50 guitars to play before you die
8th Aug 2011 | 06:30
If you are a guitar player, you simply haven't loved until you've gently cradled a good pre-CBS Strat. You've known no happiness like a few stolen moments with a pre-war Martin D-28.
And so it is we bring you Guitarist magazine's definitive list of the 50 guitars you need to play before you die (redux) - the Father, Son, and Holy Ghost of guitar worship. They're in no particular order, and the best news is that price-wise, there's something here for everyone.
Where possible, we've linked through to full, in-depth reviews of each instrument and included more affordable mid-price and budget equivalents for the higher-end and rare vintage models.
First up: Gibson ES-135...
The result of an illicit liaison between an ES-175 and an ES-335, this semi is an unsung hero. It has a solid centre section, but with a two-and-a-quarter-inch body depth. Go for the one with f-holes and P-100 pickups: brilliant for rock 'n' roll, jazz, fusion...
Price: £700-1100 (used)
Fender 1952 Telecaster
Plug a genuine '52 Tele into a great valve amp and a thing of sonic beauty manifests itself before your ears. The tone from the bridge pickup is fat, gnarly and the quintessential sound of the electric guitar. Since its inception, the Telecaster has featured in every form of modern music.
Price then: $169
Price now: approx £30,000
Best new equivalent: Fender Custom Shop Limited Edition '52 Heavy Relic Telecaster (£2,829) (BUY: Thomann)
Bill Collings is an obsessive perfectionist whose ultra-high build and presentation standards result in nothing leaving his care unless perfect in his eyes.
The CJ is the model most likely to cause the lower jaw to drop, not just because of its looks, but also because of its extraordinary corpulent tone, arresting volume, room-filling projection and attention to detail.
Price: £3199 (BUY: GuitarGuitar)
Mid-price choice: Faith FJHG (£499) (BUY: Andertons Music Co.)
Budget buy: Freshman FA1FBJBK (£329)
Duesenberg Pomona 6 Lap Steel
Marrying a lap steel with palm benders and a moveable capo seems so obvious, we can't work out why this hasn't been around for decades. Western hula swing blues, anyone?
FULL REVIEW: Duesenberg Pomona 6 Lap Steel
Price: £889 (BUY: Thomann)
Budget buy: Gretsch Electromatic Lap Steel G5700 (£289) (BUY: Thomann)
D'Angelico New Yorker
In the 1930s and 1940s archtop 'jazz'-style guitars were the pinnacle of the luthier's art and the likes of Gibson, Stromberg and Epiphone vied to make the biggest, flashiest and most fantastic models.
Many pundits say that with the New Yorker, John D'Angelico outdid them all. With an 18-inch body, 'stairstep' pickguard and Empire State Building peghead inlay, the New Yorker is certainly no shrinking violet.
At one time, a 'teardrop' shaped New Yorker was the world's most expensive guitar - at $500,000!
Price: from £15,000 skywards
Mid-price choice: Peerless Manhattan (£699)
Budget buy: not really anything for under £400
Yamaha Troy Van Leeuwen SA-503
Queens Of The Stone Age guitarist Troy Van Leeuwen should be applauded for coming up with this Bigsby-equipped, three P-90 ES-335-style guitar. Is this one cool or what?
FULL REVIEW: Yamaha Troy Van Leeuwen SA-503
Vox Virage DC
Vox's re-entry into the electric guitar market at the start of 2008 surprised many by being a high-end Japanese-made guitar (designed in the USA by ex-Yamaha, Ibanez, Modulus and Line 6 veteran Rich Lasner and his team) and not a re-run of its sixties models.
The semi-solid Virage DC employs a complex carved solid wood construction based loosely on the classic ES-335 with tri-coil DiMarzio pickups. It's the latest example of guitars with more air, such as PRS's Hollowbody and Gibson's rather good downsized ES-335, the ES-339.
FULL REVIEW: Vox Virage DC
Price: £2095 (BUY: GuitarGuitar)
Any random cheap piece of crap
The ultimate feelgood guitar when played alongside your modern electric. Typified by cheesewire action, terrible electronics and awful hardware, it reminds you just how much things have improved. You've never had it so good, you don't know you're born etc... Just never use it in public!
1969-71 Ampeg Dan Armstrong 'Plexi'
First produced in the US during a shortlived period (1969-71), the Dan Armstrong-designed, clear acrylic-bodied guitar was made famous by the likes of Keith Richards, Ronnie Wood, Tom Verlaine and others.
