Thursday, March 12, 2009

The all-time best guitars

(Not ranked or in any particular order)

While this list is largely personal opinion and many others might have other suggestions, it is also based largely on what guitars were widely used by popular players since the introduction of the electric guitar in the 1940’s, and also on what models are consistently good sellers and highly in demand in both the new and used guitar markets. I’m sure that most players, collectors and retailers would agree on my choices for the most part. Feel welcome to leave comments!

The “A-List” of electric guitars:

1. Gibson Les Paul

Tied with the Fender Stratocaster for the all around most popular electric guitar. What else needs to be said about the Gibson Les Paul? Hundreds of rock and blues players have used this guitar. The 1958 through 1960 models have become legendary and are selling at prices that only rock stars can afford. This is a good quality, good looking, solid, versatile, good sounding and easy to play instrument. The standard model is preferred by most rock and blues players, but the custom model offers some extra appearance features and lower frets for easy fingering and is used by some jazz players. There were many other Les Paul models over the years, and this is one of the guitars that has so many models, so many endorsers and so much history that several books have been written about the Gibson Les Paul. My only complaint is that it is a very heavy guitar.


Ibanez 2342 “Deluxe `59er” – This is an Ibanez Les Paul copy from 1974/1975. It came in several finishes. My favorite was the sunburst. These guitars were so good that Ibanez was sued by Gibson and forced to change their design.

Gibson SG Standard and SG Custom – For those people who could not afford a Les Paul or wanted a lighter Gibson guitar, the SG was another very popular solid-body Gibson. Some of the SG’s most famous users were Carlos Santana, Eric Clapton and John Cipollina. Les Paul and Mary Ford are also pictured on at least one of their record albums holding a 1961 SG. It 1961, it was called the Les Paul model.

2. Fender Stratocaster

Tied with the Gibson Les Paul for the all around most popular electric guitar, the Fender Stratocaster was less expensive than the Gibson Les Paul, but was still a solid, good looking, versatile, good sounding and easy to play instrument. The Stratocaster has a wide variety of sounds, and is used by rock, blues, surf, pop, country and jazz players. Like the Les Paul, the list of “Strat” endorsers is too long to even begin to include. Many books are written specifically about the Fender Stratocaster. The Stratocaster had two advantages over the Les Paul; a third pickup, and lighter weight. The disadvantage of the Stratocaster is the lack of “humbucking” pickups, which made the tone a little thinner than the Gibson guitars, and the “single coil” pickups were sometimes to a buzz from electronic interference. Many of these problems have since been solved by introducing new models with stronger pickups or humbucking pickups.


Music Man and G&L are two companies that were started by Leo Fender, the developer of Fender Musical Instruments. Since one of the original designers of the Stratocaster guitar was involved in Music Man and G&L production, these two companies offer guitars that are similar to the Fender Stratocaster. Many even say that the Music Man and G&L instruments are even better because they made improvements on the original Stratocaster design.

3. Fender Telecaster

The Telecaster is a great example of a simple, inexpensive, versatile and useful guitar. It has a definitive sound that is easily recognized because it has such a strong characteristic tone that is loved by many famous blues, rock, country and jazz players such as Roy Buchanan, Steve Cropper and James Burton. In the hands of the right player, the Telecaster can produce just about any electric guitar tone that you are seeking. It can cut through on the treble side for country licks, sound smooth and warm like an arched top for jazz, and scream and wail for rock and blues. Personally, I like the Telecaster better than either the Les Paul of the Stratocaster, but that is one of the reasons the “Tele” is so popular, it has its own list of devoted users. However, a new player entering a music store would probably be more inclined to buy the Les Paul or Stratocaster.


Music Man and G&L (see notes on Stratocaster above) build some guitars which are based on the original design of the Fender Telecaster.

4. Gibson ES-335

Introduced in 1958, the Gibson ES-335 had some new features that were popular with guitarists; it combined the hollow body of an acoustic “jazz” arched top guitar with the tonal dense-wood sound of the solid body guitars by placing a solid block of wood in the center of the instrument with both “sides” being hollow. For easy accessibility to the higher playing positions, the body had a double cutaway instead of the single cutaway of the other ES guitars of the era. It also featured the new Gibson humbucking pickups which gave it the powerful sound preferred by rock and blues players. Because of the “semi-solid” design, it was not susceptible to feedback like the hollow body electric guitars were. This was the guitar of choice by many blues players such as Elvin Bishop, Larry Carlton and Alvin Lee.


The Gibson ES-345 and ES-355 guitars were upgraded models of the “335.” While you would think that the extra features would make them more popular than the original 335 model, the ES-335 model was probably preferred because of its simplicity and no-frills design. Blues legend B.B King is probably the most famous user of the Gibson ES-355.

