Why Semi-Acoustic Guitars Rock

Bob Leggitt | Thursday, 21 September 2017 |



Is there really something special about them? Does it actually matter, when you have two pickups directly sensing the vibration of metal strings, if there’s an acoustic chamber in there organically sculpting the natural tone? Why are semi-acoustic guitars reputed to be so versatile? And above all, how can an instrument conceptualised by violinists, for suave, Brycreem-slicked dickie-bow advocates, become the choice of rock’s most illustrious gods and goddesses? Let’s find out…


Above: Foo Fighters' Dave Grohl with his Gibson DG-335 semi at Glastonbury in June 2017. Image distilled from BBC TV coverage.

HISTORICALLY SPEAKING


Actually, whilst archive images might suggest otherwise, the development of the semi-acoustic guitar was less about catering for besuited smoothies with hair-glare, and more about simply giving guitarists a means to take the lead role in a band. Before inventors really started working on the issue of guitar volume in the 1920s, guitarists in bands would, broadly, just have to defer to the brass players or the pianist when it came to that special moment of limelight.

Today, we often celebrate the 1970s pickup winding experiments of Larry DiMarzio and Seymour Duncan. But people such as Lloyd Loar (Gibson) and George Beauchamp (National/Rickenbacker) were up to similar tricks in the ’20s and early ’30s. The difference? Back then, there was no precedent for what they were doing.

Despite what now seems an obvious need for guitarists to have soloing capability within a band, there was no template for such a thing in the early ’30s. Inventors saw immense potential in the concept, but introducing an electrified version of the Spanish guitar was not just a matter of developing a viable pickup. It was also a marketing headache.

How would a manufacturer persuade guitarists they actually needed this amplified instrument, which they’d have no pointers on how to use, which would cost a fat packet, and which would no longer sound like people expected a Spanish guitar to sound? And what about the adaptation guitarists would have to undertake? At first encounter, Django Reinhardt would famously object to the way the electric guitar compromised the nuances of his acoustic playing. The marketers would have been expecting disasters such as this.

And the marketers wouldn’t just have to sell this new concept to guitarists. They’d also have to sell it to the bands of the day. How would band colleagues feel about their guitarist suddenly becoming the centre of attention? Encroaching on their limelight? Would a guitarist even be allowed to USE an electric guitar in a band context?

Against this backdrop, the established Gibson company were reluctant to introduce Lloyd Loar’s electric guitars. But a startup business now known as Rickenbacker were looking for a niche, and in 1932 they thrust themselves head first into electric guitar production. Electric guitars were their thing. The fledgling operation commercially introduced both solid and hollow instruments. However, the solids were sold as, and inevitably used as, Hawaiian lap steels. And the semi-acoustics barely sold at all. Even in 1935, the annual sales total for the company’s semis is estimated in Richard R Smith’s History of Rickenbacker Guitars not to have been many more than 12 units. Clearly, the electric Spanish guitar was not in explosive demand.



WHOAAHHH!!!…


But that was going to change. Within a few years, Gibson had finally sensed that there might be some money in this newfangled electric Spanish concept. In 1936, they almost nonchalantly slapped a lap steel pickup onto their L50 acoustic model, thus creating the infinitely more famous ES-150 semi acoustic. That simple union of existing F-holed acoustic guitar and electromagnetic pickup would give birth to a line of musical descendency which leads directly to almost every rock record ever made.

Just a year or so later, a new breed of inspirational guitar soloist began to adopt the ES-150. People like Charlie Christian. People like T-Bone Walker. They were not country artists playing the guitar flat on its back. They were jazz and blues boundary-pushers, breaking new ground with an elevated level of cool. In sheer jawdrop factor, if not in recognition, they were the rock gods of their day. And their influence would spread. The likes of Sister Rosetta Tharpe, Muddy Waters, Howlin’ Wolf, John Lee Hooker, BB King, Les Paul, Chet Atkins and Chuck Berry all developed strongholds of guitar inspiration which essentially redefined the role of instrument. Without these people, rock as we know it would not exist. Whilst some of them subsequently played solid-bodied guitars, they all made their name playing semi-acoustics, and the majority remained best known for making that choice.



ARRIVAL OF THE SOLID


Solid-bodied electrics had been a thing for as long as semi-acoustics. Indeed, Rickenbacker had even made double necks in the 1930s. Presumably didn’t go up to 11, or the Tufnel and St Hubbins grandcestry would have handed a couple down to Nigel and David…

But it wasn’t until the arrival of Fender (another radical startup business) that solids really registered with players as Spanish-format guitars. Much of the early success of the solids through the 1950s was driven by visual and ergonomic design. This was epitomised in the Stratocaster, which exploited solid construction for new purposes, such as comfort contouring. However, Gibson’s clever endorsement deal with popular guitarist Les Paul was also a major factor in the sale of the solid body concept.

