The history of modern music has been significantly shaped by one instrument - the electric guitar. So much of the music we love today simply wouldn't be possible without it and a large part of that is down to the all time classics featured in this list.
There's no question there are other wonderful guitars around, but if you want to invoke the sounds (and looks) of guitar heroes through ages then there's nothing more straightforward than playing one of these classic models. To this end we've whittled down our list of the best electric guitars to only the most era-shaping instruments and provided you with the two foremost contemporary versions of those classics that are available today - the premium model and a more affordable version.
Note: The guitars models featured in this article are not ranked via our usual Gearank algorithm, because we can't really rank a particular model over the history of electric guitars. Also these classic models don't aspire to quality, in some sense they define it. The affordable and premium example guitars we've selected have been included on the basis of being the foremost standard representative around today of the 'real thing' rather than on our usual ranking process.
So without further adieu we present to you the all-time classic - Best Electric Guitars.
Artists Who Use It: Jimmy Hendrix, Eric Clapton, David Gilmour, Jeff Beck, Buddy Guy, Ritchie Blackmore, Dick Dale, John Frusciante, Eric Johnson, George Harrison, Buddy Holly, Mark Knopfler, Yngwie Malmsteen, John Mayer, Kenny Wayne Shepherd, Stevie Ray Vaughan.
First introduced to the public in 1954, the Fender Stratocaster is one of the most iconic guitars ever. It was Leo Fender’s successor to the Fender Telecaster, and it went on to be the axe of choice for musicians in almost every genre.
The Stratocaster is a versatile guitar, so it doesn’t really have any one defining tone. However, it’s generally considered to be a very bright and cutting instrument (though not to the extent that the Telecaster is). It also has a mid-range “quack”. It’s a great choice for musicians looking to play lead (with the exception of jazz), though it can be a bit too bright for rhythm work. Though to be fair, this really varies based on your playing style, your amp, and how you EQ your rig.
The Stratocaster is one of the most copied instruments in the world, and because of this dozens of different interpretations of it exist. However, the most affordable version of this guitar that still looks and feels like those played by famous musicians is the Fender Standard Stratocaster.
Fender Standard Stratocaster
The Fender Standard Stratocaster is Fender’s entry-level Stratocaster (though it is still a step up from the Squier series). It’s manufactured in Mexico, and while it costs more than similarly outfitted Squiers it is generally considered to have a higher level of quality control. The difference in quality between this guitar and the highest end Squiers isn’t going to be huge, but the quality control of the Fenders is more consistent. So if you’re not into doing your own modifications (or don’t feel like paying for a luthier) the Mexican Standard would be the way to go.
The Standard Series is also “vintage inspired”, so it gets you in the ball park of vintage tones. Think SRV, Eric Clapton, and Buddy Holly. It’s a versatile instrument, but it’s focused on vintage genres and the genres that were inspired by them. The clean tones in particular of this instrument are one of its main strengths.
Fender American Vintage ‘59 Stratocaster
Most notable musicians who’ve used a Stratocaster played vintage instruments. There are a few features on vintage instruments that make them sound different than modern Stratocasters; most notably the pickups and the bridge’s configuration. To keep it simple, it’s basically a difference in output volume (this is decided by how sensitive your pickups are, with more sensitive pickups having a higher output), material density, and layout. These differences aren’t going to make a huge difference, but if you’re looking to nail that vintage tone you’re going to appreciate them.
The Fender American Vintage ’59 is built to period correct specifications. Everything from the pickups (which use period accurate wrapping and magnets) to the pickguard is a replication of vintage instruments. It also has the QA exclusive to a first-world made instrument, so odds are good that this guitar will play beautifully and sound amazing right out of the box. This guitar would be a great fit for any genre that requires lower levels of distortion
Gibson Les Paul
Artists Who Use It: Les Paul, Slash, Jimmy Page, Billy Gibbons, Zakk Wylde, Ace Frehley, Bob Marley, Steve Clark, Joe Perry, Eric Clapton, Duane Allman, Buckethead, Peter Green.
