Considering how prevalent the instrument is, choosing the best electric guitar for your needs can be more than a bit overwhelming. I mean, the amount of choice you have in selecting an electric guitar is mind boggling. There are hundreds of styles, all of which are made with different materials and come in at different price points. This article will give you a guide to what you should look for in an electric guitar, as well as give you some great recommendations!
- The Basics: Electric Guitar 101
- What Should I Look For In An Electric Guitar?
- Electric Guitar Terminology
- Top Electronic Guitars
The Basics: Electric Guitar 101
When you consider how much guitar players love to debate the merits of different models, materials, and features in electric guitars, it’s kind of funny just how simple the instrument actually is. At the end of the day, an electric guitar is pretty much just a piece of wood with magnets screwed into it that makes noise.
For the average electric guitar, the mechanics at play are actually pretty simple to wrap your head around. The vibration of the strings is transferred to an electronic signal by your pickups, and that signal is transferred to the speakers of your amplifier.
What Should I Look For In An Electric Guitar?
Well, that’s actually kind of a hard question to answer. No matter what genre you play, you’re going to want a guitar that will work well with that type of music. Shredders wouldn’t be caught dead using a vintage Epiphone Archtop, and blues guitarists probably aren’t going to pick up a solid-body Ibanez with DiMarzio pickups.
So first things first, you need to decide what you want your electric guitar to do. If you want to break out your skin tight leather pants and release your inner Eddie Van Halen, you need to find a guitar that will help you do so.
As a general rule of thumb, single-coil pickups (like what you’d find on a Fender Stratocaster) are used for lighter genres, while humbuckers (like what you’d see on a Les Paul) are used for heavier ones. For a more detailed look at what kinds of guitar will fit for different genres, check out the recommendations below.
Also, you should try to go out and demo a few guitars so that you can find what type of style works for you the best. I have big hands and long arms, so I like big guitars with beefy necks. But you’re not going to know how different models compare until you spend some time trying to figure out what you like.
Electric Guitar Terminology
Humbucker: A humbucker pickup is what you’d find on something like a Les Paul. This pickup uses two magnets to cancel out the “hum” (static interference) that you get with single-coil pickups. The sound of this type of pickup is generally a bit warmer than a single-coil, and it generally handles distortion better.
Single-Coil: Single-coil pickups only use one magnet. This type of pickup generally sounds a bit thinner, but it has a better upper-mid to treble frequency response.
P90 Pickup: P90 pickups are the middle ground between single-coil and humbuckers. They tend to be bit warmer than single-coils, but they still have the same hum.
Tremolo/Bigsby/Floyd Rose: Tremolos, Bigsbys, and Floyd Roses are all different types of bridge configurations that allow player to change the pitch of the strings by shifting the arm.
Semi-Hollow: A semi-hollow guitar has two hollow chambers, giving the guitar a bit “woodier” of a sound. This body style is more prone to feedback than a solid body guitar, but less so than a fully hollow body.
Hollow: A hollow guitar (like the Epiphone Casino) has one hollow chamber. This type of body style has an almost acoustic sound, but it’s incredibly prone to feedback.
Active Pickups: Active pickups allow guitar players to achieve higher amounts of gain, though they require an external power source (generally a 9-volt battery) to do so.
String-Through (or String-Thru): In a string-through bridge, the strings go through the body. Generally this bridge configuration is considered to have more sustain than other types.
How Much Should I Spend?
The cost of your instrument should reflect how much time you’re going to spend with it and what you’re going to want to do with it. If you want a guitar that you can gig with and take into the studio, your instrument is going be an investment and the cost will reflect that. But if you just want to pick up the guitar for a hobby, you don’t have to break the bank to get a decent instrument.
In my experience, a good gigging guitar will generally fall into the $500 to $700 range. Of course you can spend more than that, but you don’t really have to. If you plan on heading to the studio one day, you should expect to spend around $900 to $1400.
