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Musical trends come and go, but the electric guitar will never go out of fashion. It’s a fantastically versatile instrument, at home in every genre from smooth jazz to head-banging rock. It’s easy enough for a beginner to pick up at any age, yet devotees can spend a lifetime mastering advanced techniques and styles. And the fact is, it’s the coolest instrument on the block; an electric guitar gives even the nerdiest among us an instant style boost.
If you’re just getting started, however, it’s easy to be overwhelmed by the choice. There are a lot of different electric guitars out there, in a huge range of shapes, styles and prices. But don’t panic: here’s our essential guide to choosing the electric guitar that will best suit you.
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How to buy the best electric guitar for you
Does it make a difference what sort of guitar I choose?
Fundamentally, all electric guitars do the same job. A Fender Telecaster might look quite different to a Gibson Flying V, but you hold and play them both in exactly the same way. And while shapes and materials may vary between models, electric guitars all sound broadly similar. So if you’re just starting out, you don’t need to worry too much about picking the ‘wrong’ instrument. As long as you steer clear of oddities like seven-string and baritone models, you’ll be fine.
That’s not to say that all electric guitars are identical. Some are made of heavy mahogany, while others are hollow and lightweight. Some have big, fat necks, while others are shorter and slimmer, and some have a slightly longer scale length (the length between the bridge on the body and the nut at the end of the neck) or an extra fret (the lengths of thick wire embedded in the neck where holding down the string will make a specific note). Some will have a fixed bridge, which tends to help notes sustain for longer, while others will have a tremolo bridge (or whammy bar), allowing you to wobble or lower the pitch momentarily, for that classic ‘dive bomb’ noise.
Then of course there’s the important question of looks: different models and colours evoke different eras and artists. Just to complicate things, manufacturers are always fiddling with the formula, so two guitars of ostensibly the same model might have different necks or other features depending on when they were made, and which particular factories they came out of. The best advice is always to try out a guitar in person: strap it on to test its weight and balance, give it a strum to see how the neck suits your hands – and if possible look at yourself in a mirror to see if it suits your personal style – before you buy.
How much does the sound vary from one model to another?
Different guitars each have their own distinctive tones, due to materials and construction and, most of all, the design of the magnetic pickups that convert string vibrations into sound. Some guitars use single-coil pickups, which tend to be bright and clear; others use dual-coil arrangements (known as “humbuckers”) which have a thicker, fatter sound.
Many guitars have more than one pickup with a switch to select between them. Typically there’ll be one up near the base of the neck and another one further down, close to the bridge. The neck pickup will have a warmer, fuller sound, while the bridge pickup will be a little harsher and more trebly (because the bridge prevents the strings from vibrating so freely). There’s normally also an option to blend the output from both for an in-between sound, plus a tone knob allowing you to roll off the treble if you want a softer timbre.
There’s no rule as to whether you should use single coils or humbuckers, or which pickup you should favour while playing: it’s a matter of personal preference and style. That’s another reason to try out a guitar before you buy.
How much do I need to spend?
There’s an electric guitar to suit every budget. If you’re keen to keep costs down, there are some excellent guitars out there for under £200 – although quality control isn’t always great at this end of the market. You might want to factor in another £40 or so to have your new guitar professionally “set up” by the shop’s technician.
Stepping up to the £400 mark will tend to get you better build quality, including high-quality tuners that help your strings stay in tune, or upgraded pickups for a sparklier sound. Once you get past this point, you’re typically paying for prestige features such as special finishes and hard cases, or for an authentic big name guitar from Fender, Gibson, Ibanez or another major brand.
It’s also worth keeping an eye on secondhand options: there’s normally nothing wrong with buying a guitar that’s ten or twenty years old, as long as it’s in good condition and from a respected manufacturer.
What accessories do I need?
Having chosen your guitar you’ll want to partner it with a strap, so you can play standing up. This looks a lot cooler than sitting and gives you more freedom to swing your arms around. You’ll probably want a pack of picks too; in theory, you can strum with your fingers, but a plectrum gives your playing a brighter, more vibrant sound.
One thing you can’t do without is an amplifier: you can strum an unplugged electric guitar, but the sound will be very quiet and tinny. If you plan to play loudly (perhaps with a band) then you’ll want a decent-sized suitcase-type amplifier. these can cost hundreds of pounds, but your guitar shop will be able to guide you on the best choice.
For practising at home, you can use a little plug-in amplifier, such as the Vox amPlug 2; or you can play through your computer or smartphone, using a low-cost adapter like the iRig 2. Finally, it’s also a good idea to invest in a tuner. Professionals often use a pedal that sits on the floor, but for amateurs a £10 clip-on model is fine – or, again, you can use a smartphone app.
What’s the best way to learn?
Books and videos can show you all sorts of clever tricks, but if you really want to get good, there’s no alternative to finding a decent teacher, who can give feedback on your playing and tailor your lessons to suit your interests and abilities.
You can also supplement your lessons with online tuition. The Fender Play programme for iOS (and coming soon for Android) guides you through a series of interactive lessons. Alternatively, check out Yousician, which also works on Windows and macOS.
