There’s a lot to consider when it comes to buying an electric guitar – whether it’s your first or twenty-first! With so many brands and models on the market today, which one is best for you?
But there are more questions – are you a beginner, or do you have 20 years playing experience under your belt? Are you on a tight budget, or is money no object? Do you prefer funk, or are you a full-on metalhead? Somewhere the perfect guitar is waiting for you, and – with hundreds of reviews on this site – chances are we have featured it on these pages!
As a side note, if you’re looking for an acoustic instead of an electric, check out our complete round-up of the top rated acoustic guitars.
Defining The Term “Best”
The beauty of an electric guitar is there are so many manufacturers, models, shapes and styles. Why? Because everyone has different tastes. So the word ‘best’ is relative to the player. For example, hand me a $350 Ibanez Roadstar and I will happily play it for hours. Give me a $2,000 Telecaster and I will probably shrug.
While I appreciate the style, heritage and importance of the Tele, I’m just not as fussed when it’s compared to an Ibanez – no matter how much the price difference! Playing guitar is a very personal thing, so a five-star review for me may not be a five-star guitar for you.
Chances are, if you’re a complete newcomer to playing guitar you may not want to spend $4,000 on a custom Les Paul. And if you are a pro, an entry-level Squier Strat is unlikely to float your boat. This is why we categorize our reviews – Beginners, Under $200, Under $300, Under $500, Under $1000.
It also helps if you have a budget to stick to. If you have $300, you’re probably not going to want to be browsing the $1000 guitars, unless you want to be frustrated by all the guitars you can’t afford.
Remember that in each comparison article we summarize the guitars, but there are also links to more in-depth reviews for each one.
How We Rate Them
When rating a guitar we look at everything it has to offer in both looks and sound, although the ratings are separated into four key areas: Design, Features, Performance, and Value.
First we look at the design of the guitar: How does it look? What is the paintwork like? Any outstanding graphics or colors? What wood is the body, neck, and fretboard made from? How many frets are there and what size are they? What is the scale length? It’s also worth noting that the design is the most personal of all the ratings. For example, some people will love ESP’s eye-meltingly unique George Lynch Signature Kamakazi, while others will pretty much hate it. So the design ratings are very subjective!
Next we look at the features and hardware of the guitar. What brand are the pickups? Is the bridge fixed or is there a tremolo system? Is there a locking nut or anything else to help with tuning stability? Does it come with a case? We also take this opportunity to look at any special features that define the guitar – perhaps a bridge that never goes out of tune, or a control switch that makes the guitar do crazy things.
In this section we look at the overall performance of the guitar. How does it feel to play and what does it sound like? The ultimate sound you achieve will largely depend on the amp you play through, but the guitar itself will play a huge part in sounding good. Do the pickups give enough clarity? How comfortable is the neck to get up and down? Is it built for speed? The more expensive a guitar, the better the performance should be, and this is taken into consideration when rating it.
The last rating is the value, which gives you an idea of how good a purchase the guitar is for the money. You’d expect most sub-$200 guitars would give you good value for money, while guitars in the $1000 have to work harder to justify their price tags. Finally it’s worth noting that each rating is relative to its overall price. Of course a $2000 Gibson is likely to play and sound so much better than a $150 Squier, but they may both receive a rating of around 8 for features because we keep the ratings relative to the price.
Breaking It Down
As I’ve mentioned, there are five categories (for now) that we split our electric guitar reviews into: Beginners, Cheap, Under $300, Under $500, Under $1000. The names of each category are pretty self explanatory, but we elaborate on each of these below.
Remember that in these comparisons we only summarize the guitars briefly. By clicking on the title of each guitar you will find extended reviews with more information about the model’s design, features and performance.
Never picked up a guitar before? This is the section to start off in. The majority of these guitars will be in the cheaper end of the $100 to $600 price range, and what you go for will depend largely on your budget.
If you’re not sure whether you will stick with electric guitar, go cheap and cheerful. You can always upgrade at a later stage. However if you feel guitar is in your blood and you are aiming to become the next Joe Satriani, going for a guitar in the higher end of this section will definitely pay off in the long run.
There probably won’t be anything special when it comes to features on these beginner guitars – especially in the lower end – but you will have everything you need to start learning your first chords, riffs and solos. You’ll find all sorts of brands, with Squier, ESP, and
Yamaha all standing out as top manufacturers.
Make sure to check out our huge comparison article on the best electric guitars for beginners, which gives you everything you need to know about buying your first guitar.
An affordable and stylish performer from Ibanez, and part of the famous RG series. The RG450DX has a double cutaway basswood body, with an exceptional Wizard III neck, made from maple and cut to a flat and thin modern D-shape. The Edge-Zero II Tremolo bridge is fantastic, and keeps the guitar in great tune with good sustain.