A fun fact a lot of musicians don’t know about the Gibson Les Paul is that it is arguably one of the world’s first signature guitars. The guitar was co-designed by inventor and jazz guitarist Les Paul (who also invented the harmonica holder used by Bob Dylan).
The guitar is generally associated with rock and roll, but it’s actually been used in quite a few genres. It’s a great jazz guitar, the secret weapon of Bob Marley, and the guitar of choice for a ton of blues musicians.
The defining feature of Les Paul style guitars is their full tone and sustain, which makes them a great fit for the genres listed above. The guitars traditionally use humbuckers (though they were first launched with P90s), and because these pickups have a higher output they’re easier to distort.
Epiphone Les Paul Standard
For the money, Epiphone guitars are some of the most consistent instrument available. They’re well built, durable, and considering their price point actually sound really good. In fact, Epiphone’s main strength as a company is the consistency of their instruments. Epiphone instruments almost always come with an excellent set up, and rarely have any notable defects. The Epiphone Les Paul is easily capable capable of pulling off great tones in genres where you'd expect to see a Les Paul, encompassing everything from smooth jazz to garage rock. The Standard is Epiphone’s middle-of-the-road Les Paul. It has all of the important features of its more expensive brethren, all it’s missing is the bling. It has traditionally voiced humbuckers. Basically, think of Eric Clapton and live videos of Jimmy Page. These pickups can do rock, they’re just not going to do really heavy metal. Think classic rock (the Epiphone’s strength) as opposed to Korn and Slipknot.
Gibson Les Paul Standard
The Gibson Les Paul Standard is one of the more affordable guitars in the Gibson line that includes all of the features musicians associate with the instrument. It has a carved AAA maple top, a mahogany body, and a set-in neck. The pickups also approximate the tone of PAF (patent applied for) pickups, which were used on the vintage Les Pauls played by the musicians listed above. Modern reinterpretations of PAF pickups have gotten really close to the original examples, making a new instrument well worth the cost if you’re on the hunt for more vintage tones.
The main thing that separates a Gibson Les Paul from an Epiphone Les Paul is the quality of the materials used. Gibson instruments use better wood, higher quality electronics, and better tuners. Dialing in all of these components to work well with each other is an art, and in Gibson’s case their execution of this art justifies the cost associated with their instruments.
Artists Who Use It: Jimmy Page, Joe Strummer, Keith Richards, Bruce Springsteen, John 5, Jeff Buckley, Prince, James Burton, George Harrison, Albert Collins, Muddy Waters, Syd Barrett, Jack White, Danny Gatton, Vince Gill, Johnny Greenwood.
Long thought to be “just” a country guitar, the Fender Standard Telecaster is arguably one of the most versatile guitars ever. It’s been used by everyone from Jack White to Vince Gill, and has been used in the studio for just about every notable band ever at one time or another.
The Telecaster owes its success to its bright and twangy tone which, when played clean, oozes a strong country vibe. However, when used with distortion the Telecaster is easily one of the most cutting guitars ever. It’s the perfect instrument for a lead guitarist.
However, the downfall of the Telecaster is that it isn’t really a great rhythm instrument. Even the neck pickup still sounds a bit thin. There’s an old quote about the Telecaster that goes, “The Telecaster has two sounds; good and bad”, and that’s pretty reflective of the instrument. In the right hands it can do a lot, but it still can’t do everything.
Fender Standard Telecaster
The Standard Telecaster (which is made in Mexico) is a phenomenal guitar. All of the instrument’s features are well executed, from the finish to the pickups. It’s a solid gigging and recording instrument. The standout feature on Standard Telecasters is their overall build quality relative to their price. It’s really uncommon for people to have issues with the Standard series that’s the fault of the manufacturer (if you see a guitar with sharp frets or a warped neck, a lot of the time the distributor is actually the one to blame). Fender also uses quality pieces of wood in the guitar, which makes them a good platform for modding should you choose to go that route.
The electronics used in the guitar (including wiring, pots, and pickups) are all of a quality you would expect at this price point. Unless you’re planning on touring or recording a professional-level album you shouldn’t be disappointed.
