners, as found on many high-end jazz archtops, give the EXL-SS evidence of its illustrious pedigree. It can be found gushing out an array of tones, equally at home across the musical spectrum from jazz to blues to country to rock.
It can be found gushing out an array of tones, equally at home across the musical spectrum from jazz to blues to country to rock.
The D’angelico EXL-SS has a price of $1,167.04. Although made in Korea, it is nevertheless an excellent semi-hollow bodied guitar that has a unique voice and feel and it warrants serious consideration.View on Sam AshView on Amazon
In 1952, Albert Dronge started Guild Guitars in New York City, with its first guitars premiering the following year. Dronge’s passion for jazz dictated Guild’s product line, and classic full hollow nodied archtop models such as the Johnny Smith Award signature model, X-175 Manhattan, and the M-75 Aristocat are produced, along with several flattop models to serve the burgeoning folk music market.
Although the Guild brand has become synonymous with their industry leading unmatched jumbo 12 string models, various Guild acoustic and electric models have found themselves in the hands of Slash, Duane Eddy, David Byrne, Richie Havens, Kim Thayil, John Denver, Tom Petty, Doyle Dykes, Muddy Waters and hundreds of others.
After being sold to Fender in 1995, Guild was acquired by Cordoba Guitars in 2014 and has resumed USA manufacturing in 2015 after outsourcing to Korea and China when their Hartford, CT factory was shut down earlier.
Thinline hollow body and semi-hollow body guitars were represented by Guild’s Starfire series, with the single cutaway Starfire II and III models being fully hollow like the Epiphone Casino, while the double cutaway IV and V models being semi-hollow.
A popular model with blues players such as Buddy Guy and Son Seals, the Starfire IV has a number of differences that contribute to its unique sound, in spite of a similar visual profile to that of the ES-335.
The Starfire IV is made entirely of laminated mahogany which is more midrangey and less bright than maple, which is a harder tonewood. The Starfire bridge is a rosewood based floating Tune O Matic similar to the ones found on full hollow bodied archtops, and the signature Guild trapeze tailpiece has a cutout of the Guild “G” shield logo at its base.
The LB-1 pickups are recreations of the vintage “Little Buckers” offered by Guild in the early 1960s, which offset the darker sounding mahogany with their somewhat brighter and more jangly output.
Lastly, the tuners are open geared Grover Sta-Tites, which resemble the vintage units of the past but with much greater reliability and finer gear ratio. The Starfire V has similar specs except for a Bigsby vibrato instead of the trapeze tailpiece.
The combination of brighter pickup with darker tonewood gives the Starfire a distinctly different voice from maple bodied humbucker equipped semi-hollow guitars. It can go from round and warm to sharp and nasal easily, and many players will find much to their liking among the tonal choices that can be obtained.
With an impressive history and a unique sound, the Guild Starfire IV has made its own mark in the music world and offers modern guitarists the opportunity to do the same. At Check on Amazon the Korean made Starfire IV won’t break the bank and gives the modern guitarist a palette from which classic and modern sounds can be combined in new ways without referencing the ones used by the majority of predecessors.View on Sam AshView on Amazon
Leo Fender is an American musical instrument pioneer due to his creation of the first commercially made electric bass (Fender Precision Bass) and solid body electric guitar (Fender Telecaster.)
The Telecaster Thinline 72 was originally designed and marketed by Fender Musical Instruments during its much maligned CBS era to compete with the semi-hollow bodied guitar ES series offerings from Gibson. An earlier 1966 attempt, the disastrous dyed wood Coronado Wildwood series, was a major flop.
In 1968, The Telecaster Thinline made its debut. It had a chambered Telecaster body with an “F’ hole. It retained the maple Telecaster neck with “skunk stripe” (a routed channel in the neck for the adjustable truss rod), and the same single coil pickups found in the solid body Telecaster, including the the bridge assembly with adjustable 3 saddles. The pickguard, which was enlarged to cover the chamber routs, was plastic with a faux pearl finish.
The Thinline 72 had a similar ash body and neck construction assembly but instead of the Telecaster single coils, it sports a pair of Seth Lover-designed Wide Range humbucking pickups. Additionally, it has the bullet truss rod headstock access, which was an improvement over the need to remove the neck for warp prevention adjustments.
The maple neck has the familiar skunk stripe and sports a 7.25” radius. Finally, the bridge has six (6) individually adjustable saddles, giving a player better fine tuning options for intonation over the entire fretboard.
At the time, the Fender sound was characterized by their bright sounding single coil pickups, while the fatter humbucking pickup sound was associated with Gibson.
Although lighter in weight than a solid body Tele, the Telecaster Thinline 72 retains a good portion of the classic Telecaster sound, albeit a tendency to feed back more readily at high volume levels. The humbucking pickups are more resistant to noise from fluorescent lights and RF signals than single coils.
It was not a hugely successful offering at the time of its initial campaign, as the market preferred the classic Tele solidbody single coil sound (and still does). Blues prodigy Jonny Lang, the late Curtis Mayfield, Sly Stone, Tab Benoit and Bill Frisell are noted Thinline players. Time has since changed attitudes and Fender has reissued limited runs of its CBS era guitars for a new generation of players.
