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Compared to acoustic guitars, electric ones have been around for a fairly short period of time. We are talking 60 to 70 years of active use. Even so, this instrument has completely changed the way we understand music.
The electric guitar's almost unlimited flexibility is exactly why so many people start their journey of learning how to play it each year. If this is you right now, you are in the right place.
Today we are going to go over everything you need to know about these sweet electric axes. The first portion of this article is going to be a guide of sorts.
After that, we're going to show you some of the absolute best guitars on the market divided into several price ranges.
By the time you are done reading, you should be armed with all the necessary information to step into the world of electric guitars with the confidence to choose (and use) a guitar for yourself or to snag one as a gift for someone else. With that said, let's get going with...
There are a handful of things you need to be aware of when it comes to guitars. Our recommendations eliminate the need to be hands-on and continually involved with complicated parts, but you should still know they are there and what they do.
Believe it or not, the basic principle behind electric guitars is fairly simple. So much so that people had experimented with it in the early 20th century, even though the first commercial model came several decades later. The whole point and main emphasis is in the pickups.
These pickups rely on electromagnetic induction to "pick up" the vibration of the strings. Basically, it emits a magnetic field and as the string vibrates through it this generates an electrical current, which is your audio signal. This information is then sent on to an amplifier. The reason why you need an amplifier is that the original signal from the guitar is not strong enough to be pushed through a loudspeaker without a boost from the amp.
That's why you often times hear terminology such as "instrument level" and "speaker level" signals. Using magnetic pickups to record vibrations works great but is considered the old school way at this point in time. Nowadays we have other solutions which aren't too different in nature, but a bit more efficient.
The way sound is created is ultimately the main difference between acoustic and electric guitars. What acoustic guitars achieve with the resonator box, electric guitars do with pickups. However, the versatility of an acoustic guitar is nowhere near the level where electric guitars operate. More on that later.
Even though electrics are fairly unique in nature, they still feature many of the same components and parts you find on other types of guitars. Let's name them and talk a bit about how each component contributes to the performance of a guitar.
This part of the guitar seems pretty straight forward at first due to some common assumptions. Most people tend to think that the tonewood used for the body of an electric guitar has no impact on the sound like it does on an acoustic.
After all, it's not like the body is amplifying the sound, right? Wrong!
Even though pickups are the main component tasked with interpreting string vibrations and indirectly turning them into sound, your choice of wood still matters. Although the effect is subtle, certain woods will give you better sustain, more definition, and so on. And in the end it's the accumulation of all of these choices that determine your ultimate sound.
Which tonewood works the best for you will depend on your personal preference as well as the genre of music you're playing. Electric guitar bodies come in a whole range of styles. You have classics such as the Stratocaster and the Les Paul shape, but there's much more out there to explore. Granted, a vast majority of these were heavily inspired by the aforementioned models and you probably don't want to go too far off into the realm of the strange.
As you probably figured out by now, pickups are the "meat and ’taters" of the whole instrument. No matter what, this is the component that has the biggest impact on the flavor of your sound. With that said, it is important to know and understand different types of guitar pickups.
We can boil everything down to two separate, standard classifications: single coils and humbuckers, both of which are either active or passively powered.
If you were to open just about any magnetic pickup, you would find thousands of layers of wire wound around a coil former. Single coil pickups feature one coil and were the standard up to 1955. The issue with single coil pickups is the interference that shows itself in form of an underlying buzzing whenever you plug in your guitar.
That's still something even the most modern single coil guitars have to deal with. A classic example of a single coil guitar is the Fender Stratocaster. If you look at the front face of this Fender Roadhouse Strat body, you will see three single coils arranged in the standard configuration.
Right around 1955, Gibson found a solution for this annoying yet tolerable buzzing issue. What they did was to essentially put two single coils together, aligning the polarity of magnets in opposite directions, and wiring them out of phase.
This design eliminated the buzzing and humming, creating a whole new type of pickup - the humbucker. Humbuckers generally have much more audio girth and deal a lot better with distortion.
