Whether you’re a complete newbie trying to find your first electric guitar…
Or an old-timer browsing for your 10th…
The actual process of finding your next guitar never really gets much easier.
Because no matter how many you’ve played, and how many you own…
There’s always hundreds more that you’ve never even heard of, and will never get to play…
Plus dozens of little facts about the instrument itself that you’re still completely unaware of.
Wouldn’t it be nice if there was a single resource that gave you a broad overview of all this stuff…
So you didn’t have to spend days hopping around the internet from one website to another?
Well for today’s post, that’s exactly what I have for you:
A comprehensive resource on electric guitars that will allow both newbies and seasoned players to see the “big picture” of options, and find exactly what they’re looking for with their next guitar.
Now let’s begin…
The First Question to Ask Yourself…
With most musical instruments…
It makes sense that the majority of your research be focused on comparing the key features of popular models, right?
I would argue that the electric guitar is one of the few exceptions to this rule.
Because for whatever reason, with this particular instrument…
Players develop an irrationally strong emotional attachment to certain body styles.
If the body style doesn’t match with the style of music you play, and your mental fantasy playing on-stage…all the best “features” in the world won’t matter to you one bit.
And while this certainly matters less and less, the more guitars you have…if this is your first and only guitar…it matters more than anything.
Which is why you should make this decision first, before anything else.
So let’s start with that…
The 4 Most Popular Body Styles
The 4 most popular body styles of electric guitar are:
- Stratocaster (Fender)
- Telecaster (Fender)
- Les Paul (Gibson)
- SG (Gibson)
And while these body styles originated solely from Fender and Gibson…
Over the years, MANY other copycat guitars have been made by other brands, based on just these 4 designs…
To the point where the vast majority of guitars on the market bear a close resemblance to one of these 4 styles.
So let’s take a closer look at each one now. Starting with…
Without a doubt, the Fender Stratocaster is the most instantly recognizable guitar in the World.
Even among folks who don’t play music, and perhaps don’t even like music…
It’s still a household name.
Not only is it the top choice for first-time guitar players…
It is perhaps the one and only guitar that is widely-seen across virtually all styles of music.
Typically though, the Strat is most closely associated with blues/rock n roll…
With the two most iconic Strat players being Jimi Hendrix and Eric Clapton.
In its standard format, the Stratocaster comes with 3 single-coil pickups which tend to have a thinner, cleaner, twangier sound compared to the popular alternatives such as the Gibson Les Paul.
And while this will matter to more experienced players, the truth is that most beginners won’t even notice much of a difference in sound between one guitar and another.
And if they DO, they won’t have a much of a preference either way. And this same fact is true for beginners with almost ALL features of the guitar.
So for the more advanced guys, I’ve saved these in-depth topics for the end of this post.
For now though, let’s skip straight ahead to the BIG issue that concerns everyone: price.
With Fender Strats, there are two general price ranges to choose from:
- Squier Models – which is Fender’s line of budget guitars, ideally suited for beginners.
- Fender Models – which include the pricier premium models, better suited for everyone else.
Now here is a list of the most popular guitars in both line-ups:
- Squier Bullet Strat – (Amazon/Thomann)
- Squier Deluxe Strat – (Amazon)
- Squier Mini Strat – (Amazon)
- SquierClassic Vibe 60’s Strat – (Amazon/Thomann)
- Standard Stratocaster – (Amazon/Thomann)
- Deluxe Strat – (Amazon/Thomann)
- American Standard Strat – (Amazon/Thomann)
- American Elite Strat – (Amazon/Thomann)
As the other well-known (although much less famous) Fender body style…
The Telecaster holds a more classic, timeless look…that you might say is geared to slightly older, more “mature” crowd.
In terms of sound, it has an even thinner, twangier sound than the Stratocaster…
And is most closely associated with both Indie and Country music.
For some reason, unlike the other 3 body styles on this list, the Telecaster really hasn’t been copied much by other companies…
And therefore the body style is still strongly associated with the Fender brand.
Just like the Strat, the Tele is available as either a Squier, or a Fender, and you can check out popular models from both in the list below:
- Modern Player Tele Plus – (Amazon/Thomann)
- Deluxe Tele – (Amazon/Thomann)
- American Standard Tele – (Amazon/Thomann)
- American Elite Tele – (Amazon/Thomann)
NOTE: Other classic Fender body styles worth mentioning include:
- Fender Jaguar
- Fender Jazzmaster
- Fender Mustang
3. Les Paul
As the second most well-known guitar in the World…
The Les Paul, is commonly thought of by the layman as the “other” guitar that isn’t a Strat.
In terms of its identity, you might say it’s ideally suited for the heavier/harder rock n roll genres…
With Slash and Jimmy Page being two of the more classic examples of “Les Paul” type players.
In terms of sound, it has an overall “thicker” sound, with a warmer tone and longer sustain…
Due to its combination of a mahogany body and humbucker pickups (which we’ll discuss further later in this post).
