So here you have it, 20 surreal axes of the most popular brands around. If you still don’t know how to choose THE ONE – just buy them all. Ok, bad joke. Anyways, if you are a newbie in the guitar world, this buying guide is just for you. I’ll explain what brands to look for, what guitars are best for which genres, which one should you choose for your level and budget, and most importantly the guitar specs.
The most reliable brands
You think that there is a strong connection between a guitar’s brand and its quality. This is true only for cheap and middle-class instruments. When it comes to $1,500-2,500 guitars, brands don’t necessarily mean too much, because every company that is working on this level offer exceptional guitar assembly and mind-blowing electronics. Naturally, higher the price, better the quality of used materials (but not always the overall quality of the guitar). Guitarsits, however, tend to have a preference when it comes to brands, due to their guitars tone and sound (yes, they differ a lot). But don’t worry, couple years of playing and you’ll find your favourite.
The general recommendation about brands: Stick to manufacturers with a long history and solid reputation like Fender, Ibanez, Yamaha, PRS and Epiphone and the sound quality will be guaranteed.
You may also pay attention to Schecter and Godin. These two brands are less known by beginners, but also reliable.
Do not fall in love with cheap bright-colour guitars made by some Chinese or Mexican no-name companies. Their products are not durable and the tuning doesn’t last long.
Guitars for different music genres
Most electric guitars are versatile, and with the right tuning you can use them for playing any music genre you like. For example, with Epiphone Les Paul Tribute, you can play blues, jazz, reggae, folk, rock, country, soul, and even heavy metal. For beginners, this will be great because they can switch between genres to have a taste.
However, for professional musicians and for those who want to master a genre, I recommend purchasing a specialized guitar. In the table below, you will find features for the most popular genres.
|Genre||Guitar feature or example of the whole construction|
|Metal||Guitars with metal strings and powerful sound, e.g. Stratocaster, brutal look|
|Jazz||Guitars with a hollow body and classic look|
|Classic Blues||Hollow or semi-hollow body, vintage look|
|Classic Rock, British Rock, and Low Gain Blues||Guitars with a semi-hollow body and nickel strings|
|Hard Rock, Ballads, High Gain Blues||Guitars with melodic sounds, e.g. Les Paul Guitars, e.g. Epiphone|
|Funk, Reggae, Modern Jazz||Lightweight guitars like Stratocasters|
Legend artists, by the way, do not always follow such recommendations. Let’s take one genre, for example, reggae:
- Bob Marley when he was in Wailers played Gibson Les Paul. Eric Rachmany (California reggae band Rebelution) also prefers this guitar.
- Al Anderson, the lead guitarist for Bob Marley, and Eric Clapton play reggae with Stratocaster.
- Jimmy Page and Keith Richards make wonderful reggae compositions with Telecaster.
Whatever guitar holds a genius the music that he creates will give you goose bumps. So, do not pay too much attention to the guitar and genre connection, better learn to tune and take extra lessons for more skillful playing.
How to choose an electric guitar for a player’s level and budget?
Beginners make a common mistake. They want to find the cheapest guitar for a start and then move on with a more featured and expensive instrument. This is not the ideal strategy, because models under $300 are not so easy to tune. Sometimes novices spend hours on tuning and struggle for the perfect sound.
If you are a pure beginner, chances are you think the cheapest guitar is the best option for you. You might think that the most basic set up and basic features will do, but honestly, it’s not exactly like that. The cheapest guitars (usually) are built from very cheap, low-quality materials and produce rather cr- khm- bad quality sound. Besides, they are rather tricky to tune and it takes ages to make it sounds decent. Bottom line, they ain’t gonna give you much.
For guitar newbies, it is better to choose mid-class guitars that cost $500-1,000. They are easier to tune and control, well-balanced, and they aren’t as basic, so don’t need many upgrades moving forward. From top pick list, the best guitar for beginners is Fender American Special Telecaster. The model is a bit pricey, but it has a solid advanced set up, surreal sonic power and it will stay with for years.
For professionals who need an endless supply of tones, I would recommend feature-loaded guitars like Ibanez Prestige AZ2204. The quality comes with a price tag, but the overall performance and durability are worth it.
And then, there are expensive axes. If you consider a $2000 guitar an expensive one of course (I don’t). These axes are usually made from the premium and fancy tonewoods, use hi-tech electronics, and most often hand-crafted. If you consider yourself a professional I bet you already have one of those, or saving up to get one.
