Our handy guitar buying guide is intended to give the widest possible overview of both guitar type, and the musical styles in which they are used. I have included as many types of guitars as possible, but there are a number of other models that I could not fit in like the Gibson® Thunderbird, Fender® Jaguar and the Gibson® Flying-V, but the guitars included will give you an excellent general knowledge and help you decide which guitar you might like to purchase.
Types of guitars
There are as many guitar types and models as there are models of car, but below you will find the most common types which also happen to be some of the oldest "tried and tested" designs and are copied or licensed to most other guitar companies world wide. An important note on my choice and suggestions for guitars: when I suggest say a Fender® Stratocaster®, I am saying that this exact model and brand is probably the most used for this particular job, but that does not mean a copied/licensed Stratocaster® will do an any worse or better job. The reason I point this out is that many of you will not have the budget for a genuine Fender® Stratocaster® and will likely end up with either a copy made by another company, or possibly a cheaper model Fender® like the Squier® which is made in Mexico instead of the U.S and perfectly fine for a beginner.
Now let's go through the first three images below which are in my opinion, three of the most amazing guitars ever produced. First up is the Fender Stratocaster® which has become the standard for many styles of music and is extremely versatile, comfortable to play and can produce a vast array of different sounds. There are hundreds of guitar makers copying the shape and style of this instrument, so if this is your first choice, you can pick up a licensed copy for next to nothing (US$100), or invest in a genuine Fender U.S made instrument for around US$1,200. As mentioned before, Fender also produce a cheaper version of the Stratocaster called the Squier® that retails for around US$300 to US$400 and is a good choice for beginners. The pickups in the Strat are single coil which produce a bright, punchy tone with the downside of hum, however, you can purchase a humbucker pickup that is in the shape of a single coil which is what I have fitted in my Strat.
Next up is the Fender Telecaster® which is another very popular model particularly for country and blues players and again, you can either purchase the genuine Fender model for around US$1,700 or pickup a cheaper licensed copy for around the US$150 mark. Telecasters produce a very twangy sound with excellent bright, rich tones perfect for country and blues and are also a great choice for a rhythm guitarist, you will often see the rhythm guitarist playing a Tele and the lead guitarist playing a Strat. Telecasters have either single coil pickups or sometimes a humbucker depending on the model.
Now we come to another legendary guitar, the Gibson® Les Paul® which has been the mainstay for rock guitarists for decades and with good reason. The sound produced by the Les Paul is gutsy and mean, with a very full tone and performs equally well in either a rhythm or lead situation. The pickups in the Les Paul are what we call Humbuckers and contribute heavily to the overall sound of the guitar, with the bonus of being hum free. You can purchase a genuine Gibson Les Paul for around the US$2,200 mark and a licensed copy for about US$300.
Now for our next three guitars starting with the Gibson® ES335 DOT semi-acoustic guitar and what a guitar it is, simply beautiful in both looks and tone, with a huge variety of sounds that make it compatible with almost any style of music. There is no reason why you couldn’t see a jazz master playing and ES335 one day, and then see a Rock guitarist hammering down a deadly tune on the same guitar the next day. The genuine article will set you back about US$3,000 but good licensed copies can retail for about US$600.
The Gibson® ES175 hollow body guitar is almost exclusively a jazz musicians territory and a perfect fit too, the ES175 produces a smooth, mellow tone that lends itself to the types of chord progressions jazz musicians generally play and equally well for solo lines. A genuine Gibson ES175 will set you back about US$3,500 and a licensed copy around US$800.
Next up is a Paul Reed Smith® Custom guitar which is a relative newcomer to the guitar world. PRS® guitars are finished to perfection and use the most amazing woods available along with sophisticated electronics. They produce a warm tone great for lead work and perfect for players of jazz fusion or instrumental rock. A genuine PRS will cost you around the US$3,000 mark but they do have a cheaper version that retails for about US$600 and licensed copies about the same.
The last of our branded guitars is an Ibanez GRX20Z and is included in this guide as an example of a modern style Strat® guitar. Modern style Stratocaster have finer lines and curves on the body, thinner necks, fatter frets (jumbo frets) and humbucker pickups with the addition of Floyd Rose® tremolo systems on some models. This particular model retails for only US$150 but other modern style Stratocasters can fetch up to US$3,000 (for instance the Steve Vai JEM models). I personally have a Fernandes Adrian Vandenburg model and adore it.