But if you plan on just playing around the house for your own enjoyment, I’d recommend you try to find a guitar that you like that’s at least in the $200 to $300 dollar range. That price range is kind of the sweet spot for cheap guitars, because they’re generally made with enough care that they can be set up to play and sound just fine without too much of an investment.
Top Electric Guitars
Since the electric guitar is such a diverse instrument, I tried to select a wide enough variety of models so that almost everyone would be able to find something appealing. I hunted through my favorite forums, and used my own experience as a musician, to try and cover as much ground as possible.
And like every article in this series, it’s important to clarify what “best” means in this context. That $10,000 dollar custom Gibson might be the best option for you, but it doesn’t matter how great that guitar sounds to someone who can only scrape together $500 or less.
So remember, “best” in this context is going to mean different things to different people. This article was written with the intention of being applicable to everyone from the dedicated professional to the budding musician, so the list of guitars below are going to be diverse enough for most people to be able to find something they like.
So without much further ado, here are the best electric guitars.
Gibson Les Paul Standard Electric Guitar
The guitar that made Les Paul a household name, the Gibson Les Paul is among one of the most iconic guitars ever produced. Originally introduced in 1952, the Les Paul was a combined effort on the part of Gibson’s president Ted McCarty, factory manager John Huis, and Les Paul. A little known fact is that Les Paul was a highly respected inventor in his own right, achieving his first patent in his teens. He designed the original flip-up harmonica holder, which actually went on to be used by Bob Dylan.
Originally, the Gibson Les Paul came equipped with two P-90 pickups, as well as a trapeze style tailpiece (like what you’d see on an a hollow or semi-hollow bodied guitar). The model has seen dozens of different models and revisions in the decades following its release, some which were widely celebrated and some that were not. What we now consider to be the traditional Les Paul configuration (Tune-o-matic bridge and dual humbucking pickups) was introduced in 1953, and was marketed under the moniker “Gibson Les Paul Custom.” The guitar experienced a bit of a slump in the early 60s, as the instrument was considered old fashioned and unwieldy. However, following its adoption by notable musicians such as Eric Clapton and Keith Richards Gibson revived the Les Paul and has been producing it ever since.
The most recent update to the Gibson Les Paul, the 2016 Gibson Les Paul Standard marks a return to form for the company. The 2016 model departed from the unpopular features found on the 2015, and as an added bonus Gibson even reduced the price. If you happened to like the features introduced in 2015, check out the High Performance line. The High Performance series retains a lot of the elements of the 2015 line-up, such as the controversial robo-tuners. .
Unlike the High Performance series, the 2016 Gibson Les Paul Standard features specifications based on historic Gibson designs. The guitar features traditional Grover tuners, a historic nut width, and the traditional Gibson Les Paul neck heel.
The Gibson Les Paul Standard also features the maple cap unique to the design, enhances both sustain and overall resonance. The guitar also features two Burst Bucker pickups, which are said to be the closest Gibson has come to reproducing the famed PAF tone. PAF pickups were the original humbuckers used on early Les Pauls. They were designed by the venerated Seth Lover, who went on to become one of the most respected names in aftermarket guitar pickups.
Though the 2016 Gibson Les Paul standard is geared more towards reproducing a classic Les Paul design, it does feature some modern innovations. The nut is made from Graph tech as opposed to the traditional bone, and the guitars come in a push-pull configuration. The push-pull design allows guitar players to “split” the humbucking pickups, which provides a close approximation of single-coil guitar tones. The guitar also features a modern Slim-Taper neck profile, a neck profile which is significantly thinner than the “baseball bat” necks you’d find on a vintage Les Paul.
There’s not a guitar player alive who isn’t at least partially familiar with the classic Les Paul tone. Though the design has seen a wide variety of tweaks and changes over the decades, the fact of the matter is that a Les Paul is always going to sound like a Les Paul.
