If you’re new to electric guitars, you may need a hand to hold while you learn as much as you can before you buy.
You mightn’t know where to start, what to look for, or even how much to spend.
Fortunately, this guide is a broad overview of factors you must consider when you’re in the market.
Regardless of how many guitars you own or how seasoned you are, there’s always going to be new guitars to scrutinize, new features to explore, and appropriate budget adjustments to make. With a head full of new-found knowledge, you’ll minimize buyer’s remorse, increase buyer satisfaction, and create music magic.
Let’s get you in the know!
Budget & Brands
How much are you going to spend?
We’re all guilty of setting a limit and then finding the seemingly perfect guitar that always seems to be outside the price range. However, whatever your max limit, you’ll always find a guitar priced within your budget.
The important factor to consider is quality. Dirt cheap guitars will be cheap in quality and hardware. Very expensive guitars will have the best of everything. Regardless, you want the best of what you can afford. That is why you must search reviews to get in the know before you buy as there’s a difference between “cheap-and-crappy” and “pricey-and-over-priced.”
Another way to decide your budget is by skill level. If you’re just getting into guitars, you may want to stay within a couple hundred bucks. As you improve and develop your own playing style, you can justify spending more on a guitar with the features you’ve learned you want and will best suit your preferences.
Intermediates often spend around $500 or more, and seasoned guitar players will often spend in excess as they know exactly what they want out of a guitar. You must also remember that set up costs and any modifications you make will be an investment into your guitar. So, if you buy cheap, you can always turn it into a custom guitar by swapping out hardware and personalizing it.
Some budget categories to consider are:
If there’s a dream guitar you’ve always wanted to have but it will forever be out of the budget, look for alternatives in the forms of copies and remakes. For example, you can consider Squier if Fender is a tad too much. You might look to Epiphone if Gibson is out of the question.
Some of the best electric guitar brands to consider are:
- Eddie Van Halen (EVH)
- Paul Reed Smith (PRS)
And, there are plenty more. The market is truly yours.
Skill Level & Playing Style
I briefly touched on how your skill level can help determine how much you should spend on your guitar, but how do you define skill level?
Well, I consider beginner players as learners who are picking up the guitar for the first time or who are a few months in. When choosing a guitar for a beginner, it should be extremely playable and sound good. By playability, we mean low action, decent quality, easy to work hardware like hardtail bridges and dependable tuners.
Intermediate players may have been playing for a year or more or they may have been playing for a long time but have limited skills. Seasoned players are what I consider advanced guitarists that are at a stage of mastering playing techniques, they gig and perform live, and their day job may even be as a professional musician.
Some guitars best suited for skill levels can be found here:
While many intermediate to advanced players have the skill set to play higher action guitars, shred the entire fretboard, and even change out strings on a Floyd Rose like it’s second nature, it doesn’t mean that’s what they want on a guitar. This is where playing style comes into play.
- If you like to wah-wah without the pedal and make crazy dive-bombs, a tremolo bridge may be a feature you’re after. Look for locking nuts or locking tuners to stabilize your tuning.
- Locking tuners are also a great idea for those who like to bend strings 1 ½ steps or more.
- If you like to shred like a metal god, a flat fingerboard radius and a very thin, fast neck would be ideal.
- If you’re into jazz or blues genres, look for pickups that have warm and smooth tones, and you may want to consider a semi or hollow body guitar.
- If you hit the road a lot, consider a travel guitar.
Get the point? Player preference and style can definitely lead you towards the right guitar for you.
Body Type & Size
There are solid body, semi-hollow body, and hollow body electric guitars. Let’s cover solid bodies first.
There are multiple solid body electric guitar types, but you’ll come across at least three that are often copied in body shape and specs. I’ll give a brief on each of these types plus a couple others to help expand your mind.
The Strat. Fender came up with this guitar design in the ‘50s, and it’s been popular world-wide ever since. It’s iconic double cutaways, 3x single-coil pickups, and 25.5” scale length has been copied and modified by nearly every guitar manufacturer in existence.
It’s an excellent guitar for rock genres, and it’s available with multiple types of pickups which makes it a very versatile guitar.
