Buyer's Guide: How to choose the right electric guitar
So, you've made the decision to buy an electric guitar. But, with so many models to choose from, which electric guitar should you buy? Even if you know which model you are interested in, there are usually a number of different versions and options to choose from which may influence your decision. Factors like the materials and components used will also play an important role, as will the price. This Buyer's Guide contains a wealth of information to help you choose the right guitar for your budget, your playing style and the type of music you like.
What is an electric guitar?
The term electric guitar generally refers to a solid-body guitar, which is a model with a body made from solid wood that has no sound box. There are also hollow-body guitars, more commonly known as semi-acoustic guitars, that have a hollow sound box similar to acoustic models. Gretsch is one brand that makes a number of beautiful semi-acoustic guitars.
Because a solid-body electric guitar has no sound box, it produces very little volume on its own. That's why they are equipped with pickups. The pickups are responsible for turning the sound created by the vibration of the strings and the resonance of the wood into an electrical signal which can then be made louder by being plugged into a guitar amplifier.
We've already covered a number of terms so before we go any further, let's take a closer look at all the parts of an electric guitar in more detail.
Which type of pickups do I need?
A pickup is basically a number of separate magnets surrounded by copper wire to create a coil. Electricity is normally sent through a coil to generate a magnetic field and a pickup essentially does the same thing but in reverse. The vibration of the steel strings disturbs the magnetic field to create an electrical signal known as an output.
Single-coil and humbucker pickups
While there are many different types of pickups, the most common are single-coil pickups (which as its name suggests has a single-coil) and humbucker pickups (which have a double coil). The single coil was the first type of pickup used on an electric guitar. Famous guitars with single-coil pickups include the Fender Stratocaster and the Fender Telecaster. These type of pickups have a low output that results in a bright, sparkling tone that reacts very dynamically to your playing style. Humbuckers are in essence two single coils connected in series that were designed to reduce an annoying hum at 50Hz. The first and probably most famous guitar to feature humbuckers is the Gibson® Les Paul®. As you'd expect, the humbucker's two coils deliver more output for a fuller, warmer and fatter sound.
Single coils are generally better if you prefer a cleaner sound or just a touch of distortion, and retain more definition. Humbuckers are better suited to those who prefer a sweeter, jazzy clean or heavier guitar styles.
P-90 single coil
Another fairly common type of pickup is the P-90. This is also a single coil but it has more copper wire wrapped around it, making it wider. As a result it has more output than a traditional single coil. P90s therefore can deliver the warmth and punch of a humbucker as well as the sparkle of a single coil. Thanks to its rectangular shape and rounded edges, this pickup is also known as a soapbar. Its versatility makes it suitable for everything from blues to classic rock to hard rock.
Passive or active pickups
When it comes to pickups you'll hear the terms passive and active as well. An active pickup requires a 9V battery to function. It produces a tight and well defined, noise-free sound with a high output and lots of compression that makes them very popular among metal guitarists in particular. These modern pickups are usually found on guitars that are designed for faster and heavier playing styles. One of best known makers of active pickups are EMG. Guitars by ESP LTD, Jackson, and Ibanez are often fitted with active pickups by EMG or another manufacturer. Passive pickups like those from Seymour Duncan are more in line with traditional-style pickups from the 1950s and produce a somewhat richer, more organic and dynamic sound. They also tend to pick up the subtle nuances in your playing better too. Vintage-style passive pickups have a lower output while more modern ones are capable of producing a more aggressive sound. For that reason passive pickups are suitable for virtually all styles of music including jazz, blues, rock and metal.
Wood type and construction
One of the main influences on an electric guitar's sound is the type of wood it's made of. A wood type like mahogany produces a warmer tone with deeper bass, while a type like maple produces a brighter sound. Alder on the other hand, offers an excellent balance between the lows, mids and highs, while ash tends to accentuate the low and high tones at the expense of the mids. Fender primarily use alder and ash for the bodies of their guitars while Gibson® generally prefer to combine wood types. The Les Paul® for instance, has a thick mahogany body with a thinner maple top for an ideal combination of warmth and brightness.
There are many other types of wood that are also used in guitar construction, like basswood and agathis. Basswood is relatively lightweight and has a fairly neutral sound, which is perfect for guitarists who like to add to their tone using their amplifier or effects. Agathis is a type of wood primarily found in the Southern Hemisphere that is used as a cheaper alternative to mahogany.
Below are two informative videos from Fender about the wood types they use to make electric guitars.
Whichever model you choose will be largely dependent on your personal preferences. The part of the body that's in line with the neck will have the most influence on the electric guitar's sound rather than the rest of its shape whether that's square, round or pointed. A larger body consists of more wood, however, and does lead to better sustain. This means that separate notes and full chords continue to sound for longer after they've been played.
