Electric guitars are shaped the way they are because they don’t rely on their structural design to produce sound. In fact, these instruments could be shaped like a rectangle or built out of a block of cement, and they would still sound pretty amazing. So, what led to such diversity in the shapes and sizes of electric guitars?
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Hollow Body Guitars – Bound by the Shape
The earliest guitars originated in Spain in the 16th century. These instruments were called “Vihuela” and had narrow bodies with deep cavities.1 Since guitars remained acoustic instruments for decades, changes to the design were mostly made to explore the acoustic qualities of the instrument.
In 1817, an influential Spanish guitar maker called Antonio de Torres built the first version of the modern guitar. This design not only helped amplify the sound but was also more comfortable to hold as it had a waisted body which was longer and wider. Soon after, the design was popularized by other guitar builders who started to incorporate the modifications into their instruments. The standard shape of most modern acoustic and electric guitars is derived from this design.2
With slight alterations to the designs since the 1800s, the classical and Spanish guitar shapes were considered the most ideal and effective in terms of comfort and acoustics until the invention and design of the first electric guitar, invented and designed by George Beauchamp and manufactured by the Rickenbacker Company in 1931. Nicknamed the “The Frying Pan,” the guitar’s minimalistic design, with its small circular body, was not esthetically appealing. However, Rickenbacker’s technological development proved that the guitar did not have to rely on the traditional shape for its sonic characteristics.3
Semi Hollow Body Guitars – Testing the Boundaries
After the introduction of “The Frying Pan,” guitar manufacturers and innovators were mostly focused on tackling the feedback and noise issues that came with electrically amplifying sound on hollow-body guitars. Feedback is a loud, piercing sound generated as a result of the electric signal making its way back to the guitar and being amplified by the hollow body repeatedly.
Les Paul’s prototype of a semi-hollow-body guitar aka “The Log,” introduced in 1939, reduced the feedback to a certain extent. However, similar to “The Frying Pan,” the guitar was crudely built but was based on the traditional design. Therefore, guitars that were inspired by this technological advancement still looked like acoustic guitars despite their archtop bodies, f-shaped sound holes, and the single or double cutaways made to the upper bouts.
Solidbody Guitars – Eliminating Boundaries
Electric guitars saw the first major shift in design when the American guitar manufacturing company Fender released the very first solid-body electric guitars, the Telecaster and the Stratocaster, between the 1940s and the 1950s. Since these guitars did not have to rely on a hollow body to generate sound, their bodies were sleek and solid without any sound holes. With considerable attention paid to the ergonomics and aesthetics of the instrument, the overall structure no longer resembled the acoustic guitar design but still continued to have a waisted body with rounded lower bouts, which hinted at the traditional guitar shape.
After the arrival of solidbody guitars, designers and guitar manufacturers had a good idea of the freedom they had in terms of electric guitar shapes. Now that the sound quality did not depend on the structural aspects of the instruments, guitar builders could factor in playability and aesthetics in their guitar designs or even push the boundaries with shapes that were completely out of the norm.
Among the first guitar designs that broke the mold with regard to the body shape were The Flying V and The Explorer, which were manufactured by the American guitar manufacturing company Gibson Brands, Inc. These guitars were released in 1958, at a time when rock’N’roll was transforming the music industry, and guitars were specifically manufactured to appeal to the artists and followers of the genre. These edgy and angular electric guitar shapes completely deviated from the familiar guitar body shape but sounded just as good as other electric guitars.
Today’s Electric Guitar Shapes
Since then, guitar builders have pushed the boundaries of creativity and esthetics with designs that are extreme, futuristic, weird, or downright impractical. Most of the designs were either customized to personal preferences, purely experimental, or just a symbol of artistic expression. Most designs, therefore, are not meant to have a lasting impact on the way guitars are shaped. These ambitious and out-of-the-box designs have touched every part of the electric guitar, from the body to the electric guitar headstock shapes.
However, some guitar shapes, such as the ones mentioned below, did leave a lasting impression and have become a staple design option for many companies in the guitar manufacturing industry.
- S-Type (Fender Stratocaster shape)
- T-Type (Fender Telecaster shape)
- LP-Type (Gibson Les Paul shape)
- SG-Type (Gibson SG shape)
- Explorer Type (Gibson Explorer shape)
- V-Type (Gibson Flying V shape)
- Offset-Type (e.g. Fender Jaguar, Jazzmaster, and Mustang)
Other guitars that are not imitated as much as the designs mentioned above but are still popular for their unique shapes and sound quality are:
- BC Rich Mockingbird (BC Rich Guitars)
- BC Rich Warlock (BC Rich Guitars)
- Chravel Star (Chravel Guitars)
- Parker Fly (Parker Guitars)
- Dean ML (Dean Guitars)
- Ibanez Iceman (Ibanez Guitars)
- Dean Razorback (Dean Guitars)
As the shape of the electric guitar stopped playing a role in the production of sound and the sonic quality of the instrument, it gave guitar makers a lot of creative freedom in terms of structural design, which is why we see such a wide range of electric guitar shapes and sizes today. While some guitar makers don’t take this freedom too far, others just fearlessly shred it.
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1.guitar | History, Types, & Facts. (n.d.). Encyclopedia Britannica. Retrieved May 20, 2022, from https://www.britannica.com/art/guitar
2. The Origins of the Classical Guitar：The birth of the classical guitar – Musical Instrument Guide – Yamaha Corporation. (n.d.). Yamaha. Retrieved May 20, 2022, from https://www.yamaha.com/en/musical_instrument_guide/classical_guitar/structure/#:%7E:text=A%20plucked%20string%20instrument%20that,%2Dstrings%20(paired%20courses)
3. Green, D. (2022, February 5). Electric Guitar Shapes Explained. Guitar River. Retrieved May 20, 2022, from https://www.guitarriver.com/electric-guitar-shapes-explained/#:%7E:text=Electric%20guitars%20have%20their%20unique,comfortable%20playing%20experience%20for%20musicians