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How to choose the right electric guitar

Updated on November 24, 2014

Buying smart

Buying a new guitar often seems like a search for the proverbial needle in a haystack- you often know WHAT you want to hear and play, but don't know where to find it-or worse, even where to start.
Here's are some helpful hints to narrow down your search:

1) Study the artists that have a sound and style that you like. Read about their instrument choices and then research those instruments on the internet to find out about the prices, options and reviews of these instruments.

2) If you're like the average guitarist, you probably want one guitar that can do the work of many. So far, there are a few models that use digital tricks to replicate sounds of other instruments. And some do an admirable job, but none absolutely nail the sounds perfectly so that they respond and sound 100% like the originals. That said...you may not need a PERFECT clone, just a pretty good one. If that interests you, check out the Line 6 Variax. There are also a few other companies that offer a similar product, as well as guitar synthesizers that also can mimic other guitars and other instruments besides guitars.

3) If you are old school-using one guitar for "THAT" sound, then you have have many options. The original electric guitars were the Fender Telecasters & Stratocaster, and Gibson Les Pauls and ES-335 models. Most modern guitars owe quite a bit to these original designs and they are still considered the icons of the electric guitar world. While other companies make some fine guitars, like Paul Reed Smith, Schecter, Eastman, etc. The bulk of the discussion usually boils down to this:

Twang

The main differences between guitars are combinations of woods and electronics to produce a very bright "Twangy" sound, or a very thick, "Beefy" sound. Fender guitars were long thought to be only good for "surf" music and "twang" until Jimi Hendrix came along and explored the instruments tonal capabilities using massive volume, gain, effects and an incredibly innovative style to make the guitar bend to his will. But it's traditional role has been as a bright, sweet sounding instrument in most peoples minds. A great example of how a Fender guitar can sound can be heard on Dire Straits recordings, with Mark Knoffler exploring the natural sounds of a Fender Stratocaster, or any Eric Clapton solo records.

The again, there are the non-traditionalists like Stevie Ray Vaughn and David Gilmore, who favor the Jimi Hendrix approach, and create much heavier, beefier tones than the guitar is normally associated with.

Beef

Other companies avoided the "Twang" sound and went for a much more violin like, smoother rounder tone. The company that first made an impact in that area was Gibson. Gibson guitars were made with woods and electronics that favored a more robust yet smoother, less twangy mellower tone. Many jazz and blues players preferred that sound for melody and it's ease on the ears. As usual, the choice of guitar was dictated by the musical style. Gibson also offered hollow body guitars like the ES-335 which responded a bit like an acoustic when amplified, which also added some more diversity to their sound offerings.
Les Paul invented a guitar that was normally associated with jazz until the 60's, when, much like what Jimi Hendrix had done to the Fender Stratocaster, Eric Clapton, Jeff Beck and Jimmy Page did much the same for Gibson Les Paul. By upping the volume and gain, certain qualities of the Gibson guitars were brought out -such as their massive tone and sustain at high volumes, as well as having somewhat less noisy electronics.

So, Twang or Beef?

So the question is- what do you prefer? Twang or beef in your musical diet? Most people usually want a bit of both for different reasons-so the obvious answer is to have one of each. But sometimes buying two guitars is not an option for some people. So there are companies that advertise they offer the best of both worlds- guitars with combined woods and electronics that impart "twang" and "beef" on different settings. The Schecter and Paul Reed Smith models as well as LTD, Hagstrom and many others do a very admiral job at this. However, when A/B'd directly against a comparable Fender or Gibson, usually there is more "Twang" in the Fender and more "beef" in the Gibson. So there is a compromise.
Some people are willing to accept the compromises-in fact, some prefer it. Especially in the new modern metal bands, where sometimes straight output power is more sought after than tone.But others are hard core tone purists, and only the old school brands will deliver what they seek.

The only way to know for sure is to try some out to see if they are right for you. There are lots of choices- so many that it can be daunting. Again, research and study artists that have a sound close to what you'd like- pay attention to their instrument and amplifier choices. Then go out and see which ones get close to the sound you like. While most people want a glorious looking guitar, put looks in 3rd place- Tone and ease of playability should be in the number 1 and number 2 positions in terms of importance. What good is a great looking guitar if it sounds or plays awful? Unless you want to hang it on the wall as a work of art, make sure it sounds and plays as good as it looks.

A word about Amplifiers

Just remember the amplifier is a huge part of your tone chain. Be careful to research amps (which I will have another hub page dedicated to) to make sure that your guitar sound gets processed and delivered with the tone you seek. A weak amplifier will deliver weak tone- so do yourself a favor- DON'T SKIMP on getting a good amplifier.

Otherwise, with a crap amp your expensive guitar will be like a brand new Ferrari with used tires from a junkyard.

Happy guitar hunting!



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