Congratulations, you’ve decided to buy an electric guitar, one of the top rated instruments the world over. Choosing that perfect guitar is where the fun really starts, though actually picking one can be a frustrating task for the uninitiated. Fret not (pun intended), we are here to help sift the wheat from the chaff with this comprehensive guide. We’ll help you determine what factors contribute to making an instrument a great one and provide a few options to get you started.
Basic Understanding of the Electric Guitar
An electric guitar is very similar to an acoustic in terms of the basic principle whereby strings vibrate to create an audible sound that our ears then translate into notes, and by extension, music, should the player be adept at their instrument.
The point at which the two types diverge is in the amplification of the sound waves produced by the strings. Acoustics utilize the natural reverberating qualities of wood to increase the volume of the vibrations within a specifically-designed body. We are all aware that acoustics are chunkier instruments compared to electrics, and this is due to the hollow cavity acting as an organic amplifier. Electric guitars on the other hand rely on the marvel that is electricity to increase the volume. Essentially, the electric is the more technologically-gifted cousin of the acoustic.
Via magnetized pickups attached to the guitar’s body, the movement of the strings is translated into an electrical signal that is then fed through the guitar’s internal circuitry into a cable. Which in turn carries the signal to an amplifier where it is transformed into sound waves, which we interpret as the very-distinctive audible electric guitar sound that appears on all our favourite records.
Visually, the electric is a much more compact iteration of the guitar, primarily due to a thin body. In addition, it uses different natural and electrical components that cater towards shaping and defining the electric signal. In essence, the electric is far more an exercise in balance that the acoustic. It represents an equilibrium between the natural qualities of the wood and manipulation of the intangible characteristics of electrical circuitry.
Components and Hardware
Components and hardware are made up of all the elements of the guitar that are added to the basic setup of a body, neck and head-stock. Think of these as the tools that allow the basic elements of the guitar to function as intended and make the instrument playable.
Budget guitars tend to have lesser quality components, but this does not mean they are per se bad. Instead, they lack a degree of the precision found in pricier models, where research and development departments are better funded. This allows them to seek out the ideal characteristics to limit the function of the components to parameters that augment and improve the feel of playing the guitar and quality of the sound. In other words, better components reign in the science behind electric guitars to a defined spectrum whereby only the ideal amount of vibration or tension is allowed, thus improving the instrument as a whole.
Lower priced guitars are generally mass produced inside purpose-built factories so the quality control isn’t as stringent as pricier alternatives. This unfortunately leads to the occasional incident of detached wires, faulty tuners or loose fittings. Though rare, they do happen so keep in mind that paying more generally means you will avoid any similar issues.
Here is a brief outline the components used in electric guitars:
The vital component in all electrics. It allows the natural sound of the strings to be routed to an amplifier. Alone they are not easily distinguishable. Amplification ensures the electric interpretation of the vibrations to be transformed into a more prominent sound.
Pickups are, therefore, crucial in creating the tone of a guitar. A highly engineered, resource conscious pickup with always lead to a better overall output quality. It is important to consider the pickups installed on a specific model when considering it as a possible buying option.
The position of the pickup on the guitar is also important given that depending on where they are, the tone can vary greatly. Furthermore, the type and number of pickups also has an impact. It is not uncommon to see certain models with up to three pickups, while some will only have one. This variation leads to a different overall tone made up of the combined sound of the pickups.
There are many different types of pickups. However, they primarily stem from the two most famous iterations, the single-coil pickup and the humbucker.
The single-coil pickup is the most famous and the first ever created, ushering in the genesis of the electric guitar as we know it today. It uses a magnet to distinguish the movement of strings then creates an electrical current to match, that can then be sent forward as a signal. The sound is often characterized as having a bright and angular quality.
The humbucker appeared following an ongoing issue with the single-coil whereby the signal was often shrouded in a kind of electromagnetic residue. Heard, it sounds like a light humming sound, most noticeable when a guitar is plugged into an amplifier but isn’t being played.
