Unlike acoustic guitars, which don’t vary too much in body shape or basic features, electric guitars seem to have an unlimited number of variations in shape, features, colors and sound capabilities. For new electric guitar enthusiasts, the sheer number of makes and models available when selecting an instrument can seem almost overwhelming. But don’t worry, I’m here to help you sort it all out and get you on the path to learning and loving the electric guitar. If you’re looking to learn about electric guitars for beginners, then you’ve come to the right place!
My first piece of advice in buying electric guitars for beginners is to make the buying decision with both your head and your heart.
If you’re like me, you value your hard-earned dollars. And you don’t want to spend them on a guitar that will cause you too much stress or anxiety about paying the rest of your bills. So, know your budget, and try to stick with it (that’s the “head” part). The good news is that there are quality-built electric guitars for beginners for as little as $300. And for those with a few more bucks in their wallet, there is virtually no limit on the amount of money that can be spent on a custom electric guitar that is hand-crafted using the finest materials and methods.
Now, there are times in life when you see an object, and you say to yourself, “I just have to have it”. There are pros and cons of following through on this instinct of the heart. On the pro side, if you are truly inspired by a particular guitar and you know that you will want to pick it up and play it every day, then I would consider that guitar to be priceless and you should go for it. Of course, a potential con would be that you stretch your budget a little farther than originally planned.
My next point may seem a little redundant, but I think it’s worth repeating. Most music lovers are inspired by the artists they listen to. Your guitar should inspire you to pick it up and play as often as possible. So, if you’re an absolute die-hard Eric Clapton fan, there is absolutely nothing wrong with buying the same type of guitar that he is famous for playing (which is a Fender Stratocaster). Creating even a modest connection between you and your guitar hero makes for a more enjoyable learning and playing experience.
Another interesting difference in buying strategies between acoustic and electric guitars for beginners is that while different types of acoustic guitars are not firmly aligned to any particular genre of music, many electric guitars are closely aligned to a particular style or group of styles of music. In other words, you could pick up virtually any acoustic guitar and it really wouldn’t matter too much if you were playing folk, country or bluegrass music.
However, in the wonderful world of electric guitars, certain guitar makes and/or models have long associations with certain types of music. Now are these associations or rules written in stone? Of course not. And I’m certainly not trying to paint you into a corner with your guitar purchase. But if we use history as our guide, you will likely find that the guitars played by your favorite musicians in the same musical genre, will often be found playing similar style guitars.
Did the music inspire the type of guitar being played or did the type of guitar develop a certain style of music? If you know the answer to that question, then could you also please tell me if the chicken or the egg came first?
So rather than walking into your local guitar store and relying on a commissioned salesperson to tell you what to buy based on their musical or style tastes, let me explain the differences between the different types of electric guitars for beginners, which guitars are known for certain styles of music and which features are most impactful to quality, performance and price.
Electric Guitars for Beginners – Single Coil vs Humbucker Pickups
One of the first ways to differentiate between different types of electric guitars is by the types of pickups used. A guitar pickup is a series of magnetic poles that are wound with thin copper wire. The resulting electromagnetic field is energized by the vibrating strings. This is what converts the physical movement of the strings into an electrical signal. That signal can be sent to an amplifier to produce the electric guitar sounds. And this is also one of the first examples of how different types of electric guitars are aligned with certain types of music.
Single Coil Pickups
The first electric guitars of the 1930’s featured single coil pickups and they are still used widely today. Single coil pickups tend to have a bright and crisp tone and are known for their biting attack when the strings are plucked or strummed. In terms of musical styles, guitars featuring single coil pickups are very popular with country, blues and rock genres. Below is way-too-short of a listing of famous guitarists by genre who primarily play guitars with single coil pickups.
- Country: Tim McGraw, Brad Paisley, Vince Gill
- Blues: Stevie Ray Vaughan, Jimi Hendrix, Buddy Guy, Bonnie Raitt, Eric Clapton
- Rock: Keith Richards, Bruce Springsteen, Tom Morello, David Gilmour
One downside of single coil pickups is that they act like small antennas. They are susceptible to picking up electromagnetic interference from other electrically charged items in their vicinity. This effect can result in a humming sound that can be propagated out of the amplifiers speaker. For most guitarists playing around their house or apartment, the amount of interference will be negligible. For some guitarists who are playing at a gig, the sound can be a little more prevalent depending on what else is plugged in around the stage, such as neon signs. But by the time you’re ready to play real gigs, you’ll have had a chance to acquire some additional gear to keep this more moderate humming at bay.
Going back to the mid-20th century, as the musical world of electric guitars gained in popularity, players and bands were searching for bigger and louder sounds to please their ears and their audiences. The result of everyone turning up the volume on their guitars and amplifiers was an increase in humming and buzzing sounds. As the saying goes, necessity is the mother of invention, so guitar designers sought to come up with a way to provide additional volume output while at the same time bucking the hum of traditional single coil pickups. Voila, the humbucker pickup was born!