With a classic Strat-inspired look, the budget Yamaha Pacifica PAC112V sets the bar high for all other budget and entry-level guitars. It's fun to play, had a good tonal range, looks great and feels like it is built to last. An extraordinary guitar for such a wallet-friendly price.
The Epiphone Les Paul Standard has plenty of Les Paul style and tone, but with a much more wallet-friendly price tag. The single cutaway body is made from mahogany with a maple top. Epiphone's LockTone Tune-o-matic bridge and stopbar provides great sustain and precise intonation on each string, while the Grover tuners give excellent tuning stability.
Think you can’t get a decent guitar for less than $150? Think again! You can actually find some insanely low priced guitars that function properly, perform well, and sound pretty good.
If you’re looking in this price range you may be a beginner who fancies giving guitar a go without breaking the bank. Or you may be more experienced, looking for something you can travel with, take to the beach, or leave on the couch without worrying about it getting damaged.
But note that guitars in this price range aren’t likely to be without their faults. You will probably need to take them to a local guitar pro for a set-up if buying online, as fret edges may be sharp and the action may be too high or low. Finishes can be a little rough in some places, and you won’t get anything in the way of luxury looks or features – there’s a lot more plastic used in the under $150 range!
But for a complete beginner, or a second (or third, or fourth) guitar, it’s hard to go wrong with something under $150 – just don’t expect perfection. The current top 3:
This budget OE20G from Washburn's Oscar Schmidt is an impressive guitar. The single cutaway mahogany body has a beautiful glossy golden finish and plenty of Les Paul style. There's a maple set neck, with a rosewood fretboard and 22 frets. Finally, you get a solid Tune-o-matic bridge with a stopbar tailpiece. An excellent all rounder.
A real hybrid guitar in looks, the Squier '51 takes inspiration from Fender's Stratocaster, Telecaster and P-Bass. Available in three vintage colors, there's a double cutaway basswood body with a single-ply pickguard that extend across the top of the face. Unique looks, awesome sound, very versatile, and great value.
Dean's entry-level ML XM is a very wise purchase – with iconic looks that will appeal to beginner metalheads. It features a double cutaway solid Paulownia body, with a bolt-on C-shaped neck made from maple, a rosewood fretboard, and 22 frets. It has a solid string-through Tune-o-matic style fixed bridge, which is great for sustain.
The quality of guitars in the under $300 price range is naturally much higher than the cheapest guitars we have reviewed, although this is still budget territory and most guitars will be the manufacturer’s entry-level models. But look around and you can find some real quality from manufacturers like Epiphone, ESP, Oscar Schmidt, and Fender.
The finishes may not be flawless and you’ll still find a few sharp frets here and there, but generally things start to improve. Pickups – of course – will remain basic, and you won’t see any pro features, but body woods, necks, tuning stability, and overall versatility will certainly improve.
And if you’re looking for an instrument to modify – maybe adding new pickups or tuners – this is the cheapest price range you want to look at, as anything lower won’t give you as solid a base. The current top 3:
Epiphone's LP-100 Les Paul is an excellent guitar that resembles a Les Paul – just without the eye-watering price tag. The single cut-away body is made from mahogany with a maple top, and is lighter and slimmer than the original. While it's not classed as a premium guitar - it's so much more than a starter, and would suit any intermediate or advanced player.
Squier’s Vintage Modified Mustang is an affordable guitar showing off great vintage looks and sounds. There’s a double cutaway, solid basswood body with a unique 24” scale length, which comes in three colors. The only let down is the floating bridge with dynamic vibrato tailpiece, which is a little unreliable.
The OE20QTE from Washburn's Oscar Schmidt subsidiary offers great looks and a solid performance for an incredible budget price. The quilted tiger eye paint job on the single cutaway mahogany body is eye-catching and has nice craftsmanship, looking more expensive than it is. It's hard to criticize anything on this budget guitar – it's great value.
If you can up your budget to $500, the quality and range on offer literally doubles. These are guitars that will allow you to jam, gig, and record with confidence.
Firstly you are more likely to find a style you love. In cheaper price ranges it’s hard to find much more than Strat, Tele, or Les Paul-influenced designs – although there are certainly exceptions – however in this $500 range you can find some awesome and unique looks suitable for just about any style, as well as some pretty cool signature models.
The build quality, finishes, woods, pickups, controls, and tuners all feel more solid and durable, and you are likely to find a great guitar to jam, gig, or record with. Yamaha, Dean, Ibanez, Fender, Gretsch, Schecter, and Epiphone all offer some seriously good guitars in this price range. The current top 3:
This great-looking Indonesian-made model from Californian manufacturers Schecter offers good performance and versatility at a price everyone can afford. This model features two Schecter Diamond Plus high-output alnico humbuckers at the neck and the bridge. These pack a good punch and provide great overdriven and vintage tones for the price.
