Unless you are living on the royalty payments from your stadium-touring rock-God legacy, buying an electric guitar isn’t something you do regularly; so, when you do, you want to get it right. When you look at your historic reissue Telecaster on its stand, you don’t want your first thought to be “I wish I’d bought a Les Paul”.
In this buyers’ guide, we’ll try to cover most of the terms you might see in the specifications and in the reviews and try to point you in the right direction to make sure you are looking at an instrument with the right general features for you. Ultimately though, the most important thing is that you buy an electric guitar that makes you want to pick it up and play it.
The first, and hopefully most straightforward, question you’ll want to ask yourself is: “what music/guitarist made me want to pick up a guitar in the first place?” If it was Joe Pass or Wes Montgomery, chances are you won’t be looking for a gothic-styled, scalloped-fingerboard shred machine. After that though, things get a bit more complicated. Many types of electric guitar are actually surprisingly versatile, even though they may be associated with particular sounds and styles of music: The Les Paul is equally at home in the hands of its namesake playing country jazz, or slung between the leather-clad legs of Slash; and the Stratocaster, with sounds from the Shadows to Iron Maiden, can almost do it all. So, even after you’ve thought about your musical interests and imagined your future sound, three quarters of all the guitars in the shop might still be left on the table…
Size, weight and comfort
We are all different shapes and sizes, and so are guitars. Choosing a guitar that feels comfortable and isn’t too heavy is an important part of choosing the right instrument. If you start to feel uncomfortable after it’s been on a strap across your shoulder for a few minutes, it’s only going to be worse at the end of a one hour gig.
Weight is one thing to consider, solid-body instruments such as Les Paul-style guitars can be quite heavy, even with the weight-relief holes or chambers cut from the wood. Stratocaster-style guitars have thinner bodies, and so are generally lighter. ‘Semi-hollow’ type guitars, such as the classic Gibson ES-335 are hollow, but have a solid piece of wood which runs up the centre of the instrument. So, despite being large, can be quite light; the same is true for large ‘jazz boxes’.
Size and shape are other important contributors to comfort. Larger instruments, such as 335-style and jazz box guitars, can be uncomfortable just to get an arm around to strum for some people, simply due to their larger physical dimension
s. However, smaller-bodied, semi-hollow alternatives, such as the Gibson ES-339 and PRS hollow-body, are available, which combine the woody, airy sound of a larger instrument with the comfort of a smaller guitar. Some guitars, such as the Stratocaster, have contoured body designs to improve playing comfort.
Scale length, neck and nut width
The scale length of a guitar is the distance between the nut (at the top of the fingerboard) and the bridge and is the vibrating length of the string. Different scale lengths mean that strings will be at different tensions for the same note. Shorter scale lengths can make bending notes easier, and longer scale lengths can make a guitar sound a bit more ‘twangy’.
The ‘profile’ of the neck can affect the playability, comfort and sound of an instrument. Thicker, deeper necks offer more weight, and can contribute to a longer sustain; thinner necks can be more comfortable for smaller hands and can feel ‘faster’. The width of the nut is related to the string spacing. If you have wider fingers, you might find a guitar with a wider nut width allows you to play more comfortably and accurately at the far end of the fingerboard, without catching adjacent strings.
After your choice of amplifier, the pickups are probably the biggest contributor to your sound. The types you will see most often are the standard single coil and the humbucker. Single coil pickups (the style you’ll see on Stratocaster-style guitars) offer quite a pure and bell-like sound as they are narrower than humbuckers, so pick up vibration over less of the string. However, they can be sensitive to electrical interference (such as fluorescent lights), which can lead to unwanted hum.
As the name suggests, humbuckers are designed to avoid the problem of electrical interference. By wiring two single coils together in a particular way, the hum can be made to cancel out. As these pickups are wider, they pick up vibration over more of the string, resulting in a ‘thicker’ tone.
The basic pickup style is only part of the equation though. Pickup designers use a number of techniques to create pickups that give a vast range of tones. By using different materials for the magnets and a different number of windings in the pickup ‘coils’, some pickups produce a higher output than others, which can make it easier to overdrive an amplifier, some can produce a ‘boost’ in the mid-range content of the signal, to give your tone some presence to cut through a mix, and others are designed to produce a more ‘vintage’ tone. However, pickup replacement can be performed quite easily, so if you decide after the fact that the guitar feels good, but you want a bit more output, you can easily have the pickup changed.
The choice of wood can contribute, not only to the ‘tone’ of the sound, but also its ‘envelope’: how the volume of the sound changes over time. Many of these differences are very subtle, and are often much smaller than the difference in sound between pickup types or choice of amplifier, but guitarists, being guitarists, will always be able to hear a difference! Often, the choice of wood will be dictated by which type of guitar you want to go for, but sometimes manufacturers offer differences in the type of wood for their instruments. One of the most common choices is that for the fingerboards of Stratocasters, with many instruments available with either maple or rosewood fingerboards.
More important than the species of the wood, is whether or not the wood is solid or ‘laminate’: sheets of wood glued together to make a sandwich. Generally, solid woods are preferred for their acoustic properties, but even some very high-end guitars use laminates for certain sections: some Gibson Custom Shop semi-hollow guitars use laminate maple, for example. Some guitars use different woods to combine features of their acoustic response and resonance. The Gibson Les Paul Standard uses mahogany for the majority of the body, but a maple ‘top’ is added to make the sound slightly ‘brighter’. The use of maple for the top also plays a role in the look of the instrument, with highly ‘flamed’ instruments having a particular charm.
Tremolo arm: While it is actually used for vibrato, not tremolo, the tremolo bar or arm may be something you want on your guitar, either for some gentle, bluesy vibrato, or for some serious whammy bar dives. If you want to stay in tune after some major tremolo arm action, you might want to look for a ‘locking’ tremolo system with a locking nut.
Electrics and switching: Some guitars offer a variety of additional controls in addition to standard pickup selection, volume and tone. Some guitars with humbuckers can be ‘coil-split’ to give the sound of a single-coil pickup, and some single-coil instruments offer ‘coil-tapping’ to produce a lower output and often a more ‘vintage’ sound. Other instruments feature additional tone controls such as the Varitone knob seen on instruments such as the Gibson BB King Lucille. Some guitars also offer switching options to wire two pickups in serial or parallel (remember your high school physics?) or in or out of phase. All of these options increase the number of tones you can produce with a single instrument, but depending on your needs, they might be an unnecessary distraction.
Additional pickup options: A few instruments offer additional pickup options to complement the tones you can achieve from conventional single coils and humbuckers. ‘Piezo’ pickups can be included under the bridge for a more ‘acoustic’ tone, these may be presented on a different socket on your guitar so you can run that pickup through a different amp or effects chain. Others offer pickups that can control synthesizers or allow you to play a ‘modelled’ guitar through a guitar synth system.
As we have discussed, there are a lot of features and specifications to consider when choosing an electric guitar, but buying a guitar is a very personal, and often quite an irrational, thing. You might go into the shop thinking that you are definitely a Telecaster person, but see a Les Paul on the hanger with the perfect flamed maple top and decide instantly that you want it, before you’ve even picked it up. After picking it up, you might decide that it’s too heavy, too uncomfortable and you really have to work hard with the controls and the amp to get a tone you like, but then buy it anyway. Sometimes common sense goes out the window, and that’s fine. It’s that relationship and those foibles that give your guitar its personality. The most important thing is that you want to pick it up and play it every time you see it.
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