Electric Guitar Buying Guide: Deciding Which One to Buy


Choosing which electric guitar to buy is a tough choice, whether you’re a beginner or a professional player with years of experience. In this article, I’ll take you through everything you need to consider and how to narrow down your choices so you purchase the best electric guitar for you.

At a Glance

The best way to choose which electric guitar to buy, is to make a list of around 10 models in your budget that look suitable, then try them in the store. You should look for the electric guitar which sounds, looks and feels best to you, and consider how versatile the guitar needs to be.

A few key questions you can ask yourself are:

  • What style of music do you enjoy?
  • What guitar does you your favourite player use?
  • What guitar body shape and style do you like the most?

This is a pretty big topic, so in order to help you make the right decision, I’ve split this article into the following sections.

Contents

  • Types of electric guitar
  • Considering the tone
  • Playability
  • Appearance
  • Affordable vs Expensive Guitars
  • Does Brand and Origin Matter?
  • Step-by-Step Method to Narrowing Down the Choices
  • Tips on Trying a Guitar in the Store
  • New vs Second Hand Electric Guitars
  • Popular Brands and Options
  • What Else You’ll Need

Types of Electric Guitar

There are three main types of electric guitar:

  • Solid body
  • Semi-hollow body
  • Hollow body

Solid body guitars are the most popular type and what people usually think of when they picture an electric guitar. They are very versatile and do not suffer from feedback issues.

Semi-hollow and hollow body guitars are lighter and generally suit cleaner tones more, since they are susceptible to feedback. This is why they are often used for genres like jazz, blues and even indie. The advantage, is that they typically sound more resonant and acoustic, which suits some styles of music more than a solid body. They are also lighter than solid body guitars, despite having a larger frame.

I’ve written a full article comparing semi-hollow and hollow body guitars here if you want to learn more.

You can identify a semi-hollow or hollow body electric guitar as they will have either one or two “f-holes” on the front of the body.

For most players, a solid body guitar is usually the preferred choice, especially for beginners who are unsure of what music style they want to play, or have their heart set on using lots of distortion instead of clean tones.

With the solid body electric guitar family, there are multiple different shapes. Here are the most common:

  • S-Type (Fender Stratocaster shape)
  • T-Type (Fender Telecaster shape)
  • LP-Type (Gibson Les Paul shape)
  • SG-Type (Gibson SG shape)
  • Explorer Type (Gibson Explorer shape)
  • V-Type (Gibson Flying V shape)
  • Offset-Type (e.g. Fender Jaguar, Jazzmaster and Mustang)

Although these shapes were originally released by Fender and Gibson, there are multiple very similar designs offered by other popular brands such as Ibanez, ESP, Jackson, Schecter, Yamaha and PRS.

When considering shape, you need to decide which looks the best, and feels the comfiest to you. Although this is all personal preference there are some things you can keep in mind:

  • Double cutaway guitars (e.g. S-type and SG-type) offer very good access to the upper frets.
  • Single cutaway guitars (e.g. T-type and LP-type) are often heavier.
  • Alternative body shapes such as the V-type and Explorer type are often more difficult to play whilst sitting.

Considering the Tone

Choosing an electric guitar that sounds great is of course, extremely important. However, tone is subjective and what sounds good to me, might not sound good to you. Some players are looking for a specific tone which is hard to achieve with many guitars, and others want something more versatile.

The pickups are the most important thing to consider here. There are multiple other factors you can consider including tone wood, shape and size, however the pickups are crucial in dictating how the guitar sounds. If you want to learn more about the other factors, then check out my article on 7 factors that impact how an electric guitar sounds.

Pickup Type

There are three main types of pickups: single coils, humbuckers and P90s. Here’s a brief outline of each.

  • Single coil: these sound the quietest (lowest output), brightest and also the thinnest. They are the most susceptible to feedback when using distortion, however they can suit a variety of music styles. They are often used for country, pop and rock, but rarely heavy metal. Single coil pickups are commonly found on Stratocasters and Telecasters.
  • Humbucker: these sound the loudest (highest output), warmest and fullest. They are the least susceptible to feedback, so often used for music styles which require distorted amp settings such as metal and rock. Humbucker pickups are often found on Les Pauls.
  • P90: these are technically single coil pickups but they have a wide bobbin which gives them a higher output. They are less susceptible to feedback than single coils, but not as warm and full as humbuckers, making them very versatile.

These pickups can come in a few different designs, so here are some images to illustrate.

Some guitars may have either one, two or three pickups, and these can be a mixture of single coils, humbuckers or P90s. Mixing pickup types can provide a guitar with more versatility. I’ve written a full guide to the best pickup configurations if you want to learn more.