Choosing between humbuckers and single coils is a personal decision. Both are equally popular and are considered as standards. The only thing to remember is that single coils are better suited for lighter genres of music while humbuckers are the standard for heavier stuff.
Also, it is worth noting that cheap single coils generally tend to suffer much more from that buzzing. If you find yourself stuck with a cruddy one, you can always install a better one from a more reputable company.
Guitar pickups, both single-coils and humbuckers, can be active or passive. The latter is the older design and represents a classic magnetic pickup we have talked about so far. Active pickups are much newer and bring a number of solutions to the table for several minor annoyances. Let's take a close look at each real fast.
Passive Pickups - To reiterate for comparison, passive pickups use thousands of layers of wire wrapped around a permanent magnet. When you pick a string, that string affects the magnetic field of the pickup below, generating a signal.
The deal with passive pickups is that their signal strength is constant. What you get is what you get. Pushing passive pickups to their limit causes feedback issues, introduces a certain level of noise and harmonic distortion, and so forth.
Active Pickups - Active pickups also feature numerous layers of copper wire, but there is one big difference. Instead of having thousands of layers, active pickups feature much less. This means that their inherent output is extremely low, which in turn is then boosted through a powered preamplifier.
Active pickups are wired straight to a preamp that is powered by a battery. Not only does this preamp section boost the signal to a level which passive pickups can't even reach, but you can also shape the signal before it reaches the amplifier.
If you need to brush up on your preamplifier basics, you can read our article on the topic. But all you really need to know in this context is that they pre-amplify your tiny instrument-level electrical signal to line-level, which is much louder and what your amplifier or recording equipment will expect to receive.
The very first thing to remember about pickups is that the active option is not necessarily better than the passive choice, and vice versa. Each type brings its own set of drawbacks and benefits. Passive pickups might be limited in terms of signal strength and tone shaping, but they are much more expressive in comparison to the active pickups in terms of picking and strumming intensities.
On the other hand, the inherent nature of active pickups allows them to have a much higher output and almost no noise pollution in the signal. Deciding between the two is more of a personal decision than anything else these days. The noise isn't significant enough to push you away.
Now let's move the discussion to the next guitar component...
Bridges on electric guitars can either be extremely complex or simple. It all depends on which type you go for. We're going to mention the most popular types of bridges used today, the ones you're most likely to run into. Knowing what each type of bridge offers is important in a sense that you will know exactly what you can or cannot do with it.
In the grand scheme of things, fixed bridges are as simple as it gets. Aside from saddles, which are used to tune in intonation, there are usually no other moving parts involved. The benefit of fixed bridges is their ability to retain intonation and tuning over time. If you're just starting out, sticking with a fixed bridge will make your life much easier. However, it does have its limitations compared to a tremolo bridge.
A tremolo bridge can be imagined as a fixed bridge that moves. In other words, a tremolo bridge allows you to change the tension of the strings by manipulating the tremolo bar. There are two popular types of tremolo bridges from which most other are derived.
We have Fender's tremolo design and the much more complex Floyd Rose, pictured above. Fender's is the older type that still works great and is the choice many manufacturers use in tons of different guitars, while the Floyd Rose is an evolution of this design that is much more complex but also more reliable.
While tremolo bridges allow you to do all kinds of dive bombs and similar effects, they are harder to maintain. For example, changing strings on a Floyd Rose bridge is extremely complicated and takes a lot of finesse and patience. We recommend avoiding this as a beginner or intermediate player.
The components mentioned above are the main ones that will impact not only the performance but also the price of a guitar. Now it's time to figure out how to choose an electric guitar that fits your needs and abilities.
Thankfully, with the abundance of great models in all price ranges, this process isn't all that complicated. Even so, there are some things you need to consider.
The best advice any guitar player can give when it comes to figuring out which guitar to get is to buy the best model your money can afford. In most cases, this advice is rock solid. Even if you are a beginner who isn't sure whether or not you want to commit to playing guitar long term, you can always sell the guitar with a minimal loss, like a decent car versus a junker. Think of it as an investment as long as you maintain and take care of it.
