Let’s say you’re getting your first guitar – or your tenth.
Maybe you’re looking to try out a different brand.
Whether you’re a loyalist to one guitar maker, a connoisseur of all brands, or more of just a casual strummer, it’s helpful to educate yourself on the most popular lines and learn what makes each one so great.
Don’t worry – you don’t have to become a Fender expert or learn everything about Gibson’s history or anything like that, but it does pay off to do your homework before making a final decision.
Some people simply find what they like and just stick to that throughout their entire musical career. Others, though, have a greater proclivity to try out different things and discover, through a process of exploration and experimentation, what feels best to them.
When you’re looking for a very particular sound or want to make sure you’re setting yourself off on the right foot with your first guitar, there are some brands that it’s hard to go wrong with.
What kind of guitar are you looking for?
This is one of the first questions you should ask yourself. At the most basic level, you’ll want to decide whether you want to play acoustic or electric. Within those two categories are a plethora of subcategories, but you can make it easier on yourself by keeping it general to start with.
Although the acoustic guitar is often associated with lighter music and electric guitar is seen more as a heavy, loud instrument, both can be used in a broad range of genres. It often comes down to the amplifier and the effects you use that determine the type of sound you’ll produce. Acoustic-electric guitars have a pickup that allows you to plug them straight into an amp without the need for a microphone.
There are also hollow-body electric guitars, which usually make people think of ’50s rock and roll or jazz music. But these types of guitars have a uniquely rich and full tone that is can sound great in just about any genre.
Additionally, classical guitars are used to play – fittingly enough – classical music, and have a sound and feel that’s quite different from standard guitars. Besides the nylon strings, they also have a wider neck and allow for greater articulation expression and range. However, unless you’re looking to master the works of Bach and Paganini, you’ll want to make sure that you don’t accidentally buy a classical guitar.
You’ll also want to consider your own body: Do you have small hands? Are your fingers long or short? Do you prefer something with a smaller body so it feels less bulky? These are all key considerations that will help you pick the perfect instrument for you.
Finally, you’ll probably also want to consider the aesthetics of the instrument – what looks coolest. Inevitably, you’re probably going to care what your guitar looks like, although that probably shouldn’t be your primary consideration when shopping for a musical instrument. The main concern should be around the sounds you’ll be able to make with the instrument, but as visually-oriented beings, it’s hard to say that the look of the guitar doesn’t matter.
What style of music do you want to play?
What’s your personal playing style and preferences? Most of the time when people set out to learn the guitar, they already have a specific genre or genres that they envision themselves playing in and possibly even specific songs they want to learn. Still, some others decide they want to pick up the skill with little more in mind than learning “On Top of Old Smokey.”
Whether you find your way into the wonderful world of guitars with specific musical goals in mind or are simply leaving it as an open-ended journey, choosing the right guitar makes for a more enjoyable and productive experience. You’ll be able to learn more efficiently on an instrument that’s well suited for you, and you’ll be able to truly shine in your style of choice with an ax that was designed specifically for that type of music.
Those who are singer-songwriters might not think so much about genre but focus more on the songwriting process and see where it leads them. For guitarists taking this type of free, intuitive, creative approach, it’s important to choose a guitar that’s versatile enough to empower the artist’s freedom of expression.
Most Popular Guitar Brands
No matter what genre, style, skill level – these are the guitar manufacturers that you can count on. As you’ll find, some are better than others if you have specific things you want from an instrument. But all of the companies mentioned below have solid reputations and plenty to offer.
Founded by Orville Gibson in 1902, this brand’s popularity and acoustic guitar innovation started all the way back in the 1930s, when big band was the music of the day. Many have attempted to imitate the Gibson Super 400, but far fewer have succeeded. The Les Paul was Gibson’s first crack at a solid-body electric guitar in 1952, and it went exceedingly well.
Gibsons are usually constructed of mahogany, maple, ebony, and rosewood – woods that are high in quality and increasingly harder to find in the wild, so that has had a definite impact on the price of these instruments. But for many discerning players, the price tag is worth the results. These superior types of wood are the only ones that can resonate in such a way to produce the amazing quality of sound that Gibson players have come to expect from the brand. They usually have a humbucker instead of a single-coil pickup.
For superior quality, finish, and setup, you can’t go wrong with a Gibson. But with the recent improvements that have been made to the quality of guitars that are built en masse on an assembly line, it may be worth it to consider more economical options if you are shopping on a budget.
This is a brand with a great reputation. Some would say their build quality is right in line with the other great guitar makers. Guild guitars boast a tone that generally lies somewhere between a Taylor and a Martin, to give you a frame of reference.
