Buyers Guide: How to Choose the Right Semi-Acoustic Guitar
In this buyers guide we'll introduce you to the semi-acoustic guitar. We'll explain the differences between the types, the parts, and the functionality. Once you'd read through this guide, you'll be able to make an informed decision based on your playing style, music style, and of course your budget.
What is a semi-acoustic guitar?
For starters, we want to make clear the difference between semi-acoustic and electro-acoustic guitars. This is something that's often mistaken in the guitar world, and it's important to set it right from the start. A semi-acoustic guitar is half electric guitar, half acoustic guitar. An electro-acoustic guitar, on the other hand, is simply an acoustic guitar with a pickup built in. The bodies are different, and so are the electronics!
Semi-acoustic guitars can be played acoustically, but they'll often be a lot fainter than a full on acoustic or electro-acoustic guitar. They produce enough volume so that you can practise with them acoustically, but they're primarily built to be plugged in.
There are two main types of semi-acoustic guitars: electric hollow-body and semi hollow-body. The former has an entirely hollow body, while the latter looks like it's a hollow-body, but actually has a solid-wood centre-block inside that runs as an extension of the neck. The centre block is surrounded by resonating chambers, and you'll usually see f-shaped soundholes on the top the guitar.
You might be wondering why semi-acoustic guitars have resonating chambers if they're not really intended to be played acoustically. This is because the chambers function to create a specific timbre when they're amplified electronically. Semi-acoustic guitars produce an extra 'oomph' with a thick, punchy sound that solid-bodies simply cannot create. Semi-acoustic guitars with a center block in the body produce more bass and clearer mid-tones.
The characteristic timbre of a semi-acoustic guitar is also the reason why it's still being produced, more than seventy years after the original one. Guitar makers like Gibson, Epiphone, Ibanez, Yamaha, and Gretsch are still producing them today.
Thick or thin body?
Whether you choose a semi-acoustic guitar with a thick or a thin body will mostly depend on what kind of sound you want. Thick Gretsch guitars, for instance, have a characteristic metallic twang in their sound. Ibanez Artstars and Guilds, on the other hand, have a woody accent. Generally speaking, the bigger the body, the louder the acoustic guitar. For semi-acoustic guitars, the rule is the bigger the body the more punch you'll get in the bass levels when the guitar is amplified.
Semi-acoustic guitars with a thinner body, such as the Fender Modern Player offer a little less punch, but they compensate with more articulated mids and bass. They also have the additional advantage of being lighter and more comfortable to play, since you don't have to wrap your arm around such a big body.
Just like with any guitar, the type of wood used also has a big impact on the sound. That's because different types of wood vibrate differently, and therefore produce a different type of sound. Electro-acoustic guitars and hollow-body guitars in particular often feature tonewoods to emphasise certain parts of the sound. If you'd like to more about the different woods used to build guitars, then we'd like to refer you to our steel-string guitar buyers guide, where it's explained in much more detail. We'll give you a brief explanation here, though. If the a guitar top is made of spruce, then the guitar will usually produce a clear, articulated sound with more dynamic range. Where spruce is very dynamic, cedar is make soft playing louder. Cedar-top guitars also generally have warmer intonation. Mahogany produces a rich, punchy mid-range. Rosewood and maple are usually used for the back, sides and fretboard. Rosewood has the same rich mid-range as mahogany, but then adds some extra depth to the bass, as well as extra clarity to the trebles. Maple, on the other hand, adds a nice, tight accent.
Types of pickups
The sound is also of course influenced by the type of pickups and their positioning. You'll find an in-depth explanation of pickups in the electric guitar buyers guide. Basically, there are three types of pickups, each with their own sound characteristics.
Single-coil pickups have a low output that results in a bright, sparkling tone that reacts incredibly dynamically. Single-coils are a good choice if you want to play clean or with a slightly distorted edge that still has plenty of definition. A good example of a semi-acoustic guitar with single coils is the Guild A-150 Savoy.
The downside of single-coil pickups is that they're sensitive to 50/60Hz power sources, such as if you're playing in the vicinity of other electronic devices such as a fluorescent tube. That's actually why the humbucker was invented—it's two single coils put together to reduce the hum effect created by 50/60Hz sources. Humbuckers provide more output and as a result offer a fuller, warmer, fatter sound. Most semi-acoustic guitars have humbuckers, which are great for rougher guitar work to sweet, jazzy cleans.