Active vs Passive Pickups

To complicate things a little further, as well as the different types of pickups, you can also get different technologies. Some pickups are described as “passive” and others are described as “active”.

  • Passive pickups: these do not contain a battery and have a lower output. They are very versatile, however, when using very high gain amp settings, they may sound a bit muddier.
  • Active pickups: these contain a battery and have a higher output. This gives them a boost in volume and also increases the clarity when using high gain, making them a popular choice for metal.

Most guitars have passive pickups, and you are unlikely to find any guitars under $500 with active pickups.

Brands such as Fender, Squier, Gibson and Epiphone rarely have active pickups in their guitars. However, brands such as Ibanez, Schecter, Jackson and ESP which are targeted more towards metal players, will use active pickups more commonly.

Additional Pickup Functions

Some pickups also have additional functionality to help make the guitar more versatile.

The most common feature is a coil split/ tap function on a humbucker pickup. This allows you to switch from the classic humbucker tone, to a single coil type sound, simply by pushing/ pulling on the tone control of the guitar.

When I was looking for a new electric guitar, this was one of the features I specifically looked for, because I wanted to mainly play with high gain but also wanted to option to play more twangy and bright single coil tones.

Other guitars also have things like a phase/ parallel switch which allow you to change the tone of the pickups, however this is less commonly seen. You can usually find this function on some of the Fender offset models.

Again, these features are usually seen on guitars over $500 and are not typically on beginner level models.

Guitar Controls

Finally, in this section I wanted to quickly mention the different switches and controls commonly found on electric guitars. Here are the main ones:

  • Pickup selector: allows you to select between the neck, middle (if there is one) and bridge pickup positions to produce different tones. Some guitars have a 3-way pickup selector and others have a 5-way pickup selector to add more versatility.
  • Tone control: some guitars have one for each pickups, others have just one control that alters both pickups.
  • Volume control: again some guitars have one for each pickups, others have just one control that alters both pickups.

Considering how many controls the guitar has is important if you are looking for something more versatile. However, some players prefer a more simple setup.

Check out my article which explains the different controls and switches on electric guitars to learn more about this topic and help you decide which controls you need.

Playability is Crucial

In my opinion, comfort is the most important factor to consider when buying an electric guitar, especially for beginners. If you don’t feel comfortable playing the instrument, you simply won’t play it as often and you won’t improve as quickly!

It’s hard to tell you in this article which guitar will be most comfortable to you, because it’s so subjective. Although you can definitely get used to playing a certain guitar, you are likely to gel more with some shapes and sizes than others, making the learning process a lot easier.

The best way to figure out which guitar is more comfortable is of course, to try it in a store. Even if you’re a complete beginner, you can sit and stand with the instrument and try holding some strings with your fretting hand and strumming to get a feel for the instrument.

There are several factors to consider when talking about playability. Some can be altered after you’ve purchased the guitar and others can’t.

Cannot be Changed:

  • Body shape
  • Neck shape
  • Neck finish
  • Neck joint
  • Weight

Can be Changed After Purchase:

  • Action
  • String gauge

Let’s focus on the factors that can’t be altered first.

  • Body shape: some guitars are easier to sit and stand with than others. For example, some guitars have a small waist, which allows you to easily balance the guitar on your thigh. Others have two cutaways, giving you great access to the upper frets.
  • Neck shape: some guitars have really round and thick necks which suit players with large hands, others have thin and flat necks which suit players with smaller hands.
  • Neck finish: guitars with a satin neck finish often feel “faster” than guitars with a gloss finish which can feel stickier and slow you down when moving around the fretboard.
  • Neck joint: the way the guitar’s neck and body are joined together can impact playability. A chunky heel joint which sticks out from the back of the guitar can make upper fret access difficult. A streamline joining will feel much more comfortable.
  • Weight: some guitars are very light such as the Gibson/ Epiphone SG, whereas some are much heavier, like the Les Paul. Consider this if you often play with the guitar standing up for long periods.

The other factors which can be changed include the string gauge and action (height the string is in comparison to the fretboard). These can be altered during a guitar’s “set-up”, where you can take the instrument to a guitar tech in the store to make changes to improve the playability.

Pick One that Looks Great to You

I’m a big believer that you should choose a guitar which appeals visually to you, and that this is a massive factor to consider when making your purchase. There are so many models of electric guitar on the market today, that you don’t have to sacrifice playability or tone for looks, and it’s definitely possible to get all three on most budgets.