And like most lasting inventions, the beauty of the humbucker design is its simplicity. It’s basically two single coil pickups that have their copper wires wound out of phase with each other. This simple design feature cancels much of the unwanted noise.
Humbucker pickups are known for their thicker or fatter sounds and are often perceived as more round and warm. While it is generally true that descriptive words like “fatter” and “warm” are not normally associated with types of sounds, they are quite common in the guitar world. And the more you listen to the differences between different types of electric guitars, the more you’ll learn to appreciate why these types of words are used and why they’re actually pretty accurate.
Another feature that humbuckers are known for is their ability to stretch out the length of time that a note rings from the guitar after the string has been played. This is known as the sustain of the note. For virtually all guitarists, more sustain is better.
Below is another way-too-short list of famous guitar players listed by genre who favor humbucker pickups:
- Blues: B.B. King, Chuck Berry, Freddie King, Duane Allman
- Rock: Slash, Angus Young, Jimmy Page, Carlos Santana
- Metal: Kirk Hammett, Zakk Wylde, John Petrucci, Tony Iommi
Learn.Love.Guitar. Recommendation: There is no right or wrong answer when it comes to pickup style, either single coil or humbucker. For blues and rock music, either style works just fine. For country music, single coils are much more popular, while humbuckers dominate the heavy metal scene.
Electric Guitars for Beginners – Solid Body vs Hollow Body
As you have probably learned by now, electric guitars produce their primary sounds through the amplification of an electrical signal generated by the pickups. The pickups convert string vibrations into the electric signal. Strumming the strings on a solid-body electric guitar that is not plugged into an amplifier will make very little noise. Certainly not enough to make any real music.
Semi-hollow electric guitars, and to an even larger extent hollow-body electric guitars, add another element of sound to that produced by the pickup alone. The partial or full cavities within the guitar body produce additional harmonic overtones that add to the signal being sent by the pickups alone. This combination results in an exceptionally warm, rich tone and resonant sound.
Following the theme of this article, the three basic construction methods for electric guitar bodies: solid body, semi-hollow or hollow body, all have their own advantages and characteristics that are suited to particular styles of music.
- Solid Body: Rock, Blues, Metal, Country, Punk
- Semi-Hollow: Early Rock n’ Roll, Vintage Country, Blues, Rockabilly, Jazz
- Hollow Body: Mostly favored by a segment of Jazz guitarists
Learn.Love.Guitar. Recommendation: Solid body guitars are definitely the most versatile of the three styles of construction and can cover an enormous range of musical styles. If you’re really into Chuck Berry, B.B. King, Roy Orbison or others from the first generation of electric guitar players, then a semi-hollow guitar might be right for you. And unless you’re an avant-garde jazz player or someone who is really into experimenting with acoustic driven feedback and percussive effects, I’d generally steer you away from hollow-body guitars.
Electric Guitars for Beginners – Fixed vs Non-Fixed Bridges
The strings of every single guitar, and for that matter every type of stringed instrument like a violin or a cello, are fixed between two points. The point near the headstock of the guitar is called a nut. And there are really no major design differences between nuts on different electric guitars. But there are some differences in the design of the feature on the body of the guitar on which the strings rest, and that is called the bridge. The different designs fall into one of two camps: fixed bridges and non-fixed bridges. Both of these go by several different names depending on the guitar manufacturer or just personal preference (moving bridge, floating bridge, tremolo bridge, vibrato bridge, etc).
Fixed bridges are used on all acoustic guitars and many electric guitars. The name speaks for itself because the piece of wood or metal on which the strings rest does not move at any point while the guitar is played. This is the simplest of designs and the cheapest method of guitar manufacturing. The downside of fixed bridges on electric guitars is the lack of ability to impart momentary changes in string tension which can produce vibrato effects on your sound. For players who don’t wish to employ this particular playing technique, then fixed bridges work perfectly fine.
Non-fixed bridges allow the player to quickly adjust the tension in the strings. Usually this is performed by applying pressure to a vibrato bar (nick-named a whammy bar), which in turn affects the pitch of the note(s) being played. When the vibrato bar is no longer being played, then the string tension returns to normal.
Different guitar manufacturers have developed their own designs for non-fixed bridges. Example include Synchronized, Tune-o-matic, Bigsby, Floyd Rose, Wilkinson, etc. A known downside of floating bridges is that their frequent use can cause the strings to go out of tune. This is due to the large pressure and friction that is applied to the strings in the course of using the vibrato bar to adjust the string tension.
Guitarists who are known for their heavy use of whammy bars include Eddie Van Halen, Jimi Hendrix, Jeff Beck, David Gilmour, Joe Satriani and Steve Vai.
Learn.Love.Guitar. Recommendation: There is no good or bad choice to make when it comes to fixed versus non-fixed guitar bridge designs. As I’ve said numerous times before, if your guitar hero frequently uses a vibrato/whammy bar, and you intend to play some of those songs, then go ahead a look for a guitar that includes this bridge design. Note that even if your guitar comes with a floating bridge, it doesn’t have to be used and will play just like any other electric guitar.
If you’d like to review my recommended electric guitars for beginners at various price points, click on any of the following links: