The 5 Best Classic Electric Guitars That Every Recording Studio Should Have

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Guns N’ Roses – November Rain – https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8SbUC-UaAxE

Billy Gibbons (Z.Z. Top):

The king of cool and also one of the most iconic musicians in rock history (Notice something similar among Les Paul players?) often uses a Les Paul nicknamed “Pearly Gates” on stage and in the studio. In this live recording of “Tube Snake Boogie,” note how the Les Paul takes up a lot of frequency space and makes the modest three piece band sound huge.

Les Paul: How could one make a list, even a condensed one, of the most famous Les Paul players without putting Les Paul himself on the list? This recording of Les Paul live at the Iridium shows that even though he is playing with two other guitarists and an upright bass player, a Les Paul guitar can be bright and punchy, demanding attention even with other guitars in the mix.

Model Recommendations:

Good: ESP LTD Eclipse EC-256FM ($399)

Before you laugh at this recommendation, please note that ESP does not just make METAL guitars. Yes, James Hetfield and Kirk Hammett of Metallica rely heavily on their guitars, but this relatively affordable Eclipse guitar is one of the best Les Paul-style guitars available for under $1,000.

A Les Paul '50s Tribute 2016 T Model.

A Les Paul ’50s Tribute 2016 T Model.

ESP does a great job with their fretwork, making string bends effortless, and the mahogany neck feels very comfortable. The pickups are not my favorite, but they are easily upgraded, and there is a coil-tap feature from the factory that allows you to split the humbuckers to get single coil jangle out of this guitar, sounding like a bassier Tele. A versatile instrument at an affordable price.

Better: Gibson Les Paul ’50s Tribute 2016 ($899-$1249)

This Les Paul sounds awesome thanks to a pair of 490R and 498T humbuckers. The “High Performance” version is a bit brighter in tone because of its metal nut, which lends the guitar a focused sound that helps it from sounding too boomy in most situations.

I’m not a fan of the G-Force automatic tuning system or the unusual adjustable titanium nut on this guitar, which I find to be unnecessary and impractical tools. However, the tapered fast-access neck heel on the High Performance version of this guitar makes it a real winner for me as it is equally comfortable in the higher and lower registers.

Best: Vigier G.V. Wood (Approx $4,000)

This is a more modern take on a Les Paul. At a price a little lower than a new Gibson Les Paul Custom, the Vigier G.V. Wood blows away every Les Paul and Les Paul copy I have ever played in terms of comfort and feel.

The stainless steel frets make it incredibly easy to perform buttery bends, and Vigier’s unique 10/90 neck (90% wood, 10% carbon fiber) adds sustain while ensuring that you’ll never have to adjust a truss rod again. You can go an exceptionally long time without having to set up this guitar if you take care of it well, whereas most guitars need adjustments nearly every time the seasons change.

This guitar isn’t the most representative take on a “Classic” Les Paul, but in ways, it is an even better-built instrument than many of the guitars spawned at the Gibson factory.

4. Gibson SG

The classic, all mahogany Gibson SG.

The classic, all mahogany Gibson SG.

Angus Young and AC/DC fans should be happy to see the SG on this list. The first three guitars on this list are the real must-have guitars but once you have those covered, you might look to an SG if you want a less bass-heavy alternative to a Les Paul.

SG’s are also built from mahogany, like Les Pauls, but because they have less body mass, they tend to achieve much of the syrupy sustain of the LP, but without getting quite as boomy or excessive in the lower midrange frequencies. They also lack the maple top of the Les Paul Standard, giving them a bit of smoother, more supple tone, without as much of the Les Paul’s top-end clarity and “bite”.

Guitar virtuoso Guthrie Govan once said, “Mahogany has a certain focus in the midrange and a certain honk, but everything else is in there as well…I just like the mahogany honk. My other favorite guitar is the first electric guitar I ever had, which was the Gibson SG. Guitars that are built that way feel right to me.”

SGs have been used to great effect by some truly innovative players who eschew imitation. From Tony Iommi of Black Sabbath to Robbie Krieger of the Doors, from Frank Zappa to Gerry Garcia, it’s long been a favorite of players who want the warmth and power of a Gibson in a lighter, more compact body.