Next up we have a typical example of a steel string acoustic guitar in this case it's a Yamaha. Steel string guitars are a must for any guitarist and a fantastic starting point for a beginner, my only advice here is to please stick with brands you know like Yamaha, Washburn, Epiphone, Takamine for the more affordable models, and of course Fender, Martin and Gibson for the higher priced models. If it looks cheap and nasty, it likely is and will be a horror to play so don't compromise. I would set a budget of around US$150 to US$400 and always haggle with the music shop owner, maybe get a set of strings thrown in. Of course if you find a guitar you particularly like not listed here, go for it, but just make sure it is setup properly (ask the shop guy to do it) and perhaps do some research online in forums for some feedback before you purchase.
Lastly we have our humble nylon string acoustic guitar (also known as a classical guitar) which may well be what you are already playing and wanting to upgrade from. These guitars are great when you already know how to play and have built up hand strength, this is because the action on the cheaper models is huge and far too much for young fingers to push down on. I do not recommend for a beginner to buy one of these types of guitars at all. In my experience teaching, younger students who came to me for lessons with a nylon string guitar usually gave up after a while purely due to the difficulty playing the guitar. You are far better off purchasing a steel string acoustic or an electric guitar if you are a beginner, and if you are an experienced player then try to buy a good brand like the ones mentioned previously.
First let's deal with the neck profile which is the rear shape of the neck and directly effects your playing. Your hand size and strength will largely determine what shape suits you, but by far the majority of guitars (particularly in the budget models) will have the standard thin profile, and with good reason: standard thin will be the best choice for the majority of players including beginners. If you are an experienced player then by all means, experiment with different profiles at your local music shop, but for beginners, your better off sticking to standard thin unless you have large hands.
Another aspect of guitar necks is the fingerboard radius and without going into too much math, the fingerboard radius is the size of the fretboard. Fender Stratocasters have a fingerboard radius of 9.5″ (modern) and 7.25″ (vintage) whereas Gibson Les Paul's have a fingerboard radius of 12". If you have small hands or perhaps weaker hands, your better off going for a Strat style guitar, and for larger and stronger hands then go for either the Strat or Les Paul style guitars.
Lastly we look at the neck joint type which is the method used to secure the guitar neck to the guitar body. This will not really effect your playing and only moderately effects the sound, but it is a good aspect to be familiar with. First up we have the neck through body method which means the entire neck actually continues into the center of the body and becomes part of it. Some say you get a better sustain using this method which could be true, but without scientific analysis I can't confirm.
Next we have the bolt on neck which is by far the most popular method and is used by all Stratocaster & Telecaster guitars as well as Ibanez and many others. Some say that the high frets are harder to play due to the bolt on mechanism, but this has largely been eradicated by styling the top edge of the body and moving the screw towards the center (see image below).
Finally we have the glue in method that is largely a Gibson realm and is somewhere in between bolt on and neck through body. All Les Paul's use this method as well as many other Gibson models and most acoustic guitars too.
There are a vast array of wood types used in the construction of guitars and below are the most popular ones. Take a look at the table below to find out more about the sound characteristics and usage of each wood type.
There are two main types of pickups, single coil and humbuckers, so let's start with the single coil. Single coil pickups were the first types of pickups made way back in the early part of last century, but they are still manufactured today and come stock standard in Fender Stratocasters and many other types of guitars. Depending on the copper winding inside the pickup, single coils produce warm, mellow tones when played clean (no distortion), and blistering highs when played on a distorted amp but, they also produce a bit of hum (background noise or static) which is their only downfall. You can get around this by installing a single slot humbucker, which is a humbucker in the shape of a single coil and therefore requires no modification of the guitar body in order to fit them.
The second type of pickup is called a humbucker which has been around nearly as long as the single coil. As the name suggests, humbuckers cancel out the hum produced by a single coil by adding another coil (wired in reverse polarity) right beside it. Basically what this does is to create an inverse magnetic field that cancels out the first coils hum (common-mode rejection). All you need to know is that (a) humbuckers are very quiet with virtually no hum and (b) humbuckers produce a much stronger signal, which is why so many heavy metal musicians play guitars with humbuckers fitted.