On the other hand, if you do decide to stick with it, having a good guitar means you won't have to worry about upgrading in the foreseeable future when your skill levels rise above the problems associated with cheap options. Realistically, no matter who you are or are buying for, you shouldn't get the cheapest option. At least go middle-tier unless we're talking about a 5 or 6 year old's first guitar.
The truth is that you can play any genre of music with just about any type of electric guitar. Many blues players run Gibson Les Pauls with beefy humbuckers, while Iron Maiden completely broke the stereotype that you can't play metal with a Stratocaster. Guitar effects pedals really changed the game too. However, some guitars do actually deal better with certain music genres.
The general rule of thumb is to go with humbuckers if you're into rock, metal and other genres where saturated distortion is the norm. Single coils are the staple of rock, classic rock, blues and lighter genres. Again, there are no straight rules but rather a set of guidelines.
Here's a cardinal mistake which many beginners make all around the world. They completely disregard their personal preference on account of what more experienced players tell them to buy. We have to tread lightly here, but here's the main issue.
If you are not attracted to the way the guitar looks or feels in your hand, chances are you won't be too eager to pick it up every day. When you are just starting out, this is supremely important. Here's where a disclaimer needs to be placed. This isn't always the case, and often times people warm up to a guitar even if they didn't initially like it, but why chance it?
All we want to say is that you shouldn't disregard your personal preference when it comes to the style, shape, and feel of a guitar.
It matters more than the tiny feature a guitar nerd swears is a must-have to squeeze out 1% more performance... Way more.
We mentioned different types of pickups and bridges earlier. When it comes to pickups, it's completely up to you. Active guitars are going to be more expensive in most cases, so expect to spend a bit more on one. However, bridges are a whole different ball game.
We strongly suggest that you stick to a fixed bridge until that time when you are sure that you can service a tremolo bridge on your own. As a beginner and even intermediate, you don't want to be bogging down in tech work or needing to pay the guy at the local shop to do a set-up every time you need to change strings.
And now we come to the fun part...
Let's start our way from the recommendations for absolute beginners and move our way up through the budget ranges.
Note: Each image and text link leads to Amazon.com where you can read additional user reviews, find specific technical detail listings, see additional body finishes, and make your purchase.
Now that we have laid down the foundation and discussed the basics of electric guitars, it's time to check out some of the best models on the market. Keep in mind that a definition of a 'best guitar' is highly dependent on the person you are talking to. With that said, we feel that our selection is fairly neutral and highly informed, and fits most norms out there. Let's dig in.
All starter electric guitars need to meet two criteria. They need to be affordable and good enough for the user to be able to learn the basics without the instrument holding them down. Our pick may not fit the "most popular" narrative out there, but it is by far one of the best starter guitars you can get.
Epiphone's Les Paul series were originally designed to allow the budget crowd to experience this awesome guitar without investing thousands of dollars. That's something that hasn't changed to this day. The Epiphone Special II is among the most basic Les Paul designs on offer, making it perfect for beginners. We've chosen this particular guitar because of its neutral configuration which will keep up with you even after you've built plenty of skill.
What we're looking at here is a standard Les Paul body made of mahogany and finished with an attractive vintage sunburst pattern. There's also a gorgeous heritage cherry sunburst and a straight ebony finish option as well. It features a pair of 700T humbuckers, one at the bridge and one at the neck position. These are pretty basic in nature, but their performance is more than good enough even for more experienced players and important recordings.
The bridge is a standard fixed Tune-o-Matic design that you can find on most Les Paul guitars. What we like about this particular model is the fact that it sounds great, handles distortion well and holds intonation nicely. At this price, the value you get is great, to say the least.
This is the first defined price range that is worth talking about. Here's where you run into some pretty decent guitars that pack a lot more value for being just beyond the beginner's tier. Even so, there are also a lot of guitars here which simply aren't worth the price, no matter how good the marketing. We've tossed those out the window and are only sharing the two models we know deliver the goods.
Since they entered the electric market, it didn't take long before Ibanez became the patron saint of those who appreciate a heavier sound. Their RG series won the hearts and minds of budget crowds all around the world, mainly due to its great tone and overall performance. Today we are looking at an Ibanez RG421, which follows this core policy precisely.