Novices often forget that for playing an electric guitar they need some hardware in addition to the musical instrument. The list includes a tuner; spare strings and picks, a stand, strap and hard-shell case. If you want to pick premium-quality supply, overall price for this list would be $500-1000.
Most guitars come with a soft gig bag, which gives minimum protection. For storage, you will need a hard-shell case, which can cost about $100-400 depending on materials and design. The only guitar from the list that comes with a hard-shell case is Epiphone Les Paul.
What to look for when choosing a guitar?
1. Guitar functionality
Every guitar from the top pick list is designed for 6 strings – classic set up. This number of strings offers you an adequate range of pitches. What you need to look out for is the strings material. We all know that strings break very easily. The good news is though, it’s the easiest part to replace! The strings can be super heavy or ultra-light, so I’d recommend trying a few of those to find which material will suit your style of playing best. Heavier strings are usually best for metal and rock, as they tend to be stronger. If you use a lot of pitching and upper-fret sonic attacks – maybe a lighter one? Try out and tell me.
Scale and Frets
The scale length defines the vibrating length of strings because a string vibrates only from nut and bridge saddle. Here are typical parameters for the top picks manufacturers.
|Brand||Average scale length, inches|
A shorter scale produces a warmer tone. It offers less tension, so you can bend the strings more easily. This is the right choice for small hands. The longer scale makes the tension tighter, so a string bends harder. The sounding is more powerful and deep.
If you are just starting, do not pay too much attention to the scale length. Usually, the overall quality and sound of your chosen guitar are more important. As for professionals, they have already tried different lengths and know which one is comfortable for them.
Frets are metal strings embedded along a guitar fretboard, which is also called fingerboard. Typically, electric guitars have 21-24 frets. The frets influence both playability and tone. When you press a string to fret, the sound becomes different. In simple words, you switch off the part of a string above a fret, and the vibration changes.
One thing you should be aware of here is fret buzz – a nightmare of every guitarist. Frets, obviously, experience a lot of pressure and doomed to wear down with the course of time. This causes the fret buzz. Poorly manufactures guitars are more prone to that, so if you feel the buzz immediately after the purchase – take if for a check-up right away.
There are many types of bridges, and the range can confuse beginners. I want to explain the most common bridge types for an electric guitar:
- A hard-tail fixed bridge consists of a plate that is being screwed onto the body. It has six saddles for adjusting six strings. A fixed bridge is the best option for entry-level players because it is easy to manage and generally stays in tune. A hard-tail bridge you can find in Fender Stratocasters and Telecasters.
- A Tune-o-matic bridge is harder to maintain. In addition to saddles, it has a pair of posts on either side of the bridge. These posts can be lowered or raised. Tuning process becomes more precise and more complicated for novices. Tune-o-matic bridge has, for example, Epiphone Les Paul.
- A Tremolo bridge – slightly trickier here. In addition to the six saddles and posts, this bridge can be manipulated with a tremolo arm. The bridge place is screwed to the body, and the screws act as a pivotal point. The strings inside the guitar body counteract the string tension and can decrease or increase it when a player pull or push the bar. Tremolo is widely popular, for example, you can find this bridge in most of the Ibanez guitars.
- Floyd Rose – the best thing to happen to the guitar world. In short, the FR is a double-locking tremolo system invented by.. bingo! Floyd D. Rose. It’s similar to the classic Tremolo, but it allows you to lock the strings in place at two points – the bridge and the nut. The strings are inserted in the locking saddles and then fixed into place via the tightening bolts on the bridge. This system prevents strings from going out of tune and shifting out of the locks, which allows guitarists to do any kind of aggressive playing, without worrying for their axes. However, it is crazy hard to set up if you are a beginner. Most metal guitars have FR so if you are a beginner – metalhead and that’s the only genre you want to play, be careful.
Every musician has preferences when it comes to the bridge. If you want, you can re-install the bridge on your chosen guitar to combine the instrument with your favorite bridge.
2. Guitar body
Guitar models may vary, but the general principles of the assembly are the same no matter which guitar you choose. The body type of a guitar defines its construction and influences the sound. In electric guitars, there are three body types.
A solid body is the most common type, which is a great choice if you want loud amplification, sustain and lots of audio effects. This design is ideal for metal, punk, and rock-n-roll music.
