Welcome my loyal readers to the article you’ve been pining for since I introduced you to the all-encompassing world of the popular six-stringed (and sometimes five, or seven, or twelve or… you get the idea) instrument — the guitar.
If you have braved your way through my previous introductory article, you should no longer be attempting to fingerpick your keyboard or pluck a cello bow. You will have established a solid foundation of knowledge to begin your journey of purchasing a guitar.
If you are yet to fumble through the informative (a nice way of saying lengthy), background piece I wrote, I highly recommend you retrace your steps and get acquainted with a few of the fundamentals.
It would be a poor — though excusable, given how exciting buying your first guitar is — decision to rush into a purchase before realizing that it’s all much too hard and you’ve decided that you are giving it all up in lieu of becoming a professional juggler.
For example, making the decision whether you want to start off with an electric or an acoustic is often the first any budding guitarist must make. To quickly recap, the most important questions to ask yourself is:
If you answered yes to most of those, you’re in the right place! If not, it’s worth considering that an acoustic guitar may be better suited for your musical goals.
Like with most other instruments, it can be a dense and confusing space particularly considering the number of copycat models that exist on the market.
Whether you’re just starting out, or looking to make the leap from your parents 50-year-old instrument they had as a child, this guide will aim to equip you with a rounded understanding of prominent electric guitars and help you choose the best instrument for your needs.
Best Beginner Electric Guitars
Pickup: Single-Coil with 5 different tones
Fender are one of the most popular guitar brands of all-time, with the Stratocaster body being the shape of electric guitars. It has been replicated so many times that the image of a Strat is synonymous with electric guitars. Fender’s Squier series, purchased in the 1960s, provides budding guitarists with an entry point into what can be a very expensive hobby.
They are analogs of more expensive, classic models from the Fender catalog, containing less features and cheaper manufacturing while maintaining the distinct feel and quality tone to be expected from Fender.
While some lines of Squier are such high-quality offerings that they are worth thousands (Squier JVs being the prime suspect) the Affinity Stratocaster is a relatively cheap, easy-to-play instrument that offers tonal diversity and ushers beginners into the classic design and feel of the omnipresent Fender Stratocaster without obliterating their savings account.
Coming in numerous color schemes with 5 switchable tones, the Squier Affinity Series Stratocaster is the perfect option for a beginner on a reasonably low budget. Many music stores will sell these in packs too, so you won’t need to worry about shopping around for a new amp, case and so on.
Pickup: 700T/650R Humbuckers with 3-way switch
Much like the Squier series, Gibson entered the entry-level market for guitars with their Epiphone line, offering classic guitars such as the SG and Les Paul at more accessible price-points.
The Les Paul typically has a heavy body — and while the Special II is a bit lighter than a traditional LP, it can still take a little adjustment to get used to the weight.
With a flatter body than other guitar models, it is easy for the guitarist to reach higher frets when recreating some of Jimi Hendrix’s iconic solos.
The LP Special II has less tonal variance than some other guitars in the price-range, however the lack of diversity is combatted by the crisp, focused sound that is the trademark of Les Paul guitars.
Perfect for high-gain/distorted rock, metal and blues, for its price this model is a well-crafted, beautifully designed instrument that is a ‘can’t-miss’ for beginners.
The guitar comes in three color schemes: ebony, sunburst and blue — giving potential buyers a nice range to choose from, and both the neck and body are made from top-tier mahogany wood.
Being aimed at guitar novices, the LP Special II can nearly always be found in a combo, making it a convenient purchase.
Pickup: Alnico-V Single-Coil with 5-way switch and Humbucker
Remember how I said that Stratocaster’s design had been used countless times by countless makers not-named Fender? Here’s one that shares a very similar look — the Yamaha Pacifica 112V.
The combination of the two single-coil pickups alongside a humbucker at the bridge really pushes the flexibility of this offering — allowing for bright, breezy riffs alongside dark and despairing metal solos.
Being around since the 90s, the Pacifica 112V offers a ‘best-of-both-worlds’ scenario, in that it is easy to play, has a relatively powerful and adaptable sound and can easily be found in packs that make getting started a breeze.
It’s hard to suggest which of the three beginners’ guitars would be best-suited to you — each have their unique perks and drawbacks (due to cutting corners on manufacturing to save cost).
It will simply come down to user preference, but you can be sure that any of the Pacifica 112V, LP Special II or Strat Affinity Series would make for a great foundation to begin your journey to selling out Madison Square Garden.
Best Mid-level Electric Guitars
Pickup: Player Series Alnico 5 Strat Single-Coil with 5-way switch
What’s this? More Strats?
That’s right. I have no regrets.