Price: approx £2500 (BUY: GuitarGuitar)
Budget buy:Ampeg AMG100 (from £339)
James Trussart Rusty Holey Steelcaster
If there's a single guitar that's brought the whole team together, it's this work of art. On its arrival in the office, we all stood around in hushed wonder. That a hollow T-type fashioned from folded steel then buried in the garden should instil such a reaction is a credit to the genius of James Trussart.
It should be as harsh and sharp as razors in lemon juice, but there's a toneful, resonant, compelling surprise in order when you plug this unique guitar in.
Equally iniviting is the dark-stained maple neck, which was such a joy to play that wee still coo about it to this very day. The Kooks' Luke Prichard read the review and bought the very guitar!
FULL REVIEW: Trussart Steelcaster
1963 Fender Esquire
Throws down the one-pickup gauntlet for any self-respecting twangbanger. The rosewood 'board brings a little more lower-mid fatness than earlier maple-necked versions.
Price: approx £6000 used
Mid-price choice: Fender Classic Series '50s Esquire (maple neck, £475) (BUY: Coda Music)
Any Gibson Explorer
This outlandish axe carries with it a metal stigma, and while it's undoubtedly at home flailing underneath spandex and a perm, it has a great deal more to offer. That huge expanse of slab korina (or mahogany depending on the model) makes for a highly resonant, sustainful beast with plenty of chunk and bite.
It's hard to believe that it debuted in 1958 in original korina format, and it remains as compelling in its current 'X-Plorer' ('76 Reissue) mahogany-based guise. Makes you want to get sweatbands and shout a lot.
FULL REVIEW: Gibson X-Plorer New Century
Price: from £899
Budget buy: just buy the Epi!
Gibson 1959 ES-335
Like Fender's Telecaster, the ES-335 has always played second fiddle to another model in the range. An old ES-335 is lighter than a new one, and more fragile, yet lurking under its f-holed body is a musical giant waiting to be unleashed.
From warm and flutey neck pickup tones to an edgy but sustaining bridge humbucker, is this the best Gibson of them all? Could be...
Price: £20,000 plus
Mid-price choice: Get a secondhand USA 'standard' model
Gibson 1959 Les Paul Standard
Anyone who has played one of the original 1700 or so Les Paul Standards built from 1958 to 1960 belongs to one of the most exclusive guitar clubs. Members include Eric Clapton, Jeff Beck, Billy Gibbons, Jimmy Page, Duane Allman, Dickey Betts, Peter Green, Michael Bloomfield, Mick Taylor, Paul McCartney, Keith Richards, Gary Moore, Paul Kossoff, Marc Bolan - rock's royalty, in fact.
The single-cutaway Les Paul harked back to Gibson's L-5C, and yet its solid mahogany and maple body exudes a tone so classy that it remains a holy grail. It wasn't until 1966 that Eric Clapton realised its full potential. Had you bought one in 1968 for £400, today you could exchange it for a house... or three.
Price then: £280
Price now: from £80,000 skywards
Budget buy: just buy the Epi!
The Mira - pronounced 'mirror' - is PRS's most affordable USA-made guitar. Designed by Joe Knaggs to appeal to a 'new' market, its 24-fret neck and thin all-mahogany body give it an SG-like, retro vibe.
And with dual Mira humbuckers - the same as the 245 pickups without covers - it kicks out some classic rock tones. New market aside, it's simply a great guitar - ask Joe Walsh.
FULL REVIEW: PRS Mira
Mid-price choice: PRS SE Soapbar (£535)
1937 Martin D-28
The sheer musical significance of Martin's deadnought cannot be underestimated. From Hank Williams, David Crosby, David Gilmour and Paul McCartney to Bob Dylan, Joni Mitchell, Neil Young, Michael Hedges and countless more, this pretty much defined the sound of the American acoustic guitar as you know it.
The guitar first appeared in the 1930s and it's the pre-war (pre-1944) instruments that are most highly prized. While there were much fancier models, pre-war D-28s are Best In Show for many players thanks to appointments including an Adirondack spruce top, Brazilian rosewood back and sides, herringbone purfling, 28-style diamonds-and-squares inlays and forward-shifted scalloped X-bracing.
Arguably the most iconic of all acoustics and almost certainly the most copied guitar of all time. You need to experience one.
Price then: $100
Price now: from £25,000
Best new equivalent: Martin D-28 Authentic 1937 (£25,995)
Mid-price choice: Recording King RD-127 (£479)
Using a McCarty with a vibrato as the starting point, David Grissom got PRS to tweak the pickups, create a new neck shape and spray it with a nitro-cellulose top coat. A seriously good solidbody.