Try not to be too heavily influenced by friends when making your decision. Although it’s a good idea to choose a similar style or colour of guitar to your favourite player as it can inspire you to play more often, it’s best to mostly ignore the opinions of friends and relatives when choosing the best looking guitar.

I’ve been guitar shopping with friends before who’ve told me that a guitar I really liked the look of, looked too plain and boring, but actually really appealed to me. It’s daft, but it’s easy to get influenced by other people, so choose the guitar that looks the coolest to you!

There are a few things to consider here:

  • Body shape: this will also impact the playability so consider this too.
  • Colour: most guitars come in a range of colour options.
  • Finish: some models will have a solid colour finish, others have a burst finish. Some guitars also have a maple top, which may have a unique quilted or flame design which becomes more extravagant as the price increases.
This guitar has a maple top giving the finish a unique quilted effect

Affordable vs Expensive Guitars

One of the biggest questions new players ask when choosing an electric guitar, is what’s the difference between a cheap and expensive model?

Usually more expensive guitars have better hardware, pickups, tone wood and more premium finishes compared to cheaper guitars. More expensive guitars are often made with more attention to detail and care (as opposed to being mass produced), and go through more rigorous quality control before being shipped.

Here what usually changes as the price increases:

  • The guitars are often made in countries with better reputations for producing higher quality guitars such as American and Japan.
  • Premium maple top finishes.
  • More expensive tone woods e.g. mahogany and maple compared to basswood.
  • Higher quality and branded pickups from Seymour Duncan, Bare Knuckle, Fishman Fluence, EMG etc.
  • Smoother frets.
  • Nickel hardware.
  • Rounded edges on the fretboard and body.
  • Locking tuners are commonly seen on more expensive guitars which offer better tuning stability.
  • Hard-shell cases often come included.

One thing to note, is that a beginners can play affordable models, or the most expensive. There is no difference in terms of how complicated the guitar is to play when the price increases. So cost and ability level are not at all related, and you should just choose a guitar to suit your budget.

Does Brand and Origin Matter?

I’m very much a believer in the saying “if it sounds good, it is good”. This is why I don’t worry too much about where a guitar was made and the brand it was made by, when making my decision.

Many players believe that American made guitars are the best quality, followed by Japanese, Korean and Mexican, and that Chinese and Indonesian-made guitars are the worst quality because they are often mass produced. Whilst there may be a rough trend to show this, it’s best to take each guitar individually and forget about the “rules” you’ve heard.

Focus on choosing a guitar that sounds, looks and feels best to you, and worry less about what it says on the headstock.

However, it is important to note that some brands make guitars tailored to different music styles and players than others. This determines the tone, look and feel of the instrument.

For example, Fender and Gibson make more traditional and vintage looking and sounding guitars, whereas Ibanez and ESP make guitars which look and sound more modern and aggressive.

I’ve made this graphic below to show where popular brands fall on the spectrum in my opinion. However, keep in mind that a lot of these brands have very vast ranges, so it’s possible to find a Fender that can suit a metal player, and an Ibanez that works best for jazz.

If you’re struggling to choose between brands, check out these articles:

Narrowing Down Your Selection

So how do you actually figure out which electric guitar you should get out of the thousands of options available. Here’s my preferred method:

  • Go online and find a large electric guitar distributor. If you’re in the USA, Guitar Center is a great option, or since I’m in the UK, I like to use Andertons.
  • Filter the results first by setting your budget.
  • Choose whether you want a solid body, semi-hollow or hollow body guitar.
  • If you have any unique requirements such as 7/ 8 strings, filter these as well, or if you require a specific fret number, bridge type (tremolo or fixed) or tone wood.
  • Filter the results by pickup configuration and type. You don’t have to choose just one configuration remember, you can still keep your options open at this stage.
  • If you want a guitar in a specific colour or shape, filter the rest out.
  • You should now be left with around 200 guitars or less.
  • Make a list of the 10 guitars which appeal the most visually to you.

Try the Guitars in a Store

Once you’ve got your list of guitars, ring up your local guitar store and see how many they have in stock. Just focus on the model and not the colour here. You just need to try them out and you don’t actually need to end up buying them from that specific shop.

Try as many guitars from your list as you can, but keep your eyes open for any other models that appeal to you in the store, as they may have a slightly different selection.

This is the step where you decide which sounds and feels best to you. If you’re an experienced player, then try the following:

  • Barre chords and power chords
  • Open chords
  • Palm muting
  • Using the upper frets

You should be comparing how the neck profile feels, the neck finish you prefer (satin or gloss), access to the upper frets, the weight and position when sitting and standing with the guitar.