Just look to the Fender Player Stratocaster for inspiration.
Another Fender creation, the Tele is completely different to the Strat. Originally, it had an “ashtray-like” bridge cover that many would remove and use as an ashtray – hence the nickname that stuck. The bridge also had three saddle blocks, had a very country twang sound, and a single cutaway.
These days, the look may be copied, but it’s available with multiple types of hardware to suit your playing style and the sound you’re after. They’re not always as expensive as you’d think.
The Squier Affinity Telecaster is proof.
One of the world’s most classic guitars that has many copies, but since Gibson and Epiphone are the only ones with the rights to the original specs, it’s tough to beat. It’s easily recognizable by its single cutaway, humbucker pickups, 24.75” scale length, 3+3 angled headstock, and TOM bridge with a stopbar tailpiece.
Epiphone’s model also features a solid mahogany body with a maple top. The sound? Great for everything.
If you want a Les Paul that’s appropriate for black tie events, the Epiphone Les Paul Black Beauty 3 is a must-have.
Other Popular Solid Body Shapes
The V, SG, and Super Strat are additional body types that you’ll come across in the solid body market. They each have their own specific features that lends itself towards a certain genre and playing style. Furthermore, there are signature guitars that are often customized by the artist to provide buyers the chance to achieve their sound and style like the Fender Stevie Ray Vaughn Stratocaster or the EVH Striped Series 5150.
Then, there are digital guitars that are a breed of their own. Just check out the Jamstik 7 to get an idea. They incorporate additional electronics and technology to do everything from producing synthesizer sound to functioning as a MIDI controller compatible with MIDI devices.
Semi-Hollow & Hollow Body Guitars
If it plugs in and it has f-holes, it’s a guitar of one of two types: semi or hollow body. These guitars are often sought out for their organic and acoustic sound (not on all models), their complimentary playing and sound style towards jazz and blues, or because they’re just so vintage-looking that a guitar collection wouldn’t be complete without one.
- Hollow body guitars have hollow wings where the f-holes function as sound chambers providing maximum resonance from a guitar of this kind. They have the largest bodies of the electric guitar family, although, manufacturers seem to be making them shallower than they’ve ever been. They can come with either single-coil or humbucker pickups, they tend to have low output, and their warm and smooth tone lends to jazz, blues, and rhythm playing. Gretsch shows how beautiful a hollow body guitar can sound and look.
- Semi-hollow body guitars have smaller and shallower bodies than their hollow counterparts, but the defining difference is the center block that runs down the middle of the semi-hollow. Typically, hardware is mounted directly onto this center block and thus it reduces feedback issues that hollow bodies tend to experience, and it increases sustain, although, resonance may be somewhat diminished. They’re excellent guitars for jazz, blues, rock, and country. Ibanez has quite the inventory of semi-hollow body guitars.
Solid body electric guitars are the smallest of the three types. When talking about length, it’s often the scale length that is being referred to. The scale length may be determined by the manufacturer and type of guitar, but the common scale lengths of a solid body is 25.5” and 24.75”.
Some guitars are considered short scale guitars since they may have scale lengths of 24”, 22”, and 19”. Tone and overall size of guitar may be affected when the scale length changes.
Semi hollow and hollow body guitars have the same or very similar scale lengths as a solid body. The size difference comes in with body width and depth. Some of the larger guitars can be as wide as 17” plus some, and the depth usually varies from 2.75” to 3” and more.
Tonewoods & Build Quality
It seems there is an endless list of guitar tonewoods, and they often change from year to year depending on sustainability, what’s available, and what’s new. Many manufacturers have their own sources to exotic woods, salvaged wood, wood that was purchased prior to endangered status, and multiple connections to alternative tonewoods such as laminate veneers and composite materials.
Does choice of wood affect tone? Short answer: yes.
Does it matter on an electric guitar? Short answer: Yes.
While tonewoods may not have a huge role to play on electric guitars as it does on the acoustic, your strings are still vibrating against something, whether the guitar is finished or not. Then, there’s the type of finish that can inhibit string vibration and its duration or they can allow the wood to function in a more natural way allowing maximum resonance and vibration.
Here’s a short list of the most popular tonewoods used on an electric guitar that you’ll see mentioned in my reviews.