Fender Stratocasters are ubiquitous among guitar players for a reason — they just feel good. The Player series is no exception to this.
Coming in at a fair price cheaper than the original vintage Strats, the Player Stratocaster is a mid-priced offering from Fender that builds on the Squier series’ versatility and powerful tone.
Coming alongside two knobs that manipulate tone, the 5-way switch is a delight for guitar players looking to mess around with the pleasant sound that the Strat presents to perfectly fit their songwriting needs.
The guitar has clarity, sweetness and the ability to float between playstyles as high-end, high-distortion focused music can easily be tamed in both the treble and mid-range via the adjustable settings.
While this option may be a slight step down from American-made Strats in terms of build quality (the Player series being manufactured in Mexico) it is still very durable for its price range and carries the traditional Fender mix of flexibility and playability.
Pickups: Dual Humbuckers (specific type varies based on model purchased, such as EMG and Seymour Duncan)
ESP EC-1000 are one of the most popular non-Fender or Gibson guitars among players. This particular model has been on the market for well over 20 years.
The EC-1000 maintains a level of power and is designed to be plugged in and turned up to 11, perfect for metal and heavier music enthusiasts. That said — you can coax a beautiful, smooth tone out of this weapon that can be used in a wide range of genres.
Using top-of-the-range mahogany for the body and neck, the EC-1000 employs the distinctive ‘cutaway’ design made popular with the Les Paul.
It’s worth mentioning that the build quality for the EC-1000 is immaculate — with a gold-plated color design and an iridescent finish — if aesthetic is important for you when selecting a guitar, ESP’s renowned model is hard to look past at its price range.
Pickups: 2 Shecter Super Rock Vintage humbucking pickups
Keeping on the trend of guitars intended for rocking out venues with blistering tones comes the Schecter C-1 model. Though built for metal, the C-1 ignores potential perceptions of being only good for heavy music, as it provides players with ‘an army of tones’ suitable for less-obvious genres like a country twang or an indie rock noodle.
The neck is one of the most consistently described as ‘fast’ among its owners, and it’s easy to see why. Thin and flat, the C-1’s fretboard is one of the easiest to access, with frets numbered 22–24 not out of bounds for guitarists with even the stubbiest (like me!) of fingers.
Speed and vibrato are encouraged on this neck, meaning that more obscure playstyles like sweeping, pinching and extremely wild rhythm sections are a joy to experiment with.
There are a number of Schecter C-1s that comprise different pickups and price ranges (the Custom, Classic and Hellraiser) but all of these are fantastic intermediate choices and which you should go with comes down entirely to tonal and body-feel preference.
Best Professional Electric Guitars
I’m not going to mention any of the big 4 here — higher-end Gibson SGs and Les Pauls, or Fender Telecasters and Stratocasters. Everyone knows about them, I discussed them in my last article and even suggested similar, affordable analogs earlier in this piece.
There are many different versions of these guitars that can set you back multiples of thousands of dollars. Typically, the originals are more expensive (identifiable by an individual year, or decade being present in their name) but some of the newer models are just as prestigious (e.g. American Ultra Luxe, which are also made in the US).
If you want a fantastic guitar that will be with you for life, you need not look further than any of these four options. They can set you back in excess of $2000, but it’s absolutely worth it when you consider these are the kings of electric guitars and have been played by nearly every seminal guitarist at some point throughout their careers.
They are rich in tone, versatile, suitable for nearly every style of playing and manufactured with the best quality materials on the market.
Instead of going into more detail, let’s have a peek at some less-popular — even if only marginally — options that are just as viable as professional guitars to add to (or to begin) your collection.
Just because I’ve left a guitar off this list doesn’t mean it’s any less worthy — there exists such a wealth of fantastic options that really the only way to determine which is best suited for you will be to go out and play them, or at the very least listen to tons of different options.
Pickups: Dual single coils (varies on whether you get a vintage or updated model)
Jazzmaster’s kind of sat at the periphery of Fender guitars for quite a while. Originally produced in the 1950s as the guitar for jazz players, it was never as successful as the Telecaster and Stratocaster at breaking into the wider guitarist audience.
It has since become a staple of many genres, particularly those driven by noise and that sit in the indie rock/punk sphere. J Mascis (Dinosaur Jr), Kevin Shields (My Bloody Valentine) and Thurston Moore (Sonic Youth) are some of the biggest proponents of the Jazzmaster, and each of the artists have a fairly distinct, heavy-without-being-metal attitude to guitar-work.
Modern Jazzmasters present a compromise between the original noisy, dark grungey tone (or the clean twang associated with the 60s surf movement) with a new, higher noise floor and more tonal versatility.
This model from Fender certainly isn’t for everybody — in spite of its adaptability it has a specific sound that turns a number of people off and can lack clarity depending on the way the instrument is setup.