A third pickup that you'll see quite often is the P-90. This is a single coil, but it's a little bigger. As such, it has more copper windings and therefore more output than a traditional single-coil pickup. P90 pickups therefore provide the warmth and punch of a humbucker, along with the sparkle of a single-coil pickup. Becaues of the pickup's rectangular shape and rounded edges, it's also often called a soapbar. This is a great pickup for styles from jazz and blues to classic rock and hard rock. An example of a semi-acoustic hollow-body with a P90 pickup with the Guild T-50 Slim.
If you're looking for a semi-acoustic guitar with a particularly unique tone, Rickenbackers have a specific chimey bell-like sound when it's played with a pick.
A lot of brands produce guitars with multiple pickups, and some of them have single coils and humbuckers together. The humbuckers offer a thicker sound, and the compbination with the clear highs of a single coil make such a guitar much more versatile. If you compare, for instance, the Gretsch G5622T-CB with three Super HiLo'Tron humbuckers to the Guild A-150 with only a one single-coil, you'll get a lot more sounds from the first one than the second one.
As we mentioned, playing it's a lot more comfortable to play a semi-acoustic guitar with a thinner body, especially if it has a double cutaway (these are recesses in the body next to the neck that make it easier to reach the highest frets). There are also plenty of models out there with a single cutaway, such as the thin Hofner Verythin CT, and there are also models without a cutaway, such as the Guild T-50. Rickerbackers have two cutaways, just like the Tokai ES60, the Gretsch G5422 Electromatics, and many other guitars in our shop.
Another important advantage of a thin body is that it's less likely to produce feedback, which is when the sound of the guitar itself is picked up and amplified in addition to the sound the pickups are already receiving, resulting in an annoying high-pitched ringing tone.
This means that the guitar will have less feedback at high volumes and high-gain amp settings.
When designing their semi-acoustic hollow-body guitars, Gretsch found that mounting braces in the body—the 1959 trestle bracing—made it possible to get more volume out of the guitar and for the guitar to be able to take on high-gain overdrive much better. A good example of this is the Gretsch G6120 that rockabilly guitarist Brian Setzer uses. Feedback isn't always necessarily a bad thing, though, because you can also use it to make a tone continue endlessly for a beautiful effect.
Thick semi-acoustic guitars are often used for rockabilly, jump blues, rock 'n roll, and country (think Chet Atkins). That said, they can definitely still be used for the rough stuff—just check out the signature model of Rancid's guitarist, the Gretsch G5191BK Tim Armstrong.
Strings and bridges
The guitar bridge is the wooden piece on the body that the strings go over. There are different types of bridges, and often times the piece is separate from the top on semi-acoustic guitars; this is referred to as a floating bridge. Floating bridges can make changing the strings a bit tricky sometimes, because the guitar needs to be intoned if the bridge moves. That's why manufacturers like Gretsch mount two pins to the body that you can fit the bridge onto.
Sometimes, bridges are combined with vibrato systems. One example of this is the Gretsch G5655T Electromatic, which has a Tune-O-Matic bridge, combined with a Bigsby vibrato tailpiece (which is also sometimes wrongly referred to as a tremolo). The 'tremolo arm' allows the guitarist to change the pitch of the guitar for a subtle surfy vibrato effect. This type of tremolo isn't suited for big dives, as it would put the guitar out of tune.
A lot of jazz musicians looking to add an extra swollen, mellow sound to their guitar use thicker flat wound strings. Round wound strings have a ribbed surface and add clarity to the tone; they also produce string noise when you slide your fingers along them. Flat wound strings have a smooth surface and are nice and quiet, making them ideal for studio recordings. You can get all of these types of strings and more here at Bax-shop. If you're interested learning more about the different types of strings and their characteristics, please visit our guitar string buyers guide.
Hopefully after reading all of the information above, you have a good idea of what kind of semi-acoustic guitar you want to buy. Of course, one of the most important factors in this decision is going to be your budget. Just keep the age-old saying in mind: you get what you pay for.
If you're a beginner who's serious about learning to play the guitar, it's a good idea to get a higher quality instrument that costs a little more. The better the guitar sounds and plays, the more motivated you'll be to play it! That's not to say that cheaper guitars are always necessarily lower quality, however. Every brand has their budget series, mid-range series, and top segment. If you go with well-known brands like Gretsch, Ibanez and Yamaha, you pretty much can't go wrong. They all delivery consistent quality, so you know that whichever model you choose, you'll get a comfortable instrument that sounds good too. On the other hand, if you're not entirely sure you'll like playing a semi-acoustic guitar but you want to give it a go, you'd do well to go with a less expensive brand to start, such as Dimavery. They offer decent semi-acoustic guitars at a very attractive price.