Guide To Different Electric Guitars And Their Tones

What is the difference between different [electric] guitars? The answer lies in 3 main components specific to each guitar.

Guide To Different Electric Guitars And Their Tones
As stated in the Summary, there are 3 main components (in my humble opinion) that contribute to the tone and quality of a[n electric] guitar. The three most important factors ranked in importance from low to high begin with the hardware. Whether or not the bridge is secure enough to keep the guitar in tune, or how high the strings are set from the neck are probably the most beneficial factor affecting the sound quality of the guitar. Guitars with Tune-O-Matic bridges such as the SG or Les Paul from Gibson tend to stay in tune much better as well as Floyd Rose tremolo systems on guitars like the Strat. Other factors such as chrome hardware or whether the inlays are set in pearl, or just painted on dot acrylic; are purely aesthetic, but can greatly affect the price. More important than the hardware would be the pickups. To name a few of the best quality companies to manufacture pickups (in no particular order) are Gibson, Fender, Seymour Duncan, DiMarzio and EMG. As just mentioned the pickups are the second most important factor in the sound of a guitar. To explain this let's take a look at music's most popular pickups:
  • Single Coil: Probably the most common, the single coil pickup produces bright clean tones. This guitar resides in most Fenders, particularly in Stratocasters and Telecasters.
  • Humbucker: This pickup thickens the tone and gives it some "bite" or "crunch". Commonly used on the Gibson SG, Les Paul, and Fender Stratocasters.
  • P-90 Pickups: P-90's are "jazzy" sounding pickups with brighter, more transparent sound without the thin crisp single coil sound. It has a good mid-range tone. These are also used on numerous Gibson SG and Les Paul models. The third, final and most important component (once again, in my humble opinion) would be the wood the guitar is made of. Here's a quick overview of various guitar woods:
  • Basswood: Lower end/ beginner's guitars tend to be made of basswood because they're cheap and are readily available where the make most lower end guitars. They produce a clean tone and are used in many low end Fenders, and Ibanez's.
  • Mahogany: A dark wood, produces a very warm, full, rich, dark tone that fills the guitar. Most often used in conjunction with humbuckers or P-90 pickups. Most popular guitars for this wood are the SG and Les Paul.
  • Maple: Used in Strats, usually to make the neck, nice fair, white color, very light wood, again with clean tone.
  • Rosewood: Not commonly used as a body wood, but is glued on top of a maple or mahogany neck. Rosewood (according to the name) is a dark reddish color that provides a very nice look on the guitar.
  • Alder: Used in most high-end clean-toned guitars such as Stratocasters, Telecasters and PRS's. Has a very nice clean, crisp, definite tone. The corresponding grains in the wood are what resonate the sound within a guitar, and are what vary the sound. If the grains in different parts of the guitar differ from each other; that is what produces a not very nice sounding, uneven tone. To expand on the topic of sound quality in wood; both the Les Paul and SG are made of mahogany, both are installed with humbuckers, so why do they sound so different? The answer is that the SG is a lot thinner than the Les Paul; and therefore sound is not as heavy as a Les Paul, but it's mahogany and humbuckers makes it darker than a Strat. These three things are what define that tone within a guitar and what style it will be able to play. Hopefully this was helpful. Feel free to ask questions or raise concerns that contradict what I have written, or point out anything that might be incorrect. * Note how I stress that everything written is my opinion; which I have developed through observation in my minimal number of years playing (2) and my personal experiences with guitars, I'm not a professional musician, nor review writer, I am simply giving my two cents on the matter of what I think makes one guitar better/different from another.
  • 9 comments sorted by best / new / date

    comments policy
      Thanks for clarifying intent to communicate opinions. I'll take up the request to point out things that might be incorrect for the sake of people coming here to learn; I'll try to stick to the facts. - String height (a.k.a. action) doesn't affect tone. -- String height affects playability; most people prefer the strings closer to the frets (without being so close that the strings buzz or create dead frets), unless they play a lot of slide -- While you do set the action at the bridge, bridge hardware is usually not the limiting factor for how low you can set your action; the driving factors are a well-cut nut, proper neck relief, and having level frets - Basswood is not just for cheap guitars. Ibanez uses high-grade basswood in almost all of their RG guitars, including most of their Prestige models (MIJ). Suhr also uses basswood (often with a maple cap if it's going to be a transparent finish). -- Few Fenders use basswood. The vast majority of them use alder, even the cheap Squiers. Some of the mid-range Squiers use agathis. - The type of wood is less important than the grade of the wood, how well it was dried out, and how many pieces of it are glued together to make the body - A lot of Stratocasters have humbuckers. The "Fat Strat" has a humbucker in the bridge, while the middle and bridge are single coils (HSS). This is rare on Telecasters. It is common on "Super Strats," i.e., Stratocaster shaped body, but geared for more aggressive playing with enhancements such as necks with up to 24 frets, Floyd Rose locking tremolos/nuts, larger frets, and often hotter pickups. -- Strats and Super Strats are also available with just 2 humbuckers (HH). Fender called that "The Big Apple Strat." -- Fender rarely does it, but a pair of humbuckers with a single coil inbetween (HSH) is common with many other companies' Super Strats - The brand of pickup is less important than the design and construction. Go for a design conducive for the main genres you're going to play on the guitar -- If you're playing through a low-end solid state amp (like a Spider or an MG) then you might not even be able to hear much of a difference between pickups. - Whether the guitar is a solid body or a hollow body will make a bigger difference in tone than any of the factors listed in the article. The guitar in general is a smaller factor in the tone equation than many people realize. The amp is the main factor, then the effects, then the cab/speaker.
      Let me rebut your first correction, if I may (I mainly agree with the rest of what you said): String height DOES affect tone, albeit indirectly. In first place, because it affects playability, thus making the interaction between your fingers and the string different. Higher strings means more tension, which makes bends harder, etc. In second place, assuming you were capable of perfectly adjusting the strength of your fingers to compensate the difference in tension, string height alters the distance between the strings and the pickups, which results in a major alteration in tone, believe me. More distance to the pickup gives you a lighter and cleaner tone, with less sustain and gain, less bass frequencies and allows to hear each string more clearly. Less distance to the pickup gives a fatter tone, more gain, more sustain, but at the cost of sounding muddy and over-distortion. Of course, you also can (and probably should) alter the pickup height to compensate the changes in the action, but there are always minor differences between setups.
      Also fairly sure John Petrucci's Signature guitars are made of Basswood. Anyone who calls those low quality should be forced to play a Spider III for eternity.
      Ouch. Harsh words indeed. However what bothers me is when I was writing this i KNEW that even higher quality Ibanez's such as the rg 25th anniversary were made of basswood. I guess I just wasn't paying attention. Thanks for catching that and all the feedback everyone!!
      Not too bad of a read overall, I think you honestly just took generalizations about the guitar industry and posted them though. If I were to walk into a store and say I want a Jazz guitar, they would probably show me a guitar w/ P90 pups or if I said I need a Country guitar they would show me a Telecaster.
      I read that a student in Australia carried ut a survey that suggested the wood doesn't make a noticeable difference in tone.
      I read one similar where he compared different woods acoustically, then plugged in. Huge difference with a mic next to the body, almost none through the amp. Pickups and scale length are what I feel make the big difference.
      that sounds interesting considering i've been led to believe that wood is the major factor. If you know where to find that survey I'd love to read it.
      String height has some effect on tone (even after adjusting pickup height). Higher string height increases sustain. Your vibrato becomes cleaner & prominent. But shreding speed effects badly cause you need to apply more finger pressure.