Ibanez have produced a real winner with this affordable version of Steve Vai's signature JEM, complete with 'monkey grip' and Tree of Life inlays. There's an edgy, double cutaway solid mahogany body, with all white paintwork. It's quite versatile, with a five-way pickup selector switch, and control knobs for master tone and volume.
Whether you're a diehard Blink 182 fan or punk rocker after an aggressive rock sound, Epiphone's Tom Delonge Signature ES-333 is a winner. With a classic ES double cutaway shape and 24.75” scale length, the body features a mahogany center block wrapped with maple laminate, finished with a unique paint job complete with cream racing stripe.
Spending between $500 and $1000 will usually get you a lot of guitar, and one that will be able to handle anything you throw at it.
Mostly everything about a guitar in this price range feels premium, and the sound quality and playability is enough to put a smile on any guitarist’s face. You also start to find advanced features such as brand-name pickups, active pickups, and EverTune bridges, as well as unique signature models that are too expensive for manufacturers to produce as a budget line.
Ibanez, Jackson, PRS, and Schecter make some exceptional guitars in this price range, offering good value for money, while you also begin to see some genuine Gibsons and made-in-America Fenders on the market. Guitars in this price range should pretty much last you a lifetime, if you look after them. The current top 3:
A great looking guitar from Ibanez that is matched in hardware and performance. This is a really rigid, three-piece maple set neck with ebony fretboard and 22 treated frets. There's an abundance of tone, warmth and sustain, as well as comfort and that 'wow factor' thanks to the design. Superb!
This affordable version of B.B. King's precious guitar Lucille is a brilliant blues performer – crammed with features, offering unrivaled versatility. The beautiful double cutaway ebony body is made from laminated maple, with a hand-set C-shaped maple neck. Lucille also features Epiphone's LockTone Tune-o-matic bridge with a TP-6 fine-tuning stopbar tailpiece.
An affordable, solid and gorgeous Gibson, brand new for 2016. They have created this 2016 T with a snazzy vintage look and quality satin paint job. The classic Les Paul single cutaway has a carved maple top with mahogany back and a modern weight relief, meaning it's solid but light enough to play for hours.
The Guitar Brands
From the giants like Fender and Gibson, to smaller brands like PRS and Schecter, there are so many guitar manufacturer out there catering to any style or budget. Here are some of the most popular:
Fender are perhaps the world’s most famous electric guitar brand. Founded by Leo Fender in California in 1946, they are famed for producing the first ever mass-produced solid-body electric guitar. Since then, Fenders have been used by some of the biggest names in music, from Jimi Hendrix and Buddy Holly, to Paul McCartney and Eric Clapton. These days the company’s headquarters are in Scottsdale, Arizona, and they still produce two of the most iconic models of all time – the Stratocaster and the Telecaster.
Founded in 1902, Gibson began life producing mandolins and other instruments, before making hollow-body electric guitars in the thirties. Their first solid-body guitar came in 1952 – the Les Paul, which remains one of the most iconic guitars in the world. They are also well known for pioneering some classic guitar shapes such as the SG, the Explorer, and the Flying V. Used by everyone from James Hetfield to B.B. King, Gibson’s are manufactured in three American factories – two in Tennessee and one in Montana.
Originally a string manufacturer based in Michigan, Squier was acquired by Fender in the sixties, and in 1982 it became a subsidiary that produced low cost versions of Fender’s most famous guitars – now made everywhere from Mexico to Japan. Squier also make several original models, such as the Jagmaster, and the ’51.
Epiphone are a well respected subsidiary of Gibson, and have been making musical instruments since their founding in what is now Turkey, Europe, in 1873. After being acquired by Gibson in 1957, Epiphone are now best known for manufacturing affordable versions of some of the most iconic guitar models around, including the Les Paul and SG. However they do make a couple of original models, such as the Casino, which was famously used by the Beatles.
Ibanez are a Japanese guitar brand founded in Nagoya, Japan in 1957. They began by building copies of Fender and Gibson models, but – a couple of lawsuits later – they started creating their own models, which are now icons in their own right. Their line currently includes their famous Roadstar (RG), the thin-bodied S series, and several artist signature models, including guitars for Steve Vai, Joe Satriani, and Mick Thomson.
A real household name, Yamaha make everything from motorcycles to grand pianos! But the Japanese company also produce a great range of affordable electric guitars, which they have done since the early sixties. Their very successful Pacifica range was launched in 1990, and includes their entry-level PAC012 to their premium PAC611, and everything in between.