The guitar features what is called a Super Strat shape. In other words, it is an evolution of the Stratocaster body style. Ibanez used mahogany as the main tonewood and maple for the neck. This guitar comes with two finish options. You can have the blackberry sunburst or the light violin sunburst. In terms of pickups, we have a set of two Ibanez-made passive humbuckers which pack a decent amount of heat. They handle distortion great but also sound very decent on a clean channel too.
What makes the RG421 particularly interesting is the neck. The Ibanez Wizard III neck used is thin, fast, and very comfortable. These aspects makes it suitable for shredding as well as playing rhythm guitar. The bridge is a simple fixed unit that is paired with an above average set of tuning machines on the headstock. Overall, the RG421 is capable of holding a tuning even if you go a bit wild with string bending.
Overall, RG421 is a great way to get into classic metal guitars at a very reasonable price. On top of that, it leaves you with a few upgrade paths which might be of interest further down the road without picking up an entirely new axe.
Schecter is one of the more recent brands to start building serious trust and authority on the guitar market. They started out as a parts company, only to cross into making their own guitars later on. It is no secret that Schecter guitars are first and foremost built with heavier genres in mind. Almost every model they offer packs so much range, though, that you can easily play anything you want without compromise.
Schecter's C-6 Plus belongs to their basic line of guitars. It features their own Super Strat body shape which is finished with a glossy charcoal burst finish. The tonewood of choice for this build is basswood, an inexpensively sourced wood, which is what allows such a nice guitar to be priced at this range. There are some aspects of basswood which work great with guitars designed for heavier genres, and on top of that, it is light weight. Don't take this for granted since it'll be hanging on your shoulders and back for long periods of time.
Schecter's Diamond Plus passive humbuckers are pretty hot for what is essentially an affordable set. Their range is wide and they handle distortion rather well. This is largely what makes this such a versatile option. Schecter went with a standard Tune-o-Matic bridge for this build, making it a simple but reliable configuration, especially for those more interested in playing than tinkering.
If you are interested in finding an axe that sounds good, works well with distortion, and looks amazing, the Schecter C-6 Plus is one of the better ways to go.
When you reach this budget range, things get a lot more fun and interesting. We start seeing top quality components, great finish options and most importantly, top-tier performance. The guitars we chose for this segment can suit anyone into any style, just neutral enough that you can't go wrong.
We've already shown you one of Epiphone's Les Pauls. However, that guitar and this model we're looking at here are simply not comparable. Les Paul Standard features a much better set of pickups as well as hardware. Each of the four available finishes on this thing is superb and includes a number of subtle details which really add to the beauty. Most importantly, Epiphone's Les Paul Standard will give you a true taste of what a legit Gibson Les Paul tastes like without breaking the bank.
Starting from the body, we see the standard Les Paul shape. The tonewood of choice is mahogany, as expected, but this time it comes with a maple top. The top of the guitar arches slightly just like the original Les Paul does. In terms of details, we see a white binding around the top section that really stands out on the dark matte finish. It's something to behold.
The neck is also made of mahogany and is hand set into the body. Looking at the fretboard, we see a standard rosewood design with white binding and classic trapezoid inlays. Epiphone went with a set of Alnico Classic humbucker pickups. These are very close to what the original Gibson solution had to offer. Classic rock and blues just flow out of these, although you are more than free to crank up the gain and blast some heavy riffs.
If you are looking for a classic look and vintage tone, Epiphone Les Paul Standard is the best way to invest your allowance. You can choose from several different finishes, too.
Most guitars out there usually feature a version of either one of many Gibson designs or Fender ones, but there are exceptions. Paul Reed Smith is a brand that took their own path in just about every aspect of guitar design. This made it popular with many famous guitar players, most notably Carlos Santana. The model we're looking at today is a basic version of one of their flagship guitars. The balance of performance and pure style it offers is nearly as impressive without forcing you to extend out of your monetary reach.