But if you’re looking for something a bit more unique than the Strat and Tele — the Jazzmaster might just be for you.
Pickups: Dual T-type humbuckers
The Gibson ES-335 is the first hollow guitar (technically an archtop) that I’ve gone into detail on throughout this list, and what better a way to christen them than with this absolutely fantastic guitar.
Incepted in 1958, the ES-335 is a beautiful guitar, with two violin shaped ‘f’-holes carved into its 3-ply maple/poplar body.
The ES-335 is a compromise between these two bodies, with a more manageable level of feedback in conjunction with maintaining a solid, dark tone. Essentially, the ES-335 retains the charm of a hollow-body guitar without sacrificing playability.
The distinct character of the ES-335 makes it a perfect candidate for blues, jazz and rock, and it was in these three genres that its popularity soared and the Gibson archtop line flourished. Noel Gallagher, BB King and Eric Clapton are all noted for using the 335.
Coming in a number of designs and color schemes, you can choose between newer makes of the ES-335 or travel back in time and pick up a vintage guitar, depending on what you find on the market.
Either way, you won’t be let down by the unique and diverse tone that the ES-335 offers guitarists.
What’s interesting about the Ibanez Prestige series is that it’s a line based on other lines.
It’s not as confusing as it may sound — all that that means is Ibanez takes body shapes from their popular guitars, and then builds them at a higher level, using superior components and cutting-no-corners on manufacturing relative to their cheaper, standard versions (which can be fantastic in their own right).
While Ibanez guitars are typically associated with metal acts — particularly those that need a ‘fast’ neck to perform brisk solos and brutal rhythm sections — Ibanez are not a one-trick pony, and their Prestige series includes guitars like the AZ2204 and AM2000H which are suitable for any number of differing playstyles.
The obvious argument against the Ibanez Prestige series is — why start off with one when you can just trial a cheaper version? While this is a fair question, the same could be said of any of the guitars in the Epiphone or Squier lines.
Even if you’ve never played an Ibanez before in your life, it could be worth upgrading to one of the Prestige series guitars. If you try it in-store, love the feel, tone and aesthetic, why wouldn’t you get it?
And of course, for long-time Ibanez fans looking to upgrade from one of their favorite models — the purchase really is a no-brainer.
Pickups: 58/15 humbucker pickups
The McCarty 594 is not a cheap guitar, but hey, we’re talking professional grade here — you pay for what you get. What is remarkable about this guitar is not just its vintage aesthetic (which is delightful) or its eye-pleasing design, but its tonal diversity.
Due to the unique 58/15 pickups, the McCarty can imitate a typical sweet and crystal single-coil tone, or just as easily represent authentic humbucker pickups and present a darker, richer tone.
Accompanied by a 3-way switch, dual volume and tone knobs, the amount of innate character associated with Paul Reed Smith guitars is only amplified by the level of customization available with this make.
Priding themselves on perfect intonation through every fret and every string, PRS’s McCarty line is the perfect bridge between vintage tones and modern adaptability. This guitar wouldn’t feel out of place on literally any electric guitar recording — no matter the genre or playstyle.
This is of course not to mention, like nearly all guitars in this price range, it is smooth and joyous to play.
At this kind of price, you’d definitely want to give it a test drive before you buy, but the chances of you being disappointed are very, very slim.
Things to Consider Before Purchase
So you’ve decided that you want an electric guitar after asking yourself some questions.
Unfortunately, the self-interrogation is not complete yet. There are a number of other things you should consider before you land on a final product. Some of these are obvious and have been mentioned by me in previous articles, so bear with me as I briefly run through them:
This kind of goes without saying, but you can pretty much narrow down your options tenfold by identifying a budget and sticking to it.
When thinking about the most popular electric guitar brands, there are fairly clear tiers that sit alongside fairly clear price-points (I’ll go into this in more detail when providing specific examples).
This isn’t as simple as it sounds though — you must factor in amplifiers, cords, picks, cases, tuners and pedals when making your first electric guitar purchase, as well as the potential for finding a sweet second-hand bargain.
While we know enough about the music you want to play to have prioritized buying an electric guitar over an acoustic, we can slim down our candidates further by thinking more specifically.
Most guitars are flexible enough in tone to be capable of most styles, and it’s not a good idea to stifle yourself creatively because ‘x’ instrument is intended for ‘x’ genre. A guitar that may be perfect for a death metal band may also find a purpose within a free jazz ensemble.
That said, musicians operating within certain sounds will often prefer certain guitar tones. For example, metal artists tend to like Ibanez, and classical hard rock bands were hard to find without a trusty Gibson SG — or seven — in their tour kit (think AC/DC).