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1. Fender Stratocaster: The best all-round electric guitar
Price: £779 | Buy now from Fender
Originally designed way back in 1954, the Stratocaster is probably the most iconic guitar in rock and roll history. With three single-coil pickups – and a handy switch to hop between them – it provides a selection of classic tones, from sizzling and searing to warm and jazzy. Small wonder that the “Strat” has been the axe of choice for artists from Buddy Holly to Jimi Hendrix, and from Iron Maiden to Eric Clapton.
The Stratocaster is also a tremendously playable guitar – not too heavy, and with a relatively short, shallow neck that you can easily reach around. Best of all, it won’t break the bank: the “standard” Stratocaster costs under £500, in a range of tasteful colours, yet it’s a professional-quality instrument that’ll see you through an entire musical career.
Key Specs – Materials: Alder body, maple or maple and rosewood neck; Neck thickness (at first fret): 0.83in; Frets: 21; Scale length: 25.5in; Inlays: Dots; Nut width: 1.65in; Bridge: Tremolo; Pickups: 3 x single-coil; Controls: Pickup selector, 1 x Volume, 2 x Tone
2. Yamaha Pacifica 112V: The best electric guitar for beginners
Price: £199 | Buy now from Gear4Music
The Pacifica looks a lot like a Stratocaster, and – with its nice slim neck and a five-way switch to jump between the three pickups – plays like one too. Even the screw-in whammy-bar is the same. Unlike the classic Strat, though, you get a humbucker in the bridge position, giving you the option of a bit more growl when you need it. It’s not quite the cheapest guitar on the market: you can get a Squier-branded Stratocaster from Fender’s budget range for as little as £115, or Yamaha’s own cheaper Pacifica 012 for around £155. But the Pacifica 112V is a better investment. It uses high-quality components that won’t let you down, and features the same great-sounding Alnico V pickups as you’ll find on guitars costing ten times the price. A fantastic starter guitar that you won’t outgrow.
Key Specs – Materials: Alder body, maple and rosewood neck; Neck thickness (at first fret): 0.82in; Frets: 22; Scale length: 25.5in; Inlays: Dots; Nut width: 1.6in; Bridge: Tremolo; Pickups: 2 x single-coil, 1 x humbucker; Controls: Pickup selector, 1 x Volume, 1 x Tone
3. Gibson Les Paul Studio: Best electric guitar for rockers
Price: £3,012 | Buy now from Amazon
The Les Paul is the heavy rock guitar, popularised by rock icons from Jimmy Page to Slash. It’s also a design classic – but the £2,599 “Standard” model, with the distinctive white edging, is ludicrously expensive. A smarter buy is the Studio series, which uses the same hardware and circuitry, but comes with a simpler design and a slightly saner price tag.
The guitar itself is one of the heaviest in the business, thanks to its mahogany construction, and the wide neck is a substantial beast, to match the music you’ll make with it. The trapezoid inlays on the fretboard add a note of class, but what really defines the Les Paul, is its sound: the twin humbuckers blast out an incredibly rich, raw tone that must be played to be fully appreciated.
Alongside the Studio there are numerous other Les Paul variants, including the Tribute, the Traditional and the Faded – as well as more affordable models sold under the Epiphone brand. Try before you buy, though, as the differences aren’t just cosmetic: the feel and tone can vary a lot from model to model.
Key specs – Materials: Mahogany body with maple top, mahogany and rosewood neck; Neck thickness (at first fret): 0.84in; Frets: 22; Scale length: 24.75in; Inlays: Trapezoid; Nut width: 1.7in; Bridge: Fixed; Pickups: 2 x humbucker; Controls: Pickup selector, 2x volume, 2x tone
4. Gretsch G6120T: Best electric guitar for folk and country
Price: £2,427 | Buy now from Gear4Music
If you’re into classic Americana, Gretsch is your go-to brand, with a wide range of hollow-body guitars that deliver that perfect bluesy twang. Notable players in this genre include Bo Diddley, Duane Eddy and Neil Young– although the crisp weighty tone of Gretsch’s custom “Filter’Tron” pickups has also attracted rockers from John Squire to Malcolm Young.
While the hollow design keeps the weight down, don’t expect a nimble little instrument. Gretsch guitars tend to have bulky bodies that make a real visual statement, and resonate pleasingly as you strum. Note that this resonant quality also means they’re particularly susceptible to feedback. The G6120T is a great example of what Gretsch has to offer, but it ain’t cheap: if you’re on a budget the manufacturer’s “Electromatic” models offer a similar experience at around the £700 mark. There are a fair few solid-body designs too, which handle similarly to a Les Paul – it’s worth testing them all to find one that fits your style.