- Alder – Often used for the body as it’s a cost-effective wood that provides punchy mids and good sustain.
- Agathis – This must be another cost-effective wood because it’s mostly used for the body on entry-level to mid-range guitars. It’s lightweight and rings out and bright and crisp.
- Basswood – A very popular tonewood and comes from Linden trees. Although it’s the number one wood used in entry-level guitars, it’s still used to this day on high-end, premium models. While it’s mostly tonally neutral, it’s often used to bring out warm and mid-range tones – very versatile.
- Ebony – Used for fingerboards as it’s very dark and hard, even denser than Rosewood. However, it is a rare and expensive material. Because of its natural makeup, it sounds like maple – bright, punchy, crisp, and snappy. Like Rosewood, it naturally has a high oil content so the fretboard can be left unfinished.
- Laurel – There are many species of Laurel variants, but American Laurel is likely what your fingerboard is made from. It’s a cost-effective tonewood that’s lively, vibrant, bright, and trebly.
- Linden – See Basswood
- Mahogany – Multiple types exist, but due to endangerment, the mahogany used today is not the same as what was used on the guitars in the ‘40s-‘50s. It’s often paired with a tonally bright maple top or neck because it’s heavy sounding with serious sustain. It’s very warm and punctuates the low-midrange bottom end.
- Maple – Multiple grades and types of maple are available. When used on the body, it’s either flamed or quilted. Maple is often used for the neck as it’s very dense, heavy, and strong. It tends to balance out and amplify the wood body because it’s super bright, crisp, punchy, and tonally thick.
- Nato – This type of tonewood comes from Mora trees and is available in large cuts, so not all Nato is equal. However, this is true of all tonewoods. Nato is very resistant to wear and is strong and durable. Tonally, it’s similar to Mahogany, so it’s a very cost-effective replacement.
- Nyatoh – It’s an Indian and Southeast Asian wood that is very hard and dense than other neck tonewoods. It provides serious sustain, is tonally similar to Mahogany, and is often substituted for it instead.
- Pau Ferro – This sustainable fingerboard tonewood has seen a rise in popularity since Rosewood has protective status. It’s snappy, responsive, and quite bright, but it’s also warmer than Ebony with its fat low end.
- Poplar – Mostly used as a cheap tonewood in entry-level guitars. It’s a softer tonewood, so it doesn’t resonate or provide sustain like superior tonewoods do. It’s tonally neutral.
- Spruce – You may see this tonewood used in semi-hollow and hollow arch tops. It’s crisp, punchy, and clear. It helps to clean up the darker, warmer tones of mahogany and rosewood.
- Rosewood – Very commonly used using the last six decades, but it has since been put under CITES restrictions. It’s a very hard wood that’s perfect for fretboards, and it’s self-lubricating in a sense as it’s a naturally oily wood. Tonally, it’s warm, rich, and smooth.
Believe it or not, the type of finish not only affects what cleaning products you can use on your guitar, but it can also affect tone, resonance, and how long it takes before it sounds exactly the way you want it.
While you may not have much choice in what type of finish comes on your guitar, you can arm yourself with some details to know what to expect.
- Nitrocellulose/Lacquer – These types of finishes are still revered by many guitarists to this day because it takes years to fully cure. They’re applied very thin coats to preserve a guitar’s natural resonance, string vibration strength and duration, and any tonal contributions from the wood. However, they dull and wear over time. But, the argument for that by vintage enthusiasts is that an older guitar has developed and matured over the years sounding superior to all others, even when the finish is worn or chipped off.
- Polyurethane/Polyester – These types of finishes are likely what’s on your electric guitar. It’s hard, super shiny, and seems almost impervious to damage. Manufacturers like it because it cures within a few days, it has a smooth and slick finish, and it provides an easy to clean surface. However, there is some legitimacy to these finishes dampening resonance and limiting tonal frequency. But, as formulas get better, poly finishes can be coated on super thin as thickness matters. Obviously, quality products and expert application is essential. Besides, dampening can be a good thing when you want to filter out some unwanted frequencies.
So, is one finish better than the other? I can’t say, and neither can you. It comes down to using the right finish for the right guitar.