Guild has been in business for more than half a century. That experience level enables the company to produce quality instruments at a competitive value. More importantly of all, Guild produces instruments that sound great and are fun to play. It is among the most historic manufacturers of guitars in the world, and crafting iconic instruments is what they’re best known for.
Córdoba Music Group acquired Guild in 2014 from Fender Musical Instruments Corporation, and the company still produces amazing guitars that are definitely worth your consideration.
If you’re thinking about going acoustic, Seagull may be the way to go. The company has been delivering excellent guitars for 37 years and is considered one of the best. It’s a sub-brand of Godin Guitars, founded by Robert Godin in 1982.
One of the main attractions of these guitars is the headstock. The tuning machines are more or less in line with the nut, which makes it more stable when you’re tuning.
This brand has been notably played by James Blunt, the U.K. singer-songwriter, and Peppino D’Agostino, the Italian acoustic guitarist. It’s also been rocked by Kim Deal, an American musician, the Canadian singer Emm Gryner, who rocks a Seagull Folk S6 Original, and Michalis Hatzigiannis, the famous Greek singer, who plays on a Seagull Performer Mini-Jumbo QI.
This is without a doubt one of the first names that spring to many people’s minds when they think of guitars. Who can forget the classic image of an electric black and white Stratocaster? It’s definitely one of the most iconic guitar brands worldwide, and for good reason: they make amazing instruments.
Fender boasts an excellent selection, so there’s something for everyone. No matter what kind of music you want to play, what feel of instrument you prefer, or – importantly – what kind of budget you’re working with, Fender’s sure to have you covered. The company offers affordable models with an impressively high level of quality and consistency. These instruments make not only great starters for beginners but also pro-level tools for serious musicians.
Fenders usually have a single-coil pickup, which gives them a brighter – albeit thinner – sound quality that many guitarists prefer.
Here’s a video that shows how Fender guitars are made:
Ibanez is an excellent brand with a strong reputation in the industry for its guitars and basses. It’s generally considered the third-biggest brand of guitar makers after Fender and Gibson. They offer options for both amateurs and professionals, serving the metal and hard rock genres in particular
A defining characteristic of Ibanez guitars is the fast neck, which means you can rip out those demanding licks with ease. It cannot be stressed enough how important neck shape is on a guitar’s playability, and Ibanez really nails it. As such, it’s a highly popular manufacturer among shredders.
The unrivaled comfort and playability of these guitars is an asset for players in any imaginable subgenre of metal. Every aspect of these instruments – from the materials used, the girth and shape of the neck, as well as the width of the fretboard – contributes to the smooth, superior feel of an Ibanez.
Although they’re traditionally geared towards metal and other heavy genres, you can still bust out a smooth jazz solo on an Ibanez. There’s nothing to stop rock, blues, and jazz guitarists from taking advantage of these guitars’ excellent sound and performance.
Taylors are generally quite well-known among acoustic guitarists. They’re famous for their innovative manufacturing, allowing them to produce extremely high-quality guitars and only charge a fraction of what the other manufacturers do. Founded in Southern California by Bob Taylor in 1974, Taylor guitars became extremely popular very quickly – and they’ve never really fallen out of favor in all those years.
Taylor guitars are built from a variety of materials, but they always produce excellent instruments. They’re manufactured in El Cajon, California, and Tecate, Mexico.
The sound quality of a Taylor guitar is noticeably on the brighter side of the spectrum, but this is achieved without sacrificing any of the richness. They’re still relied upon by countless artists for their unique sound, distinctive feel, and signature look.
These instruments are designed to have plenty of clarity, allowing each note to ring out true and ensuring every lick – that you’ve worked so hard to master – reaches the audience’s ears. With reliable consistency from guitar to guitar, each build is of great quality, making Taylor a quality choice whether it’s for a recording project or playing live gigs.
For a sound with a bit fuller body than a Taylor, you might try out a Martin. The company has been in the guitar game for over 180 years, and many iconic musicians continue to choose this brand as their go-to instrument. These guitars may be on the pricier end of the spectrum, but if you have the money to spend, a Martin guitar is well worth the investment.
Martins are known for their impressive pitch and volume abilities, offering a broad range of dynamics and unrivaled projection. What makes Martins even better is that there are options to suit any budget – everywhere from $100 to $100,000. D-28 is an excellent pick from this maker because of its classic sound and comfortable feel.
There’s plenty of history behind this brand, giving the company a wealth of experience to draw from and inform their guitar design. But the models that Martin makes today have plenty of more recent tweaks and updates to keep up with the modern age. You’ll find sophisticated electronics on their acoustic-electric models that give you the same kind of power that the pros are working with.