This guitar is perfect for classic rock, blues, and believe it or not jazz. The Les Paul was originally intended to be a dedicated jazz instrument, and though it hasn’t been widely used for the genre in recent years it is still capable of producing a quality jazz tone. The Les Paul is also a very convincing reggae guitar, as evidenced by its use by Bob Marley. While the Les Paul has been used for everything from reggae to jazz, the instrument is most suited towards good old rock and roll. However, the instrument can perform well in almost any context. Though to play genres requiring heavy amounts of gain you may have to invest in a set of high-output pickups.
As far as quality is concerned, the 2016 Gibson line-up marks a return to the quality control that Gibson maintained in the early 50s and 60s. There’s no widespread reports of the issues that plagued the design in recent years (generally sloppy fretwork, though occasionally more significant problems). In fact, with the recent drop in price there’s never been a better time to purchase a Gibson Les Paul.
The 2016 Gibson Les Paul Standard provides the value that Gibson made its name on, and the guitar is a worthy successor to one of the most notable instruments the world has ever seen.
Fender American Stratocaster
Founded in Fullerton, California six decades ago, Fender is undoubtedly one of the most influential companies in the history of music. The company has manufactured guitars that have been played by some of the most important musicians in living memory, and has created a legacy that will survive for centuries.
At the time of its invention, the Fender Stratocaster was the guitar that performing musicians had always dreamed of. It was the first electric guitar to feature three pickups, and it also boasted a unique and innovative spring tension tremolo system. The key component of the Stratocaster’s success is that it was an easily manufactured and modular instrument. This allowed the instrument to be produced much more cheaply, and it also made it much easier to repair the instrument.
The Fender Stratocaster has been used extensively in almost every genre imaginable. The guitar was used to great effect by both Eric Clapton and the Beatles (George Harrison and John Lennon used the guitar on early Beatles albums), as well as musicians as diverse as Dick Dale and Stevie Ray Vaughan.
While the Stratocaster has gone through a wide variety of changes since its introduction in 1954, the most modern incarnation (the 2016 model) still has a lot to offer players. The main difference between a American made Fender and their Mexican made counterparts is that an American produced instrument is going to come with both higher quality materials and a higher level of quality assurance. The most important thing to recognize when you’re considering an American made instrument is that it’s going to come from the factory as a quality instrument. Mexican made Fenders can reach a similar level of quality provided that you invest in better materials, but by the time you upgrade a Mexican instrument to a similar level of quality to an American made instrument there isn’t going to be a significant difference in the end cost. This process is also going to take a lot of time and tinkering, which while that may not be an issue if you’re comfortable with modifying your instruments it can be a bit overwhelming if you’re not already experienced.
This guitar comes equipped with Custom Shop Fat ‘50s pickups. These pickups are an attempt to replicate the tone of early Fender Stratocasters (think Buddy Holly as opposed to Jimi Hendrix). However, these pickups are wound a bit “hotter” (meaning that they offer a higher output signal) than the original pickups. This gives players the added flexibility, allowing them to attain both the signature clear and glassy tone of early Stratocasters in addition to the grittier tone the guitar became known for in later decades.
As far as tone is concerned, the Fender American Standard Stratocaster offers a genuine Stratocaster tone. It features all the pros and cons of the instrument, and while it is undoubtedly a high quality instrument it’s still a Strat at the end of the day. It’s capable of producing some of the best gritty blues tones you’re ever going to hear, but it’s never going to be the ideal instrument for jazz or heavy metal.
The Custom Shop Fat ‘50s are more versatile than you would imagine considering that they’re intended to produce a more vintage tone, but they don’t quite have the girth or output of more modern pickups. One more modern addition to the guitar is the Delta Tone pot, which allows you to remove the tone knob from the frequency when you have it on the highest setting. This enhances the high-end response of the instrument, which is a plus if you play genres that require a bright and trebly tone.
As far as quality is concerned, the Fender American Standard Stratocaster is everything that you would expect from an American made instrument. On most models, the playability, fit, and finish are all representative of the Fender’s legacy. The tremolo arm is also smooth and comes with a great range of motion, and modern examples of the system are also much more stable than they’re vintage counterparts.