5. Gibson ES-175D

This is the definitive “jazz guitar.” While not the fanciest or most deluxe model of the Gibson arched top electric guitars, the ES-175D offered a warm jazz tone without the extra-cost design appointments and at a cost that was more affordable. The ES-175D had a 16” wide body which many players found to be more comfortable that the 17” body of the Gibson L-5CES or the 18” body of the Gibson Super 400CES. The “175” was used by popular rock guitarist Steve Howe as well as jazz artists Joe Pass, Herb Ellis and Jim Hall. For jazz, I prefer the single-coil pickups of the earlier models (pre-1957), but many people prefer the humbuckers currently available. The ES-175 was also available with a single “Charlie Christian” pickup, similar to the pickup on the Gibson ES-150 player by early jazz guitar pioneer Charlie Christian.


The Gibson ES-175 is a single-pickup version of the ES-175D (the D stands for “double pickup”) and, for most jazz players, one pickup is all that is needed to get the desired sound. Epiphone currently offers a “Joe Pass” model guitar that is a good low-cost alternative to the Gibson. I have owned this guitar, and I have found it to be of good quality with a good tone. Ibanez used to make a Model #2355M in the late 1970’s which was a high-quality guitar built of highly flamed laminated maple. I owned one of these and I still think it was one of the best guitars I have ever owned. I wish I still had this guitar!

Also, the Gibson L-5CES, Super 400CES and Johnny Smith model are all much better guitars than the ES-175D. They use solid carved wood while the “175” used laminated woods. The level of workmanship and ornamentation is much higher on the L5, Super 400 and JS. But for some reason (probably the higher cost of these guitars), the ES-175 show up more often on more stages and recordings. For the same reason, the extremely desirable D’Angelico jazz guitars didn’t make the list. Although they are of the highest quality and are great sounding jazz instruments, they are not as widely used as the ES-175. If the list was based on quality only, no one would be able to afford any of the guitars on the list!

The Gibson ES-295 offered in the early 1950’s resembles an early Gibson ES-175D, except that it has a Bigsby vibrato tailpiece and it has a gold sparkle finish. Like the ES-175D from the same era, the pickups are single coil until 1957 when the pickups were replaced with the new humbucking design.

6. Paul Reed Smith

It is difficult to pick any one model from the Paul Reed Smith line of guitars. None of these guitars have achieved the “legendary” status of the other guitars on the list, but they are an extremely well made and good sounding guitar, and are a good alternative to the Gibson Les Paul, so I thought they deserved to be included on the list one way or another. In time, perhaps one or two different models might rise legendary status as the Les Paul and ES-335 did in the Gibson line.


Carvin recently introduced a new solid-body electric guitar called the “California Carved Top” that is like the Paul Reed Smith in many ways; premium woods and meticulous workmanship. In addition to the California Carved Top series, several other Carvin guitars are worth a look. I personally use a Carvin AE-185 thin acoustic-electric, and it is one of the finest guitars I have ever owned. In addition to the premium pickups designed in conjunction to innovative guitarist Alan Holdsworth, it also has a piezo bridge saddle pickup system for a fairly good acoustic tone. The pickups are selectable between single-coil or humbucker, and the fit and finish of the guitar is flawless.

7. Gretsch 6120

This single-cutaway thinline acoustic-electric guitar is more popularly known as the original "Chet Atkins" model guitar. The most popular models are from around 1959-1960. In the 1970's, this guitar becamome a double-cutaway and was then known as the Chet Atkins Nashville model. Some guitars that are closely related to this guitar are the Gretsch White Falcon, Country Gentleman and Tennessean, all popular guitars of good quality that have stood the test of time.

The “A-List” of acoustic guitars:

1. Martin D-28

Unquestionably the most popular, most desired, and in many cases, the best sounding acoustic flat-top guitar of all time. While Martin offers premium models that are above the D-28 in the model line, the D-28 is popular because of it’s “no frills” approach. It was built to be a “work horse” of a guitar – lower cost, good woods (rosewood back and sides and a solid spruce top), and a good design (dreadnaught) for both volume and tone. The Martins built before the onset of World War II (called the “pre-war” period of acoustic guitar lore) are considered to be superior and more desirable than the models built after 1944 because of design changes. Pre-1969 models using rosewood imported from Brazil rather than the later models which used Indian rosewood are also more desirable and more expensive.


The Martin D-18 is similar to the D-28 except that it uses mahogany rather than rosewood for its back and sides. While rosewood is usually more expensive, some players prefer the brighter sound of a mahogany guitar.

