The Best Guitars For Blues
Buying new guitars is one of life’s greatest pleasures. There are few things that beat the thrill of it. But knowing where to start, which guitars to buy and how much to spend is difficult. When I started playing, I knew the sounds I wanted to emulate, but I had no idea what I needed to get me there.
Had I done a little more research before a couple of big purchases, I could have saved myself a fair bit of time and money.
So if you’re just starting out or if you are looking at making your first big purchase, here’s what you need to know about picking the right guitars for the blues:
The Guitars of the Greats
There are only a handful of guitars you should be looking at if you want to achieve a sweet, vintage blues tone. Just look to the greats for inspiration.
Stevie Ray Vaughan, Jimi Hendrix and Jeff Beck played (and continue to play) Fender Stratocasters. Paul Kossoff, Jimmy Page and Gary Moore played (and continue to play) Gibson Les Pauls. A couple of guitarists – Eric Clapton being perhaps the most notable – have used a number of different guitars throughout their careers to achieve different tones.
Beyond that, B.B King and Freddie King played hollow bodied Gibsons (ES-335s for the most part) and a handful of famous bluesmen have opted for different models entirely. As an example, Derek Trucks and Gary Clark Jr both use Gibson SGs for the most part.
In other words, if you’re looking for vintage blues tones, you don’t need to reinvent the wheel. In fact I would argue that you don’t want to stray too far from these guitars or their cheaper replica versions in search of great blues tone.
There are two main reasons for this: the build of the guitar and it’s electrical components.
Out of the Woodwork
The tone that a guitar produces is specific to that particular model. The wood that the guitar is made from, its density and the shape of its body all influence the sound it produces. Changing any of those elements alters a guitar’s sound quite significantly.
This is one of the reasons that a Fender Stratocaster played clean through an amp sounds quite different from a Gibson Les Paul played clean through the same amp. This is the case even if all other variables remain the same.
The natural tones these two guitars produce are associated with vintage blues and rock tones, so they offer a good starting point. They were the most popular guitars available during the electric blues boom of the 1960s and because of the legendary guitarists who played them, have remained in vogue ever since.
Single Coil vs Humbucker Pickups
The second factor that plays a huge role in the tone a guitar produces, is its pickups. These are the devices on the front of your guitar which ‘pickup’ the vibration of the strings and convert them into an electrical signal that gets sent to your amplifier.
There are two main types of pickups; single coil and double coil. Double coil pickups are most commonly referred to as humbuckers. This is because unlike single coil pickups, they ‘buck’ the hum caused by electromagnetic interference.
Single coils feature on almost all Fender guitars. Broadly speaking, they produce a bright, clean and quite sharp sound. Notes played through single coils sound clear and well defined.
Humbucker pickups feature on almost all Gibson guitars. They have a thicker, warmer and more distorted sound. Notes played through humbucker pickups sound more rounded and a little less defined.
Generally, guitarists opt for humbucker pickups when they’re looking for a more distorted sound. Conversely, guitarists use single coils when they want a cleaner and crisper sound with less distortion.
That’s not to say you’re limited to either sound by opting for single coil or humbuckers. Jimi Hendrix produced some filthy rock tones using a Fender Stratocaster. Derek Trucks continues to produce clean and jangly tones using his Gibson SG.
It is however important to recognise the implications of your decision. Whilst you may be able to produce a heavy distorted sound with single coil pickups, you won’t be able to produce the thick and heavy sound of a player like Slash. Conversely, you won’t be able to get the jangly clean tones of a guitarist like Robert Cray using humbuckers.
Which Guitar Should you Buy for Blues?
With all of that in mind, here are some practical suggestions for different budgets that will help you get the beautiful blues tone you’re looking for:
Guitars for Beginners (or those on a low budget)
Those packs will set you up with pretty much all of the gear you need. You get a guitar and a small practice amp, as well as accessories like picks and a strap.
The guitars are decent enough and at around £200-250 for both the guitar and amp, you can’t beat the value of the package.
This makes it the perfect choice if you’re on a more restricted budget or if you’re new to playing the guitar. Starting with relatively inexpensive gear allows you to try out your new hobby. You can see if you actually enjoy playing the guitar, without having to part with too much of your hard earned cash.
Obviously, these aren’t the world’s best guitars. If you fall in love with playing and practice hard, you’ll probably become frustrated with their limitations. But if that happens, you can always sell your guitar on or give it away. It’s much better to be in that position, than to buy an expensive guitar you’ve never played gathering dust in your attic.
Guitars for Intermediates (or for those on a mid-range budget)
For blues tones on a mid-range budget (£500-1000), I would recommend focusing your search on either high end squires and ephiphones, or opting for the lower priced Stratocasters and Gibsons. Some models that I would recommend are:
£500 or Less
In this price range, you should go for replicas of the original models. Fender and Gibson own Squier and Ephiphone, respectively. Their replica guitars are designed to be as close as possible to the original models. The big difference is that they feature cheaper components and manufacturing techniques.
As a result, the playability and tone is not at the same level of Fender and Gibson guitars. Having said that, they offer a great place to start and will definitely put you in the right ball park for getting those vintage blues tones.