Engineers discovered that using two magnetic coils with inverted phasing, instead of one, reduced the hum drastically. This type of pickup was coined the humbucker. The sound produced is warm and more complex than a single-coil, with a cleaner output. Humbuckers are often favoured by heavier styles of music for the punch and depth they offer.
Located on the lower half of the body, they allow the volume of the output signal to be brought up or down, and therefore caters for specific stylistic needs or playing techniques.
Tone knobs are there to shape and define the tonal qualities of the sound. Certain songs require a chunkier sound, while others benefit from a brighter, more defined sound. These knobs allow the player to do just this on the fly.
Depending on the location of a pickup of the body, the signal it produces has different tonal qualities. Guitarist therefore use different combinations to create different tones. It is often possible to turn off a specific pickup or allow both to merge together into a combined signal with varying effects.
A standalone electric produces a very low volume which reflects the acoustics of vibrating metal strings. The jack output allows the sound translated by the pickups to reach an amplifier and as a consequence a far louder volume.
Machine Heads / Tuners
Ask any seasoned guitarist and they will extol the virtues of correct tuning. An out of tune guitar is jarring and is counter-intuitive to the very purpose of music as a harmonious and emotion-conveying medium. The machine heads or tuners allow the tension of the strings to be manipulated and ‘tuned’ to a specific note. Once all the strings are tuned in unison, the guitar is capable of playing a musically coherent riff or chord. They sit on the headstock and hold in place the strings via a protruding spindle through which they are fed then wound. The mechanism then allows the player to change the pitch of the string via a winding knob.
Often found on acoustics and electrics alike, a pickguard is, as the name suggest, a plate fitted to prevent wear on the lower half of the guitar’s body. The downward motion of strumming a guitar with a pick invariably leads to contact between the pick and the instrument due to the effects of gravity. The pick-guard protects the guitar’s finish from the consequences of this contact.
The nut sits at the contact point between the headstock and the neck. Upon it sit the strings and it acts as directional device that guides them to the machine heads. In essence, the nut is crucial to ensuring the strings stay in place and do not move around above the fretboard. The nut ensures a consistent physical reaction when a string is plucked or strummed, but also ensures it returns to the same position, at which point the player can once again engage with it.
Bridge / Saddle
In a position directly opposed to the headstock, the bridge or saddle is the other point of contact of the strings with the guitar. It allows the strings to be fixed and immobilized to ensure tension and positioning. Generally found towards the back end of the body, sometimes further up, numerous models exist with some favouring spring adjustable anchors for each string, and others a kind of bridge with holes through which the strings are fed such as Gibson’s famous tune-o-matic.
Tremolo / Whammy Bar
Not a component found on all guitars, the tremolo or whammy bar is often a stylistic choice rather than a crucial component. Fitted on the bridge, they allow, via the use of a bar, to shift the tension of the strings to create unique and unconventional sounds, or create certain musical variations. The strings are then immediately returned to their original position and the guitar can be played as before, still in tune.
It is also worth keeping an eye out for what accessories are shipped with specific models. Some offer metronomes, gig bags and even lesson books. If you plan to invest in these, save some money by buying a pack that contains a few or at least one of these.
Body and Style
By body, we are alluding to the shape of the guitar and composition of the guitar. To the uninitiated, all guitars appear to be identical, yet there are a number of variations that offer distinctive tones and are geared towards certain genres of music. There is also an aesthetic consideration and some models are favoured for their cosmetic value. Ultimately, it comes down to personal choice and is often dictated by the type of music you hope to play.
Solid body electric guitars are the most common body and are generally composed of the same section of wood that is either shaped or cut then glued back together during the manufacturing process. Though the wood has a minor impact on the quality of the tone, it acts more as a basis onto which the rest of the guitar is fixed. The lack of a hollowed out chamber means the electronic pickups on the guitar perform the amplification work. Solid bodies are the bread and butter of many rock-based genres.
