As you start exploring the world of electric guitars, you’ll encounter a dizzying variety of brands, models, shapes, features and prices.
As you start to look a little closer, you’ll realize that many modern guitars can be traced back to a handful of tried-and-true models that have withstood the test of time. These are the guitar models that shaped the sound of music across all genres — rock and roll, blues, jazz, country, metal and everything in between.
Released in 1954, the Fender Stratocaster changed the landscape of electric guitars forever. Featuring 3 single coil pickups and a 5-way selector switch for a wide variety of tones, the Stratocaster is also lighter and slightly more ergonomic than the Telecaster, making it an easy-to-play favorite for every level of guitar players from the pros to beginners.
The Strat’s tonal flexibility makes it a popular choice in virtually every genre of music. While perhaps most popular with rock and blues musicians (Jimi Hendrix, Eric Clapton, Stevie Ray Vaughn, David Gilmour, to name a few), even metal musicians have made the Strat and other S-style guitars their instrument of choice thanks to its fast neck and easy playability.
The Stratocaster body shape is also one of the most widely emulated shapes in the world of electric guitars, making it available to the masses at a variety of price points. One of the most popular models for beginners is the Squier Stratocaster. While Squier is positioned as Fender’s more budget-friendly guitar brand, the Squier Strat packs a lot of Fender’s legendary tone into a much more affordable package. If you want to take a closer look at these more affordable instruments, I’d recommend reading this review of the most popular Squier Stratocaster models.
The Fender Telecaster, born just months after the single-pickup Esquire model, was released in 1950 as one of the first successful solid body electric guitars to hit the market. The two-pickup Telecaster was originally called the Fender Broadcaster, but Fender had to change the name due to a trademark dispute with the Gretsch Broadkaster.
The Telecaster is perhaps most closely associated with country music, but its understated versatility has made it the guitar of choice for musicians in all genres. Fender went on to experiment with different features and pickup configurations over the years, including humbucker pickups and Bigsby tailpieces.
Today, a wide variety of guitar manufacturers use a similar body shape to the Telecaster, often called a T-style guitar, to include more modern features.
Gibson Les Paul
Before the early 1950s, Gibson was best known for their archtop, acoustic and semi-hollowbody guitars. After seeing the success of Fender’s solid body electric guitars at the beginning of the decade, Gibson introduced their first solid body electric, the Les Paul, in 1952. And the rest, as they say, is history.
One of the trademark features of the Les Paul are their PAF (Patent Applied For) humbucker pickups that pushed out a fatter tone with higher output than single coil guitars. However, Gibson didn’t include these until 1957 — prior to that, Gibson used single coil P-90 pickups in the earliest Les Pauls.
Thanks to the higher output and noise canceling properties of these PAF humbucker pickups, the Gibson Les Paul has since become a favorite for hard rock and metal guitarists including Slash and Jimmy Page. Those same qualities also make the Les Paul a popular model across all genres. Similar to Fender/Squier, Gibson also has a more affordable brand featuring many of the same body shapes and styles in Epiphone.
Fun fact: The Gibson SG was originally introduced as the new Les Paul model in 1961. Two years later, the name was changed to SG, which simply stood for “Solid Guitar.” With its distinct dual-cutaway design, the SG is lighter and allows for easier access to the upper frets.
While the SG features the same two humbucker layout as the Les Paul, its slimmer body produces a decidedly different tone that has been a hard rock favorite for decades. For example, the SG is synonymous with ACDC’s Angus Young and his thundering tone.
The Gibson SG has been often imitated, but never duplicated. Beyond the Gibson-owned Epiphone line of SG guitars, you’ll find hundreds of knock-off SG style guitars for sale online and at guitar shops.
Gibson ES-335-style guitars
Born in 1958, the Gibson ES-335 was the first semi-hollowbody electric guitar to hit the market. One of the key differences that the ES-335 brought to the world of hollowbody guitars was a solid center block, which reduces feedback when played at loud volumes. This was a game changer for semi-hollow body guitars. Thanks to that key addition, guitarists could now tap into the warm tones associated with hollow body guitars AND play with extra volume and distortion.
Like the Les Paul, the Gibson ES-335 also features a dual humbucker pickup configuration. One of the most amazing things about playing a 335-style guitar is you can feel it resonating against your body while you’re playing — especially at higher volumes.
When you see an ES-335 style guitar, your first instinct might be to think of blues music. However, thanks to the addition of a solid center block, musicians in all genres have used the ES-335 to create their signature sound.