In terms of feel, it has a wider neck compared to most guitars, which some players find more comfortable to hold.
And just like how Fender has with their guitars, Gibson also has a budget line of Les Pauls known as Epiphone which is ideally suited for beginners.
Below is a list of the top models in both the Epiphone and Gibson line-ups:
- Les Paul 100 – (Amazon/Thomann)
- Les Paul Standard – (Amazon/Thomann)
- Les Paul Custom – (Amazon/Thomann)
- Les Paul Standard – (Amazon/Thomann)
- Les Paul Classic – (Amazon/Thomann)
- Les Paul Traditional – (Amazon/Thomann)
- Les Paul Tribute – (Amazon/Thomann)
- Les Paul Studio Deluxe – (Amazon/Thomann)
4. SG Style
In the same way that the Stratocaster has its “less-famous yet still extremely cool” brother, the Telecaster…
The Les Paul has its own alter-ego as well: the SG.
In terms of identity, it is perhaps the edgiest of all 4 designs, blurring the lines between hard rock and heavy metal…
With Toni Iommi and Angus Young being two guitarists that closely define its image.
In terms of sound, there’s actually not much difference between the SG and a Les Paul. Since the woods and pickups used are basically the same.
In terms of playability, the body is thinner, making the guitar lighter overall. And the double cutaway design allows for easier access to the highest frets.
In terms of price, the SG is MUCH cheaper than a Les Paul, most likely due to the added cost of the arch-top on the Les Paul compared to the flat-top of the SG.
Now here are the links to the most popular SG models:
NOTE: Other Gibson body styles also worth mentioning include:
- Flying V
“Heavy Metal” Guitars
Commonly known under the umbrella term of “Super Strats“…
This broad category of “heavy metal” style guitars is commonly known for its distinct body style…
That vaguely resembles a Stratocaster, only with pointier cutaways.
Besides just having “the look” of a heavy metal guitar…
They often include specific features catered toward this style of playing, such as:
- active humbuckers – for easier distortion and more volume
- thinner necks – for faster melodic runs
- added frets – for more range higher up on the neck
- 7 or 8 strings – for even more extended range
- Floyd Rose bridges – for whammy bar effects
And rather than being specific to a single brand…they’re actually made by a rather wide-variety of brands, including:
However, as you’ll notice in the list below, virtually all of the most popular super strat models currently on the market are made by Ibanez:
- Ibanez RGA42FM – (Amazon)
- Ibanez GRG120BDX – (Amazon)
- Ibanez GRX20 – (Amazon/B&H/Thomann)
- Ibanez RG450DX – (Amazon/B&H)
- Ibanez GRGM21 – (Amazon/B&H/Thomann)
- RG Premium
- S Prestige
- S6570SK – (Thomann)
- RG Prestige – (Amazon/B&H/Thomann)
- Iron Label – (Amazon/B&H/Thomann)
Unlike the previous guitars we’ve covered, which all have solid bodies…
Hollowbody guitars offer a warm, clean, rich, bassy tone…
With a natural acoustic resonance that is ideally suited for jazz in particular (but also blues and indie as well).
The main drawback of these guitars is that the additional resonance also makes them more susceptible to feedback in loud environments.
To minimize this problem, a much more popular version of the design, known as semi-hollowbodies, adds a wooden center block beneath the pickups…
Which significantly cuts down on feedback, and adds both attack and sustain as well…as a nice side-benefit.
Below is a list of some of the most popular hollowbody and semi-hollowbody guitars on the market:
- Epiphone ES-339 – (Amazon/Thomann)
- Epiphone Wildcat – (Amazon/Thomann)
- Epiphone Sheraton – (Amazon/Thomann)
- Epiphone DOT – (Amazon/Thomann)
- Epiphone Emperor Swingster – (Amazon/Thomann)
- Gretsch G2420 – (Amazon/Thomann)
- Gretsch G5420T – (Amazon/Thomann)
- Ibanez Artcore AF75 – (Amazon/B&H/Thomann)
Cheap vs Expensive Guitars
So now that we’ve covered all the major categories of electric guitars…
And you’ve seen the full spectrum of options…from dirt-cheap to insanely expensive…
You’re probably wondering to yourself at this point:
What exactly are you getting by spending more?
After all…when you look at the two Les Pauls in the example image…
You can’t possibly imagine that the right one costs 41x more than the left one, can you? And yet it does.
So for the remainder of this post, we’re going to talk about each of the major components of the guitar, so you can understand how they affect price, in addition to sound, playability, and overall quality of the instrument as a whole.
Sound good? Then let’s continue.
Over the years, guitar makers discovered that for every part of the instrument…
There were a select few woods that were ideally suited for the job.
With necks, maple is the overwhelming favorite, and used by almost all commercial manufacturers…
Because it is both hard and dense, yet not too heavy.
Mahogany, which is generally much more popular on acoustic guitar necks, is sometimes used on electric guitars as well.
With fretboards, maple is popular for the exact same reason. Rosewood and Ebony are great also…due to the fact that the oils in these woods make them resistant to wear from your fingers.