At Bax-shop it's possible to filter your results by a number of criteria including the model to narrow down your search for your perfect electric guitar. 'ST' and 'TE' stand for Stratocaster and Telecaster shapes, while 'LP' and 'SG' represent guitars like theGibson® Les Paul® and theGibson® SG®. Heavier style guitars like the Jackson King V and the ESP LTD EX-50 can be found using the appropriately named 'heavy' filter. Under 'other' you'll find guitars like Fender's Jaguar and Jazzmaster and the Eastwood Sidejack.
Single or double cutaway
A cutaway is a recess in the body that makes it easier to reach the higher frets. A Les Paul® and a Telecaster are both examples of models with a single cutaway. The Gibson® SG® and the Fender Stratocaster are examples of models with two. The advantage of a double cutaway is that it allows the thumb to move higher up the neck too. Normally, a guitar with a double cutaway has an asymmetrical shape for better balance.
The neck of an electric guitar is often made from wood like maple or mahogany. A guitar with a mahogany neck for instance, will have a slightly warmer sound than an identical model with a maple neck. The type of wood the fretboard is made from will also play a small role is the overall sound of the instrument. A Strat with a maple fretboard for example, will have a slightly brighter, more sparkling sound than the same model with a rosewood fretboard.
Two short films below from Fender explain more about the wood types used for guitar necks.
Bolt-on, set-in or neck-through?
The neck of a guitar is connected to the body in one of three ways. Fender was the first guitar manufacturer to use the bolt-on method. Two advantages of this method is that it is cost effective and that it is easy to replace the neck on the guitar if required. A set neck has the advantage of providing more sustain, however. The third method is known as neck-through-body, which is commonly referred to simply as neck-through or even neck-thru. In this type of construction, the neck doesn't stop where the body starts but continues right to the body's end. This method ensures the most efficient transference of sound from the neck to the body and gives the greatest sustain. Usually, these types of guitars also have no heel where the neck meets the body, making the higher frets easier to reach and more comfortable to play.
It's important that your guitar has a good set of machine heads to keep it in tune because there are few things more frustrating than a guitar that constantly goes out of tune. Machine heads are also known as tuners and some of the best known makes are by Gotoh, Grover and Kluson. Some guitars feature special machine heads known as locking tuners. The biggest advantage of these is that it makes changing your guitar strings a lot easier and faster, which is very convenient if you're planning on playing music live. With locking tuners fitted, you simply push the string through the hole, tighten the separate locking mechanism, tune up and you're ready to go.
Holding the strings in place at the other end of your guitar is the bridge. There are many different versions available, which generally fall into one of two categories: the fixed bridge and the moving (or tremolo) bridge.
Fixed bridges are normally made from one or two parts like those found on the Ibanez RG421 and the B.C. Rich Mockingbird Pro X2 respectively. The part that holds the strings in place on a two-part fixed bridge is called the tailpiece. If a tailpiece is not present then strings are held in place by passing through the body of the guitar like they are on the Schecter Hellraiser Special C-1. This so-called string-through-body construction gives the guitar a more direct sound with improved sustain.
On more classic-styled electric guitars, the tailpiece is sometimes replaced by a vibrato. This is a system that allows you to influence the tone of the strings by manipulating a bar (handle) to create a vibrato effect. Guitars with vibrato-style tailpieces include the Fender Jaguar and the Gretsch Pro Jet with Bigsby.
Tremolo (or moving) bridge
There are also one-piece bridges that have the ability to move. In reality, these are also vibratos but are more commonly referred to as tremolo bridges. Technically the name is incorrect as the term tremolo actually means a change in volume rather than a change in tone. The most common example of a tremolo bridge can be found on a Stratocaster. For subtle variations in tone, this system works perfectly. If you want to make more extreme divebombs however, then you're likely to find that your guitar will go out of tune quickly. That's why there are other models like the Floyd Rose double locking tremolo. With this system, the strings are locked at the nut and the bridge for extra stability. This type of bridge is often seen on guitars by Ibanez, Jackson and ESP LTD that have been designed for shredding.
Electric guitar brands
Hopefully, the information above has helped you learn enough to narrow down your choice. An important consideration in your final decision, however, is likely to be the price. While you probably already have a budget in mind, it's worth considering that in most cases you get what you pay for. In practical terms, this means that if you buy a cheaper model you'll probably have to make some sacrifices on the quality, playability and sound.
If you're serious about learning the guitar, it's wise to spend a little more on a decent model. The easier your guitar is to play and the better it sounds, the more motivated you'll be to practise. Fortunately, there are affordable models on the market that offer excellent value for money in terms of quality and price. Fender, for instance, sells good quality guitars at a reasonable price under the brand name Squier. High-end Japanese company ESP also sell a cheaper range of good quality instruments under the name LTD. Gibson®'s more affordable range falls under the Epiphone® brand name. In fact, most manufacturers have series of guitars that fall into budget, medium and expensive categories. Makes like Ibanez and Yamaha are unlikely to let you down. These brands are known for their consistent quality, which means you'll be getting an instrument that is comfortable to play and sounds good no matter which model you choose. If you're looking for the cheapest model possible, for whatever reason, then guitars by Dimavery and Fazley are the most budget friendly we stock.