FULL REVIEW: PRS David Grissom DGT
Budget buy: Washburn Idol WI18Q (£279)
Patrick James Eggle Linville
Patrick Eggle's luthiery proves that you don't need to look to the USA for high-end acoustics. Beautifully finished with a refined tone: among the very best of British.
FULL REVIEW: Patrick James Eggle Linville
Price: £1960 (BUY: GuitarGuitar)
Mid-price choice: Blueridge BR-163 (£529) or Blueridge BR-163CE (£699)
Budget buy: Recording King RO-16 (£199)
Gretsch White Falcon
If there's one instrument that illustrates perfectly the vibe and sheer desire afforded by Gretsch guitars, it has to the White Falcon. Although available in a number of configurations these days, the opulent mix of gold hardware, the snow white finish and a sparkly binding fashioned from crushed sea shells is class in a perfectly formed glass.
With more tonal features than most modern guitars and a gorgeously skinny neck, the Falcon has a rock credential all its own: try Malcolm Young, Billy Duffy and John Frusciante for starters...
The cutaway electro-classical nylon-string guitar is hardly new but Alhambra's Spanish-made Crossover takes its styling from the brand's recent steel-string guitars, including a cambered fingerboard with side dot markers and a choice of Fishman preamps.
The top-of-the-line CS-3 CW E5, with spruce top and rosewood back and sides and Fishman Premium Blend preamp, is very impressive indeed.
FULL REVIEW: Alhambra Crossover CS-3 CW E5
Price: approx £999
Mid-price choice: Prudencio Saez Model 59 (£565)
Budget buy: Washburn C64 SCE (£195)
Yamaha Pacifica 112V
Who plays one? Well, you and us. The Pacifica, originally designed by Yamaha's Hollywood-based custom shop, is Yamaha's best selling electric guitar by a mile or two. It's solid alder body, as opposed to laminate, gave it unique status in the low-end market on its launch in 1993.
Yamaha is known for its consistency and originally it was made in Yamaha's Taiwanese factory, before moving to the company's facility in Indonesia a couple of years back. Did anyone notice any difference? No.
Decent quality hardware, good pickups (upgraded in 2007) and a proper fret job and set-up make this the ideal starter student guitar or a more-than-reliable backup. It's perfect for upgrading too. Every home should have one!
FULL REVIEW: Yamaha Pacifica 112V
Gibson SG Standard
Gibson restyled the Les Paul in 1960, giving it devil horns and 22 frets clear of the body. You haven't lived until you've played open G, E and A on an SG.
Simple: world-renowned, inviting playability and a sweet, balanced sound from the Western red cedar top and mahogany back and sides. Complete with Taylor's Expression System electronics, it's a perfectly-poised all-rounder.
Mid-price choice: Tanglewood TW45 NSB (£459) (BUY: Soundslive)
Budget buy: Vintage VEC350 (£219)
1959 Gibson J-200
One of these gorgeous hunks emerged in 1938 and has been in production ever since. What set the J-200 apart from others was its combination of sheer size (17-inches across) and level of ornamentation.
Its scratchplate was covered in flowers while a huge 'moustache'-shaped bridge dripped with pearl. Fingerboard inlays were pearl crests and the guitar came in tobacco burst or blonde.
Costing $200 on release, an extra 50 bucks got your name inlaid along the fretboard! Famously strummed by Elvis Presley, the J-200 is king of the flat-tops!
Price: approx £15,000
Mid-price choice: Faith FJHG (£499) (BUY: Andertons Music Co.)
Fender 1959-1963 Stratocaster
As the 1960s rolled around, Fender's Stratocaster was six years old and for many Strat lovers - though they didn't know it at the time - the design had reached its evolutionary peak.
The rosewood fingerboard that first appeared in 1959 offered more playing comfort and warmer lower-mid frequencies than previous all-maple necks, while the three-ply pickguard and wider range of colours added lustre to Fender's otherwise utilitarian ethos.
A genuine early-sixties Strat - a good one, anyway - has an unmistakable feel and vibe. While modern remakes are often excellent, an A/B with the real deal confirms what all the fuss is really about.
Take the fingerboard edges, for example: they are rolled in a way that only a near half century of playing will achieve. They're also often very light, with a time-hardened, thinned and worn finish that's all but impossible to replicate.