£1000 or Less
- Epiphone Les Paul Tribute
- Gibson Les Paul Studio Tribute
- Fender Stratocaster (Mexican)
- Fender Classic 60s Stratocaster
In the mid range you can get a lot for your money, especially at the top end of the budget. I’ve played Mexican and Korean made guitars that sound and play better than their American made counterparts. If you’re in this range you can get amazing guitar that will serve you well for a long time.
Guitars for Advanced Players (or for those on a higher budget)
If you have a bit more money to spend on a guitar, your choice opens up significantly. There is a real difference in quality between a guitar costing £500 and one costing £2500.
Beyond the £2500 mark (and arguably before that point!) it’s a case of diminishing returns.
Your go to guitars in this price range for classic blues tones are pretty straightforward:
- Gibson Les Paul Standard
- Fender American Elite Stratocaster
- Gibson ES-335
- Gibson SG Standard (if you’re looking for a heavier blues/rock tone)
At this level, the quality of the guitars is very high. Although they lack some of the features of guitars made the during the 1950s and 1960s, they will get you very close to those vintage blues tone. They are well built and veery durable guitars that will serve you for years if you look after them.
Custom Shop Guitars
Unlike most factory made guitars, custom shop guitars are hand crafted and produced in much smaller runs. Typically, they are made with higher quality components that don’t feature on standard edition models.
A lot of custom shop guitars are designed to replicate a specific era or musician. As an example; there’s a Jimmy Page inspired custom shop Les Paul. It’s built to closely replicate the guitars that Page used in Led Zeppelin.
On custom shop guitars there’s a few different points worth highlighting:
Custom shop guitars are exceptionally well built. Although the initial outlay for a custom
shop guitar will be sizeable, you’ll have an instrument that will serve you for life. In my experience, well kept guitars don’t depreciate much in value. So you can look at a custom built guitar as an investment rather than an extravagant purchase.
Having said that, I would advise taking your time over a custom shop purchase. Custom shop guitars are often geared towards a particular musician or sound. So before buying, you want to be confident in the tones the instrument will allow you to express. The last thing you want is to buy a Jimmy Page Gibson Tribute Custom Shop, only to find you don’t enjoying playing Led Zeppelin songs.
As a final point, it’s worth making an argument for modern engineering. Eric Clapton, Jimmy Page and co produced amazing blues tones with the gear that was available. But there are certain features and elements of their guitars that have arguably been improved since.
Before I bought my Fender Strat, I tried out a guitar inspired by Eric Clapton’s ‘Blackie’. It had a lot of the features that Clapton used to define his tone. But it also had an antiquated ‘V’ neck shape. The build of the guitar was true to what Clapton played, but I found that it had a totally different and quite uncomfortable feel.
Custom shop guitars are often modelled to accurately reflect the exact build of the guitars that were made in the late 1950s and early 1960s. These early guitars had quirks and features that are now largely outdated. It’s definitely worth considering this before you buy one.
Ultimately, I wouldn’t advise going in at the Custom shop level if you’re relatively new to playing. Even if your budget for guitar gear is limitless – I would advocate getting to grips with things first.
The Fender Telecaster – A Notable Omission
It would be wrong to totally exclude the Fender Telecaster from this list. Famous bluesmen like Muddy Waters, Albert Collins and Roy Buchanan favoured the Telecaster. On paper it should be a great blues guitar but in reality, I don’t think that’s the case.
I used to own a Fender Telecaster, before I bought my Strat but I ended up selling it because I became frustrated with the tones I was producing.
To my ear at least, Telecasters are too bright and twangy. The tone they produce is very sharp and biting and they can sound quite thin compared with a Strat or a Les Paul. It’s why rock n roll and country guitarists use them so frequently.
Certain blues players have played Telecasters to great effect, so that’s not to say you can’t get great blues tones using them. But if you want to play it safe, I would recommend opting for a Fender Stratocaster, Gibson Les Paul or Es-335, or one of their various replica models.
Some Closing Thoughts…
The above are just my recommendations. If you opt for any of the guitars here, you’ll have a great chance of getting some beautiful blues tones.
But don’t take my word for gospel. The way a guitar ‘feels’ and how you connect with it is arguably the most important factor. Some guitars will feel good to play; others will not. It’s a totally individual thing.
You should go to a guitar store and spend as long as it takes to find a guitar that feels right. If you’ve never played a guitar before, then at least hold the guitars they have on offer. Sit with them on your lap as if you were going to play and grip the neck.
Every guitar has a different build and feel and you can’t judge that from pictures or videos alone. As an example, Gibson Les Pauls are very heavy and have a fat neck. This can make them feel cumbersome and more difficult to play. Go and test these things out for yourself. You have to do it if you want to buy a guitar you’re going to love to play.
Go with an open mind and opt for what feels best when you’re there. When I bought my Fender Strat, I went to the store not knowing which guitar I was going to buy. I played 5 or 6 different guitars and models and found that I played best on the American Strat. I just loved playing it and I was getting some great tones from it, so I bought it.
You should go through the same process when buying your next guitar. Just don’t go too crazy; there’s a reason you’ve never seen a famous blues guitarist playing a Jackson or Ilbanez…
It’s also important to recognise that your guitar is only one part of the puzzle. It may be the most important part but what counts is how you combine it with an amp and a few choice pedals. I’ll be covering these in the next couple of articles, so keep your eyes peeled!