Without a doubt, the electric guitar is the most iconic instrument of the 20th century. Few instruments have ever experienced such a rapid rise to fame or enjoyed such ubiquity across countless genres of music. Given this immense popularity, it’s not surprising that just about everyone wants to pick up the electric guitar at one point or another in their lives. But with hundreds or even thousands of different electric guitars to choose from, how do you find the best guitar for your money?
If you’re a beginner, this can be extremely overwhelming. Even if you have a bit of experience and are picking out an intermediate guitar, the sheer number of brands, electronics, and options can be staggering.
But don’t fret! (Get it?) We’re here to help. We’ve put together this helpful guide where we look at some popular beginner and intermediate electric guitars.
Before we get into the weeds with specific models, let’s take a brief look at what makes a good electric guitar.
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What To Look For In An Electric Guitar: A Basic
There are an awful lot of terms that get thrown around when describing an electric guitar. While it would be out of the scope of this article to detail all of them, there are a couple of important terms you should know before buying an electric guitar.
Here are a few:
- Pickups: The Pickup is the part of the electric guitar that makes it “electric.” A pickup is a device which utilizes a magnet to “pick up” vibrations from the guitar’s metal strings. The pickup then translates these vibrations into an electric signal. Because the pickups are responsible for creating the instrument’s electric signal, they have a huge impact on the sound of the guitar. The two most common types of pickups are Single Coils, like you might find in a Stratocaster guitar, and Humbuckers, like you might find in a Les Paul guitar.
- Scale Length/Number of Frets: A guitar’s Scale Length refers to the length of its neck and can correspond to the number of Frets on the guitar. Typical electric guitars have 21, 22, or 24 frets. For some styles of music, such as heavy metal, the additional frets can be utilized frequently. However, for the most part, few songs utilize these extremely high notes.
- Tremolo/Vibrato/Whammy Bar: Although many are confused about just what to call it, the “whammy” bar is an iconic part of rock guitar. This is a bar which attaches to the guitar’s bridge, letting you manipulate the pitch of all the strings by pushing or pulling the bar. Because some styles of music do not utilize the whammy bar at all, not all electric guitars are equipped with them.
Choosing the Right Guitar
The terms are covered above are just a very basic primer. There are all sorts of options for pickup configurations, special electronics, and other tone shaping tools. There are different types of woods, different shapes of necks, special types of tuning gears, and different bridge designs that can affect how your whammy bar works. But for a beginner, you don’t need to worry about much of this at all.
The most important thing is to find something that is playable and inspiring to play. Having certain features is important. If, for example, all your favorite tunes are hard-rock songs with lots of whammy bar and wailing guitar solos, you probably won’t be happy with a hollow body jazz guitar that doesn’t even have any whammy bar.
Look to the guitarists who inspire you. Take note of the style and feature-set of their guitar. Is it a model you recognize? Does it have a whammy bar? Does it have small, thing single coil pickups or larger, beefy humbuckers? Does the guitarist often play in the high end of the neck, possibly indicating they’re making use of all 24 frets?
Often, an affordable version of the sort of guitar your icons are wielding on stage is a great place to start. But if that is not an option, you can at least get a decent idea of what kind of sounds and style of guitar truly inspires you to make music.
Let’s take a look at a few specific models.
The Stratocaster is quite possibly the most recognizable electric guitar ever made. In many senses, it’s the guitar that “started it all,” defining a sound that would shape generations of musicians. From early pioneers like Buddy Guy to venerated rock legends like Jimi Hendrix to modern shred wizards like Steve Vai, the Stratocaster has paid its dues in nearly every style and era of recorded music.
Squier is a brand owned by Fender and utilized to make their lower-cost, entry-level instruments. Despite these lower prices, Squier Stratocasters can often give their more expensive Fender brand-name counterparts a run for their money. Decked out with the classic Stratocaster setup, this Squier features three single-coil pickups controlled by a five-way switch, offering all of those classic Strat tones from the jangly bell sounds of the neck to the warm and powerful rock that oozes effortlessly from the bridge pickup.
It also includes a classic whammy bar. Massively versatile, the Stratocaster is at home playing rock, blues, country, metal, soul, funk, and just about everything else. An excellent guitar to start with. Or a great addition for anyone who wants to own an affordable Stratocaster.
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The devilish good looks of the SG have earned it a place in rock history. That distinctive “horns” cutaway is not purely aesthetic, either. It also affords SG players excellent access to the guitar’s upper frets. Perhaps more importantly is the sound of the SG. It oozes classic rock. The weapon of choice of artists including Frank Zappa (and now his son Dweezil,) Carlos Santana at Woodstock, Angus Young of AC/DC, and many more, the SG’s powerful tone is not to be underestimated.