The tonal effect of age is equally obvious - the best examples have an incredible depth and sweetness, but bite too, especially at the bridge pickup. Part of the 'magic' is in the blissful simplicity yet elegance of the design - still present on today's Strats - but the larger part is in the positive effects of age.
Leo Fender could never have predicted these Strats would ripen into the most desirable electric guitars of all time. You have to play one.
Price then: approx £329.50
Price now: £8000-20,000+
Zemaitis Metal Front
Hand-made by the late Tony Zemaitis, his guitars have been used by Ronnie Wood, Keith Richards, James Honeyman Scott, Rich Robinson and Gilby Clark. We are not worthy.
FULL REVIEW: AC Zemaitis Custom MF501-BL (almost the real thing)
Price: From £10,000 (BUY: Thomann)
Budget buy: Spear RT-ST (£399)
Played Hawaiian-style across your lap, a sensitively built example using solid koa makes among the most majestic noises you'll ever hear coming from six strings.
Price: Approx £2000
Mid-price choice: Weissenborn SM by Gold Tone (around £600)
Budget buy: Don't waste your money
Known for decades as a straight-up, reliable, well-built guitar, the FG series is a staple of the acoustic world. If acoustic guitars were food, the FG series would be rice. The 730S is the pick of the range.
FULL REVIEW: Yamaha FG730S
Budget buy: It is a budget buy!
Extended cutaways, the monkey grip, a brace of DiMarzio PAF Pro pickups and lion's claw rear bridge routing make the ultimate shred guitar. No Vai lover should be without one: the bee's knees.
Emmons Lashley Le Grand III Pedal Steel
If you find 'normal' playing a challenge, feel better by trying one of these. There are four knee levers and eight foot pedals (more if you want them!) even before you've tackled either of the two 10-string necks. Think Physics Degree: The Musical.
Price: Approx $5000
Mid-price choice: Carter Starter (£899)
Budget buy: Um, nah
Parker Fly Deluxe
Pioneering the super guitar genre proper, the Fly Deluxe offers regular electric guitar and piezo-acoustic sounds. Incredibly light too – around 4.5 lbs – thanks to its wooden core with carbon-epoxy exoskeleton. Feel it, believe it.
FULL REVIEW: Parker Fly Deluxe
Price: £2099 (BUY: Thomann)
Mid-price choice: Parker P-44 Pro (£499)
Budget buy: Nope
Late-1960s Guild 12-string
The 17-inch rosewood-bodied 512 12-string, alongside the maple 412 model, was the jangle-box du jour in the late 1960s and 1970s. Howlin' Wolf, Tim Buckley and John Denver were all fans of Guild 12s.
Price: approx £1500+ (used) (BUY: Thomann)
Mid-price choice: Vintage V1700-12 (£579)
Budget buy: Avoid budget 12s
Thurston Moore's late '60s sunburst Jazzmaster
Sonic Youth amassed an arsenal of cheap and undesirable-in-the-eighties Jazzmasters to cope with their library of tunings, etched into their headstocks… only to have them stolen in 1999.
Price: Priceless - or try Fender’s Thurston Moore Signature Jazzmaster (£1819)
1940s Martin 000-18
This small-bodied mahogany acoustic spits out a tone that instruments half as big again would do well to achieve.
Price: Approx £5000+ (used)
Best new equivalent: Martin 000-18 Golden Era 1937 (£2899)
Mid-price choice: Blueridge BR-143 000 Historic (£469)
Budget buy: Vintage V1300N (£289)
With this totally unique take on mixing standard electric and electro-acoustic sounds, Taylor continues to push musical boundaries with confidence and credibility. Give your playing a stylistic kick up the backside.
FULL REVIEW: Taylor T-5
Price: From £1497 (BUY: Andertons Music Co.)
Mid-price choice: Crafter SAT (£539) (BUY: Thomann)
Budget buy: Nope
Danelectro Dano '63 Baritone
Baritone guitars are universally regarded as cool instruments and, long before downtuning was considered the domain of the metal fraternity, baritones were employed to fill the sonic gap between the guitar and bass. Perhaps most notably they were used within the surf music genre, but pop up everywhere.
The Dano '63 is the current model from the company that actually invented the modern baritone, and alongside the guitar's traditional look, you have a rounded, fat tone that will certainly shake both the windows and your creativity.
Absolutely everyone reading this should own one of these guitars.
FULL REVIEW: Danelectro Dano '63
Price: £249 (BUY: Thomann)
1965 Di Giorgio Tarrega
The great João Gilberto and Tom Jobim played these. Their unique oval soundhole construction creates a special tone that is part of the heart and soul of Brazil. Vintage ones are hard to find in Europe, so good luck!