Solid-body guitars do not have a resonance chamber, so you have to play them through an amplifier and to use a speaker and electric pick-ups. The solid body ensures that an amp sound reproduces only the string vibration, without unwanted feedback or wolf tones.
The solid body guitars are made from a solid piece of wood, usually hardwood, which is why they are weighty and sturdy. For premium custom-built guitars, manufacturers use old hand-selected wood. For mass production, the wood dries in the storage for 3-6 months before being cut into shape. The solid body is covered with a hard polymer finish, like lacquer or polyester.
Example models: Fender Stratocaster, Epiphone Les Paul.
This body type is more popular than the previous. The difference between them is the central block that helps to reduce feedback. However, sometimes they produce feedback when being played with the amp at a loud level.
In the solid guitars, all of the electronics are placed inside the body, and for repair, you need to open a panel on the back. In semi-hollow guitars, you can access the electronics with the F-shaped sound hole.
Hybrid models have a bright chime-like tone ideal for pop, folk-rock and country music. This guitar body type is appreciated by many popular artists of different genres, including B.B.King and Paul McCartney.
Example models: Godin 035700 5th Avenue Jazz Sunburst HG.
The hollow-body electric guitars have much in common with the acoustics. They offer space inside for the resonance, but there is no sound hole like in the acoustics. Compared to solid-body guitars, hollow-body type use a different variety of pick-ups.
Electric guitars with a hollow body are often used for playing jazz because they produce warm and mid-deep sound with deep bass response. The most suitable amp types are mellow and low-volume.
There is a bunch of different body styles, which also come with certain electronics and hardware setups. Some are kind of legendary, not only because the brand and guitar series are big, but for their sound. The most popular ones are:
- Stratocaster (Fender)– probably the most popular guitar in the world, played by Eric Clapton and Jimi Hendrix. It has rounded bottom with two hornes on top. Freatboard is pretty thin, and neck is, traditionally, C-shaped. Strat usually has three single-coil pick ups, so it has thinner, crystal-clear sound it’s so popular for.
- Telecaster (Fender) – this axe is a bit more vintage, and us usually associated with Indie and country. For some reason, it’s one of the least copied by the competitors. It has rounder body, with one horn. Sound is, usually, even thinner and twangier.
- Les Paul (Gibson) – in two words, second most popular guitar in the world. The rock-n-roller of the list has been played by Slash and Jimmy Page. It has bit massive round bottom, thin middle, and one horn on top. Neck is usually wider and heavier. LP’s sound is notably thick and warm.
- SG (Gibson) – the horny one. A little brother to the LP, has sharp edges, couple of horns and wicked outlook. Body is usually thinner, which contributes to the fast playing, making it a solid choice for hard rock and heavy metal. Double cutaway design allows easier access to higher frets.
- Flying V (Gibson) – well this one screams rock and metal. A bunch of guitarists like Kirk Hammett, Lenny Kravitz and K.K. Downing played it making it an icon of hard-rock. Thin body resembles the arrowhead, playability if ultra-fast and with classic Floyd Rose and humbuckers it’s a pure metal beast.
Neck Types & Profiles
The neck can be mounted to a guitar body in three ways:
- Glued-in neck also called set neck. This type you can find in Epiphone Les Paul. The neck is well-balanced and stable. The repair or replacement of glued-in necks are difficult. But, they are very stable, which makes repair less likely to be needed.
- The bolt-on neck (like in Fender Stratocaster). The bolt-on neck is easy-to-replace, but it offers less sustain and overall resonance.
- The “neck through body” type, which sometimes can be found in solid body guitars.
Some musicians believe that a set neck is better than a bolt-on one. Others, including me, see no difference.
More important in my opinion is a neck profile, in other words – a shape:
- The most common and convenient shape is C, which is round and feels great in hands. Fender Stratocaster has a rather wide C-shape neck. If you have a small hand, choose a smaller diameter.
- V-shape has a stylish look, however, this is not the most comfortable choice for beginners.
- U-shape necks are typical for Fender guitars. This shape is friendly for a player and prevents wrist fatigue.
Manufacturers usually describe necks as “fat” or “regular thin;” however, there is no universal standard for these descriptions. In your local guitar shop, you may try at hand different guitar necks and then purchase online the model that you like the most.
