Electric guitars come in a mind-boggling amount of shapes and sizes, some more cartoonish than others. If you’re a rock music fan, maybe you saw one of your favorite guitar heroes holding a particular style of guitar in their hands as they rock out on stage. You may wonder why electrics are shaped the way they are and if the way an electric guitar look affects its sound.
Electric guitars are shaped the way they are because of tradition, comfort, user-friendliness, and aesthetic appeal. Since electrics use pickups and amplifiers to produce the sound, there is no mechanical reason for an electric guitar to be shaped like anything in particular.
This article explores why electric guitars have taken on the shapes they have, detailing acoustic guitar shapes’ origins and what genres of music will typically use creatively shaped guitars.
How Electric Guitars Got Their Shape(s)
Though the electric guitar is distinct from the acoustic in many ways, the electric was born when acoustics were electrified. The way electric guitars are shaped has to do with the way acoustics are shaped.
History of Guitar Shapes
Guitars are thought to have originated in early 16th century Spain, according to the Encyclopedia Britannica. Originally, the instrument had a deeper body than the acoustic guitars of today, with a much less pronounced “waist.”
The acoustic is designed to resonate with a large hollow body that amplifies and enhances the noise. However, there isn’t a specific reason for its curvy shape. After all, the guitar is descended from the lute, an instrument with a body resembling an oval. Likely, the shape developed to keep the guitar perched on the player’s knee.
Transition From Acoustic to Electric
Electric guitars became popularized when big bands were popular, and concert guitarists realized that they would need amplification to be heard over some of the other, louder instruments. Jazz players began amplifying their acoustics with electromagnetic transducers and pickups, which are still in use today.
The first commercially marketed electric guitar was produced by the Ro-Pat-In Corporation, which later evolved into Rickenbacker. First, they built lap steel guitars to be electrified, then moved on to regular solid-bodied guitars. In most ways, these guitars resembled the electrics of today.
Electrics follow the general shape of acoustics mostly thanks to familiarity. They’re also much more comfortable to hold!
For more information, check out this article about the microphone types for recording different instruments.
Comfort & Playability of Electric Guitars
If a guitar is uncomfortable to play, then it won’t be much use to anyone. Even before considering what a guitar will look like, guitar makers must think about ease of use.
In most cases, an electric guitar will have the same curved pear shape that an acoustic does. It will be wider at the bottom and narrower where it meets the neck.
This will, first and foremost, offer players who learn on an acoustic a sense of familiarity. It may be a little disorienting to leap from an acoustic to a Flying V, for example. The curves of a guitar will also allow players to practice sitting down.
The body should not be too large to hold or too small to get a hold of. When buying a new electric guitar, hold it and play some songs you know well in various positions to make sure nothing about the body irritates you.
You may notice that most electrics are asymmetrical. The side of the guitar your fretting hand plays on will usually have a little notch on its body where the neck meets it. Other electrics are double-cutaways, with extra notches on either side of the neck.
This allows electric players greater access to the upper frets, allowing players to reach much more of the neck and play more notes. If you’re a heavy metal guitarist, you’ll appreciate this notch!
Some acoustics, called cutaways, have this notch as well, but it comes at the expense of sound and resonance. Acoustic guitars don’t need the resonance chamber, so a notch in its shape makes no difference in the sound.
Electric Guitar Style & Trends
There are so many guitar brands that it’s hard to say exactly how many body shapes there actually are. While we can’t go through each one here, there are some styles most people are accustomed to seeing.
Because of pickups, there is no real need for an electric to be hollow-bodied. Yet, some electrics are designed with both pickups and a hollow body.
Archtop guitars have arched tops and backs, as the name suggests, with symmetrical “f-holes” on each side. They somewhat resemble a violin, and because they have a resonant chamber, they’re able to be heard acoustically as well.
Archtops are some of the earliest styles of electric guitar. The Gibson ES-150, released in 1936, was one of the first commercially successful electric guitars. Thus, archtops are seen as a “classic” style of electric and are popular with rockabilly and blues players.
Most guitars are solid-bodied, but the diverse number of solid-body styles are overwhelming. Distinctive designs are distracting for some and desirable for others.
The Fender Telecaster, released in 1950, was the first commercially successful solid-bodied electric. The guitar has a single-cutaway and “horn” and a small headstock with all of its pegs to the side.
The Stratocaster has become equally as popular, if not more so. The “Strat” has a double-cutaway shape with “horns” on either side for style and weight. Both guitars remain extremely popular today!
If you’d like to try out a Stratocaster without breaking the bank, the Fender Squier Bullet Stratocaster is under three hundred dollars on Amazon. Squier Strats are made from more affordable materials but still have the integrity of Fender guitars and are nearly indistinguishable from the real thing to the audience.
- Maple neck with "C"-shaped profile
- Indian Laurel fingerboard
- Three single-coil Stratocaster pickups with five-way switching
Another guitar brand with high recognition is Gibson, which has been making instruments since 1902. Gibsons are known for their powerful humbucker pickups and forceful tones.
Their most popular model is Les Paul, named for the famous jazz guitarist of the same name. Les Pauls have a cutaway design and sport a more classic look with a carved maple top and a wider bottom. The Les Paul is made out of much more expensive materials than typical solid-bodied guitars.
Gibson also makes some guitars that push the limits of what a guitar should look like. The Flying V has long been popular with heavy metal guitarists for its unique shape. The Explorer is even more out-of-the-box and resembles two trapezoids wedged together. If this isn’t your first electric (or you just want to go big!), one of these will make you look super cool onstage.
Electric guitars are shaped the way they are mainly for aesthetic appeal, and thanks to the traditional shape of acoustic guitars. An electric guitar’s body can be fashioned into almost any shape, so long as it’s comfortable to hold.
This gives luthiers and brands the freedom to make electric guitars look any way they want. Rock stars have even designed custom guitars for themselves, pushing the limits of design and artistry. Now you have an idea of why electric guitars were shaped the way they are!
For more information, check out this article about whether more expensive guitars sound better.
- Wikipedia: Guitar
- Britannica: Guitar | History, Types, & Facts
- Wikipedia: Electric guitar
- Gibson: Explore The Flying V Collections
- Wikipedia: Archtop guitar
- Wikipedia: Fender Telecaster
- Wikipedia: Fender Stratocaster
- Wikipedia: Gibson Les Paul
- Wikipedia: Les Paul
- Wikipedia: Gibson Explorer
Last update on 2021-08-01 / Affiliate links / Images from Amazon Product Advertising API