Indicated by the name, this body type is hollowed out with the intent of producing a rounded, clean and velvety sound. This is due to the amalgamation of both the sound of electric pickups and the natural reverberations produced. They are generally thicker than solid-body guitars due to the presence of a sound box. Unlike an acoustic, a hollow body is adorned with small openings on its front, often f shaped, allowing the sound to escape the cavity below.
They are often praised for those who require both an acoustic and electric option given that, played without an amplifier, they produce a reasonably loud sound. They do, however, suffer from feedback issues when played at high volumes and as a consequence are not commonly found other than in specific circles. For example, it is the guitar of choice of jazz players due to the quality of the bottom end produced.
The semi-hollow is a perfect example of the virtue of the adage necessity is the mother of invention. The feedback issue caused by pure hollow bodies meant bands couldn’t perform in larger venues where higher volumes were an imperative.
Guitar builders searched for an alternative and came up with the semi-hollow body, which is essentially a less pronounced iteration of the hollow body. The cavity is smaller and therefore doesn’t cause such apparent feedback issues. The tone is warm and complex. Thanks to the sound box, it carries a wooden quality that favours rich overtones and sustain. They are also light and can be doctored to sound like a solid body through proper tinkering of amplifier controls, making them a truly versatile option for players in the jazz, blues and country genres.
Other than a fascinating subject that delves deep into the natural musicality of wood, learning about tonewood is a great way to come to grips with why certain woods are favoured for their varying characteristic. A basic understanding is also helpful in understanding what characteristics a guitar will have based on the wood chosen.
That being said, there is raging debate as to the importance of tonewood in the construction of a guitar and its impact on the final amplified tone. Some argue that tonewood plays an integral part in shaping a guitar’s unique sonic characteristics. Others deem is a frivolous consideration that has no impact whatsoever. Extreme opinions see it as a fabricated residue from the mysticism associated with famous models of the past, which in turn is used by large manufacturers to sell more expensive guitars.
Regardless of opinion, wood is the main resource used in guitar making and therefore invariably has an impact on quality, no matter how small. It is worth reading up on the various types of tone wood available and listening close to differ guitar models to try to distinguish differences. The area where tonewood is arguably the most influential is in the sustain of a guitar; its ability to ring out and for how long. If you plan to play styles that depend heavily on a sustained sound, then opt for woods that favour this such as mahogany or ash.
Setup and Playability
Every new guitar requires setup by a professional. The rigours of transport and general acclimatization to environments other than the workshop floor means a guitar stretches and thins out naturally. This can have an impact on the playability of a guitar notably in reference to intonation and action.
Intonation is the capacity of a guitar to remain in tune regardless of where it is played along the length of the neck. Bad intonation causes the guitar to play bum notes in certain locations. Action is basically the gap between the fretboard and the strings. Conventional wisdom argues that the smaller the gap, the easier, and more enjoyable, a guitar is to play.
Most un-packaged guitars will waver a bit in terms of intonation and action. Don’t worry as any music shop worthy of its name can provide a setup service which will rectify any issues such as buzzing frets or a slight loss of tuning on the 12th fret, two rather common guitar ailments.
It is, however, important to consider whether the intonation and action of a guitar is simply bad regardless of how adept a guitar engineer is. Some models are badly built and there is no conceivable way to correct inherent issues with the construction of the guitar. Put differently, certain issues are simply due to the way the guitar was put together or the parts used.
A good way to ward off problematic models is to visit a music shop and play a selection of instruments. Shops generally setup any guitar that goes on display so as to show off its full potential. With this in mind, any guitar that rings out of tune or feels difficult to play probably falls into the category of badly built monstrosities that you should stay well clear of.