Famously, Ed Sheeran plays a Martin – but he’s not the only one. This is a guitar brand that transcends the genres, having been played by such greats as Elvis Willie Nelson, Radiohead’s Thom York, and Nirvana’s Kurt Cobain, proving the versatility of this guitar’s sound.
This is a brand that’s mainly for those who are at the beginner to intermediate level, although Yamaha also has pricier models for the more advanced players. One distinct advantage of this brand is that you can find a Yamaha guitar to suit any playing style or genre of music, no matter what your sound preference is.
Many people are quicker to associate Yamaha with their other instruments: everything from pianos, keyboards, and synthesizers to woodwinds and brass. It’s not often that Yamaha is the first name that springs to mind when it comes to guitars. However, the brand is a highly viable option for just about anyone who wants to rock a six-string.
Yamaha has been making guitars for more than 50 years, starting in acoustic guitars and then later branching out into electric. Their designs are characterized by innovation, which adds plenty of value to the instruments. There’s great overall quality of the build on Yamaha’s guitar models, and the price is hard to beat. You’ll be able to afford some kind of Yamaha at nearly any budget level.
One important factor with this line of guitars is their easy playability thanks to the enhanced comfort. Through innovations in their instruments’ designs making them easier to play, Yamaha offers an ideal learner guitar.
Another top manufacturer, Jackson’s selection of both electric and acoustic guitars is quite impressive. Metalheads particularly love this brand for their pickups that are able to handle high output, which makes them very well suited for heavier genres.
With Jackson guitars, you’ll find great builds that are highly playable and have amazing tone, all within a reasonable price range. The company also makes basses if you’re looking to fill out the low end of your mixes as well.
Jackson was acquired by Fender in 2002 when the company purchased Charvel. One of Jackson’s claims to fame is the fact that they’re a true custom guitar shop that’s been in operation longer than any other in the United States. In fact, many of the guitar makers from Jackson’s original staff are still crafting their superior-quality instruments to this day. Jackson guitars are manufactured in Corona, California, and Ensenada, Mexico.
If you need professional endorsements, here are some names for you: Phil Collen of Def Leppard fame; Metallica’s Kirk Hammet; Lamb of God’s Mark Morton. All of these legends are known to play on Jacksons. Jackson guitars were also formerly played by Vinnie Vincent from KISS and Robin Crosby from Ratt.
If you want a sound that convincingly imitates the sonic profile of a Fender while staying on a modest budget, look no further than Squier. Some would say that Squier guitars are the better pick for those who are just starting out their rock journey, particularly those who don’t have a whole lot of money to spend.
Actually, Fender has owned Squier since 1965. In the ’80s, the company began selling Telecasters and Stratocasters at a much lower cost than they were previously available. This helped to put these quality guitars in the hands of more people, especially beginners and casual players.
You’d be making a great guitar pick with either a Strat or a Tele. Squier has done such a good job with both these iconic models in capturing that signature Fender look, feel – such a good job, in fact, that it’s hard to notice that they’re not genuine Fenders. One important difference? Squiers cost much less.
It’s true that the features you get with these guitars generally aren’t quite as robust as Fender’s. You’ll get more premium specifications with a Fender, but if you’re simply looking to give yourself access to a great instrument without breaking the bank, consider a Squier.
It’s a good idea to be careful when shopping on the cheaper end of this brand; that’s where the quality of their instruments can become a little hit or miss. Reviews indicate that their quality control gets somewhat loose from time to time, and there’s not always the best consistency from instrument to instrument. So sometimes, you get what you pay for in that respect.
Much in the way that Squier gives you an “off-brand” Fender, Epiphone is an excellent and highly affordable imitation of the Gibson. And just as the Squier isn’t quite a Fender, the Epiphone can never truly match a Gibson in every way, but the brand still produces quality guitars at a low cost. In that way, the brand gives more people the opportunity to have a Gibson-like experience without having to pay Gibson-high prices.
If you combine one of these guitars with the right amp setup, you can manipulate the tone quality of these guitars in a variety of ways. Whether you want to create a sound that’s wholly unique or imitate the signature effects of your favorite artists, an Epiphone is a great instrument to make it happen with.
The spot-on imitation of Gibson’s look is so accurate that those who aren’t big guitar buffs might not realize that it’s not a genuine Gibson. And from a distance, especially when you’re on stage, people can hardly see the difference from the crowd even if they’re in the front rows. But for many guitarists, what’s really important is how it sounds, and when it comes to Epiphone the answer is: awesome.
