How To Rock with a Hollow Body Guitar
Conventional wisdom dictates that hollow body guitars aren’t the best instruments for rocking out. Their tones are more associated with jazz, country and blues — although post-Delta blues is more the province of solid body and semi-hollow body six-strings, the latter ala B.B. King’s Lucille and the ES-335s and their kin used by Freddie King and others.
But historical recordings show that unconventional wisdom can have a big tonal payoff when it comes to hollow body guitars. John Lennon and George Harrison, as well as Paul McCartney, all used the hollow body Epiphone Casino on historic Beatles albums. McCartney was actually the first Beatle to use a Casino, cutting “Taxman” and “Drive My Car” with his Bigsby equipped model. Lennon used his Casino well into his solo career, and it appears most famously during his feedback-drenched performance with the Plastic Ono Band on Live Peace In Toronto. Lennon’s guitar has also been immortalized with the John Lennon “Revolution” Casino tribute model.
Before Gibson introduced the semi-hollow body ES guitars, Chuck Berry preferred an ES-350T for his early recordings. The model was launched as a cheaper alternative to the Byrdland hollow body, which Gibson designed for famed Nashville session guitarists Billy Byrd and Hank Garland, who used the Byrdland on recordings for Ernest Tubb, Johnny Horton, Faron Young, Patsy Cline, Roy Orbison and literally hundreds of other artists. And at the opposite end of the rock scale, the Byrdland itself was favored by Ted Nugent from his early days with psychedelic maniacs the Amboy Dukes through such career-making solo recordings as “Stranglehold” and “Cat Scratch Fever.”
Jimmy Nolen used a host of Gibsons during his first decade with James Brown, when he essentially invented funk guitar with his so-called “Chicken Scratch” rhythms and flickering ninth chords. These included the ES-175 and Byrdland, as well as the flashier L-5 model.
Rock and roots MVP session and touring guitarist Mark Ribot, whose inventive playing appears on album by an array of artists from Tom Waits to the Black Keys to Alison Krauss and Robert Plant, favors his Gibson ES-125, which yields an insanely versatile palette of clean and dirty tones in his grip. Fellow Waits band album Smoky Hormel also breaks down barriers with his Gibson ES-150, playing everything from country to blues to African music on the same redoubtable model that Charlie Christian used to, essentially, invent electric jazz guitar.
Today’s most high-profile hollow body slinger in Gary Clark, Jr., whose major label debut Blak And Blu features him employing the feedback characteristics of his Epiphone Casino on the epic, grinding “When My Train Pulls In” and his “Third Stone From The Sun”/”If You Love Me Like You Say” medley.
So, there’s plenty of recorded documentation of the hollow body guitar as a rock machine, but what about it’s practical application? Here are some tips on how to play at high volumes and under aggressive and touring conditions with a hollow body guitar.
Let’s deal with volume first. One old trick that helps dampen a hollow body guitar’s proclivity to feed back at high volume is to stuff the body with rags or foam. Another is to block the f-holes — an improvement that is reflected in Gibson’s Lucille model. Then again, quick access to feedback and its control may be the goal. And in that case hollow body guitars are ready. Turn up, stand as far away from your amp as possible, and then begin slowly turning back toward the amplifier. Wherever you find feedback sweet as you turn, mark them on the floor of the stage or practice space with duct tape. Then you control the feedback; it doesn’t control you. Humbucking pickups with offer more control, while single coils will howl faster and brighter.
If you tour under rugged conditions, with lots of gear piled into a vehicle and hard-played shows under the spotlights, protect your hollow body guitar. It is far more susceptible to body breakage than a solid body, for obvious reasons. If your guitar will be traveling in a pile of gear, use a hardshell case, not a gig bag. And install strap locks. Drop a solid body on stage and it’ll get a divot; drop a hollow body and it will crack.
A cool thing about the clear tones that hollow body guitars produce is that effects color them extremely well, with a clarity and definition that makes them more controllable. This allows for both subtlety and weirdness. For an example of the latter, check out what happens when Gary Clark, Jr., steps on a distortion pedal during his Hendrix tribute on Blak And Blu. And if you’re interested in really taking it outside, hollow body guitars offer some unique tonal tricks that fall into the category of extended technique. Put a long delay on your signal and start tapping on the body to insane percussive effects, or — with single coil pick-ups, especially — turn up, stomp on the distortion box and start screaming into the pickups. It’s madness… in the best way.