While it’s always possible to run across a lemon, there’s nothing about the Fender American Standard Stratocaster that would suggest that it’s going to be an unreliable or overly fragile instrument. So long as you inspect your purchase before you buy it, and properly maintain it of course, this instrument is most likely going to last you for decades.
While American made instruments are always more expensive than their foreign counterparts, the premium you pay with this guitar does correlate with quality. It has a fantastic sound, and while it may be a bit of an investment you’re sure to be satisfied with this instrument. The Fender Stratocaster is a classic for a reason, and this guitar can chime, roar, and twang with the best of them. If you plan on playing genres that require low to medium amounts of gain, you’ll find that this guitar will perform well in almost any roll imaginable.
Aside from inarguably being one of the most influential guitars in history, the Fender Telecaster has a long and storied career in music. The design was the first commercially successful solid-body electric guitar. It’s simple yet effective and durable design blew the doors wide open for guitarists the world over, breaking new ground for luthiers everywhere as well as setting trends in design that would continue for decades.
Something a lot of musicians don’t know about the Telecaster is that it was actually first introduced as the Broadcaster. During the period between 1932 and 1949 there were an array of independent builders as well as established companies experimenting with a solid-body guitar design, though none of them were able to create an instrument that was feasible to manufacture on a wide scale.
Fender’s first solid-body electric guitar was actually intended to be a platform for Leo Fender to inspect pickups. However, the guitar was consistently being borrowed by local country guitarists because the instrument was able to be played at high volumes without feeding back. The bright and piercing tone of the instrument also allowed musicians to play at lower volumes while still being heard in crowded venues.
Fender was intrigued by the popularity of his instrument, and along with his partner Clayton Kauffman he built a more complete prototype of the instrument. This guitar would eventually go on to be called the Esquire, which was a precursor to the Telecaster that only featured one pickup. The double pickup model was first marketed as the Broadcaster, though this name had to be changed because of interference from Gretsch who marketed a drum set under the name.
Though the Telecaster has gone through a variety of incarnations over the years there are a few features of the Mexican produced Standard models that have remained consistent for at least a couple decades.
The chief among these is the bridge and neck pickup designs. The bridge pickup has traditionally been relatively high-output for the last couple decades. The pickup has also been praised for its high-end bite, though recent models have cut this back a bit in order to increase the pickups warmth. There are a wide variety of aftermarket Telecaster bridge pickups available, so if you don’t get your ideal tone from the bridge pickup you do have other options. The nick pickup features a warm and chimey tone, which while it doesn’t have the piercing highs of the bridge pickup it is able to cut through a mix relatively easily.
Modern Standard Telecasters feature a six-saddle design. The six-saddle design is a bit controversial because some players believe that by reducing the mass of the saddles (early Telecasters only had three saddles, but the saddles were much heavier and made from brass) you cut the guitars mid-range “honk” and its sustain. However, the true effects of this design is largely subjective.
Modern Standard Telecasters have a modern “C” shape neck. This is generally considered to be the middle ground of guitar neck dimensions, so it has plenty of heft without feeling cumbersome. The neck is also thinner than traditional instruments, which helps make it easier to play complex passages at higher speeds.
Mexican made instruments used to be objectively inferior to any American made instrument, but as technology improves so does the quality of foreign made instruments. Current MIM (made in Mexico) Fenders may not be made from the same materials as American made guitars but they’re just as capable of providing a professional tone and playability.
Due to the design the Fender Standard Telecaster is also generally free from the quality control issues that can plague guitars with a more complicated design. Think of this guitar like a 70s Ford, and think of instruments like a ES-335 as a modern Honda. The Telecaster is incredibly easy to work on and modify, and there’s a wide variety of aftermarket parts available for a very reasonable price.
The Fender Standard Telecaster is a continuation of one of the most popular designs in the world, and it offers a trademark Telecaster tone at a price that any musician can justify.