Buying your first electric guitar can be a crazy-fun circus of education, excitement, and wonder. Initially, you may be overwhelmed by the sheer number of options available, but this is a very good thing, because it means there are so many ways to get exactly what you want. Even better, it’s near impossible for you make a “mistake,” as selecting the right electric guitar is all about you. If it works for you, it’s absolutely the correct choice, so feel free to trust your gut.
That said, we also don’t want to hand you a flashlight and send you off exploring a pitch-black cavern all by yourself. For more than four decades, Fishman has helped musicians find their tone, embrace new technologies, and fire up inspiration. So, please let us offer some suggestions for charting the quest for YOUR perfect electric guitar.
How a guitar looks has nothing to do with how it plays or sounds, but strapping on a guitar that inspires you to swagger as confidently as a superstar contributes in a very real way to how you feel about being a guitarist. Some players favor the models their heroes play—whether it’s St. Vincent or Jimi Hendrix—while others go for their own sense of shape, color, and vibe.
But don’t get distracted or intimidated by “style squads” who maintain that rockers play Gibson Les Pauls or Fender Stratocasters, blues guitarists play semi-hollowbodies, jazzers play hollowbodies, and shredders deploy guitars with angular bodies and pointy headstocks. You can play any style of music you want with any guitar you choose. There are no rules and no dress code. The only consideration is wielding a guitar that you love.
Experienced guitarists often blather on about how certain materials produce specific tonal characteristics in a guitar. They aren’t lying. Mahogany necks and bodies deliver sounds that are warm and full of lovely sustain, maple is known for providing midrange articulation and attack, and ash and basswood offer zing and shimmer. But, same as with snubbing the decrees of style squads, don’t get overly concerned with the woods used to make the guitar you are considering.
Instead, have faith in your ears.
Listen to what the guitar sounds like acoustically, before you get it anywhere near an amplifier. Do you like the sound when you strum chords, pick a few notes, and dig into some favorite riffs? If you’re pleased with the unplugged tone, you’ll likely be delighted with the amplified sound. An excellent acoustic foundation usually delivers thrilling clean, overdriven, and distorted sounds when you plug into an amp.
Once again, this is your guitar, so the only thing you need to do is make yourself happy. In this instance, if you love the tone, then it doesn’t matter whether the guitar is made from mahogany, maple, aluminum, or blocks of Lego.
It goes without saying that if it hurts to play your guitar, you’ll probably leave it leaning against the wall of your closet. Don’t let this happen. Your guitar should bring you hours of fun and enjoyment. It should inspire you to exciting flurries of fun and creativity. It should not make you crazy by feeling uncomfortable or unwieldy or just wrong.
Avoiding discomfort as you play requires just a few simple steps. First, keep in mind that any time you undertake a new muscular activity—such as bowling, extreme hiking, cyclo-cross, or playing guitar—your body will probably “complain” for a spell. Fingertip discomfort (until you develop calluses to combat any irritation caused by the guitar strings) and slight wrist twinges are rather commonplace when players first jump into learning guitar. But you don’t want consistent soreness.
To prevent angry muscles as best as you can, first try playing the guitar while sitting down. Does the shape of the guitar encourage poor posture and discomfort? Do you find that you’re playing while excessively hunched over? Is anything on the guitar’s body hitting you in uncomfortable or annoying places?
Now, repeat these exercises while playing standing up with the guitar on a strap. The main difference will be that the weight of the guitar itself becomes a factor. Check if the strap is digging into your shoulder too much, or if the guitar seems like it would be too heavy to enjoy playing it for a long jam session. Once you’ve tried to eliminate any indications the guitar might cause some discomfort down the road, you may be closer to making it your own.
Bits and Pieces
Unless you enjoy diving headfirst into the unknown, it always helps to have a little background on the journey you are taking. There are tons of resources online that detail what an electric guitar is, as well as the various parts it uses to do its job, but let’s reveal some basics that we’ll mention later on in this blog.
At the tippy top of the long, thin plank (or neck), you’ll find machine heads—one for each guitar string. You turn these knobs to get your guitar in tune. The machine heads are attached to the headstock. As you head downward, you’ll come to the nut, which guides and holds each string in place. Then, there are the fretboard (the “playing field” for your fingers), frets (those slim, shiny bars embedded into the fretboard), and fret markers (typically a dot or bar inlayed at the third, fifth, seventh, ninth, and 12th fret positions to let your fingers know where you are on the neck).