GRETSCH BIDS FOR THE LEAD


Gretsch, a company who had, until the 1950s, really been a bandwagon-hopper in the big picture of guitar manufacture, followed Gibson’s example and enlisted Chet Atkins in a role similar to Paul’s.

Gretsch had introduced a semi-acoustic after Rickenbacker and Gibson set the tone in the 1930s, and then released a solid Spanish after Fender and Gibson in the 1950s. But with guitarist/innovator Jimmie Webster making the key decisions, and guitar wizard Atkins courting the public and providing advice, Gretsch guitars quickly gained a huge presence. What’s more, Gretsch were not about to push their semi-acoustics aside to focus on solids. The bandwagon-hoppers had turned innovators, acquiring patent after patent, and developing one of the most distinctive personalities of electric guitar the industry had encountered.

Particularly courtesy of one Duane Eddy, who’d bought a Gretsch 6120 in a Phoenix store in ’56 on a long $17 per month HP deal, the Gretsch semi-acoustic stamped its highly evocative sound on popular music. Eddy had formerly been a Les Paul user, but insisted through the decades that he’d never played anything with a better sound than his Gretsch semi.

Going into the ’60s, Gretsch semis often appeared alongside Rickenbackers in the hottest bands of the period. Clapton, The Beatles, The Stones… The guitars had a truly A-list userbase.



IN THE 1960s


Once solid guitars began to be perceived as the future of popular music, they did start to see the bulk of the innovation. But like Gretsch, Rickenbacker exempted themselves from that trend, and hit their purple patch of semi-acoustic development in the early to mid 1960s. It was during this period that Rickenbacker semis became a phenomenally desirable acquistion for modern artists. Initially, this was down to John Lennon’s use of a pint-sized 300-series semi with The Beatles. But fellow Beatle George Harrison quickly adopted Rick semis, and other cutting edge acts such as The Byrds, The Beach Boys, Steppenwolf and The Who helped push the guitars’ status even further skyward.

The iconic Rickenbacker semis of the 1960s built an association with new styles and playing methods, which depended on the use of those specific guitars. Rickenbacker was helping detach the semi from its blues/jazz/country typecast, and putting it at the leading edge of up-to-the-minute pop.

And the Gibson semi’s good fortune had continued on the back of the thinline ES-335/ES-345/ES-355 models. Not only had legends such as BB King and Chuck Berry adopted these slim-bodied beasts, but blues-rocker Eric Clapton was among the 335’s devotees too. The semi acoustic was in the thick of the action at the very birth of modern, overdriven rock.



BUT…


There was, however, a significant problem. As trends pushed the new army of rockers to overdrive their amps ever harder, the hollow body of the semi-acoustic revealed its Achilles heel. Feedback.

All loud guitars will feed back eventually. But when there’s an acoustic chamber in those loud guitars, taking control of that feedback becomes a much greater challenge. Wailing or even booming away in protest, semis had a low tolerance to the heavily cranked amp. Variants with their pickups mounted on a solid central block would be easier to manage, but even they were not going to withstand the kind of hi-gain saturation and power amp balls that a solid could pull off. Was this the end of the semi acoustic guitar in rock music?



‘SEVENTIES DOWNTURN


In the ’70s, the semi-acoustic did not fare particularly well. Blues and jazz-orientated players remained faithful, but the thread of innovative use that persisted until the ’60s had been curtailed from two angles. Not only was feedback an issue – image was too. Early to mid ’70s rock brought with it a quest for more ‘space-age’ guitar designs. Some rockers did buck the trend – Steve Howe of Yes with his deep-bodied Gibson ES-175, for example. But it would be the post-punk period of 1977 to 1984 that saw the semi-acoustic re-asserting itself with a vengeance.



THE NEW DAWN


Punk rock changed the fortunes of virtually every guitar that had fallen out of fashion in the first half of the ’70s. In its quest to reject the establishment, punk turned its back on Strats and raided the secondhand bargain racks for forgotten esoterica.

In fact, you don’t even have to wait for punk to end before semi-acoustics start to edge back into the picture of street-cred rock. The New York Dolls’ Sylvain Sylvain used a Gretsch White Falcon, as did Joe Strummer in the very early days of The Clash. Then came The Jam, with Paul Weller religiously playing Rickenbacker 330s. In the UK, the Jam had a phenomenal amount of success for a group that came out of the punk movement in ’77. They quickly evolved to appeal to a pop audience, but they did not lose their aggressive rock sensibilities, or those Rickenbacker semis. Weller’s influence on ’80s guitarists was profound. He did a tremendous amount to re-establish the semi-acoustic as an icon of youth culture.

