Electric Guitar Buying Guide

Updated 16/8/2016

Let’s start from the beginning…

electric guitar buying guide

The road to guitar mastery can at first seem daunting. So many different styles, shapes and sizes of guitars, all vying for your attention and the chance to make your wallet lighter. But, as with anything, the options can seem clearer if you simply filter out the things which are not suitable for you, and focus instead on the tools which can help you as you explore the world of guitar playing.

In order to help, we’ve put together this electric guitar buying guide, which we hope will shed some light on the different things for you to be aware of when choosing your first, or next, guitar. Are you focusing on one particular style of playing, e.g. rhythm or lead, or are you choosing instead based on a particular genre of music, e.g. rock, indie, metal? Either way, we’ve got you covered with this guide.

Aside from the different shapes and musical styles each will be best suited to, there are other considerations which must be pondered. Each type of guitar will use different woods, have different pickup combinations, will physically and aesthetically ‘feel’ different, and you’ll learn that even two identical guitars, from the same range and same manufacturer, can offer a markedly different playing experience. Don’t worry about that too much yet though. Let’s start from the beginning.

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Generally speaking, you can apply the first ‘filter’ to your search by segmenting things according to one of three main variables; price, look and sound. The price of the guitar is perhaps the most limiting factor; we’re sure everyone would plump for a top of the range Gibson or Fender but, as you’ll find out, the flagship guitars from these guys run into four figures. You could quite easily pick up a decent second hand car for the same price as a Gibson Les Paul so, if you’re at the start of your playing career, it may be wiser to set your sights a bit lower. Don’t forget your dreams though; every guitarist has what they’d call a ‘perfect’ guitar, the one which they’d appropriate in the event of a significant lottery win. Never forget that guitar, and use the thought of it to drive you on through those first few years learning monotonous scales and chords. Trust us, it’s worth it. The feeling you get when you finally purchase your long-time dream guitar, and have the playing chops to match, is really something else.

Anyhow. For those of us who can’t jump in at the expensive end, rest assured that the sheer variety of guitars out there to suit any budget is mind boggling. So while price is clearly a factor, don’t let it put you off at the start. Play the long game.

The look of a guitar is, rightly or wrongly, a significant factor in most players’ buying decisions. Some will buy because a particular style of guitar fits in with their image or choice of genre, while others will buy simply because they like the exact hue of red in the sunburst. Either way, there’s no shame in listing a guitar’s appearance as a significant motivator in your purchasing journey. After all, you’ve got to want to play it so it helps if the thing is drop dead gorgeous.

Finally, the sound. The single most important factor in choosing a guitar is the sound which it will help you achieve. It’s here where things can start getting complicated. You’ll learn over time that while certain guitars may look the part, and may fit the budget, they simply won’t cut it for the style of music you’re trying to play. Over the course of this guide we’ll refer back to a guitar’s ‘tone’ – this is the term used by guitarists to describe the overall sound their guitar puts out. Some tones are better suited to certain types of music, while other tones can only be achieved using certain combinations of gear. Either way, it helps to have an idea of the kind of sound you’re trying to achieve as this will have the most critical impact on the guitars which will suit you and your playing best.

To conclude, you’ll need to have an idea of your favoured guitar’s appearance, how you want it to sound and what you’re willing to pay. Hopefully those three variables will have gone some way to whittling down the options into something resembling a shortlist. We’ll take a deeper look now at some of the more popular styles of guitars, along with giving an indication of the settings in which they’d excel and examples of both entry and, for context, top level models.

Guitars to give you GAS

Stratocaster style

The Fender Stratocaster is one of, if not the best known electric guitars in the world. Above all, it favours versatility, comfort and style, and is the first port of call for many budding players. Over the years, Stratocaster shaped guitars have been used by pretty much everyone from Jimi Hendrix to Eric Clapton, and its impact in the world of rock and blues cannot be underestimated. It features three ‘single coil’ pickups, which offer a range of different tones, and is hands-down one of the simplest guitars to pick up and play. Players of heavier music styles tend to overlook the Strat as its pickups aren’t geared towards driving amps with tonnes of gain, so if it’s a bona-fide metal machine you’re after you may want to look elsewhere, but if it’s a solid all-rounder with a range of different tones you’re after, you should definitely make a Strat your first port of call.