Price: £2000 (used)
Mid-price choice: Santos Martinez SM675CEA Bossa Nova (£499)
Squier Vintage Modified Tele Custom/Custom II
Getting your hands on a pukka Maccaferri is less likely than being able to play all Django's stuff… two fingered. John Jorgenson ticks both boxes, but everyone else should try this for a credible Gypsy jazz starter. A unique sound and feel: Djangtastic.
Price: £529 (BUY: Thomann)
Budget buy: Gitane GJ-15 (£399)
Gordon-Smith GS 1-60
No frills but great build from this UK stalwart. Takes the Gibson Junior vibe, but with a range of popular options and upgrades. A tone machine with minimal damage to the cash machine.
Price: From £394
1990-95 Ernie Ball Music Man EVH
Like any history-changing moment, every EVH fan will remember exactly where they were the first time they saw one of these in 1990. It had a new body shape topped with stunning quilted maple, but the real joy was that drop-dead birdseye maple neck; beautifully comfortable and satin-finished, just ready to rip up and down on.
It was a radical evolution for what we'd come to know as Eddie Van Halen's axe. Refined, yet still a rock animal.
Price: Approx £1250+ (used)
Budget buy: OLP MM1 (£169)
Jackson Soloist c1987
There was a time when a Jackson was the only heavy rock guitar to have. Crazy finishes, Kahler locking vibratos (later Floyd Rose), crazy necks… You just weren't alive if yours wasn't pink and screaming.
Price: Approx £1000+ (used)
Tom Anderson Atom
Arguably the pinnacle of Anderson's skills, this is electric guitar building at its finest: form and function fuse seamlessly and tonefully in this unique single-cut, not least for the compound wedge neck joint.
FULL REVIEW: Tom Anderson Atom
Budget buy: Not an equivalent that isn't just a generic single-cut
Clever Godin – an electric nylon-string with an inviting neck, plus a MIDI pickup. With an amp with piano/string MIDI sounds, Tears In Heaven sounds fresh again!
The modern version of National's thirties-era steel boy Duolian, the Delphi uses a powder-coated steel body, single resonator and biscuit bridge for a highly authentic delta blues sound. Just add porch…
Mid-price choice:Michael Messer Blues (£475)
Budget buy: Regal RD-30 (£249)
It shouldn't have worked but it did! Twice as many strings and super-tight string spacing, but this beauty goes way beyond Mr Tambourine Man. The theme from Crossroads is just not the same without it.
Mid-price choice: Italia Rimini Classic (£429)
Budget buy: Don't bother
Had it not been for three Liverpool lads, the Casino would languish, like its Gibson sister model the ES-330, as a forgotten sibling. In the hands of McCartney, Lennon and Harrison, however, it gave us Revolver!
Budget buy: This is it!
Tyler Studio Elite
Among the myriad options afforded by James Tyler, the Studio Elite has to be the jewel in the crown. What is common across the board is the wonderful neck, offering that heady mix of comfort, feel and subtle shaping, but what strikes us is the sheer vibe of the thing.
Ignore the bizarre finishes and 'unique' headstock: it has the best neck of any contemporary guitar we've ever played and it sounds amazing, especially if you go for the available onboard mid-boost preamp option.
FULL REVIEW: Tyler Guitars Hollowbody Studio Elite Retro
Price: From approx £2200
Mid-price choice: ESP LTD GL-2156 (£499)
Budget buy: Not really
Novax Charlie Hunter Solidbody 8
Played by the two-brained jazz crazyman, this duplicitous beastie splits three bass and five treble strings to separate outputs. Add a fanned-fret fingerboard so each string has a different scale length and you're… confused. Bonkers.
Budget buy: In your dreams!
1954-58 Gibson Les Paul Junior
The much-coveted single-cut Junior was produced from 1954 through to mid-1958, when the equally cool double-cut version was conceived. A slab Honduran mahogany body and chunky neck with Brazilian rosewood fingerboard provided a resonant platform for the single dog-ear P-90 single-coil and one-piece wrapover bridge.
Raw and rock 'n' roll it's been used by numerous players from Mountain's Leslie West to Green Day's Billy Joe Armstrong. Not bad for what was conceived as a sub-100 dollar 'student' guitar.
Price: From £5000
Mid-price choice: PRS SE One (£499)
Budget buy: Vintage VR100 LM (£219) (BUY: Thomann)
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