Which one is the best for you?
One question I get asked incredibly often, specially from beginner guitarists is: “What are the best guitar brands.” It’s a pretty valid question given that in just about every industry there are brands that are known to be the most desirable and most reliable (not always at the same time) and therefore, the best. However, it works a little bit differently in the guitar industry. Sound quality often goes on par with price. Reliability is measured a little differently than say, cars, as most guitar companies easily make very reliable instruments. Finally, desirability is usually based on price, looks, artist endorsement and more importantly again, sound-quality.
As far as reliability goes, a guitar is actually quite simple to make reliable. Build, sound quality and playability are much more important than reliability per se, simply because if the guitar is at least half-decently made it usually turns out to be quite dependable. The biggest reliability issue would be a guitar that cannot stay in tune very long. This is something that often happens in regards to the build and material quality of acoustic guitars, but with electrics it’s something that can usually be corrected by swapping out the tuning machines to locking ones, or at least better-performing ones as well as setting the intonation and neck relief correctly.
But we do have the Ferraris and Lamborghinis, as well as the Toyotas and Nissans of the guitar world!
Now, to answer your question I would have to point out a series of popular brands and what they are popular for. After that, you make a decision on which one is best for you. You might see where I’m going with this. There is no single best guitar brand the same way there is no single best car brand. But we do have the Ferraris and Lamborghinis, as well as the Toyotas and Nissans of the guitar world!
So in no particular order necessarily, apart from putting first the ones I like best! 😉 …
Gibson: These guys have been making musical instruments for well over 100 years. Founded by Orville Gibson back in 1890 and not producing guitars at the time (and certainly not electrics because those hadn’t even been invented yet), Gibson has had plenty of time to cement itself as one of the leading guitar companies. They are one of the few to keep their main brand name as a prestige-only brand and applying a different brand name (Epiphone) to their imported, lesser-priced instruments. They invented the arch-top guitar and created some of the most iconic instruments in guitar-history. These includes their by far most famous model, the Les Paul. Other iconic models are the SG, Explorer, Flying V, ES-175 and the Firebird. The ES-175 was to become the first really popular electric guitar. This happened before solid body guitars had even been invented. To this day, the Gibson Les Paul remains one of the most desirable and expensive guitars in the world. In order to tap into various price-points, Gibson creates less expensive Les Paul models around the $1,000 range, like the very popular Les Paul Studio. The more expensive models such as the Les Paul Standard are up in the $2,500+ range. Finally, there are even more expensive models such as the Les Paul Custom in the vicinity of $3,000+. Off course, they also create some very special limited run guitars than can easily fetch close to the $10,000 mark. In line with the car analogy earlier: While not Italian, I’d be happy to call the $2,500+ Gibsons the Ferraris of the guitar industry.
Must not miss models: Les Paul Studio, Explorer, SG Classic P-90.
Fender: These guys have also been around for a long time and are just as iconic as Gibson. Especially for the creation of what could arguably be the most popular electric guitar of all time – The Fender Stratocaster. The Stratocaster may be one of the most popular guitars of all time, but it’s what led to it that really changed the guitar world forever. It’s the fact that the man responsible, Leo Fender, a visionary and dedicated workaholic, invented the first commercially successful solidbody electric guitar –an invention that has led to the incredible array of amazing electric solidbodies of today. It’s important to note that Rickenbacker had created a somewhat solid-body guitar back in 1935. However, it was small, kind of awkward and not completely solid or even actual wood. Some consider it the first solidbody, but by other standards most people still credit Fender for the design. There where still other semi-solidbody experiments at the time created by Les Paul himself as well as Paul Bigsby for Merle Travis but none of those actually caught on commercially the way the Fender (Esquire, then Broadcaster) did. Fender’s original solidbody guitar went through a number of refinements and name changes until it finally came to be known as the, Telecaster.
Fender Manufacturing was founded in 1946 and the first solidbody was launched in 1950. Like Gibson, Fender has an inexpensive brand line. It’s called Squier. The main difference is that Fender does not name all the inexpensive guitars under the Squier name, they actually put the Fender name on relatively inexpensive imported models too.
Must not miss models: Highway 1 Stratocaster, American Standard Telecaster, Jaguar HH
Gretsch: Here’s another company that has been making instruments for over 100 years. Of German descent, Gretsch was established in Brooklyn in 1883 by Friedrich Gretsch. The company didn’t start making guitars until the early 1950’s when electric guitars actually became popular. With origins on banjos and mandolins, Gretsch has always been big in the country market. The endorsement by Chet Atkins has helped further cement this. Another very popular endorsee, Brian Setzer, has helped Gretsch hollowbody guitars earn a rightful place in guitar history. Like Gibson and Fender, they also produce basses, acoustics and amplifiers. Furthermore, Gretsch has a hugely successful line of drums. In 2003, Grestch set up an agreement with Fender essentially handing over the control of manufacturing and distribution. Most Grestch’s tend to be up in the pricier range. For more affordable Gretschs, look into the Electromatic series.