The tonewood is probably the most important part of the guitar. Not only because any cracks will destroy the guitar, but because it has huge influence on the sound, no matter shape the body is. Woods are carefully selected based on their sound sustain and conductivity. Here are the most popular woods for electric guitars:
|Basswood||Considerably lightweight, offers warm sound with strong mids||1. Ibanez JEM77P S6,|
2. Ibanez RG550,
3. Fender Squier HSS
|Mahogany||Medium weight, warm sustained sound||1. Ibanez JEMJRWH,|
2. Yamaha Revstar RSP20CR,
3. Epiphone Les Paul Tribute,
4. Epiphone ELP ENCIAWGH3,
5. Epiphone G-400,
6. Schecter Hellraiser,
7. Godin 035700
|Maple||Medium weight, bright sound with long sustain||1. Fender Jimi Hendrix Stratocaster, |
2. Fender Standard Stratocaster,
3. PRS MHHB2,
4. PRS SE Custom 24
|Alder||Lightweight wood with a balanced tone.||1. Ibanez Prestige AZ2204,|
2. Fender American Special,
3. Fender American Special Telecaster,
4. Yamaha Pacifica PAC611HFM
|Ash||Medium weight, balanced tone, open grain||Fender American Professional Telecaster|
|Nato||Medium weight, light crisp sound||Yamaha RevStar RS420|
Neck & Freatboard tonewoods
A guitar neck can be made from different sorts of wood.
|Maple||Dense, strong, and hard. Produces bright sound with great sustain. Often comes with veneer lamination.||1. Ibanez Prestige AZ2204,|
2. Yamaha Pacifica PAC611HFM,
3. Schecter Hellraiser C-1,
4. Godin 035700,
5. All Fender, PRS, and Epiphone guitars from top picks.
|Mahogany||Medium-hard, durable. Often is used in combo with mahogany or maple. Produces warm, fat, and deep sound. Emphasizes the bass and midrange frequencies for a mellower guitar tone.||1. Yamaha Revstar RSP20CR, |
2. Yamaha RevStar RS420
|Walnut||Medium-hard, dense. Used rarely, sometimes in combo with maple, mostly in Ibanez guitars.||1. Ibanez JEM77P S6,|
2. Ibanez JEMJRWH,
3. Ibanez RG550
In my opinion, the best neck tonewood is maple, and this is also the most popular choice for middle-class and high-class guitars.
The fretboard is made from different wood types.
|Fretboard Wood||Qualities||Example models|
|Rosewood||Smooth and very warm tone. Great for gentle playing.||1. Ibanez JEMJRWH,|
2. Fender American Special,
3. Fender Squirer HSS,
4. Yamaha Revstar RSP20CR,
5. Yamaha Pacifica,
6. Yamaha RevStar RS420,
7. PRS SE Custom 24,
8. Epiphone ELP,
10. Schecter Hellraiser C-1,
11. Godin 035700.
|Maple||Bright sound with great sustain. Best for fast and dense playing.||1. Ibanez JEM77P S6,|
2. Ibanez RG550,
3. Fender Jimi Hendrix Stratocaster,
4. Fender Standard Stratocaster,
5. Fender American Special Telecaster,
6. Fender American Professional Telecaster.
|Pau Ferro (also known as Morado)||Sounds brighter than rosewood and warmer than ebony.||1. Epiphone Les Paul Tribute, |
2. Epiphone G-400.
|Ebony||Rich sound. Ideal for strong playing.||PRS MHHB2|
|Jatoba||Crisp and bright sound, melodic tone.||Ibanez Prestige AZ2204|
Pickups have the greatest effect on the way that a guitar sounds because they sense the vibration and convert it into an electrical signal. Pickups produce a magnetic flux field which magnetizes strings. When guitars is amped and the strings are plucked, they start to vibrate. Vibration is transmitted through pickups have a massive influence on the sound.
Every part of the pickup can influence the sounds: strength of magnets, size of coil or wire, materials etc. Yet, in the grand scheme of things, there are only two main types of electric pickups: single-coils and humbuckers. Here is the difference between the two:
|Pick-up type||Musical genre||Famous artists||Example models|
|Single-coil is composed of a single magnet with wire around it. The string vibration is captured by a magnetic field. This type gives a guitar crisp and bright sounding, but sometimes it adds humming.||Pop, rock, country||Marle Travis, John Mayer, Eric Clapton, Stevie Ray Vaughan, Bruce Springsteen, Buck Owens, Johnny Paycheck.||Telecasters, Stratocasters made by Fender|
|Humbucker pickups (two connected single-coils) were invented to eliminate the hum. Compared to single-coil, this type reproduces more powerful, louder, and thicker tone.||Jazz, alternative and hard rock, heavy metal||Jimmy Hendrix, John Lennon, Joe Perry, B.B.King, Duane Allman, Slash, Joe Pass, Jimmy Page, Chet Atkins, Wes Montgomery.||Epiphone Les Paul|
Another important distinction is the active VS passive. Both single-coils and humbuckers can be either passive or active. They share rather similar construction and the main difference is in the circuitry.