Key specs – Materials: Ash body, maple and ebony neck; Neck thickness (at first fret): 0.92in; Frets: 22; Scale length: 24.6in; Inlays: Thumbnail; Nut width: 1.68in; Bridge: Bigsby tremolo Pickups: 2 x Filter’Tron humbucker; Controls: 2 x volume, tone
5. Rickenbacker 330: Best electric guitar for retro indie vibes
Price: £1,999 | Buy now from Gear4Music
The distinctive Rickenbacker sound is rooted in the 1960s – you can hear its unmistakable jangle in the Byrds’ “Mr Tambourine Man”, and all over the Beatles’ Hard Day’s Night album. Sun-drenched yet moody, each string on a Ric sings out individually, creating a musical texture that’s very different to the chunky chords of a Les Paul.
The Rickenbacker isn’t just for hippies, though. The brand found a new life in the 1970s when Paul Weller played a black-and-white Rickenbacker 330 on a string of mod hits with The Jam. From there it was taken up by indie-rock stars including Johnny Marr and Peter Buck, and the rest is history.
Rickenbackers are expensive – there’s no affordable sub-brand to compare with the likes of Squier and Epiphone – and the 330 can be a little challenging to play thanks to its thick, wide neck. But as generations of players will attest, there’s nothing like a genuine Ric.
Key specs – Materials: Maple body, maple, walnut and rosewood neck; Neck thickness (at first fret): N/S; Frets: 24; Scale length: 24.75in; Inlays: Dot; Nut width: 1.63in; Bridge: Fixed; Pickups: 2 x single-coil; Controls: Pickup selector, 2 x volume, 2 x tone, Blend
6. Gibson ES-335: Best electric guitar for blues rock
Price: £2,199 | Buy now from Gear4Music
The name stands for “Electric Spanish”, and when first released in 1958 this guitar was aimed at classical-type performers rather than out-and-out rockers. With its twin-humbucker design, however, there’s a thickness to the sound that’s clearly reminiscent of the Les Paul, while the hollow body and lighter wood contributes to a warmer, more mellow tone. As a result, the ES-335 has found a growly, soulful niche of its own, with aficionados including Chuck Berry and Roy Orbison – not to mention more modern players such as Suede’s Bernard Butler and Dave Grohl, who has his own official “DG-335” variant.
As with other Gibsons, the ES-335 comes in a confusing number of variants, most of them horribly expensive. We’ve selected one of the cheapest models, which has all the classic tone you could ask for, but you can pay £3,599 for a top-of-the-range design. We suggest you keep an eye on the second-hand market: for a guitar like this, a vintage heritage isn’t a bad thing at all.
Key specs – Materials: Maple and poplar body, maple and rosewood neck; Neck thickness (at first fret): 0.88in; Frets: 22; Scale length: 24.75in; Inlays: Dot; Nut width: 1.69in; Bridge: Fixed; Pickups: 2 x humbucker; Controls: 1x pickup selector, 2x volume, 2x tone
7. Schecter Hellraiser C-1: Best electric guitar for metalheads
Price: £879 | Buy now from Amazon
There’s no shortage of metal-inspired guitars with angular designs and gothic decals. If you’re serious about shredding, though, the Hellraiser C-1 is the guitar of choice. The EMG humbucker pickups put out a meaty, muscular sound that’s perfect for choppy chords. Then, when you need a tone with more bite, a quick pull of the control knob transforms them into sharp single-coils, with bags of sustain for those atmospheric solos.
The weighty mahogany body is designed with an ultra-deep cutaway, so your left hand can reach all the way up to the 24th fret on the slim, ergonomic neck – while locking tuners keep everything tight when you’re thrashing away. It’s a monster of a guitar, chosen by players from Ministry’s Al Jourgensen to Body Count’s Ernie C – and it’s very reasonably priced too.
Key specs – Materials: Mahogany body, mahogany and rosewood neck; Neck thickness (at first fret): 0.79in; Frets: 24; Scale length: 25.5in; Inlays: Gothic crosses; Nut width: 1.65in; Bridge: Floyd Rose Tremolo; Pickups: 2 x humbucker; Controls: Pickup selector, 2x volume, 1x tone
8. Fender American Ultra Stratocaster: Best high-end electric guitar
Price: From £1,899 | Buy now from Fender
Fender’s American Ultra series is the manufacturer’s latest and greatest family of instruments, and the Ultra Stratocaster includes numerous upgrades over the standard Player model. Those include locking tuners, a treble bleed circuit – so you can roll off the volume without softening the tone – and Fender’s clever S-1 Switch that lets you combine the neck and bridge pickups, or switch between humbucker and single-coil mode on HSS models.
There’s also a new cutaway at the back that makes it easier to reach the highest frets, and a choice of deluxe finishes including Cobra Blue (shown above) and the vibrant Plasma Burst, as well as classic Pearl, Natural and sunburst colour schemes. To be sure, the Ultra is a pricey proposition, but if you long for the exquisite tone and engineering of a prestige instrument, you won’t be disappointed.
Key specs – Materials: Alder body, maple and rosewood neck; Neck thickness (at first fret): 0.83in; Frets: 22; Scale length: 25.5in; Inlays: Dots; Nut width: 1.685in; Bridge: Floyd Rose Tremolo; Pickups: 2 x Ultra Noiseless Hot Strat; Controls: Pickup selector, 1x volume with S-1 Switch, 2x tone