Please don't take this as a "be all and end all" list of guitars for certain styles, it's just a rough guide and really, any type of guitar can be played in any style of music, but there are some general public preconceptions, which is what I have listed here.
|Musical style to guitar comparison chart|
|Musical style||Suggested guitar(s)||Notes|
|Alternative rock/grunge||Stratocaster® & Les Paul® style guitars||Most often, alternative rock players use alternative types of guitars like Gibson Thunderbird’s or Fender Jaguars|
|Bee bop/swing/big band||Semi-acoustic and hollow body electric/acoustic guitars||Gibson ES335 & ES175 among others|
|Blues/soul||Stratocaster, Les Paul, semi-acoustic and Telecaster style guitars||Very open here but those guitars tend to be the most used for this style|
|Bluegrass||Resonator, semi-acoustic, hollow body acoustic/electric & steel string acoustic guitars||Along with the fiddle, banjo, mandolin and upright bass|
|Classical/flamenco||Nylon or gut string acoustic guitars||These guitars produce a very soft, mellow sound perfect for these styles|
|Country||Telecaster, Stratocaster & semi-acoustic guitars||Telecaster is very popular with this style|
|Folk||Nylon or gut string acoustic and steel string acoustic guitars||More often nylon/gut string string guitars|
|Funk||Stratocaster, modern style Strat||Almost exclusively a Stratocaster realm|
|Heavy metal/thrash||Modern style Strat, Stratocaster||Stratocasters are usually modified and fitted with humbuckers and sometimes Floyd Rose tremolo systems|
|Jazz||Semi-acoustic & hollow body guitars||Very broad genre and equally broad in guitar types|
|Pop||Stratocaster, Les Paul & modern Strat style guitars||Very broad genre and equally broad in guitar types|
|Punk||Stratocaster & Les Paul style guitars||Punk rockers tend to use alternative types of guitars too like the Gibson Thunderbird or Fender Jaguar|
|Reggae||Stratocaster style guitars||Stratocasters produce a very clear, punchy tone perfect for Reggae|
|Rhythm & Blues||Semi-acoustic, Stratocaster & Les Paul style guitars||Very broad genre and equally broad in guitar types|
|Rock||Les Paul, Stratocaster & modern Strat style guitars||Again a very broad genre and choice of guitar depends on the type of rock played, but those guitars would make up 75%|
|Ska||Stratocaster style guitars||Have also seen other guitar types used for this style|
The final word
There are so many aspects that will influence your personal choice of guitars from music styles, color and even peer pressure, but in the end it will likely come down to budget. There is nothing wrong with buying a licensed copy, I started out on a Strat copy called Session Stage Series, which are no longer made, but it turned out to be a solid body (not plywood) and I still have it today except with a different neck (my red Strat). Another way is to buy second hand or at a garage sale, keeping the knowledge of brand names we learned previously in mind, you could pickup a guitar that retailed for US$500 and get it for around US$150.
Some tell tail signs of cheap and nasty guitars to look out for are…
- Blistering paint or ridges on the guitar body likely mean it's made from plywood, steer clear
- Spot rust on any of the metal parts means they are either cheap parts, or the guitar has been stored incorrectly
- Bubbly chrome finish on metal parts means they are cheap, steer clear
- Peeling or bubbly paint means the wrong equipment and/or paint has been used, something a reputable maker would never do
- Extremely light weight (electric) means it's likely a plywood body and cheap wood has been used for the neck
- A brand you have never heard of before and the guitar is very cheap, is usually a bad combination
Some important questions you should ask the music shop salesman before you buy…
- Does it come with a warranty? Aim for a minimum 12 months
- What is the body made of? If they say plywood then choose another guitar or visit another music shop
- Has the guitar's action and intonation set-up by the music shop yet? If not then will they do a set-up before you take it home?
- How long have you been stocking this brand of guitar? Should be more than 12 months
- How long have you been in business? Again 12 month minimum
Well I hope this guide has helped you in your pursuit to purchase a guitar. I will be updating this guide regularly depending on the current happenings in the musical marketplace.
Cheers & enjoy!