Must not miss models: G6136T White Falcon with Bigsby, Electromatic Pro Jet, Electromatic G5120 Hollowbody
Ibanez: Ibanez is a Japanese company whose origins date back to the early 1900’s with a company named Hoshino. They where distributing Spanish guitars with the name Ibanez around the middle of the century and in the 60’s where shipping guitars to the USA. Back in the 1970’s, they became quite known for making copies of famous guitars, putting the Ibanez name on them and selling them for considerably less than the original models they emulated. During that time, Ibanez got really good at making guitars so they started creating some original models of their own. The production of copies finally ended in the late 70’s after a big lawsuit by Norlin (Gibson parent company) against Ibanez. This is the reason why the Ibanez Les Paul copies with the iconic “open-book” headstock are called “lawsuit” or “pre-lawsuit” models. Interestingly enough, although not very expensive, those lawsuit models are quite desirable today fetching interesting prices on eBay.
History aside, modern-day Ibanez guitars are amazing instruments. They offer a very distinctive value and bang for your buck that is simply hard to match by other manufacturers. Ibanez has become huge in shred (fast lead playing) guitar and metal circles. High profile virtuosos like Joe Satriani, Steve Vai and Paul Gilbert have been greatly responsible for securing Ibanez’s place in super-fast, incredibly technical, shred guitar playing. Not to mention that Ibanez electric guitars simply feel “easy” to play, fast and comfortable. As far as ergonomics and playability, Ibanez guitars are hard to beat. Plus, you can get some very good inexpensive models too. If I where going to call a brand, “the Toyota of the guitar industry,” it would be Ibanez.
Must not miss models: RG321, Joe Satriani JS100, S5470 Prestige, Jet King II
Other important mentions
- Rickenbacker – Southern California early days big player alongside Fender, Gibson & Gretsch.
- Jackson – Fender family, keen on metal.
- Schecter – Also very keen on metal. Think Avenged Sevenfold.
- ESP – Another wonder of Japanese origin. Often in the hands of James Hetfield of Metallica. Synonym with George Lynch.
- PRS – High profile and usually very expensive. Think Santana and flying bird inlays.
- Yamaha – Japan again, in strides. Great models for good prices.
- Music Man – Aimed mostly at professional players with… coin. No real cheapies here.
- Parker – Did I say expensive and professional for Music Man? I meant Parker 😉
- Taylor – Famous name in acoustics is pumping out some seriously amazing electrics of late. No cheapies to be found here either.
- G&L – Another Leo Fender offspring. Guess what the “L” stands for? Quality, these ones.
- Vox – Had to mention these guys. Very famous for amps, but their recent electric guitars are impressing multitudes.
- Martin & Co. – OM-gosh! Sorry I left Martin for last! They very well should be at the top of this list. As you may have noticed, this article focuses quite a bit more on electrics, otherwise Breedlove and Guild would be at the top of the list too!
At one point or another in your musical life someone is going to as you what the best guitar brand is. By now you’ve probably figured out that there’s no single “best guitar brand.” The verdict would likely go along the lines of what is the best guitar brand for you or your needs as a guitarist. There are some good suggestions that can be made with the above information along with some personal insight. Things like:
- If you are a beginner and you want to stick with a beginner’s budget, an Epiphone, a sub $300 Ibanez and a Mexican Stratocaster or Telecater are all guitars that all hard to beat.
- If you have experience or are planning on sticking around for a long time, at some point you’ll desire a Gibson Les Paul. Most guitarists tend to want one of those at some point of another. Be prepared to shed $700-$1,000 for a Studio and $1,700 – $3000 plus, for something more… exotic.
- At some point you should own a Fender Stratocaster or Telecaster, or both! You can’t really call youself a guitarist if you haven’t had one of these at some point.
- If you are into metal and like to play fast, might as well buy an Ibanez, ESP or Schecter. They don’t generally have the mojo of a classic-looking Tele or Gibson ES-335, but they shred bloody fast. Plus, metal players are not usually interested in mojo. Leave that to the blues and classic rock guys who worship Hendrix and Stevie Ray Vaughn.
- If you are on a budget and want a good guitar, independent of the brand, buying a used guitar is one of the best ways to get the most guitar for your money.
Don’t focus too much on a specific brand simply because someone told you it was the best. Try many models form many different companies. Finally, buy a guitar for its sound and how it makes you feel when you play it. You can likely find a great guitar that will fit you perfectly from most of the manufacturers listed on this page.