Active pickups use an active preamp to boost the signal, which results in reduced noise, stronger output and no high-frequency loss. While passive pickup is sort of a classic, widely-used version, which is equipped with wire coil + magnet + pole design. Without said circuitry, there is a higher chance of noise, and less dynamic response and string vibration. Yet, passive pickups produce warmer, vintage sound.
Single pickups are good, two pickups are better, three – well you got the gem – are excellent. Sure, it gets more complicated to operate the guitar, but it sure creates the better sound and gives you more versatility to the sound. Thus, there are a bunch of different pickups configurations, which basically means a combination of different pickups on the guitar. Pickups can be located at three positions: bridge, center and neck.
Pickup configuration has special abbreviations, like S-S, H-S-S. I know, weird, but don’t worry, it’s easier than the FBI or CIA.
There are two basic rules here:
- “S” stands for “single-coil” and “H” – humbucker;
- You need to read from bridge position to the neck.
Thus, when you see H-S-H configuration, it means that you have two humbuckers at the bridge and in the neck, and one single-coil in the center. This, by the way, is a popular Strat configuration.
Technically, the more pickups you have the more versatility you get. But it’s not necessary to use all of the pickups at once it’s up to you and your level or style of play. And the best news – all pickups can be replaced. So if you need a more powerful humbucker – go for it, see what you sound you going to get!
When it comes to the guitar assembly, there are two main parts we are talking about: raw materials (wood) and design (hardware and electronics).
Raw materials refer to the tonewoods I discussed earlier. Every part is built separately, but basically, the wood needs to be cut-sawed to proper sizes and weight. The body is then glued with the top, rabbeted (polished with sandpaper), smoothed and dried out. The fingerboards, after re-sizing, are molded and have the fret slots cut and then frets are added to the inlay. After it can be glued to the neck. The neck can either be a single or multiple pieced (read the difference earlier). Finally, it all assembled together and gets the final touches like coloring and polishing.
And here the design comes it, where all the hardware and electronics (bridges, pickups, nuts, tuners, strings, switches, cords) are installed.
The most important part here is how solid is the quality control. American brands tend to have strict rules and restrictions at the facility, which means that every step is guarded and controlled like it’s the Queen Elizabeth’s crown in the tower. Asian or Mexican-made guitars are a bit softer (or reckless) on it here. Which means, that axes might have some serious flaws in construction like shifty necks, poor frets polishing, loose bridges, etc.
Guitar parts are everything that is not wood and get added at the design stage. I mentioned all the most important and complicated ones earlier: bridges and pickups, but there is way more than that. Pay careful attention to these ones:
- Head stock – is on top of the grid and hold the tuners. Without it, the guitar is useless, as strings get spun around the pegheads. It must be set up tight and hold the tuners properly.
- Tuning machines or simply tuners – they are mounted on the headstock of a guitar to hold strings in place and prevent them from getting loose. Tuners allow you to adjust string tension while tuning the instrument.
- Frets – these are those metal strips on the fretboard. Make sure they are polished because you don’t want to rip your fingers.
- Nut – it’s directly below the headstock and is crucial for the string placement. Their one and only purpose are to keep the strings in place.
- Saddle – is the nut’s counterpart. It also holds the strings at the bottom of the guitar. This extra strings support ensures the sound is strong and crisp.
So there you have it. I tried to be as detailed as possible, so do I hope it’s going to help you on your journey on a stairway to guitar heaven. But bear in mind, knowing about guitars, brands and parts it’s sometimes not enough – you always need to try them out before buying. Always! So chose a handful of those in the list and go to a guitar store to actually play it.
If I were a complete beginner, I’d definitely go for the American Special Telecaster or Stratocaster. Especially great, if you prefer jazz tunes and clear sound. The more powerful option is good old Ibanez with JEM77P S6 model. Metalheads – I’d say PRS MHHB2 will be a safe option, or the more powerful and complicated Schecter Hellraiser C-1 Floyd Rose.