American Professional Telecaster
The American Professional Telecaster, a part of the recently debuted Professional series, definitely lives up to its name. No one could say that this guitar wouldn’t be an asset to a professional musician. The fit and finish are considered to be excellent, and the hardware is reflective of the guitar’s price point. There’s nothing about this guitar that suggests that it wouldn’t be an awesome buy, and there’s no Telecaster we can think of that would objectively perform better than this model.
The reason that the Professional series was included in this list over the American Standard series is that the pickups for the Professional line were tweaked by Tim Shaw. Shaw, a long-time employee of Fender, basically took a boutique approach to the pickups; redesigning them from the ground up. So you get all of the benefits of boutique pickups without the headache of having to install them yourself.
Artists Who Use It: Angus Young, Tonny Iommi, Sister Rosetta Tharpe, Robby Krieger, Derek Trucks, Eric Clapton, Thom Yorke, Frank Zappa, Dickey Betts, Elliot Easton.
Just like the Les Paul, the Gibson SG is synonymous with rock and roll. It’s hard to picture Black Sabbath or AC/DC without an SG. Though while the guitar is generally considered to be a rock and roll machine, it’s also a very capable blues guitar (see Eric Clapton and Derek Trucks).
The Gibson SG was launched in 1961, inspired by a decline in the sale of Gibson Les Pauls. The SG was cheaper to produce, lighter, and through the use of an upper and lower bout cutaway had significantly more upper fret access.
When it comes to tone, the SG is actually really similar to the Les Paul. You could make the case that a Les Paul will have more sustain than an SG, though this is going to vary from model to model. It’s main appeal over the Les Paul is that it’s lighter.
Epiphone Worn Series G-400
The Epiphone Worn Series G-400 is surprisingly well outfitted for a guitar in this price range. It comes with a mahogany body, a rosewood fingerboard, as well as 14:1 Grover tuners. Its tuners in particular are a standout feature, and promise the stability that used to only be found on guitars costing many times more. The guitar also sports Alcino Classic Humbuckers, which have a moderate output. Like the Les Paul, the Epiphone Worn Series G-400 would be great for blues and classic rock. You can also pull off some pretty convincing tones in other genres, though the SG may not be the most traditional instrument around if you’re looking to play something outside of blues or rock.
The cool thing about SGs is that they’re simple, so there’s not as much that can go wrong (Les Pauls are a bit more finicky, as a general rule). This guitar in particular would be great as either a first instrument or as a first upgrade for a musician who’s already got their start.
Gibson USA SG Standard T
The Gibson USA SG Standard T is an affordable option if you’re looking for a vintage-inspired SG. The “T” in Standard T stands for traditional, so the features of the guitar are all intended to help you conjure up vintage SG tones. The pickups used in the SG Standard T are Classic ‘57s. Both Burstbuckers and Classic ‘57s are used in Gibson SG guitars, both of which are intended to mimic the tones of Gibson PAF pickups. Burstbuckers are a tad darker, while Classic '57s are brighter. If you’re looking to play in a band you’re definitely going to want to look at the Classic ‘57s, since because they’re a brighter sounding pickup you’ll be more easily heard.
Gibson has also recently cut their prices, so don’t feel that because this guitar is cheaper than those from earlier years that it’s of a lesser quality. Everything from the hardware to the overall construction is of a level of quality that you would expect from an American made instrument.
Artists Who Use It: Eddie Van Halen, Steve Vai, Jason Becker, Guthrie Govan, Joe Satriani, John Petrucci, Adrian Smith, KK Downing, Jim Root.
This category is probably going to be controversial because there’s no one brand that defines “Super Strat”. Pretty much every guitar company has made one, and the originals were modified Fender Stratocasters (with Eddie Van Halen’s guitar being a good example).
They also don’t really have any one defined tone, though they do generally have higher output (higher output equals = more volume = more distortion). This section features Ibanez, but if you feel like there’s a better choice for this section tell us about it in the comments.