Made in Fender’s Mexican factory, the Thinline 72 is an excellent reissue of the original model, which was, in retrospect, unfairly criticized when it was first made. At $899.99 it is very affordable by average guitar pricing standards, and while its sound and look are similar to that of a Telecaster, the Thinline 72’s Wide Range humbuckers offer some different aural flavors to the Fender tone.
For those seeking a different look but similar sound, the Fender Starcaster reissue (Amazon.com price: $899.99) is also worth a try.View on Sam AshView on Amazon
Formed in the 1980’s by Fender after its employee led buyback from CBS, the Squier brand originally sourced Japanese and Korean Fender copies to be imported for the US and European markets.
As manufacturing costs and quality control became more exacting, Fender sourced its high end brands, such as Gretsch and certain Fender models not offered by the Custom Shop, from Terada or Fujigen in Japan, then later Korea, as their Mexican factory expanded. Squiers are now sourced from China (Vintage, Classic Vibe and Standard models) and Indonesia (Affinity and Bullet series).
Squier’s Vintage Modified Telecaster Thinline 72 is almost identical to its Fender cousin, with the exception of a 9.5” fingerboard radius and stamped, rather than die cast bridge and saddle hardware. Its sound is certainly in the Fender family and the Squier Wide Range humbuckers deliver a fair facsimile of the original Seth Lover design.
Its sound is certainly in the Fender family and the Squier Wide Range humbuckers deliver a fair facsimile of the original Seth Lover design.
Similar to the Epiphone Dot equivalent, one can notice some differences when plugged straight into an amp between the original model vs the discounted cousin, but if played through a pedal board, the differences become much more difficult to discern.View on Sam AshView on Amazon
Paul Reed Smith is the most recent American boutique guitar manufacturer to break into mass market appeal, and he has done so by an almost obsessive dedication to quality control across the board on his original designs.
While a number of his guitars are custom shop AAAA flamed or quilted maple topped models with price tags of $6500 and up, he also offers other models from his MD factory with humbler cosmetics but without significant sacrifice of playability or tone.
Carlos Santana, Dave Navarro, Neal Schon, Alex Lifeson, and Mark Tremonti are just a few of the hundreds of PRS artists today. The S2 Custom 22 Semi-Hollow is a prime example of the PRS ethic.
With a single “F” hole in a semi hollow chambered mahogany body and flamed maple cap, the S2 Custom 22 Semi Hollow has PRS custom designed pickups, such as the #7 or 85/15 series, both of which can also be found on much more expensive PRS models. The single Volume and Tone knobs offer push/pull coil splitting functions, and a Telecaster style 3 way blade switch. The tremolo is also PRS designed, as are the locking tuners.
The asymmetrical signature PRS body shape, the Les Paulish “pattern regular” mahogany neck on a 25” scale (as opposed to the famous wide and thin profile found on PRS 24 fret models), and the pearl doves in flight markers inlaid on the rosewood fingerboard all are testament to the same care and attention to detail that Paul Reed Smith devotes to his workhorse models that he gives to his custom ones.
The sound of the S2 Custom 22 Semi Hollow is pure PRS – full of fat tone with snap, but capable of all types of expression thanks to the tremolo and luxuriously easy to play neck. The chambered body gives the Custom 22 semi hollow an added resonance and warmth that its solid body cousin lacks, but trades off extra bite and growl inherent in the solid Custom 22 model.
At $1,679.00 the S2 Custom 22 Semi Hollow is an amazing bargain for a USA made guitar, especially for one as finely crafted as a PRS.
For those seeking comparable PRS quality in a more affordable package, the SE series, made under Paul Reed Smith’s supervision and same quality control standards, offers the Paul Reed Smith SE Custom 22 Semi Hollow.
Although it has a wraparound bridge tailpiece instead of the tremolo this Korean imported PRS delivers a large amount of the S2’s sonic punch at a more affordable price.
Of the guitars listed in this article, each has its merits and I have tried to list them for reference, based on my own subjective opinion and experience. While the Gibson ES-335 still sets the bar for semi hollow body electrics, the Ibanez Artstar AS153, the D’angelico EXL-SS and the PRS S2 Custom 22 can all give a player a worthy alternative sonic choice in the same general ballpark while not breaking the bank. The Guild Starfire IV is in a somewhat different aural space due to its mahogany construction and LB-1 pickups, but is no less of a guitar.
For the budget minded, the Epiphone Dot, PRS SE Custom 22 and Ibanez ATV-10 are all excellent options for playing in the semi hollow body guitar sandbox at a discount ticket but without being stuck in nosebleed seats.
The Fender 72 Telecaster Thinline and Squier Vintage Modified Telecaster Thinline 72 guitars are Fender sounding through and through, and maintain the age old debate between Gibson and Fender type guitars, even though they also sport humbucking pickups. For the Fender player who wants the familiar comfort of a Fender maple neck but a little bit of semi hollow warmth, these models are just what the doctor ordered.
From the perspective of someone who prefers the widest range of versatile sounds from a single instrument, yours truly leans towards the Ibanez Artstar and the PRS S2 Custom 22 primarily for their pickup coil tap and other variations. Requiring a broad sonic palette when you only have one guitar at a gig or recording session, coil splitting or series and parallel pickup options can save your bacon and preserve your reputation as a working musician.
Hope this has been helpful; have fun on the hunt for the right semi hollow guitar!