This is a highly subjective element of a guitar, though there are some constants that you will want to observe before purchasing.
Typically for a beginner, no guitar will feel ‘easy’ to play — they might scuff your fingertips and cause your muscles to feel as though they are being incinerated.
However, ensuring that the guitar you’re purchasing has a suitable action (the distance between the fretboard, measured from the 12th fret, and the bottom of your strings) for the style of music you’re looking to play will help smooth the transition for beginners.
A low action will be easier for a first-timer to play (as you won’t have to press the strings as hard) but can be susceptible to irritating fret buzzing if played aggressively. A high action can counteract fret buzz for those wanting to strike their guitar strings harder, but is coarser on your fingers and wrist.
To balance this, it’s best to take your guitar to an engineer — most music stores will have one — who can adjust your electric guitar’s action according to your desired playstyle. You can always learn how to do it yourself, though for a complete novice this may prove difficult.
The other key aspect of playability is the feel of the guitar. This is typically determined by the body and weight of the electric guitar and is one of the key reasons why you should always try a guitar before you buy. What it is you like about how a guitar feels to play, particularly as a beginner, can be seemingly arbitrary and vary from one make to another.
Most good guitars will naturally be pleasant to play, have a fantastic tone and won’t randomly fall apart after a week of ownership. Once we’ve addressed the first few quantifiable considerations (genre, style, action and budget) your decision tends to become more-or-less subjective.
The only true way to know if you’re going to enjoy playing a guitar is to demo it prior to purchase.
It’s that simple.
If it feels laborious to play, and you don’t think that minor adjustments to action and string gauge can fix this, move on. If you think that it’s ugly, the color scheme is off-putting and you hate the positioning of the pickguard — you don’t need to explain why — once again just move on.
Do you want a decked-out guitar with five pickups, a whammy bar and an in-built synthesizer? Or do you just want a simple setup with a great tone and consider anything else to be superfluous? Do you want a left-handed guitar, or a 12-string behemoth to impress everyone at your next concert?
These are some of the many features that contemporary electric guitars can come equipped with. If you’re a beginner, I recommend not diving too deep into this and keeping your decision as straightforward as possible — getting into pedals and amps can be complicated enough as it is.
If you are after something specific, such as an archtop body or a 24-fret neck, it goes without saying that you should just, uh, buy a guitar with these specifications. Beyond this, there’s not too much reason to be considering features that are intended for specific styles and tones.
What Else Does It Come With?
Finally, it’s worth thinking about whether the guitar comes as a pack, or if it is just a lonesome electric guitar.
By now, we should know that playing an electric guitar does not just mean buying an electric guitar — there’s amps, pedals, cables, plectrums, cases and a number of other things.
Just because you’re buying second-hand doesn’t mean that you should dismiss all of these accessories and buy them separately — many that are selling their guitars will also be moving on their beloved amplifiers, straps and so on.
It will usually be a bit cheaper to buy these extras in a bundle as opposed to one at a time and beginner guitars very frequently come in a package.
Though the add-ons (like an amplifier or case) may not be the most exciting options on the market, they present a solid opportunity to save money, time and operate as a launchpad from which you can expand on as you become more attuned to the world of playing guitar and its many pathways.
For example, here’s a quick list of common accessories in starter packs — each of these may bear little or significant weight on your eventual purchase, so it is absolutely worth thinking about the convenience of buying these in one fell swoop and working out which extras you can live without.
- Digital tuner
- Picks and pick holder
- Online lessons/chord chart
- Spare set of strings
- Whammy bar
- String winder
Nothing is more satisfying than purchasing an instrument. After doing all that research, all that stressing, all that saving and budgeting — to see the shiny, clean (or perhaps not, if purchasing second-hand) body of an electric guitar ready to be plugged in and played all day — it’s a wonderful feeling.
There are just so many good electric guitars being made today at a myriad of price-points that there’s really no excuse to put off beginning your guitar journey if that is the path you wish to head down.
You don’t have to stick to big-name brands that I’ve mentioned in this article either — many-a lesser-known manufacturer produces competent guitars that can handle a bout with the best at competitive costs.
It’s a valuable lesson to be drilled into you — and I know I’ve said it twenty plus times over the course of this article — that best guitar is a really dismissive and unquantifiable statement, a bit like declaring a certain band as being ‘the best’.
I mean, we all know it’s The Beatles, but still, you get what I‘m saying.
What you enjoy playing, what you enjoy listening to and what you enjoy writing and recording with, be it to just your dog, or to thousands of adoring fans, will be entirely up to you. You may love, or hate, every single one of the guitars listed.
The only way to figure out for sure which one you’ll fall in love with?
Get out there and find out for yourself.