The body of the PRS SE Standard 24 is made of mahogany and features a tobacco sunburst finish, vintage cherry, or translucent blue finish. Compared to most other body styles, this one is a lot more comfortable to play even though mahogany isn't the lightest tonewood out there. The balance offsets any weight issues. The neck is a maple piece that comes with a standard rosewood fretboard and PRS classic bird inlays. The pickups PRS chose for this build are their S2 HFS Treble and S2 HFS Vintage Bass units. Their performance and color are pretty unique when compared to other designs out there. Looking at the hardware, we see a PRS S2 tremolo bridge on one end, while the headstock houses a set of PRS S2 locking tuners. Combined, these two components give you the ability to achieve great tremolo effects without losing intonation or tuning.
Overall, this guitar is a bit different and pushes its own tone thanks to PRS's pursuit of their own style. It's among the most respected designs in the business, and for a good reason too.
If you can drop a grand on a guitar, your choices are going to be extremely diverse. This is a territory where you can get your hands on some classic legends as well as modern wonders, and also get lost in the decision. This is why we went with a proven choice which has been around for decades.
Leo Fender's work is timeless. This is easily deduced by simply looking at the popularity of both Stratocasters and Telecasters. With that said, Strats are arguably the favorite between the two. A top of the line American-made Stratocaster still costs a bit more than what our budget here is, however, there is an alternative. Fender's plant in Mexico builds great Stratocasters that aren't really behind their American counterparts. You essentially get a near identical performance at a more affordable price due to the stigma. The Fender Classic Series '70s Stratocaster is one such guitar.
If there is one body shape out there that everyone will recognize, it is this one. In terms of finish, Fender chose a lacquer clear coat to show off the natural wood instead of their usual choice, and it looks pretty awesome (of course there's a 3 tone sunburst and olympic white too). Made of ash, this particular Strat offers a U-shaped maple neck with a maple fretboard that is bolted onto the body. In terms of pickups, we have a set of three single coils belonging to their vintage line. These come with Alnico magnets, giving you that classic tone we all love so much. The hardware follows the canon as well. Here we have Fender's well known synchronized tremolo bridge paired with a set of F tuners on the headstock.
The tone and performance you can expect from this Strat are top-notch. No matter what Fender purists say, Mexican Strats are every bit as good as their US made counterparts, just easier on the wallet.
If you had an unlimited budget, what guitar would you buy? This is a very tough question and the answer will largely depend on the taste of the person you ask. If you were to ask us, this is what we'd get.
In the world of Gibson Les Pauls, those made in 1959 will be the hardest to find. The reason for this is because Les Pauls made in that years simply had every component perfectly aligned. We aren't talking about alignment in terms of engineering or craftsmanship, but rather in an esoteric sense, like the planets and stars sense.
These Gibson Les Paul Reissue guitars simply perform better than those made the year after or the year before. Gibson is aware of this and has been for quite some time. That's why they've decided to push out a series of Les Pauls which aimed to match the ones from 1959. Are they equally as good? Probably not since the old ones are legendary, but they're as close as you'll get for a brand new guitar.
One glance at this bad boy reveals just how accurate it is to the 1959 version. We are talking exact same tubeless truss rod assembly, aniline dye, exact same finish... everything. In terms of hardware, they went with a set of Klauson Deluxe tuners and period specific Tune-o-Matic bridge. The custom humbuckers were coiled and voiced to perfectly match the original PAF design from the late '50s which was done using Alnico III magnets and 42 AWG wire. The performance of this guitar is an experience that is rarely found out there.
This custom guitar works with you and allows you to express yourself in ways many other guitars simply can't. If we had unlimited money and couldn't find the original '59 Les Paul, this is the one we would get instead.
Hopefully, this guide has given you all the info you need in order to go out there and find the perfect guitar for yourself. We went into some aspects of electric guitars that will shape your decision the most. Beyond the ultimate considerations discussed between "this or that," the rest is a matter of preference that only develops after you've had time to gain that much experience. Until then, we hope you score the best electric guitar you can from above, as they'll carry you the distance until you've traversed the path long enough to start getting peculiar and picky. Happy shredding!