When you see a guitar in a movie or on TV what do you do? When I’m watching TV with my wife, I’ll often call out the make and model of the guitar. It’s sort of a contest to see how quickly I can identify the guitar. I’m the only player so I always win. I don’t think my wife appreciates this, but I can’t help myself. Today’s post is about guitars with distinctive shapes or characteristics which make them easy to spot.
- The most distinctive characteristic for most semi-hollow and solid body electric guitars is usually the shape of the body.
- The shape of head stock is the next item that helps identify a guitar, but head stock shape usually only allows you to identify the maker, not the model. Head stock shape plus how the company name is displayed (decal or inlay) and other inlay and overlay (veneer) can help identify a series or grade of the guitar but alone, it still usually isn’t enough for the exact model.
- Fingerboard inlays are another clue to identify a guitar model, but rarely sufficient alone.
- The sound hole(s), pickguard and other hardware (pickups, tailpiece, volume and tone knobs, switches, strap button location all are additional clues to ID a guitar.
There are too many guitars out there to review everything so I’m going to start with iconic shapes. Many of these shapes have since been borrowed with slight modifications and can be found from multiple makers.
The Telecaster (originally named the Broadcaster) was the first commercially successful solid body electric guitar. The body is solid wood and the top is flat. Among key points to identify the guitar, in addition to a classic shape, are:
- The shape of the head. Many guitars now days have all six tuners on one side, including the Stratocaster, but the size and shape of the Telecaster head stock is different from that on Stratocasters.
- The arrangement of the two pickups and the hardware for the tailpiece and bridge. Note how bridge pickup fits through a cutout in this hardware.
- The metal plate that is the base for the tone, volume and pickup selector controls.
Leo Fender improved on his original design and made the Stratocaster with a tops and backs that were shaped for comfort. The Stratocaster shape is probably one of the most copied shapes for electric guitars. Almost every maker has at least one model that is reminiscent of a Stratocaster. Some other distinguishing featurs:
- The three thin single coil pickups. Although this is so copied you can hardly count on it to identify a Stratocaster, it originated here.
- The Stratocaster pickguard shape is another identifier. The pickups come through cutouts in the pickguard that server to hide the pickup cavities. Note that the pickup selector and volume and tone controls all come up through the pickguard.
- The angled top-mounted jack for the chord is distinctive.
- The head stock, as mentioned above, is different from the Telecaster head. The string tree holding the high strings is also a Fender identifying feature. Some models use more than one string tree or a different design tree.
Almost every maker of solid body guitars has a model that is a variation on the Stratocaster shape. G&L of course has models similar to Strats. But take a look at the Yamaha Pacifica series. Not identical but quite similar.
Gibson Les Paul
The most famous Gibson solid body guitar has to be the Les Paul. Experts at spotting Les Paul’s must distinguish the variations in models as well. I’ve never owned a Les Paul and will simply tell you that the example below is a Les Paul Standard. Pickups, number of pickups, finish, headstock inlay and fingerboard inlays can each be uniquely associated with different models of Les Pauls. For example, a Les Paul Custom would have rectangular block inlays instead of the inlay shown below. Some identifying factors for Les Paul guitars:
- The small, single cutaway body shape was original with this guitar. Of course many guitars now pay homage to this design.
- The neck joins the body at the 16th fret.
- The stopbar tailpiece.
- The shape of the pickguard.
- Almost all Gibson guitars have head shaped like this one, but the shape of the top of the head is an identifier for Gibson.
- The pickup selector on upper bout and the two tone and two volume control arrangements on the lower bout are not unique. Many hollow body electrics have a similar arrangement and no doubt Gibson was copying from their own designs in hollow archtops for this. But compare it to the Fender designs to see how different Gibson is from Fender.
- Also look at the guitar cord jack, here on the side (near the volume and tone controls).
The ES-335 was a ground breaking design when introduced. A thin guitar with hollow wings but a solid center block to cut back on feedback and a stop tail piece. The shape is clearly an identifier. However to be an expert you should be able to distinguish between family members ES-345 and ES-355 as well as the ES-330. There are also the newer, narrower width ES-339 guitars to contend with. Here’s some help with the models in the family.
- The classic ES-335 is often referred to as the dot neck guitar. It has dot position markers. However, vintage models and re-issues from certain periods broke this rule. Some ES-335 models had small block inlays. There was also a few years where the guitars came in a walnut finish but had a trapeze tailpiece.
- The ES-345 (not shown here) is easy to spot because of the double parallelogram position markers.
- The ES-355 (also not shown) has large rectangular block inlays.
- The body shape of a Gibson ES-330 is identical (or nearly so) to the ES-335. It is a completely hollow body guitar, but of course that is not easily spotted at a distance. The main features that can be seen to distinguish this guitar from the 335 are 1) P90 pickups instead of humbuckers. 2) Neck joins at the 15th fret instead of the 22nd (but almost all the re-issues break this) 3) The position markers are different (but not on recent re-issues which use dots) and 4) It has a trapeze tailpiece. The guitar that is truest to the original ES-330 design is in my opinion, the Epiphone Casino. Gibson hasn’t had a ES-330 true to the classics in over a decade.
The SG model was Gibson’s attempt to make a solid body guitar to compete with Fender. The “horns” on the two cutaways are quite distinctive. Like other Gibsons, you’ll need to be distinguish between the Standard, Custom and Special models (and occasionally others). To review:
- The example shown here is the SG Standard. The position inlays are trapazoids and it has two humbucker pickups.
- The SG Custom models (not shown) have the big block inlay position markers. Often they also have three humbucker pickups and/or a Maestro Vibrato.
- The SG Special usually has dot position markers and P90 pickups. But not always. Be careful.
The Firebird is probably the least copied of the designs that Gibson came out with in the late 1950s to the mid 1960s. The Firebird was actually a late entry being introduced in 1963. One of the the key characteristics the guitar is known for are the mini-humbucker pickups.
The Explorer was introduced in 1958, the same year as the ES-335. This and the Flying V shaped introduced the same year is one of the most copied shapes after the strat. You can see Dean Z series and Dave Mustaine ML series guitars for essentially the same body shape.
Gibson Flying V
This guitar is also copied by many. It wasn’t a success when first introduced in 1958 but Gibson brought it back in 1976 and has made it since. One of my blues heroes, Albert King, played a Flying V. Other makers have copied the style. For example the Jackson King V and a variation in the Jackson Randy Rhoads.