Budget – Epiphone SG Special
Though the mantra of the more you pay, the better you get rings true for guitars, it is entirely possible to get a more than decent instrument for a fraction of the cost of high end models. They may not reach the heights of their pricier brothers, but they still pack a bunch and will meet the needs of the majority of budding guitarists.
The issue here is selecting the good from the bad. In our estimation the Epiphone SG Special rises above competitors in a similar price range. To give some context, Epiphone is a subsidiary of the world renowned Gibson company. They produce identical models as the Gibson line, but at a greatly reduced cost. Fender, through their Squier label, offer a similar service.
The SG offers a maple/alder body and a maple neck coupled with a rosewood fretboard. It is equipped with two beefy noise-free humbucker pickups, a robust tune-o-matic bridge and pleasingly aesthetic chrome hardware such as the tuners. This combination of components makes for a sturdy instrument that keeps the strings nicely in tune. The humbuckers are reliable and belittle many alternatives in this price range. Control wise, the SG has one volume knob and one tone knob, enough to shape the sound to your needs or style of music.
As with all Gibson derivative guitars, it carries the signature 24.75 inch scale length. The body shape can be described as none other than classic, a perfect replication of the Gibson with the legendary double cutaway. This guitar looks good, it is as simple as that. The attention to cosmetics will make you want to pick it up and play at any opportunity.
In terms of the sound, this is a meaty guitar that favours loud, distorted tones. That being said the humbuckers are malleable and can produce an acceptable clean tone that may lack a little bit of precision, but makes up for it in terms of sheer power produced. Overall, a budding guitarist will be pleased with the sound and coupled with a decent amp, the guitar will truly sing.
The SG should carry you forward for a decent amount of time and the modification potential means you can easily replace components as your requirements change. We highly recommend it, particularly for those who plan to bash out crunchy solos or dabble in the metal and hardcore genres.
The Epiphone Les Paul Special II is also worth bring up. Another classic lookinspired by the Gibson Les Paul, it ranks similarly to the SG in terms of performance, but at lower cost. The dual humbuckers are well balanced and offer a more subtle alternative to the SG that favors the classic rock style.
The body and neck are mahogany so you can expect pretty good sustain, perfect for ringing out chords. The fretboard is rosewood and the components match those of the SG as does the hardware. Overall, this is a great alternative to the SG if you require something a tad less ferocious.
When talking about budget guitars, we would be wrong not to mention Squier and notably the Korean-made Squier Bullet Stratocaster. Inspired by the Fender Stratocaster, it mimics the intent of the Epiphones above in offering all the looks and style of its older brother, but at a budget price.
The body is made of basswood, the neck of maple and the fretboard is rosewood. A nice combination that favours a brighter Fender-like tone. As with a normal Strat, the guitar is equipped with three single coil pickups and a five-way pickup selector allowing you to hone in on a specific sound if needed. The two tone knobs and volume knob are great for further fine tuning. One point of contention is the hum created, but as this comes with the territory when using single coils we can’t hold this against the Bullet Strat.
The Hardtail bridge is strong and surprisingly responsive, though a little touchy, when you slot in a tremolo bar and play around with it. The hardware keeps the guitar in tune once you’ve got your head around the arguably sensitive way to properly handle the tuners.
The sound is described as bright and pretty well-rounded, though may lack some definition in some instances. Overall, for the cost, you get a great instrument that is reliable and truly merits its reputation as one of the best entry level guitars out there.
Affordable – Fender Classic Series ’72 Telecaster Custom
Regardless of budget, the 72 Telecaster Custom is arguably one of the most versatile and desirable guitars on the market today. As with all Fender instruments, it comes packed with years of development and fine tuning to create an overall enticing and quality product.
Made in Fender’s state of the art Mexican factory, the 72 Telecaster Custom is in many ways on par with its more expensive, American-made counterpart. Some argue that the US factory has higher quality control standards, but from experience, we see no issue with the mexican issue model.