I can’t raise build quality as a feature to look for if I don’t mention the importance of knowing how your neck joins the body or how its shape will affect your playing style.
You basically have three types of neck connections to the guitar body: bolt-on, set-neck, and neck-thru-body.
- Bolt-on necks are seen on all entry-level and cheap guitars. They’re easy to manufacture, low-cost to both manufacturer and consumer, and they’re very easy to repair or replace if the need arises. While they’re often seen as a low-end production method, you may be surprised to learn that even some high-end guitars have bolt-on necks. Some are done better than others, and then there’s the type of tonewood used for the neck that may determine quality.
- Set-necks or set-in necks are glued into the body of the guitar. Strength and reliability is increased as well as tonal warmth and sustain. These types of necks may raise the guitar price as it’s often seen in the mid-range market.
- Neck-through-body or neck-thru-body necks, well, run through the body of the guitar. This would make one heck of a heavy guitar. Some manufacturers will often shave off some weight with some lightweight woods and opt for a laminate veneer over the body. This neck build is one of the most reliable neck construction methods, but it takes a lot more to make and it’s not cost-effective to repair – you’ll end up having to buy a new guitar. So, it’s going to cost a lot more and you’ll likely only see it on high-end guitars.
When it comes to shape, it’s the back of the neck where your palm rests that guitarists are referring to. The shape provides the overall feel and playability of the neck and how well it will work with the fingerboard radius for chording or shredding.
Neck shapes are usually identifiable by manufacturer letter terms. However, while the terms are pretty much universal and they give a fair idea of what to expect, spec measurements may vary.
Some neck shapes to learn are:
- C – Industry standard shape. Very user-friendly and shallower than a D shape. Many variations from the C model includes Modern C and Thin C. However, some neck profiles may be described as being a C for oval and flat-oval shaped necks.
- D – Heftier than a C shape with wider shoulders. It has a good profile for larger hands and long fingers. There are variations of the D shape that includes Epiphone’s SlimTaper D.
- U – The U has very high shoulders with some chunk and depth within your hand. Like the D, it’s good for large hands or where players like to rest their thumbs on the back of the neck.
- V – There is the Hard V and the Soft V. The Hard V is pointy and still largely associated with vintage-style guitars. What’s it for? It’s good for playing styles where the thumb rests over the top of the fretboard. This profile has also been used for playing styles where the thumb actually plays those bass notes. The Soft V is the more comfortable of the two and tapers quite shallow at the nut.
Which neck shape is right for you?
It’s really a matter of comfort and playing style. Thin necks work really well for beginners, small hands, and for speed playing styles like shredding. However, because they’re so thin, you’ll have to be extra attentive to its condition.
Thicker necks are preferred by those with larger hands and long fingers. They also make for strong and dependable necks in the long run. However, smaller hands will likely struggle with these necks. If you’ve done all the finger stretching you can for a lifetime, look for slim, thin, and shallow variations of the thicker shapes.
Electronics & Hardware
The electronics are your pickups and circuitry. The electronics determine how hot it is (output), how versatile its tonal palette is, and what position on the body it sits in. Pickups can be designed to be specifically placed in either the neck, middle, or bridge positions to enhance certain frequencies along the tonal range.
They’re usually made from either ceramic or Alnico magnets with wire coilings that creates a magnetic field. Having your strings placed above the pole pieces in a pickup allows response to string vibration and thus produces sound.
- Single-Coils – As its name suggests, there is a single coil that wraps around a magnet. It’s susceptible to “humming” heard through an amp when plugged in. They have a vintage, bright, and crisp tonal palette that is often sought for jazz, country, roots, and many other genres.
- Humbuckers – As its name suggests, these pickups are designed to “buck the hum.” Because single-coils produce feedback due to magnetic interference, humbuckers were created with two coils around a magnet in opposite polarity and wiring to buck the hum and allow for a string vibration signal. They’re warm, thick, and hot. Additionally, humbuckers can be wired for single-coil function. You’re essentially splitting coils to achieve single-coil sound. Humbuckers especially good for high output genres like hard rock and metal, or they can be dialed down for warm, bluesy smoothness.