Super Strats generally have two features that differentiate them from an average Stratocaster: high-output pickups (usually humbuckers) and a Floyd Rose tremolo (the last one is optional). They’re good at playing distorted genres, but they sound a bit sterile when used to play genres that are either clean (no distortion) or played at low levels of distortion.
Ibanez RG RG450DX
The Ibanez RG series is a collection of guitars which are all a perfect example of what most musicians think of when they hear the term “Super Strat”. The guitars have two humbuckers (one in the bridge and one in the neck) as well as a single coil pickup in the middle position.
This guitar in particular was chosen because mid-range Ibanez instruments are known for having solid tremolo systems relative to their price points, and if you’re playing hard rock or metal odds are you’re going to be getting a lot of mileage out of your tremolo. Cheaper tremolos, Floyd Rose-styles in particular, tend to break down over time. This can make them less stable, which in turn means that you’ll end up going out of tune. Thankfully, this isn’t a problem with this guitar.
You’re obviously not going to be getting jazz or country tones out of this axe, and getting a good blues tone might be a bit of a challenge, but if you’re playing something related to rock or metal you’re going to get a good tone.
Ibanez S Prestige S6570Q
The Ibanez S Prestige S6579Q is a more modern take on the Super Strap, featuring a quilted maple top that’s common to guitars in this configuration (flamed maple is also commonly seen). The S Prestige series is Ibanez’s top of the line series, and is exclusively hand-crafted in Japan.
Japanese instruments used to have the reputation that Chinese and Korean guitars have today, but in all reality Japanese instruments are easily on par with any American manufacturer. They have just as strong of a focus on quality control and playability as any other high-end manufacturer, and it shows. The guitar also comes with Ibanez’s top Floyd Rose style tremolo, which is great for heavy whammies and dive bombs. The pickups are pretty hot, which is a good thing if you’re looking to play rock and/or metal.
Artists Who Use It: Eric Clapton, Chuck Berry, Otis Rush, Dave Grohl, Eric Johnson, Warren Haynes, Alvin Lee, T-Bone Walker, Freddie King, Roy Orbison.
First introduced in 1958, the Gibson ES-335 is a semi-hollow guitar generally used to play the blues. It has an airy and full tone, and like other semi-hollow guitars is considered to have a portion of the frequency response you’d get from an acoustic guitar. This response gives it a slightly more overtones than a solid body instrument.
However, there is a flaw with semi-hollow guitars. Semi-hollow instruments have a tendency to feedback when played with a lot of distortion or at high volumes. They’re a great fit for blues, but they’re not really ideal if you’re wanting to play harder genres of rock.
The Epiphone Dot is widely considered to be one of the best bargains available when it comes to ES-335 style guitars. Like the SG and Les Paul above, it retains a lot of the features you’d expect to find in an ES-335. The Dot comes with a laminated maple body, a scale length of 24.75, a rosewood fretboard, and Alnico Classic Humbuckers. These pickups are voiced relatively brightly. There’s not much that this guitar can’t do when compared to other guitars of this type, and its quality and tone are definitely comparable to much more expensive instruments.
2015 Gibson Memphis ES-335
The 2015 Gibson Memphis ES-335 is your quintessential ES-335 guitar. The design of the guitar is classic, making it hard to distinguish between this guitar and any of the ES-335s played by other blues guitarists.
The guitar comes outfitted with Burstbucker pickups, which go a long way in helping to capture that vintage Gibson tone.
Artists Who Use It: Wes Montgomery, Joe Pass, Howard Roberts, Steve Howe, Pat Metheny.
The Gibson ES-175 is inarguably the most iconic jazz guitar ever. The vast majority of notable jazz musicians either use an ES-175 or one of its derivatives, and to this day it’s still the go-to guitar for guitarists looking to get a classic jazz tone.
The ES-175 debuted in 1949, and in its first incarnation came equipped with a single P90 (in the neck position). It wasn’t until 1957 that the ES-175 came to exist as we know it today, at which time it was adopted by jazz luminaries like Joe Pass and Wes Montgomery.