If you were to set similar models of Gibson and Epiphone side by side, look for differences, and rank them against each other, the true Gibson will generally come out on top. But Epiphones are continually improving and are looking and sounding better than ever, and without juxtaposing the two brands, you might never notice where it technically falls short of a Gibson. An Epiphone is still a great-sounding instrument that’s fun to play.
Here’s another guitar company that’s been doing its thing for over 50 years. The story of the company’s founding is interesting because it plays significantly into the build of the guitars that are still seen today. Ovation’s founder had a background in aerodynamics, and he used that knowledge to completely innovate the shape of the guitar body.
With acoustic guitars, the parts where the instrument comes together are always the weakest part of the design. To overcome this structural flaw and makes the most of the natural acoustics, the company came up with their ingenious composite bowl design that gives Ovation guitars their uniquely rich sound profile.
Understandably, countless guitarists over the years have voiced their distaste for the bowl shape of these guitars. Some adamantly believe that true wood produces a genuine, purer – or, just better – sound. Others just find the rounded shape to be too awkward to perform with. It should also be mentioned that the brand’s thin-line tops are also generally exceptionally easy to dent.
That being said, if you love the way they sound, the things that set these guitars apart may be worth getting used to. Even if you think it’s weird to have a rounded guitar body, it’s hard to deny the convenience of how lightweight they are.
One Last Word for the Metalheads
If you’re keen on the metal scene, any of these three brands will have you summoning demons and opening gateways to the underworld in no time at all.
ESP is a good brand, in no small “part” because of the superior-quality parts that the instruments are made of. The neck shape of ESPs is distinctly thin and rounded, which many guitarists find more comfortable and smoother to play. Some even consider ESP to be the most playable guitar brand, no contest. For this reason, it’s no surprise why ESP is so commonly used in the metal scene.
Dean offers a range of instrument options for musicians of all skill levels. They make not just acoustic and electric guitars but also basses and other instruments, all built using the industry’s highest standards. Their import guitars are highly affordable while maintaining their high quality, and they have plenty of beginner guitars for aspiring shredders.
This brand’s reputation is mostly around their electric guitars, but they also offer acoustic guitars that are worth considering. These tend to come with a rather high price tag, but if you’re willing to make the investment, it tends to be worth it for the superior tone and playability. But as far as their electric selection, Schecter guitars give players enough versatility to flip genres without switching guitars – and enough power to pull their weight in a heavy metal set.
Trial and Error
The bottom line is that you should play what you like – what feels and sounds right to you, something that’s entirely subjective. It’s impossible to know which guitar will feel best in your hands and sound best to your ear by reading about it online. The only way to discover if any given model of guitar is right for you is by getting your hands on as many of them as possible and test them out yourself by playing them.
This tactile, immersive experience is still a great thing about traditional brick-and-mortar music stores, something that online retailers can never fully replace – at least, they haven’t yet. When you have the ability to reach up on the rack and grab whatever instrument catches your eye, choosing from a vast selection of guitars, it makes the purchasing process so much more real – and enjoyable – than click and scrolling on a computer screen.
Also, when you go to a physical music store, it’s easier to talk to real experts in person. When you’re in such a musical environment with other people who are just as engaged with everything related to guitars, it’s easy to get conversational and find out much more information than you would have been able to through independent research alone. You’ll usually find that people who love music and love guitars also love talking about them and sharing their advice and experience. You can find out about the guitars they’ve played and loved over the course of their musical life.
If you have friends with guitar experience and access to instruments, by all means, take advantage of that. Every opportunity to play a guitar should be seized – by literally seizing the guitar and finding out if it’s a natural fit for you or not.
Throughout the audition process for your next great guitar (or your first-ever guitar), keep in mind that, particularly if you’re a beginner, any new instrument is going to feel foreign to your hands at first. It’s going to take some getting used to no matter what as your muscle memory and calluses adjust to the new setup: everything from the neck shape, string texture, and action.
It doesn’t matter what any guitar magazine says about which brand is the best; it’s all about what you can make the best music with. Great musicians can make music with just about anything. But if you’re looking for a specific, more refined sound, it helps to understand the qualities of each of the main guitar makers and learn which ones are objectively considered the best across the board.
If you truly love to play the guitar, it’s likely to be a lifelong passion, and you’re almost certainly going to end up with a collection of guitars. But you can be a bit more selective with each addition to your collection by gaining some background information on the most popular guitar brands before you start shopping so that you aren’t lured into buying some gorgeous yet phenomenally expensive ax – that might not sound or feel as good as it looks.