Famous Users:

Angus Young (AC/DC)

The first guitarist who often comes to mind when someone mentions a Gibson SG is Angus Young of AC/DC. If you want to add killer “big balls” and create a wall-of-rock that will still leave frequency space for your bass player or another guitar, check out an SG:

Tony Iommi (Black Sabbath)

For a time, Black Sabbath practically defined the sound of early metal. Tony Iommi was an inventive player who used the SG to great effect, exploring its tonal range from syrupy sustain to its satisfying midrangey “crunch”.

Sister Rosetta Tharpe

Sister Rosetta Tharpe was found often armed with a beautiful white SG Custom in her later years.  Check out this clip of her powerful performance of “Didn’t It Rain”:

Recommended Models:

Gibson SG Special Faded ($739)

Why is there only one SG recommendation?  Because one of the best SGs you can get for the studio is also relatively affordable. The faded satin finish on the neck and body of this model makes it incredibly slick and easy to move around the guitar, and allows the wood to breathe and resonate more freely, while keeping the cost low.  The differences between this guitar and a much more expensive Gibson Custom Shop model seem to mainly lie in aesthetic factors, so know that this is as good as it gets tonally speaking.

5. Gibson ES-335

Pictured here is the ES-345, a variation on the 335 that includes a tone selection switch.

Pictured here is the ES-345, a variation on the 335 that includes a tone selection switch.

The Gibson ES-335 was the first commercial thinline archtop semi-hollow electric guitar. Released in 1958, it was a revolutionary design, with a solid piece of maple running through the center of its body.

Neither a fully hollow nor fully solid guitar, the side “wings” are hollow, and the top has two violin-style f-holes over the hollow chambers. Notable users include John Scofield, B.B. King, Chuck Berry, Robben Ford, Alvin Lee, Roy Orbison and, at times, Joe Perry, Ritchie Blackmore and Eric Clapton.

With a semi-hollow guitar, you can expect some honkiness in the midrange which usually means a resonance around 1Khz. For jazz, funk and fusion, a 335 can sound phenomenal, and works especially well for single note parts.

Over the years, Gibson has made many different variations of the 335 such as Alex Lifeson’s ES-355 and B.B. King’s Lucille (a further-modified 355).

The 335 has a great warmth to it that sounds sweet on clean amps and invigorating through an overdriven tube amp. There are other great hollow and semi-hollow body guitars by companies like D’Angelico and Epiphone, but a 335 is irreplaceable. Starting at $1,599 for a Gibson ES-335 Studio, new models can cost up to $6,649, and an original 1958 model can go for around $25,000.

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  • roscoenyc

    I disagree. Most players have this stuff. What you need on hand at a studio are things players may not have or have with them. An electric 12 string guitar, a Baritone guitar, a guitar with a Bigsby on it and a couple of really good acoustics. One of them in high string tuning.

  • Yeah, make an ice cream shop that sells vanilla and chocolate. People will be camping outside waiting for business to open…

  • Michael Murray

    I’d also recommend Dan Strain’s guitars — he makes them in his home shop in Nashville, and they’re very highly-regarded/ not crazy-expensive: http://danocaster.com/

    Also agree with roscoenyc about electric 12-string (I have a restored old Ricky 12-string) etc.

  • Knuckles Mutatis

    Quote: “Jimmy Page is known for playing Les Pauls on stage, but he used a Telecaster a lot back when he was primarily a session guitarist, as well as on some classic Led Zeppelin recordings like “Communication Breakdown” and “How Many More Times.”

    It’s more than that. He used a Telecaster on *every* song on Led Zeppelin 1 other than “You Shook Me” (Flying V). He also used a Telecaster for the solo for “Stairway to Heaven”, as well as “All of My Love”, “Hot Dog”, and probably some other songs I’m missing.

  • Justin C.

    Hey Roscoe,

    I agree with both of you! This roundup is meant to set the baseline for having a useful studio guitar for everyday use. (Especially when the band’s guitars are less than ideal, which often happens, especially with younger artists.)

    That said, YES: Definitely agreed that some of these less common guitars are a great add to any studio, and that most artists aren’t going to have access to them otherwise. We actually have a story like that planned for the future.

    Great additions here, thanks!

  • Justin C.

    That is true—it was a Tele on every song on Zeppelin 1. Matthew’s wording here is technically still accurate, but you are right about all of that, and it is great context to add.

    I wish I had made that recommendation myself while doing an editing pass. But Matthew’s wording is still right (and very concise.) It just leaves out some very worthwhile details. Thanks for adding them here!