ROCKABILLY MOVEMENT


On the cusp of the ’70s and ’80s, further weight was added to the resurgence of semi-acoustics, as a rockabilly-influenced volcano erupted. This movement was highly significant in changing attitudes towards semi-acoustics.

Gibson ES-335 player Dave Edmunds had for a few years been feeding the resurging appetite for ’50s rockabilly music with the ’70s band Rockpile. But it would be harder-sounding artists with a more ‘street’ image who spearheaded the movement into the ’80s. Groups such as The Stray Cats and The Polecats, for example – using semi-acoustic guitars with an attitude that would connect with the next generation of guitarists.

Stepping even further into rock mayhem were The Cramps, and psychobilly archetypes The Meteors. Whilst Cramps guitarist Poison Ivy was originally playing a Bill Lewis solid guitar, she did subsequently become inextricably associated with a Gretsch 6120. These were people who did not just make credible sounds with semis – they aligned the image of the instrument with that of modern, alternative rock.

Through the early 1980s, the adoption of a semi-acoustic guitar in fact became a badge of credibility. As sequin-suited pretty boys superstratted off down the road of manufactured pop, the semi found a role as a statement against all that was predictable and bland.

Early ’80s bands such as BowWowWow, The Smiths and Spear of Destiny had an indie ethos, but ultimately reached the same audiences in the UK as major pop stars. All used semi-acoustics in refreshing ways. And when Jesus and Mary Chain’s William Reid emerged building soundscapes entirely from mega-cranked semi-acoustic feedback, the instrument finally said goodbye to its last disadvantage. Armed with 1980s technology, guitarists could not only now manage the semi-acoustic’s feedback – they could deliberately exploit it.

The semi-acoustic had once again become the choice of the rebel. And with Dave Grohl’s trademark Gibson DG-335 driving the Foo Fighters’ headline slot at Glastonbury this year, we saw that over thirty years on, these incredibly powerful instruments have continued to strengthen their association with the highest echelons of modern rock.



WHY DO SEMI-ACOUSTICS ROCK?


We know that image is a major factor in a guitarist’s choice of instrument, and with the best semi-acoustic designs there’s a combination of beauty, individuality, historical kudos, and sexiness… Although solid guitars did technically arrive alongside semis, in the Spanish format semi-acoustics do reach significantly further back into guitar history. That gives them extra kudos, and extra retro charm, which adds to the attraction of the overall vision they create. Using one on stage is like turning up to an event in a vintage Jag E-Type instead of a Ford Fiesta. You stand out. People are going to notice you. Remember you.

Soundwise, semi-acoustics do have something extra to offer. It may be true that the pickups only sense the vibration of the strings, but that acoustic chamber affects the way the strings vibrate. You’re getting a deep, organic resonance.

At lounge volume, the player also gets a natural pseudo-stereo effect as the sound from the amp combines with the acoustic output of the sound chamber. This attractive, additional sonic component can be highly motivational, pushing the guitarist deeper into the zone and prompting greater enthusiasm. Greater enthusiasm leads to better playing, more development, more writing.

Because they’re not just solid pieces of wood, semi-acoustics are easier for manufacturers to embue with personality. Different guitars can be crafted in radically different ways. The Gibson thinline has a solid core, with an acoustic chamber either side. Rickenbacker semis start manufacture as solid wood, before being hollowed out in a specially-prescribed fashion and capped from the back. Then you have the fully hollow bodies, like the Gibson ES-330. Three very different body designs, which produce their own distinctive feel and tonal personality. Pick up a Rickenbacker, and even if you don’t plug it in or look at it, you know it’s a Rickenbacker. That sound is in the construction.

As regards versatility, there’s a temptation to assume that, well… three pickup selections and a few tone/volume knobs is three pickup selections and a few tone/volume knobs. It is, of course. But versatility is really about how far a guitar’s basic character will reach. Less “how many sounds?”, and more “how much territory will each individual sound cover?”. A guitar can have just one pickup and no gadgets at all, but if its sound suits a wide range of styles, and it has a high degree of expressiveness, it’s a versatile instrument.

An exaggerated illustration would be that of a grand piano versus a toy organ. The toy organ has 25 presets, but there are virtually no serious musical situations in which any of them could be used. The grand piano has just one ‘preset’, but it has such expressiveness, articulation and tonal substance, that it can integrate into a huge range of musical styles and situations. Good semis are the grand pianos of the electric guitar world.

But above all, the look, the feel and the expressive, articulate sound of a good semi-acoustic guitar evokes a magic. Everyone who ever set foot on a stage with a guitar – any guitar – knows the value of that magic. No one has ever truly rocked without it. And any guitar that can evoke it, is a true rock guitar.

Planet Botch is contactable only via Twitter.