Something a lot of musicians don’t know is that Ibanez is actually awesome at turning out jazz guitars. At lower price levels (sub $1500) Ibanez is actually the brand of choice for quite a few musicians. Even better, a lot of them have pretty traditional specifications (though there are a few slight differences). The only thing that lets this guitar down is that it doesn’t quite nail the look. It’s definitely similar, but Ibanez has taken a couple of liberties with the design (most likely to avoid being sued by Gibson). If you really want a traditional look, you may want to take a look at Epiphone’s reinterpretations of the ES-175. They’re a bit farther away from the originals in terms of design and size, but they’re closer in the looks department.
The best dollar to quality ratio in the Artcore line is the AF75, an ES-175 style guitar with low-output humbucking pickers. Like its inspiration, the AF75 uses a laminated maple body and a set neck. Surprisingly for this price range, it even has a bound neck.
Gibson Memphis ES7DVBNH1 (Gibson 1959 ES-175D)
Sometimes you just can’t settle for an imitation. While options that are just as good as a Gibson exist, there is a lot of mojo inherent to the brand. There’s something indescribable as playing the same guitar as your heroes, and that’s a feeling that the ES7DVBNH1 definitely delivers on.
This guitar has a quality reflective of its (pretty hefty) price tag. It comes with two ’57 Classic pickups, as well as Sprague Black Beauty Bumblebee Capacitors. From the ground up, this guitar was designed to perfectly recreate the guitars played by famous musicians that made this body style so famous. It’s as close to a vintage Gibson as many of us are going to get, and in all honest it’s probably going to sound just as good (depending on how you play of course). If you’re looking for that perfect jazz tone, look no further than the Gibson Memphis ES7DVBNH1.
Artists Who Use It: Kurt Cobain, Johnny Marr, Jim Root, Thurston Moore, John Frusciante, Elvis Costello, Josh Klinghoffer.
The Fender Jaguar, originally intended to be a successor to the Fender Stratocaster, was kind of the red headed stepchild of the Fender line-up. Early Jaguars just didn’t sell well enough to keep them in production, so the line was discontinued in 1975. However, during the punk and alternative movement of the 1980s and 90s they became popular with musicians because for their price (they weren’t highly regarded, so they usually sold cheaply in pawn shops) they were a steal.
After the instrument’s resurgence Fender relaunched the Jaguar in 1999, and since then it has continued to be produced in a variety of different configurations.
Squier Vintage Modified Jaguar
As a whole, the Vintage Modified series is actually a really good bargain. Case in point: the Squier Vintage Modified Jaguar. The Vintage Modified Jaguar is essentially a modern update to the Jaguar’s design that retains the circuitry that defines the guitar. As you can see by the controls, the Jaguar has a few controls lacking in the majority of guitars. These controls are used to tweak the sound, giving you a greater variety of tones you can access from your guitar. Groups like Sonic Youth made great use of these controls. They’re also great if you’re trying to dial in your tone, because you have so much control over the parameters of your sound.
At this price point, the Squier Vintage Modified Jaguar is going to be your best bet if you want the traditional controls associated with this model of guitar. It’s a feature rarely found in a guitar this affordable, so it’s pretty impressive that Fender was able to bring it to the market at all.
Fender American Vintage ’65 Jaguar Sunburst
The Fender American Vintage ’65 Jaguar is arguably your best choice if you’re looking for a period correct jaguar. Guitar heroes from the 80s and 90s played 60s or 70s Jaguars, which featured pickups that were of a much lower output than modern pickups. Because of this, to get the tone you’re looking for you’re going to want pickups that have a more vintage flavour. This is especially true if you’re looking to play surf music, a genre that relies on really swampy clean tones that modern-voiced pickups can have a hard time producing.
The coolest thing about this model is that it’s an almost perfect copy of original Jaguars. Most of us are never going to afford a 60s Fender. It’s just an unrealistic amount of money for the average person to drop on a guitar. However, you can get really close with the Fender American Vintage ’65 Jaguar Sunburst.