For players of: Rock, blues, pop, indie, country, funk

First guitar: Squier Affinity Stratocaster

Dream guitar: Fender American Standard Stratocaster

Guitars to give you GAS

Les Paul style

Second only to the Strat in electric guitar terms is the famous Les Paul shape. Introduced by Gibson in the 1950s, the Les Paul offers a slightly different playing experience on account of it usually being constructed from mahogany, which provides a warmer tone which rings out for longer. Les Pauls usually feature two humbucker pickups, which add extra girth and roundness to your tone and make them ideally suited to players looking for something a little bit heavier. Plenty of other manufacturers offer variations on the Les Paul theme, and there’s even a Gibson-affiliated range from Epiphone, so if it’s a Les Paul you’re after then there’s plenty to choose from.

For players of: Rock, metal, blues

First guitar: Epiphone Les Paul Special II

Dream guitarGibson 2016 Les Paul Standard Traditional – Gold Top

Gibson ES-335 Curly Maple Vintage Sunburst Coil Tap

Jazz style

Slightly more specialist, the bigger-bodied semi acoustic style guitars appeal primarily to players looking for big, warm clean tones and lots of natural resonance from the body. Semi acoustics, so named because they usually feature a hollow body for extra sustain, fit that bill perfectly and are often seen in the hands of musicians from other genres like blues and indie too. Noel Gallagher is a famous user of these kind of guitars, however we’d again warn against players of heavier styles looking to a semi acoustic. Apply too much overdrive or distortion to one of these and you’ll be subjected to horrendous amounts of ‘feedback’, which is where a loop is created between the guitar and amp and creates a high pitch squeal which can be extremely hard to control.

For players of: Jazz, indie, blues

First guitar: Epiphone Dot 335

Dream guitar: Gibson 2016 ES-335 Figured Electric Guitar – Cherry

Fender Classic Series 50s Telecaster

Telecaster style

The Telecaster is Fender’s ‘other’ well known guitar shape. Typically Teles are suited to a more twangy sound, so are perfect for country and indie playing. They feature two single coil pickups, with the pickup nearest the bridge offering ultimate clarity and punch while the neck pickup offers something more rounded and bass-y. Teles are usually strung through body too, i.e. the strings are inserted actually through the wood, which can improve sustain. The Tele is unique in that not a lot of manufacturers offer a Tele variation other than Fender, so if it’s something distinctive you’re looking for then this is a great guitar to make you stand out.

For players of: Indie, country

First guitar: Squier Classic Vibe 50s Telecaster

Dream guitar: Fender American Elite Telecaster

Gibson SG Standard Aged Cherry

SG style

As Fender has it’s ‘other’ guitar with the Telecaster, so Gibson has it’s slightly less famous sibling for the Les Paul in its iconic SG style. These guitars are all-out rock and blues machines, and can be found in the hands of guitarists like Angus Young from AC/DC and Tony Iommi from Black Sabbath. The SG body is noticeably thinner than a Les Paul, with the double cutaways offering significantly better access to the higher frets. They score heavily on the looks front, being perhaps the most distinctive of the main body shapes, and are comfortable enough for long playing sessions.

For players of: Rock, blues

First guitar: Epiphone G-400

Dream Guitar: Gibson 2016 SG Standard

Ibanez JEM JR Steve Vai Signature Model

Metal style

Not a particular body shape as such, more a tool designed specifically for playing heavier styles of music like metal and punk. Metal guitars are still made of wood – let’s get that clear – but feature certain characteristics designed to help players in these genres reach faster playing speeds and at higher volumes. Metal guitars will often feature active pickups, which require a battery and provide a slight boost to the signal before it reaches the amplifier. They may also offer a significantly thinner neck to aid players looking to travel up and down the fretboard at higher speed. You’re more than likely sacrificing versatility if you go down this route, but it’s always best to get the right tool for the job and if rocking out is your thing you should definitely check these out. The big names in this world are Ibanez and ESP, although many players from this genre find Les Paul shaped guitars are more than up to the task.

For players of: Metal, punk

First guitar: Ibanez GSA60

Dream guitar: Ibanez 2016 S5570Q Prestige Spot Run

Conclusions

As you can see, there are different guitars for every budget, genre and style of playing. The trick is to work out what you’re trying to achieve, whether you value versatility, comfort or specialisation more, and what you’re willing to pay to get your ideal guitar. We hope you enjoyed our electric guitar buying guide but for more information, visit any of our stores and our product specialists will be happy to talk you through some of the considerations. More importantly, can let you try a few different styles out for yourself.

View a complete range of electric guitars over at the Dawsons website.

Journalist, PR and multimedia specialist. Write professionally on subjects ranging from musical instruments to industrial technology.

Journalist, PR and multimedia specialist. Write professionally on subjects ranging from musical instruments to industrial technology.