When you reach the body of the guitar, all kinds of things appear. You’ll see anywhere from one to two or more pickups (which output the guitar signal to an amplifier), a pickup-selector switch (which lets you choose between two or more pickups or even all pickups simultaneously), volume and tone knobs, the bridge (where the strings are anchored), the saddles (which adjust intonation or fine tuning for each string), an input jack (for your guitar cable), and strap buttons at the top and bottom of the body to affix the ends of your guitar strap.
Those are the basics. Some guitars—such as whacky, psychedelic Italian models from the early 1960s—include what seem like an entire army of knobs, switches, and buttons. You may also see added performance controls such as a whammy bar that can change the pitch of the strings (a famous example being the sonic “dive bombs” you hear on “Eruption” by Van Halen). But let’s keep things simple for now. The following sections will add a bit more information about these parts, and why they are important considerations when buying your guitar.
The guitar neck and fretboard are where you will muster the dexterity to form and change chords, negotiate the notes of solos and riffs at various speeds, and move smoothly and confidently up and down the neck. Excepting those times when you’re running back and forth between the wings of an arena stage, inciting an audience to greater levels of festive hysteria, your hands are going to spend a lot of time cradling the neck of your guitar. It should feel right.
Necks can be wide or thin, so make sure the neck fits your hand in such a way that it invites easy and comfortable playing. Sometimes, you can pick up a guitar and it seems like your fingers will fly around the neck like a bolt of lightning. Put your hand on the neck of another guitar, however, and your fingers might feel as if they were encased in cement. It’s important that the guitar neck feels good—especially considering the first few months of learning chord changes and scales can be daunting and disappointing if the guitar neck seems to be fighting your every move.
It’s also a good idea to evaluate the fretwork. Sometimes, fret ends can be jagged and spiky—which doesn’t make for a fabulous experience if you run your hand down the neck and scrape a finger or your palm on a sharp protrusion. Overall, the frets should be polished with rounded ends and seated in the fretboard so that the ends don’t stick out beyond the edge of the neck.
There’s an entire industry that makes replacement parts for bridges, nuts, knobs, jacks, machine heads, and all of the other non-wood gear that adorns the average guitar. At some point, if you’re overtaken by “guitar mod madness,” you may choose to upgrade every stock part that came with your instrument. That’s in the future. For now, your job is to make sure the guitar’s parts are solid and sturdy.
Turn the volume and tone knobs to make sure they turn smoothly. They shouldn’t spin around like a toy top. They should feel tight, but not as tight as the cap of a peanut-butter jar that’s stuck.
The machine heads should provide near-effortless rotation and stay where you put them once you finish tuning each string. The bridge, pickups, pickup mounts, and pickup selector switch should not rattle, creak, or provide any hint that they’re not constructed with the precision and durability of a Mars lander. In fact, shake the living daylights out of the guitar and listen closely for any suspicious sounds of things falling apart or less-than-tight assembly.
We’ll spend a fair amount of time talking about pickups, because they have a massive impact on translating and transforming the acoustic sound of your guitar through an amplifier, signal processor, live-sound system, and recording device. The very basic factoid on pickups is that they translate the vibration of the guitar strings into electricity. These electrical signals are output to the amp of your choice so you can rock out with your guitar.
There are two main types of pickups: single coils and humbuckers. Within those categories, you may hear about P-90s (single-coil), Filter’Trons (fundamentally a humbucker), active pickups (powered by an active preamp), Charlie Christians (single coil), and so on. And, as with most everything else you can put on a guitar, there are hundreds of pickup options out there from a dizzying host of manufacturers.
Once again, absorb the onslaught of data on pickups without fear. There’s no reason to get all frazzled about pickup options. All you need to remember is: “This is my guitar for my music and the only thing that matters is my opinion.”
That said, you can do a little homework and see what type of pickups were used to create the music you love, or the sounds you seek to emulate yourself. For example, if you like Orianthi’s music, she typically uses humbucker-equipped guitars. Do you love the psychedelic, wizard-like mastery of Jimi Hendrix? He was mostly about single coils. Dig rockabilly artists? Check out Filter’Trons. There are so many interviews, articles, and YouTube videos out there that will help you nail down the pickups used by your favorite guitarists.