Sporting an alder body, maple neck and fretboard, the Custom is equipped with a Fender wide ranging humbucker coupled with a standard single coil. It has four knobs which control both volume and tone on each pickup, and a three toggle pickup selector that allows you to use both pickups at once or isolate one out individually.
The chrome hardware includes the classic f-stamped machine heads and a string-through-tele bridge for perfect tuning and string stabilization. The scale length is as expected on Fender models at 25.5 inches. A nice touch is the three bolt f-stamped neck plate that is solid.
In terms of the sound, the Custom simply sounds incredible. A well-rounded, balanced mix of highs and lows that favours a bright tone when played clean and the classic angular Fender sound when pushed or over-driven. This is thanks to the combination of the two pickups which allow a beefier sound or a softer more precise output when required. Fingers glide along the neck and seem to float from fret to fret with ease. The guitar feels comfortable and unobtrusive, yet controlled and responsive.
Overall, a beast of a guitar that favours those playing rock genres such as math-rock, alternative-rock and post-rock.
When talking about the Custom above, it is also worth mentioning a very similar model, the Fender Classic Series ‘72 Telecaster Deluxe. It differs in that it offers two humbuckers and a Stratocaster headstock. It can be viewed as the beefier, less twinkly version of the Custom for those that require an extra punch and appreciate the aesthetic of the Strat head. The components and hardware are identical to those found on the Custom, though overall the guitar is a little dearer price-wise.
Sound-wise, it offers the expected Fender sound, but with a punch thanks to the extra humbucker. The clean tone is distinct and offers a nice mid-range peak. When pushed is where the Deluxe shines with a gnarly sound that remains precise even when run through an abrasive distortion pedal.
Worth a mention, but also more expensive is the Gibson SG Faded T, the high-end model of the Epiphone SG detailed above. This guitar is legendary and the axe of choice for numerous professional guitarist the world over for the quality and depth of its sound and the sheer visual appeal it offers.
The body and neck are mahogany to guarantee that unparalleled Gibson sustain. The fretboard is rosewood, another reliable tonewood. The SG has two Gibson-made 490 series humbuckers which are packed with rich and versatile tone. Each pickup has one volume and one tone knob for total control of the sound. In terms of hardware, it oozes quality with a top-of-the-line tune-o-matic bridge, signature green tuning pegs and a solid stop bar tailpiece.
The sound is geared towards heavier styles of music, but this doesn’t define the SG’s overall performance as it is capable of offering a subtle richness when veering towards softer genres. When both humbuckers are active, the sound is huge, menacing and deep, cementing the SG legendary reputation as the go to guitar for rock musicians.
In essence, the SG is fifty years of expertise packed in a modern, robust and reliable guitar that should last a lifetime if regularly serviced and taken care of.
Beginners – Squier Affinity Telecaster
Among the large selection of the beginner guitars available, the one that stuck out for us was the Squier Affinity Telecaster. Not only is the price entry-level, but also offers a good deal for the money.
The Affinity Telecaster borrows many of its features from the standard Fender Telecaster, though with cost-cutting alternatives in terms of the materials and components used. Fortunately, this does not distract from how well the guitar plays and also how good it looks.
On offer are an alder body, usually reserved for much pricier guitars, with a maple neck and fretboard. Pickup wise, we have two standard issue single coils with a master volume knob and a tone knob. The three position switcher means you can get a variety of sounds out of this guitar.
With standard chrome components that do the job rounding off the whole package, it is worth mentioning that this Tele comes in a variety of colours including the now classic sunburst coloration. The nut is somewhat temperamental in that it can sometimes affect the stability of the strings. As such, it is recommended that you install a better one; a cheap and easy adjustment that most music shops will happily do for you for a small fee.
Sound wise, this Telecaster won’t produce the same sound as its namesake, but for the price and what it sports under the hood, it truly offers a reliable overall tone that is bright, clean and generally described as having a twangy, almost airy character. The neck is reminiscent of the feel of a true Telecaster’s smoothness so playability scores highly.