With bodies, the two most popular options are alder and mahogany.
The vast majority of Fender bodies are made from alder, with a select few made from ash instead, especially those with transparent finishes.
On the other hand, the vast majority of Gibson bodies are made with mahogany, which compared to alder, is a softer wood, with a mellower tone.
On their Les Paul guitars, Gibson also adds a thin layer of maple over the mahogany body to shape its signature arch-top.
2. Neck Design
For newbie guitar players, the design of the neck is virtually irrelevant…
Because EVERY neck feels uncomfortable for the first 6 months of playing.
But after that, what many players eventually discover is that certain necks feel more comfortable to hold and play…
Because the shape of their hands happens to fit nicely with the shape of the neck.
So the 4 key dimensions of neck shape we will now cover are:
- Fretboard Radius
In regards to the Width, slimmer necks are easier to grasp especially for those with smaller hands.
Whereas wider necks are often better-suited for larger hands, and have greater space between each string, which could potentially allow for easier fretting as well.
In regards to both Depth and Profile, there are 3 primary shapes to choose from:
- C shape
- V shape
- U shape
The most popular of all designs, the C shape, has the shallowest depth and a contour somewhere in-between the V and U shapes (as you can see in the picture above).
Most modern guitar necks (including most Strats) have a profile that closely resembles the C shape because it is the most versatile for a variety of hands shapes and playing styles.
The V and U shapes on the other hand, have a greater depth, and are typically found on vintage guitars.
The V shape is commonly preferred by players who hang their thumb over the edge of the fretboard, while the U shape is preferred by those keep there thumb behind the neck.
And finally, in regards to Fretboard Radius, there are two key points worth mentioning:
- As you can see in the image below, the smaller the radius, the greater the curvature of the fretboard.
- Greater curvatures are generally ideal for playing chords, while shallower curvatures are generally ideal for soloing.
And that’s pretty much it.
When comparing two similar looking guitars with very different sticker prices…
One of the big factors that distinguishes one from the other in both price, and sound…
Is the quality of the pickups.
Generally, pickups included with pricier guitars tend to have:
- less noise
- more tonal control
- hotter outputs
…and a variety of other nice options as well.
And since many guitar players hate the idea of opening up the “guts” of their guitar to upgrade pickups later on…
A professional installation of high quality pickups right off the factory line is a premium feature that many players are happy to pay for.
The problem is that many newbie players don’t realize the difference between one set of pickups and another until much later down the road.
And at that point there’s no other option but to get your hands dirty and change those pickups yourself (or perhaps hire someone).
However…the topic of pickups is quite huge in itself, so rather than go into full detail here and now, feel free to check out this post instead:
4. Tuning Machines
On one end of a guitar’s “tuning system”…
We have the tuning machines (aka tuning keys, machineheads)…
Which have two simple functions:
- getting you in-tune
- keeping you in-tune
And while basic tuning machines do a decent job of accomplishing these tasks…
Premium tuning machines do an even better job by adding the following features:
- higher turning ratios – which allows for better fine-tuning control
- locking mechanisms – which prevents slippage by securing the strings in place
- enclosed systems – which are internally lubricated, and last much longer than “open-air” mechanisms.
And since these premium tuners are relatively inexpensive, and not that hard to install, they’re a great upgrade to consider, even for beginners.
On the other end of a guitar’s “tuning system”…
There’s the bridge, which serves two basic functions:
- intonation adjustment – which is done by fine-tuning length of the vibrating string so that each note at each fret is in-tune with all the others.
- action adjustment – which is done by fine-tuning the height of the string over the frets, so that no “fret-buzzing” occurs.
A 3rd optional function, known as the whammy/tremolo bar, is one that some guitar players prefer in order to create special diving/vibrato effects that are especially popular in heavy metal music.
This effect however, requires a special floating bridge, which rocks back and forth along a pivot point, instantaneously slacking or tightening all 6 strings at once.
The problem with traditional floating bridges is that they tend to cause tuning instability…
Since each time the tension shifts, so does the string’s contact point over both the nut and bridge saddle.
To solve this problem, a bridge design known as the Floyd Rose adds a string-locking mechanism over both the nut and bridge saddle which dramatically increases tuning stability…at least compared to other floating bridges.
However, since they still require a certain level of skill (both musically and technically) to maintain in a way that won’t cause too many problems…
For both newbies and “non-metal” guitar players…a fixed bridge, which is securely anchored to the body of the guitar…
Is generally considered to be the best option, since it’s much simpler to use, and offers maximum tuning stability.
The 4 most popular fixed bridge designs are:
- Fender Hard-tails
- Gibson Tune-o-matic w/ stop bar
- Gibson Tune-o-Matic w/ String-thru
- Trapeze tailpiece
And the 3 most common floating bridge systems are:
- Floyd Rose
And you can see all 7 of these in the image below:
And That’s It
Well there you go guys…the Ultimate Beginner’s Guide to Electric Guitars.
See you next time…