You’ve decided to pick up an axe and learn to shred like one of the pros. While mastering the guitar is no easy feat itself, before you even start jamming you’ll probably find yourself looking through site after site trying to find the right instrument. It’s hard. There’s an expansive list of components to be taken into account: body styles, wood types, pickups, bridges, necks — and that’s just scratching at the surface.
The thing is, if you aren’t a pro (and if you’re reading this, you probably aren’t) you don’t need to concern yourself with every element of the electric guitar. You just need a briefing on body styles and pickups, arguably the two most important pieces of a guitar’s build. More importantly, asking yourself a couple simple questions about what you’re after will help you immensely. We’ve got all that right here, plus a few great axes that should at least serve as starting points on your search. As for the Ziggy Stardust jumpsuit and the perfect rock-god pose…look elsewhere.
Body Styles and Pickups
There are three main categories of guitar, all based on body type: solid, hollow and semi-hollow. These are both clearly defined distinctions and also have some of the biggest impact on how the instrument will sound. While all these types have the potential to be used for any type of playing, some are more suited for specific genres.
This is by and large the most common body type, and includes some of the most iconic axes ever made, like the Gibson Les Paul and Fender Statocaster. Solid-body guitars simply are capable of the widest range of tones; their construction also allows for reduced feedback and increased sustain compared to other guitar types. This style is extremely well suited to rock and alternative, but if you really aren’t sure of what music you want to play, you’re not likely to go wrong by picking one up.
The hollow body — the original electric guitar design — is completely hollow on the inside, like an acoustic guitar. Hollow-bodied guitars like the Gibson ES-150 saw use in jazz ensembles by players such as Eddie Durham and Charlie Christian, but were also adopted for country, folk and, eventually, rock and roll. If you’re looking for warm, mellow tones, the hollow body is your best bet. That isn’t to say it can’t give you some sweet, raunchy distortion. A proper hollow-body setup can pull off a great classic blues or rock sound, but they are more prone to feedback than solid body guitars.
A middle ground between solid and hollow-body guitars, semi-hollows are hollowed out but have a solid block of wood running through the center of their bodies. This achieves the increased sustain and reduced feedback of a solid-body guitar while retaining the mellow tones of hollow bodies. For this reason, semi-hollow guitars became exceedingly popular with blues players like Chuck Berry and Freddie King. Their duality — sweet and mellow but also some awesome, crunchy sounds — makes them great all-purpose guitars with classic sound.
Feedback is essentially the presence of a sound loop where the guitar’s amplified sound causes increased vibration in the strings. The sound of this vibration then gets further amplified, continuing the loop and resulting in distorted sound. Usually the source of the feedback is the guitar’s amp, but in cases of hollow-body guitars, the amp’s output resonates in the actual guitar body. For many music styles feedback is an undesirable trait, but it’s also been used as an awesome effect by prominent guitarists such as Jimi Hendrix and Kurt Cobain.
At the end of the day, sustain is just a fancy way of saying the length of time a note will remain audible after you pluck it. Sustain is mostly dependent on how much the body and wood of your guitar can resonate sound. Typically, solid-body guitars are the go-to source of sustain, but many pedals and amps are built with the purpose of increasing the effect. Some people prefer long sustain for certain genres; others simply are too lazy to want to pluck the string again.
The other major factor on a guitar’s sound is the pickup. Simply put, the pickup is a magnet wrapped with a coil of wire that receives the vibration of the strings and converts it into an electrical signal that can then be amplified as a sound.
There are two main types of pickups: single coil and humbuckers (also called double coil). Single coil pickups are comprised of a single wire coil and represent the simplest form of pickup technology. Single coils produce a bright, punchy sound, with the drawback that they tend to produce a lot of noise in form of a hum. (One way to combat this is the P90 pickup, which uses a single coil that is wider than the traditional single coil, increasing the amount of area of the strings that the pickup can hear. The result is a bigger, duller sound than the traditional single coil.) The other main type of pickup is the dual coil or humbucker, which is said to “buck the hum” common in single coil pickups. The design is essentially two single coil pickups grouped together, which creates a more powerful, richer tone that is free of extra noise. While it may seem like the humbuckers are the no-brainer option, plenty of players prefer single coils due to their brighter, punchier tone.
The bridge (or “tailpiece”) is the piece near the back of the guitar that anchors the strings and helps transfer their vibration to the guitar’s body. There are really only two main types: vibrato and non-vibrato. Non-vibrato bridges are exceedingly common and provide the best sound transfer. Vibrato tailpieces feature a tremolo arm or “whammy bar” that alters the string tension when pushed and pulled, resulting in a change in pitch that sounds really cool. Vibrato tailpieces don’t transfer sound as well as non-vibratos because they have reduced contact with the body of the guitar. This can result in loss of sustain. Furthermore, the constant changes in string tension can send the tuning out of whack. Don’t say you weren’t warned.
Making the Decision
What Sound Are You Looking For?
Pickups and body styles are just scratching the surface when it comes to guitar features. No matter how overwhelming things may seem, though, if you’re only a novice or hobbyist there’s no need in fretting (get it?) over every single feature. Instead, look to the features we mentioned and go from there based on what type of music you want to play. If you’re a big blues and classic rock guy, powerful, full sound is necessary: you’ll likely want a semi-hollow or solid body guitar with humbuckers or P90s. Want to play old school country or folk? Check out hollow bodies. Are you a fan of alternative and punk? Consider a thin solid body with single coil pickups.
That’s not to say you need a specific guitar for each style — if you want a larger range of tones for different genres, a solid-body guitar is a good bet. There are also plenty of guitars on the market that include both humbucker and single coil pickups, thus allowing for even more sound options. Still seem too complex for you? If you look to the pros you’ll see that Gibson’s Les Paul and Fender’s Stratocaster have been used over and over again by recording artists. It’s not a coincidence: they’re capable of a lot of versatility. Yes, they differ from each other in tone, but with the right additional gear, you can replicate a ton of sounds.
How Much Do You Want to Spend?
In a way, guitars are a lot like cars — spending more money can get you more performance through different specs and trims. The extra money usually goes into paying for better parts rather than more options; there aren’t a whole lot of places to add to a guitar (unless you want the ZZ Top spinner installed). Big bucks can get you better quality wood, a nicer finish, higher-end hardware, and fancier inlays. Some of these upgrades can alter the sound or simply make help playability. For example, the same guitar cut from poplar won’t sound as good as one cut from alder wood. Better tuners mean your axe will go out of tune less often. That said, some guitars will offer features that others don’t, such as tremolos and automatic tuning. Do your research and, as always, know what you need versus what you simply want.
Next Page: Our 7 Picks for the Best Electric Guitars