What to look for in your dream guitar and how to tell when you’ve found the real thing
Finding the perfect guitar is difficult; some would say impossible. After all, no guitar can do it all, right? While this may be true, for some players one guitar can fit the bill almost all the time—so much so that some guitarists have become permanently associated with that one guitar.
Guitarists who immediately come to mind include Steve Vai and his Ibanez Jem, Steve Lukather and his Music Man Luke, John Scofield and his Ibanez JSM100VT and Wes Montgomery and his Gibson L5. These musicians certainly had more than one guitar, but they found the one instrument that fit the bill almost all the time. In this edition of Guitar Notes we’ll take a closer look at the attributes that, based on a player's preference, can combine to form that perfect bond between instrument and player.
The EVH Wolfgang reflects guitar legend Eddie Van Halen’s quest for the perfect guitar.
1. The Body Wood
The wood plays an amazingly big part in determining if a particular guitar is the “one” or not. The tone you look for will have a lot to do with determining the wood. For example, some jazz guitar players like the snappy, articulate tone of an arch top with a carved spruce top and solid maple back and sides while others prefer the darker sound of laminate construction found on Gibson ES guitars. Even with solid body guitars, wood plays a big part in tone. A swamp ash body is going to sound noticeably different from a mahogany body with maple top while a basswood guitar body sounds more neutral.
The other key element in wood choice is weight. Finding the weight that works for you is essential. To be that ideal guitar, it needs to make sense for your physique and the kind of playing you do. Almost equally important, your dream guitar should have the looks that will sustain a long-term relationship. If your dream guitar has a translucent finish over a beautifully figured top, then the wood’s cosmetics will matter too.
The beautiful flame top on this Gibson Les Paul Standard HP looks fantastic but it also affects the tone of the guitar. A mahogany body with a maple top will have a brighter and clearer tone than an all-mahogany body.
2. The Neck and Fretboard Wood
Most electric guitar necks are mahogany or maple. Aside from the visual difference, (maple is blonde while mahogany is dark brown) these necks feel different. Maple is very hard and has a tight grain pattern. Mahogany is softer and has a more porous grain that can be felt on necks with light or no finish. I tend to gravitate toward figured maple necks with little or no finish. The fretboard material has a big impact on the sound of a guitar. Rosewood fretboards give an electric guitar a warm and dark sound great for jazz and big rhythm tones while maple fretboards produce a brighter snappy sound that works well for country and blues.
3. Shape and Size
The shape and size of a guitar can make or break the deal. I would also add neck/body balance into this equation, but balance is often dictated by shape. A guitar that neck-dives when you use a strap is generally seen as a negative. I like to feel in control of the guitar so I prefer more compact body shapes whereas other players like the support of a larger instrument. The body shape should be comfortable whether you're standing or sitting. Certain body contouring such as belly or forearm contours can be a must-have for some players as well.
4. The Pickups
We all know that pickups can be replaced or upgraded, so the pickups in a guitar might not be a deal breaker, but the pickup configuration is a little more difficult to customize. HSH and HSS configurations are very versatile but two humbuckers can also be the perfect combo for many. Modern guitars often offer coil splitting so you may not have to make that humbucker versus single coil decision. Some pickguard-equipped guitars have a “swimming pool” route, giving the owner wide-open pickup configuration options.
Check out the unique pickup configuration on this Gibson Limited Edition Pete Townshend 1976 Les Paul Deluxe.
5. The Neck Profile
String spacing and neck carve are key elements in a guitar. The neck of a guitar is the connection between instrument and guitarist and plays a big role in making the perfect match. Some players like the wide string spacing of the Ibanez Jem/RG and MusicMan JP while others prefer the traditional spacing of Fender and Gibson guitars. Common neck shapes include C, U, V, and soft V profiles. Some electric guitars even have asymmetrical necks, which are usually thinner on the treble side.
6. Number of Frets and Scale Length
21, 22, or 24 frets? The biggest difference here is neck pickup placement. The more frets, the closer the neck pickup is to the bridge. If you need a good jazz tone then a 24-fret neck might not work. However, if you spend most of your time on the bridge pickup, then a neck pickup on a 24-fret guitar will give you an alternate tone without being too muddy. Obviously, if your music calls for very high-register notes, more frets will be mandatory on your dream guitar.
Scale length is the distance from the nut to the bridge saddles. The longer the scale length, the higher the string tension. If you play low tunings, a guitar with a longer scale length may intonate better and keep your strings from feeling too floppy.
7. The Bridge
Whammy bar or hardtail? While tremolos are great and give you the ability to lower string pitch and add vibrato, there are reasons for going the hardtail route. Tremolos can reduce tuning stability and often add weight to the guitar. If you change tunings on your guitar frequently, a tremolo bridge may be a headache. It’s also worth mentioning that the bridge should be comfortable for your picking hand.
So there you have it. Breaking down the various attributes of an electric guitar can help you hone in on your perfect instrument. I've found that if a guitar is right for me, I know it right away. If I have to talk myself into it or make too many compromises, then it's not true love. The right one for you is out there and when you find it, you'll know it right away, without question. Visit Musician’s Friend Private Reserve and browse our huge selection of the greatest guitars crafted today. And until next time, keep playing!
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Visit www.privatereserveguitars.com or contact Derek White directly at 866-926-1923. He can get you the absolute lowest price on your dream guitar. Connect with Private Reserve Guitars on Facebook and Instagram.
Brian Baggett is Video Presenter for Musician’s Friend Private Reserve Guitars. He curates the Private Reserve guitar collection on video, visits guitar factories and works closely with luthiers and signature artists to gain insight into the greatest guitars being built today. He is also a professional guitarist playing several nights a week in the legendary Kansas City jazz scene. A former jazz guitar professor, Brian continues to teach and has a book and DVD titled "Keys To Unlocking the Fretboard".