Make sure you utilise all the controls on the guitar including the pickup selector, tone and volume knobs, and the coil split/ tap function if the guitar has one.

Even if you’re a beginner, you can still try sitting and standing with the guitar, and strum a few notes and try holding a few frets to see how the instrument feels. To get an idea of the tone, ask the guitar assistant to play a few chords and riffs.

Take your time, guitars are expensive so you need to choose the right one.

After trying the models on your list, you’re likely to have narrowed it down to 2 or 3. At this point, it’s best to think about which looks the best to you, as this is the one you’re most likely to play more!

This is the process I used to buy my electric guitar and I was more than happy with my final decision. I tried a PRS SE Custom 24 in my local store, however they didn’t have the colour I wanted, so I pick it up online instead.

Ordering a guitar online is completely fine to do (if it’s brand new), just make sure you’ve already tried that model in the store, and you’re purchasing it from a reputable shop.

New or Second-Hand

Getting a second-hand guitar is a great way to get a premium instrument, on a smaller budget. However, you need to be quite cautious and I’d advise against any beginners or inexperienced players getting a used guitar as there are several things you need to look out for.

You need to know how old the guitar is, if it has any faults/ cosmetic damage and if it has been repaired or any parts changed in the past.

Also, make sure you check the guitar carefully for any fret buzz. I bought my previous guitar second-hand, and unfortunately noticed fret buzz when it was too late because I didn’t check it properly when I tried it out. Even a very experienced guitar tech told me that it couldn’t be fixed, so it wasn’t a very good purchase!

Keep in mind that the guitar will likely need a set-up, or at the very least a fretboard clean and string change. Often this can cost anywhere from $25-$75 depending on how much work it needs, so keep this in mind when buying a used model.

In terms of how much money you can save on a second-hand guitar, it really depends on the brand. Some brands such as Gibson and Fender hold their value better than other brands such as Ibanez and ESP.

Here’s a quick table to show the average prices of new models and used models which are very good condition.

GuitarNew PriceSecond-Hand PriceReduction
Fender American Professional Strat/ Tele$1550$125019%
Fender Player Strat/ Tele$800$55031%
Squier Classic Vibe Strat/ Tele$450$30033%
Gibson Les Paul Traditional$2000$160020%
Epiphone Les Paul Standard$600$45025%
Second-hand vs new electric guitar prices

I’ve also written a full guide with tonnes of examples of how much used guitars are in comparison to brand new models. Check it out if you want to see what the average saving is.

Popular Options and Brands

The three most popular electric guitars are the Fender Stratocaster, Fender Telecaster and Gibson Les Paul. Squier also make more affordable versions of the Strat and Tele, whilst Gibson make a more affordable version of the Les Paul. These instruments look the most iconic and produce recognisable tones that are difficult to achieve with other guitars.

I’ve written a full guide comparing the Strat, Tele and Les Paul which you can check out if you’re trying to decide between these three.

You can find affordable, entry-level versions of these guitars which start at around $150, and premium models which cost several thousands, plus everything in between. This is one of the reasons why these models are still so popular today.

If you’re looking for something more catered towards the metal scene, then check out the following brands:

  • Ibanez
  • ESP
  • Schecter
  • Jackson
  • BC Rich

Alternatively, if you want a semi-hollow/ hollow body, then these brands offer great options:

  • Gretsch
  • D’Angelico
  • Epiphone/ Gibson
  • PRS
  • Ibanez
  • Guild
  • Cort

Brands that offer a wide selection of versatile guitars include:

  • Fender/ Squier
  • Gibson/ Epiphone
  • PRS
  • Ibanez
  • Yamaha
  • Chapman

If you’re struggling to choose between brands, check out these articles:

I also have multiple in-depth comparison between specific guitar models:

What Else Do I Need?

If you’re getting into the electric guitar for the first time, then you’ll also need some other equipment to get started properly.

You can play the electric guitar unplugged, but you need an amplifier to get the full experience. You can either purchase an amp separately, or in a “starter pack” which includes a guitar, amp and cable at a discounted price.

The starter packages are perfect for beginners who want to keep their spending to a minimum, but if you have your heart set on a particular guitar or amp, don’t be afraid to stray from the pack.

To help you make your decision, check out my complete checklist of everything you need to play the electric guitar.

Here are some more articles you might find useful:

Heather

Hey, I'm Heather. I started playing an electric guitar when I was given a Squier Strat for my birthday around 15 years ago. I now own an acoustic guitar and several electric guitars including my personal favourite, a PRS SE Custom 24.

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