ESP started life in Japan in 1975 as Electric Sound Products – a single store that provided replacements parts for guitars. These days they are a huge guitar manufacturer and a big name in heavy metal, having supplied guitars for Metallica, Megadeth, and Slayer, among others. ESP also own the subsidiary LTD, who produce low priced, entry-level versions of their guitars.
Dean Guitars is an American manufacturer, founded in Chicago in 1977. They build their guitars for speed players, and are famed for their eye-catching models, including the iconic Razorback. Signature models are also a specialty and they produce guitars for the likes of Dave Mustaine and Michael Angelo Batio, as well as huge line of Dimebag Darrell signature models.
One of the newer brands on this list, Jackson Guitars was established in Glendora, California in 1980. However they’ve made a huge impact to the world of metal, and their guitars are used by some of the biggest names – Randy Rhoads, Adrian Smith, and David Ellefson to name a few. Some of their most famous models include the Soloist, and the Rhoads.
Another Californian company on this list, B.C. Rich have been producing heavy rock guitars since arriving on the scene in 1969. They are renown for creating guitars of weird and wonderful shapes, including the Warlock, and the Mockingbird. Their guitars have been used by Slash, Kerry King, and Paul Stanley, among others.
Although originally founded in California in 1979 as a company that made replacement parts for guitars, Schecter now produce many models of their own – both mass-produced and custom shop guitars. Like the others on this list, Schecter provide guitars for some big names and have a range of signature models including the guitars of Dan Donegan, Keith Merrow, and Jeff Loomis.
Gretsch was founded in 1883 in Brooklyn, with their biggest boom coming in the fifties and sixties, at the birth of rock n’ roll. Famed for making hollow and semi-hollow models, their guitars were used by icons including Chuck Berry, Chet Atkins, Bo Diddley, and George Harrison. Since 2002 the production side of things has been run by Fender, although the Gretsch family still own the company.
Paul Reed Smith Guitars (better known as PRS) is a Maryland-based manufacturer, and relatively new in the world of guitars – founded in 1980, when they began making a series of hand-built guitars. Today they have a wide range of models, which are built in both Asia and America, as well as a full roster of artists playing their guitars; including Mike Oldfield, Dave Navarro, Carlos Santana, and Mark Tremonti.
Born in 1883 in Chicago, Washburn Guitars are very good at what they do, and – while they are better known for their electro-acoustics – they also produce a wide range of solid body electric guitars, including their Nuno Bettencourt series. Washburn also own the subsidiary Oscar Schmidt, who produce some very good low cost, entry-level models.
Where To Buy?
So you’ve read all the reviews, watched the videos, tried a few out, and finally found the right guitar for you – now you’ll want to buy it! And there are several options available to you.
An online retailer is likely to be your first port of call. Places like Amazon, Musician’s Friend, and Sweetwater have a huge selection of guitars in all price ranges. It’s easy to compare prices and find the best deals pretty quickly, and it’s usually hard to beat online retailers for price.
But while online is a good starting point, the advantages of buying in a store are just as good. Firstly, it can sometimes work out cheaper if you are able to strike up a deal – ask them what they can do if you buy a guitar and amp together and you may be surprised.
Another advantage of heading to your nearest Guitar Centre or local independent guitar store is you will have the chance to test out any models that take your fancy. You also get to inspect them for any imperfections that may cause problems at a later stage.
Finally, one of the biggest advantages of buying in store is that the guitar will be usually set up correctly by a pro, which can be the difference between a decent and a great sounding guitar. It’s also much easier to return a guitar to a store if there’s a problem – no need to fuss around with posting and packaging.
Purchasing a new guitar isn’t something you’re going to do often, unless you have an endless stream of cash (and if that’s the case, lucky you!). So you will want to ensure you are buying the right guitar for you, because it’s not a nice feeling playing on something you regret buying – your licks and riffs will sound very sad indeed!
So when you do go to buy a new model, have an idea of what you want to do with it. Is it something for you to learn on? Do you plan to gig, or even record, with your band? Your aspirations will define what you should spend.
Make sure to try out as many guitars as you can, if possible. Chances are you may find something you didn’t originally consider, but something that makes complete sense when you are holding it.
Buying a guitar is not always as easy as walking into a store, pointing at the first one you see, and saying ‘I want that one’. It’s a very personal experience that will depend on your budget, style, and aspirations. Put some time into selecting the right one and you will have years of great playing ahead.
By reading our guides and reviews you should get a much better picture of what guitar will suit you best. Keep checking back, as we update our reviews regularly and there’s always something new to read. While you are here, sign up for our newsletter for more tips, news and opinion.