But, back to you. One of the easiest ways to narrow the field is to plug a bunch of different guitars armed with different pickups into a single amp and see which sounds appeal to you the most. Switch back and forth until you find yourself returning to one or two awesome pickup choices. As it turns out, you may love humbucker tones. You may dig single coil sounds. You might even like both.
We can almost predict your next question, and, yes, you can have it all.
Fishman Fluence pickups offer multiple voices, which means that one pickup can deliver two to three different sounds. For example, the Fishman Fluence Matt Heafy (Trivium) Custom Series pickup offers a modern active high-output tone (for, say, aggro metal tones), a more conventional humbucker tone (for classic rock and other styles), and a single-coil tone (for funky articulation). Fishman artist Sarah Longfield switches between Fluence pickup voices to better articulate between the sounds of her tapping technique, ferocious shredding, effects-laden textures, and distortion-driven tonal assaults. When you need different tones for different jobs, Fluence pickups are flexible enough to have the sounds you want.
The killer app is that each Fluence pickup gets you more tonal colors—and that’s a total advantage for having creative options at hand to craft the music you want to make. For example, on a guitar armed with a single pickup, a Fluence pickup could give you two sounds, rather than limiting you to just one tone. For a two- or three-pickup guitar, you’d at least double the number of available sounds over a non-Fluence-equipped model. Whatever style of music you play, the more tonal options at your fingertips, the more cinematic and impactful your music can sound.
Fluence pickups are offered separately as add-ons to whatever guitar you have. You can upgrade your pickups at any time—although you’ll likely need a guitar tech or local guitar-repair shop to do the install safely and correctly.
You can also seek out guitars with Fishman Fluence pickups already installed as stock gear, such as the Epiphone Prophecy collection, ESP LTD Phoenix Black Metal, Schecter C-1 SLS Elite, and Ibanez Prestige RG5121.
All players—novices and experts—benefit from more sonic firepower. A Fluence-equipped guitar is an easy way to change pickup sounds without having to grab another guitar or get into the weeds of multiple sound adjustments using stompboxes and studio effects to create the tone you want for a particular song, solo, or lick. Fishman Fluence pickups let you change the vibe of a musical part right at the moment of inspiration. Given all of the research, testing, and evaluation you’ll do in order to find your perfect guitar, it will be a massive benefit down the line to never have to say, “If only I had a different pickup on this guitar.” Go for Fluence Multi-Voice pickups.
Do you really need guidelines to test a guitar? Well, given the sounds heard at local music stores as players put guitars through their paces, a bunch of potential buyers are doing it all wrong. [Insert Laugh Track here.]
Start by playing some of your favorite songs to get comfortable. However, don’t plug into an amp and immediately launch some ultra-distorted tones. You’ll sound as cool as can be, of course, but you won’t learn much about the organic and genuine tone of the guitar. While it may be slightly less exhilarating than going full cowabunga, start your evaluation using a clean sound that clearly reveals all of the good, bad, and average about the guitar’s tones.
If you dig the pristine, unprocessed sound of a guitar, you’ll really love it when you start adding overdrive pedals and other groovy signal-modifying devices. also, play around with the guitar’s volume and tone knobs and pickup selector. Depending, of course, on the model of guitar you’re checking out, there may be multiple controls or just one or two. Strum some simple chords and listen to what each setting offers. Switching the pickup selector on guitars with at least two pickups will produce the most noticeable sonic changes—typically from bright to midrange focused to bass-y and warm—but don’t ignore the tonal colors you can get from turning the tone knobs up and down. At this point, if you want to crank the distortion and rain down hellfire, have at it. You should definitely consider how the guitar handles dirtier tones, as well as pristine cleans.
Ultimately, Job One for your guitar is to translate the music in your brain and fingers into sounds, and all of those sounds must be true to your artistic vision. The right guitar should help boost your melodies, licks, riffs, chords, and grooves into hyperdrive. When you’re in the zone, your guitar should not hold you back.
Buying a guitar doesn’t need to be an exercise in terror. Hopefully, we’ve shown you that the steps are easy, and they get easier once you understand the only purchase criteria is finding the model that’s an absolutely brilliant match for you. Searching for the right guitar is one of the few instances where you can be 100-percent selfish and egocentric without risking scorn or concern from family, friends, and the community of the world. The guitar you choose will be your creative partner, stress reliever, muse, motivator, and source of entertainment and fulfillment for perhaps years to come. Enjoy the adventure.