- Active – These types of pickups require use of a battery and they are smokin’ hot. These are active pickups while single-coils and humbuckers are passive. Because of their ability to handle high amounts of gain and drive, their highly saturated tones best suit the metal genre.
Pickups in the neck position tend to accentuate warm, smooth, balanced tone. Depending on the pickup, it might bring out fat lows and a good lower mid-range. Pickups in the bridge position are closer to the bridge, so they’re typically bright, chime-like, and ringing. To see how pickup height can affect tone, check out my tips on adjusting pickups.
To access more than one pickup, you’ll find a toggle switch found by either the control knobs or on the upper bout of the guitar body. By moving the position of the switch, you engage the pickup it’s wired to. To engage coil-tapping or split coils, it’s usually activated by pushing or pulling on the designated volume or tone control.
The control knobs are wired for volume and tone for either each pickup or a single knob functions as a Master control. Underneath the knob are pots that are designed with specific wiring that determines output and more. Some pots are wired to a treble bleed circuit that filters out = some of the low frequencies to allow the highs to be more prominent, even when you’ve turned the volume down.
I covered electric guitar strings strings in extensive detail, but I’ll say a word or two on them now. Strings have a major role in tone/sound, playability, and playing style. They can vary in price from a few bucks to a stack of ten-dollar bills. Some are best suited for beginners, for shredding or bending, and others work better for aggressive use and various genres.
There are five parts of a string you’ll want to consider if you want to maximize its benefits:
Entry-level guitars will have stock tuners usually with a decent 14:1 gear ratio. The gear ratio determines how many times you must turn the tuning peg to make a full revolution. The higher the number, the more turns you can make allowing for finer tuning. On cheap guitars, the tuners are usually the first set of hardware to be replaced.
If your playing style tends to pull strings out of place like bending or dive bombing, you may want to consider locking tuners.
You may not think about the nut until you experience stubborn fret buzz, intonation issues or dead notes, and playing discomfort regardless of various adjustments you’ve made along your guitar. Its primary purpose is to hold those strings in place via small grooves or slots.
Of course, these grooves must be filed to a precise measurement and be the right size for the right string, and its height has consequences, too. If you want to know how to adjust the height of the nut, you must read our guide before you try to DIY and screw things up.
Does nut material affect things? It sure does. It can affect tone, durability, and reliability. Many are made with plastic, and it won’t be until the high-end price range that you’ll start seeing better quality nuts made from bone, brass, graphite, or other alternatives like Tusq, Corian, and others. But, a mid-range guitar may surprise you with one of these materials.
To improve tuning stability, locking nuts are worth looking into. They’re often supplied with a Floyd Rose bridge system.
Bridge systems are where you intonate your guitar and the saddle is located. The strings terminate here with a built-in stopbar or there will be a tailpiece that follows.
If you’re a dive-bombing fanatic and you’re all about hard-hitting wah-wah effects, you’ll want a tremolo-style bridge. Are they made equal? Not at all. You’ll have to research into how much maintenance they’ll require as they’re usually tedious when it comes to string changing. Some tremolo/vibrato bridges to consider are:
- Locking Tremolo, eg. Floyd Rose
- Fender Synchronized Tremolo
- Bigsby Vibrato
- Fender Floating Bridge
Hardtail bridges like the Adjusto-Matic and Tune-O-Matic are user-friendly because they require little maintenance. They have six adjustable saddles to tune each string to intonate the guitar, and you can change out one string without having to undo all the others. However, you can’t use a whammy bar with them.
In the Know
You’re all caught up and up to speed on the major components and features to look for on an electric guitar. Together, we’ve covered everything from the body style to the hardware and even how much to spend on a guitar.
You’re well-equipped to shop smartly for your first or next buy. What’s next? Pick out a handful of guitars and check out the reviews to get specific details about each of them. If you can get some hands-on experience, it’ll be worth gold.
Making the right choice isn’t always as easy as you’d expect it to be as sound and playability is subjective. But, with some knowledge in your brain bank and a bit of expert advice, you can make it a little easier on yourself. From newb to well-informed buyer, now you’re in the know.
Congratulations, it’s time to make music magic!