Overall, this guitar stood tall in comparison to competitors and it is hard to find a better guitar in this price range that will suit not only a beginner, but also those with a little more skill.
Something a Little Different – Gretsch G2420T Streamliner
There are many odd and unique models out there that cater for even the most obscure taste. As such, it would be hard to suggest a guitar for the more niche players out there. But, if you’re set on getting a semi-hollow guitar, we highly recommend the Gretsch G2420T Streamliner which falls within the affordable price range. Gretsch are synonymous with semi-hollow guitars so you are not only paying for a great instrument, but also for decades of expertise and honed craftsmanship.
The body is laminated maple, the neck nato and the fretboard rosewood, a mix of tonewoods that favour the hollow body aspect and encourages natural reverberation within the sound box. The pickups are signature Gretsch Broad’Tron humbuckers with one volume knob for reach pickup and an overall tone knob. The selector offers the standard three way toggle.
Supporting the strings is a reliable Adjusto-Matic bridge with an unusual rosewood base to secure it to the guitar body. The saddle is a classic Bigsby which incorporates a chunky, yet responsive tremolo bar that can withstand a lot of use without letting the strings go out of tune.
Visually the Streamliner is beautiful thanks to the two f holes either side of the pickups and the colours on offer hark back to a bygone era steeped in blues history. Note that the Streamliner is a large guitar compared to smaller guitars such as a Telecaster or SG, but fortunately doesn’t feel as heavy as it should.
The sound is thick and comes close to matching that of high-end Gretsch guitars which have a long sustain and precise highs with a chime-like quality to them. This sound is perfect for blues guitarists or those dabbling in country music.
High-End – Fender Custom Shop Jaguar
Now here comes the fun part; if you really have more money than sense and are hoping to buy a guitar, we highly recommend the Fender Custom Shop Jaguar. We could shower this guitar with countless superlatives. That is how good it is. A modern all-rosewood (body, neck and fretboard) recreation of the iconic 1962 jaguar, this guitar is handcrafted by renowned Fender luthier Greg Fessler. Fender’s Custom Shop has a rich history and a legacy as one of the best guitar builders in the world.
The pickups are two vintage-style single coils of the highest quality available that our specifically shielded to limit the hum that generally characterizes these types of pickups. As with any Jaguar, the Custom Shop offers a variety of controls that dwarf comparative guitars with its ability to fine-tune down to that perfect sound. The rest of the components are high quality and vintage-inspired, adding greatly to the stunning allure of the instrument. The unique rosewood is greatly emphasized with a light, but sturdy finish that embellishes rather than contrives its cosmetic value.
The sound is distinctly Jaguar-esque with an extremely precise clean tone that encompasses all the frequencies into a mellifluous overall balance. When pushed, the Custom Shop creates a gnarly, powerful tone that though intense manages to retain a noticeable distinction between frequencies, a hard task to achieve. Recorded with purpose built microphones, the Custom Shop works magic and it is, therefore, advisable to keep this in mind if recording is part of your plan.
Obviously, this is a near-perfect instrument that most guitarists would only dream of owning, but if finances allow, you couldn’t get anything better or more rewarding. Overall, a truly unique and stunning instrument that merits its very high price-tag.
Overall – Fender Classic Series ’72 Telecaster Custom
If we had to choose one guitar among those listed above, we would have to settle on the Fender Classic Series ’72 Telecaster Custom for its balance of quality sound, playability and an affordable price tag. A beginner may not benefit from having such a finely-tuned and engineered guitar, but with a few years practice, they will invariably learn to love it. In addition, if bought as a beginner’s model, it will do wonders to encourage playing and practice by its attractiveness, an added bonus if you are buying this for a friend or family member and are wary of wasting money. In other words, the investment will bear fruits, undoubtedly.