The SG is a product of the Gibson company, but this low-cost Epiphone version gives players on a budget a chance to own a highly playable replica of these iconic instruments. This SG is dead simple. It includes two humbucker pickups with a 3-way switch that allows you to use both pickups at once or switch between them.
With no whammy bar, the SG stays in tune very well. And while the two humbucker pickup configuration might seem more limited than the 5-way switch we see on the Stratocaster above, this reduction in complexity can actually be a good thing as you begin your journey towards understanding guitar tone.
This is an excellent guitar for a beginner interested in rock styles.
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If you’re more interested in the smooth, mellow sounds of electric jazz guitar, something like the Ibanez Artcore might be just the ticket. Hollow-body electric guitars like this one provide far more resonance than their streamlined solid-body counterparts like the ones we looked at above.
This more resonant sound is not well suited to the style of high-gain and distorted tones common to rock. Rather, it is more suited for gentle amplification and bringing out the subtle nuances of harmonies and delicate playing. Because of this, hollow-body guitars are often the instruments of choice for jazz players. Famous players of hollow-bodies include chord melody legend Joe Pass and jazz wizard Pat Metheny.
This Ibanez Artcore offers an affordable way to break into these jazzy styles with an instrument built for the task. Made almost entirely from maple, it has a gorgeous look complimented by the warm sound provided from the two humbucker pickups.
Ibanez is renown the world over for their ability to churn out instruments that truly enable guitarists to realize new levels of “shred.” If it’s that type of over-the-top, fast, heavy, and metal-in-every-way playing that appeals to you, this Ibanez GiO is an excellent place to start. Equipped with two humbuckers and one single coil controlled by a five-way switch, these Ibanez GiO guitars have quite a bit of tonal versatility. Still, they are most at home chugging along to a blast beat or blazing through a face-melting solo. The whammy bar also lets you experiment with some nifty tones and performs admirably for such a budget instrument. An excellent instrument to inspire a hopeful shredder.
Although Schecter might not have the pedigree of some of the brands on this list, their guitars are no slouches. This C-6 is equipped with two humbuckers and a three-way switch. It has a versatile tone that can be well suited to heavier styles like metal but also offers a sparkly clean tone that can serve well for any style. The body is made from solid basswood and the neck is an elegant maple. The pickup’s are Schecter’s own in-house brand, offering a fairly unique sound well suited to modern electric guitar styles.
With a unique look and a commitment to making affordable and highly playable instruments, Schecter is a great option for beginner and intermediate guitarists. Or for anyone looking for something a little bit off the beaten path.
“Wait a minute,” I hear you saying. “Didn’t we already see a Stratocaster?”
True. We did. But that was a Squier, and this is a genuine Fender. While that might not mean much to the naked eye, they are in fact different companies. If you want a genuine Fender Stratocaster, the Standard series is the most affordable way to get your hands on one. Made in Mexico, these guitars are crafted in the image of your favorite classic Stratocasters but infused with a bit of modern mojo of their own.
As for the specs, it’s everything you expect a Strat to be: three single coils, a classic whammy bar, and iconic Fender tone. For an absolute beginner, it might be hard to tell the difference between a Fender Standard and a Squier Stratocaster. However, the intermediate player should have no trouble spotting the difference, and veterans of the instrument will know immediately.
If you want something unique and sure to turn heads with both its looks and its sound, the Ibanez JEM JR is a sure bet. Originally designed and produced for the needs of electric guitar virtuoso Steve Vai, the Ibanez JEM series has gone on to become one of Ibanez’s most popular and iconic models.
Featuring an out of this world whammy bar setup which incorporates a Floyd Rose tremolo and floating bridge, this guitar is capable of taking you to all of the insane sonic territory for which Steve Vai is so well known. Equipped with two humbuckers and one single coil controlled by a five way switch, there is no shortage of depth in the JEM JR’s tone sculpting abilities.
Brilliantly easy to play, this guitar is reminiscent of the “Super Strat” style popular among 80’s guitars. It offers much of the tonal versatility and genre-bending possibilities of a classic Stratocaster, while being souped up for the high-gain demands of modern shred guitar. Rounding off the package is the distinctive “Tree of Life” inlay which traces its way across the fretboard and the distinctive “Monkey Grip” carrying handle carved into the guitar’s body.
No matter what instrument you select, the most important thing is to actually play it!
That applies not only to the purchasing process, but as a general rule of owning a guitar. Find an instrument that speaks to you and develop a relationship with it. Get a guitar that will keep you coming back for more. Something that feels, sounds, and looks great will pay dividends down the road as you watch yourself improve as a guitarist.
Remember, there’s always time to reach for more! You don’t need to start with your dream instrument. You only need something that can get you playing. When the time comes for you to truly get the guitar of your dreams, you’ll be ready to do it justice!
Happy hunting and don’t forget to rock!