Other Martin models in the D, M, 00 and 000 series are also a good choice, such as the D-35, D-41, D-42, D-45, 000-28, 000-45, etc.

2. Gibson J-45

A round-shouldered “jumbo” design with a solid spruce top and rosewood back and sides, this guitar was one of the most popular guitars in the 1940’s and 1950’s. An extremely well made guitar with good tone and a fair price was just what the country & western, folk and bluegrass players were looking for. The J-45 was discontinued in 1984, but has since been reissued and is currently available.


Gibson Dove, Gibson Hummingbird, Gibson J-200. Each of these guitars is a well made, good sounding and extremely popular acoustic guitar. It seems that in the world of acoustic guitarists, there are only four choices: Martin, Taylor, Gibson or “other.” In the other category would be makes such as Collings, Gurian and Gallagher acoustic guitars. If a player prefers a Gibson acoustic guitar, chances are they would choose one of these three instruments if not the J-45 or J-35.

Epiphone Excellante

From 1958 to 1969, Epiphone was owned by the same parent company as Gibson, and there was a lot of similarity between the Epiphone and the Gibson guitars. The flagship of the Epiphone acoustic guitar line was the Excellante, which actually cost $100 more that the Gibson J-200. This guitar is now extremely scarce and is sought after by collectors as well as players. Many people prefer the Excellante to any of the Gibson models.

Guild F-512 12-String

This model seems to be the one that is most preferred by players of the 12-string guitar. The F512 is a large guitar with a Jumbo style body, and it was made in the United States from solid woods (rosewood back and sides and sitka spruce top).

3. Taylor Guitars

Taylor acoustic guitars have only been around since the late 1970's so no one model has become an outstanding favorite, but all of their guitars are quality instruments, and they compete favorably with Martin and Gibson. Like the Martin lineup, Taylor offers a range of instruments from modest to deluxe, and also offers a nice choice of tonewoods. These guitars are definitely worth looking into!

The “A-List” of Electric Bass:

1. Fender Precision Bass / Fender Jazz Bass

So popular that some people still call any electric bass a Fender” bass. These instruments set the standard that all other electric basses are judged by.

2. Rickenbacker 4001

The Rickenbacker was lighter than the Fender bass and had a smaller neck and a unique pickup blending system. It was a solid-body, like the Fenders. These basses were a good choice if for some reason you did not want a Fender bass.


Hofner Beatle Bass – made popular by Paul McCartney, this is a small body light-weight bass, which causes it to be a little top-heavy. Good low tones, but it is prone to feedback because it is a hollow body.

Gibson EB-0 and EB-3 – For those that prefer Gibson over Fender, the Gibson basses never seemed to me to have the sound and feel of the Fender basses, and they were a little late getting their basses to market. By the time the Gibson bass was introduced, Fender already had a lock on the market, and there was no good reason to choose anything else.

The Honorable Mentions:

Rob Ehlers handmade acoustic guitars

Rob is an American who builds acoustic guitars in Veracruz, Mexico. They are made one at a time, all by hand. It is my opinion that these are the finest acoustic guitars currently available. The woods are awesome, the workmanship is impeccable, and the tone is full and balanced. The setup is extremely easy to play. The price range is in the $4000 to $9000 range, but this is a guitar that you will want to keep for the rest of your life, and then pass on to someone very special!

Guild Guitars

There were several Guild guitars that never achieved legendary status, but deserve to be included. The Johnny Smith Artist Award guitar is a nice, large jazz acoustic-electric that rivaled the Gibson instruments, but for some reason, Johnny Smith gave up his Guild endorsement and switched his loyalty to Gibson. The Duane Eddy model, Bert Weedon model and Starfire IV were good thinline acoustic-electrics, but never achieved the widespread popularity of the Gibson ES-330, Epiphone Casino and Gretsch 6120 and Country Gentleman. Likewise, the Gretch flat-top acoustic guitars, such as the F50R, D35 and F-40 were all great instruments, but never achieved the glory of the Gibson and Martin instruments.

Alembic Guitars / Alembic Bass

Only used by a handful of players such as Jerry Garcia and Phil Lesh of the Grateful Dead, these instruments were hand-built and utilized innovative experimental electronics. In the 1970’s, these were popular because they well designed and well made instruments, but the price was higher than most musicians were willing to pay.

Handmade custom order guitars

I particularly like the Gibson style guitars made by Scott Lentz in San Marcos, California, the Fender style guitars built by Michael DeTemple in Van Nuys/Sherman Oaks, and the thin-line acoustic-electric guitars built by Dan Altilio, owner of Top Gear Pro Music Shop in La Mesa, California. These guitars are for the discriminating player who feels that an “off-the-rack” guitar just won’t do!